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. Certainly, she deserves as much recognition 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.

The Medievalism of Dorothy L. Sayers

The cover of the biography of Sayers written by her student and friend, Barbara Reynolds (Amazon.com).

            On October 14, 1920, the words, “domina, magistra” were spoken by the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University at the first ever graduation day for women. The grammatically feminine gender of these Latin words marked a major twentieth-century transition for university education. Among this first group of women was Dorothy L. Sayers. She was awarded a first-class MA degree in modern languages, a degree that she had earned in its entirety at Somerville College, Oxford University five years before but could not receive at the time merely because she was female. While her degree was in modern languages, at the time, and especially under the influence of the medievalist at Somerville College, Mildred Pope, an undergraduate degree in modern languages would have contained quite a bit of medieval studies, and this influence can be seen throughout her varied career. Whether Dorothy was writing advertisment campaigns for Guiness Beer (she did the Toucan campaign) or Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels or radio dramas on the Life of Christ for the BBC or translating the Song of Roland and Dante’s Commedia, the Middle Ages seems to never be far from her mind.

The first female graduates from Somerville College, Oxford University (https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/about/a-brief-history-of-somerville/degrees-for-women/).

            Perhaps my favorite example from the Lord Peter mystery series occurs merely in her early characterization of Lord Peter in Whose Body? (1923). Dorothy Sayers admitted later than one of her motivations for writing Lord Peter, besides the need to earn money, was a certain kind of wish fulfillment during her own economically uncertain times. She imagines a character who has the means to live a life that she can only dream about. And what does Lord Peter do? He has his man, Bunter secure the purchase of rare books from an auction house while he follows up on a lead for his murder investigation:

“Thanks. I am going to Battersea at once. I want you to attend the sale for me. Don’t lose time—I don’t want to miss the Folio Dante* nor the de Voragine—here you are—see? ‘Golden Legend’—Wynkyn de Worde, 1493—got that?—and, I say, make a special effort for the Caxton folio of the ‘Four Sons of Aymon’—it’s the 1489 folio and unique. Look! I’ve marked the lots I want, and put my outside offer against each. Do your best for me. I shall be back to dinner.”

She even gives a footnote:

Aldine 8vo. of 1502, the Naples folio of 1477—”edizione rarissima,” according to Colomb. This copy has no history, and Mr. Parker’s private belief is that its present owner conveyed it away by stealth from somewhere or other. Lord Peter’s own account is that he “picked it up in a little place in the hills,” when making a walking-tour through Italy.

Notice that this isn’t an example of high-level scholarly influence. It is about the formation of her loves and passions soon after leaving Oxford. When she could fantasize about doing anything with money, she fantasizes about having enough money to buy expensive incunabula of Dante and de Voragine!

            In addition to writing mystery novels, one of Dorothy Sayers’ earliest jobs after graduation was working at an advertising firm, the one for which she developed the Guiness Beer campaign. It appears from a paper given years later at a Vacation Course in Education at Oxford in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” that medieval studies may have given her a unique perspective on the advertising industry. She gave this paper almost twenty years after personally working in advertising (and writing Murder Must Advertise based upon her experience) but only a few years after the end of World War II, when the powers of propaganda in the modern world were first beginning to be fully recognized. With these experiences in mind, she writes:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of or unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechancial fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?…Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a “subject” remains a “subject,” divided by water-tight bulkheads from all other “subjects,” so that they experience great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between, let us say, algebra and detective fiction…between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?

Sayers suggests that the susceptibility of modern people to advertising and propaganda may be the result modern education. She even goes so far as to suggest that a return to the medieval trivium might be the best antidote! While realizing her proposal might be laughable, Sayers suggests that the issue is that “modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholars as he goes along” whereas “medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” The medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric was not really a series of “subjects” but rather a way to train students in the verbal arts, enabling them to then apply those arts to whatever subject they studied. Without this kind of medieval training, the modern person is enslaved to those with the ability to spin words most effectively.

            These examples from Whose Body? and “The Lost Tools of Learning” give only a taste of the way Sayers’ undergraduate education in medieval studies shaped her later work. More could be written about resemblances between medieval mystery plays and Sayers’ 12-part BBC radio drama on the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King (and the way her medieval approach caused major controversy in 1942), not to mention her more serious scholarly pursuits translating The Divine Comedy (1949/1955)and The Song of Roland (1957). More could also be said on her remarks on medieval female brewsters in “Are Women Human?” (1947). What becomes clear, however, when one looks at her varied career is the impact of medieval studies upon the whole. The seeds of medieval studies sown at Oxford seem to have born fruit in her distinctively twentieth-century, modern life, one of the only times in history that a female graduate from Oxford University could be an advertiser, mystery novelist, radio dramatist, amateur educational theorist, and independent scholar.

First editions of Dorothy Sayer’s medieval works (abebooks.com).


Lesley-Anne Williams
PhD in Medieval Studies (2011)
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Selected Bibliography

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin Classics, 1950.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin Classics, 1955.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 3: Paradise. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. Twenty-Seventh Printing edition. Harmondsworth Eng.; Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1962.

Moulton, Mo. The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. First edition. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Lost Tools of Learning. Louisville, Kentucky: GLH Publishing, 2016.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition. Edited by Kathryn Wehr. Annotated edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Song of Roland. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1957.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Three for Lord Peter Wimsey: Whose Body? Clouds of Witness. Unnatural Death. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Whyte, Brendan. “Munster’s Monster Meets Dorothy’s Dragon: Lord Peter Wimsey Consults the Cartography of the ‘Cosmographia.’” Globe (Melbourne), no. 91 (2022): 61–74.

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.