Melangell the Wild Virgin

There was a beautiful Irish princess by the name of Melangell who had been promised in marriage to a man she was not interested in. It was a marriage of politics, not one of love. She had no desire to be married at all in fact, as she wanted to dedicate her life to Christ, and so she fled her homeland and her royal status to live alone in the wilderness in Wales. That way she did not have to marry this prince and she could be alone with Christ in the forest. She lived in the wild for fifteen years not seeing another human face the entire time. Before I tell you the rest of her story, however, I would like to look briefly at the way women in the ancient and medieval world would often seek protection from forced marriage in the refuge of a life of celibacy. 

Pelagius wrote letters to young women who were renouncing marriage, encouraging them to take vows of celibacy. It is easy to assume that this is because of a patriarchal view of women’s sexuality, however, after a close reading of the pastoral letters written by Pelagius and his followers, I believe that it was actually more about walking away from a broken social institution. Pelagius encouraged these young virgins to never take a man into their bed primarily because he thought the duties of a wife would prevent them from dedicating their time to God. In particular, they would be forced to obey the wills of their husbands who may or may not have been good and kind.

Pelagius also thought that the social expectations for women to be beautifully dressed and have all their makeup on took away from the inner light of goodness inside them. It put undo focus on their bodies and the requirement that they please and obey the men around them. A wife was expected to serve her husband and Pelagius reminds us that one cannot serve two masters. Perhaps, with the revolution of what marriage entails in our modern world, this is not necessary in the same way today. But in ancient and medieval times the only option for women who did not want to serve a husband was to become a nun. It was a kind of liberation.

Pelagius taught that women have equal capacity for holiness, which wasn’t popular at the time, and he was an anamchara for many women. He wrote a treatise on the blessedness of virginity, which he thought was the highest and best calling for any Christian, man or woman. Melangell came much later in time than Pelagius but I am sure that he would have been very happy to meet such a holy virgin of Christ. In his letter On Virginity Pelagius describes vows of celibacy for men and women as entirely equal and even goes so far as to say the very bold and true statement that whatever blessedness resided in Jesus also resided in his mother Mary, for he resided within her completely. The life of celibacy was understood as a means by which the genders are made equal. He said,

“In order that the merit of virginity may shine forth with a brighter light and that it may be possible to understand more clearly how worthy it is of God, we must bear in mind that God, our Lord and Saviour, when he thought fit to take manhood upon himself for the sake of the salvation of the human race, chose no other womb than that of a virgin. And that he might show that virtue of this kind was most pleasing to him and reveal the good of chastity to both sexes, he had a virgin mother and was to remain a virgin forever himself: he showed an example of virginity for men in himself and for women in his mother, so that it might be demonstrated that the blessed and perfect fullness of divinity was worthy to reside in either sex, since whatever resided in the son was also completely manifested in the mother.”

Young women like Melagell who renounced marriage and sought after holiness instead were very brave. They did not have the same ability to work and provide for themselves as men did, because of the patriarchal society which they lived in. That wasn’t much concern for Melangell though. She went straight into the wild and lived in the forest communing with nature. She lived there for fifteen years without seeing the face of another human being. Her friends were the creatures of the forest and in particular the rabbits. 

The land where she settled belonged to a local prince who liked to hunt those rabbits. One day he was out with his dogs and the rabbit they were chasing led them straight to Melangell. It ran under her cloak and hid tucked away under Melangell’s protection, staring out at the dog who was pursuing it. The dogs refused to go near Melangell even when the prince insisted. Eventually they left peacefully, harming no one and ignoring their master before the spiritual power of Melangell. The prince was astonished and approached her immediately. He asked who she was and where she came from and Melangell told him everything. He was so impressed with her that he replied,

“O most worthy virgin Melangell, I find that you are a handmaid of the true God and a most sincere follower of Christ. Therefore, because it has pleased the highest and all-powerful God to give refuge, for your merits, to this little wild hare with safe conduct and protection from the attack and pursuit of these savage and violent dogs, I give and present you most willingly these my lands for the service of God, that they may be a perpetual asylum, refuge, and defense, in honor of your name, excellent girl.”

He granted her extraordinary legal rights and almost made her sanctuary a state of its own within his domain. All those who came to her sanctuary for protection were given legal asylum and could not be harmed by the king’s men. He promised that the land given to her in the region of Powys would remain in use this way under her name for generations to come and his successors upheld that commitment. Many young women began to gather around her and a community developed called Pennant Melangell

She lived there as a wild and holy woman for another thirty seven years before she finally crossed the veil of life to dwell with the saints of old. During that time she does not appear to have taken any formal vows or to have been involved with the larger church. She was anamchara to a number of holy women despite not having any formal credentials. One must assume she had a familiarity with church teachings, the way any Christian child would, but she could not have had any formal training, unless her rabbit friends were more learned than they let on.

After her death she continued to protect the women and girls under her care. Just as that little hare had found refuge under her cloak, so did the virgins living in her holy wood rely on her spiritual protection. After Melangell’s death a man who knew of the community decided to sneak in and rape some of the young women living there, thinking that they were vulnerable without the protection of Melangell. As soon as he set foot in the community Melangell intervened from across the veil on her sisters’ behalf. The man instantly withered up and died in what the author of the texts described as “a pitiful manner.”

Such a peaceful and holy creature did not hesitate to kill the perverted man when he threatened her spiritual children. I love the fierce mother bear mode that Melangell demonstrates when evil men try to take advantage of women. She protected them while they were alive and continued to do so after she crossed to the other side. Protecting the weak and vulnerable was an important aspect of all Celtic saints but in particular of the women. From little rabbits to little girls they watch over the innocent and protect them with a great power.

How do you  protect the vulnerable from those who would abuse them?

What role does celibacy play in a modern spiritual life, if any at all?

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