Pilgrims and proselytisers

Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio, by Abraham Ortelius (ca 1570): the ghost terrain St Brendan’s Isle is marked bottom left.

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.

17th-century engraving of St Brendan and Jasconius

Inspired by Barinthus, the abbot of Drumcullen, who tells of visiting terra repromissionis sanctorum, Brendan determines to seek the same Land Promised to the Saints. With fourteen of his monks from Clonfert he builds a currach or skin boat and sets off from Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland, first visiting Inishmore in the Aran Islands, here called the Island of Delights, home of the community of St Ailbhe.

Thereafter for seven years the pilgrims make round trips, returning continuously around Easter to three associated landfalls — the Island of Sheep, the Paradise of Birds to its west, and Jasconius — the last being a desert island which turns out to be a sea monster or whale attempting like the Worm Ouroboros to bite its own tail. Though impossible to chart with any accuracy the various legs of the journey involve days of both rowing and of sailing, periods of drifting, and indications of direction; there are also descriptions of what must surely be an iceberg, the creation of an island like Iceland’s Surtsey, and the eruption of a volcano such as Katla or Eyjafjallajökull.

But there are also more fantastical episodes, as when spring water proves soporific and fruit or grapes life-sustaining, when the monks are variously attacked by a monstrous sea beast and by a griffin, and when they encounter and take pity on Judas perched on a rock and tormented by devils. Nor must we forget Jasconius — the name is supposedly derived from iasc, related to Modern Irish uisce, ‘water’ — on whose back the monks camp and celebrate Mass.

After seven years the voyagers finally reach the Promised Land, a massive island bisected by a river and blessed with a fruitful autumnal climate and precious stones. Is this North America, and do we detect references to the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland embedded in the descriptions of the wonders seen by Brendan and his companions? It’s tempting to believe so; what’s very clear though is that Brendan wasn’t conceived as the first Irishman to have visited these new lands: he was preceded by Barinthus, by the steward on the Island of Sheep, by the perpetual choirs singing on the Island of Steadfast Men, by an anchorite Paul on another island, and so on. Later Viking explorers also testified using Irishmen as guides and scouts. And even wise old Brendan frequently comes across as a know-it-all when the monks arrive somewhere knew, almost as if he had prior knowledge of their landfalls.

Contrasting with the Navigatio are the vitae of saints Cuthbert and Wilfrid. These contemporaries — both were born in 634 — are associated with northeast England, and especially with the island community of Lindisfarne. They opposed many of the religious practices followed by the insular Celts, in particular the date they celebrated Easter, and though the Synod of Whitby decided such matters in 664 in favour of the Roman rite practised by the English, universal acceptance was slow in coming. Bede’s Life of Cuthbert may be stuffed full of miracles and Eddius’s Life of Wilfrid may emphasise the latter’s peregrinations in continental Europe, but both are more earnestly pious than Brendan’s wonder tale and therefore less to my taste. I admit to skimming the life stories of Cuthbert and Wilfrid; as Webb’s introduction makes clear,

The narrative of the saint’s life followed a set pattern: his marvellous infancy and vocation, the struggles and trials by which he proved himself a true athlete of Christ, an account of his gifts, miracles, and prophecies, the warning of approaching death, a farewell address to his disciples, and the death and miracles at the tomb.

I confess that I find this formulaic pattern of the holy hero, despite its intrinsic historiographic and literary interest, less awe-inspiring than someone who mounts an expedition into the unknown with fourteen companions, all purely on the basis of a friend describing rowing through a bank of cloud and moments later disembarking on a newfound land.

Originally published in 1965, J F Webb’s Lives of the Saints was expanded in 1983 with additional hagiographies translated by David Hugh Farmer (who also provided a new introduction) and retitled The Age of Bede. This later publication still includes the 8th-century Voyage of St Brendan, its significance underlined by the fact that three early manuscripts survive from the ninth century, with at least 120 later manuscripts in Latin and numerous others in different languages. It also inspired Columbus’s voyages, authors such as Swift and C S Lewis, and adventurers such as Tim Severin who recreated Brendan’s journey in a skin boat.

A post on St Patrick’s Day for Reading Ireland Month


11 thoughts on “Pilgrims and proselytisers

    1. Yes, so many of the details in the Dawn Treader narrative are redolent of those here — the freshwater springs which aren’t always what they seem, the sea monsters intent on attacking the vessel, even the birds that sing and talk with Brendan and his companions have their counterparts in the birds that fly to Ramandu’s Isle to clear away the meals. Both stories of course, despite their Christian approach, draw deeply from the wellsprings of pagan lore, myth and faërie.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Pilgrims and proselytisers – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

    1. Thanks, Cathy. I’m now tempted to reread and review the late Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage — an account of his expedition which I last looked in detail at in the late 70s — even though it’ll be too late for this year’s readathon!

      Apropos your piece about claiming Irishness, I see that Severin, who died a couple of years ago, made his last home in County Cork, in Timoleague.

      Liked by 1 person

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