The twenty-four measures of a man - Iolo Morganwg's fighting fit!

By Bethan Jenkins, January 2007

Amongst the thousands of papers of the master antiquarian forger Iolo Morganwg lying in the National Library of Wales are three copies of an old Welsh text called the Pedair Camp ar Hugain, the twenty-four feats of skill and prowess that princes were expected to be able to master. In the several versions of these Campau or accomplishments he leaves the main body of the text more-or-less unadulterated, presenting us with the list of accomplishments basically as they appear in Dr. John Davies Mallwyd's Dictionarium Duplex of 1632. These are as follows:

Cryfder Strength
Rhedeg Running
Neidiaw Jumping
Nofiaw Swimming
Ymafael Grappling
Marchogaeth Horseriding
Saethu Archery
Chwarae cleddau a Bwccled Playing sword and buckler
Chwarae cleddau deuddwrn Playing with a two-handed sword
Chwarae â ffon ddwybig Playing with a double-pointed staff
Hely â milgi Hunting with a greyhound
Hely Pysg Hunting fishes
Hely dderyn Hunting (?with) birds
Barddoniaeth Poetry
Canu Singing
Darllain Cymraeg Reading Welsh
Canu cywydd gan dant Declaiming poetry with the harp
Canu cywydd pedair ag accenu Singing an "accented cywydd of four"
Tynnu arfau Drawing arms
Herodraeth Heraldry
Chwarae gwyddbwyll Playing chess
Chwarae towlbwrdd Playing "throwboard"
Chwarae ffristial Playing "ffristial"
Cyweiriad telyn Tuning a harp

It is the first ten of these accomplishments, the physical and martial feats, which concern us here today - perhaps surprisingly, when we consider that the body of academic study of Iolo Morganwg focuses on his literature, and within that his pacifism and use of the pastoral and primitivist idiom. This, after all, is the radical pacifist who wrote diatribes against Church and kingism, composed poems with such titles as Ode on converting a sword into a pruning-hook, and in his pacifist bardic system strictly prohibited the baring of naked weapons in the presence of a druid. For the past two hundred years, he has generally been envisaged in terms of Southey's description of him:

Iolo, old Iolo, he who knows
The virtue of all herbs of mount or vale,
Or greenwood shade, or quiet brooklet's bed;
Whatever lore of science or of song
Sages and Bards of old have handed down.

As we will come to see, this view of the visionary, other-worldly bard is only one of the many faces Iolo showed to the world; his chameleonic personality is more accurately reflected in the twenty-four accomplishments than has hitherto been thought.

Iolo had no need to tamper with the list of weaponry and martial feats; the date of the text proclaims a greater veracity than Iolo alone can bestow, but our knowledge of Historical Western Martial Arts texts reinforces this. Certainly, it is not a text o amser yr ymherawdwr Arthur, from the days of the Emperor Arthur, as was proclaimed even as early as 1500 in Peniarth MS 56, 28 even before Iolo got hold of it, but even a cursory glance through pre-17th century texts and manuals such as Silver, Talhoffer, and the medieval German I.33 manuscript show all the weapons in this list to have been in use in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Such lists are not unknown elsewhere in Europe either; in 1575, Michel de Montaigne, wrote "our very exercises and recreations, running, wrestling …and fencing".

The first of the weapons in the list is the sword-and-buckler combination, chwarae cledd a bwccled. This is the weapon in evidence from the earliest known Western Martial Arts text, the manual known as I.33. Interestingly, this depicts a monk, a man of God and presumably (nominally, at least) a pacifist Christian, instructing a student in combat with the sword and buckler. As we can see in this reconstruction of general sword-and-buckler combat from Maister Terry Brown, the buckler would not just have been used as a defensive shield, but also as an offensive weapon in itself - sheild bosses would often have studs and points added to them, to add to the practical viciousness of the weapon, as well as making its appearance more impressive. [Terry Slides Here]

Chwarae cleddau dauddwrn, playing with two-handed swords, is next on the list. This would correspond to the longsword so beloved of Hollywood sword-and-sorcery directors, wielded with two hands, being longer and heavier than that used with the buckler, and so correspondingly also effective at longer range. It is this sword which is thought of most often when medieval weaponry is mentioned.

Chwarae â ffon ddwybig, playing with double-pointed staff, may not be the weapon which sounds most ferocious to modern ears and eyes accustomed to Hollywood's interpretation of staff-fighting, but according to George Silver, the foremost master of the sixteenth century, it was certainly the best weapon with which to fight.

And take this for a true ground, there is no man able to ward a sound blow with the Sword and Dagger, nor Rapier, Poiniard, and Gantlet, being strongly made at the head, with the Staffe, and run in withall, the force of both hands is such, being in his full motion and course, that although the other do carie his ward high and strong with both handwa, yet his feete being moving from the ground, the great force of the [staffman's] blow will strike him with his ward, and all downe flat to the ground.1

Another master, Zachary Wylde, merely says of the staff that

…[the] man that rightly understands it, may bid defiance and laugh at any other weapon…

{The phraseology of the text here is slightly ambiguous, as dwy big could indicate bill hook (which has two points) [show picture] - pigcan mean beak or bill, as well as "point" (so actually, it could have a bill at either end?); it could also mean a "tipstaff", i.e. 'a metal-tipped quarterstaff'.2.}

It is, though, Iolo's embellishments which are of most interest for 18th century studies, and are perhaps most pertinent to the title of this panel. For within the twenty-four accomplishments, Iolo identifies certain categories of accomplishment, and sometimes categories within those again. In MS Cwrtmawr 3, 638A, the first ten, the ones which which we are concerned today, are the deg gŵrolgamp. He goes on to say

O'r deg gwrolgamp, chwech sydd o rym corph: 1 cryfder, 2 rhedeg, 3 neidiaw, 4 nofiaw, 5 ymafael 6 marchogaeth. Ac o'r chwech hyn, pedair sy bennaf, ac a elwir tadogion gampau, sef rhedeg, neidio, nofio, ymafael, A hwy a elwir felly am nad rhaid wrth ddefnydd yn y byd i wneuthur yr un o honynt, ond y dŷn fel y ganed. Y pedair gwrolgamp o rym arfau yw 1. Saethu, 2. Chwarae cleddau a bwccled: 3. Chwarae cleddau deuddwrn. 4. chwarae ffon a dwy big.

This formula is repeated very closely in the embellishments to the other Iolo MSS containing the text (NLW 13139A and 13122B). As with most of his other forgeries, Iolo takes a kernel of genuine text, and allows his considerable imagination to meditate on the subject and embellish it, taking in its range contemporary ideas and themes - radical Jacobinism, Unitarianism, and here in these texts, some contemporary theories of 18th Century physical and sporting culture. It is to the unarmed feats we turn for the rest of this talk.

Professor Geraint Jenkins has, in his most recent essay on Iolo, begun the task of re-placing our subject in the urban context where he spent far more of his time than has previously been imagined. Iolo lived for five years in London, and was an extremely familiar figure within Bristol society for most of his life. It is in the latter city where Professor Damien Walford-Davies has begun to locate, in his book Presences that Disturb, Iolo's connections with figures of the age more familiar to English ears, writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Thelwall, Yearsley and More, and divines such as Priestley and many of the Wesleyan circle. Both of these cities were renowned for their pugilists and prize-fighting contests, Bristol in the latter half of the century producing more champions than anywhere else outside London, producing such artists as Big Ben Brain, Jem Belcher, Henry Pearce the Game Chicken, and Tom Cribb. Iolo's 'scabrous opinion of… Bristolians' as dullards and slave-traders who raised their town on human blood is well known; but, true to Iolo's trademark ambivalence, it was a town of the utmost importance to his early formation as a poet, naturalist, and also provided much of his bread-and-butter masonic work, being as it was a short boat-ride from his beloved Glamorgan. He was present in Bristol and London in the heydays of boximania, and it is impossible to conceive that such a vital part of the urban social scene passed him by completely

Iolo's life certainly closely parallels, and in some places even intersects, with many of the pugilistic heroes of the 18th century. Almost without exception, the prize-fighters were of working-class origin, a class to which Iolo famously and explicitly allied himself in the introduction to his Poems, Lyric and Pastoral of 1794. The most famous fighter of the former half of the century, Jack Broughton, whose career as a prizefighter was taking off at the same time as Stephen Duck's career as a labouring-class poet, was a Thames waterman, an occupation he shared with one of the earliest of the famous labouring-class poets, John Taylor. The most famous patron of the prize ring was George, Prince of Wales - to whom Iolo dedicated his volume of poetry, and to whose wedding he arrived, dressed in masonic garb complete with trowel, and bearing an epithalamium.

The eighteenth century saw the rise of a more scientific theory of pugilism, and bareknuckle boxing became much more than just two men slugging it out in a ring. This scientific theory of training was most famously performed in 1811, as Captain Allardyce Barclay trained Tom Cribb for his rematch against the American, Tom Molyneux. Barclay's regime relied heavily on his feats of pedestrianism - a talent for which Iolo gained himself a great reputation in his younger years. [picture pedestrian Iolo] "A Celebrated Pugilist" described training thus:

The best method of training is, to live temperately, but not abstemiously, and to take as much exercise in the country as possible without fatigue. Go to bed at ten o'clock, rise about six or seven…take a walk for a mile, return home and eat a good breakfast, amuse yourself in walking moderately, and in sparring, till dinner time; avoid eating a great quantity: drink wine mixed with water at dinner…walk about and work the dumb bells till a degre of fatigue ensues, and then retire to rest.

Before a public battle, for a fortnight or three weeks at least…Porter, ale, or any sort of beer as well as spirituous liquors, are to be entirely laid aside, also salt meats and acids.

Iolo was also noted for a certain faddishness in diet, describing himself pseudonymously in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine as

remarkably sober and temperate, [he] very seldom drinks strong liquors, and, if he sometimes tastes them, it is in very small quantities, and was never seen in liquor. His food is almost entirely vegetables; and he is a professed Pythagorean with respect to his opinion of animal food.

Not mentioned in this puff-piece, of course, is Iolo's high consumption os laudanum! The theory behind both sorts of regime was the same - to train the body into hardiness, for as Iolo remarks in 1794

I was so very unhealthy whilst a child (and I have continued so), that it was thought useless to put me to school…

It was for this reason that Iolo embarked in the late 1780s on perhaps the strangest interlude in his remarkable career. Determined (so he said at the time) to travel to America to search out the Madogwys at the height of the Madoc craze, Iolo embarked on a phase of what I can only describe as a form of SAS training. In order to acclimatise himself to the wilds of America, Iolo lived for a time out in the open, eating grasses and roots, and drinking from brooks. This was in time incorporated into some of his laudanum-fuelled eccentricities - at his lowest ebb in 1792, he wrote to his wife Peggy that he "was sure he had lived on nothing but air this past month." He was not alone even in literary circles in such idiosyncracy - C.B. Tinker describes the Scottish Lord Monboddo as

sat naked in the open air in order to harden himself, and to protest against the luxury which was lulling the age into effeminacy and decay… [eschewing] all modern 'conveniences'.

Here we see another of the faces Iolo showed to the world, that of the primitive "noble savage" so in vogue at the time. At a time when the Celt was being increasingly feminised ("they went to war, and they all fell"), there were some attempts at asserting the masculinity of the Celt as an ideal against which to measure contemporary life. Such discourse was to be found in the literature of the prize ring, which valued gameness, or "Bottom" (described as "The power of bearing blows"), above all other attributes of the fighter; reputations would rest on 'rare bottom spirit' or 'deficiency in bottom'. Another of Iolo's glosses on the Pedair camp ar hugain bemoans the loss of fighting spirit since the time of the Ancient Britons:

Amrafaelion lawenydd ydoedd gynt ymhlith Cenedl i Cymry, pan oeddynt a Brytaniaeth naturiol defodau i ganedig wlad yn ddigymmysg ganthynt ai Brenhinawl allu a llyfodraeth Teyrnasoedd yn i meddiant. fal y dengys y Tri rhagoriaeth arbenig ar wr nid amgen. Bywiogrwydd, Nerth a Synwyr. Am hynny ir henwed yn ddewisawl ag i graddiwyd pedair camp ar hugain, yn amser yr amherawdwr Arthur, ag a fuant arferedig am hir o amser oni ddiffygiodd meddiant Tywysogion Cymru, ag yno gwedi hynny, fal liwdawd heb lywydd ni fawr ymarferwyd ar campau hynny, onid aethant dros gof hayacheu, val nad oes nemor o ddyn yng Nghymru a wyr henwau y pedair camp ar hugain, chwaethach i gwneuthur, a phan glywar i henwid ni wyddys beth yw llawer o honynt am i bod mor ddierth am hynny nid anwiw oed i esgrifenni yma er dwyn ar gof i'r Cymry sydd ynawr wedi ymroi i bob llesgedd anwraidd a bryntni.

And as we have seen, the unarmed arts were the highest ranking of these, because they were 'pure' or manly because they required no other equipment than the man as he was born. He was not the first to say so, as the Hispano-Italian master Pietro Monte in the 1480's even recognized wrestling as the "foundation of all fighting", armed or unarmed. Whilst wrestling and punching has often been frowned on in the history of fencing, usually for æsthetic or class purposes, unarmed combat is still hugely important in swordfighting, as once a sword-point is displaced and the combatants come in at each other, their swords are of limited use, and it is generally (as Silver remarks) the better wrestler who will then win the contest. It is significant that Iolo gives the unarmed arts precedence over the armed, because it marks his text out as a "bardic" document; however much Iolo romanticised his own "Minstrel Boy" childhood, G. J. Williams has shown that the Glamorgan of his youth was a riot of games and athletic entertainments, and Iolo incorporated this into his bardic vision, with the last day of his proposed week-long Gorsedd moots to be taken up with Old Welsh games and athletic pursuits. It also argues that Iolo was paying attention to the English fashions of the day, as boxing schools overtook fencing salles in popularity amongst the gentry in London. For a bardic system which was conceived in the light of Iolo's radical pacifism, boxing and wrestling's emphases on their value as potentially non-lethal duelling systems (contrasting with sword duels) was ideal.

I have not had time to do justice to the work of fitting in the twenty-four feats to its contemporary martial culture. We are given a tantalising glimpse into the martial culture both of early-modern Wales and late eighteenth-century Britain, which gives a more physical dimension to a bardic system more often conceived of as philosophical and otherworldly. Only very rarely are his forgeries unconnected with the world around him, concerned as they are with proving Welsh culture to be venerable and ancient, and more worthy of study than scholars had formerly given it credit.


1 TB, p. 67
2 TB, p. 63