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The physicians of Myddfai

Phil Carradice

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The Red Book of Hergest is one of the most ancient manuscript volumes in existence, dating from the years immediately following 1382. Now kept in the Bodleian Library on behalf of Jesus College, Oxford, as well as containing early prose and pieces of poetry the red vellum book also holds a collection of herbal remedies from the Physicians of Myddfai.

The Physicians of Myddfai were herbalists, living and working in and around the Carmarthenshire village of Myddfai. Their origins and dates are a little unclear but certainly the Lord Rhys - the same man who instigated the first eisteddfod - established and sponsored a new monastery at Strata Florida in about 1177.

Strata Florida means layers of flowers and, before too long, the monastery had become a centre for herbal healing. The Lord Rhys had a personal physician called Rhiwallan who probably received his training there and he and his three sons - Cadwgan, Griffith and Einon - were given land in the village of Myddfai in recognition of their work.

The legend of the Physicians of Myddfai originates from this period, a time of new ideas and of great cultural development, not just in Wales but in the whole of Britain. And over the years the knowledge of these physicians, their healing arts and remedies, were passed down from one generation to the next.

Remedies were made from only natural products, over 170 of them, grown locally in the Myddfai area. They included cures for such things as headache, sunburn, swellings and pain in the legs, coughs and sneezes. It has been claimed, with some justification, that the birth of modern medicine can be traced back to these Physicians of Myddfai.

While the monasteries at places like Strata Florida and Talley continued their work, Myddfai also achieved fame as a centre of medical help. People came from all over the country to find cures and help for ailments, and the physicians were in constant demand - not just for people with money but for ordinary folk, too. For over 100 years the village of Myddfai was a place of great learning and excellence in the healing arts.

Of course, as the fame of the physicians grew so, too, did legends and stories mystifying their craft and origins. One of them suggested that their powers had fairy origins. It is a story that is told in the Mabinogion and, like the list of the physicians' herbal remedies, is contained in the Red Book of Hergest.

According to this story a farmer of Blaensawdde in Carmarthenshire - born as the first flowers broke through on the Black Mountain - saw a beautiful woman sitting on a rock in Lyn-y-Fan Fach, the lake on the mountain. After three attempts to woo her he was at last successful but she agreed to marry him only if he promised to treat her well. Three causeless blows, she said, would return her to the lake. Vowing never to do such a thing the farmer took her as his wife and the family moved six miles down the mountain to the village of Myddfai.

Naturally, three blows were struck, soon after the birth of each of their three children. They were just taps on the back or arm but they were engendered through lack of understanding.

The lady had delayed going to the christening of their first child because the baby would have been harmed by the sun. She cried at a wedding because she knew the bride would soon die. And she laughed at the bridegroom's subsequent funeral because his suffering was over and she was happy for him. The farmer, her husband, could not possibly know these things as he did not have her fairy powers.

But the slaps or blows, innocuous as they were, were enough to cause the lady to immediately return to the lake. No matter how fast the farmer ran she was always ahead of him and soon she had reached the lake and disappeared into the water, leaving the farmer heartbroken and alone.

As the three sons grew they turned their knowledge and powers, knowledge and powers inherited from their mother's fairy lore, to the healing arts. They could have been great warriors, says the legend, they became, instead, great healers. Using the herbs found in the Myddfai area, a long line of physicians or healers was created.

The legend, of course, is part of the mystifying process of medicine - a process that lives on today. And while Myddfai may no longer be the centre of healing and medicine that it once was, the region did receive some degree of celebrity when, in 2007, Prince Charles bought a house in the area. There are those who would say the story has come full circle!

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