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"Dewi wareth!" Rediscovering St. David

In celebration of St David’s Day, we asked Professor Paul Russell of the University of Cambridge to tell us a little about the patron saint of Wales.

British Library Cotton MS A xiv, fol. 61r, the beginning of the Life of St David
The beginning of The Life of St David, British Library Cotton Vespasian MS A xiv, fol. 61r
Professor Russell is the principal investigator of a new AHRC-funded project exploring the lives of Welsh saints. The project, Vitae Sanctorum Cambriae: The Latin Lives of Welsh Saints, will run from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies, at the University of Cambridge.


Asking who St David (or Dewi Sant) was turned out to be not so simple a question.

“We are far less concerned with 'who' St David was, or who any of the other saints we are working on were,” said Prof. Russell. “Who the saints were was very much the preoccupation of earlier generations of scholars. The saints are depicted as operating in fifth and sixth-century Wales and encountering such characters as Arthur, and include narratives on how Patrick was kicked out of Wales and sent off to Ireland as God had 'booked' Wales for David.”

“All the lives of David from the earliest surviving life by Rhigyfarch contain narrative in which St Patrick had already settled in Dyfed, but he had to be evicted by an angel as Wales had already been reserved by God for David - who would not be born for another 30 years. According to the hagiographers, St Patrick was notoriously short-tempered and threw a wobbly, but was eventually persuaded to accept Ireland. But things could have been so very different ...”

Prof. Russell explained how the source material that is central to the study of Welsh saints’ lives creates challenges for discovering the identity of St David.

Definition of Hagiography: the writings of saints' lives

“The problem for Wales is that all our hagiographical sources are post-Norman - you have to look at Irish and Breton sources for earlier surviving materials”, explained Prof. Russell. Rhigyfarch’s biography of St David dates back to the eleventh century around the year 1095 - just 29 years after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

“The upshot is that the Welsh saints' lives are no help for the early medieval period,” continued Prof. Russell, “but they are very important for thinking about how these lives developed as hagiographical narratives and became useful tools in the hands of church men interested in ecclesiastical politics. For example, one important body of material is preserved within the Book of Llandaff, where lives of local saints form parts of 'dossiers' of material including charters designed to support the claims of Llandaff to land.”

The project will produce a new online edition of the medieval Latin texts. Publishing these sources online and authoritatively editing them is invaluable to researchers. Much like the online publication of the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England (parliamentary records spanning from 1275-1504) in 2005, having medieval texts available online means that they can be accessed at any time from any place. The high-resolution quality of the images enables researchers to zoom-in on the texts and study the source in great detail. Not only does this vastly reduce the need for researchers to travel, it also means the texts can be accessed from all over the world – transporting texts from libraries to laptop screens.

The new Cambridge-based project begins as another AHRC-funded project based at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, University of Wales, in Aberystwyth, draws to a close. The Aberystwyth project, The Cult of Saints in Wales: Medieval Welsh-Language Sources and Their Transmission, was led by Dr David Parsons, who is now a co-investigator of the new Cambridge project. We asked Prof. Russell how the two projects would work together.

Photo of St David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire

"The aim of the Aberystwyth project is to edit and publish a digital edition of some 100 medieval Welsh-language texts about saints. This work will provide reliable modern texts with detailed notes and English translations, making a discrete Welsh hagiographical tradition available for study both inside and outside Wales. The Vitae Sanctorum Cambriae – based at Cambridge in collaboration with the Canolfan in Aberystwyth - is designed to provide corresponding editions of the Latin lives of the Welsh saints. We are using the same technology and website so that this site will become the one-stop place for anyone wanting to find out about Welsh saints. We are building on this work to extend our knowledge of the hagiography of Welsh saints as far as their absorption into the fourteenth-century Nova Legenda Anglie of John of Tynemouth. We want to know which versions of these Welsh lives were used to produce the abbreviated versions used by John of Tynemouth, and how were they abbreviated.”

John of Tynemouth was a fourteenth-century medieval English chronicler; he also gathered and abbreviated saints' lives into his Sanctilogium Angliae Walliae Scotiae et Hiberniae (later called the Nova Legenda Angliae), which contains a number of shortened versions of Welsh saint' lives; these have been little studied. According to Prof. Russell, a notable feature particular to Welsh saints' lives is the lack of posthumous miracles.

"One entertaining example dating from the Crusades is preserved in later versions”, Prof. Russell continued. “A Welshman is captured by the Saracens and locked up with a German who hears the Welshman constantly uttering the words 'Dewi wareth' ('David, help!'); the Welshman is soon carried off back to his land and so the German starts repeating the phrase and he too is rescued. This is a nice example of medieval ideas about prayer working – even when you don't understand the words or the language.”

Extract from The Life of Saint David

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