Dead virgins: feminine sanctity in medieval Wales

Saint Non's Chapel-Fenster - St.WinifredDead virgins: feminine sanctity in medieval Wales

Jane Cartwright

Medium Ævum: Vol. 71 Issue 1 (2002)


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.


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