Saints were not always saintly!

Is studying the saints important?

This short article discusses the writing and study of the lives of saints known as hagiography. This form of study focuses on the written life of a saint.
In Welsh history, many of the saints’ lives were written after the Norman conquest of Wales. Yet, these written saints lives were mostly from the fifth and sixth centuries from a period called, ‘the age of saints’.  When we think of a saint we imagine a holy person who spends most of their time doing good deeds, and praying. This image has been one that has endeared, however, in the life of a saint, it is not strictly correct. The narrative in the life of a saint does at times have a moralising tone.  They often used violence or punishment as an example for living a more Christian life.

Saints as the punishers of sin?

In the twelfth century ‘Life of St. Padarn’, we meet Maelgwn, king of the northern Britons. The reference to this particular king most probably came from either Gildas De Excidio Britanniae or Nennius Historia Brittonum. Gildas wrote that ‘Maglocune (Maelgwn) dragon of the island … more licentious in sinning … why are thou … rolling in that black pool of … offences?’ King Maelgwn was therefore known as both sinful and a tyrant. Yet, St. Padarn’s Life chose him as an individual who could be forced to repent, and to see the error of their ways. In the Life of St. Padarn, Maelgwn falsely accused Padarn of stealing his treasure, however when the supposed ‘treasure’ was brought before the king it contained soil and small stones. Maelgwn’s remorse in applying blame to Padarn for the crime committed by others, manifested itself in him, through his loss of sight. He was so distressed by his actions that he ‘he totter[ed] to his knees…confesse[d] himself about to die on account of the guilty condition of his own villainy against holy Padarn … [and] he [sought] indulgence’.

This chapter in the Life of St. Padarn was about the vileness of sin and the act of repentance, and forgiveness. The king committed crimes against Padarn, however he was punished by his blindness. When he found himself close to death, his desire to atone was what allowed him to be saved.

This example shows the complexity of studying written saint’s lives. It also shows that those we think of as saintly are not always without fault, nor above using physical force as an example of how to live a more Christian life. Saints and the writers of their Life, were at times swayed by circumstance and they did not always write without a political agenda. Yet, perhaps a saint’s imperfections are what makes them more engaging and worth exploring further. This article discusses only one example of a medieval saint’s life, however, there are many more deserving perusals. Regardless of an individual’s religious persuasion, or lack of, perhaps they still have sufficient value in a society that seeks to question and explain the unexplainable?

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