Thursday 15 November 2012


I begin a series of postings of useful essays on various aspects of the history of the early Irish Church with this introduction to the writing of saints' lives by Dorothy Ann Bray. I had posted most of these essays on my previous blog back in 2009, so it is probable that the original links may now only be recoverable through the Wayback Machine. I originally sourced this piece here.


The composition of hagiography (saints' lives) in Ireland begins with three major works that date from the mid- to the late seventh century, when the three major monastic foundations of Kildare, Armagh, and Iona had firmly established themselves and were expanding their territories and influence. The first is the Vita Sanctae Brigidae (Life of Saint Brigit of Kildare) by a monk whose name is given as Cogitosus. Cogitosus's life of Brigit dates from about 650 C.E. and has long been considered the earliest hagiographical work in Hiberno-Latin. Another life of Brigit, the anonymous Vita Prima Sanctae Brigidae (First life of Saint Brigit, so called because it is the first of Brigit's biographies recorded in the Acta Sanctorum Bollandiana—the major collection of saints' lives first compiled by the Société des Bollandistes in Belgium in the seventeenth century), also has a claim for early composition, and there is a continuing debate over which of these two is the earlier. The relationship between these two lives has yet to be resolved, and while both seem to draw upon similar sources, their composition is different. Cogitosus's biography offers only a very brief summary of Brigit's birth, parentage, and early career in a conventional hagiographical manner and concentrates instead on a series of miracle stories (including the well-known story of how the saint hung her wet cloak on a sunbeam), leading to a lengthy description of Brigit's church and monastery. Cogitosus's aim seems to be the promotion of the monastic community as much as that of its founder and patron; the miracle stories underline Brigit's sanctity and divine power while the great size, wealth, and political and religious importance of her community are emphasized. The Vita Prima, on the other hand, offers a more lengthy series of miracle stories and anecdotes, including the famous birth tale in which Brigit is the daughter of a nobleman and a slavewoman, whom he sells at his wife's insistence. The woman is bought first by a poet, then by a druid; the child is born on the threshold of the dairy at dawn and washed in new milk. Both versions mix biblical references and scripturally based miracles with folkloric material.

The work of Cogitosus was followed shortly by that of Muirchú, a monk of Armagh, who composed a life of Saint Patrick around 680 C.E. In his preface he refers to the hagiographical work of his "father" Cogitosus (no doubt meaning his spiritual father) and aims in his composition to do as Cogitosus did for his patron and founder. Muirchú's work contains more biographical material than does Cogitosus's and details Patrick's early life and mission to Ireland; however, much of it is based on legend rather than history, although he clearly used some historical sources, including Patrick's own Confessio (Confession). Nevertheless, Muirchú's life of Patrick became the basis for subsequent lives of Patrick. A contemporary document by a bishop, Tiréchan, provides further hagiographical material but is a collection of memoranda concerning Patrick and a list of his foundations rather than any kind of biography.

The third great hagiographical work of the seventh century is the life of Columba (Colum Cille) by Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona, written between 685 and 689 C.E. Adomnán's life of Columba represents Irish hagiographical writing at its finest; his work shows not only biblical influence but the influence of major continental writers, such as Sulpicius Severus and Gregory the Great, in both his hagiographical form and Latin style. While Adomnán incorporated both written sources and the oral tradition of Saint Columba in his life, much of the work also documents the history and constitution of the Irish church in its early days. The life is divided into three parts: The first part tells of Columba's life and career, the second of his miracles and prophecies, and the third of angelic visions. Despite the legendary and folkloric material, Columba emerges in this life less as a magical figure and more as an historical personage. Like Muirchú's life of Saint Patrick, Adomnán's life of Columba became the basis for subsequent biographies of the saint in both Latin and Irish, culminating in the massive Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Colum Cille) compiled under the direction of the Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell in 1532. The works of Cogitosus, Muirchú, and Adomnán also reflect their respective communities' concerns with promoting the cults of their founders and establishing their territorial rights, thereby increasing their influence and income. Armagh and Kildare, both episcopal sees, rivaled one other for preeminence in the Irish church; Armagh and its founder saint, Patrick, eventually gained ascendance.

The Irish church witnessed an expansion of monastic communities in the seventh and eighth centuries that led to an increase in hagiographical composition. This was aided in part by a renewal of asceticism and a spiritual reform led by a new order who called themselves céli Dé (culdees) or "companions of God," centered at the monastery of Tallaght. The lives of saints from this period emphasize the saints' ascetic practices and virtues of self-denial, individual prayer, and meditation; the life of the anchorite, alone in his cell with only God's creation for company, is valorized, as is the saint's spiritual guidance. Irish hagiographers often ascribed to their subjects a strong empathy with the natural world and its creatures; the saints of the sixth and seventh centuries had shown this affinity with nature and wild animals, and this characteristic continued in the hagiography of the reform period, finding also new expression in the religious poetry of the time. Devotion to the saints was also an important ideal in this movement, and two major martyrologies, the Martyrology of Tallaght and the Martyrology of Oengus, are associated with the céli Dé.

During the eighth and ninth centuries more hagiographical texts began to appear in the vernacular, including the Old Irish life of Brigit (Bethu Brigte), which dates from the late eighth to early ninth centuries, and the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick (Vita Tripartita) of the late ninth century, which represents the last major Patrician text of the Irish church. The Tripartite Life marks another change in the characteristics of Irish hagiography—it exhibits a strong concern with the rights and property of Patrick's church rather than with spiritual teaching. The lives of the saints from this period onward follow suit in showing such interest in their saints' churches, and the miracle stories become more fantastic and flamboyant to demonstrate the power of the saint, who appears much the same as a saga hero.

The majority of the lives written in the vernacular are in Middle Irish; many are direct translations from Latin originals and date from around and after the twelfth century. But dating is notoriously difficult, since the manuscript versions of the lives of the saints, in both Latin and Irish, cannot be dated with confidence before the late twelfth century. This is partly owing to the incursions of the Vikings in the late eighth to the tenth centuries, but also to the ravages of later eras. From the sixth century Irish monks had traveled to Europe as pilgrims and missionaries, and a few, such as Saint Columbanus in the late sixth to early seventh centuries, founded several monasteries in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Many Irish monks fled to these continental Irish monasteries in the wake of the Vikings, taking their manuscripts with them. Irish hagiographical writing continued, however, both in Ireland and in Europe—the Navigatio Sancti Brendani (Voyage of Saint Brendan), one of the most widely read works of the Middle Ages, was composed on the continent around the tenth century, probably by an Irish monk in exile, and was later translated into several vernacular languages.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Irish church moved closer to conformity with the continental church and participated in the reform movement that was associated with the Benedictine abbey at Cluny. This paved the way for new orders, such as the Cistercians, to enter Ireland. One of the main leaders of this movement in Ireland was Máel-Máedóc Úa Morgair, or Saint Malachy; an account of his life was composed after his death in 1148 by his friend, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Although the great heyday of Irish saints and Irish hagiography had passed, the lives of the saints remained an important part of Irish history and identity. As the Normans became increasingly absorbed into Irish society and culture, Irish literature and learning rebounded. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the major collections of saints' lives—the Codex Insulensis, the Codex Salmanticensis, and the Codex Kilkenniensis—were compiled. The Book of Lismore, a private collection made for Finghín MacCarthaigh Riabhach (MacCarthy Reagh) and his wife Catherine, containing lives in Irish, was compiled in the late fifteenth century.

The English conquest in the sixteenth century, however, halted further hagiographical production. The traditional historians of Ireland tried to continue the task of preserving and copying existing manuscripts, while Irishmen hoping to join the priesthood had to journey to Europe for their training. In the early seventeenth century the Irish ecclesiastics on the continent, alarmed that their national history was threatened with extinction, began to collect and publish Irish manuscripts; the main proponents were Henry FitzSimon (c. 1566–c. 1645), Luke Wadding (1588–1657), Peter Lombard (c. 1555–1625), and Stephen White (1574–1646). At the College of Saint Anthony in Louvain, a group under the leadership of Hugh Ward (1590–1635), encouraged by Luke Wadding and assisted by Stephen White, undertook a major plan for a Thesaurus Antiquitatem Hibernicarum (Thesaurus of Irish antiquities). The first object was to collect at Louvain as many Irish historical sources as possible, including hagiographical sources, both from Europe and from Ireland. This task was discharged by John Colgan (1592–1658), Patrick Fleming (1599–1631), and Michael O'Clery (d. 1645). The mission of collecting and copying in Ireland all the manuscripts in Irish pertaining to religious history fell to O'Clery, who between 1626 and 1642 assembled and transcribed a prodigious number of manuscripts, many of which contained hagiographical material. The third volume of the whole design, published at Louvain in 1645, contains the lives of Irish saints whose festivals fall within January, February, and March; the second volume, published in 1647, contains documents pertaining to Saints Patrick, Brigit, and Columba. Both were edited by Colgan. Another collection of lives in Irish was copied by Domnall Ó Dineen in 1627, possibly for the Irish scholars at Louvain, though it remained in Ireland.

From the collections of Irish material made by these scholars and from the great Latin collections, most of the modern editions of Irish hagiography were made. The O'Clery collections now reside in the Bibliothèque royale in Brussels. Several manuscripts that remained in Ireland found their way into the collections of antiquarians, such as Sir James Ware (1594–1666) and Sir Robert Cotton (1570–1631), and from thence went eventually to the British Library and the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford (including the great codices under the Rawlinson collection). Other manuscript sources reside in the libraries of Trinity College, Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy. The study of Irish hagiography has gained added impetus not only from modern editions but from advances in the study of the language and history of early Ireland; a large body of scholarship has appeared in recent years, making these texts accessible to the modern reader and returning them to their rightful place in Irish literary and religious history.

Anderson, A. O., and M. O. Anderson, eds. and trans. Adomnán's Life of Columba. 1961. Reprint, 1991.
Bray, Dorothy Ann. A List of Motifs in the Lives of the Early Irish Saints. 1992.
Connolly, Seán. "Vita Prima Sanctae Brigidae." Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 119 (1989): 5–49.
Connolly, Seán, and Jean-Michel Picard. "Cogitosus: Life of St. Brigit." Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 117 (1987): 5–27.
Heist, W. W. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. 1965.
Herbert, Máire. Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba. 1988.
Howlett, D. R., ed. and trans. The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop. 1994.
Hughes, Kathleen. The Church in Early Irish Society. 1966.
Hughes, Kathleen. Early Christian Ireland: An Introduction to the Sources. 1972.
Kenney, J. F. The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical. 1929. Reprint, 1979.
Ó hAodha, Donncha, ed. and trans. Bethu Brigte. 1978.
Plummer, Charles, ed. and trans. Bethada Náem nÉrenn: Lives of Irish Saints. 2 vols. 1922. Reprint, 1968.
Plummer, Charles, ed. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. 2 vols. 1910. Reprint, 1968.
Sharpe, Richard. Medieval Irish Saints' Lives. 1991.
Sharpe, Richard, trans. Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. 1995.
Dorothy Ann Bray

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