Wednesday, December 3, 2008

St Beuno & the Saxon's Charge.

Speaking of bibliomancy (see my "Book Meme" entry yesterday), I picked up off the shelf next to my desk where I type this one of my rather randomly (thanks to a remodelling done when I was off in the Celtic Fringe meself) arranged Irish-related books. I chose one I'd been meaning to root around in. Oliver Davies' anthology for the Paulist Press series, "Celtic Spirituality," opened to this (for me) haunting passage when I parted the pages by chance:

"One day, when Beuno was walking around his corn, near the river Severn, he heard from the other side of the river the cry of an Englishman, who was encouraging his dog in pursuit of a hare. At the top of his voice the Englishman shouted: 'Charge, charge.' These were words of encouragement to his dog in his own language. When Beuno heard the shout of the Englishman, he immediately turned and went straight back to his disciples, saying to them: 'Put on your clothes, my sons, and your shoes, and let us leave this place. The people of the man of foreign speech whom I heard calling to his dogs across the river shall invade this place. It shall be theirs, and they shall keep it in their possession.'" (214-15)

Davies tells us that this hagiography exists only in one Middle Welsh version circa the fourteenth century, but it may come from an earlier Latin source. It seemed as I transcribed the abbot's quoted warning very Latinate in its cadence and balance; I am sure Cymraeg possesses too this elegance, to be sure, but neither my fingers nor my wit cannot coax out such magic hiding there in these ironic, yes, anglicisms, given my woeful lack of Welsh. While Davies emphasizes in his brief comments on this short text its primitive and to him structural qualities (hail Levi-Strauss at his centenary!) which repeat decapitations and threaten deflorations, I wondered about this text as an historical marker of the coming of the Saesnag.

Darrell Wolcott helps out slightly here. Composite Lives of St Beuno at Ancient Wales Studies explains the typical medieval conflation, or confusion, of two Beunos. The saint at Holywell may have lived between 515/520-590 at the latest. The other, an abbot at Clynnog Fawr, flourished the following century. The healing of Beuno's niece, Winifred, accounts apparently for the fame of both saints; he raised her from the dead after one of those Celtically symbolic decapitations after lustily attempted deflorations.

At Early British Kingdoms, David Nash Ford, incorporating Baring-Gould's 1907 entry, informs us that the site of St Beuno Gasulsych's (545-640) preaching's known as Maen Beuno; the standing stone's at Berriew near Welshpool. Around here, therefore, the sight of the Saxon and his sounds first appeared.

But, if we know where, what about when? I spent a quarter-hour leafing through indices of Welsh histories on my shelf, after an on-line search turned up nothing. Thanks for old-fashioned scholarship! In the best place rather than the last I should have looked, John Davies, on pg. 62 of his revised Penguin "History of Wales," answers my query. He estimates "about 610" for when Beuno heard "the language of paganism" across the banks that caused him to flee for Gwynedd. There, today, Welsh still survives.

Photo: Formerly Jesuit seminary, now retreat center, St Beuno's in North Wales carries on the Christian apostolate of over 1600 years in that nation. It seems so long ago that the Welsh tamed the Saxon, leading those who hailed hounds into Christian mores and Catholic customs. Even though beheadings and ravishings may have continued if less abated. The site near St Asaph's known to the literati today, perhaps, as Gerard Manley Hopkins studied theology there in the mid-1870s while "writing a third of his mature poetry," according to the website. I thought this image of two men from the center making the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises at Snowdon Lake captured well the power of the water, the human, and the natural that the saint(s) heard in various languages, sixteen centuries ago. No dogs "charge," at least in visual range. I wonder, peering: is there a third man on the far side of the lake?

No comments: