Every good medieval saint must have some kind of interesting vision or birth miracle associated with his or her birth, and St David of Wales is no exception. Today, we return to folklore Friday with a curious tale that begins the Life of St. David:
“One time, his father Sanctus (by merits and by name), who enjoyed sovereignty over the people of Ceredig … heard the voice of angelic prophecy in a dream: “When you wake up tomorrow, you will go hunting; having killed a stag near the river, you will find there beside the river Teifi three gifts: namely, the stag that you will pursue, a fish, and a swarm of bees situated in a tree, in a place called Llyn Henllan. You should set aside, out of these tree, the honeycomb, and a portion of the fish and the stag; and you should deliver them to the monastery of Meugan, keeping them for the son who is going to be born to you.” (To this day called the Monastery of the Deposit.) These gifts foretell his life. The honeycomb proclaims his wisdom, for just as honey is in the wax, so he he has understood the spiritual meaning of a literal statement. The fish signifies his watery life, for as the fish lives by water, so does he; rejecting wine and liquor and everything that can inebriate, he has led a blessed life for God on just bread and water; because of this he is surnamed David ‘of the watery life’. The stag signifies dominion over the ancient serpent, for just as the stag desires a spring of water when it has grazed on despoiled snakes, and having gained strength is renewed as if with youth, so he is established on the heights with stags’ feet, despoiling the human race’s ancient serpent of his power to harm him. Choosing the font of life by the constant flow of tears, renewed from day to day, he made progress, so that in the name of the Holy Trinity, he would have the knowledge of salvation <and> by the purer food the power of holding dominion against demons.” (Sharpe and Davies, p. 109, 111 “Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David” in St David of Wales: Cult, Church, and Nation, Ed. JW Evans and JM Wooding, Boydell, 2007)
Here we see the beginnings of St David’s association with water. His symbol the leek only grows in every watery areas. Contrary to what the life says, David is usually said to have lived on leeks, bread and water only. The leek is a member of the onion family. I grew up calling them ‘green onions’, and they grew wild in my area of the Mississippi River floodplain. The leek has long been a symbol of Welsh nationality and the wearing of a leek associated with St David. So if you wondered why Prince Charles was wearing an onion on his lapel in interviews last week about Prince Harry’s early return from Afghanistan, now you know; it was St David’s day and of course, as the Prince of Wales, Charles was wearing his leek.
There is also the interesting use of psalm 41/42 and 17/18 on stags. I don’t quite understand Sharpe and Davies note 9 that “the English, Psalm 42.1 ‘As a hart longs for flowing streams’, is not present in the Latin, sicut areola praeparata ad inrigationes aquarum“. No Rhydyfarch doesn’t use these words because they are from Jerome’s Hebraicum, not the more popular Gallican psalter. Rhygyfarch uses “sicut enim ceruus, exploiatis serpentibus pastus, fontem aque desiderans…”, which I still think is a reference but not quote of psalm 42.1. I’ve discussed snake eating deer before here and the early medieval psalter version of Ps. 41/42 here. This is the first place I have seen though where the snakes (or the water?) are supposed to renew the life of the deer.
The folklore element in the story is given away by the claim that the monastery that received Sant’s items is still called the “Monastery of the Deposit” to this day. It is really kind of a strange piece of folklore, but note that it is again preserved in triad form. Sant leaves not one thing but three items for his son that prophecy his life.
Ironically, David’s father “Sanctus” goes on to beget David by raping a nun named Nonnita (St Non). Of course, this is the only way that anyone as saintly as Nonnita/Non would ever have sex.
“And the king came across a nun named Nonnita, who was a virgin, and exceedingly beautiful girl and modest. Lusting after her, he raped her, and she conceived his son, the holy David. Neither before nor after did she know a man, but continuing steadfastly in chastity of mind and body, she led her life most devoutly; for, from the very time she conceived, she lived only on bread and water. In the place where she had been raped and conceived, there lies a small meadow, pleasant to behold, and filled with the gift of heavenly dew. In that field, at the moment she conceived, there appeared two large stones that had not been there before, one at her head and the other at her feet; for the land, rejoicing at his conception, opened its bosom, that it might both preserve the modesty of the girl and declare the significance of her offspring.” (Sharpe and Davies, p. 113)
Apart from the oddity of Welsh saints often being conceived by rape (also St Cadoc and if I recall correctly St Kentigern), there is a folklore element here in the stones that are known to people in the writers time (about the 11th century). Rhygyfarch is probably doing his best to put a positive spin on some ancient stones that the people associated with David but may have been pre-Christian.
These two stories are all of not the miracles and prophecies that surround David’s birth, but the others will have to wait for another post.
The tradition for Kentigern is a bit unclear; the Lives don’t seem to be quite clear about what the story they’re telling really involves. There was a good article about this in Innes Review a while ago, hang on. Yes, here we go:
Gardner, R., “‘Something Contrary to Sound Doctrine and to Catholic Faith’: a new look at the Herbertian fragment of the Life of Kentigern” in Innes Review Vol. 49 (Glasgow 1998), pp. 115-136.
Basically he suggests that Kentigern was actually conceived by a near miss so that the girl genuinely believed her conception had been immaculate, but really there’s no grounds for saying more than, the story was messed up by the time our Lives got hold of it.
“A near miss”… what is a near miss?
At a guess, near miss = coitus interruptus.
Sorry, too coy. Gardner, who does history of medicine usually as far as I could tell, had no such reserve. He suggested that the prince and the maiden had been indulging in heavy petting, and that though he never got inside her enough semen did. It’s certainly possible—I mean some people seem to be able to conceive if the wind’s blowing the wrong way, others struggle for years and never manage it—but I rather doubt that the original hagiographer’s grasp of such detail was both sufficient to understand that from whatever he was working with and then reflect it in his text. It makes sense of the sources, but I’m not at all sure these sources made sense in the first place.