Saturday, April 12, 2014

Did Brigit Love Animals Like a Good Celt Should?

Drawing by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Topographia Hibernica. British Library, Royal MS 13 B VIII, fo. 10v
I'm reading an interesting article by Cristina Olsen, "Did Brigit love animals like a good Celt should? An inquiry into Cogitosus's 'Life of Saint Brigit'". It touches not only on Brigit but on our understanding of the Celtic (most particularly the medieval Irish) attitude toward animals and nature. I got the article through an interlibrary loan; innocent that I am, I only recently learned that I could access these buried-in-vaults articles this way, when I don't have direct access to a university library that carries the particular journal I need.

To give you a sense of what it's about, I will quote a few paragraphs. She begins:

"The analysis in this paper stems from an examination and critique of a genre of modern-day literature that makes broad claims concerning a universal Celtic appreciation of the natural world and a love of animals.* The term "love" itself is problematic. Today in the western world loving nature subsumes principles of aesthetic appreciation not necessarily shared by peoples from other times and places. Given the scarcity of information concerning Celtic societies, it is impossible to draw broad conclusions regarding how ancient Celtic people viewed nature.

"A perusal of the history of western thought concerning the natural world suggests that a burgeoning love of nature is a relatively new phenomenon in the development of western human conscience. While the ancient Greeks and Romans were interested in nature for agricultural as well as aesthetic reasons, it was not until the late eighteenth century that the educated elite, fleeing the spreading cloud of urban industrialization, discovered the "Delightful Horror" of the wilderness and the mountains...

"By the mid-twentieth century, as we awakened to the possibility of nature's annihilation, human imagination attached itself to the elusive Celts, hoping to find amongst the dim vestiges of the ancient people wise counsels concerning the proper stewardship of the natural environment. In other words, the notion that Celts (Pagan or Christian) loved nature is unlikely to be other than a romantic projection reading back into the distant past the present sense of nature's impending demise...

"It is true that there are depictions of nature in Irish literature that intrigue us. However, I am not so sure that we have a clear understanding of what constitutes the Irish or Celtic "approach to the natural world"...In this paper I critique these tendencies to romanticize the ancient Celts and suggest an alternative approach to understanding the Celtic sense of nature by analyzing three animal stories in Cogitosus's seventh-century Life of Saint Brigit. If we truly wish to understand the relationship of the ancient Celts to their natural environments, we need to set aside our mythmaking and return to the primary sources, in this case the text."

In her conclusion, Olsen writes:

"...the animal stories in the Life of Saint Brigit are not about the animals but about Brigit's power and authority over all aspects of rural life in the environments of Kildare and, if Cogitosus would have his way, over all of Ireland. The animals are merely pawns in Brigit's hands in order to demonstrate the strength of her God-given power, and nowhere is there any evidence that these animals elicited concern in their own right.

"That the Life of Saint Brigit is replete with animal stories indicates that they were important; the analysis presented above demonstrates in what sense they were important...they were the center of the Irish rural economy."

Of course there is much more than this but I shall have to leave it here. For those interested in hearing her arguments in full, the bibliographical information is all below.

Blessings on you and your animal friends!

* "A full bibliography of the genre is too vast for footnoting, but the trend is best represented by Caitlin Matthews, The Elements of the Celtic Tradition...and Peter Beresford Ellis, Celtic Inheritance..." She then lists a large number of "works with a specific Christian outlook" beginning with Esther de Waal's Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition.

"Did Brigit love animals like a good Celt should? An inquiry into Cogitosus's 'Life of Saint Brigit'" by Cristina Olsen. COMITATUS--A JOURNAL OF MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE STUDIES  Vol/Issue: 33, Date: Jan 1, 2002, Pages: 1-17

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