The Sainted Sea

I thought today that I would share with you a selection from Rhygyfarch’s Life of Saint David. As a hagiography, or saintly biography, the Life relates how David was born, educated, and became the founder for one of the most prominent churches of mediaeval Wales. Key to the story are angelic prophesies, confrontations with kings, and, of course, a goodly number of impressive miracles.

Although historians have very little concrete knowledge about David’s life, it seems probable that he lived in what some scholars have dubbed ‘The Age of Saints.’ This period, from roughly the 5th to the early 7th centuries, saw a proliferation of holy men and their miracles. St Patrick’s mission to convert the Irish, for example, occurred during this period, and most Welsh churches of the later Middle Ages attempted to trace their origins back to his time. The resulting impression given by the Life of St David is that of a country absolutely spoiling for saints, with miracles sometimes occurring one on top of the other.

This is demonstrated, rather entertainingly, when the text turns to story of the Irish abbot Bairre. The abbot had come to visit St David in Wales, but began to worry that his own monks back in Ireland would begin to stray from their vows during his long absence. When he tried to cross back to Ireland by boat, however, he found that there wasn’t enough wind to sail. Instead, he

asked for the horse which the holy father, David, had been accustomed to ride on church business. He obtained permission, and having received his father’s blessing, he reached the harbour and entered the sea. Trusting in the father’s blessing, he used the horse instead of a ship as support. The horse ploughed its way through the swelling crests of the waves as if through a level field. When he had travelled further out to sea, he came to where Saint Brendan was leading a wonderful life on the back of a whale. Seeing a man riding a horse on the sea, Saint Brendan was astonished and said “God is wonderful in his saints.” (Life, p.135.)

Their fanciful encounter demonstrates the creativity of mediaeval Christianity, which sought to instruct not only through stern practice, but also through wonderment.

Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David, ed. and trans. Richard Sharpe and John Reuben Davies.


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