The Extraordinary Medieval Woman: Responding to the Critical Reception of Gwerful Mechain’s Poetry
Gwerful Mechain was a female Welsh poet during the fifteenth century. While little is known about her life, scholars generally agree she hailed from amongst the lower nobility of Montgomeryshire, a district of Wales, and was married to John ap Llywelyn Fychan, with whom she had a daughter. She is the author of the largest body of poetry by a medieval Welsh woman to remain extant for modern readers. While also the author of religious work, she is best known for her poetry which explored the feminine condition, including experiences of sex and marriage. The reception of Gwerful’s work within literary scholarship from the twentieth century onwards has ranged from the ambivalent, to the delighted, to the downright derogatory. The first half of this article will examine the reception of Gwerful’s work both within her own time and contemporary scholarship, and argue ultimately that it is her status as a female poet most notable for her writing regarding women’s experiences that has led to such divergent responses. I aim to establish Gwerful Mechain as an example of a historical woman who broke the mould expected by her society and continues to deviate from our modern assumptions of what a medieval woman might be. Having done so, in the second half of this article I discuss whether using terms such as ‘extraordinary’, ‘bold’ and ‘modern’ to describe such historical women, is helpful in the pursuit of rewriting history without a patriarchal lens. An androcentric record of history has promoted the idea that women who were outspoken, vital, self-assuredly sexual, and cognisant of the world were indeed rarities, extra-ordinary in the literal sense of being divergent from the standard, and not-of-their-time. I argue that to finally acknowledge the immeasurable number of women who are unrecognised by the historical record it is necessary to adjust the language used when discussing those whose lives have been, as least in part, remembered.