09.02.17, Cartwright, Feminine Sanctity and Spirtuality

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Lesley E. Jacobs

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.017


Cartwright, Jane. Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales. Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2008. Pp. xv, 301. ISBN: 9780708319994.

Reviewed by:
Lesley E. Jacobs
Indiana University

Newly issued in the series Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages, Jane Cartwright's Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales offers an impressive exploration of women and Christianity in Wales from the "Age of Saints" in the sixth and seventh centuries through the Reformation. This volume brings together Cartwright's varied research on female spirituality in medieval Wales, including revised and expanded (and in the case of the first chapter, newly presented in English) versions of her previously published studies of female saints and Welsh nuns. Most notable is the range of sources Cartwright gathers for examination; in addition to close readings of written saints' lives and hitherto untranslated Welsh poetry, she studies holy wells, stained glass, and other visual evidence of devotion (the 25 color plates include several of her own photographs). The encyclopedic variety of sources illuminates the Welsh context of devotion to female saints, outlining the development of their cults and analyzing, with an emphasis on lay piety, their influence and importance in medieval Wales.

Cartwright begins her investigation of female sanctity by examining Welsh devotion to the most influential female saint in medieval Christianity. Her first chapter traces the history and development of the Virgin's cult in Wales, emphasizing not a particularly "Welsh" version of Marian devotion but instead the strong connections between Welsh texts and practices and their Latin or English parallels. Devotion to Mary was omnipresent in Wales, as in other parts of Christendom, and it enjoyed increased fervor after the twelfth century: Cartwright catalogues churches and holy wells dedicated and rededicated to the Virgin as well as discussing the many Marian prose texts that were translated into Middle Welsh between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The author pays especially close attention to the apocryphal gospels describing Mary's conception and birth and to the miracles detailing Mary's kindness to women, particularly those pregnant or in childbirth. She also analyzes several later Middle Welsh poems dedicated to Mary that utilize the common themes of Mary's reputation as mankind's mediator, her relationship with her son and the Trinity as a whole, and her own miraculous birth. Cartwright's survey of physical evidence for Marian devotion includes visual representations of shrines throughout Wales, iconography of statues and illustrations, and records of holy wells dedicated to the Virgin. Cartwright notes that the tradition includes Mary's paying a visit to Wales, which places her squarely in the category of local saints so highly valued by the medieval Welsh.

The women among these local saints constitute the focus of Cartwright's second chapter, which explores how so many Welsh female saints could have had active cults in the Middle Ages and still have left few traces in the historical record. Although universal Christian saints such as Mary, Katherine, and Margaret enjoyed great popularity in Wales, Cartwright reminds us that more localized and unofficial female religious figures played a significant part in medieval Welsh devotional practices. Demonstrating that a masculinist scholarly tradition has actively worked to deny both the importance and the popularity of such Welsh saints as St. Gwenfrewy of Holywell, St. Melangell, patron saint of hares, and St. Non, mother of St. David, Cartwright examines Welsh genealogies, vitae, and poetry to show that locally rooted female saints played a large part in Welsh devotional practices. Like Mary, these saints were highly valued for their intercessory powers: healing the sick, helping the distressed, and guiding petitioners in matters of love and marriage. However, Cartwright notes, the popular female saints were all reputed to have lived in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries; clearly Welsh women of the Middle Ages were not encouraged to take female saints as role models and pursue virginity and the religious life.

Most of the local female saints of Wales, like the more universal saints popular in the high Middle Ages, fall into the category of the virgin martyr. Significantly, however, a select group of Welsh female saints differ from this virginal norm, being dependent instead on holy maternity for their sanctity. In her third chapter, the author discusses in detail the various Welsh and Breton accounts of the life of St. Non, the mother of St. David. Although no Middle Welsh prose life of St. Non survives, Cartwright considers other Welsh sources mentioning the saint, surveying multiple historical sites, relics, and church dedications associated with Sts. Non and David and analyzing relevant episodes from St. David's Middle Welsh Life. She offers a close comparison of the Welsh tradition of St. Non with a Breton miracle play treating many of the same episodes, stressing the Welsh devotion to the idea of holy kinship as the central reason for Non's popularity as a maternal, non-virginal saint and also pointing out that the narrative presence of rape in St. Non's maternal experience ensures that she, like the Virgin Mary, can conceive without sexual pleasure. St. Non's rape represents a necessary step in the birth of Wales' patron saint; since the genealogical focus of Welsh hagiography, with many native Welsh saints connected by descent, meant an emphasis on holy maternity and kinship, this maternal saint could join the ranks of sexually pure holy women as "a kind of honorary virgin" (5).

Cartwright's fourth chapter turns from stories of native Welsh saints to examine the Welsh versions of the lives of two internationally popular female figures, Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha. The stories of the two women appear together in several Welsh manuscripts, usually accompanied by other female saints' lives: Cartwright provides several tables detailing the manuscript settings of the Middle Welsh Lives of Mary and Martha and discusses the variations of the Welsh texts from standard hagiographies such as those in the Legenda aurea. Noting that the Lives appear in manuscripts alongside such secular tales as those of the Mabinogion, Cartwright queries the extent to which we can assume that they were produced for an audience of Welsh religious women. She stresses the popularity of both saints' cults in the lay household, arguing that Mary Magdalene in particular may have provided a more accessible role model for Welsh noblewomen than many of the virgin martys. Both saints' stories, however, highlight penitence and proper social behavior, ensuring their popularity as intercessors with a mixed audience of both men and women and of both conventual and lay worshippers.

In her fifth chapter, Cartwright considers Welsh devotion to another universally popular female saint, Katherine of Alexandria. The chapter begins with an examination of visual representations of Katherine that either survive or are mentioned in contemporary accounts. In Wales as elsewhere, Katherine's cult enjoyed increasing popularity in and after the fourteenth century: most of her surviving images date from c.1350-1550. The saint, frequently depicted with only one wheel instead of the usual three, appears in stained glass, wall paintings, and statuary. The number of Welsh churches dedicated to her indicates the strength of her cult there during the later Middle Ages, while the seventeen copies of the Middle Welsh version of Katherine's Life also attest to her popularity. Cartwright outlines the similarity of the Welsh Life to a verse Life in Middle English that survives in two fifteenth-century manuscripts, Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry 34. Cartwright argues that the Welsh and English versions must derive from a Latin exemplar that omits certain episodes of the saint's life found in the standard vitae. Most significantly, the Welsh Life does not mention Katherine's classical education: instead of her learning providing the means of her resistance to torture and prison, the strength of her faith gives her the strength to stand firm. This change, Cartwright suggests, may have been intended to make the saint appear less like a vowed religious and more like a devout lay person. Again, she argues that the Life's overall manuscript context points to an audience of lay readers in the context of the Christian family.

Cartwright's focus on lay piety culminates in her sixth chapter which examines the evidence for Welsh nunneries and the nature of female religious life in medieval Wales. In contrast to the many convents welcoming women in medieval England, post-Conquest Wales seems to have had only three major houses for religious women and little provision for wealthy women to become nuns even after their husbands' death. Cartwright links this comparative dearth to a masculine view of women as "corruptible virgins" (177), an image derived from two main sources: the many secular poems (of which David ap Gwilym's are the most well-known) enacting the seduction of religious women and the emphasis in male religious discourse on the spiritual danger that proximity to religious women poses to men. The poetry addressed to cloistered female figures urged them to escape their enclosures for the pleasures of earthly love, and monastic authorities portrayed the same female figures as corrupting influences on their attendant priests. From this low valuation of religious women expressed in multiple (masculinist) media and also from the medieval laws restricting female ownership of land, Cartwright deduces that Welsh gentlewomen were more likely to express religious fervor through private devotions than through embracing or contributing financially to convent life.

This book represents a significant compendium of information for scholars of female spirituality, medieval hagiography, and lay piety in medieval Wales. Particularly helpful for non-readers (or slow readers) of Welsh are the many unedited primary sources that Cartwright quotes, translates, and analyzes. Her close attention to the evidence of churches, holy wells, and the representation of female saints in the visual arts rounds out her readings of the Middle Welsh prose Lives of saints. The only flaw in the book's overall presentation, an editing error that prints the numeral "6" instead of the Welsh vowel "w" in several of the chapters (not all), can admittedly be distracting. Ultimately, however, we can be glad that Cartwright has brought together her writings on the subject of women and religion in this accessible, useful volume.

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Author Biography

Lesley E. Jacobs

Indiana University