Sometimes it seems that folklore is ahead of science. In the thirteenth century, the Physicians of Myddfai apparently linked butter to heart disease.
“Do not take butter, as at this time (in November) the blood of all men has a tendency to coagulation, which is dangerous…..”
Centuries later, the link was made by other doctors to cholesterol from animal fats.
As the rest of the world struggles to catch up with and understand the medieval wisdom of Wales, the Welsh hills still appear to be enchanted by the nature that housed the fairies who gave the physicians their knowledge.
The first Physicians of Myddfai owed their knowledge to the curiosity of a young man who ate his lunch by the side of the lake.
There were no fast food joints back then, no fish and chips, so this farmer’s son had a simple lunch of barley bread and cheese. Our hero knew how to take advantage of his surroundings, and went for a walk to the side of a lake, where he could see the sun sparkle over the water and look at the wonders of the hills.
But something even more beautiful than the view of the water and the rolling hills emerged from the depths of that lake. These were creatures that do not normally show themselves to men. Some might call them fairies.
The farmer’s son was very hungry after a hard morning of working the fields and tending the livestock, but he was so enchanted with one of these fairies that he offered her his lunch. Well, she didn’t seem too impressed by a cheese sandwich.
“Your bread’s too hard boyo.” she shouted “You won’t get me with a stale sandwich!” And off she ran, teasing him.
The farmers son did not give up. He tried one kind of bread, and then another. Some were undercooked, others were softened in the oven.
Eventually, the fairy was charmed by the gentlemanly conduct of the man from simple stock, and they had lunch together. Now, the hard part was winning over her father.
The fairy’s dad was not about to give up his daughter to any old mortal. He put forward a test, to see whether the young farmer just loved his daughter for her beauty, or if he could even tell her from another.
So, the fairy father put a spell on his daughters, to make them all look the same. The young farmer had to guess which one was his beloved sandwich eater if he was to marry her. If he got his guess wrong, well, the fairy king might unlock his fury on the poor lad.
Luckily, when the lad looked at the young ladies, he found his fellow sandwich eater liked him just as much as he liked her. To make his choice easier, the sandwich eating fairy put her foot forward.
“That’s the one.” he said, and they were married.
As in all Welsh fairy tales, no one would let them just live happily ever after. The fairy father from lake Llyn y Fan Fach put a terrible catch in the marriage agreement. It seemed so simple to obey, just don’t strike the fairy lady three times. The farmer could never dream of striking his beloved, so the pair thought nothing of it.
The happy couple celebrated their marriage, and great wealth was given to the farmer and his beloved. Their dowry included cattle, land and magical grain.
They had three children together, the fairy and the farmer. She became like a farmer, working the fields alongside him, and he became like a fairy, with the magical prosperity of the dowry helping to grow every thing he planted or every animal he led.
However, the fairies of Carmarthenshire are very technical people, following the letter of the law instead of its spirit. The term of the three strikes was more of a curse than a condition of the marriage.
Once, the farmer leaned his arm back to catch a ball thrown by their oldest boy. He hadn’t seen his fairy wife approach him from behind. That was the first strike.
The second strike was similarly accidental. The farmer turned over in his sleep, and his arm landed on the fairy’s shoulder.
The farmer had asked his fairy wife never to sneak up on him from behind, and he tied himself up when he went to sleep at night. After the boys were working hard one day, the fairy was coming out to bring them their favorite food: cheese sandwiches.
The boys were tossing around a ball, confident that their mother would never sneak up behind their father again. Then the youngest tossed the ball to his father. “Catch” the young boy shouted.
The father caught the ball and threw it proudly back to his son. “Catch this” he shouted.
Sadly, he didn’t see his wife appearing with the plate of sandwiches. The ball struck her just as she entered the yard.
As the ball struck, she disappeared. So did their livestock, and most of the grains. Everything made with fairy magic sunk into the ground. Everything helped by fairy magic went back to it’s normal state.
The magical porcelain plate became a stick of wood, and the cheese sandwiches fell to the ground. As the youngest boy grabbed a sandwich to take a bite, he found it was hard and stale.
It appeared that the magic of the fairies had left the farm for good. The farmer was left without a wife, his boys without a mother, and all four were destitute, thanks to the fairy curse.
But the fairy did not allow her father’s curse to leave her family with nothing. Though she was no longer permitted to see her husband, she could bring messages to her boys.
The oldest boy, named Rhiwallon, was given a bag full of “medical prescriptions and aphorisms.” Most boys might have used these aphorisms to fill up fortune cookies, but Rhiwallon spotted the local market and started dishing out advice at a price.
The fairy continued to visit Rhiwallon until he had three sons of his own, her grandsons, Cadwgan, Griffith and Einion. She tutored them in making all kinds of herbal remedies and recipes. These three young boys were to take this knowledge and earn a living with it. They became the first Physicians of Myddfai.
The Lord of Llandovery and Dynefor, a man known as Rhys the Hoarse, gave these physicians a title of land and some cash so they could spend more time perfecting their craft. Here they left folklore and entered history.
The physicians of Myddfai continued to pass their wisdom down from father to son, and their title was hereditary down until the time of John Jones in the 18th century. For five hundred years, their remedies and advice seemed to work like magic. And then, it vanished. (Some say the magic still lives in the hills, or that the family went to a far away land, waiting for a time when they could return with more remedies.)
In 1861, the Welsh Manuscript society published some of the remedies collected over the years. It’s hard to tell which prescription was invented when, what came about as a result of the research of the Physicians of Myddfai, and what was passed down from their mythical origins.
Even if their remedies are not all still with us, the memory of the Physicians of Myddfai lives on in a small shop in the hills of Carmarthenshire. The village of Myddfai, near Llandovery, now sells a selection of herbs and arts and crafts, and shares some of its “remembered remedies“.
The village itself is open to visitors, and some of its beauty has been captured for all to see. (But the fairies remain hidden to all except for the few who they chose to share their secrets with.)
Some say many of these remedies pre-dated the time the sandwich was shared between farmer and fairy. But one wonders, why was butter said to be bad for the heart, but not cheese?
John Cule, “The Physicians of Myddfai” The Journal of the College of General Practitioners 6,2 (May 1963): 326–327.
Vasco de Sousa, “A Healthy Dose of Artistic License: But I didn’t make up the contents of the Sandwich” Ptara.com (May 2012): 1838.
John H Owen, “Physicians of Myddfai on Butter,” British Medical Journal 1, 5229 (25 March 1961) : 908.