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.

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.

Bigger House: Cost of Living and Medieval Byzantium

Cost of living is a pressing issue faced by many people today. Inflation, gas prices, and housing costs all impact our quality of life. Recently these pressures have encouraged many people to move to areas where they hope to find better conditions. Large cities offer many conveniences. However, one’s home will not only be quite expensive, but also quite small. For the cost of a one bedroom condo in San Francisco, one could purchase a large house with a yard here in South Bend. Where one lives has a significant effect on the home they can have. This relationship between house size and location is not unique to today.

Those living in medieval Byzantium could not consult home listings from across the Empire. Nor was the freedom of movement that we have today in existence in the Middle Ages. However, there still existed significant variation in the size of village houses across regions. Villagers may not have simply been able to decide to move to an area that would provide their family with a larger house or greater resources, but clear differences in housing are preserved in the archaeological record.

Looking at the villages of the Byzantine Empire provides us with a fascinating glimpse of how location affected the houses of everyday people. Movement by villagers was restricted within Byzantium, but it did occur regularly. Most often this movement was spurred by necessity and not personal choice. After all, there was no simple way to compare houses from Anatolia and the Peloponnese. Further, the greatest impact on village houses was not the amount of money one could pay for them. The materials used to construct the house and local topography were the most significant factors. Most frequently, village houses were built by those who lived within them.

The physical location of one’s house would have a significant impact on its overall size. Often village houses were constructed on the slopes of hills or mountains. The steeper the incline, the smaller the house would be. Houses were most often rectangular in form and built perpendicular with the slope with the long sides of the house descending down slope. The short wall connecting these sides at the bottom of the slope served not just as a kind of retaining wall for the building, but needed to have a rather significant height in order to make a level platform for the second floor that was frequently included. If the incline on which the house was constructed was quite significant, this would limit the length that the house could be.

Holger Uwe Schmitt, The Byzantine ruined city of Mystras

For example, if the elevation along the slope changed by 5 meters after a 10 meter distance, then a house with 10 meter long walls would require a 5 meter high wall at the bottom in order to make a level area for second floor. That would be quite significant, and in some cases might be impossible to construct. Further, the short wall would need to be even higher to accommodate the height of the second floor and support the roof. A shorter house than would be required on the slope.

 Examples of how incline affects house size in the Byzantine village are found in the Mani peninsula. The Mani is the southernmost region of the Greek Peloponnese. The houses of the Byzantine village of Marathos are built along a steep mountainside. For the village of Sarania, the houses are built on a modest hill. While the houses of Marathos belong to a village that by all appearances had a longer and more prosperous life than Sarania, the houses here are generally smaller. In their original form, houses at Sarania are more than 10 m2 larger on average than houses at Marathos. Economic status of the settlements was not the determining factor in the size of the homes. Rather, it was topography that played the more significant role.

Camster, Modern village of Vathia in the Mani

In addition to their local topography, the physical material that houses were made from would impact their size as well. The houses of the Mani were built in the “megalithic” style. Large, roughly cut blocks of local limestone formed the walls of the house. Stone was even used to span the houses, forming support for additional floors or the roof. The use of stone for this purpose would limit the width of the village house. In theory, one could make their house as long as they wanted, but it would still be relatively narrow. Materials would limit size.

Moving across Byzantium to Cappadocia in central Anatolia, modern Turkey, we come to one of the most unique landscapes in the medieval world. Here, houses, churches, monasteries, and more are all carved into the volcanic rock of the region. Carving one’s house from stone would seemingly provide less limitations on the overall form and size. Building material did not need to be acquired and the physical limitations of built architecture were absent. There were other factors to consider however. While the volcanic stone of the region is considered soft as far as rock goes, it requires specialized tools and labor to carve. Different limitations then were placed on the houses of villagers here. It was not the building material that constrained the size of the houses, but the labor one could employ.

W. Bulach, Rock Carved settlement near Göreme in Cappadocia, Turkey

One can only imagine the thoughts that would go through the mind of a Byzantine villager who was able to observe the variation in housing within the Empire. How struck would they be by the different size of houses in one region compared to another? Would the rock carved homes of Cappadocia appear familiar or strange? Just as in the United States individuals working similar jobs can afford much different houses depending on their location, the housing of Byzantine villagers may be affected by similar dynamics. Other differences exist of course. Today, individuals working the same job may be paid differently based on where they live. However, anyone that has looked at house prices in the past year would see that these differences in pay are not proportional to the difference in the cost of housing. Villagers in one region of Byzantium may have had a better quality of life than those in another. The richness of Byzantine housing provides an important insight into these elements of daily life that reflect similarities of our experiences today.  

Mark James Pawlowski
Byzantine Studies Post-Doc
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Pawlowski, Mark James. “Housing and the Village Landscape in the Byzantine Mani,” PhD Diss. (UCLA, 2019)

Ousterhout, Robert. Visualizing Community, Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia (Washington D.C., 2017).

Bouras, C. 1983. Houses in Byzantium. Δελτίον τῆς Xριστιανικῆς ἀρχαιολογικῆς ἐταιρείας 11: 1-26