11 Jul 2016

The Physicians of Myddfai revisited

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

In 2017 the National Botanic Garden of Wales will relaunch its Apothecary’s Garden, originally planted in 2002.

I have been using the Garden’s library to get a clearer picture of the work of the apothecary and have been pleased to rediscover the story of the Physicians of Myddfai (Meddygon Myddfai), whose work will also come into focus with the redevelopment of the new garden.

Myddfai is a village in north east Carmarthenshire.  It was here that the first of the physicians practiced. His name was Rhiwallon and  his descendants are said to have continued his work, in an unbroken hereditary line, until the eighteenth century.

As well as having mortal lineage, Rhiwallon was believed to have had mythical ancestry. His mother was said to have been the lady of the lake, from the legend of the same name. She is said to have handed to him the secrets of making effective herbal remedies derived from local plants. Rhiwallon became a skilled practitioner, his reputation spread beyond his immediate locality, and along with his sons Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion, he was appointed court physician to Rhys Grug (circa.1165 – 1233) of the House of Dinefwr. Rhys Grug was the third son of Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of Deheubarth, an area roughly equating to south west Wales. Rhys ap Gruffydd (circa. 1132 – 1197) is regarded by historians as one of the most successful and powerful of the Welsh princes during the early middle ages.

With time the remedies and treatments of the Physicians of Myddfai came to be handed down in written form as well as orally. In the fourteenth century, some five hundred of these were incorporated into a renowned collection of poetry and prose known as The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest), one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language.

This brief synopsis of their achievements illustrates how, unsurprisingly, the Physicians of Myddfai have come to occupy a unique position in the historical consciousness of Wales. However, their story also relates strongly to the narrative of the Garden. Firstly, it is reflected in our strong commitment to medicinal plants and the traditions of the apothecary. Secondly, the story of the Physicians fixes the Garden in a context that is historical, cultural and intensely local. As a result of these connections the Garden emerges as the embodiment of both scientific study and magical heritage, the modern world and the ancient past.

In future posts, I’m look forward to exploring:

·         the relevance of the remedies of the Physicians  in the twenty-first century,

·         the significance of the legend of the Lady of the Lake in the story of the Physicians,

·         the influences of previous medical and herbal traditions on the work of the Physicians,

·         what the remedies of the Physicians tell us about the lives and preoccupations of people who lived in the thirteenth century,

·         murder, mystery and the apothecary: the role of the apothecary in crime fiction.