Tag Archives: Middle Ages

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…

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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.

Medieval Myths about Ireland

The fanciful Welshman

Gerald of Wales (sometimes referred to by his Latin name, Giraldus Cambrensis) was a very interesting chap for many reasons: his grandmother was a mistress of Henry I, his father is the ultimate ancestor of the Barrys of Cork (who are famous for their tea), he was a monk, and he lived in Paris for a time. Oh, and he wrote a book (Topographia Hibernica, “The Topography of Ireland”) which denigrated the Irish and provided centuries of imperialists with invented fodder to argue that the Irish could not take care of their own affairs, and so should be given a kindly hand in doing so… Yeah… Anyway… Gerald visited Ireland twice, in 1183 and 1185, but doesn’t seem to have strayed very far from the Norman strongholds of Cork, Waterford, and Dublin: at one point he says that the interior of Ireland has many high mountains, which it does, except for the one small detail that it doesn’t. But we’ll let that slide, because, as you will soon see, this is not the strangest notion Gerald had about Ireland, not by a long shot.

I think Gerald was told a few Tall tales by an Irishman…

Gerald wrote that, not only do Irish badgers dig and scrape out holes in the earth for refuge and defence, some of them are born to serve (Bk. I, ch. 19). He informs us that one badger will hold a stick in its mouth and lie on its back while others pile dirt and stone on it. When fully loaded, the other badgers would then grasp the stick in their own mouths, as a handle, and drag the bizarre living bucket out of the sett. Apparently Welsh beavers did something similar…

The Welshman was also told that nothing poisonous lived in Ireland, and that any venomous creature that brought to the island immediately died, sometimes explosively (Bk. I, chs. 21-25). The appearance of a frog in Ossory (a kingdom which lay between Leinster and Munster) was taken as an evil portent of the coming of the English to Ireland… He also notes that this strange inability of poisonous animals to live in Ireland decided to whom the Isle of Man belonged: since poisonous reptiles live on it, Man must be British, not Irish (Bk. II, ch. 48).

The islands in the lakes, and around the coast, of Ireland appear to have had some unique properties (Bk. II, chs. 37-39). There was an island in a lake in north Munster where, if any female creature set foot upon it, they would instantaneously die. On another island, nobody could every die, but when they grew withered and worn and tired of life they sought help to transport them off the island (medieval precedence for assisted suicide?). On an island off the coast of Connacht innumerable corpses had been left out in the open air, where they remained without corruption or decay for centuries, such that men could recognise their ancestors by their faces. Oh, and for some strange reason, mice hated to be on this island, to the point that they would throw themselves into the sea once they realised where they are.

Apparently ravens could not alight upon the earth, or eat,  anywhere near Glendalough on the feastday of Saint Kevin (3 June), because, when the saint was living, a raven spilled his milk, and he cursed all ravens (Bk. II, ch. 61). Gerald also relates the interesting properties of a certain bell which was kept in the land of Mactalewus: if it wasn’t exorcised each night with a specially composed prayer, it would appear the next morning many miles away in the church at Clonard in Meath (Bk. II, ch. 66). Perhaps Irish monks were fond of pranking one another after a few too many sips of whiskey…

Gerald, after examining some of the miracles of Irish saints, concludes that:

“… just as the men of this country are, during this mortal life, more prone to anger and revenge than any other race, so in the eternal death of the saints of this land that have been elevated by their merits are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.” (Bk. II, ch. 83)

Yeah, he’s not wrong there; Irish saints seemed to have been more ‘Dirty Harry’ than ‘turn the other cheek’.

Some nice things that he said,

Gerald reckoned that the very air of Ireland promoted good health, such that there was little need for doctors (Bk. I, ch. 26), and that anyone who lived in Ireland never suffered from any sickness or ailment, other than death. Which is nice of him to say, but Irish Law made explicit provisions for doctors, hospices, and the care of the sick. He did note the rain (how could he not?), but that this was actually a good thing, since the overall climate was good for one’s health (he had some very nasty things to say about dry, sunny places!).

The Irish were, Gerald reckoned, incomparable when it came to music, and that the Welsh and Scots strive to emulate Irish music (Bk. III, ch. 94).

And some not-so-nice things…

Gerald did write that the Irish have

“… beautiful upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces… fully endowed with natural gifts…”

but also that

“their external characteristics of beard and dress, and internal cultivation of the mind, are so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture… They are a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living… this people despises work on the land, has little use for the money-making of towns, contemns the rights and privileges of citizenship, and desires neither to abandon, nor lose respect for, the life which it has been accustomed to lead in the woods and countryside” (Bk. III, ch. 93)

That’s a little harsh, Gerry; just because the Irish didn’t have the same settlement patterns as you were familiar with doesn’t mean they were beasts. And, by the time the Anglo-Normans invaded, there were a few cities dotted around the island. Maybe Gerald was a prescient Conservative who didn’t like all this hippy communal living, eco-friendly worldview of the Irish… Ah, probably not.

“This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice… They do not avoid incest. They do not attend God’s church with due reverence. … men in many places in Ireland… debauch the wives of their dead brothers.” (Bk. III, ch. 98)

Ah well now, this is just a misunderstanding. Under Irish law it was not uncommon for a man to marry his dead brother’s widow: this was mostly to insure that property stayed within the family, and to ensure her, and her offspring’s, rights were protected. As for not attending the church with due reverence… Well… I’ll let that one lie…

Propaganda

Gerald has a very long list of the vices of the Irish, but he affirms that Ireland is a lovely place. Can you see what he is doing? He is basically offering an argument to his patron, Henry II, that the English should just move in; the Irish aren’t up to much, and sure they don’t hardly use the land at all, it’s a good thing to take it from them. Here we have one of the roots of the colonial myth that has been imposed across Africa, the New World, Asia, and Eastern Europe by Imperialists for centuries. The Topographia Hibernia was accepted as an accurate work on the history and culture of Ireland for hundreds of years, read and reread by successive generations, quoted endlessly to justify the subjugation of the Irish. This, among other reasons, is why history, as an academic discipline, is vital: lies and half-truths are entertaining, and engaging, but they are also misleading, and often cloud real issues. While Gerald’s work is valuable for many reasons (he records in great detail certain aspects of Irish and Hiberno-Norman life, music, and culture, and his attitudes are very indicative of the time), it is also a reflective device: the Topographia Hibernia is propaganda, pure and simple, and though we might laugh at his strange notions now, some still endure in various guises. We can see how he carefully laid his argument, how he planned the myth of a bountiful land left wasting by its native inhabitants. The discipline of history does not accept a written text as gospel, it interrogates it, it seeks out every contradiction and flaw, every accuracy and concordance. This is a very useful skill to have, to be able to analyse in detail the politically motivated writings of long dead authors, which may or may not have had tremendous historic repercussions, not only because it offers some insight into the past, but because we see the same propaganda alive and well in the modern world. You don’t see it? Can you think of any nation that, for ‘historic’ reasons, is subjugating or terrorising another? Can you think of a political party that demonises its opponents? How about a culture whose role in society is sidelined because it doesn’t fit in with the approved ‘norm’? Gerald was writing from a position of imperialistic vitriolic prejudice, a malady which continues to infect the human condition, which can only be shorn away by reason, and the acceptance of all humanity in its wonderous variety.

The Shadow Line. Part 2 – Still Annoyed at That Damn Graph.

Meanwhile, in Rome…

Following from the previous post, there is an exception to the relative lack of any major cultural and scientific force in the Antique West: Rome. While Gaul, Britain, and Spain were comparative backwaters, Italy was, however, another matter. There we could find major cities, such as Ravenna, Milan, and, of course, Rome itself, which did suffer a massive decline in the Medieval period. This was mostly due the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Byzantines coming in and pretty much ruining the place. For hundreds of years the Italian peninsula was ravaged by competing would-be conquerors seeking to hold on to the last embers of Roman glory. Their desire to grasp what remained of Rome is what killed it in the end, and for the next few hundred years, whenever anything important happened, it didn’t happen in Rome, or by Rome’s will. Notice how this was not the fault of the Church. The Papacy did hold on to some power, but by and large the barely ‘civilised’ ‘barbarian’ kings rarely did what the pope told them to do, or cared that he even existed. In the early middle ages, the Church in the West was not as powerful as a unified organisation as many people (including the creator of the graph) seem to think it was. It was actually far more decentralised, with archbishops and bishops largely left to do as they wish, sometime in flagrant opposition to the papacy. This changed later in the ‘high’ middle ages, as the papacy sought greater control over its own constituents and independence from monarchs, and this is when the dogmatism of the Church became an entrenched feature, which would become a full-blown panic attack when an alternative world-perspective arose in the fourteenth century.

It’s a matter of priority.

In a certain fashion, this graph also assumes some level of predictability, that history is progressive unless some external force acts upon it, a notion which may be plausible in theory, but not in practice. In the first place, scientific advancement requires a certain level of stability and organisation; essentially there needs to be enough time to do the science, and the will and the money to do it. The Greeks became wealthy through trade and could afford to pursue more philosophical endeavours, and the Romans jumped on their coat-tails. While the Empire was stable everything was hunky-dory, but then if you introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, everything becomes chaos, as the scarred philosopher once said. The priorities of the Germanic kings was not to learn, but to conquer, not to admire great works of art, but to accumulate power. They judged a man on his sword-arm, which the Romans also did, but they also expected a man to appreciate and recite complex poetry (and trust me, all poetry in Classical Latin is complex). The latter outlook survived in the Eastern Empire in a secular sense, and in the West it fell on the shoulders of the Church, the priority of which had never been education in a Classical sense, but of revelation.

No great centres of learning were established in the West by the Roman state to compete with those of the East. The great monastic schools preserved as much as they could, especially in Visigothic Spain and pre-Norman Ireland, but their priorities were different to that of the Roman state. They were not educating a class of civil-servants to administrate an Empire, but rather trying to develop a stratum of society with a deeper appreciation of their God so as to better teach the masses. It is not the fault of the Church or of early Christians that they did not appreciate the industry or science of bygone empires, it was simply not the point of their organisation. The Western Church was a religious organisation which took over the role of administration, healthcare, and education with the collapsed of the Empire.  This was not what the Church had been designed for, the world perspective that it extolled was not conducive to perpetuating the ideals of the collapsing Empire. But they did pretty well, in retrospect.

A viable alternative.

We also must be at pains to remember that a scientific world perspective didn’t really exist, and, in many cases, religion answered the same questions just as convincingly (to the the people of the time). They had no notion of microbes, so a plague could easily be interpreted as a curse from God. There was no Theory of Relativity, or of Gravity, no Evolution, no understanding of the formation of galaxies, of the vastness of time, nothing electronic to help do the difficult sums. While Greek philosophers may have pondered the atom, ‘God did it’ was, at that time, a viable answer, because there was no other paradigm. You might think that these people were stupid for thinking this way, and after a certain fashion, they were; education was the privilege of an extreme minority, as it has been, and remains to be, throughout history. While the upper ranks may have scoffed at the religious notions of the lower orders, religion was still a powerful force in the pre-Christian world, and it remained so when Christians rebranded the game. Of course the Western Church did cause a certain level of what we would call intellectual stagnation, largely because they spent a great deal of time wondering about myths and fantasies, but then again, what religion doesn’t?

An illuminated manuscript from the ‘Dark Ages’ – I am sure there is a pun to made from that juxtaposition (via Wikipedia)

They also spent a good deal of time trying to rebuild the Empire, copying and discussing ancient works. Had the Church not stepped in to the void left by the decline of the Empire in the West the Renaissance may never have happened, or at least it would have been greatly delayed. Had the Merovingians and Carolingians not recognised the value of a Classical or ecclesiastical education they might not have been so keen to let highly educated Irish and Anatolian monks wander around their territories,  monks who brought different world-views, and, most especially, Greek knowledge with them. The Carolingian Renevatio was born in Irish- and Near Eastern-influenced monasteries (the former, though neither native Latin- nor Greek-speaking, were enthralled by those languages and learned them to an impressively high standard, and for the latter, Greek was the language of education), a movement which laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.

It does not mean what you think it means.

A product of the ‘Dark Ages’; the very way we write today – 10th century Vulgate (via Wikipedia)

The greatest factor in the decline of science in the West was the fact that most works on the subject were written in Greek, a language few in the West ever bothered to learn, even in Roman times. Indeed, not only was science almost literally a Greek subject, but so was philosophy and the Bible. The Church in the West did its best with what little Latin resources it had, preserving  what may have been little more than snippets and quotations from Greek texts, or brief accounts of such documents found in Latin translation. The ‘Christian Dark Age’ did not happen; the stagnation of the West was due to the traditional priority of Latin over Greek in the western half of the Empire, and because the region was never (outside of Rome itself) home to great centres of learning like Alexandria, Antioch, or Athens. The West was a bit of a cultural backwater, in comparison to the East, during the Empire, and, yes, things did become worse with its decline, but it was not the fault of Christianity, and it did not lead to a universal dark age.  Indeed science was undertaken throughout the Middles Ages; an early text survives from Ireland which describes the motions of tides and what might cause them, the whole Church was obsessed with the calculation of time. Mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy remained important subjects of study, as did law and engineering, giving rise to what were known as cathedral and palace schools, the well from which universities sprang.

Technically speaking, there are ‘dark ages’, periods of paucity of sources, such as during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain or the collapse of Bronze Age civilisation, but there were not a ‘Dark Age’, not even one which can be blamed on Christianity (unless the religious right in the US continue on their draconian crusade against women, minorities, and education). We might more accurately describe the ‘gap’ the graph suggests as “the inevitable result of a mass invasion by pagans into a region which received very little investment into its educational infrastructure, while other regions, while they did suffer some incursions from the aforementioned pagans, remained educationally vibrant, though this graph has curiously chosen to omit these cultures”. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but at the very least, the ‘Dark Age’ of Western Europe, if you still want to believe in such a myth, was not the fault of Christians, they just happened to be living there at the time.

Saint Brigit, Jedi Master.

Bridget (given name)

The 'safe' version of Saint Brigit of Kildare (Image via Wikipedia)

The saint we all know and love.

Like any good scholar when confronted with new evidence, I must correct an earlier statement: Saint Brigit was probably a historical figure, but this cannot be proven to any convincing degree. After a certain fashion, however, the physical existence of Brigit is not really very important; what is significant is the enduring power and influence of this figure. A symbol of charity, harmony with nature, and general humility, Brigit is a humble saint, we are taught, in contrast to the arrogant nobleman Colum Cille, or the pagan-punching Patrick. She is a synthesis of Christian and pagan ideals, embodying the feminine, in tune with nature, doing God’s work, helping the poor, curing the sick, milking cows more often then they should be milked, making puddles of water magically appear, making ducks swim in different directions, taming foxes, and oh my god is anyone else bored yet? She is the dullest saint ever. At least, that’s what I was led to believe when I was growing up, a belief which lasted until about a year ago. And then I studied the earliest texts about her, three ‘Lives of Brigit’ from the seventh to the ninth century, from the very dawn of Christian Ireland. And I learned something new; I learned that Brigit was awesome.

They didn’t teach us this in school…

Brigit has huge volumes of miracles to her credit, most of which are, in fairness, bland. And for some strange reason, these tedious miracles are her most famous deeds. For those who wish to delve deeper into the story of this saint, a treat lies in store; tales of death and murder, of curiously practical kings, magically disappearing f0etuses, and gore. A surprising amount of gore. Not ‘Evil Dead’ levels of gore, but close enough; this was the Middle Ages after all, and these are religious texts, and however amazing the Irish saints were, there wasn’t one who held a candle to Ash… Anyway. Here follows a brief selection of Brigit’s more exciting and interesting miracles.

The Tale of the The Clever King.

Once upon a time Brigit’s father, Dubthach, asked her to go to the king of the Laigin (roughly modern-day Leinster) to ask that he be given permanent ownership of a sword that he had only been allowed to borrow. On her way to the king, Brigit is met by a servant who begs her to secure his release from the service of the king. When she asks the king for these things, he is curious as to what Brigit can offer in return. Swords weren’t cheap. Humans were though, especially the male kind. Anyway, Brigit promises to give the king the most amazing gifts her God has on offer: eternal life and that his descendent will be kings forever. The king is a practical man, and responds that he has no need for a  life he cannot see, and that he has no concern for those who succeed him, he wishes only that he has a long life, and that he will be eternally victorious in battle. Brigit says “Fair enough”, grants these gifts, and the king concedes to her request. The next time that he was about to enter into battle, the king tells his men to pray to the saint. Brigit appears on the battlefield before them, and they successfully rout the enemy. And by ‘rout’ I mean ‘probably killed so many of them that the living were so terrified of dying that they ran away’. The king won thirty battles, waged nine victorious campaigns in Britain, and was offered rewards by many other kings to fight on their side as he was invincible. Upon his death, the Uí Néill, the eternal enemies of his family, decide to collect all their warriors together with the intention of wreaking revenge on the Laigin. As this huge force gathers, the Laigin become desperate; one of them suggests that maybe the gift of victory is still present in the dead king. So they lash his body to a chariot and ride into a desperate attack against a superior force. And they win. They tie a dead man to a chariot, the enemy are defeated, and the Laigin praise Brigit. I think it was more a case of the Uí Néill were utterly freaked out by an opposing force that was willing to be led into battle by a dead man.

Visions of Death.

A Man of Death: Sláine Mac Roth (by Simon Bisley)

The king of Tara, Conall, approaches Brigit for a blessing to aid him in killing his enemies. He wants her divine help to kill people, he clearly hasn’t understood the carpenter’s message. He and his companions are wearing sinister amulets, and are compelled to complete this murderous deed. Brigit blesses them, praying that they are neither harmed nor do harm. The men continue on to the lands of the Cruthin (north-eastern Ireland), burn a fort, and apparently slaughter many people, before returning home with the heads of their enemies, covered in gore and blood, to a joyous welcome. I’d like to point out that the text specifically refers to ‘gore’. Gore. That means ‘bits of people’, not just blood. This wasn’t some simple sword through the heart, these guys went ‘American Psycho’ on their enemies. Or at least they thought they did… The next morning they awake and find no heads at their feet, and no gore or blood on their weapons and clothes. Conall dispatches emissaries to the fort, who report back that the people still live. Conall and his men lay down their amulets, obviously freaked out by this mind-trick, and Brigit promises that she will protect him from all danger from that point onward. This boon comes in quite handy when Conall invades another territory, where he inflicts a great slaughter, before taking rest at an abandoned fort. His companions fear a reprisal, but Conall places his faith in Brigit. That night his enemies send spies to investigate the fort, but they see only clerics examining books, not warriors with the heads of their enemies at their feet, so the vengeance-seeking army heads off on its merry way. Learning of this, Conall gave thanks to Brigit and God. It would appear that Brigit’s only objection to Conall’s invasions of rival territories was that he did so under some pagan symbol, the sinister amulets. Once he accepted Brigit’s God he is free to attack his enemies without fear of harm. I’m not sure why, but that doesn’t sound very Christian of her. But what I find most amazing is how Brigit made the men hallucinate hacking other people to bits. It’s a good thing they didn’t meet Colum Cille; the people who didn’t do as he said tended to become very dead very quickly.

Execution Interrupted.

Brigit travels to a certain king in the Midlands to secure the release of a man from prison, but the king refuses, stating that the man will be executed that very day. Brigit manages to convince the king to stay the execution for one more day, but some of the king’s company, guessing that the saint has a trick up her sleeve, plan to kill him that very night. The prisoner has a vision of Brigit while he sleeps, which tells him to call out the saint’s name repeatedly while he is being dragged to his death, and, when the chain is removed from his neck, to turn to the right where he will see her waiting in a doorway. Once again, an illusory death occurs; the men think that they hack (hack, not cut cleanly, hack with repeated blows through flesh and sinew and bone and… well… gore) the man’s head off, but he had in fact escaped with Brigit. The following day no head or gore was to be seen, and when Brigit asked the king to free the man, he realised what she had accomplished, and he said “Absolutely”. Let’s face it, if Brigit could make you believe that you had just seen a man beheaded, she could make you believe anything, and you wouldn’t mess with somebody like that. She could easily convince you that, no, those are not the droids you are looking for…

More Wicked Men, and, surprise surprise, more gore.

While on one of her many travels, Brigit once again runs into a group of men wearing diabolical amulets intent on murder who also request her blessing. She asks that in return for her blessing that they lift a heavy load for her; they agree to do this,  so long as she holds their amulets while they bear the load, as the they are forbidden to let the amulets fall to the ground. The saint makes the sign of the cross over the amulets while they work, and then the men go on their way, with the aim of killing a certain man. They find this fortunate man, and are led to believe that they behead him, but he is left unharmed. Once they realise what Brigit has done they abandon their amulets. In another tale, Brigit, yet again, meets nine very wicked men in “a peculiar guise required by a godless and diabolical superstition” who plan to commit murder and bloodshed before the end of the following month. Brigit implores the men to abandon their sinful ways. The men refuse her, and continue on their wicked task, yet, through another illusion miracle, the men are led to believe that they (quite brutally) kill their objective, when he in fact goes unscathed. Once these would-be murders realise what has transpired they are converted to Christians and live happily ever after. Or suffer from post-traumatic stress. The text isn’t clear on the issue, but they believed that they hacked a man to bits, and then found out that they hadn’t, I know I’d be pretty stressed. And I’d probably be questioning the very nature of reality…

Now you see it, now you Don’t.

If a virgin had become pregnant, Brigit had a neat trick which would ensure that the girl was “restored to health”. The early Irish seem to have had an odd notion of what the term  ‘health’ implied, since this basically meant that “Brigit made the foetus go away”. The saint blessed a woman who had become pregnant, and she is “healed” such that her pregnancy disappears, and she is restored to virginity. No harm, no foul, no baby. I know it’s not technically an abortion, but it kinda is an abortion. Brigit, a widely venerated Christian saint, was clearly pro-choice. Which is probably why the Church doesn’t broadcast this story on her holy day…

Which Brings us to the heart of the matter…

Are you wondering yet why you have never heard of these amazing tales, but know Brigit only as some kind of innocent and chaste Mary of the Irish? Most saints led very interesting lives, full of sex and violence, and deeds that would seem to be at odds with the Christian message of many of today’s Churches. The Catholic Church appears to glide over some of the rougher edges of its saints, popularising a Photoshop-perfect version, and disseminating either bland sanitised saints, or lamentably propagandised ones, for public consumption. The  historical figure is lost in the myth; the majesty of a tiger cannot be grasped as it paces, neutered, behind bars, it must be seen in context, though this can be dangerous (Brigit may have created illusions of gore, but a tiger will reduce you to gore). It is vital that we seek out the sources of belief, understand them in the context of the society which produced them, and then question the application and interpretation of these texts in the modern world. It is only then that we can see how the memory and deeds of these unwitting figures are abused to an undeserved end.


The three Lives of Brigit from this period are the 7th century ‘Vita Brigitae‘ by Cogitosus,  the anonymous 8th century ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae‘, and the anonymous 9th century Old-Irish ‘Bethu Brigte‘. Translations of these texts may be difficult to find if you don’t have access to an academic library, but here are the references:

Bethu Brigte, Ó hAodha, D. (ed. and trans.) (Dublin, 1978).

Cogitosus, Life of Saint Brigit, in S. Connolly and J.-M. Picard (trans.), ‘Cogitosus’s “Life of St Brigit” Content and Value’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), pp.11-27.

Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae, in Connolly, S. (trans.), ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 119 (1989), pp. 5-49.