Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Magic of Flax

Flax in the field with happy bee.
Yes, we are avoiding politics for a few days until the Democratic National Convention. Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, at least, are bound to provide entertainment in likely gaffes or other more intentional performances. I'm afraid they will be beating Eastwood's empty chair to death as much as the Republicans claimed they built everything. But the magical beauty of flax has legitimately captured my attention recently in a family history sense.

Enjoying the mind-tripping stories of the of the mythological Welsh Mabinogion again, I was struck to come across a reference to flax. It's in the story of Kilhwch & Olwen, a sort of love story even if the beautiful Princess Olwen only appears at the end. Even the translator, Lady Charlotte Guest, notes this is one of the oddest and most purely Welsh tales in the collection. It includes six or so pages of Kilhwch rattling off the impossibly complex Welsh names of the knights in King Arthur's Court. Then it goes on to a series of unusual quests in order for Kilhwch, Arthur, and his knights to win Olwen to be Kilhwch's bride.

As just one sample of the oddities in the story, Kai (the Sir Kay of Arthurian Legend) and Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd (try saying that one!) ride up the Severn River on the back of a salmon (!) to rescue Mabon the son of Mobron from prison in Gloucester Castle. And here's the picture:

Having driven across the Severn at Gloucester once, I missed seeing the salmon riding.
But then, I was navigating the roundabouts to keep us on our particular quest.
But back to the flax. If not quite as exciting as transport by salmon, one of the "impossible" tasks of the quest charged by Olwen's father was:
"Seest thou yonder red tilled ground?"
"I see it."
"When first I met the mother of this maiden, nine bushels of flax were sown therein, and none has yet sprung up, neither white nor black; and I have the measure by me still. I require to have the flax to sow in the new land yonder, that when it grows up it may make a white wimple for my daughter's head, on the day of thy wedding."
"It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think that it will not be easy."
The task of the flax was accomplished by another of the knights on Kilhwch's behalf.
On a certain day, as Gwythyr the son of Greidawl was walking over a mountain, he heard a wailing and a grievous cry. And when he heard it, he sprang forward, and went towards it. And when he came there, he drew his sword, and smote off an ant-hill close to the earth, whereby it escaped being burned in the fire. And the ants said to him, "Receive from us the blessing of Heaven, and that which no man can give we will give thee." Then they fetched the nine bushels of flax-seed which Yspaddaden Penkawr had required of Kilhwch, and they brought the full measure without lacking any, except one flax-seed, and that the lame pismire brought in before night.
Admittedly weird. But the image of that slow, ancient pissant is priceless.

So why do I care about flax in ancient Welsh myth? Well, if you check out the family chronology I have been working on, my ancestor received a bounty for growing flax in 1790 and 1791. I found that information by accident as I was looking for something else in the county Quarter Sessions Orders  - a Petition for Maintenance in Bastardy, if you must know (and the chronology also indicates the obvious reason for that). We haven't found any petition, but we did later find a link between the flax bounty and the illegitimate child to identify the mother's father! And just recently I found this explanation of the bounty:
During the eighteenth century the Government made strenuous efforts to promote the cultivation of flax. They were not successful, and in 1787 there were but 28 acres under cultivation throughout the whole of Wales. From 1788 onwards the experiment was tried on some farms in the neighbourhood of Hay. Mr Thomas Lloyd, flax-dresser, of Hay, exhibited his claim to the bounty on flax as provided by several Acts of Parliament: he received £9, which was duly refunded to the county from Imperial sources. The industry extended to Glasbury and Llaneheu, both in the neighbourhood of Hay. Entries were made till 1795, when the industry may have died out.
From, Theophilus Jones, History of Brecknock (1909 ed.) p. 137. [What a great name - Theophilus! If I got it right, that's "lover of God."]

It doesn't sound like flax was a going concern as it was being propped up by government bail-outs (oops). My ancestor's bounty was for much less than that of Mr. Thomas Lloyd, flax-dresser of Hay (now Hay-on-Wye). It was just one pound and a schilling so he must not have had much acreage. We are still searching for those land records. And the failed market for flax fits the evidence that, even though identified as a yeoman with the flax bounty, the Vaughan family was receiving support from the Overseer for the Poor in following years.

Flax is making somewhat of a comeback as it is a natural fiber promoted even by the University of Wales (along with hemp) and popular with those who prefer linen over synthetics. Linseed oil also comes from flax [Oh, I get it! - instead of "flaxseed" it's called "linseed" from "linen seed." I should have been an etymologist.] And linseed has great Omega-3 vitamins. Of course you can also get Omega-3 from salmon. But you have to get off at your stop before you indulge.

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