The uses of secular rulers and characters in the Welsh Saint’s lives in the Vespasian Legendary

The uses of secular rulers and characters in the Welsh Saint’s lives in the Vespasian Legendary

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The uses of secular rulers and characters in the Welsh Saint’s lives in the Vespasian Legendary (MS. Cotton Vespanisan A. XIV.)

By Luciana Meinking Guimarães

PhD Dissertation, Universität Freiburg, 2009

Abstract: This study focuses on the functional use of famous characters from the Welsh literary and historical contexts, like King Arthur and King Maelgwn of Gwynedd, in the Welsh Saints’ Lives found in the Vespasian Legendary, the most significant Welsh legendary extant, dated to ca. 1200. It compares the different types of miracles employed in the episodes in which saints and secular characters are confronted, analysing their structures and the way how miracles contributed to shape not only the figure of the saints but also that of the secular characters. By analysing the change of focus from punitive miracles replicating Old Testament models to miracles either pleading for conversion and hospitality or to miracles connected to relic and tomb veneration, this study advocates that there was a conscious religious, political attempt on the part of the Welsh hagiographers to actualise or modernise Welsh religious practices and put them in line with contemporary Anglo-Norman practices, especially those practiced in English Benedictine houses.

Introduction: The idea of this research arose from the study of the instrumentalisation of the figure of King Arthur in four Saints’ Lives found in the manuscript of the British Library Cotton Vespasian A. xiv. Arthur’s instrumentalisation in the Saints’ Lives implied an examination of the claims which each hagiographer made by inventing or (re-)elaborating specific Arthurian anecdotes. The thought of grasping the “hagiographers’ intentions” in their uses of Arthur in order to envisage what their possible religious and/or political claims could have been, suggested a change in the approach to the hagiographical material. It presupposed a certain distance from the use of the texts within the literary context of the genre of saintly biography – with its edifying tones to the greatness and holiness of the main characters – to one which concentrated on the worldview of the hagiographers and their responses to historical events. This, however, did not seem to be an uncontroversial task in view of the seemingly literary treatment given to the secular rulers in these writings.

After studying in detail the Arthurian Welsh Lives of Saints Cadog, Illtud, Padarn and Carannog, the hagiographers’ treatments of other secular characters came to the fore in that they showed that not only Arthur, the “King,” received much of the hagiographers’ attention but also other greater or lesser kings with more established historical backgrounds in the Welsh context, as is the particular case with King Maelgwn of Gwynedd. This would beg the question of whether our modern understanding of the Arthurian legend has influenced our perception of the role that Arthur played in these medieval texts and of whether Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanniae, with its appropriation and re-elaboration of Arthur’s career, might have contributed to push into oblivion other candidates’ chances to be invested with much more elaborated historical legends. Another important aspect was the acknowledgement of the difference with which the hagiographers treated secular characters like Arthur and Maelgwn – whose historical or pseudo-historical activities would be placed in the early middle ages – in opposition to the treatment given to contemporary or almost contemporary historical rulers of Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and/or Norman origins, like Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinesson, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, Caradog ap Gruffudd ap Rhydderch and William the Conqueror. The few analyses of medieval hagiographical material written in Wales concentrated, however, on the hagiographers’ treatments of their hero-saints, on the establishment of a biographical structure which, in its main pattern, followed not only that of main stream Western hagiography but also contributed to pinpoint specific Welsh characteristics and to emphasise, therefore, the cultural differences pertaining to the Welsh people.

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