Stranger Things: The Life of Saint Brigit and Her Astonishing Miracles

A Traditional Irish Upbringing
Growing up in Ireland, you tend to imbibe many tales about Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit, and the odd local favourite like Brendan or Columba. As a kid, I always found Saint Patrick more exciting – after all, he killed druids with magic. Yes, there is a miracle where Saint Patrick gets a druid’s brains dashed out all over the ground. The character of Saint Patrick, as one eminent historian once described, was basically a medieval Dirty Harry. Saint Brigit, well, she was a bit lacklustre by comparison. Her miracles involved taunting kings with tame foxes, making implausible amounts of cheese (which, unless you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls, is not the most enthralling thing), hanging a cloak on a beam of light, and making some ducks change their direction of flight. Hardly thrill a minute stuff. Oh sure, we used to kill a few hours in school on the first day of February making crosses from reeds, but even that lost its escaping-schoolwork glamour after a certain age. It wasn’t until years later, during the course of my PhD, that I discovered that the stories of Brigit are awesome.

The Many Lives of Brigit
This is where things get a bit complicated, dear Reader, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like complicated things. First off, there is some debate about whether or not Brigit was a real person. Some scholars have suggested that the figure we know as Saint Brigit was a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian Irish goddess of the same name, pointing out that Brigit performs many of the duties of a fertility goddess (remember the cheese?). The contrary argument points to situation of her stories in the real world, the numerous named and identifiable characters she meets, and the unlikely fact that a Christian cult could be founded on top of a pagan one and no rival church exploited such a scandalous origin. I fall broadly into the latter camp (as I think most modern scholars do), while accepting the possibility that some aspects of the goddess were indeed appropriated by later generations and merged with a Christian holy woman called Brigit who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century.

Secondly, the textual tradition is debated. The earliest writings about Brigit are recorded in three saints’ Lives or Vitae. A Life is a genre of medieval religious literature designed to record the miracles of a given saint and extol their virtue, often to suit the political aims of those who control the cult of the saint – this latter point is important, so keep it in mind. Saints often have many Lives written about them, but I shall be concentrating on the earliest Lives of Brigit, of which there are three: two in Latin and one in Old Irish. And here is where we try to avoid the rabbit hole of the great debate on the priority of the Brigitine Lives. In short, it seems that there were three Latin Lives of Brigit written in the mid- to late seventh century, a good century and a half after Brigit would have died. One of these is known as Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit because a chap called Cogitosus wrote it. Now, sometime in the eighth century, someone gathered together these three Latin texts; basically, they made a collected or omnibus edition of the miracles of Brigit. This is known as the Vita Prima, not because it is the first Life written, but because it is the first of the Brigitine Lives in a collection of books called the Acta Sanctorum ‘The Acts of the Saints’. Then, at some later point again, somebody made an Old Irish translation of one of the anonymous Latin texts, except it has stories not found the Vita Prima, which mean someone was leaving things out or adding things in. Sadly, the two anonymous Latin texts have been lost to time, so we have a situation where we have a old text, a newer text which seems to have older material, and a newer text which should have the same material as the second, but doesn’t. And I’ll leave it there, dear Reader, because much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between these texts and I want to get to the good stuff.

Brigit, Wonderworker.
So, Brigit has some amazing miracles. Once a man came to ask for her hand in marriage; she wasn’t keen. After asking God to aid her, one of her eyes burst and liquefied in the socket. Liquefied her eye. The young man was less keen, and God helpfully restored her eye. Or how about the time she met some men who had sworn to kill a guy but Brigit caused them to hallucinate hacking him to bits, proudly displaying the gore on their swords to their kinsmen (this type of miracle seems to have been a favourite, as there are three different versions of it recorded in the Lives). On another occasion, some thieves dared to steal Brigit’s cattle, but as they drove the herd across a stream, the river rose up against them, washing them away, because Nature itself wouldn’t allow such a misdeed.

There is a very interesting miracle where Brigit asks a favour of the King of Leinster, and he asks what he will get in return: she offers him eternal life (in heaven) and that his descendents would be kings forever. The king replies that he has no need of a life he can’t see and his sons should make their own way in life (how… pragmatic). No, he wants his current life to be a long one, and he wants to be ever-victorious against his hated enemy: the Uí Néill. She grants him this boon and the king becomes invincible, winning thirty battles and waging nine campaigns in Britain. The moment he dies, the Uí Néill try to take advantage and invade, the Leinstermen tie the body of the king to a chariot ride into battle, routing the attackers like El Cid, but a good few hundred years earlier.

Brigit also performed an abortion. Did that get your attention, dear Reader? Yes indeed, Cogitosus wrote that a pregnant woman came to Brigit and the saint ‘cured’ the woman, miraculously reversing the pregnancy (a version of this miracle is also found in the Vita Prima). I want to underline the significance of this: an Irish Catholic saint, in a text written by a devoutly religious man who was operating at the behest of his brethren and who belonged to one of the most important and influential Irish churches, terminates a pregnancy. The women is not interrogated or condemned, she is not degraded or denounced. She has a problem and it is resolved. One can’t help but wonder if this was an allusion to a service that Kildare offered; medieval handbooks of medicinal recipes suggest that monks were well aware of methods to terminate pregnancies. Or perhaps Cogitosus was, through this tale, extending compassion to women in difficult situations; there is no mention of forgiveness, no sin has occurred. What makes this more surprising is that several other Irish saints performed similar miracles, all of whom were men. We may never know what lies behind these stories, and, in all fairness, I should point out that the medieval religious mind had a very different understanding of when the soul supposedly entered the body, but it is remarkable how popular this miracle was.

 

I have wondered, ever since I learned of this greater corpus of Brigitine miracles, why we were never told them in school. Actually, no I haven’t, it is pretty obvious why. Tales of a saint who goes around the country making cheese, curing the sick, and feeding the poor is one thing, but a woman equal in status to a bishop giving men violent visions of gory murder, aiding kings to bloody victory, and performing miraculous terminations? Yeah, that is not going to make it into the weekly sermon. Even if none of it ever happened, these were stories that inspired and entertained, gave solace and hope. Who knows what a different world we would have lived in if we celebrated St Brigit the Humble Badass instead of the saint that is hidden in the shadow of Patrick?

Still, I get a kick out the idea that, every first of February, kids all around Ireland are making crosses to St Brigit of the Miraculous Termination.

Back to Blogging (maybe)…

I have long debated returning to this blog. It’s weird how easily I fell out of the habit of writing here, but then, I did have other things to do. Still. I feel a strange sense of neglect. People have continued to read my words and some have left comments (thank you!).

Perhaps now is a good time to return. Perhaps not; we’ll see. But it has been three years since last I wrote anything here, and much has changed. I am not who I was, but then who is?

Christ, that does sound pretentious, doesn’t it? Here’s what it is. Education and work took up a lot of time, some of the (unpublished) comments I received were not the friendliest, and I kind of felt like other people could do a better job at this than I. So I kinda just stopped. It was something that was fun that become a chore. I didn’t like that. But now I think it might be fun again, so I’m going to give it another go.

But let’s be clear on some things:

  1. Still an atheist. Thanks for the comments about hoping I find my way back to God and whatever, but please be aware of the fact that I am equally hoping for you to realise that ‘god’ is a metaphor, and not a very helpful one at that.
  2. Actually a historian now. As in, I get paid for it. Which is cool. When I began this I was an MA student studying medieval history. But now I have more fun letters after my name (and before, if I choose so). I have taught undergrads and mature learners, corrected essays, made many a presentation. I read back over some of the things I have said here and have thought to myself ‘that could have been more clear’. I think I understand better now how to communicate my thoughts, but maybe that is just a pleasant delusion.
  3. I can assign homework if you wish.
  4. The style will be the same. I find history fun and exciting, and it baffles me how some writers make it dull. For the love of gods, history is all the interesting things! All things happen in history! It is inescapable! Join us!
  5. Just to clarify, I am an atheist. But this is only one facet of who I am. I consider, perhaps bizarrely, ‘historian’ to be part of my identity too. But also ‘social democrat’, ‘feminist’, ‘comic-book nerd’, my national identity… I could go one. Do not presume to know me because you once met an atheist and they annoyed you. Every group has its idiots and geniuses. I have Christian friends and we get on very well and have lively debates, and I have met many an idiot atheist who annoyed me with their feeble understanding of the concept. I don’t think believers are stupid, I just think they are wrong. Well, some of them are stupid; like I said, every group has its bad element.
  6. Do I need a sixth point? I feel like I do, but I can’t really think of one. Maybe I’ll come back to it later.

Fair warning, it might be three more years before I post again.

Be awesome to one another.

Break the Silence

Violence & Silence: Jackson Katz, Ph.D at TEDxFiDiWomen
This is something you should watch, share, absorb, and learn.

Bamburgh Castle

The Seat of Kings

Not far from Lindisfarne, indeed within sight of it (on a clear day), lies Bamburgh Castle, seat of the kings of Bernicia. Aethelfrith, the pagan Anglo-Saxon king of Bernicia, aggressively expanded into the neighbouring kingdom of Deira, forcibly uniting his own kingdom with it to form Northumbria sometime around AD604, and then proceeded to attack everyone around him, including the kingdom of the Mercians, the various territories of the Britons and Picts, and the Irish kingdom of Dál Riada. By AD616 he was dead, killed in battle against the Mercians, and the rival royal family of Deira seized control of Northumbria, only to lose it to an alliance of Britons and Mericians who broke it in half…

The Return of the King

Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, was sent into exile among the Irish, where he became a Christian, and married an Irish princess named Fín. At the age of 30 he returned at the head of an army, defeating the British king Cadwallon, whose forces dominated Bernicia, at the Battle of Heavenfield in AD633/4, and re-established the kingdom of Northumbria. He invited Aidan of Iona to establish a Christian mission at Lindisfarne. For the next seventy years or so Northumbria was the dominant kingdom in Britain, and was home to the golden age with produced, among other kings, such material as the Lindisfarne Gospels, works of Bede, and a new wave of architecture.

This is not that Castle

This vibrant kingdom, ruled from Bamburgh, was not actually ruled from this particular castle. The Anglo-Saxon castle was destroyed in AD993 by the Vikings, with the Normans later founding a new castle on the site, which itself became the basis for the castle as it stands today. It was added to and expanded over time, fell into a deteriorated state, before a very wealthy man embarked on a sustained restoration effort in the 19th century. Even if it isn’t the original Anglo-Saxon castle, it’s still a very cool place… even if the tour-guides claim that the original inhabitants of the region were cannibals…

Lindisfarne

An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.