Species mentioned: The yellowest broom flowers and the bluest conifer you can imagine (wait, what?)
Source: ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ a bad, bad trip.
Date of Source: Most probably c.1220-1309.
Highlights: Whilst Rhonabwy hallucinates he sees a horse bluer than any “pine tree” he’s ever seen. You would not believe the trouble this causes:(i) Horses aren’t blue, (ii) pine trees were extinct in Wales at the time (iii) pine trees aren’t blue either.
It’s a shame medievalists take things so seriously…
THE DATE OF THE TEXT
‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ is a medieval Welsh text found exclusively in one manuscript, the Red Book of Hergest, written c.1382. Unlike almost every other surviving Welsh prose tale which was not translated from Latin or French, ‘Rhonabwy’ is not found in the White Book of Rhydderch. Despite its single manuscript authority, a variety of dates have been presented for ‘Rhonabwy’. Historically it is based in the early twelfth century, and the archaic forms of the verb found in the text belong to prior to 1250. The descriptions of horses and armour and heraldry would all fit with a date c.1300 (summary: Lloyd-Morgan, 1991).
The plot of the story is very strange. Rhonabwy, the main character, falls asleep and wakes up in the ancient time of King Arthur. King Arthur’s knights appear like giants to Rhonabwy. As he goes through the dream he sees more and more bizarre things. A group of knights fights a well-trained army of ravens (C. corax). This battle is decided based on a board game played between King Arthur and the well known Owein (Sir Yvain). Rhonabwy sees fantastic hosts with a bewildering amount of heraldry and a confusing mis-match of colours. Just like with the modern Alice in Wonderland a modern audience might be left wondering whether the author of ‘Rhonabwy’ is gifted at evoking dream-like conditions, or was actually on drugs.
BROOM and YEW/PINE
I have a peer-reviewed piece in preparation which will examine ‘Rhonabwy’ in far more detail, but for now we need only introduce a single part of the text which comes at the very beginning of the dream (trans. Davies, 2007, pp.215-6):
As soon as sleep entered his eyes he was granted a vision, that he and his companions were travelling across Maes Argyngroeg, and his inclination and intent, so he thought, was toward Rhyd-y-groes on the Hafren. As he was travelling he heard a commotion, and he had never heard a commotion like it.
He looked behind him, and saw a young man with curly yellow hair and his beard newly trimmed, on a yellow horse, and from the top of its forelegs an its kneecaps downwards green, and the rider was wearing a tunic of yellow brocaded silk, embroidered with green thread, a gold-hilted sword on his thigh, with a sheath of new Cordovan leather, and a throng of deerskin with a clasp of gold. And over that a mantle of yellow brocaded silk, embroidered with green silk, and the fringes of the mantle were green.
What was green of the garment of the rider and horse was as green as the leaves of the pine-trees, and what was yellow was as yellow as the flowers of the broom.
Because the rider looked so fierce, Rhonabwy and his companions became frightened and began to retreat…
After an initial read-through you might not find anything that surprises you about this text. The commotion at the beginning is common in medieval Welsh literature whenever any supernatural characters are approaching. The strange coloured horse can be explained as a light coloured (dun?) horse with green leg guards. The rider is dressed to match his horse, which is consistent with all the other knights in the story. The knight’s equipment is of high-quality but not beyond the imagination of a dream.
The main interest of the passage for us is in the comparison with the green of a “pine-tree” and the yellow of a broom at the end of the description. These two plants were chosen specifically because they represented the deepest shades of the colour that the author could possibly imagine. Pine is the greenest of greens and broom flowers are the yellowest yellow. In days before modern dying techniques, clothes with consistent, deep and bright colours may have had a high status.
Broom (most importantly C. scoparius) was an important species in medieval Britain. It is frequently used as a comparison for very yellow and beautiful things in Welsh literature, and it was one of the flowers used to create Blodeuedd, the flower maiden, in ‘Math’. It is native to north-west Europe but is a common invasive species in modern North and South America and India. It became one of the symbols of the Plantagenet dynasty of medieval England and Wales, after Geoffrey of Plantagenest wore a sprig in his helmet, and it ultimately gave them their name (broom=’genest’; sprig of bloom symbol = ‘planta genesta’) (Oxford English Dictionary, Geiriadur Prifyscol Cymru).
The “pine-tree” is actually a much more exciting metaphor than the broom. The first reason for this is the identification of the species. According to the Geiriadur Prifyscol Cymru word ‘ffynidwydd’ (‘ffenitwyt’ in ‘Rhonabwy’) can refer to any pine or fir tree. However, there are only three coniferous trees native to Britain at all (yew (T. baccata), Scots pine (P. sylvestris) and juniper (J. communis)), and none of these are a type of fir. All other coniferous trees have been introduced later than Rhonabwy was written. Yew trees had their own name in medieval Welsh (ywen; yw), juniper had its own name by at least the end of the medieval period and, as far as we know, neither has ever been called ‘ffynidwydd’.
Scots pine is native to Britain and common in Wales today and most translators have assumed that this is the species intended. However, according to pollen analysis and macrofossil data the species is usually thought to have become extinct in south Britain (England and Wales) around 2000BC (Bennett, 1984). Recently this has been questioned (Manning et al., 2010), and it is worth pointing out there are a few other references to pine trees from medieval south Britain.
This text therefore admits of two possible explanations. Either (i) Scots pine remained widespread and well-known in Wales during the medieval period or (ii) the term ‘ffynidwydd’ had a considerable linguistic flexibility and could refer to the yew or juniper trees in the medieval period too. I am inclined to consider option (ii) as more probable. For a tree to be used as a colour metaphor necessitates the author(/s) believing their audience will understand the reference and have seen the tree. For this to be the case, we would expect some native Scots pine trees to survive into the modern period, or at the least for some macro-fossils to be found in excavations of medieval sites.
CELTIC COLOURS (the colour ‘glas’)
The second reason the reference is very important is because in the early medieval Welsh period, there doesn’t seem to have been a single word for ‘green’ as it exists in English and Welsh today. In modern Welsh we say ‘gwyrdd’, but this word has only meant green specifically since around the 14th century. Before this, the most common term used was ‘glas’ which today means only blue in Welsh. In the medieval period, ‘glas’ could also be used to refer to blue things as well as green things. This might be why the item used to illustrate the quintessential colour ‘glas’ in ‘Rhonabwy’ is actually a rather dark-green. When you think of the text like this, suddenly the author’s comparison becomes much more important
Each of the times the word ‘green’ is used above, the word used in Welsh is ‘glas’. The translator, Davies has not taken any liberties by translating ‘glas’ as green here. Even in modern Welsh, people say ‘glaswellt’ (blue-grass) to refer to the ordinary grass you’d see on a lawn. Until recently the word ‘glas’ itself was commonly used to mean ‘young’, ‘healthy’ (Rowland, 1876). It is clear that before the modern period the word had a much broader range of meanings. This change is most probably attributable to the influence of English on the language.
The word ‘glas’ has retained its meaning in modern Gaelic. In Gaelic there are two other words (uaine, gorm) normally used for green and blue. ‘Glas’ refers to a grey-green colour. It has been romantically described to me as the colour of land on the horizon, but it is also the colour used for more natural greens. A dyed green is ‘uaine’ but hills and leaves are often ‘glas’. Interestingly the word ‘gorm’ also has an extended meaning to refer to ‘dark’ things. An archaic meaning was to use it to refer to people with dark skin.
This leaves us with three systems. In medieval Welsh, the word glas referred to most colours from green-blue. In modern Welsh and English this shade is divided into two commonly used colours, green (gwyrdd) and blue (glas). In modern Gaelic, the shade can be divided into three commonly used, ‘uaine’ (artificial green), ‘glas’ (grey-green) and ‘gorm’ (blue). This means that the Gaelic system of colours is the most sophisticated, although the usage in English of extended comparison colours like ‘turquoise’, ‘emerald’ and ‘sapphire’ mean that paint manufacturers have little to fear.
The yellowest thing in the world for this text are the flowers of the broom (C. scoparius) whereas the greenest thing in the world was the leaves of the ‘ffenitwyd’ (most probably yew tree; T. baccata). The inclusion of these species of plant in stories means that they were both well known and culturally significant. Although broom is not a well known plant today, historically it has given its name to one of the most important dynasties of English kings.
Ecologically the reference which I have tentatively identified as yew has normally been translated as pine. If this is correct it would mean that the history of the Scots pine in Britain would need to be re-written to allow the species to be abundant in Wales at the time the story was written. Even if the species is yew, the Welsh source word needs to be re-mapped.
Linguistically, the use of the word ‘glas’ to describe any conifer, no matter the species is very significant. It shows that even in the late medieval period the colour was still being used to describe something green. It’s great to be able to objectively mark what the word meant at the time ‘Rhonabwy’ was written because the word does not mean the same thing in modern Welsh or in modern Gaelic. Medieval Welsh appears to have had a single shade between blue and green, but in this same range, modern English and Welsh have two shades, and modern Scottish Gaelic have three.
Bennett K (1984) The Post-Glacial History of Pinus Sylvestris in the British Isles, Quaternary Science Reviews 3:133-55.
Davies, S. (trans. 2007) The Mabinogion. (Oxford World’s Classics)
Lloyd-Morgan C (1991) Breuddwyd Rhonabwy and Later Arthurian Literature. In: Bromwich R; Jarman A; Roberts B (ed. 2008) The Arthur of the Welsh. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.
Manning A; Kesteven J; Stein J; Lunn A; Xu T; & Rayner B (2010) Could native Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) still persist in northern England and southern Scotland? Plant Ecology & Diversity, 3:187-201.
Rowland T (1853) A Grammar of the Welsh Language. Hughes & Son, London.