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  • Welsh Saints' Lives as Legendary Propaganda
  • Owain Edwards (bio)

An academic is carrying out fieldwork in cultural anthropology. This scene is easy for us to imagine, because we have seen numerous photographs and read countless accounts of researchers collecting information in this manner in the field. A note is made of everything "the natives" say, usually through an interpreter, and their answers to questions about all kinds of matters are taken down and sorted out for further study. Since the early twentieth century, interviews have been recorded not only in writing, but also on wax cylinders and later on magnetic tape, audiotape, and now digital audio and video. But before such means of securing permanent records came into being, the information assembled had to be either transcribed in real time or committed to memory and written down later. There have certainly been a large number of instances when a researcher conducted fieldwork for the express purpose of making the data more widely available to the general public. At such a stage, the fieldworker may not have known whether the material gathered was of any value to the "outside world." After accumulating observations from others researching similar topics, however, certain overarching trends might have begun to emerge, and the information most useful to the fieldworker working on that research project might thus become more apparent.

Turning our attention now from the more modern realities of anthropological fieldwork, let us imagine a different situation. A medieval cleric sits at a table placed outside a cathedral door. He is writing down details of miracles that were supposed to have been brought about through the intervention of the saint whose shrine visitors to the cathedral had come to see. The bishop might have decided that the local patron saint's reputation needed bolstering, so he launched a public-relations campaign by arranging for a man on his staff to collect information about how people had received assistance after praying to the saint. In the resulting account, gossip, travelers' tales, and anecdotes that "everyone" knew about the saint's powers gained a certain permanence simply because someone made a note of them, thus providing a written source for the medieval legend of the saint.

But these written sources were of course not the only way that legends came into existence. I would like to illustrate another route by referring to the example of the legend of the Welsh patron saint, St. David, whose background is well documented.1 I shall first provide a background for the composition of the legend, and will give details of incidents described in the legend as examples of what the transcriber felt needed to be recorded. I am concerned here with issues regarding memory and how people perceive an influential person's role(s) in their cultural history. I discuss how details from folklore and oral tradition are selected in order to manipulate the perception of these roles for political reasons. The resulting legend was composed-or written down-and thus "fixed," by a person familiar with traditional narrative themes and the formulaic language of a cleric. Legends such as these are therefore interesting examples of a literary genre whose primary intention was to influence a non-literate audience.

Historians do not seem to doubt that a man known as David, Dafydd, Degui, or Dewi, living in the sixth century, led a monastic community at the place where the city of Tyddewi, Menevia, or St. David's later grew up. It is not improbable that a reputation for sanctity earned during his lifetime was enough to insure that people wished to continue to revere him after his death. The promotion of saints was common in Western Europe, and right up to the Reformation new saints were continually being created through processes of local approval, and, interestingly, often without the recognition of the Vatican. Some royal saints were also deliberately cultivated to legitimize the claims to the throne made by their families.2 But apart from such politically based reasons for securing power, there were also locally based, more practical reasons for doing so. All churches were dedicated to one or more saints; thus a church whose patron saint became popular...

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