Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Earlier today I was reading over the third branch of the Mabinogi, Manawydan, and I was struck by its comic representation of England and its economy.

This branch of the Mabinogi finds Manawydan and his friend Pryderi feasting away for some years in Wales. This eventually gets old, and Manawydan decides that they should go and make some money. Manawydan's preferred destination for this isn't Wales, land of enchantment, year-long feats, and magic mice, but England, land of a thriving market economy. When Manawydan and Pryderi make their way to the bustling city of Hereford they take up what seems to be a rather mundane vocation: saddle-making. They're pretty good at making saddles, so much so that the other saddlers in Hereford become envious and decide to eliminate their competition. Manawydan then thinks it prudent for them to move on rather than start a fight in Hereford, so they find another town and make shields. Unfortunately for them, their shields are of such quality and number that the local shield-makers decide, like the saddlers in Hereford, that these interloping Welshmen need to be killed. Manawydan and Pryderi move on.

In their third incarnation as functioning members of the English manufacturing class Manawydan and Pryderi become shoemakers. Manawydan figures that shoemakers aren't violent enough to cause them any trouble, and they set about making leather shoes. Here the text of Manawydan becomes intriguingly specific in its language of shoemaking. Manawydan buys ready-made leather rather than bothering to tan the stuff himself, and he's conscientious enough to buy the best cordwain for his shoes--except for the soles, which can be made of the cheap stuff. Naturally, the local shoemakers decide to do away with Manawydan and Pryderi, for whom the third time is the charm: they return to Wales.

What fascinates me so about Manawydan's depiction of what goes on over there, across the border in Lloegyr (England), is the palpable, comic sense that just next door to enchanted Wales, a place in which one might very well come across the king of the underworld while hunting or find one's countrymen magically transformed into mice, is England, a land in which a sophisticated enough market economy exists that consumers care about what kind of leather goes on the bottoms of their shoes. The message here seems to be that the Welsh certainly have the ability to compete with their English neighbors but lack the innate viciousness that's necessary to sustain oneself in the seemingly cutthroat racket that is shoemaking. I read Manawydan as slyly poking fun at the rapidly developing English market economy while refusing to rule out eventual Welsh participation in such an economy.

I'm curious, as always, to hear what readers might have to say. And now I turn my attention to the Sweden-England game.


Anonymous said...


Dr. Virago said...

Hi there. I've been wanting to comment on this post since yesterday, but didn't want to be the first, because what I'm about to say is probably my own little obsession and you'll just think, "Well, that's nice..what do I do with that?"

Anyway...I think this passage is a brilliant and accurate depiction of late medieval guild politics (what's the date of the text? Is it late -- or were the politics I'm perceiving -- and heck, formal guilds themselves -- earlier than we all thought?). In fact, I'm half convinced that text *must* be ironic when Manawydan figures that shoemakers aren't violent enough to cause them any trouble (as an expression of Manawydan's naivete, perhaps?) since cordwainers are just about the most unruly of guilds in a lot of places. (York, especially, but perhaps also in places closer to Wales.) Oh, and they *better* not tan their own leather, since that will get the tanners really pissed off. But of course, that's exactly what cordwainers tended to do, leading to ongoing disputes and sometimes violent conflict with the tanners. And driving out "foreigns" (non-towns-people without the freedom of the city) and "aliens" (actual foreigners from other countries) is what many a guild or civic authority did -- though not always. It's not that the guilds were quite as protectionist in their organization as seems from our distance -- in many towns, their organization benefitted the oligarchy more than the actual guild members -- but I think guildsmen likely internalized the laws made to keep them in tow, especially when they saw them being to their immediate benefit (i.e., only tanners can tan hide, etc.; if you don't have the freedom of the city, you're not allowed to trade and thus compete with those who do, etc.).

Anyway, I think the passage is most definitely poking fun at the English market economy, and rather accurately. But more specifically, it's poking fun at English guild organization. And that bit about the kinds of leather in the shoe -- wouldn't a sensible person want the best leather on the part that wears fastest?! -- is poking fun at fashionable excesses in the way Chaucer does with his characters' clothing. Of course, it was the late medieval demand for more consumables that made these bustling market economies -- and all the working around their rules and limits -- possible!

Great stuff! Thanks for sharing it! And thanks for taking over for JJC in his absence. I've enjoyed your posts so far, though since what I know about Welsh literature could fit in a thimble, I haven't said anything until now.

JKW said...

Anonymous: I think that it's interesting that the text of Manawydan only makes reference to Hereford--the other towns to which Manawydan and Pryderi go are unnamed, run-of-the-mill English market towns. Oswestry, I think, was the closest English market town to Wales, but that's about all I know of it.

Dr Virago: the texts that we have of the four branches (of which Manawydan is the third) are fourteenth- and fifteenth-century although their subject matter is certainly far older. Anyway, I think that everything you bring up is certainly interesting--for example, I'd never quite known what to do with that bit about the soles.

I think that Manawydan is at least partially aware that, as aliens, he and Pryderi are always better off fleeing than fighting, although he says that he's afraid of being put in jail rather than being killed (perhaps more naivete). At any rate, I like the idea that the Welsh redactors of the Mabinogion are familiar enough with English guild habits to weave statiric commentary on them into this branch of the Mabinogi. And I thank you for your great and throught-provoking comment.

Karl Steel said...

JWK: I love this passage. It's a hoot.

what's the date of the text? Is it late -- or were the politics I'm perceiving -- and heck, formal guilds themselves -- earlier than we all thought

Just gunned through C. Barron's recent London book (don't have my notes on me right now, so I'm only mostly sure that I'm right) looking for butchery stuff, and she turns up evidence that there were London guilds in the 12th c. How do we know? Henry II fined them. In order to levy a fine, you need to have a formal organization w/ a budget that can be tapped. Ergo, early guilds. Does that jive w/ your research DV?

I have an easy answer for the soles. You make a very nice looking shoe with cheap soles: a) to ensure that the visible part of the shoe is as pretty/sturdylooking as possible, and hence to raise the price; b) but you introduce systemic failure into the product to ensure it wears out quickly on the part that's actually used, ensuring that the customers need to come back to buy more shoes. If you're in a guild and control the manufacture of shoes, you're golden, because your monopoly means people can't go to other manufacturers easily. And if everyone's shoes are wearing out at the same rate, no one's the wiser. Alternately, the Welsh shoemakers represent the kind of hit-and-run manufacturer who would make a flashy product, command the haute coture of the region, and then clear out before everything started breaking. Sort of like The Music Man. Sort of.

Exit singing: 76 Trombones....

JKW said...

Karl: I think that you and Dr V. are spot-on about the shoes: of course you make them disposable. That's why loyal customers will come back for more--they'll have to. The text does, however, indicate that Manawydan and Pyderi make the best shoes in town (with pretty golden buckles to boot), so it would seem that the Welsh have hit the perfect balance between looks and quality.

Dr. Virago said...

JKW and Karl -- are you sure you guys aren't talking about computers instead of shoes? ;)

Karl -- OK, I know northern guilds much better than London guilds and London guilds were larger, more complex, and differently organized than northern guilds in the 15th c. (for example), but from what I understand from Heather Swanson and other historians of York, etc., is that the earlier 'guilds' (I *think* 13th c. is the earliest York record off the top of my head) were different creatures -- not so organized around manufacture, for instance.

But for all I know, London guilds were occupationally organized much, much earlier.

At any rate, without worrying about the earliness of guilds in Hereford, or wherever, we could say that the late version we have has late medieval concerns, couldn't we? (There goes Dr. V, staying safely in the 14th and 15th centuries! ;) )

Dr. Virago said...

Er, the "late version we have" was meant to refer to Manawydan.

JKW said...

Dr V.: I think that the late version does indeed have late medieval concerns. Many readers of medieval Welsh texts tend to get so caught up on the antiquity of their content that they forget the circumstances of their production. The four branches come to us in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts, and I think that it's absolutely the case to think that contemporary redactors would have been well aware of what was happening with late medieval English guilds...

Anonymous said...

All of this poking fun at English guilds definitely places this tale in the milieu of the later Middle Ages--it makes a great argument against those critics who dig through these tales looking for ancient druidic practices. These aren't stories about some ancient and long-lost Welsh past, they're stories about the Middle Ages. It also provides some intriguing evidence for the date of the tales. The debates about when the tales were originally written will rage on forever, but it is generally accepted it was probably some time in the 11th or 12th centuries.

I hadn't thought before about how different England is from Wales in this story. In some of the other branches, some of the action takes place in England (like the burying of Bendigeidfran's head, one of the Three Great Concealments). This is the only story where England is depicted as a significantly different place. No tranformed mice, red-eared dogs, or magic mounds here, just competitive guild thugs.

And, as one of JKW's fellow Welsh readers, it is so nice to see people other than just the few of us who meet at CUNY discussing Welsh stuff!!


JKW said...

Morgan: I'm thrilled that you commented--and I agree, this is the one tale in the Mabinogion in which Lloegyr is marked as a definitive other. Of course, in much of the rest of the Mabinogion Britain is a unitary whole; it seems that this is the only Mabinogion tale that recognizes political, ethnic, and social difference in medieval Britain. And, as you say, that marks Manwydan as a very topical high medieval tale.

Anonymous said...

Oswestry - would be a wonderful study for you - half Welsh and half English and the 'greatest city in Wales' (see/hear Professor Helen Fulton, Cardiff, on the Welsh encomium urbis of 15thc).

JKW said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JKW said...

Anonymous: since you mentioned Oswestry the other day I've read up on it--fascinating hybrid space. I look forward to seeing what Helen Fulton has to say about it.

Oh, and I'm the user who deleted his comment--but by accident.