Friday, February 15, 2019

Review: Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend and Cult by Noel Kissane

Kissane, Noel. Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend and Cult (2017).

Noel Kissane’s book on Saint Brigit is unlike any I have previously read. Readable, immense in scope, it places her within the context of medieval Irish and Continental Christianity while also examining the minutiae of her cult.

Kissane traces the early development of Christianity in Ireland, such as the process of conversion, and sets Saint Brigit in the context of bishops like Palladius and Patrick. Important texts about or mentioning her are discussed, their dates estimated and implications considered. Various older images of Saint Brigit which we encounter on the internet are identified with their original sources. The lives and intentions of authors of early poems and Lives dedicated to her are delved into. Artistic depictions are listed. Her folklore, the history of Brigidine nuns, cultural movements that drew inspiration from her are examined—and so on and on.

If you were to attempt a pilgrimage through Europe dedicated to Saint Brigit, this would be an essential reference book. Irish placenames linked to her, monastic communities and churches connected to Kildare (ca. 1000 C.E.), and current dedications from churches to Gaelic Athletic Associations are listed and their history briefly recounted. The origin and movement of her various relics (including more heads than most people can boast) is investigated, and he details her cult across Europe, distinguishing between churches named for St. Brigitta of Sweden versus those named for St. Brigit of Kildare, where to the untrained eye these wouldn’t be easily teased apart.

I especially enjoyed reading Kissane’s depiction of life in Ireland during her era—setting her tales against that essential background is not done enough.[1] He goes deeply into the role her supposed tribe, the Fothairt, played in that society (working as mercenaries for other tribes) and what this implies for her, and compares the claims of different locales for her birth, growing up, or veiling ceremony. (I am now convinced it was Mac Caille, not Mél, who gave her the veil, but you may come to a different conclusion.) Amply sourced and footnoted, with an index that includes a breakdown by Irish county and town, it has a bibliography to bring joy to the researcher’s heart. Such are the delights of this book for Brigit scholars.

It is delightful, as well, to have so many oddities of the lore explained. For instance, why do we sometimes encounter the suggestion that Cogitosus (author of her earliest Life) was Brigit’s nephew? (Because of a misreading of a garbled manuscript.) Could Patrick actually have converted Brigit? (Nope.) Why did the Scottish claim her as their own? Was she ever in Glastonbury? Etc. Some of these are explained elsewhere, of course, but no other text tackles so many of these questions as this one.

Little space is set aside for the goddess, naturally, as she is not the subject of this book. However, I am disappointed that Kissane accepts without really questioning, and offers as a statement of high probability if not fact, the hypothesis, generally discounted by modern scholars (for utter lack of evidence), that Kildare was a pagan community dedicated to the goddess Brigit.[2] He even adds to the usual story his own details, such as that the saint may have converted separately from the community (pg. 90), and that she probably inherited a “countrywide network of established holy sites” (pg. 118). I fear that his elaboration of these and related ideas will just add to the rampant confusion around this. I am not opposed to him speculating. I simply wished he had made it clearer that this scenario was unweighted by evidence, and had offered the contradictory view as well. He has such a richness of factual matter here, and many of his speculations throughout the book seem more carefully reasoned. In this area he seems to lose sight of the boundary between conjecture and supportable theory. He goes so far as to say, “It is almost certain that to some degree the early Irish converts to Christianity conflated the saint with the goddess and regarded the saint as retaining and manifesting certain of the qualities and functions of the goddess” (pg. 93). But it is not almost certain. Now, if he had said that it was almost certain that they saw elements of a goddess in the saint, I would be much happier. But to presume the existence of this Brigit goddess sanctuary is venturing too far into conjecture to be certain of anything.

Another instance of unsupported speculation, much less worrying, is when he states that the story of Brigit’s mother’s status is much more likely to be correct in Vita Prima (slave) than in Cogitosus’s Life (noble woman) because there would be no reason to invent her illegitimacy. I can think of one good reason: Christ was born to a woman who was unmarried at the time of his conception. As in other saints’ Lives, many of the elements of Saint Brigit’s hagiography are meant to reflect moments in Jesus’s life as a way of showing her holiness. They reflect but do not exactly copy them. Could this be an instance of the same? I give this example only to say that speculation is just that, and we should never take it, when unsupported by excellent evidence, as any more likely than any other explanation to be true.

There is another good reason for making her illegitimate. Cogitosus was apparently a monk at Brigit’s monastery at Kildare (though a good while after her death); the author of Vita Prima was loyal to Armagh, St. Patrick’s seat of power. Kildare and Armagh were in the throes of a struggle for ecclesiastical supremacy. As Lisa Bitel writes in Landscape with Two Saints, unlike in Cogitosus’s Life, in Vita Prima and other later Lives Brigit “submitted to male religious officials, never competing directly for territory or space” (pg. 176). In this way she is subtly shown to be Patrick’s inferior, making Armagh the legitimate religious centre of Ireland. Would it not benefit such an agenda to have her the daughter of a slave, where Patrick was the son of nobles?

But such matters hardly mar my pleasure in the book as a whole. There is a goldmine of information here, including facts that, for all my scrutiny, I have never come across before, and which put into a much clearer order the normally shifting sea of matters Brigidine.

Highly recommended.

[1] See Christina Harrington’s Women in a Celtic Church and Lisa Bitel’s Landscape with Two Saints for very fine exceptions to this rule, as well as Alice Curtayne’s much earlier St. Brigid of Ireland for a less academic and slightly more fanciful but nevertheless excellent example.
[2] See Christina Harrington’s Women in a Celtic Church for a detailed explanation of how this hypothesis came about and the changes in scholarship that have led to its general rejection today.


Anonymous said...

I’ve been going back and forth on whether to purchase. Now I know I need to get it. Wonderful review. Thank you.

Mael Brigde said...

Happy to help, Shane! Let me know what you think.