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.

Grendel the Vampire?

Contemporary monsters associated with modern Halloween celebrations—such as vampires, werewolves and mummies—borrow heavily from the genre of Gothic Horror which takes shape during the early modern period in the hands of Romantic and Victorian authors.

“Gothic Horror Environment” by Unreal Engine (2021).

Indeed, Gothic Horror, the literary source of many monsters commonly associated today with Halloween, regularly draws inspiration from the medieval period. Authors from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allen Poe capitalize on the haunting way the past is often reimagined in the present as mysterious, unknown and full of terrors. This year’s Halloween special, in celebration of Samhain and All Hallows Eve, considers the characterization of one famous medieval monster sometimes associated with the modern concept of “the vampire” in popular culture.

One of the most well-known monsters from the Middle Ages, Grendel, the terrifying cannibal from Beowulf, is frequently regarded as a medieval vampire in contemporary vampire lore, despite that the Old English poem seems not to have been readily available during the Victorian period. Although, Beowulf was first transcribed in 1786, with an edition later printed in 1815 by Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin who also translated the poem into Latin, its influence remained obscure. Some verses from Beowulf were translated into modern English in 1805, and nine complete translations were produced in the 19th century, including one by William Morris, but it was only after the turn of the 20th century that an abundance of translations became available making Beowulf accessible to public audiences and leading to growing interest in the Old English poem during the period which helps establish Beowulf as central to English literary canons thereafter.

The iconic scene of Count Orlok on the stairs from F. W. Murnau’ film, Nosferatu (1922).

Nevertheless, when Lord Byron, John Polidori, John Stag and Bram Stoker were contributing to the development of tropes and stereotypes that inform modern representations of vampires, they self-consciously and explicitly looked to the past “dark ages” with a macabre, antiquarian eye. Often, these authors will cite unspecified ancient lore and legend in an attempt to ground their vampire literature in a mythologically (if not historically) authenticated past in which monsters and magic are possible. These possibilities, then, extend into the present as gothic monsters reach from the deep recesses of time into modern times so that they may haunt the living. Vampires like many gothic monsters are generally understood as an anachronism, able to exist now only because they existed then, thereby suspending modern sensibilities and skepticisms. Indeed, the longstanding affiliation between medieval corpses and modern vampires is mobilized in a recent blog centered on vampirism, succubi and women’s monstrosity.

Each of these Victorian authors reach to the medieval period in order to craft their modern undead monsters, sometimes even looking toward historical figures, such as Vlad III of Wallachia (better known as Vlad “the Impaler”) as an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, it seems that none would have borrowed directly from the Old English poem.

So why is Grendel considered a vampire? Is there any textual evidence to support this claim?

“Grendel” by KaRzA-76 (2005).

While Grendel’s monstrosity remains mysterious, and some might see little resemblance between the medieval monster and Victorian vampires, there is one passage centered on Grendel’s cannibalism, which serves as a major source for Grendel’s association with vampirism. The section reads as follows:

Geseah he in recede    rinca manige,
swefan sibbegedriht    samod ætgædere,
magorinca heap.    Þa his mod ahlog;
mynte þæt he gedælde,    ærþon dæg cwome,
atol aglæca,    anra gehwylces
lif wið lice,    þa him alumpen wæs
wistfylle wen.    Ne wæs þæt wyrd þa gen
þæt he ma moste    manna cynnes
ðicgean ofer þa niht.    Þryðswyð beheold
mæg Higelaces,    hu se manscaða
under færgripum    gefaran wolde.
Ne þæt se aglæca    yldan þohte,
ac he gefeng hraðe    forman siðe
slæpendne rinc,    slat unwearnum,
bat banlocan,    blod edrum dranc,
synsnædum swealh;    sona hæfde
unlyfigendes    eal gefeormod,
fet ond folma.

“He [Grendel] saw in the hall many warriors, the troop of kinsfolk slept, gathered together, a heap of kindred warriors. Then his mind laughed, because he, the terrible, fearsome marauder, intended to rend life from the body of every one of them before day came, when the expectation of gluttony came over him. It was nevermore his fate that he might eat more of mankind over the night. The very mighty kinsman of Hygelac beheld how the criminal destroyer would fare with its sudden grips. The fearsome marauder did not think to delay, but he quickly seized a sleeping man the first time, tore ravenously, bit his bone-locker, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed the sinful morsel; soon he had finished off all of him, unliving, feet and hands” (728-745).

Most often, emphasis is placed on Grendel’s cannibalism and specifically his consumption of flesh mentioned in the passage. Few modern adaptations of Beowulf—from Michael Crichton’s Eater of the Dead (1976) to John Tiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999) based on Crichton’s adaptation to Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007), or even Cartoon Network’s adaptation of the poem in Adventure Time’s “The Wild Hunt” (2018)—depict Grendel as especially fond of blod edrum drincan “drinking blood from veins” (742), despite that the poem describes this vampiric act in gory detail.

“Gangrel” by Ypslon (2019).

Although most Beowulf adaptations focus more attention on flesh-eating than on blood-drinking, parallels between vampires and Grendel have not gone unnoticed, and categorizations of vampire-types sometimes include a Grendelish category, as demonstrated by the ferocious and bestial Gangrel, known for being especially close the “the Beast” within, their association with medieval Scandinavia and their ravenous consumption of blood in the popular roleplaying game, Vampire: The Masquerade. Moreover, Cain’s association with vampirism often mirrors his role as progenitor of the Grendelkin and all monsterkind in Beowulf.

Grendel may not be a proper vampire in the technical, stereotypical, modern understanding of the term. Moreover, Grendel’s characterization in Beowulf apparently did not affect vampire stereotypes developed in the early modern period before knowledge of the Old English poem became mainstream. Nevertheless, the graphic image of the monster haunting at night, coming from the darkness, perhaps shapeshifting from a shadow to human form, and most importantly, sucking the blood from the veins of his victim, marks Grendel’s characterization as eerily close in certain aspects to modern vampires, who share his love of darkness, often possess shapeshifting abilities and likewise glut themselves on human blood.

Richard Fahey, Ph.D.
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame