Wednesday 26 February 2014

Gilt Visions: Courtly Culture and the Otherworld in the Mabinogion

I have recently been examining the issue of ‘materiality’ in History of Art as part of my PhD research. Rather than discuss my research directly, I want to explore the issue of materiality in the medieval literature of Wales. In order to make this a more manageable post, I will be examining materiality in the first four tales—Branches as they are commonly called—of the Mabinogion as signs of the Otherworld entering into the narratives.[1] To briefly introduce the Mabinogion, it is a collection of medieval Welsh prose stories, first referred to as such in 1795 by Willam Owen Pughe and later popularised by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest. Many of the stories appear in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both fourteenth-century manuscripts. Scholarship generally agrees that the tales are derived from earlier sources, likely oral traditions, best seen in the older poetic verses that crop up throughout the text. While the first four tales of the collection follow a general, if episodic, linear progression, the subsequent tales do not. The stories themselves contain monsters, giants, wondrous landscapes, magic both active and passive, enchanted items, and a purposely archaic view of the past, which allows the tales to exist in a nebulous historical time far removed from our present and even before the scribes of the two aforementioned manuscripts.
Welsh (?) Gold Hoop Brooch: 7th Century

As for the Otherworld, John Carey initially defines the Otherworld at its most minimal as ‘a place inhabited by supernatural beings and itself exhibiting supernatural characteristics’.[2] Carey goes onto define this further, noting how the Otherworld appears in a spatial paradox with the mundane, oftentimes separate while at others imminent.[3] Additionally, Carey notes how time operates differently in the Otherworld, while the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the Otherworld oftentimes possess preternatural characteristics.[4] Josef Baudiš too notes that the Otherworld can also be seen through an ethnic lens, whereby ‘an alien race and a distant country might have been regarded as an Other World’ perhaps arising from ‘some prehistoric expedition[s]’.[5] Alfred Siewers goes onto define the term further as containing, ‘associations with ancestors and art as well as with the natural world…connected with everyday human experiences through prehistoric mounds, trees, the sea, lakes and rivers’.[6] This element of the Other and of wonderment, appearing simplest as magic, can help mark instances of when the Otherworld can be seen in the narrative. Carey observes, ‘to the ancient Irish the Otherworld lay not only beyond the limits of existence, but also at the very heart of society’, allowing for an Otherworld that is both imminent and distant, expressed in the language of courtly culture and its sumptuous material.[7]I will be examining these moments of overt materiality, defined as such by explicit reference to key aspects of clothing and other accoutrements, in the first four Branches as markers of the Otherworld.

Now, explaining materiality could fill at least one blog post, if not a series of them. For the moment, materiality will be regarded as the nuanced term that it is. While containing connotations of material culture, materiality is not connected to materialism. Rather, materiality engages with the material nature of objects, animate, intimate, and even conceptual. The inanimate can address cultural meanings and uses of anything from gold to bones, while animate may engage with ideas of living bodies (or animated material say as tales of weeping statues). As for the conceptual, think of the issues involved with crypto-currencies like Bitcoins or the like; their immateriality is itself an aspect of their material nature, albeit an inversed one. Finally, the viewer doesn’t have to always be conscious of the nature of the material in question, which Daniel Miller calls ‘the humility of things.’ Miller explains, ‘The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviors, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so’.[8] A simple thought experiment to become aware of this can be done by either visually and/or physically examining foreign currency. It feels different, looks different, weighs differently, may not fit into a wallet properly, and the ability to spend it is impeded dependent on the location of where the currency is in the world at that moment in time. Either our fascinations or annoyances with the currency highlight how we engage with money both as a concept and as an object, via its material. Indeed, the more one engages with the new currency the less strange or false it may appear. Simply put, the study of materiality is the study of how materials influence and are influenced by human behaviour.

Italian Brocade Textile: 14th Century

Looking to the First Branch, the Otherworld almost immediately enters the narrative. Pwyll is seen out hunting in the woods, whereupon a group of white hounds with red ears take down a stag in a clearing. Sioned Davies and Andew Welsh both note the importance of white and red as markers of the Otherworld in Welsh and Irish literature.[9] Despite Pwyll’s initial captivation by the hounds, Pwyll ignores this Otherworldly clue and instead drives the pack away. Arawn, the owner of the dogs, eventually enters the scene and chastises Pywll, who then seeks to make amends to the strange but clearly noble figure. Arawn is described as wearing clothes of a ‘light grey material’ carrying ‘a hunting horn’, and is in fact preceded by his dogs, both an Otherworldy sight as well as a symbol of his rank.[10] Arawn’s clothing is described in contract to the silence on what Pwyll may have been wearing. While this occurrence occupies a liminal place in a clearing in the woods, a common motif in Otherworldly encounters, it is preceded by a display of courtly culture.[11] This marvel is further seen in the magic of Arawn and his kingdom of Annwfn, meaning ‘deep within’ or ‘un-world’.[12]Arawn escorts Pwyll to his land, where Pywll is met with ‘the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen’.[13] Pwyll, enchanted into Arawn’s form, is dressed in a ‘golden garment of brocaded silk’.[14] The realm of Annwfn is filled with beauty and wealth, both agriculturally as denoted by the feasting and monetarily through the display of precious metals and gems. Even the inhabitants are more beautiful, beyond that of Pywll’s own realm. Annwfn appears as a distinctly Otherised place, conforming to nearly every definition of the Otherworld listed above, specifically that of a location separate from the mundane world.[15] Later on in the tales, when the character of Rhiannon first appears, she is seen ‘wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse’.[16] After failing to overtake her horse, which always outpaces Pwyll despite not appearing to walk faster than a calm gait, Pwyll notes that ‘some magical’ explanation is to blame. Having spent time in the Otherworld, Pwyll sees what he was not able to before, the presence of the magical through its physical and material markers.

This is not the only tale to feature sumptuous culture marking both earthly elites and otherworldly entrances. In the Third Branch, in a moment of preternatural skill once again associated with the nobility, Manawydan and his companions must flee each town after earning the ire of local craftsmen. Manawydan and Pryderi are able to become exceptional craftsmen in saddle making, shields, and shoemaking seemingly instantly in the narrative, and eventually the local English craftsmen run the group out of town. After failing to settle in England, Manawydan leads the group back to Arberth where after a year of living off the land magic once again appears in Dyfed. In the Fourth Branch, Lleu’s entire narrative trajectory is defined by gaining cultural status markers of manhood, from the weapons that Aranrhod unwittingly fashions him, to the creation of Leu’s wife, Blodeuedd, by Gwydion from flowers. Even Leu’s birth is couched in terms of sumptuous material. After Lleu is birthed by Aranhood in an overtly magical scene involving her stepping over a magic wand, he is simply dropped, abandoned by her, ‘a small something’, which Gwydion notices and takes upon himself to raise.[17] Following the pattern of perception and sumptuous markers, Gwydion wraps the ‘something’ in brocaded silk and hides him in a chest. It is not until an unspecified amount of time later that Gwydion hears the boy moving in the chest, appearing in a metaphorical birth scene surrounded by fabric.[18] Following Leu’s magical birth he is given time to mature in expensive fabrics and enters the narrative again in a metaphorical birth scene. Finally, in the Second Branch, a large Cauldron of Rebirth is introduced. Dead soldiers are placed in the cauldron, after which they emerge alive but mute. While not overtly obvious to our contemporary eyes, even discounting its enchanted state and discovery, the Cauldron of Rebirth is itself a large cauldron, which is tied conceptually to feasting, access to raw materials, and to the craftsmen need to undertake such a task. While not being gold, silk, or leather, the cauldron equally calls attention to sumptuous culture, albeit in a different way.
Welsh Bronze Cauldron: 16th Century

The Otherworld moves throughout the Four Branches from existing as a separate exotic location seeped in magic, preternatural skill, and beauty to lying within the blood and families of the characters. Sumptuous culture, tied to both the Otherworld-as-location and courtly culture, highlight potential Otherworldly encounters by being introduced near important personages. Brocade silk, brooches, and cordovan leather adorn both earthly elites and otherworldly figures, uniting them through the material of finery. Not only does this material appear often in the introduction of powerful characters, it also appears in later tales beyond the first four Branches, most notably in The Dream of the Emperor Maxen. Sumptuous material provides a link between earthly figures and Otherworldly counterparts, with the Otherworld inhabitant described as simply possessing more elite materials and items. While this may be acting as formula to indicate the wondrous, it also subtly ties the more mundane is not preternaturally skilled elites to the magical Otherworld. Material, as much as landscape or even overt displays of magic, connect the two worlds. As such, not only  can sumptuous material be seen as elite, it can also be seen as possessing an quality of the fantastic, providing contemporary readers a view into the ontological importance of elite material culture.

By Samuel

Gold Hoop Brooch: Copyright The British Museum

Brocade Textile: Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medieval Cauldron: Copyright The People's Collection Wales


[1] Now I preface this section with an overt acknowledgement that I am using translated texts; I engaged with this text as an art historian rather than a linguist, and my thoughts reflect this.
[2] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 1.
[3] Ibid.: 13-4.
[4] Ibid,: 14.
[5] Baudiš, Josef, ‘Mabinogion’, Folklore 27 (1916), pp. 31-68, p. 40-1.
[6] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p. 200.
[7] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 15.
[8] Miller, Daniel, ‘Materiality: An Introduction’, in Daniel Miller, eds., Materiality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 1-50, p.5.
[9] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 228; Welsh, Andrew. ‘Doubling and Incest in the Mabinogi’, Speculum 65 (1990), pp. 344-62, p. 351.
[10] Dogs appear in several other gift exchanges between nobles in the Four Branches.
[11] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p.200.
[12] Ibid.: 201-2.
[13] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Carey, John, ‘The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition’, in The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature ed. J. Wooding (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), pp. 113-9, p. 118.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 356.
[18] Sheehan, Sarah, ‘Matrilineal Subjects: Ambiguity, Bodies, and Metamorphosis in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’, Journal of Woman in Culture and Society 34 (2009), pp. 319-342, p. 327.

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