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The Physicians Of Myddfai

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Historical Day Gallery , White House Cancer Support 7 May 2011
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As a re-enactor and historical interpreter who specialises in medicine and surgery of the past, I have to do a great deal of research into the writings of the physicians of the past, such as Guy de Chiriuac, Henri de Mondeville and Roger of Salerno among others. One of my particular favourites are the “Physicians of Myddfai”.

 

The small village of Myddfai, lies just outside Llandovery in Carmarthenshire. In the thirteenth century, a family lived in Myddfai whose medical skills were highly regarded throughout Wales. Their reputation and fame were such that a legend formed around them claiming they were descended from a faery woman: The Lady of Llyn-y- Fan Fach.

 

This is the legend.

Near the end of the twelfth century, a widow lived at Blaensawdde in Carmarthenshire. Her only son tended their cattle on the Black Mountains near Llyn- Y- Fan Fach (“Lake of the little fan”). One day he saw a woman sitting upon the surface of the water of the lake. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. Awestruck, he offered her some bread and cheese. She refused and said “Hard baked is your bread! It is not easy to catch me!", before disappearing into the depths of the lake.

That evening he told his mother, who suggested that he offer her some unbaked dough. The next day he saw her again and offered her the dough. She refused it, saying Unbaked is your bread! I will not have you!", before returning to the lake.

The youth returned to his mother who suggested he try part baked bread. He returned to the lake that evening and threw the bread out towards its centre, saying as he did so: "I have no gold, silver or riches to offer thee, just the bread grown by my own hands from the rich earth. It is all I have to offer, save myself which is yours for ever."

            He turned to go and as he looked back one last time, there, standing on the lakeside was the lady of Llyn-y-Fan laughing. She agreed to marry him: "Truly I will have you for you offer as much as any true man may. But, beware, if you strike me three causeless blows, no matter how gentle, I will return to the lake and never more be with you." He swore he would never strike her and out of the water came her dowry of cattle and livestock.

They were married and moved to Esgair Llaethdy, some six miles from Llyn-y-Fan, where they lived happily.

Their first child was born and while their baby was tiny, they were invited to a christening. The day of the christening was hot, yet, his wife kept delaying their departure. As the time drew on the farmer grew impatient. "Come now or we will be late," he said, and, ever so gently, he patted her on the back to encourage her to the door.

A cloud came over the sun. She looked at him sadly, "You know not what I see, but if we had left a moment earlier our baby would have died of the heat. Now the clouds have hidden the sun and he shall be well, but beware this was thy first causeless blow."

Chastened at how easily he had done what he swore he would never do, the farmer and his lady went to the christening and in his love for her all was soon forgotten.

Spring arrived and the lady was pregnant once more. In midsummer, a second son was born. Shortly after, a cousin was to be married and the farmer and his lady attended the ceremony. In the middle of the ceremony, the lady of Llyn-y-Fan began to weep. The farmer tried to silence his wife, afraid that she would disrupt the ceremony. Ever so gently he tapped her on her forearm.

The sunlight shone through the coloured glass windows casting a red glow on her arm like blood. She looked at him sadly, "You know not what I see, but I cry for the sorrow they do not yet know. But beware this was thy second causeless blow, let there be no other."

As the lady foresaw, so it came to pass. In the depths of winter the new bride, who was pregnant, slipped on the ice and died in her husband's arms. Then some months later, the widower fell sick and, stranded in his farm by late February snows, he died of a wasting sickness.

The family gathered for the funeral, including the farmer and his wife and their third son. Then, amidst the silence and grief, the lady began to laugh. At first gently, then hysterically - her body shaking with her laughter until tears fell from her eyes. No words would hush her and aware of the offence she was causing and afraid in her hysterical state she would hurt herself, he first chastened her and then slapped her once, with no malice, on her cheek.

Outside the rain began to fall. The sun through the rain cast a dismal grey light upon her face. She looked at him, "You know not what I see, but I laugh that his sorrow is over. This life was harsh on him yet now he finds joy in a better place. And my laughter is tinged with sorrow. This was the third blow. I may not love quite as you do and I may not know sorrow as you do, but my sorrow in parting will not die through all the ages of the earth for I know no death and no end to my joys or pain."

With these words she stepped out into the rain and began to run. The farmer chased after her but no matter how fast he ran, he could never quite catch up with her. Past their farm at Esgair Llaethdy he followed her, past his birthplace at Blaensawdde, up the mountainside towards Llyn-y-Fan where she disappeared into its waters; then, following her into the lake came the animals from her dowry and their descendents, including oxen pulling a plough.

For many hours he waded and swam in the freezing waters of Llyn-y-Fan Fach, searching for her but there was no sign, until, exhausted, he fell down at the water's edge and wept.

Years passed and her distraught sons would often search the lake looking for their mother. One day, Rhiwallon her eldest son was walking near Dol Howell, (today called “Llidiad y Meddygon”: “The Physician’s Gate”), when his mother appeared to him. She told him his destiny was to benefit mankind by relieving them of pain and misery through the healing of disease. To accomplish this, she gave him a bag full of prescriptions and instructions for healing. She prophesised, that if he and his family followed those instructions, they would become the most skilful physicians in Wales for many generations.

 

Several times she appeared to her sons, once accompanying them on a walk where she pointed out to them the healing plants that grew there. Today this place is known as “Pant-y-Meddygon”: “The Dingle of the Physicians”.

 

As a result, their knowledge and skill earned them a reputation unrivalled. Rhiwallon, together with his three sons and assistants: Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion, became the personal physicians to Rhys Gryg, (d.1234),  Lord of Dinefwr and Ystrad Towy, who rewarded them with land. Their descendents continued to practice medicine until the middle of the nineteenth century when the last descendant, the physician Rice Williams of Aberystwyth died in 1842.

 

Rhys Gryg urged Rhiwallon to write down their methods in case no one could be found with their requisite knowledge. Some of the later physicians, added to this information.  Many of the remedies are thought to have been their own recipes, whilst some may be older and are suspected to have been around during the time of Howel Dda who ruled Wales around 930AD, possibly earlier.

 

            The original manuscript can be found in the British Museum, although other copies exist, for example, there is one at Jesus College, Oxford.

 

The recipes and prescriptions of the “Physicians of Myddfai” were translated by John Pugh and published in 1861 by the Welsh Manuscript Society. Included in this collection is a translation of a manuscript said to have been written by Howel the Physician, a descendent of Einion, son of Rhiwallon and thought to date from the 15th Century

Some of the recipes such as bleeding and the use of animal dung in ointments may seem strange but some are influenced by the writings of the Greek Hippocrates (460-377 BC), who is regarded as the father of modern medicine. Hippocrates believed that illness was not sent by the Gods or taken away by them but had a physical basis. He believed that if the cause of the illness was discovered- then the disease could be cured.

Many of the Physicians ideas are relevant to modern guidelines relating to health and fitness, with great emphasis being placed upon patients’ own responsibility for their own health. The Physicians were quite holistic in approach, looking for the causes of disease as well as attempting to stop outer symptoms. They were keen on hygiene and absolute cleanliness of tools and water used in preparations. Importance was also placed upon eating healthily and getting moderate amounts of exercise.

For example:

“The three qualities of water: it will produce no sickness, no debt and no widowhood”

“A light dinner, a less supper, sound sleep, long life”

“Better is appetite than gluttony”

“Enough of bread, little of drink”

“Moderate exercise is health”

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