Jane Cartwright. Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008. Illustrations. xv + 301 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7083-1999-4.
Reviewed by Katherine French (SUNY New Paltz)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn
Women's Spirituality in Medieval Wales
Jane Cartwright’s new book, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales, is an encyclopedic survey of the literature relating to Welsh female saints, nuns, and pious women from the sixth to the sixteenth century. Cartwright’s study makes a two-pronged argument about Welsh female sanctity. First, she challenges the assumption that the Norman invasion was the cause of rising interest in female saints and declining influence of local ones. While the Normans did promote the veneration of the Virgin Mary, as evidenced by rededicating churches and founding monasteries, Welsh literature and place-name evidence provides examples of female saints that predate the conquest. Cartwright argues instead for a “natural progression” to Welsh spirituality rather than a “takeover” (p. 9). Moreover, the Normans were not the only outsiders who had influence on Welsh religious habits; later saints’ lives show the influence of Continental and other British collections of saints’ lives, such as the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. Thus, Wales shared larger religious trends in medieval Christianity with the rest of Western Europe. Second, she argues that pious-married woman was a far more significant religious role for Welsh women than nun, anchoress, or beguine. The passionate affective piety that grew out of women’s Eucharistic devotions on the Continent is seemingly missing in Wales, as the literature consistently downplays the significance of female saints’ virginity.
Lacking Welsh mystical writings, books of hours, or extensive ecclesiastical documents, Cartwright’s work, by necessity, focuses on the abundant poems and saints’ lives collections, in both Welsh and Latin. Most vernacular saints’ lives record the lives of “foreign” or non-Welsh saints, but Cartwright is careful to distinguish the nationalist interests of modern scholars who want to study texts that are unique to Wales, from medieval attitudes, which may or may not have made such a distinction. In an effort to augment these sometimes opaque texts, she also discusses surviving images in manuscripts and stained-glass windows. To familiarize non-Welsh readers with Welsh literature, large portions of religious poetry are offered in both Welsh and English.
Chapter 1 argues for an increase in the Virgin Mary’s importance to Wales over the course of the Middle Ages. Welsh liturgical calendars and religious poems show that Marian devotion became much more popular in the twelfth century, as indeed it was in much of the rest of Europe. Early Welsh poetry focused on Mary’s relationship to Christ and the Trinity, but by the fifteenth century, Welsh poets praised her purity, virtues, and role as an intercessor instead. Mary also became the focus of a popular Welsh shrine at Pen-rhys in the Rhondda Valley, probably in the thirteenth century. Cartwright argues that there is nothing particularly Welsh about Marian devotion, but her popularity ties Wales to the rest of Christendom. The numerous accounts of her life, such as the Buched Anna (The Life of St. Anne), Buched Meir Wyry (The Life of the Virgin Mary), and Lyma Vabinogi Iessu Grist (The Infancy of Jesus Christ), were all adapted from the Protoevangelium of James, and the Pseudo-Matthew, which is where Western Europe took most of their tales of Mary’s and Jesus’s childhoods.
Until relatively recently, Welsh historiography has argued that female saints were not important to Welsh hagiography. Yet Cartwright points out in chapter 2 that even in accounts of male saints, there are still numerous female saints, such as the twenty-five daughters of Brychan Brycheiniog, who produced one of the three saintly lineages of Britain. Perhaps the best known of these female saints is Gwenfrewy or Winifred, as she is known in English. Her fame spread into the Welsh Marches and she is one of the few female Welsh saints with a surviving vita. Like the female saints venerated on the Continent, these Welsh saints all share a common emphasis on their virginity, and the fight to maintain it in the face of an unwanted marriage.
Yet despite the virginity of these female saints, Cartwright argues that virginity did not have the same status in Wales that it did in the rest of Europe. Saint Non, the focus of chapter 3, is a case in point. Non, the mother of Saint David, was unusual as a saint because she was raped, became pregnant, and delivered the child. Thus she is not a virgin but a mother. Cartwright argues that mother saints are more common in Wales than in Europe more broadly. Non’s sanctity is largely because of her association with David, not because of her own Christian actions. There is no surviving vita for Non; so much of what the devout knew of her came from accounts of her son’s life. Non’s popularity was not confined to one location, but shared across Wales and into Brittany. Indeed, the Breton account of Non’s life is more detailed than the Welsh ones.
This lack of emphasis on virginity carries over into Middle Welsh lives of so-called foreign saints, such as Saints Mary and Martha discussed in chapter 4 and Saint Katherine of Alexandria in chapter 5. Their vitae were translated into Middle Welsh some time in the early fourteenth century. Scholars have suggested that these translations were produced for religious women. Cartwright argues that given the paucity of nuns in Wales, it was more likely that laywomen were the audience for these texts rather than consecrated virgins. Indeed, Mary as an ointment bearer led her to be associated with healing, and made her and Martha appropriate models for laywomen. Both the cult of Mary and Martha and Katherine shared much with the cult as practiced and depicted in England and on the Continent. Yet Welsh accounts of Katherine downplay her education, virginity, and mystical marriage to Christ, focusing more on her martyrdom. This, Cartwright argues, is evidence for both an audience of laywomen, and the diminished interest in women’s virginity.
In the last chapter, Cartwright turns to the limited evidence for Welsh convents. There is strong evidence for three convents, two Cistercian and one Benedictine, all founded in the twelfth century. Yet evidence of their continued health, prosperity, and importance to Wale is generally lacking. They appear to have been small houses, despite the fact that the two Cistercian houses are called abbeys. To understand their cultural significance, Cartwright turns again to poetry and other Welsh writing. Bardic Grammars, which provide instruction on proper topics for poetry, advocate praising nuns’ devotion to Christ and to God along with their pious lives, but actual poems that mention nuns focus on nuns as a conquest to be corrupted and celibacy as a lost opportunity. Viewed in the context of the Welsh accounts of the life of Katherine, which downplays her virginity, or Non’s importance as a mother, Cartwright argues that this literary tradition is part of a larger disinterest in preserving women’s virginity.
Cartwright has a strong command of the Welsh literature, and she makes interesting observations about the lack of interest in consecrated virgins, and changing images of female saints over the course of the Middle Ages. Yet the encyclopedic nature of her approach makes it somewhat difficult to pull out the strands of historical analysis of female spirituality. She tends to bury them in her discussion of individual texts, rather than using these insights to organize her discussions. The need to rely on literary sources also raises the difficult question of how representative literature is of practice. There is little poetry by women, and it is difficult to know whether the lack of interest in consecrated virginity or affective piety was shared by women, or whether women’s interests were simply not interesting to those who wrote poetry and saints’ lives. Moreover, the survival of female saints’ lives does not automatically make them role models for women, as many men were devoted to female saints as well. The survival of religious poetry by the Welsh Gentry Poets, poets patronized by the late medieval Welsh gentry, suggests that their writing was important to the gentry and perhaps particularly to gentry women. Yet Cartwright generally steers away from fulsome discussions of the social implications of the literature she knows so well. This is too bad given how different Welsh women’s spirituality appears to be from what is found on the Continent and in England. However, her wide knowledge of Welsh religious writing and her willingness to present large portions of it in English will help promote this material to a wider audience, showing them that Wales needs to be considered within a larger European context, not just a Celtic one. Moreover, Cartwright’s study offers more evidence of the great diversity of medieval women’s religious experiences.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Katherine French. Review of Cartwright, Jane, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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