Friday 19 December 2014

The Life of the Holy Virgin Samthann

December 19 is the feast of Saint Samthann of Clonbroney and last year's post on her life can be found here. The Life of Samthann is known mainly from an early 14th-century manuscript, Rawlinson B.485. Richard Sharpe, who has studied the various collections of Irish saints' Lives argues that the 'Oxford group' in which the Life of Samthann is included may have originated in the Longford/Westmeath region. Saint Samthann's monastery of Clonbroney was in County Longford, so this may explain why her Life forms part of that collection. Unusually among the monastic saints, Samthann was not the founder of her community and I looked at the circumstances in which the leadership of Clonbroney was passed to her in last year's post. Furthermore, the Life does not include an account of her birth and early years, as one usually finds in other saints' Lives. Dorothy Africa, who has published a translation of the Life of Saint Samthann, comments on some of the text's other unusual features, the first of which we will now turn to:
Except for the omission of an account of her early life, the Life of St. Samthann follows the general pattern of Irish saint’s Lives. It has, however several distinctive features worthy of comment. Few saints Lives display such an opening sequence as this one, with the protagonist entering her own life sound asleep and hurtling within a few sentences into full dramatic action. It is common, however, in the Lives of women saints for the saint to struggle heroically to avoid a marriage forced upon her by parents and kin. Fosterage was a common practice in Ireland for children of both sexes. Usually a woman’s own family, not her foster father, would make arrangements for her marriage, but if they were distant, as appears to be the case here, responsibility might pass to a fosterer.
Dorothy Africa, trans., Life of the Holy Virgin Samthann, in T. Head, ed., Medieval Hagiography - An Anthology (Routledge, 2001), 99.

So, here is that dramatic beginning to the Life of Saint Samthann, taken from a translation made by two Irish priests, Fathers Diamuid O'Laoghaire and Peter O'Dwyer:

Samthann's father's name was Diamramus, and her mother's Columba. As she matured her foster-father, Cridan, king of the Ui Coirpri, gave her in marriage to a nobleman. Before the marriage solemnities were celebrated, the nobleman saw at midnight something like a ray of the sun extended through the roof of the house onto the bed in which Samthann was sleeping with the king's two daughters. Amazed by the unusual vision of light at such an hour, he rose immediately and, advancing toward his spouse's bed, found that her face was illumined by that ray. He was very happy that he was gifted with a spouse who was surrounded by heavenly light.
The following night, when the solemnities had been celebrated, both were entering the marriage bed, as is customary, when her husband said to her, "Undress yourself so that we may become one". But she replies, "I ask you to wait until all who are in this house are asleep." Her husband agreed. After a short time tiredness overcame him. Then Samthann gave herself to prayer, knocking at the doors of divine mercy so that God might keep her virginity unblemished. And God heard her prayer, for about midnight that town in which they lived seemed to outsiders to be on fire. A flame of extraordinary magnitude was seen ascending from the mouth of the holy virgin to the roof of the house. A mighty cry was raised outside in the town and those who were asleep within were awakened. Together, they hastened to extinguish the fire.
In the meantime the holy virgin Samthann hid herself in a cluster of ferns nearby. The fire vanished immediately without doing any damage to the town. When morning came, her foster-father, the king, set out to look for her. When he found her, she said to the king, "Was your town burned last night?" The king replied, "No." She said, "I thank God that it was not burned." Then she spoke to the king again, "Why did you wish to give this poor servant of the Almighty God to any spouse without her consent?" The king replied, "All right, I will not give you to a man, but let you be the judge." Samthann said, "This is not my decision: as of now you give me as a spouse to God and not to man." Then the king said, "We offer you to God, the spouse whom you choose." Then she, with her husband's permission, entered the monastery of the virgin Cognat where she remained for a time.

'Samthann of Clonbroney" in E.C.Sellner, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints (Indiana, 1993), 194-5.

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