Saturday 4 February 2023

Told of St Brigid: Some Legends

One of the most popular types of story associated with the Irish saints are those involving their interactions with the animal creation. The vogue for 'Celtic Christianity' in recent decades has tended to give the impression that Irish saints are unique in this. Yet such stories are associated with saints of the universal church and ultimately go back to the tradition of the Desert Fathers of the east. The Irish however, did put their own stamp on stories involving saints and beasts and in his 2008 study Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, modern scholar Dominic Alexander devoted a chapter to what he titled 'The Irish Variant'. He includes the story below, which shows how Saint Brigid is as wily as the fox she rescues, taken here from an Australian newspaper account of 1926, but whose original can be found in the seventh-century Life of Saint Brigid by Cogitosus and repeated in some other later Lives. Alexander argues that this story probably originated as a secular tale, as it doesn't quite fit the usual pattern of the animal's 'wild' nature being overcome in its interaction with the saint. As he remarks:

Now this story, it can be argued, exemplifies Christian morality: the saint shows compassion, and the king, who does not, is therefore tricked and punished as a result. Yet the story violates basic patristic parameters when it comes to animal miracles. The animal is obedient to God and the saint up to a point, but its wild nature is clearly in no way compromised by the service it renders the saint. Indeed the proverbial cunning of the fox provides the punch-line of the story. This story looks very much like a secular morality tale than one that would have emerged directly from the ecclesiastical context of hagiographic writing. 

Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (Boydell Press, 2008), 72.

He goes on though to suggest that due to the popularity of this tale Cogitosus may have felt obliged to include it in his Vita and it remains one of the most popular of the many stories told about Saint Brigid:

Told of St. Brigid.


Many legends testify to St. Brigid's power over the lower creation. Now it is a story of some wild animal pursued by hunters flying for protection to the convent lands, and living ever afterward in a domesticated state with Brigid's flocks and herds. Again it is a picturesque scene, such as the Saint on the brink of a pond with a flight of wild ducks fluttering round her, coming at her call, and allowing themselves to be stroked by her hand. A legend in which Reynard makes a creditable figure is one of the fairest of all.

While cutting firewood one day on the outskirts of a forest, a workman employed by St. Brigid saw a fox straying about, and thoughtlessly killed the animal, not knowing that it was a tamed creature, in whose tricks and gambols the king of the territory took great delight. On learning what had happened, he became exasperated, ordered the poor man to be put to death, and directed that his wife and children should be reduced to slavery.

Shocked at the cruelty of the sentence, the man's friends ran to the Abbess and told her of the unhappy fate awaiting her retainer and his family. Immediately she ordered her chariot to be yoked, and drove across the plain in the direction of the royal rath. 

Passing through the forest, the Saint called to her a fox which she saw running in the distance; and, instantly obeying, it jumped into the chariot and quietly lay down, nestling in the skirts of her habit. Having arrived at the king's residence, she earnestly entreated that the poor man should be liberated from his chains, while she represented that he was not really accountable for what he had done, and pointed out how disproportionate was the heaviness of the chastisement to the lightness of the offence.

The king, however, was inexorable, and declared that the prisoner should not be set free unless a fox equal in cunning and tricks to the one he had lost should be procured. Then, continues the legend, our Saint set before the king and his courtiers the fox which had accompanied her in the chariot, and which appeared to rival the former one in gambols and devices. Seeing this, the king was greatly pleased, and forthwith commanded the captive to be set at liberty.

The Abbess drove to her convent with a glad heart, leaving her late travelling companion in high society at Court, but with no injunction laid on him to give up his free life in the woods and dwell in bondage in the house of kings. So, when Reynard had finished his feats, playing and sporting for the great folks, he adroitly mingled with the outer crowd, and, in an opportune moment, scampering off to the wilds, with the hosts of Leinster behind him, both foot and horse and hound, he speedily regained his freedom and his den. But the king did not go back on his 'bargain, and St. Brigid was held in greater esteem than before.

"Told of St. Brigid." Freeman's Journal, 28 January 1926.

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