The Written Sources

If the usable material remains are scanty, so too are the written ones. The saints' Lives of this century are the only substantial, possibly useful, textual source for the foundation of female houses. They pose problems, of course. A hagiog-rapher, even when writing during the lifetime of a saint, did not aim to write history but rather to demonstrate God's power. Moreover, storytelling devices were employed to enhance the plot, and entire episodes were sometimes copied wholesale from extant texts. The structure of saints' Lives was largely formulaic, too, many early medieval ones owing a large debt to Jerome's, Cassian's, and Athanasius's Lives of early Church Fathers. Moreover the political agendas underlying the writing of most Lives meant that the facts were skewed to elevate the status or wealth of the institutions ofwhich the saint was patron—usually the

6 Thomas, North Britain, 69.

7 O'Kelly, 'Church Island', 60; Thomas, North Britain, 72; Edwards, Archaeology, 117.

redactor's own church. Hagiographical problems intensify when we come to the treatment of women. Men wrote virtually all, if not all, of the texts, so female characters are perceived only through male lenses, and further, they may illustrate principles rather than real women.8 This problem has already been encountered in Patrick's Confessio. It is even more evident in the seventh century that ecclesiastical writers were aware of, and used, Christianity's symbolic language; Hiberno-Latin glosses and exegetical tracts of this century are filled with biblical symbolic metaphors.9 A woman character in a Life could thus be intended as a metaphor.

In spite of these problems, the counter-arguments remain stronger. Only the hagiography deals with places holy women lived, and the seventh-century Lives were composed less than a century after the events they describe. If it is acknowledged that the texts may well owe a good deal to literary models, it will be productive to attempt to identify the latter, and to consider how the redactors used those earlier archetypes. The problems which drive some away from using hagiography at all can instead be borne in mind as caveats.

There are a handful of seventh-century Irish Lives, of which two have been mentioned already. Brigit's Latin Life by Cogitosus was written by a religious resident of the monastery of Kildare in the third quarter of the seventh century Its purpose was the aggrandizement of Kildare, but there appears to be no special pleading.10 It is a highly articulate, formally written piece in excellent polished Latin. Whilst scholars such as Bieler have argued for a date close to 650, Richard Sharpe has left the dating more open, to 'not later than 700'.11 The so-called Vita I of Brigit is a long and fascinating Life. Written in much less polished Latin, it appears to have little in common with Cogitosus and is of controversial date, being from either the seventh or the eighth century12 In recent

8 'Historians can learn something from the anthropologist's idea that women are "good to think". That is to say, women have diverse, and opposed meanings inscribed upon them, and lend themselves to such multiple interpretations in ways that men do not. It is no coincidence that favourite subjects of Christian monastic spirituality should be the bride/soul/Church of the Song of Songs and the composite image of Mary, virgin-mother, sinner/saved' (Nelson, 'Women and the Word', in Shiels and Wood, Women in the Church, 53—78).

9 M. McNamara, The Apocrypha in the Irish Church (Dublin, 1975; repr. with corrections, 1984); E. G. Quin, 'The Irish Glosses', in P. Ni Chatham and M. Richter (eds.), Irland und Europa: Die Kirche im Frumittelalter (Stuttgart, 1984), 210—17; M. Herbert and M. McNamara, Irish Biblical Apocrypha: Selected Texts in Translation (Edinburgh, 1989).

10 L. Bieler, 'The Celtic Hagiographer' in L. Bieler, Ireland and the Culture of Early Medieval Europe, ed. R. Sharpe (Variorum Reprints; London, 1987), 251. The Cogitosus Life exists in some 65 primary manuscripts, including two 9th-cent. manuscripts from northern France (Reims Bibl. Mun. MS 296 and Paris BN Lat. 2999) and two northern French copies of the 10 th and 11 th cents. The standard edition is J. Colgan, Tradis thaumaturgae acta (Louvain, 1658), 135—41. A less satisfactory edition is that in PL 72. 775—90. An English translation is published by S. Connolly and J.-M. Picard, 'Cogitosus' Life of St Brigit', JRSAI117 (1987), 5—27.

11 R. Sharpe, ' Vitae S. Brigitae: The Oldest Texts', Peritia I (1982), 81—106, at 86.

12 An early date was proposed by M. Esposito and has been defended by Sharpe; see M. Esposito, 'On the Earliest Latin Life of St. Brigid of Kildare', PRIA 30C (1912), 307—26; id., 'On the Early Latin Lives of St. Brigid of Kildare', Hermathena 49 (1935), 120—65; and Sharpe, 'Vitae S. Brigidae\ For arguments years, the debate has been furthered by Richard Sharpe and Kim McCone.13 Though there are other points, the dating debate has hinged on how the text treats the relationship between Kildare and Armagh; as the two churches were at odds for much of the seventh century. Brigit's Vita I must date either from before the worst of the conflict or after it, not least because Patrick accords to Brigit equal status in a particularly fulsome passage. Sharpe's and Esposito's position is in many ways the more attractive, especially in light of the Latinity, but the case for the eighth century is a strong one.The text survives in about twenty-five Continental manuscripts, and the manuscript tradition goes back to the ninth century, the oldest and most authoritative manuscript being of possibly southern German provenance.

The remaining two Lives are not of Brigit but of Patrick. The Memoirs of Tirechan, found solely in the Book of Armagh, recount the activities, primarily the travels, of Patrick; appended to it are charter-like addenda, traditionally called the Additamenta. Tirechan aimed to build up Armagh's claim to episcopal supremacy, so he attributed to Patrick the foundation of hundreds of churches whose actual origins may have had nothing to do with him.14 Muirchu's Life of Patrick casts the saint as a powerful magus overcoming the native pagans; no virgins appear in it.15 It is necessary to mention also an eleventh-century Latin Life of the virgin saint Monenna, foundress of Killevy in south-west Ulster (Ir. Cell Shleibe Cuillin) by one Conchubranus.16 Mario Esposito claimed that identifiable sections of it are verbatim copies of a seventh-century exemplar which he dated to between ad 600 and 624.17 The argument is attractive, but insufficiently secure to warrant using the allegedly early chapters except as provisional supplementary evidence.

It is from this handful of material, then, that the historian must assemble a favouring a later date see F. O Briain, 'Brigitana', ZCP 36 (1977), 112—37; Bieler, 'The Celtic Hagiographer', 246—53; K. McCone, 'Brigit in the Seventh Century: A Saint With Three Lives?', Peritia I (1982), 107—45. Also see D. O hAodha, 'The Early Lives of St Brigit', County Kildare Archaeological Society Journal 15 (1971—6), 397—405. For a brief summary of the debate see R. Sharpe, Medieval Irish Saints Lives: An Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford, 1991), 15.

13 Sharpe, 'VitaeS. Brigitae; McCone, 'Brigit'. Sean Connolly in his translation of Cogitosus says the Vita I is 'almost a century' later than Cogitosus' Life which (following Bieler) he puts at shortly after 650 ('Cogitosus' Life of St Brigit', 5).

14 There is a discussion of the text in Kenney, no. 127, giving it the dates 670 X 700; also discussed in L. Bieler, ed. and trans., The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10: Dublin,

15 Muirchu, Life of Patrick, ed. and trans. in A. Hood, Patrick: His Writings andMuirchu's Life (London, 1978), 61 —81; also in Bieler, Patrician Texts, 61—I2I.

16 Conchubranus' Life is found in a single manuscript, Cotton Cleopatra A.ii, ed. and trans. USMLS, 'The Life of Saint Monenna by Conchubranus', SeanchasArdMhacha, 9.2 (I979), 250—73; I0.I (I980—I), II7-4I; I0.2 (I982), 426-53. It was also edited by M. Esposito in PRIA 28C (I9I0), I97-25I.

17 'The Sources of Conchubranus' Life of St Monenna', English Historical Review 35 (I920), 7I—8; for his dating of the exemplar, see 76. Seventh-cent. passages were identified as those which, inter alia, refer to Ireland as Scotia rather than Hibernia, and partly by identifying as contemporary an appended abbess-list of which the final name was that of an abbess of the early 7th-cent.

54 the fifth and sixth centuries picture of how women's communities came into existence in the course of the sixth and very early seventh centuries.

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  • madihah
    Do women have souls a debate in a welsh council in 7th century?
    8 years ago

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