Dwfr Donwy Gwenfrewy fro,
Religion and healing
There has been an association between religion and healing since antiquity, and an emphasis on the possibility of exceptional recovery through faith in God was still very strong in the fifteenth century. God was known as the greatest of ‘doctors’ after an image in the New Testament (cf. Matth 9.12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31), and the spiritual work of Christ's public ministry had had particular concern with curing physical illnesses.
We already know that the monasteries were places where patients received physical and spiritual healing, but other holy places, such as churches and springs were also believed to fulfil this role. Numerous wells and springs are dedicated to saints in medieval Wales, and the sick travelled from all over the country to be ‘cured’ by drinking the beneficial water of these springs.
Some poets composed whole poems to wells in which they describe people coming in crowds: the deaf, the mute, the crippled and the blind. They also emphasize the pure waters of these wells, insisting that it tastes like wine or a kind of beneficial medicine. One of the most famous wells is the one at Holywell, Flintshire, dedicated to Saint Winifred. The poets constantly refer to her blessed water, as does Guto here:
Dwfr Donwy Gwenfrewy fro,
Da yw rhinwedd dŵr honno;
The waters of Donwy in the land of St Winifred,
the beneficial influence of her water is excellent;
Saint Winifred is also named in the poem to Hywel ab Ieuan Fychan of Moeliwrch. Indeed, Guto lists many saints who were known for their healing abilities:
Silin, gwell nog ias eli,
Sant hael a swyna i ti;
Oswallt, fireinwallt frenin,
Ysgar glwyf esgair a glin;
Mair a’th ir â myrr a thus,
Marthin a fo cymhorthus;
Gwen a dyr gwŷn a dyrwyf
Frewy achlân, friw a chlwyf;
Gwrthiau Ieuan o Wanas
A’u gyr o’r glin a’r grog las;
Curig dy feddig di fydd,
Crist ei hun, croes dihenydd;
Cawn gan Saint Lednart, ein câr,
Dy gyrchu di o garchar;
Cyrch at Felangell bellach,
Cyfod, Nudd, cai fod yn iach.
St Silin will cast a spell for you,
better than the smart of ointment;
St Oswald will separate the leg’s wound
and the knee, beautifully haired king;
Mary will anoint you with myrrh and frankincense,
St Martin will be assisting;
St Winifred will break pain
and surfeit altogether, injury and wound;
St John of Gwanas and the deadly cross’s miracles
will drive them from the knee;
St Curig will be your doctor,
Christ himself, death’s cross;
with St Leonard, our beloved, we’ll be able
to seek you from prison;
seek St Melangell now,
arise, Nudd, you may be well.
Wells were not the only sacred foci to attract pilgrims and the sick. Crosses in churches also appealed to all manner of pilgrims who were seeking solace. Guto composed a poem begging for a cure for his patron, Dafydd ab Ieuan ab Llywelyn, addressed to the Rood of Chester. Here, he lists more saints:
Y Grog, er dy wiredd grau,
Gyr y gwewyr o’r gïau.
Galw San Lednart i’th barti,
Galw Fair, ac elïa fi.
Galw Felangell, gwell yw’r gwaith,
Galw Ddwynwen, f’Arglwydd, unwaith,
Saint Oswallt a’i santesau,
Sain Padrig fo’r meddig mau.
A Dewi y sydd (ys da sant)
A dry iechyd i drychant.
Cynhafal, dwg hwn hefyd,
Y Grog, oll, y gwŷr i gyd.
O Rood, on account of your righteous blood,
drive away the agony from my sinews.
Call St Leonard to your side,
call Mary, and anoint me.
Call St Melangell, better is the result,
call St Dwynwen once, my Lord,
St Oswald and his women saints,
may St Patrick be my physician.
And St David (a good saint is he)
will grant health to three hundred.
Bring St Cynhafal also, O Rood,
to you entirely, all the heroes.
At other times there are specific references to certain drinks or ointment which are associated with various saints. Guto notes that ‘St Mwrog and his drink would perform wonders and mighty works’ (Mwrog ai lyn, miragl oedd, 81.17). Mary Magdalene’s ointment is also mentioned, but as a metaphor in emphasizing the care which Elen, wife of Hywel ab Ieuan Fychan of Moeliwrch, was lavishing on her husband’s injured knee:
Mair Fadlen yw Elen ŵyl,
Mae i’th warchad, maith orchwyl.
Eli meddyges Iesu
A wnaeth feddyginiaeth gu,
Ac felly gwnêl â’i heli
Gwaith Elen deg i’th lin di.
Unassuming Elen is Mary Magdalene,
she’ll look after you, long duty.
Jesus’s nurse’s ointment
made a loving medication,
and so does fair Elen work
with her ointment on your knee.
Mary Magdalene is often named in the poetry and clearly was remembered for her care for Jesus. Other poets use the same comparison.
Bibliography: See further R.I. Daniel, 'Y ffynhonnau yng nghanu'r Cywyddwyr', Dwned, 7 (2001), 72-3.
: See for example poem 81.21-2 and poem 92.25-6; cf. T. Roberts (gol.), Gwaith Tudur Penllyn ac Ieuan ap Tudur Penllyn,(Caerdydd, 1958), poem no.13.27-30.
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