Wednesday 8 February 2012

A 17th-Century View of Saint Brigid: Brigida Thaumaturga

Brigida Thaumaturga, Brigid the Wonderworker, is the title of a 17th-century treatise on Saint Brigid written by David Rothe, Bishop of Ossory (1568-1650) and published in Paris in 1620. The full title is Brigida Thaumaturga sive Dissertatio partim encomiastica in laudem ipsius sanctae, partim archaica, ex sacra et antiqua historia ecclesiastica, partim etiam parenetica ad alumnos Collegiorum, in qua elucidatur prodigium ligni aridi reviriscantis ex attractu B. Brigidae Virginis, et symbolico sensu accommodatur ad antiquam quod intercesserat commercium inter Galliam et Hiberniam in rebus sacris, literariis, et civilibus, habita in Collegio Hibernorum Parisiense, Kalendis Februarii, die festo ejusdem sanctae. Parisiis apud Sebastianum Cramois sub ciconiis, via Jacobaea. M.D.C.XX.', Brigid the wonder-worker; or a dissertation partly laudatory, in praise of the Saint, partly archaeological drawn from sacred and from ecclesiastical history, and partly also hortatory, addressed to the students of the (Irish) Colleges. In it the miracle of the wood growing green again at the touch of the Virgin Brigid is explained; and symbolically applied to the ancient inter-course between France and Ireland, in things sacred, literary and civil. Delivered in the Irish College in Paris on February I, Feast of the Saint. Published by Sebastian Cramois, under the Sign of the Storks. Rue Saint-Jacques, 1620.' Now, that's what I call a title! Jason Harris of the Centre for Neo-Latin Studies, University College Cork, has made an online edition of the Latin text available here. I don't know of any English translation, but the 1911 paper below, written by Father Patrick Boyle (1849-1933), offers a summary of its contents and a biography of its author. Note that the title contains a reference to the miracle of the wood growing green again at Saint Brigid's touch, this miracle is noted in one of the lessons for the saint's office in the Roman Breviary as well in the Sarum-rite office. Also worth looking out for in the paper is the hymn which Bishop Rothe wrote in praise of Saint Brigid when her intercession delivered him from shipwreck. I have transferred the translation of this from the footnotes into the main text beneath the Latin original. It is most interesting to read of this 17th-century view of Saint Brigid, one which appears to be grounded in hagiographical tradition, for the Bishop sees his patroness as the wonderworking head of Irish nuns, distinguished for her faith and charity, a figure far removed from the goddess, social worker or environmental activist of our own times.


IN the Mazarin Library in Paris is to be found a copy of a work entitled Brigida Thaumaturga, printed and published in Paris A.D. 1620. This work is now so rare that a short account of it may not be uninteresting to the clients of St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, in the twentieth century. Its author is the Most Rev. David Rothe, Bishop of Ossory. That distinguished man, eminent as a bishop, as a patriot, and a scholar, was born in Kilkenny in 1568. Having received his early education in his native city, he proceeded to the Continent, where he made his studies in philosophy and theology at Douai, and subsequently at Salamanca. Having obtained the degree of Doctor of Theology at the famous University of Salamanca, David Rothe visited Rome, whence he returned to Ireland in 1610, with rank of Apostolic Protonotary, and with a commission from the Holy See to labour for the restoration of fraternal union amongst the clergy of Ireland. The success with which he fulfilled his mission was the prelude of still higher honours. In 1614 Dr. Rothe was appointed Bishop of Ossory, and received episcopal consecration in Paris. Returning to Ireland he applied himself with zeal to his Episcopal functions; and on behalf of Primate Lombard, then resident in Rome, he held diocesan synods in the diocese of Armagh in 1614, and again in 1618.

But the numerous duties of his episcopal office were not enough to satisfy the zeal of Dr. Rothe. His moments of leisure he devoted to literary work, and in 1617 he published the first part of a valuable work entitled Analecta Sacra, in which he placed on record, with the authority of a contemporary witness, the constancy of Irishmen who suffered persecution for the faith in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. of England. The concluding part of that valuable work was published in 1619. The entire work was reprinted with an introductory notice in 1884, by an eminent successor of the author. Dr. Moran, Bishop of Ossory, subsequently Cardinal-Archbishop of Sydney, whose memory will long survive as a great Irish scholar, and a great Irish churchman.

While Dr. Rothe was thus engaged the persecution of Irish Catholics became more violent. The Lord-Deputy, Sir Oliver St. John, issued an edict ordering the banishment of priests and bishops. With the object of discovering such persons, the houses of the Catholic gentry were frequently searched. Dr. Rothe judged it prudent to withdraw before the storm for a time, and he took up his residence in Paris.

Here, on February 1, 1620, he delivered a remarkable address in the Irish College in Paris on St. Brigid, the sainted Patroness of Ireland—an address which was printed the same year with a dedication to John L'Escalopier, Baron de Saint-Just, President of the Parliament of Paris, and benefactor of the Irish College in that city. The work is written throughout in Latin. The title-page is as follows:

'Brigida Thaumaturga, etc. Brigid the wonder-worker; or a dissertation partly laudatory, in praise of the Saint, partly archaeological drawn from sacred and from ecclesiastical history, and partly also hortatory, addressed to the students of the (Irish) Colleges. In it the miracle of the wood growing green again at the touch of the Virgin Brigid is explained; and symbolically applied to the ancient intercourse between France and Ireland, in things sacred, literary and civil. Delivered in the Irish College in Paris on February I, Feast of the Saint. Published by Sebastian Cramois, under the Sign of the Storks. Rue Saint-Jacques, 1620.'

The title-page is followed by a letter of dedication to John L'Escalopier, in which the author refers to the liberality of that generous man towards the Irish exiles, and assures him that as he has been their patron, so St. Brigid will be his ('tu patronus illorum, tibi ilia patrona erit'). The letter of dedication is signed 'D.R.E.O.V.H.’ the initials of 'David Rothe, Episcopus Ossoriensis, Vice-Primas Hiberniae.' That the work is due to his pen is expressly mentioned by Lynch in his MS. Lives of the Bishops of Ireland.

From the dedication we pass on to the work itself. In the first part the learned author speaks in praise of St. Brigid. He begins by narrating the miracle of the wood of the altar growing green at the touch of the Virgin, on the occasion of her religious profession, and he points out instances of similar miracles in the case of St. Francis of Assisi and other saints. He then dwells on the rank which St. Brigid holds amongst the saints of Ireland. As St. Patrick is the head of the hierarchy, and St. Columba of the monks, so St. Brigid is the head of the virgins of Ireland. Her life was a model of Christian virtue, especially of faith and charity. Her sanctity was manifested by numerous miracles performed in favour of the blind, the lame, lepers, and persons possessed by the devil. Her sanctity, like a fruitful vine, spread its branches through the whole of Ireland.

In the second part of the work the author draws a parallel between the virtues of St. Brigid, overflowing, as it were, upon all who came within the sphere of her influence, and the sanctity of the Church in Ireland increasing, and then overflowing upon foreign nations, and especially upon France in the threefold relation of religion, learning, and civil intercourse.

Starting with the bonds which connected St. Patrick by blood with St. Martin of Tours, and by education with St. Germain of Auxerre, he dwells on the religious intercourse between France and Ireland; and he enumerates the most remarkable of the Irish saints who lived and laboured in France, especially from the sixth to the twelfth century. In the reign of Clotaire, Columban exercised a widespread influence and founded a monastery at Luxeuil, and his footprints may be traced along the banks of the Seine, the Marne, the Loire, and the Rhone. The work for religion in France, commenced by Columban, was continued under Dagobert by the sainted brothers St. Fursey, St. Livinus, and St. Ultan, whose memory still flourished in the monastery of Perrone. An Irish saint, St. Wirro, was the confessor and adviser of Pepin d'Heristal. Vincent, a layman, whom the author claims as an Irishman, was related by marriage to Dagobert. Two Irish priests, Sadochim (or Cardocum) and Adrian, evangelized Picardy. St. Malo, if not an Irishman, was the pupil of an Irishman, Albinus. As time rolled on communication between Ireland and France continued. St. Fiacre shed the lustre of his virtues upon the country around Meaux, where his shrine was long a centre of pilgrimage, and where he was honoured in particular as the patron of gardeners.

Nor were holy women wanting in the list of Irish saints in France. St. Syra, sister of St. Fiacre, and St. Ommana, both Irishwomen, shed the odour of their virtues around them in French cloisters. Nor did Frenchmen neglect to honour Irish saints. St. Patrick at Rouen, St. Malachy at Clairvaux, and St. Laurence at Eu, were the objects of special veneration and shrines were dedicated in their honour.

Passing from religion to literature, the author points out what France owes to Ireland. Under Charlemagne two Irishmen, Clement and Albinus, established on the banks of the Seine a school which became the cradle of the great University of Paris. Under Charles the Bald, another Irishman, Scotus Erigena, brought to France a knowledge of Greek literature and philosophy, which marked him out as the foremost Greek scholar of the period.

He then laments that while Ireland was once a fountain pouring forth streams of learning upon Europe, her schools are now closed through persecution, and her sons compelled to seek education in foreign lands.

Passing to the intercourse of civil life, the author points out that even in the days of Tacitus there was frequent communication between Ireland and the Continent, and the harbours of Ireland were widely known to traders. In course of time trade was followed by alliances. Vincent, an Irishman, otherwise called Waldegaire, married Waldetrude, a relative of King Dagobert. From their union sprang four saints: St. Landry, subsequently Bishop of Meaux; St. Dentlinus, who died in his seventh year; St. Aldetrude; and St. Madelberta. St. Landry invited Irishmen to come to France to aid him in the harvest of souls. The journeys and the influence of Columban and Gall and Virgil were not without their influence upon the communication between France and Ireland.

The author also sees another though a less direct proof of the intercourse between the two countries in the numerous family names of French origin which are to be met with in Ireland. The names de la Roche, de la Cource, Nogent, Barneville, Netterville, de Lacy, de la Blancheville, de la Groose, de St. Leger, S. Salem, Burnell, Boucher, Verdun, Moucler, Rochfort, de Burgo, Petit, Belleau, are all, at least remotely, of French origin.

In the third part of the work the author addresses himself to the Irish ecclesiastical students on the Continent, and exhorts them to imitate the virtues of St. Brigid and of the other saints of Ireland. Ireland lies prostrate under persecution; but as the wood of the altar became green at the touch of St. Brigid, the prosperity of Ireland may bloom again. That happy restoration, however, must be the work of the young Levites of Ireland. The author hopes that the day will come when the students of the period, all lovers of their brethren, will be engaged in missionary work in Ireland. It will then be said: ‘This one and that one and that other are pupils of the College in Paris; those others of Douai, and Antwerp, and Tournai; those others of Salamanca, and Compostella, and Lisbon, not omitting those of Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Rouen. They are all lovers of the brethren, all angels of peace, all ambassadors for Christ.' A great door is open to them. As the spirit of life entered into the dry bones at the words of the prophet, so by their preaching, religion will be made to flourish again in Ireland. They are not few in number, but they are few when compared with the multitude of their adversaries. If they are to succeed in their work they must be united in charity, and lead a life worthy of their vocation.

The dissertation in praise of Brigida Thaumaturga is followed by a Latin poem in alternate hexameter and pentameter verses, in which the author relates how on a voyage from France to Ireland he was saved from shipwreck through prayer to St. Brigid. Beneath the poem of Dr. Rothe are printed two verses by J. Ley, in whom we recognize the founder and first rector of the Irish College in Paris, praying St. Brigid, as she had saved Dr. Rothe from shipwreck, to protect him from other dangers also. This interesting ode in honour of St. Brigid runs thus:-

Carmen Thalassicum invocatorium B. Brigidae Virginis et Patronae Hiberniae.

Brigida, Hibernipetas quae ducis in aequore classes,
Te sibi ductricem nostra carina petit.
Eurus Hyperboreis alternans flatibus auram
Instat in occiduum carbasa tensa latus.
Ante, sed ex oculis quam gleba Acquitana nostris
Egressa est pelago subjicienda suo,
Inguine succusso latebrosa carina fatiscit,
Atque subintrantes rima capessit aquas.
Brachia remigibus sentina repanda fatigat
Inque suas veniunt acta redacta vices.
Clepsydra deciduas quoties discrevit arenas
Fundat inexhaustum fistula puppis onus.
Nec tutum est regredi ad littus, nec pergere tutum,
Unica res miseris tuta, vovere Deo.
Vovimus, alme pater, ne despice vota precantium,
Sed, duce te, optatum dirige navis iter.
Brigida, Hibernigenum supplex pro gente precatur,
Virginis haec pietas quod petit accipiet.

In periculo naufragii constitutus pangebat eidem virgini
patronae suae, indignus ipsius cliens,
D. R.

Brigida, quem rapidis mire tutavit ab undis
Hunc, ut ab hoste, precor, protegat ipsa tetro.
J. Ley.

A sailor's song invoking St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland:—

'Brigid, who guidest upon the deep the fleets that sail for Ireland, our bark prays thee to be her guide.
The south-eastern alternating with the northern blasts stretches our expanded sails towards the western side.
But ere the shores of Aquitaine, disappearing below the main, were lost to view;
our vessel lashed by the waves gapes wide, and a leak admits the entering waters.
The water-filled hold fatigues the arms of the sailors relieving each other by turns.
As often as the sand glass counts the hours, the ship's pump pours out the exhaustless burden.
To go back was unsafe, unsafe to advance.
The sole safety for the wretched was to offer prayers to God.
We pray, merciful Father, despise not the prayers of Thy suppliants,
but under Thy guidance direct the ship's course to the desired port.
Brigid suppliantly prays for those of Irish birth,
The pious prayer of the Virgin shall obtain what she asks.

'In danger of shipwreck these verses were composed in honour of the same Virgin, his Patroness, by her unworthy client, D. R.'

'Whom Brigid wondrously saved from the stormy waves.
Him may she protect from dire enemies, I pray.'
J. Ley.'

The work Brigida Thaumaturga is followed by an appendix entitled ' De Scriptorum Scotorum nomenclatura a Thoma Dempstero edita praecidaneum.' The appendix is a reply to a work of the Scotch writer, Thomas Dempster, who claimed for Scotland most of the Irish saints and writers. Dr. Rothe states that he wrote his reply chiefly to vindicate for Ireland the honour of being the country of St. Brigid, whom Dempster attempted to take away from the plains of Lagenia, and carrying her over Pictish hills and rocks, to set her down in the woods of Caledonia.' Then taking up Dempster's list in alphabetical order for the letters A, B, and C, he proves from authoritative sources that the names claimed by Dempster are, with few exceptions, either Irish or Welsh. Dr. Rothe's labours in defence of the right of Ireland to her native saints, did not end with this brief appendix to the Brigida Thaumaturga. The following years, 1621, he published a still more complete reply to Dempster in a work published under the title Hibernia Resurgens, under the pseudonym of 'Donatus Rourk.'

But the devotion of Dr. Rothe to the sainted Patroness of Ireland manifested itself in a still more practical form. In 1620, the same year in which he published his Brigida Thaumaturga, he instituted a Confraternity in Ireland in honour of St. Brigid. The object of that sodality was to pray through the intercession of St. Brigid for peace and union in Ireland. For that purpose the members met on the first Sunday of each month. The Holy See approved of the Sodality, and it quickly spread over the whole of Ireland to the great spiritual profit of the faithful.

We are not here concerned with the other events of the life of the great Bishop of Ossory, with his share in the deliberations of the Confederation of Kilkenny, and his death, in 1650, at the age of eighty-two. He was a man of great attainments and of great zeal to promote the honour of the saints of Ireland. He collaborated with Dr. Messingham in editing the Florilegium Insulae Sanctorum, and that author makes express mention that the whole dissertation on the conversion of Ireland, together with remarks on some chapters of Jocelyn, as well as several paragraphs of the account of St. Patrick's Purgatory in the Florilegium are from the pen of Dr. Rothe.

He also laboured long in preparing an elaborate work on the saints of Ireland under the title Hierographia Hiberniae, which unhappily perished during the siege of Kilkenny by Cromwell. He also wrote a shorter treatise on Irish places of pilgrimage, Opusculum de Peregrinationibus Hiberniae.

His treatise Brigida Thaumaturga, for many reasons, merits to be remembered. It is a monument to the Irish College in Paris, and the first printed book which issued from it. It is a monument to the widespread devotion of the Irish at home and abroad towards St. Brigid in the seventeenth century. It is a monument to the author, whom Messingham, in his preface to the account of St. Patrick's Purgatory, describes as

a man of wide information, an eloquent speaker, a subtle philosopher, a profound theologian, and a celebrated historian, a zealous reprover of vice, a champion of the liberty of the Church, the defender of the rights of the nation devoted to the relief of the sufferings of Ireland, and a diligent promoter of union and peace amongst ecclesiastics.

The Brigida Thaumaturga is also a monument to the ecclesiastical culture of the period. It shows a familiarity with the Scriptures, with the classics, with history and hagiology; and a mastery of the Latin language in prose and verse. The Irish ecclesiastics of the period wrote Latin with correctness, ease, and grace. The Carmen Thalassicum is but one instance. In the Introductory pages of Messingham's Florilegium there are Latin odes in commendation of the work from the pens of Eugene Sweeny, Peter Cadill, Hugh Reilly, Edmund O'Dwyer, Thomas Messingham, J. Colgan, William Coghlin, Patrick Cahill, Roger Moloy, Laurence Sedgrave, James Delan, and Thomas Guyer, all Irish priests.

Nearly three centuries have passed since St. Brigid's Feast, 1620. Since that date religious, literary, and civil intercourse between France and Ireland attained an expansion which Dr. Rothe could hardly have foreseen. Irish students received their ecclesiastical formation in France. Irish students frequented the halls, and Irish professors occupied chairs in the University of Paris. Irish soldiers stood side by side with Frenchmen on many a hard fought field. Irish vessels traded with France on a scale undreamt of in the days of the author of the Brigida Thaumaturga. The resurrection of Ireland, which Dr. Rothe looked forward to, has taken place; but even now the students of the colleges in Paris, Salamanca, and Rome are working side by side with the home-trained clergy,'all lovers of the brethren, all angels of peace.'

Let us hope that, like those who have gone before them, they will always be full of devotion to 'Brigida Thaumaturga, the Patroness of Ireland.'

Patrick Boyle, C.M.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Fourth Series, VOL. XXX, (1911), 225-234.

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