And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 29. desember 2014

Gerald of Wales and the Irish saints


 This seems to me a thing to be noticed that just as the men of this country are during this mortal life more prone to anger and revenge than any other race, so in eternal death the saints of this land that have been elevated by their merits are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.
- Gerald of Wales, The Topography of Ireland (transl. by John O'Meara)



A priest accosted by a werewolf
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

In this blogpost I'm looking at Gerald of Wales' presentation of some Irish saints in his famous work Topographica Hiberniae which was composed in the latter half of the 1180s. The book is in part a recollection of things Gerald heard or witnessed during his trips to Ireland in the period 1183-85. On his second visit he was a part of King Henry II's retinue and was the tutor of his son John. When Gerald returned to Ireland in 1185, he was part of John's retinue. Gerald was also related to members of the Anglo-Norman invasion force, and was therefore doubly invested in the Anglo-Norman campaign to subdue Ireland.


It is in this context Gerald's comments on Ireland and its people must be understood, and in this blogpost I wish to see how Gerald's treatment of Ireland's saints can be explained by context of invasion and subjugation (I hesitate to use the term "colonial context").

The fish with three gold teeth
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Gerald's views on the Irish saints as expressed in the epigraph are found as the last chapter of part two of his Topographia hiberniae. In this chapter, Gerald records the wonders, the miracles and the holy men and women of Ireland. The chapter begins with natural wonders, such as a fish with three gold teeth, or the wonderful well of Munster whose water turned things put into it grey. After these natural wonders, Gerald moves on to wonders pertaining to men and beasts, and he records a boy of Wicklow who was a man in most physiognomical respects, but whose nose, eyes, hands and feet resembled those of an ox. This deformed boy was regularly given food at the court of Maurice fitzGerald, one of Gerald's relatives and one of the leaders of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

The werewolves of St Natalis
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library


Saint Natalis and the Werewolves

As for the Irish saints, their vindictive nature becomes apparent already in the first story in Gerald's catalogue of animal wonders. The story tells of a priest who was travelling through a wood together with a young boy, and after they had lit up a fire for the night a wolf came up to them and started speaking. In order to calm them down, the wolf spoke about God - and said reasonable and Catholic things, Gerald notes - and then he explained what he wanted:

We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man compltely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.
- Topography of Ireland, chapter 52 (translated by John O'Meara)


The wolf then goes on to explain that his "companion in this pilgrimage" is close to death, and he asks the priest to give her the solace of divine mercy at her life's end. The priest agrees and after some exhortation also gives the dying woman the last rites, including the communion. This story bears some echoes of an old Celtic tale where two brothers are punished by being sent into the woods as a he-wolf and a she-wolf. They later return in their human shape and with the children they have incestuously reared while bearing the shape of wolf. This is not to say that Gerald knew this story, or that it had any impact on the anecdote related above, but it suggests a deep-rooted belief in lycanthropy in Irish folklore. More interesting for my purpose here, is the detail that the fate of these wolves was ordained by St Natalis as a punishment, perhaps a particularly Irish punishment at that, which presents us right away with the vindictive nature of the Irish saints.
St Kevin and the blackbird
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

The Curse of Saint Kevin

Another example of this vindictiveness is related in chapter 61, which tells about St Kevin, "a great confessor of the faith". Kevin is perhaps most famous for his patience exhibited when, during the saint's prayer, a blackbird started building a nest in his outstretched hand, which was the subject of a poem by Seamus Heaney. In kindness to the bird, Kevin did not move until the birds were hatched, and Gerald notes that because of this, the blackbird features in the iconographical representations of the saint. However, Gerald also tells us about Kevin's vengefulness to birds. We are told that on his feast days, the ravens of Glendalough are "prevented by a curse of Saint Kevin" from being on the ground and from eating, so the birds fly about the village and make "a great noise". The reason for this curse, Gerald speculates, might be that the ravens had caused one of Kevin's students to spill some milk.  

The teal of St Colman
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

The Teal of Saint Colman

The next chapter records a story in which saintly vindictiveness is protecting rather than harming birds. Here Gerald tells of some teal inhabiting a lake in Leinster, who have resided there since the time of St Colman (it is not specified when that time was). These birds are tame enough to take food from people's hands, but

[w]henever any injury or molestation happens to the church, the clergy, or themselves, they go off to a lake at some distance, and do not return to their former abode until due satisfaction has been made. In the meantime during their absence the waters of the lake, which before were limpid and clear, become brackish and dirty, and cannot be use either for man or beast.
- Topography of Ireland, chapter 62 (translated by John O'Meara)

Gerald further records that once a teal was accidentally brought back from the lake with some cooking water, but although the water was cooking for a long time, the bird - thanks, no doubt, to the miraculous protection of St Colman - remained unhurt. Similarly, Gerald tells of a story happening "in our own times" when the Anglo-Norman invader Robert fitzStephen travelled through the area in the company of King Dermot of Leinster. An archer, ostensibly belonging to the retinue of King Dermot, shot one of the teal and tried to cook it for his king. When he showed King Dermot the miserable result of hours and hours of cooking, the king understood that this was a bird protected by Colman, and exclaimed "Alas form me! That this misfortune should ever have happened in my house". The archer perished miserably a short while after.

The anecdote is relatively sparing in contextual detail, but it is tempting to see King Dermot's fear of St Colman's vengeance in the light of his apparent alliance with the Anglo-Normans, dreading perhaps that his seemingly secure standing would change in the vicissitudes of occupation. Or perhaps this anecdote can be seen as Gerald's warning to the Anglo-Norman barons and their soldiers, that although the subjugation of Ireland is right - since they presented as a nation of bestial and uncivilised men - they should not suffer needless injuries, and nor should their churches be plundered. This should be seen in light of part three of the book, where Gerald gives praise to the Irish clergy, both monks and priests, although he reproves them for lack of discipline.
Minor incidents and lack of vermin

After the anecdote about the teal of St Colman, Gerald soon comes to some minor examples of the powers of Irish sanctity. The first of these is treated in chapter 64, where we are told of a village in Connacht which was "celebrated for a church of Saint Nannan". Once this village was badly infested with fleas, but St Nannan had them miraculously brought to a meadow close by, where the fleas were confined and made it inaccessible to men and beasts alike.

A similar story follows in chapter 65, where we learn of the district of Ferneginan. Here lived Bishop Yvor, who was so plagued by rats eating his books that he cursed them, and the result was that they all were expelled from Ferneginan, and from that day on, it was impossible for rats to live in that district. If rats were to be brought in, they would die. This particular anecdote becomes even more interesting because of its similarities to the supposition noted by Gerald in chapters 21 and 22 that poisonous reptiles are not found in Ireland. This is an old story, and the legend states that it was St Patrick who drove the snakes and other reptiles from the island. Gerald records this belief as a "pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick and other saints of the land purged the island of all harmful animals", but goes on to suggest that Ireland must have been without these creatures from the beginning of the island's existence.
 
However, this does not explain why reptiles brought into the island perish upon entering the the land, and in chapter 23 Gerald suggests that this has to do with qualities in the Irish soil rather than saintly protection. What is significant about this, is that in chapter 48 Gerald tells how the jurisdiction of the island of Man was granted to Britain rather than Ireland, because poisonous reptiles could live there. And already in chapter 25 Gerald has recorded the discovery of a live frog near Waterford - significantly where the Anglo-Norman invaders entered Ireland in 1174 - which was taken as a sign by King Duvendalus "of the coming of the English, and the imminent conquest and defeat of his people". Ireland allows for heretofore alien reptiles and prepares itself to allow the Anglo-Norman conquest. But the saints are not in the picture, they are not relinquishing patronage nor endorsing the invaders, it is the soil itself that changes - although presumably through divine machinations. Gerald does not pit Irish saints against English saints, but relies instead on what we might call scientific rumination to explain the relationship of reptiles to Ireland.  

The book-eating rats of Ferneginan
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Miracles of St Brigid

The next saint to be treated in Gerald's catalogue of wonders is "the glorious Brigid". Some miracles pertaining to St Brigid's fire are mentioned, and a longer account is given of a falcon in Kildare who was believed to have lived there since the time of Brigid (i.e. several generations). This bird is used by Gerald as an example "of honour to churchmen", because during its mating season it flew away from the hallowed precincts of the church where it resided and fornicated elsewhere. The bird "was killed by a rustic" at the time when John, son of King Henry, departed from Ireland the first time.

For my purpose here, however, the significant aspect of St Brigid's powers is her protection of a hedge which surrounds the perpetual fire which is kept burning by her devotees. Since only women are allowed to perform the office as fire-keepers, a man who crosses the hedge "does not escape the divine vengeance". The curse of St Brigid also prevents goats to "have young here".

St Brigid's hedge is described in chapter 69, and Gerald returns to it in chapter 77 where we learn of an archer belonging to the retinue of the Anglo-Norman earl Richard. The archer crossed the hedge and blew upon the saint's fire and immediately went mad. The chapter concludes with an anecdote about a man who had only gotten his shin across the hedge before he was pulled back, and consequently lost his leg. This kind of violent territorial protection is not a feature unique to the Irish saints. Several instances are found in hagiographical texts from all over the Latin West, perhaps most famously St Edmund's killing of Sweyn Forkbeard at Bury St Edmunds. However, when seen in the context of Anglo-Norman invasion and settlement, this anecdote seems to reinforce Gerald's preoccupation with the importance of respecting the Irish places of religion. It seems as if common decency can't prevent the invaders from violating the churches, perhaps a fear of the vengeance of saints might be of help.


Protection of the Land

Keeping in this vein, in the following chapters we find several anecdotes rehearsing the dangers of encroaching upon land belonging to the Irish saints. Chapter 78 contains an anecdote about a soldier who had unlawfully expropriated land belonging to St Finbar in Cork. The bishop of the place, in sadness and anger, asked God (rather Finbar himself) not to allow this land to bear fruit. God listened to the bishop and performed the requested miracle "through the merits of the holy man" (although we are left uncertain as to whether this is Finbar the saint or the bishop of Cork).

The next chapter records how two Anglo-Normans were punished for their lack of piety. The first was Philip of Worcester who forced tribute from the clergy of Armagh, the seat of St Patrick, during Lent. On his departure from Armagh, Philip "was stricken with an illness and scarcely survived". Then we are told of Hugh Tyrrell who stole a cooking-pot from the clergy of Armagh, and the night after he had returned to his lodgings in Louth a fire broke out that burned down a great part of the settlement, killing two horses that had carried the pot away from Armagh. Tyrrell himself was later cast into a civil strife between Anglo-Norman factions. Although it is not elaborated upon, the two aforementioned anecdotes are related to injuries committed against the clergy of Armagh, i.e. under the protection of Patrick, patron of Ireland.

After these vengeful miracles of St Patrick, we are presented with two revenges performed by St Fechin, who was very protective of a mill in Meath, which he had himself cut "out of the side of a rock". When a archer in the army of Hugh de Lacy raped a girl there, he "was stricked in his member with hell-fire in sudden vengeance and immediately began to burn throughout his whole body. He died the same night". Fechin's protection of his mill was not only concerned with violent injuries, but also with minor occurrances. In chapter 82, Gerald tells that two horses who had eaten stolen corn from the mill died afterwards.  

Bernard and the horn of St Brendan
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Confessors, not martyrs

Gerald's Topographia hiberniae is to a great degree a document intended to justify the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, yet as we have seen it is apparent that Gerald is concerned with the proper conduct of the conquerors. Ireland is lawfully occupied by the Anglo-Normans because, as is suggested in part three, the Irish are uncivilised and maintain evil customs (ch. 100), not all of them have been baptised (ch. 103) and their kingship ritual contains element of bestiality (ch. 102). However, Ireland and its places are not completely up for grabs, for the Irish saints are protecting their clergy, their pastures and their holy places with a fearful vengeance and they must therefore be respected. Furthermore, despite some shortcomings in discipline and religious practice, the Irish clergy has many good qualities, and its people has a proper respect for saints and their relics. As an example of this, Gerald includes in chapter 108 an anecdote that happened in Wales, where an Irishman carried a horn which was a relic of St Brendan. The horn was held in such great reverence that nobody dared to blow it, and when a Welsh priest did this, he turned mad and had to learn the psalter from the start.

However, despite the vindictiveness "in which the saints of this country seem to be very interested", the saints of Ireland appear to have accepted the coming of the Anglo-Normans. An explanation for this is offered by Gerald in chapter 105, in which he provides further comments on the nature of the Irish saints. For he states that

all the saints of this country are confessors, and there is no martyr. It would be difficult to find such a state of things in any other Christian kingdom. There was found no one in thise parts to cement the foundations of the growing church with the shedding of his blood. There was no one to do this service; not a single one.
- Topography of Ireland, chapter 105 (translated by John O'Meara)

These lines are very important for several reason. Although Gerald emphasises the sanctity of the Irish holy men and women, it appears that he suggests there is no protector of Ireland as a whole, not even the venerable Patrick. Gerald blames the Irish prelates for this state of affairs, because none of them have stood up for their church, or shed blood or suffered exile for its cause. Since this is written less than twenty years after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (d.1170), for which King Henry II was punished and for which he sought reparation, it is tempting to suggest that Gerald has the model of Becket in mind when he chastises the Irish clergy. He then recounts a comment made by the Archbishop of Cashel:

'It is true,' he said, 'that although our people are very barbarous, uncivilized, and savage, nevertheless they have always paid great honour and reverence to churchmen, and they have never put out their hands against the saints of God. But now a people has come to the kingdom which knows how, and is accustomed, to make martyrs. From now on Ireland will have its martyrs, just as other countries.'

The archbishop's words are chilling and seem prophetic in such a short time after the battle at Waterford, and the canonisation of Becket (1169/70 and 1173 respectively). However, Gerald states that the archbishop's comment, although hard-hitting, does not invalidate Gerald's opinion on the Irish prelates.


Saints and the conquest of Ireland

A final point is worth noting in Gerald's treatment of the Irish saints. As stated, the holiness of the Irish saints remains undisputed and their vengeful patronage are held up as a perennial warning against misconduct against the Irish churches. In chapter 97, Gerald records how the Anglo-Normans themselves showed their due respect for the native saints of Ireland:

Saint Columba and Saint Brigid were contemporaries of Patrick. Their three bodies were buried in Ulster in the same city, namely, Down. They were found there in our times, in the year, that is, that Lord John first came to Ireland, in a cave that had three sections. Patrick was lying in the middle, and the others were lying one on either side. John de Courci, who was in command there, took charge when these three noble treasures were, through divine revelation, found and translated.
- The Topography of Ireland, chapter 97 (translated by John O'Meara)

In other words, through the revelatory will of God, the Anglo-Norman conquerors have become devotees of Ireland's three major saints, and the patrons of Ireland are now the patrons of the Anglo-Normans. The episode is reminiscent of the legend of the seven sleepers at Ephesus recorded at length by Osbert of Clare in his hagiography of Edward the Confessor (c.1138). It is also interesting for its resemblance to similar aspects of Plantagenet appropriation of popular belief. In 1198 the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were reported to have been found in Glastonbury, thus proving to the Celtic world that Arthur was not resting at Avalon or anywhere else, but was dead and buried. In the late 1200s, King Edward I, during his Welsh campaign, had Arthur's remains translated and perhaps even canonised (although informally so since it was never accepted by the papal church). The purpose was the same at both these instances: to expropriate local history, and display the dynasty's reverence of and protection from these legendary figures.

It is tempting to suggest that this strategy had also been used by the Anglo-Norman conquerors in Ireland, and although Gerald does not elaborate on the importance of this revelation in any great degree, it might explain why Gerald's concern is to warn about local patronage and vindictiveness rather than worrying about the revenge of the great patrons of Ireland.

The making of an Irish king
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library


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