Performing Piety: Medieval Welsh Women and the Patronage of Prayer

Karen Eileen Overbey, Tufts University,

Studies of patronage in medieval Wales have focused on the heroic and the monumental—on courtly poetry, Cistercian monasteries, and royal castles—areas for which women’s roles are undocumented and, because of legal restrictions, unlikely. Inheritance laws meant that women’s wealth was in moveable goods rather than in land, and so major foundations were beyond the benefaction of even most noble women. But as Jane Cartwright has suggested, medieval Welsh women may have practiced more ‘local’ patronage, in donations to parish churches and in arrangements for prayers or requiem masses. In this essay, I propose that several thirteenth- and fourteenth-century tomb effigies represent noblewomen in this role, and that the iconography of female orans figures resonates with visual and literary depictions of prayer as a pious, protective, and specifically female social responsibility. My study considers the economic, legal, hagiographic, and religious discourses that shaped these representations, as well as the historiographic concerns that shaped their receptions, medieval and modern.
Objects to be examined include the relief effigy of Joan [Princess of Wales, wife of Llywelyn Fawr, daughter of John I of England], Church of St Mary, Beaumaris, Anglesey, c. 1237; the relief effigy of an unidentified woman, Church of St Mary, Cilcain, Flintshire, early 14th century; the effigies of Walter and Christina Awbrey, Priory Church of St John the Evangelist, Brecon, early 14th century; the relief effigy of Eva, Bangor Cathedral, Caernarfonshire, c. 1380; and the Llanbeblig Book of Hours [NLW MS 17520A], late 14th-early 15th century.