Transition and transformation: An examination of two Vita Sancti Davidis.

A new translation in 2007 by Richard Sharpe and John Rueben Davies of Rhigyfarch’s Life of St. David, stimulated renewed interest in the protagonist and his hagiographer. The Life had received limited academic interest for some decades previously. The purpose of this article is to explore two of these derivative texts. I will be comparing Gerald of Wales Vita Sancti Davidis and Rhigyfarch’s Life of St. David. These two texts, written with different goals and different objectives, at the opposite ends of the twelfth century, bear the hallmarks of the transition of conquest and the transformation of reform.

Time has not been kind to manuscripts or books from the cathedral library of St. David’s. A lot of material was destroyed during the reformation. Two manuscripts survived of Gerald of Wales, the Vita Sancti Davidis as MS Cotton Vitellius E. vii and MS Royal 13 C.i. Gerald stated in the opening paragraph of his Vita and perhaps this should have signalled his intention for his work on St. David, when he stated that the reader should ‘not look for the words, the order, or the substance of the old and now virtually outdated version … In this work the reader will find superfluities cut back, defects supplied, and clumsy phrases rewritten’. The outdated version to which Gerald referred was Rhigyfarch’s Life of St. David.

Rhigyfarch’s Life consists of sixty-eight chapters, compared with the ten Lectio of Gerald’s Vita. In the Itinerarium Cambriae, Gerald stated that

of all the miraculous events … three in particular seem noteworthy to me … the story of his [St. David’s] origin and conception, the fact that thirty years before he was born it was known that he would become archbishop and … the ground on which he was standing rose up in the air … at Llanddewi Brefi.

The themes throughout the text followed a similar pattern as Rhigyfarch’s Life and emphasized the prophecy of Saint David’s birth and some of the associated miraculous elements. In many ways Gerald’s Vita summarised Rhigyfarch’s earlier Life; Gerald’s Vita was however both shorter in length and substance.

One aspect of Gerald’s Vita was his attempt to present the text in light of church reform. An example of this is found in chapter thirteen of Rhigyfarch’s Life when he stated that on David’s return from founding twelve monasteries ‘he founded these churches according to the usual practice, having distributed to each one the vessels of canonical order, and having laid down the rules of monastic dress, he returned to the place which he had left behind when he first set out’. In Lectio III Gerald made this passage less specific and generalised it into ‘when he had accomplished this, after a long time of learning, then of teaching, the saint at length returned to the place whence he had set out’.

While Rhigyfarch, throughout his Life saw no problem with David’s multiple roles and the mixed community over which he presided, Gerald found it necessary to present things otherwise. For Rhigyfarch, David’s position as a leader both monastic and ascetic did not detract from the saint’s role within the community or undermine those members who were married. However, it appeared that Gerald felt that it was necessary to draw a clear line of division between secular and non-secular communities in a vision of monastic life far-removed from the Irish influenced nature of the Davidian experience even as mediated by Rhigyfarch. Gerald not only removed significant sections from Rhigyfrach’s Life, but also re-focused the text on David’s birth and on associated miracles. This was instead of focusing on a saint who was identified with a religious community, that Gerald perceived could not produce work meeting with his stylistic considerations or were ‘scholastico stilo’, and whose work it had been necessary to emend ‘through the inspiration of God’.

Gerald was keen to promote the cult of David, but as already discussed he attempted to play-down many of the elements that Rhigyfarch had emphasised in this Life connected with David’s version of monastic life, with its closer analogues to the Irish tradition.  Around nine or ten chapters were removed that discussed the way of life in David’s community, and specifically it was these chapters that offered a comprehensive discussion of the saint’s monastic rule. The chapters omitted showed a saint with ascetic principles who reproached the worldly practices of other communities. It could be suggested that Rhigyfarch was trying to present a saint who could be compared to the desert fathers, and specifically in chapters twenty-three and thirty were references to John Cassian’s ‘Conferences’ and ‘Institutes’. By contrast, Gerald’s figure of David was one that had been assimilated into a church that was as Wyn Evans suggested ‘fully integrated into the wider church’ outside of Wales. In removing these particular chapters Gerald may have wanted to eliminate a connection that could have located David with Ceredigion or with Llanbadarn Fawr and the ap Sulien family. He may have felt that is was necessary to firmly associate the saint with the place where the cathedral church stood, and minimise the ‘Irish-influenced asceticism’ that was evident throughout the text of Rhigyfarch.

In reworking the Life of St. David, Gerald changed much of the character and essence of the text. He himself acknowledged that his aim was to remove antiquated references and therefore making it more acceptable to later twelfth century taste, but in doing so, according to Bartlett, he ‘flattened and generalised’ the work. An example of change specifically designed to lessen Irish practices, was the removal of the word ‘ciuitas’. In all but one chapter between forty-one and sixty-six, Rhigyfarch’s Life used the word ‘ciuitas’ for monastery. John Blair suggests that the word evokes ‘a symbolic urbanism of the ‘holy city’ and that ‘educated ecclesiastics … used the words civitas and urbs [to] understand the concept ‘city’. Rhigyfarch’s Life used ciuitas eleven times between chapters thirty-seven and sixty-six. Nine of the uses were for ‘monastery’. What was perhaps interesting were the three other examples. Two of these examples were found in the chapter forty-six. Here Rhigyfarch described Saint David viewing Jerusalem for the first time and then upon entering the ‘city’. Ecclesiastics and writers such as Rhigyfarch would have been very familiar with the biblical passage found in Revelation 21:1-27 when discussing the ‘Celestial Jerusalem’. It may have been that Rhigyfarch was thinking of Hebrews 12:22 which read ‘But you are come to mount Sion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of many thousands of angels’.

Gerald did not remove all the references to Ireland or purge every Irish saint. Many were left in his Vita. Those that remained were there in a supporting role to glorify David and his church. In Lectio V Gerald described how Maedoc or the anglicised Aidan, founded his monastery at Ferns and had ‘followed the rule which he had received from David at Menevia’. Rhigyfarch in chapter thirty-six of his Life only stated that ‘Saint Aidan when he had been fully instructed, excelling in virtue, his vices purged to the highest purity, travelled to Ireland; and he built a monastery there … and led a most holy life’. Gerald’s reference to Maedoc receiving the rule from David is not found in Rhigyfarch and may imply that he was mistaken in his interpretation of this chapter. A ninth century martyrology stated that ‘Maedoc of Ferns was a pupil of David’ and that fifty bishops went on pilgrimage to Ferns. It may have been that Gerald on his travels in Ireland and during his visit to Ferns found something there that led himself to believe that Maedoc had received the rule directly from David. In suggesting this, Gerald may have wanted to build on the suggested close relationship between Saint David’s and the monastery at Ferns. This may have been done to suggest that they looked to David for guidance and as a model of asceticism but also to defend and advance David over other saints.

In the end, differences between the two Vitae highlight a deliberate process of insertion or removal of text. This has also made the two texts distinct and has given the reader an insight into the personal agenda of both authors. Both authors were writing during periods of transition and change caused by conquest or from reform. The Vita of Gerald was more topographical than Rhigyfarch’s Life, and he introduced many details uniting the cult of St. David with the landscape, particularly around the cathedral church. As Wyn Evans suggested ‘Gerald presents us with a success story … [and the] measure of the success of Gerald’s achievements [can be seen] in the package he presented of saint, cult, place, relics, landscape and the story’. However, Gerald’s accomplishment changed the ‘clear, ascetic world of Rhigyfarch with its angelic presences, its rituals, its humble but awesome holy men’ and the ‘overall effect is very dramatic. It is perhaps fitting that these two Vita Sancti Davidis have survived as it allows us to ‘appreciate [and] admire, the craftsmanship Latin of the school of Sulien at Llanbadarn Fawr’, and of Gerald of Wales who wanted ‘to expound on the Life of St. David … in a scholastic style’.

Ultimately the two Lives of St. David were indicative of the period in which they were written, whilst they promoted David as an important saint, they also give us greater detail of the transitions and transformations that took place during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

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