Who was St Bridget?
Dr Clare Downham of the University of Liverpool gave lecture on Saturday, June 30 2012 entitled 'Who was St Bridget'. This report by Dr Downham is an abridged version.
Who was St Bridget?
St Bridget is Ireland's most famous female saint, who is said to have lived in fifth century Kildare. From a historian's perspective her life is shrouded in mystery. It has even been argued that her cult had pre-Christian roots and helped bridge pagan and Christian traditions. Nevertheless an important collection of early medieval saints' lives portray Bridget as a strong and devout nun who won the respect and support of kings, ex-druids and fellow saints. This lecture explores the origins and development of the cult of Brigid, and the transfer of her cult to West Cumbria.
St Patrick was an alleged contemporary of Brigid. In his 'Confession', Patrick refers to women becoming nuns, but he does not mention Brigit by name. The lack of historical evidence has led some people to doubt whether Brigit ever existed. If Brigit didn't exist, where did her cult come from? Since the nineteenth century there was growing interest in the idea that Brigit was a pagan deity who was christianized into a saint. What evidence is this idea based on?
Brigit's feast day is the 1st February, which co-incides with Imbolc, a pagan Irish festival which marks the beginning of the spring. Folk traditions involving St Brigit, like the making of St Bridget's crosses have been invoked as representing a continuum from a pagan past. This is impossible to prove and these folk practises are no less remarkable than those relating to the worship of other saints who were historical figures and not pre-Christian deities.
The 2nd century Greek geographer Ptolemy identifies a group of people called the Brigantes in Leinster (i.e. the province, but not the same area where the cult of Brigit developed). Brigantes and Brigid both take their name from a Celtic root word meaning high or powerful. There was also a pre-Roman population group called the Brigantes in Northern England, which could attest to early links across the Irish Sea. The Brigantes of England venerated the Goddess Brigantia. Was she the model for saint Brigit?
There is no early record of the cult of Brigantia in Ireland. However an Irish text 'Cormac's glossary' (composed c.900) claims that the name Brigit was originally that of three sister goddesses who were associated with the crafts of poetry, healing and metalwork. However the glossary is indicating that the name Brigit was taken from a deity, not that Saint Brigit was a deity. This first indication of a goddess called Brigit in Ireland comes centuries after Christianization. Lisa Bitel has suggested that there was a fashion for stories about deities in ninth century Ireland. She thinks the name of Brigit as goddess was therefore invented after the real St Brigit lived.
Chronology may favour the idea that Brigit was a real woman. The earliest writings about her life date from the mid seventh century, only four or five generations after Brigit was said to have lived. Oral reports and genealogical memory may have provided a credible witness to Brigit's existence, even if the stories about her were massively elaborated over time.
Three early lives of St Brigit survive. The late seventh century life by Cogitosus, a cleric at Kildare; Vita Prima of the late seventh or eighth century; and Bethu Brigte composed in the ninth century. All three Lives look back to a common original, now lost, which may date to the mid-seventh century. They agree on basic details of Brigit's life. She was born to a wealthy father in the province of Leinster. Since childhood she developed a reputation for charity and she became a nun and founded the church at Kildare where she was buried. These seem to be the securest details about Brigit's life. Everything else may be invention.
Brigit's power is expressed in 'helping miracles', healings, feeding the hungry, and rescuing the weak from violence. She fed a stray dog with the family dinner only to have it miraculously restored; she turned water into ale for a group of lepers (perhaps reminiscent of Christ's miracle of turning water into wine); she faced off a group of brigands, and provided protection for a woman fleeing the lustful advances of a nobleman. She even gets into trouble with her father for giving too many things away to the poor. Her cult was not so much about asserting her domination over kings like more famous male Irish Saints. Rather Brigit provided a model for female piety according to the conventions of her time. Kildare did not rival the power of Armagh (seat of the cult of St Patrick in Ireland) but through her portrayal as a saint for the people, Brigit attracted a wide following. This is witnessed in the many place-names and wells dedicated to her name in Ireland.
Brigit came to represent Irish identity in a general manner. She was therefore popular among Irish clerics who travelled abroad. The spread of her cult across Europe was facilitated by two factors: Within the theology of the early Irish church the ideal of exile for one's homeland in the name of God had a strong place. Many clerics sailed across unfamiliar seas to spread faith and learning abroad. Secondly, Ireland was a famous in the early Middle Ages as a training ground for scholars, which meant that monks from Ireland obtained patronage in the highest circles on the Continent and there were numerous Schottenkloster or religious foundations for Gaelic monks. Devotional poems to Brigid have survived from medieval Rheims and Rome, and St Brigid is still commemorated at sites like Santa Brigida in Tuscany.
Brigit in Britain
A little less exotically, the cult of St Brigit also spread in Britain. These dedications cluster in South-western Scotland, as represented by 'Kilbride' and 'Kirkbride' place names. There is an outlier of the latter group near Allerdale. 'Kirkbride' placenames are an interesting mix of Norse and Gaelic language- the word 'kirk' is taken from 'kirkja' the Norse word for a church. 'Bride' is taken from Gaelic 'Brighid'. The word order is also Celtic ('Church-Brigit's' rather than 'Brigit's-Church'). Bridekirk (where we are) seems to be an earlier name- the word order is Germanic and the second element 'kirk' may be taken from Old English 'cirice', suggesting that Brigit's cult was established here in the Anglo-Saxon era. Nevertheless the evident enthusiasm of Gaelic-Scandinavian settlers for the cult of St Brigit in around the Solway region may have given new impetus to the cult of Brigit at Bridekirk during the Viking Age. This seems an ironic image - vikings who were famous for sacking churches later became patrons for Irish saints abroad, but the evidence is compelling. Another example is the cult of the alleged Irish princess Bega at St Bees. Viking influence along the West Cumbrian coastal strip can be seen in sculpture, including the Gosforth Cross. Also the beautiful Romanesque font at Bridekirk includes an inscription in Norse runes, indicating a lingering Scandinavian influence in the region.
In examining St Brigid, the thing which is most striking about her cult is its ability to fit a range of different situations. Her cult is as bridge between Britain, Ireland and the Continent; Pagans and Christians; Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations. Her cult has been promoted in the interests of different groups, including pacifists and feminists. She is presented as a mediator between those who hold power and those who do not. Nevertheless the real Brigit remains something of a mystery. Perhaps the question should be therefore, not 'Who was St Brigit' but rather 'What does she represent'?
A sincere thank you to Isobel and Martyn for their generous hospitality and for the invitation to speak; also, many thanks to those who came and listened, especially for their questions and comments. I really enjoyed my visit!