reading medieval Welsh erotic poetry: game & seduction

Medieval Welsh erotic poetry becomes much more meaningful from the perspective of comparative literature. Consider the first stanza of a medieval Welsh poem that stages a dialogue between a boy and a girl. The boy says to the girl:

Dexterous girl with slender waist,
grand of manner with fine eyebrows,
I request your leave in secret
for Jesus’s sake to make love to you.
May I, pleasant is my greeting,
have leave to lie with you girl? [1]

That’s far from the typical masculine diffidence in medieval courtly love poetry. The medieval Welsh poem is an amazing historical antecedent to the single-stage game that modern applied game theorists call the apocalypse opener. That game has a simple structure. A man approaches an unknown woman in a bar or nightclub and asks her quickly and serially three questions:

  1. Hey, how’s it going.?
  2. What are you doing later?
  3. Do you want to come home with me?

Practitioners describe the key to this game as shock and awe. Some women, stimulated by the man’s boldness, will respond positively. Others will tell him to go away. Our climate of hostility to men’s sexuality enhances the shock and awe of the apocalypse opener and thus increases its effectiveness.

Apocalypse

The medieval Welsh poem develops the apocalypse opener with literary sophistication. The girl responds enthusiastically to the opener. She instructs the boy:

Lift my dress, seek openly,
as if from under my navel,
and put your knee between my knees —
if you bring one put them both.

The boy, however, then loses the stiffness of his desire.[2] The result is bitterness on both sides. The girl says to him:

So take your thin little cock
and seek companionship in a bed of fleas.

The boy responds:

And God’s curse on you girl,
you ill-tempered wild-arsed bitch.

In the medieval Welsh poem, the apocalypse opener worked. The implement for the subsequent act failed. Since medieval times, a lucrative market of pharmaceuticals has developed to address this sort of problem.

A go-to technique in modern, text-based seduction is the ascii penis. That too has a forefather in medieval Welsh erotic poetry. In medieval life and literature, go-betweens, who were usually old women, conveyed proposals of love. The transgressive medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym instead figured his genitals as a go-between:

My two balls, go on my errand
concerning my girl, may she be nearer here.
Be you fierce,
my bald round love messengers.
Go, round black diligent prick
throttled by my two balls.

Demand a feast for your bearer,
pale bondsmen of the trousers. [3]

From this literary figure to the ascii penis is simply a matter of advancing media technology.

Building upon the lessons of Ovid, the master teacher of love, modern seduction literature instructs men in the importance of confidence and boldness. So too did medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Here’s typical advice of an old-woman go-between in medieval Welsh erotic poetry:

Woo the gentle girl lovingly;
if you woo long you won’t win her in the end.
Better the thrust of knee and elbows,
by Mary, than long buying of mead. [4]

Interpreted literally, the old woman advises the man to rape the woman. But raping a woman has always been regarded as a serious crime.[5] Moreover, most men, like most primates generally, don’t rape women. Medieval Welsh erotic poetry that instructs men not to attempt to beg or buy love from women parallels warnings against beta behavior in modern seduction literature. The thrust of knee and elbow figures the dominance and entitlement of the alpha male. Medieval Welsh erotic poetry that encourages men to be sexually assertive suggests that many medieval Welsh men, like many men today, lacked sexual confidence.

Medieval Welsh erotic poetry, like literature generally, tends to be read gynocentrically. That leads to literary criticism that’s not much more than intoning misogyny blah blah blah.[6] Modern seduction literature written for men provides in comparative perspective much better understanding of medieval Welsh erotic poetry.

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Notes:

[1] Ymddiddan Rhwng Mab a Merch (A Conversation Between a Boy and a Girl), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 79. The subsequent three quotes are from id. In medieval Welsh poetry, slender eyebrows are a highly attractive feminine feature to men.

[2] Some sex field reports suggest that women interested in sex with men are more fulfilled by being warmly receptive rather than crudely demanding. Men’s sexual response is not merely a mechanical reaction to an opportunity for sex. Men’s sexual functioning often depends on complex workings of men’s minds and emotions. In recent decades, the popular pharmaceutical category “erectile dysfunction drugs” has further contributed to misunderstanding, if not outright demeaning of men’s sexuality.

[3] Cywydd i Anfon y Gal a’r Ceilliau’n Llatai (The Poet Sends his Genitals as a Love Messenger), attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym, from Welsh trans. id. p. 35.

[4] Cyngor Hen Wraig (An Old Woman’s Advice), probably composed in 15th century, from Welsh trans. id. p. 47. The last three verses above also occur verbatim in Ding Moel’s Cyngor i Gyfaill (Advice to a Friend), trans. id. pp. 51 (second verse), 53 (concluding couplet).

[5] Syr Dafydd Llwyd Ysgolhaig (Sir David Llwyd the Scholar), an amateur poet of the mid-16th century, explicitly described a cleric rejecting rape:

I confessed jokingly to her
my malady in my crotch.
She couldn’t commit fornication,
she said, she wouldn’t do it for anyone.
The lovely maid was not to be had of her own will,
I wouldn’t commit rape anymore than a wren.
Still, nevertheless, she agreed
of her own will to let me have her barrel:
my sweetheart jumped, radiant bosom,
into bed and paid with her arse.

Y Clerigwr a’r Forwyn (The Cleric and the Virgin), trans. id. p. 107. The woman subsequently wore the man out with her eagerness for sex. While men raping women has always been regarded as a serious crime, today rape of men is appallingly obscured and trivialized.

[6] E.g. id., introduction and commentary on individual poems.

[image] Apocalípico I, by Mauricio García Vega. Thanks to Mauricio García Vega and Wikimedia Commons.

Reference:

Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

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