Lives of the Saints.
The Voyage of St Brendan;
Bede: Life of Cuthbert;
Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid.
Trnslated with an introduction by J F Webb.
Penguin Classics, 1970 (1965)
Three insular saints — a sixth-century Irish abbot, two seventh-century English clerics — form an interesting contrast in this trio of hagiographies translated from the Latin. By far the bulk of the text deals with the lives of English saints Cuthbert and Wilfrid, both composed in the eighth century CE by named authors, but at the head of this collection is the curious Navigatio which I personally find more interesting and which will be the main focus of this review.
All three narratives — two being true hagiographies or vitae sanctorum, while the navigatio is really a fantasy travelogue — are full of miracles and homilies, designed to encourage belief and strengthen faith but, beneath accounts of devils being cast out, the dead being restored to life, and hermits being sustained for years solely by spring water, one can discern historical facts and chronological events, all attesting to growing religious influence in the early medieval period.
But in addition to all that is the sense of two different cultures, one Celtic and the other Anglo-Saxon, struggling for primacy on these islands on the northwestern fringes of Europe, cultures that were outward-looking while also closely connected with their continental neighbours.Continue reading “Pilgrims and proselytisers”