In my book A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment (Pen and Sword Books, 2021) I outlined how women have defied social dictates for centuries by cross-dressing, cross-working, and cross-living. After delivering a talk on the book, I was contacted by Nia Mai Daniel (Welsh Music Archive, National Library Wales) alerting me to a Welsh language ballad, Can Newydd, about some cross-dressing women. Unable to read Welsh, I asked Mair Jones (Queer Welsh Stories) if she could do a preliminary translation to assess the content and Welsh poet Grug Muse then provided a more contemporary version.
Can Newydd was written by a rather eccentric one-eyed balladeer Abel Jones, (Bardd Crwst) who, according to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, is ‘the last of the “great” balladists’ and it was set to the tune of Mae Robin yn swil. A song Prof. E Wyn James, Cardiff University points out as ‘more suitable for the tavern than for singing at respectable concerts and eisteddfodau.’ Adding Bardd Crwst’s words made it even more risqué.
(Domesticated translation, by Grug Muse, with reference to literal translation by Mair Jones)
The tale of two young women from this region who dressed themselves in men’s clothes, and went courting to a country house to seduce two young women, who were strangers to them.
Sung to “Robin is Shy”
Well men of Gwalia/Wales what do you think of this-
See women in clothes, but isn’t it something surprising?
So rare are the tender men in our region/vale
That some women are out of their mind with wanting love.
But isn’t it surprising to see women like this
Knocking at the the maidends of Plas uchaf and Glyn &c
Some light evening in the middle of May,
Went two young women like irreproachable young men
To knock at a Manor house (Plasdy) where there were two young women
Starving for a lover to put on him their love &c
They beat the glass until the two arose
And soon asked, my dear, O! Who?
Well two wonderful young men- very pretty ones
You will know them the moment the door is opened.
They opened in a minute without any delay
After a few words to bed they went quickly;
Embracing, kissing, a sweet thing is man,
But four young women starving each one
(i.e. in need/wanting (still) each one)
They tired of kissing, nature was strong
and Siani felt something, I won’t name where
She understood this wasn’t a cockerel she had here
Or it was one very strange and odd &c
Lusi and her companion were in a bed nearby
Diligently loving without a single alarm
And she said to her love that the beauty of a son is
to do if he can of her displeasure or pleasure, &c
Lust is a great thing in a rooster or hen,
greater still in a young woman yearning earnestly;
And says an old saying “without a cockerel there’s no chick,”
And strange was the loving between Sian and Cit Puw &c
I pray you young men to come in a hurry,
The women are foolish so much is their lust;
Their troubles worry them, they are gay in lust,
Their passions will be tamed when they have children, &c.
The fashion is starting for the women to come
Pursuing young men, but isn’t it something od?
Isn’t it something surprising to see women like this,
Wearing trousers on them so tight.
Farewell to every bustle and crinoline there was
The women are for trousers to wear instead;
They give some sign in every country and town,
To show the men that they have a plea.
But isn’t it something surprising to see women like this
Knocking at the maidens of Plas uchaf a’r Glyn.
Dating the ballad is difficult as Prof. James explained, the absence of a printer’s name makes it difficult to pin down. However, Prof. James notes the first item on the sheet is a poem about a Baptist minister missing a Dowlais train. As the minister was in Dowlais from 1865-1872, it can be calculated that the leaflet was probably printed during that period. Copies in other collections such as Bangor University and Archifdy Ceredigion Archives shed no further light on the dating.
The content of Can Newydd concerns two women who cross-dress as men to visit a country house and have sex with two women. One reading appears to be a criticism of men who have left these women in want of male attention:
A’i prinion yw’r meibion rhai mwynion ein bro
Nes ydyw rhai merched am gariad o’u co.
(So rare are the tender men in our region/vale
That some women are out of their mind with wanting love.)
However, the ballad also draws attention to the growing number of women who were cross-dressing, something I cover in my book. The mid-late 19th century was a time when women in their thousands were ‘masquerading’ and many of these were individuals whom we would today identify as lesbians or trans.
The ballad is to be performed (perhaps for the first time since the 19th century) at Aberration on the 26th March as part of LGBTQ+ History Month 2022 – so you can judge for yourselves what it’s all about.
Promoting LGBT+ history and Welsh heritage
This post is also available in: Welsh