Dead Virgins: Feminine Sanctity in Medieval Wales

By Cartwright, Jane | Medium Aevum, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Dead Virgins: Feminine Sanctity in Medieval Wales


Cartwright, Jane, Medium Aevum


Medieval Welsh literature is rich in hagiographical lore. A number of vitae and bucheddau survive which record the medieval traditions associated with many of the native Welsh saints, for example SS David, Beuno, Cadog, Illtud, and Teilo. (1) Although some of these saints (St David in particular) have attracted the attention of hagiologists, until recently Welsh female saints have been largely ignored, possibly because very few of their Lives are extant, but also because archaic views of a male-dominated Celtic Church have occasionally led to their dismissal. Baring-Gould and Fisher in their remarkably comprehensive study The Lives of the British Saints have numerous entries dealing with individual female saints and Henken has valuable chapters on five female saints in her Traditions of the Welsh Saints. (2) Other useful studies focus on the legends associated with St Gwenfrewy (or Winefride) and her healing well at Holywell, Flintshire, and with St Melangell and her church and shrine at Pennant Melangell, Powys. (3) In Y Forwyn Fair, Santesau a Lleianod I provide an introduction to the cult of the Virgin Mary in Wales and the extant medieval sources on Welsh female saints and nuns. (4) The sources for the female saints are disparate and varied and, as a result, one needs to adopt a multidisciplinary approach in order to evaluate the source material effectively. Relevant primary sources include Welsh and Latin Lives, genealogies, calendars, prayers, Cywyddwyr poetry, law texts, place names, holy wells, shrines, ecclesiastical seals, and stained glass. (5) This essay attempts to synthesize many of these sources and hopes to shed new light on the medieval traditions associated with Welsh holy women. The biographical patterning of these mulieres sanctae, in so far as it can be ascertained from the limited extant sources, will be explored and issues of feminine sanctity will be considered in relation to Welsh hagiography.

The `Age of the Saints' has frequently been depicted as a period of intense religious activity when `Celtic' missionaries travelled back and forth across the western seaways establishing early religious communities in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. (6) In Wales these religious enclosures were known as llannau, and many place names reflect the names of female saints as well as their male counterparts: for example Llan-non, Llanddwyn, Llan-gain, Llanllyr, Llandegla, and Llanerfyl. Whilst some scholars, such as E. G. Bowen, once argued that place names and church dedications possibly reflected a saint's missionary activities, most now suggest that they indicate the spread of a saint's cult. Although south-east Wales was Christianized during Roman times, the fifth to the eighth centuries have traditionally been considered as the formative period in the founding of a `Celtic Church' with its own specific infrastructure of monastic communities following a strict, ascetic regime. (7) In Wales sanctity was locally conferred and none of the medieval Welsh saints appears to have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. (8) J. W. Willis Bund, more than a century ago, claimed that women rarely became saints in Wales and Ireland, `for a woman would not be the head of a monastery, the chief of a tribe of a Saint, and so could never become a Saint or entitled to be so called ... a woman could never fill the office which certainly among the Welsh entitled a person to become a saint'. (9) Sainthood was, in his view, gender specific and incompatible with the traditional roles played by women. G. H. Doble, author of numerous articles on the Cornish and Welsh saints, also found it difficult to accept that women could have travelled great distances in order to establish religious foundations. There are dedications to St Cain (or Keyne) in South Wales, Anglesey, Somerset, Herefordshire, and Cornwall, and Doble, whilst perfectly willing to accept that Cain could have visited these locations had the saint been male, was somewhat reluctant to concede that this would be the case if Cain was female: `It seems difficult to believe that a woman could, in those wild ages, travel so far, and found so many settlements, and St. …

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