Monday, 29 October 2018

Gerald and Saints and Miracles

This is a series about the journey that Archbishop Baldwin and Gerald of Wales took in 1188 to preach the crusade throughout Wales. Gerald kept a detailed account of the journey and their surroundings, which he later published. The series began with some background posts about Gerald, and is continuing with more interesting facets of his life and work. If you want to read the series from the beginning, go here.

Gerald may have been unsure about the existence of fairies, but he had no doubts about saints and miracles. He believed, as did the vast majority of British people at that time, that saints were holy men and women, and the miracles they did during their lifetime or after death were a demonstration of the power of God and the sanctity of their lives. He witnessed four miracles personally during the journey through Wales: the cure of the old woman of Haverfordwest, inspiring the audience in Haverfordwest who didn’t understand Gerald’s language, punishing the Cardigan woman and the scornful young aristocrats of Anglesey.

Saint David


These miracles came directly from God, but he more often used his saints to perform them. Gerald’s writing mentions them often and he wrote at least five saints’ lives, including St David and Caradoc of Rhos (d.1124), a holy Pembrokeshire hermit also buried at St Davids. Gerald was part of a campaign to get Caradoc officially canonised. He read his life story to Pope Innocent in Rome, and persuaded to start the process. The manuscript is lost, but extracts show that Caradoc performed many miracles. He healed dropsical tumours with a touch and turned herrings into pennies for the poor. When his coffin was being carried across Newgale Sands to St Davids in a violent storm, it stayed bone-dry, and his body did not rot for many years.

St David's Cathedral Pembrokeshire

The Welsh saints jealously guarded their churches after death, and those who desecrated them were severely punished. Gerald recorded that two Norman hunters who used churches as kennels for their hounds were  miraculously punished, one by blindness and one by an arrow in the eye. A boy from Llanfaes who tried to steal young doves from St Davids Church (doves were sacred to St David) found his hand stuck to the wall for three days. Gerald heard the story from the boy himself and the stone bearing the imprint of his fingers was displayed for many years.

Objects associated with the saints were equally as powerful. St Patrick’s horn was offered in Breconshire to be kissed by the faithful, but none dared to blow it, until a priest named Bernard sounded a great blast. He had been an eloquent man, but his mouth became paralysed and he had a lifelong speech impediment. He almost entirely lost his memory and could hardly recall his own name. Gerald saw him struggling to re-learn his alphabet. It appears he suffered a stroke. In the end he partly recovered by making a penitent pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Irish shrine.

Pilgrimages were well known as a way to curry favour with the saints, and many Welsh people went on pilgrimage to the various holy sites in Rome. Gerald went himself in 1206 for the fourth time,

solely by way of pilgrimage, so that by the labours of the journey, by almsgiving and by true confession … he might wipe away the stains of his past life.

There were many famous shrines in Wales, like the tombs of St David and Caradoc the hermit at St Davids, the tomb of St Beuno at Clynnog Fawr in Gwynedd, or the holy well of St Winefred in Clwyd (still a place of pilgrimage today). There were hundreds of lesser shrines, many of which survive in some form today. They are perhaps the best keys we have to Gerald’s twelfth-century world of wonder and belief.

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz

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