Tag Archives: Saint Brigit

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.

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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.

Of Saints and Scholars

Saint Patrick

Almost everything commonly known about this man is a lie. Saint PatrickHis legend is possibly one of the most successful fabrications of all time, up there with Santa Claus and the paper-clip. The only real evidence for his existence are two documents which he wrote; a letter to a man who had captured some of Patrick’s flock, and his Confession. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, do battle with druids or decree that we celebrate his holy day by staggering around trying to find a parade at 3am. He wasn’t even Irish. He was in fact two men; Patrick and Palladius. The latter was subsumed into the myth of the former and forgotten over time, even though he was the first bishop of the Irish. The Church of Armagh decided that they needed a superhero and chose Patrick as the man for them and used his legends to enhance their own position in Ireland above that of all the other rival churches, such as Iona and Kildare. All in the name of fortune and glory. Patrick went from being a monk with no real authority to a clerical Dirty Harry, beating non-believers senseless. At a time when Ireland had several contenders for patron saint Patrick won because he kicked druid arse, had a pointy hat, and the best propaganda machine in the country, and so was way cooler than Brigit, Brendan, or Columba.

Saint Brigit

Performed some strange miracles, and at least one immaculate abortion. And probably never made a cross out of reeds as she probably wasn’t real. Probably.

Saint Columba, a.k.a. Colum Cille

Descending as he did from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Columbathe man who nicked Patrick from his homeland, Columba seems to have been destined to be a holy troublemaker. And he was. He copied a book. … … Which caused a huge battle in which many men died, and so he went to exile (by choice or by order is not entirely clear). The Irish clearly took their books really seriously. Anyway, Columba ended up on Iona, and then found himself embroiled in the politics, and the conversion, of the lands which were to become Scotland (at this point the ‘Scots’ were still Irish). His federation of monasteries was hugely successful, and produced such amazing works like the Book Of Kells. What is possibly cooler is that his foundation gave rise to a man known as Adomnán, who wrote a law banning violence against women, children, and clerics during times of conflict. This was essentially a medieval Geneva Convention signed by Irish, Pictish, and Dál Riada kings, and other such important folk. Whether or not it worked, Adomnán was the Man; saints often run around preaching peace, he actually went and did something about it.

Saint Columbanus

This man is possibly the pinnacle of medieval Irish religiosity. Not content with preaching in Ireland, having become adept at such things as Latin and computus (don’t ask, trust me, it’s really hard), he set off to preach and educate the people of the most backward and ignorant place he could think of; France. When he got there his piety and scholarly-ness impressed everyone, and his monasteries were so popular they were opening faster than Starbucks franchises. Pretty soon however he was annoying the local bishops, since he didn’t recognise their authority, and thought that they were pretty bad at their jobs. So he sent a letter to the Pope saying so. And told the Pope that he was wrong about the date of Easter. Nobody tells the Pope that he’s wrong about anything. Ever. Especially not some braggart from the edge of the known world. And in better Latin too! By this time Columbanus had moved on, indeed he moved around a lot, setting up monasteries like there was no tomorrow, because there may not have been for him since he had a unique talent for annoying powerful people who had a fondness for running pointy bits of steel through troublesome clerics. The monasteries he founded became some of the most influential and celebrated centres of learning in medieval Europe, playing a key role in the Carolingian renevatio, themselves spawning an endless tide of missionaries and scholars inspired by their founding father. An Irishman abroad, headstrong, confident and never asking for directions, nothing but death could stop him. Which it did.

Medieval Ireland in 5 words

The medieval Irish were brilliant.

Medieval Ireland in 500 words

I imagine you’d want to know why they were brilliant. Well, for a start theyRound tower had a unique legal system. Where Europeans were ruled by the whims of their lords and kings who could proclaim laws whenever they so wished, the Irish were governed by a fixed legal code which kings themselves had to abide by. It took Europe ages to catch up with this great idea. They had lawyers but no prisons. The guilty had to pay fines to or work for the plaintiff, or were exiled if the crime was really harsh. No hanging from a jib or quartering. It was thoroughly civilised. Mostly. The medieval Irish were very fond of fighting, but no more so than their continental counterparts. Cattle raids, land disputes, and dynastic rivalries led to frequent battles where alliances could shift rapidly. But every king abided by the same laws, and spoke the same language, and worshipped the Catholic Church. Of course, since they were Irish, they couldn’t worship the same exact church as the Europeans did, that would be too easy. They came up with their own version of Catholicism which differed not on faith, but on strange things like how to cut your hair, and the date of Easter. Easter had to be calculated with a bunch of strange sums, and the medieval Irish thought their sums were way better than anyone else’s. And so was their Latin. While European bishops fought, often physically, over the claims of their diocese, Irish abbots and monastic foundations, who also fought a lot, managed to encourage a level of learning unknown to Europe. The medieval Irish had better Latin and Greek, and were more deeply versed in the Bible than their European equivalents and so were revered as missionaries and scholars. Their version of Catholicism was largely dominant in Ireland, Scotland and England until the synod of Whitby, when the king decided to change to the Roman Church because his son was going to rebel against him. And he wanted to have sex with his wife. No really, that may have been an issue. She followed the Roman Easter and he adhered to the Irish one. That’s two Lents! And they didn’t give up sweets for Lent, they gave up everything. And they probably didn’t get a break in the middle for St Patrick’s Day! So he switched, and eventually so did everyone else because it was much easier in the long run. Except for a bunch of English monks who settled in Mayo. Irish culture was admired greatly in Scotland and Northern England, so much so that they learned how to write from the Irish, copied their style and wore their clothes. Their kings had Irish advisors, as did the kings of the Franks, because they were the smartest guys around. And then the Vikings came and made life rather difficult for a while, and just when things got better the Normans came. And later again, the English. And we all know how that turned out.