Medieval Lover, Modern Martyr: Celebrating St. Dwynwen

While Valentine’s Day is still weeks away, Wales celebrates lovers with St. Dwynwen’s Day (in Welsh, Dydd Santes Dwynwen) on January 25th. The tradition similarly invites exchanges of cards, flowers, and heart-shaped gifts as expressions of love and affection. The holidays also share medieval origins, but St. Dwynwen’s Day derives from a darker story. 

Modern rendering of St. Dwynwen, Patron Saint of Love. (Artist and date unknown.)

As a Chaucerian, I am always delighted to share that the earliest association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love in English literature appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules – that is, Parliament of Fowls or, more plainly, Parliament of Birds.[1] The dream-vision poem, written in Middle English between 1381 and 1382, describes the speaker’s encounter with a congregation of birds who come together on St. Valentine’s Day to select their mates:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes Day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kynde, that men thynke may;  
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place (Chaucer 309-15).[2]

[For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird of every type that one can imagine comes to choose his mate, and they made a huge noise, and the earth and sea and trees and every lake are so full of birds that there was hardly any space for me to stand because the entire place was filled with them.]  

In Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, three tercels, or male eagles, make their cases to take a formel, or female eagle, as their mate. None are successful, and the female eagle remains solitary, as she desires, for another year. Medieval bestiaries associate the eagle with acute eyesight and note its ability to see fish from far above the sea. Entries also describe how when the eagle grows old, it flies upward toward the sun, so the sun’s rays remove the cloudiness from its eyes, and then plunges downward into a pool of water, where the bird dips itself three times to renew both its vision and its plumage. The above illumination, which references the eagle’s sight and its rejuvenation process, comes from The Ashmole Bestiary, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1511, f. 74r.

That the mating activity of the birds takes place on the medieval feast day of St. Valentine is not entirely coincidental, nor is it exactly a correlation of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love as we recognize it today. In the Middle Ages, birds were believed to form breeding pairs in mid-February, so the date simply makes sense. At the same time, Chaucer’s pairing of the birds in a beautiful garden during springtime recreates the setting for courtly love typical of medieval romance narratives. Now, of course, the notion of romantic love resounds through any mention of the word valentine.

Like so many other martyrs, the story of St. Valentine is not as pretty as the poem that ascribed hearts and flowers to his namesake. He was executed by beating and beheading on orders from the Roman emperor Claudius II on February 14 in 270 AD. Two centuries later, the date of St. Valentine’s martyrdom became the date of his annual feast day, the date to which Chaucer refers in his poem. From the late Middle Ages onward, Valentine’s Day has been synonymous with romantic love, somewhat regardless of St. Valentine’s circumstances.

Manuscript illumination depicting the beheading of St. Valentine, circa 1335, from Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS Arsenal 5080, f. 197.

The tale of St. Dwynwen, from which the lesser-known Welsh celebration of lovers derives, departs markedly from both the martyrdom of St. Valentine and the light-hearted poem that set his feast day’s romantic tradition in motion. There are several variations of her story, all of which date Dwynwen, or Dwyn, to the 5th century as the daughter of a semi-legendary Welsh king.

The National Museum of Wales describes Dwynwen as the loveliest of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s 24 daughters, who fell in love in Maelon Dafodil. But her father betrothed Dwynwen to another man, and when Maelon learned that Dwynwen could not be his, he became enraged. He raped Dwynwen and abandoned her.

Distraught, Dwynen ran to the woods and pleaded with God to make her forget Maelon, then fell asleep. An angel came to Dwynwen, delivering a drink that erased her memories of Maelon and transformed him into ice. God then granted Dwynwen’s three wishes: that Maelon be thawed, that she never be married, and that God grant the wishes of true lovers. As a mark of gratitude, Dynwen dedicated herself to God and spent the rest of her days in his service.[3]  

The remains of St. Dwynwen’s church on the island of Llanddwyn, off the coast of Anglesey. On the same island, a well dedicated to St. Dwynwen is supposed to be home to a sacred fish, whose movements predict the futures of lovers. If the water boils, it is said to be a good omen for those who witness it.  Photo credit: Well Hopper, a website dedicated to “exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales” and which explores Llannddwyn Island at length.

The details of what transpired between Dwynwen and Maelon differ. Some versions of the story say that Dwynwen refused Maelon’s sexual advances, which resulted in her rejection but not her rape. The entry on Dwynwen in the Iolo Manuscripts: A Selection of Ancient Welsh Manuscripts, states that “Maelon sought her in unappropriated union, but was rejected; for which he left her in animosity, and aspersed her.”[4] Other versions say that Dwynwen was in love with Maelon but did not want to marry him because she wanted to become a nun, or was forbidden to marry him and became a nun; they do not say that she was raped. But Maelon’s anger appears across her story’s retelling, often accompanied by allusions to its physical manifestation – for example, “Maelon was furious, taking out his anger on Dwynwen.”[5]

When it comes to romantic love, Dwynwen does not thrive in her endeavors; instead, she tends to suffer in her story, typically at the hands of men. Indeed, the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, writing during the 14th century, remarks upon how Dwynwen was “afflicted yonder by wretched wrathful men.”[6] Often it is the very man who is supposed to love her who inflicts her suffering.  

St. Dwynwen is not a martyr in the traditional sense. In short, she does not meet her demise, like St. Valentine does, as a result of her religious beliefs. She does, however, ask God to absolve her of any memories of the man she loves, and by sacrificing this part of herself, she secures a blessing for lovers in return. Despite its darkness, perhaps St. Dwynwen’s story does not seem so strange an impetus for a lovers’ celebration after all.

Dwynwen suffers. She survives. She’s sainted. And she certainly deserves as much celebration as a bunch of birds.

Emily McLemore
Ph.D. in English
University of Notre Dame

[1] Valentine, n. Oxford English Dictionary.

[2] Geoffrey Chaucer, Parlement of Foules, The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Houghton, 1987.

[3] St Dwynwen’s Day, National Museum of Wales, accessed 20 Jan. 2023.  

[4] Iolo Manuscripts: A Selection of Ancient Welsh Manuscripts, translated by Taliesin Williams, The Welsh MSS. Society, 1888, p. 473.

[5] Santes Dwynwen, Welsh Government, accessed 20 Jan. 2023.

[6] Iolo Manuscripts, p. 473.

A Matter of Time: Medieval Recipes for a Modern Christmas, or Fantastic Feasts and How to Plan Them

Pairing myriad traditional dishes with more elaborate fare in a spectacle appealing to both sight and stomach, the modern Christmas meal maintains some semblance of the medieval feast. But modern feasts are minuscule meal events by medieval standards.  

Like the feasting accoutrements of medieval England, contemporary Christmas table settings typically include cloths and candles, serving platters and salt, a plethora of foods to sample and savor. Differences, of course, also abound. For example, while we pile food upon plates and tuck into our dinners with a fork, our predecessors preferred a hearty slab of bread and a spoon.

Bread was not only served for eating but also used as crockery: large, typically square slices of bread called trenchers were used in place of dishes and, after absorbing drippings from the feast, were refurbished as sop in wine or milk or given as alms to the poor.

Not unlike contemporary bread bowls, trenchers were, essentially, edible crockery. Trenchers were often colored with spices: rendered green with parsley, yellow with saffron, and pink with sandalwood. The image, contained in a manuscript produced in France and illuminated in England in the early 14th century and housed at the British Library, depicts two men baking bread (BL Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v).

Medieval diners would have primarily used their fingers, plus a spoon supplied by their host for soft foods such as soups and puddings. A knife, frequently one of their own, would be used for lifting meats from platters and sometimes to the mouth. The lack of utensils does not indicate a lack of etiquette. On the contrary, table manners were held in high regard, as was hygiene. Napkins were pinned around the neck or placed in the lap. Particular fingers were used for particular foods to avoid tampering. Hands were washed in perfumed water before the meal began, between courses, and at the meal’s end.

The Prioress, one of the pilgrims from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, exhibits the the extent to which manners mattered in the Middle Ages. The General Prologue describes how during meals the Prioress lets no morsel fall from her lips, does not dip her fingers too deeply into sauces, carries her food seamlessly to mouth, and ensures no grease enters her cup while drinking (lines 127-136). Depicted beside the beginning of her tale in the fifteenth-century Ellesmere Chaucer, the Prioress may have questionable morals, but her table etiquette could not be more dignified (Huntington Library, San Marino, MSS EL 26 C 9, f. 148v).

Pageantry was an integral component of the medieval feast. Peacocks, a medieval delicacy, were cooked and served readorned with their iridescent feathers. Live birds were tethered in pies so that they sang when the crust was cut. Mythical creatures from medieval bestiaries, such as the cockentrice, were created by cooks who stitched together the upper half of a chicken and the lower half of a pig or vice versa. Performers of various kinds popped from enormous puddings, enacting a grand entrance that was itself a form of entertainment.  

As guests imbibed in food and drink, musicians provided vocal and instrumental accompaniment to the feast. Music not only created appropriate atmosphere for the meal but also signaled the start of each course, even the introduction of specific dishes. Indeed, the staging and procession of the meal was as crucial for a successful feast as the food.

Medieval illumination depicting a feast for King Richard II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399 (BL Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 265v). Although rarely used, plates, rather than trenchers, may appear here, as the individual dishes are the same color as the serving platters, or chargers, on the table.

In the recipe for a medieval feast, time is the essential ingredient.

By medieval weights and measures, we simply don’t spend enough time at the dinner table. Modern menu plans and eating practices, even when expanded and extended for the purposes of holiday celebration, tend to follow a fairly straightforward appetizer-entrée-dessert trajectory that lasts maybe an hour or two around the actual table. Formal seating might be limited to the main course, or all three courses might be served simultaneously, resulting in an abbreviated eating experience that could not compete with the gastronomic pleasure produced through the successive courses of a medieval feast.  

As Madeleine Pelner Cosman explains in her book Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, “The medieval ‘course’ was closer than the modern to the Latin origins of the word currere, to run, a running, passing, flowing ordering in time. No mere appetizer-entrée-dessert sequence made the medieval menu. Yet there was a tripartite configuration for most feast fares: each of three ‘courses’ had seven or twelve or fifteen separate meat or poultry or fish or stew or sweet dishes—or, in the most elegant feasts, all. The medieval course, then, was an artful succession of foods in time.”[1] Abundance, not gluttony, was probably the goal. In other words, medieval feasting was likely more about a wide variety of choices rather than excessive portions.

Along with an abundance of fascinating information about medieval food and feasting, Cosman’s book contains more than 100 recipes from medieval manuscripts, including one for “Four and Twenty Singing Blackbird Pie or Live Frog and Turtle Pie” (204). The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black is a good source for adventurous cooks more interested in medieval recipes and less fussed about food history (British Museum Press 2012).

Should the pageantry of peacock preparation evade your palate or your price point (or violate the laws where you live), there are still plenty of ways to infuse the flavor of medieval feasting into your Christmas meal.

For a condensed but comprehensive feast in medieval form, you can plan your menu by preparing a single dish from each of the categories Cosman outlines in her truly excellent book: appetizer; soup or sauce or spiced wine; bread or cake; meat; fish; fowl; vegetable or vegetarian variation; fruit or flower dessert; spectacle or sculpture or illusion food.[2]

Fruit desserts are plentiful in the modern period; flower desserts are not nearly as prevalent. I highly recommend a rose pudding if you’d like to give a medieval recipe a go.

For a contemporary spin on the cockentrice, a turducken could fulfill the final category and create the kind of wonder apropos of a Christmas celebration. Remember you can always buy a three-bird roast already prepped, rather than attempt the stuffing method yourself.

A turducken consists of a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey, with all of the carcasses deboned. The dish is a form of engastration, a method of food preparation where the carcass of one animal is stuffed into the gastric passage of another. The technique supposedly originated in the Middle Ages.

Since I’ve not made a turducken myself, I can’t attest to its difficulty. But I can say from experience that a beef wellington might be a more practical choice, and the pastry can be shaped to satisfy the sculpture aspect of the category. Done properly, the beauty of the red meat inside a golden pastry crust adorned with seasonal designs is an impressive spectacle despite its relatively simple preparation. And it tastes absolutely divine.

Cue music to set the mood. If you’re interested in medieval music, you might enjoy this playlist by a friend and fellow medievalist made specifically for the holiday. I recommend Hildegard von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy. If you’re medieval curious but want something more upbeat, try Hildegard von Blingen for a premodern spin on pop music.

But to truly revel in the zeal of the medieval feast, take your time. Sit at the table, serve your food in courses, and savor every minute as much as every bite.  

Emily McLemore, Ph.D.
English Department
University of Notre Dame

[1] Madeline Pelner Cosman, Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, New York: George Braziller, Inc. (1976), p. 20.

[2] Cosman, Fabulous Feasts, p. 130.

Unearthing the Vampire: Succubi, Secrets, and Women’s Monstrosity

Earlier this month, the corpse of a woman with a protruding front tooth and a sickle positioned across her throat was discovered in a 17th-century cemetery near the village of Pien in south-eastern Poland. The sickle was meant to keep the body contained: should the deceased woman have attempted to rise from her grave, the blade would have promptly beheaded her. Coupled with the woman’s prominent incisor, the placement of the sickle suggests that those who tended to her burial may have feared she was a vampire.

Professor Dariusz Poliński from Nicholas Copernicus University observed, “The sickle was not laid flat but placed on the neck in such a way that if the deceased had tried to get up most likely the head would have been cut off or injured.” Photo courtesy of Miroslaw Blicharski and Alexsander Poznan.

The woman was found with the remains of a silk head dressing, which indicates she was someone of high social status, as such a garment would have been an expensive commodity. Of course, this woman would be neither the first aristocrat nor the first woman to be suspected of vampirism.

In addition to the positioning of the sickle and her prominent incisor, a padlock was secured around the big toe of the woman’s left foot, which may be meant to symbolize “the closing of a stage and the impossibility of returning,” according to Poliński. Photo courtesy of Miroslaw Blicharski and Alexsander Poznan.

Elizabeth Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman and history’s most prolific female serial killer, who tortured and murdered as many as 650 girls and women between 1590 and 1610. Her association with vampirism manifests in the folklore that describes the countess’s ritual of bathing in her virgin victims’ blood to retain her youthful beauty. Neither the number of victims nor her bathing activities are confirmed. Nevertheless, a servant girl testified that she saw the figure recorded in one of Báthory’s private books, and another witness stated that he had seen the countess covered in blood. Colloquially, she became known as the Bloody Countess and, more contemporarily, Lady Dracula. 

A copy of the only known portrait of Elizabeth Báthory, depicting the countess at age 25. The original painting from 1585 has been lost.

Vlad Dracul, the late medieval ruler more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler, derived his namesake from his preferred method of murdering his enemies: impalement, a particularly gruesome form of death where a wood or metal pole is inserted through the body either front to back, such as a stake might be driven through a vampire’s chest, or vertically through the rectum or vagina. The prince purportedly enjoyed dining amongst his dying victims and dipping his bread into their blood.

Portrait of Vlad Dracul by an unknown artist, circa 1560. This painting, like the one of Elizabeth Báthory above, may be a copy.

As Dracul’s surname, which incidentally means dragon, and Transylvanian origins indicate, the intermittent ruler whose brutality spiraled into legend subsequently became a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character. Another source, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, not only preceded Dracula but also, conversely, rendered its vampire antagonist female. Moreover, the novella, set in Austria in the late 1800s, positions Carmilla as a clever seductress whose victims are predominantly male. Although Stoker’s iconic novel all but synonymized the vampire with maleness, Le Fanu’s character reflects the traditional association of vampiric tendencies with femaleness that preceded and pervaded the medieval period.

Depiction of Carmilla and her companion, Laura, whom the novella positions as both a friend and a romantic interest. The illustration, by D. H. Friston, accompanied Carmilla when it was first published as a serial in the literary magazine The Dark Blue between 1871 and 1872.

While sensational news specifically citing vampires did not appear in Britain or Europe until the 1700s, the veil of vampirism shrouded the female body during the medieval period and for centuries prior in many parts of the world. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, the Assyrians feared a demon goddess known as Lamashtu, a name meaning “she who erases,” who was said to steal infants and suck their blood. Lilith, first wife of Adam turned primordial demon, has a similar reputation. Some stories describe her as a creature who steals babies under the cover of darkness, but she also has sex with men in their dreams and spawns demon offspring with their seed. Lilith’s legacy as a sexually wanton demon of the night seems fitting, as she was the woman who first cohabitated with man but refused subservience. More specifically, Lilith questioned why she should lie beneath her husband during sex, and her resistance reinscribed her as monstrous. She became a succubus, a demon in female form who, essentially, sucks the life from men.

Painting of Lilith produced by John Collier in 1887, which conveys her association with the devil and her sexual proclivity through the intimacy she shares with the snake that embraces her naked body.

In the late Middle Ages, the fear of women’s vampiric nature was embodied by the figure of the succubus and implied throughout the wildly popular treatise De secretis mulierum, or On the Secrets of Women. The misogynistic, pseudo-medical text posited women as polluted physiologically and prone to witchcraft; in turn, it laid the foundation for the 15th-century inquisitorial treatise Malleus maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches. Witches were also believed to imbibe in blood, particularly when feasting on the bodies of infants.  

Unlike depictions of the incubus, who adopts a male form and engages in sex with willing women, the succubus stalks unconsenting men, often in their sleep. As medieval historian Dyan Elliott explains, “Often a succubus is introduced into a tale so that the holy man can resist it.”[i] Involuntary nocturnal ejaculation served as evidence that a man had been preyed upon by a succubus whilst asleep. As the victim of a rapacious female entity who had extracted semen from his body without permission, the man was absolved of any sin stemming from sexual emission.

In her book Fallen Bodies, Dyan Elliott identifies the life of Saint Anthony as a quintessential depiction of a man who resists the succubus. Painting titled The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michaelango, circa 1487-88, depicts a demon with breasts and a perineal orifice that also functions as the mouth of a second face.

Semen was understood during the medieval period as a substance that was not only life-engendering through its role in conception but also life-sustaining in relation to the maintenance of men’s health. In short, the preservation of semen was vital to the preservation of the male body. Sex, therefore, posed a danger to men, who could become “dried out” if they engaged in sexual activity too frequently. Women, however, were believed to draw strength from the male body during sex by absorbing its heat, as described in the Secrets.[ii] Sapped of both his semen and his own bodily heat, the man was physically drained by intercourse, and the woman ingested his life force. 

The Secrets heightens the vampiric qualities of the female body when it identifies a sign of conception as the feeling of the penis being “sucked into the closure of the vagina,”[iii] emphasizing how the woman’s sexual anatomy acts upon the male body to extract its fluids and does so, seemingly, of its own accord. One of the commentaries that frequently circulated with the text exacerbates this somewhat unsettling sentiment by ascribing desire directly to the female body when the writer states, “The womb sucks in the penis, for it is attracting the sperm because of the great desire it has.”[iv] This is not the only instance where the Secrets suggests that female bodies behave so deliberately. Another commentator explains how “it often happens that a woman conceives if she is in a bath where a man has ejaculated because the vulva strongly attracts the sperm,”[v] whereby the language alludes to the agency possessed by the female body that appears inherently poised to entice and consume the essence of its male counterpart if only for the purposes of reproduction.     

Moreover, the Secrets infers that the vagina itself might bite the man during intercourse when the text warns its readers that women sometimes place iron inside their vaginas with the malicious intention of harming their sexual partner, who then “suffer[s] a large wound and serious infection of the penis.”[vi] The phrase vagina dentata was not coined until psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud connected it with his concept of castration anxiety circa 1900, but the idea of the “toothed vagina” effectively manifests much earlier in a medieval treatise that likens women to succubi who thirst for mortal men and threaten them with their monstrous appetite.

Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and produced by Joyce Pierpoline, Teeth is a 2007 comedy-horror film that draws upon the concept of the vagina dentata. The film was positively received by critics when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and provides a sharp commentary on consent and sexual violence, despite its poor performance at the box office. 

Although women’s relationship with the postmedieval vampire can only be implied in a document that predates the term, women’s correlation with monstrosity could not be clearer. The commentator takes pains to note at an odd point in the text that, “according to Aristotle in the 16th book On Animals, woman is a failed male, that is, the matter that forms a human being will not result in a girl except when nature is impeded in her actions,” so “[i]f a female results, this is because of certain factors hindering the disposition of matter, and thus is has been said that woman is not human, but a monster in nature.”[vii]

As for the female remains recently unearthed in Poland, the skeleton has been relocated to a university for further study. While this woman was not the first to be found buried in a way that suggests her contemporaries feared she might rise from the dead, the placement of the sickle across her throat was unique. She was also spared from mutilation intended to prevent a vampire’s resurrection, which has been observed at other sites. Perhaps those who orchestrated her burial were being politely precautious. After all, if stories had instilled in them that a woman naturally desires to feed on men while she lives, how terrifying that hunger might be once her body was released from restraint by her death.

[i] Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies, University of Pennsylvania Press (1999), 53.

[ii] Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, State University of New York Press (1992), 127.

[iii] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 121.

[iv] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 121.

[v] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 66.

[vi] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 88.

[vii] Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 106.