Thursday 9 February 2012

Earlier Relics of Saint Brigid

In previous postings I had looked at the relics of Saint Brigid extant today in Portugal, Germany and Belgium. Christina Harrington's book includes a useful summary of the earlier relics known in Ireland between the 10th-12th centuries:
Brigidine Relics

There is no doubt about the abundance of Brigidine relics in this period, a strong sign of her cult’s influence and Kildare’s political prominence in general terms. The scholiast on the poem Ní Car Brigit mentioned a veil placed on Brigit’s head by the bishop Mac Caille before she was presented to Mel for her consecration rite, adding, ‘that would be the veil that is venerated’ (comad e sen caille foraithmentar ). The same story appears in the twelfth century as well, adding that the site was ‘Moin Faithnig’, mod. Croghan, five miles north-west of the town of Tullamore, the same site as appears in the earliest Lives; it too, speaks of a veil there (‘that may be the veil which is commemorated there’, cumad esin caille foraithmentar sunn). Another relic in existence at this time was the beam which supported the altar at Brigit’s consecration. Brigit had been touching it during the rite, and afterwards it had ceased to age and had miraculously avoided destruction in spite of the church being burnt down around it — either once or three times, depending on the version. The beam is also mentioned as an extant relic in Bethu Brigte, which says its wood at some point had been miraculously transformed into acacia, the wood of the ark of the covenant, which added a Biblical dimension to the relic’s cult. The acacia appears only once in the Bible, in Exodus 25: 10 (arcam de lignis setim compingite), and the beam’s ability to survive fires may have been associated, in people’s minds, with that Old Testament account of the ark. Like other relics and their legends, this relic is not particularly ‘gendered’ or feminine—the ark of the covenant was not especially associated with women but rather the chosen people as a whole.

Another Brigidine wood relic was a wonder-working oak tree at Kildare. It is reported in the early thirteenth-century Vita IV, [in a paragraph which scholar Richard Sharpe has demonstrated was actually written by the early 13th-century redactor who inserted it in the text he was copying] at which time pieces of the stump were much sought after.

Illa iam cella scotice dicitur Killdara, latine vero sonat cella quercus. Quercus enim altissima ibi erat quam multum sancta Brigida diligebat, et benedixit eam; cuius stipes adhuc manet, et nemo ferro abscindere audet, et pro magno munere habet qui potest frangere manibus aliquid inde, sperans per illud Dei auxilium, quia multa patrata sunt miracula per illud lignum per benedictionem beate Brigide.

This church is called in Irish ‘Killdara’, in Latin ‘oak church’. For there was a very tall oak tree there which Brigit loved very much, and blessed, the trunk of which still remains. No one dares chop at it with a weapon, but whoever can break off a part of it with by hand considers it a great advantage, hoping for the aid of God by its means; [this is] because many miracles have been performed by that wood, through Brigit’s blessing.

This passage shows the relatively recent origin of the oak tree’s significance, as it was based on a failure to understand the real, much more mundane origin of the name of the place—namely, the wood from which the church building had originally been built. It is worth reiterating, lest one should still be tempted to link the oak tree with a Brigidine pagan past, that the oak tree was not even mentioned in earlier Lives. Moreover, in the twelfth century a fashion for wonderworking trees appears to have sprung up, for suddenly hagiography is full of them. Ruadán’s monastery Lothra had one, as did the new Columban church at Derry, and in 1162 one hears of a yew allegedly planted by Patrick himself.

Brigit’s body was miraculously, if dubiously, discovered in 1186 with those of Patrick and Brigit in Down by an Anglo-Norman, De Courcey, an event which cemented the formulation of the three as Irish national saints. The translatio rite was attended by papal legates and was conducted with great pomp but nevertheless failed to impress the Irish annalists any more than the finding, for they unanimously fail to report it.

A Footnote adds:
The enshrined relics remained at Down until 1538 when they were desecrated. Brigit’s head was allegedly rescued and taken to Neustadt, Austria, whence it travelled in 1587 to the Jesuit Church in Lisbon. One of her feet made its way to a Brigidine church in Cashel, and in 1900 was among the possessions of the archbishop there. One of her slippers was venerated in the later middle ages, too: the National Museum owns a slipper reliquary from Lochrea dated to 1410, which had been used as a swearing relic. For an anachronistically-inserted account of the event, attributed to a date over a century later, AFM 1293.

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church - Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 215-217.

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