Welsh Journals

Search over 450 titles and 1.2 million pages

PENNANT MELANGELL PART 3 A New Edition of the Historia Divae Monacellae Huw Pryce1 The text printed below is the earliest and fullest account of the life of St Melangell and the early history of her church. It relates how the saint gave protection to a hare fleeing from the hounds of Brochwel Ysgithrog, king of Powys, who was on a hunting expedition in the vicinity of Pennant Melangell. The king discovered that for the last fifteen years the saint had been leading a solitary life at Pennant Melangell, whither she had fled to avoid an unwanted marriage in Ireland, and immediately granted her the lands where she had settled as a perpetual sanctuary for anyone seeking refuge there. Melangell remained at Pennant until her death thirty-seven years later, continuing to enjoy friendly relations with hares. Her sanctuary rights were confirmed by Brochwel's successors, and the text concludes with an account of how a certain Elise perished when he rashly tried to violate the virgins established by the saint at or near Pennant Melangell. The Historia Divae Monacellae merits close attention, not only on account of the light it sheds on the cult of St Melangell and the church of Pennant Melangell, but also because it is a rare example of a written account of a female saint in medieval Wales. Indeed, St Winefride or Gwenfrewi is the only other Welsh saint attested in pre-Reformation sources for whom Latin Lives survive (namely two composed in the twelfth century).2 The Historia portrays St Melangell's sanctity in terms which are paralleled in traditions of other female saints, both in and outside Wales, notably in its emphasis on the saint's virginity as constituting the essence of her holiness an emphasis heavily indebted to the example of the Virgin Mary. Whereas Lives of male saints generally narrate the latter's birth and early years, those of female saints tend to introduce their subjects only when they have reached sexual maturity and are challenged by male sexuality. Thus St Melangell is said to have sought the solitude of Pennant Melangell to escape an unwanted marriage and to have spent fifteen years there without ever setting eyes on a man until she encountered Brochwel and his companions. Moreover she is explicitly described as a virgin throughout the text, and also attributed with establishing other virgins at Pennant Melangell whom divine intervention subsequently saved from being raped School of History and Welsh History, University College of North Wales, Bangor. Both Lives of St Winefride (Gwenfrewi) are edited in Acta Sanctorum, Nov., vol. 1, ed. C. de Smedt et al. (Paris, 1887), 691-731, and the earlier of the two is edited and translated in Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, ed. A.W. Wade-Evans (Cardiff, 1944), 288-309. In addition, there survive Lives in Welsh, probably redacted in the thirteenth century, of the universal female saints Margaret, Mary Magdalen, Martha and Mary of Egypt, and also Welsh poems composed in honour of the native saints Dwynwen, Ffraid and Winefride in the later Middle Ages and the sixteenth century: J.E. Caerwyn Williams, Rhyddiaith Grefyddol Cymraeg Canol (2), in G. Bowen (ed.), Y Traddodiad Rhyddiaith yn yr Oesau Canol, (Llandysul, 1974), 396; S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher, Lives of the British Saints, 4 vols, (London, 1907-13), vol. 1, 287-8; vol. 2, 388-9; vol. 3, 187. E.R. Henken, The Welsh Saints: A Study in Patterned Lives, (Cambridge, 1991), 6-9.