Thursday 8 February 2018

Father Knowles and Hagiography

Today as we continue to read the 1907 book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland by Father J.A. Knowles, we turn to his view of hagiography. At this time writers of devotional works tended to take at face value the attributed authorship and dating of Lives of the saints. Father Knowles lists some of the reputed authors of Lives of Saint Brigid, seeking to take us right back to the days of Saint Patrick himself with the inclusion of Fiech. Interestingly, he does not mention the mid-seventh century Life of Cogitosus, now hailed as one of the most important.  For Father Knowles, the purpose of hagiography was entirely devotional:
Little wonder is it that we find so many saintly and learned writers employing their graphic pens to record, in elegant verse, or flowing period, the heroic deeds, the numerous miracles, and the many virtues of their beloved Abbess of Kildare. St. Ninnid, her chaplain, faithfully placed on record the miracles he had witnessed during the time he had spent in her blessed and edifying company. Fiech, a disciple of St. Patrick, wrote her life, while St. Brigid was still performing her noble mission amongst the children of old Ireland. St. Brendan, Bishop of Clonfert, wrote her life in verse. The poet-saints, Columba and Kilian of Inis-Keltra, sang her praises in sweetest poesy. These metrical lives of St. Brigid were chanted by the cloistered children of the sanctuary. The multitude devoted themselves to the task of committing each verse to memory, so that they might share in the universal chorus of praise and thanksgiving which daily ascended to heaven from millions of Irish hearts.
Modern scholarship, of course, views hagiography as rather more complex in character. In the case of Saint Brigid, for example, Cogitosus was writing at a time when Armagh hagiographers were claiming primacy for their foundation thanks to Saint Patrick. His work may, therefore, be seen as an attempt to counter these claims on behalf of Kildare and its founder, Saint Brigid. Another of the central principles of hagiography accepted by modern scholars is that any piece of hagiography will always tell us more about the time in which it was written rather than about the time of its subject. This is true of Father Knowles too as in his account of the survival of these written records of Saint Brigid he reflects the ethos of the national revival of his own day. It is one in which Ireland is viewed as a long-suffering Catholic nation, valiantly withstanding centuries of oppression and the ravages of the likes of Cromwell:
From the number of these ancient records preserved from the ravages of time and the destroying hand of the heretical bands, who would gladly have given them to the flames, it is not too much to say that an all-wise Providence exercised a special care and watch over them to save them from decay and destruction. It certainly appears providential that many of the earlier lives and copies of them, made by conscientious and faithful scribes, found their way to safe refuge in the archives of Catholic countries abroad. Had they been left at home, they would not have escaped the rigorous search made for such invaluable and priceless documents by Cromwell and his followers. There can be no doubt that they would have served to light the fires that consumed the bodies of our noble martyrs, put to death by the cruel and relentless enemies of their creed and race. The preservation of this store of inestimable value, which enshrines and catalogues the doings, the sayings, and the miracles of St. Brigid, is the one consolation left us amidst the ruin and desolation caused by the burning and destruction of our ecclesiastical archives. This treasure is — and let us fervently thank God for it— the one great inheritance that the children of the early Church have left us to perpetuate and strengthen us today in our loyalty and devotion to St. Brigid, the Patroness of our Land.
Father Knowles goes on to suggest, however, that we should not be too hasty to dismiss the many legends regarding Saint Brigid which have also survived:
It may be advisable, before coming to the events of our Saint's life, to say a word or two regarding those beautiful garlands of legendary and traditional lore woven round the stately and enduring monument of authentic facts, which the hands of reliable and saintly biographers have erected to her blessed memory... In a life of the Saint, such as this purports to be, many legends and traditions must be introduced to stimulate the devotion of the reader, and to relieve the monotony which would inevitably ensue from a mere studied recital of historical detail. Having read the extracts given at length, the reader will be the better enabled to judge between what he can reasonably believe as true, and what he may safely set down as mere pious tradition. Thus does the late Canon O'Hanlon write of the legends and traditions so thickly strewn through the authentic writings of learned and holy authors who have treated of the life and miracles of St. Brigid: — "The truly religious and disciplined spirit of an enlightened and a pious Christian will not too readily reject the various interesting legends contained in the acts of our National Saints, when he is free to receive them on the weight, or set them in abeyance on the want of sustaining evidence. Many sceptical or over-fastidious critics undervalue the force of popular traditions, and regard such attested miracles as incredible or legendary, but while those persons desire to remove the cockle from the field of Irish hagiology, they possibly incur some risk, at the same time, of rooting up good seed with the tares." 
 In another place his remarks on the same subject are worthy of attentive consideration: — "Religious feeling and Christian Faith do not require for their preservation and growth, the the production and publication of many legends to be found in special acts of our National Saints. Those narratives, however, were consonant with a prevalent taste and with the sentiments of our ancestors in past ages. Even yet, when received with due caution, and with a just, discriminating spirit, such legends may be found not altogether devoid of edification, granting their authenticity to be very questionable. A well- regulated mind will regard them chiefly as emanations of a former period, and as illustrations of popular opinion, national feeling, or religious impressions which widely prevailed during times when those narratives had been written."
Now 1907 was also the year of publication of an English translation of the Legends of the Saints by Father Hippolyte Delehaye. This was the first work to undertake a scholarly examination of hagiography and revolutionised the understanding of medieval saints' Lives. The miraculous signs and wonders with which hagiography abounds were finally able to be placed within a context which could be explained and understood. No longer would the reader be asked to believe that Saint Brigid literally hung her cloak on a sunbeam or that the historical/biographical material contained within her various Lives was necessarily any more authentic than the miracle stories. Hagiography is not history, it is a distinctive genre of literature with its own rules and internal logic. We cannot fault Father Knowles or Canon O'Hanlon for not sharing this understanding as Delehaye's ideas took some time to filter through and become the accepted academic view. 

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907), 11-15; 20-21.

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