Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars

By Stacey, Robin Chapman | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars


Stacey, Robin Chapman, The Catholic Historical Review


Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars. Edited by John Carey, Maire Herbert, and Padraig 6 Ruin. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the U.S.A. by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2001. Pp. xii, 418. $65.00.)

The year 1997 marked the 14001 anniversary of the death of one of the greatest of medieval Irish saints, St. Colum Cille (or Columba as he is more generally known outside of Irish academic circles). In recognition of that event, scholars at University College Cork convened an international conference on Irish hagiography, the proceedings of which have now appeared under the title Studies in Irish Hagiography:Saints and Scholars. This is an important collection of essays, a volume that is as much a celebration of the remarkable work done in the field of Irish hagiography in recent years as it is a tribute to the life and achievements of Columba himself.

The most basic themes of the volume are adumbrated by the section headings under which the editors have grouped the articles comprising the volume. Section One, "The Columban Tradition" presents three studies of Adomnan's Vita Columbae itself- one by Thomas O'Loughlin on the symbolic significance of tombs in the vita, which O'Loughlin suggests reveals Adomnan's"systematic theology of the resurrection" (p. 13). An interesting counterpart to this piece is

Nathalie Stalmans's "Le jugement de fame dans la Vie de Columba," which argues that Adomnan departs from many of his contemporaries in regarding penitence as terrestrial and the fate of the individual soul as being decided immediately upon death. Aidan MacDonald examines Adomnan's construction of the sacred space of Iona (and other Irish monastic settlements), suggesting that his triple boundary scheme differentiating sanctus, sanctior, and sanctissimus precincts within the settlement may ultimately derive from a biblical model.

Maire Herbert and John Carey focus on other texts within the Columban tradition and, specifically, on the manner in which Columba and his successors were constructed (not always favorably) by later generations. Herbert shows that the Wta Cainnechi draws heavily on the Vita Columbae (thus proving the latter work to have been known in Ireland by the second half of the eighth century), and argues that the portrayal of Cainnech as not merely the spiritual equal of Columba, but as morally superior to Columba's successors, reflects the rupture of relations between the communities of these two saints in the mid-eighth century Carey points to evidence in the Middle Irish Life of Adomnan for numerous traditions associating Columba with demons and otherworldly beings-encounters that he argues are deliberately downplayed in tales relating to Columba's successors.

Section II,"Traditions of Other Irish Saints," takes up the study of the vitae of three of Columba's best-known saintly colleagues, Patrick, Brigit, and Brendan. Elizabeth McLuhan's examination of slavery motifs in Patrick's writings suggests that for Patrick, slavery functioned less as a literal or historical institution than as a metaphor for a subjection to God that for him represented the only true freedom. A fascinating counterpart to this piece is Jonathan M. Wooding's discussion of the symbolic import of the hide-bound boat which, he argues, is not to be taken literally, but serves rather as a metaphor for exile, penance, and the vulnerability of the human soul before the majesty of God. Walter Berschin's essay takes a completely different approach to the lives, arguing that Cogitosus's Life of Brigit was informed by Venantius Fortunatus's vita of the Frankish queen Radegund: the absence of a death tale in both texts is, he suggests, to be understood as a sign that the saint's miracle-working praesentia transcends the barrier between life and death.

The themes of Section HI, "Irish Saints and Brittany," and Section IV, "Irish Saints' Lives in Continental Europe, complement one another very closely. …

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