Silk or cherry in Oxford Book of Welsh Verse 17?

From Kelten
Published: 30 August 2021
Silk or cherry in Oxford Book of Welsh Verse 17?
Andrew Breeze

WelshBlack Book of Carmarthen
Title (NL): Zijde of kers in Oxford Book of Welsh Verse 17?
Abstract (NL):

Andrew Breeze bespreekt een netelig punt in de Welshe filologie: de vertaling van de problematische frase siric a perwit in een gedicht uit het middeleeuwse Zwarte Boek van Carmarthen. De woorden worden doorgaans vertaald als 'zijde en perenbomen', maar dit is een dusdanig ongelukkige combinatie dat er al meerdere pogingen zijn gedaan om tot een nieuwe interpretatie te komen. Hierbij gaat men er doorgaans van uit dat het probleem bij de peer gezocht moet worden, maar Breeze stelt voor om het om te draaien en juist de zijde onder de loep te nemen: kan siric niet een schrijffout zijn voor seris 'kers'?

The thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 1) is the oldest known manuscript of Welsh poetry. Its compiler shows unusual interest in Merlin the magician, as also in praise-poetry from south-west Wales.[1] Yet the poem discussed here, although certainly from West Wales, is one praising not some earthly lord but God, with the bard exhorting the physical world to give thanks to its Creator.

In the 1990s (as noted below) it was attributed with other texts to Master John of St Davids, whose name occurs between about 1148 and 1176 in St Davids documents.[2] The particular Oxford Book poem concerning us here begins (in modern orthography) Gogonedawg Arglwydd, hanpych gwell 'Glorious Lord, greeting!', and has long been in print.[3] Later editions are listed in the catalogue of Peniarth manuscripts.[4] With translations by W. F. Skene as a basis, Hugh Williams of Bala cited it with others from the Black Book (‘a kind of "Golden Treasury" of British poetry') on Welsh spirituality as regards God, the Trinity, penance, the mass, St Peter, and the Blessed Virgin.[5]

A step forward then came with a critical edition by Henry Lewis, who was yet untroubled by line eight of the eulogy, A'th uendicco-de siric a perwit, which his glossary would render as 'Let silk and pear-trees bless thee.'[6] Why should a poet yoke silk and pear-trees together? Specifically on perwit or perwydd, the difficulty was set out by Sir Ifor Williams. He saw a problem in pêr. It can mean 'pears', but also 'sweet(-tasting)', so that a perllan 'orchard' can be of any fruit, not just pears. The perllan in the twelfth-century Mabinogi tale of Pwyll (where it is used in a ruse to win Rhiannon, the heroine) probably grew apples, not pears. Nevertheless, perwydd usually means 'pear-trees'[7] and we shall offer reasons for thinking that Master John meant pear-trees here.

The problem of siric a perwit was sidestepped by H. Idris Bell, who merely translated the line as 'Let silk and trees bless thee'. Here is his version of the text.

Lord most glorious, greeting be to thee;
Let church and chancel bless thee,
Let chancel and church bless thee,
Let plain and steep bless thee,
Let the three springs that are bless thee,
Two above wind and one above earth;
Let night and day bless thee,
Let silk and trees bless thee,
Abraham blessed thee, the source of our faith,
Let life everlasting bless thee,
Let birds and bees bless thee,
Let hay harvest and aftermath bless thee,
Aaron and Moses blessed thee,
Let male and female bless thee,
Let the seven days and the stars bless thee,
Let the lower and the upper air bless thee,
Let books and letters bless thee,
Let the fish in the wild water bless thee,
Let thought and act bless thee,
Let sand and earth bless thee,
Let all good that was ever done bless thee.
And I will bless thee, O Lord of Glory.
Lord most glorious, greeting be to thee.[8]

Sir Thomas Parry made the poem more accessible by including it in his Oxford anthology, where he modernized line eight as A'th fendico di sirig a pherwydd.[9] The manuscript folio with this very line is reproduced in a handbook. It allows comparison with older manuscripts, including an eleventh-century one (now Dublin, Trinity College, MS A.iv.20) in Welsh minuscule from the circle of Rhygyfarch, biographer of St David.[10] Comparison of scripts indicates how, when scribes copied letters unfamiliar to them, corruption might result, which is surely the problem of line eight. Regard for this hymn of praise is shown by its appearance in another anthology, where it begins 'Glorious Lord, I give you greeting!' It receives the title 'Benediction' and is described as of uncertain date, 'possibly eleventh century'. Line eight is silently omitted.[11] The translator was clearly unhappy with 'silk and pear-trees' as a rendering.

Other publications of the 1970s touch upon the poem's background. A lecture on bardic learning casts sidelights on it.[12] The Black Book is elsewhere described as containing poems on Christian subjects, 'often simple verses, probably intended for religious instruction'.[13] A pamphlet on religious lyric outlines their themes.[14] Yet, for all its clarity, our present poem is certainly the work of a scholar. In discussion of Black Book poems, Professor Davies limits herself to those on pre-Norman heroes.[15] Interesting for context, none of these four publications therefore concerns our poem directly. As for the edition by Alfred Jarman, it here says little, despite translating perwydd hesitantly as 'pear-trees', as in another Black Book poem, on sons of Llywarch the Old.[16]

Simon Evans of Lampeter related the religious poetry of the period to the bardic grammars, stipulating how God, the Virgin, saints, or prelates were to be praised. As an instance he cited the Black Book poem as 'an effusion of praise to God' and quoted its first four lines.[17] Pêr was also given full analysis in the University of Wales dictionary.[18]

Further remarks on early religious poetry came from Sir Rees Davies. He spoke of it as 'construed in terms borrowed from the secular world', with Christ as a 'hero' of 'prowess', and saints depicted as 'heroes' who performed 'acts of spiritual valour', their protection great, but their wrath 'dreadful'.[19] Our Black Book poem, however, represents a gentler world.

Jenny Rowland has summarized Ifor Williams's views on perwydd.[20] Further preconceptions on poetry and religion in early Wales came from another historian, Sir Glanmor Williams. He saw it in terms of a 'hard and appalling insecure' earthly existence, where 'famine, plague, and war' came 'with depressing frequency', to be ended by death and 'the much more terrifying prospect of judgement', so that to 'an enormous extent people's concern about religion turned on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.'[21] Once again, this contrasts with the poem analysed here. Its author adores God and rejoices in Creation as the work of God.

There is an important edition of Gogonedauc Argluit by Marged Haycock of Aberystwyth. She faces up to the difficulties of A'th uendicco-de siric a perwit, stating this. The last word is not necessarily 'pear-trees'. It may just be 'fruit-trees'. As a contrast to it, siric might be 'wild trees, uncultivated trees' bearing fruits that are sur 'sour'. She dismisses the translation 'silk'. That siric might be corrupt does not appear to have occurred to her.[22]

A further suggestion is made by Oliver Davies. He translates the entire poem, making comparisons with the Psalms and other liturgical texts. On the crux, he proposes 'The cedar and the sweet-fruit tree', observing that siric 'silk' has 'caused no little difficulty', so that he postulates a scribal adaptation of cedrit 'cedar-tree', after the 'fruitful trees and cedars' of Psalm 148:9 (in the Authorised Version). Stating that cedars are not native to Britain but introduced by the Victorians (where he is wrong; John Evelyn was importing their seeds in the 1660s), he thinks that the misreading 'silk' is due to a scribe who had never heard of cedars.[23] The objection here is that his emended cedrit and perwit rhyme exactly. The poem having no other internal rhyme, cedrit must be rejected.

Now we come to the discussion by Nicolas Jacobs. He says much on pears, observing that sweet ones seemingly did not grow in Britain before the thirteenth century; they are recorded as an introduction in 1262. The fruit of the wild pear is 'astringent and thoroughly unpalatable'. He takes that as excluding the translation 'pear-trees'. But he considers favourably Marged Haycock's proposal '(sweet) fruit-trees', if doubting her explanation of sirig as 'wild (fruit-)trees'. He would rather keep 'silk' and render perwit as 'sweet trees, fragrant wood', the two being 'expensive and exotic luxuries' imported into Wales.[24] He must have in mind the Old Testament verse on 'the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks' to Palestine (1 Kings 10:22), echoed in John Masefield's poem 'Cargoes' (long familiar to British schoolchildren).

Returning to Jacobs's explanation, we reject it as ingenious but over-complex. There is a far simpler answer, resulting in better poetry and better botany. We can retain the obvious sense of perwydd as 'pear-trees'. It is siric that is corrupt. Now the French for 'cherry' is cerise (from Vulgar Latin ceres-). It is pronounced 'se(i)-reez'. If we then emend siric to siris or (preferably) seris, we have cherry-trees to go with pear-trees. Both are spectacular in bloom. That is what the poet sees. He is not thinking of praise from wild trees with sour fruit, or cedar trees, or textiles and sandalwood from the Orient. He is thinking of the wild cherry and pear, both magnificent in the spring (even if their fruit can be disappointing). The two species are widespread in England and Wales. The pear, despite being less common, gives its name to many places, including Parley in Dorset, Perry Court in Kent, Woodperry near Oxford, Perry Barr in Birmingham, and Perivale in Middlesex.[25] We may add that seric is an early spelling of Welsh sirig 'silk'.[26] On that basis we may assume a process of corruption from original seris 'cherry' to seric 'silk' and then siric 'silk' (Modern Welsh sirig). Consultation of Denholm-Young's 1964 book on handwriting shows that s and c in Insular Script were similar enough to prompt a scribal slip. That allows translation of emended A'th uendicco-de seris a perwit as 'Let cherry and pear-trees bless thee!'

Master John wrote in the third quarter of the twelfth century, a century after the Norman Conquest of England.[27] So there is no objection to his use of a French loanword. To recognize it in the Black Book's text also produces a better poem. Poets throughout the Old World have praised the beauty of the pear and (especially in Japan) the cherry in flower. In English we have Chaucer's Miller on Alison, who is eighteen and distracting:

She was ful moore blisful on to see
Than is the newe pere-jonette tree

where pere-jonette is an early-ripening pear-tree, giving fruit before the feast of Jeannet or St John (24 June).[28] Five centuries later, G. M. Hopkins wrote of pear blossom against the sky:

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue

in his sonnet 'Spring', written in the May of 1877.[29]

As for the cherry, the classic text is in A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide....[30]

After three English poets, a fourth one, with an English painter. Pear and cherry in spectacular flower were represented in watercolours by S. R. Badmin and words by Geoffrey Grigson, the latter observing how in April the pear appears 'like snow', while in May comes 'the purity and happiness of cherry blossom'.[31]

As an exercise in literary perception, Master John will have differed from more popular writers in Welsh and Irish. They mention humbler bloom, as in an anonymous triban or verse in free metre quoted by D. Myrddin Lloyd:

Ar hyd y bompren grwca
Pwy wela' i'n mynd drwa'?
Dy gariad di, lliw blodau'r drain,
Fel cambric main o'r India.[32]

'Who is it that I see yonder, crossing the bent footbridge? Why, it is your sweetheart, fair as thorn-blossom, like the delicate cambric from India.'

In an Irish folk-verse of before 1789 are other flowers.

'S í bláth geal na sméar í,
Is í bláth deas na subh craobh í,
Is í planda b'fhearr méin mhaith
Le hamharc do shúl;
'S í mo chuisle, is í mo rún í,
Is í bláth na h-úll gcumhra í,
Is samhradh ins an fhuacht í,
'Dir Nollaig is Cáisc![33]

This was translated by Kenneth Jackson:

She's the white flower of the blackberry,
She's the sweet flower of the raspberry,
She's the best herb in excellence
For the sight of the eyes.
She's my pulse, she's my secret,
She's the scented flower of the apple,
She's summer in the cold time
Between Christmas and Easter.'[34]

If, therefore, the Black Book poet called upon cherry-tree (as we understand it) and pear-tree to praise God, he used art. When in bloom, they are more magnificent than thorn, blackberry, raspberry, or even apple. The flowers of the cherry are more beautiful than those of the apple; while the pear (which can grow fifty feet high) is a taller tree than either cherry or apple.

Poetry aside, an emendation of siric to seris and a derivation from French cerise 'cherry' receive unexpected support from Irish and Scottish Gaelic. In the first, sirís is one form for 'cherry', with crann siríse being 'cherry tree'.[35] In the second, siris or sirist are 'cherry', and craobh-shirist is 'cherry tree'.[36] A derived form sirisdean 'cherry' is recorded early in the Gaelic of Argyll.[37] Together, they provide independent evidence for borrowing of French cerise (with raising of the first vowel) by the Celtic languages. In the context of the Netherlands, one notes that the Dutch for 'cherry' and 'pear' are respectively kers and peer. Both words share an ultimate origin with the Welsh ones analysed here. However, the Oxford dictionary entries for cherry and pear show that as by different routes. Dutch kers is older than English cherry. It goes back to a West Germanic borrowing from popular Latin, whereas cherry was taken from Old French, taking the place of Old English cyrs, exact cognate of Dutch kers. Such is the history of words and plants.

If, then, we accept emended A'th uendicco-de seris a perwit and translate 'Let cherry and pear-trees bless thee!', we solve a long-standing textual problem of Welsh poetry. We also find evidence for borrowing of a French word, cerise 'cherry'. It can be compared with cordwal 'leather of Cordoba, fine Spanish leather', pali 'brocaded silk', and swmer 'pack, baggage' in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (perhaps of the late 1120s), where the forms can be related to Old French cordoan 'Cordoban leather', palie 'brocaded silk', and somier 'packhorse, beast of burden'.[38] As for Master John of St Davids, there is still much work to be done on his writings, including his Marian images, which can be traced back to Caelius Sedulius in the fifth century.[39] Professor Murdoch of Stirling has shown what can be accomplished on Master John's account of the Fall.[40] This twelfth-century Dyfed bard hence merits attention. His works ranges from exultation in God's creation, to denunciation of the crimes of society, to reflections (prompted by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae of 1136 or so) on how the Britons kept their faith and their native tongue, but lost their lands, 'Wild Wales' excepted:

Eu nêr a folant, eu hiaith a gadwant,
Eu tir a gollant, ond gwyllt Walia.[41]


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