Landscape with Two Saints, by Lisa M. Bitel

Lisa M. Bitel is a pretty well-known scholar. She focuses on the women’s side of medieval Irish history, but she’s not so feminist that her brain falls out. In Landscape with Two Saints, she compares St. Genovefa (better known as Genevieve), a Gaulish patron saint of Paris from the earliest days of the Frankish kings, with St. Brigid, the Irish abbess who founded the vast but now vanished monastic community of Kildare. We don’t have much left of the relics or community of either saintly lady, thanks to the rigors of history; and yet, they are still important to the faithful. Bitel follows both their history and the devotion to them, down to the present day.

It’s one of those books where it’s really worthwhile to check out the bibliography of primary sources, and there are some very nice maps and diagrams. She’s not Catholic or Christian (her foreword wryly notes that her kids say they’ve visited more churches than any other Jewish kids alive), but she doesn’t take a hostile or twisted view of saints and devotees. She also presents some very iconoclastic, but not crazy, research by other medieval/Irish/French scholars.

1. There is some evidence that St. Brigit’s popularity led to various minor pre-Christian human heroes named “Brig” and “Brigit” being given much more attention in medieval poetry about pre-Christian Ireland. We don’t hear anything about any goddesses named Brigit until the 9th century, and some scholars now think she may have been made up, or derived from some of the wilder saint fairy tales going around. So actually, we hear about the goddess Brigit today because of the saint, not the other way around.

2. There is a lot of evidence that the circling paths, etc. taken by Irish devotees at Irish holy wells and shrines are not derived from pagan custom. Rather, they are an imitation of the prayer-paths and processional ways used by pilgrims and church visitors when visiting various altars, pictures, statues, graves, etc., both on the way to and within local or basilica churches. (Much as one follows the Stations of the Cross in imitation of the Stations of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.) When shrine churches and parish churches were knocked down, people found an alternate Christian way to do things.

3. Customs like offering St. Brigid milk by leaving it outside on her feastday, or having things blessed by her or other saints by leaving them out on their feastdays or the evening of them, are apparently also a case of “no church to go to, no priest that can get here.” Again, the only reason they “look pagan” is because the English had outlawed the priests and knocked down the parish church. It is a lay spirituality of necessity, trusting that God and the saints will overcome the malice of man. (And of course, inside towns, people did start asking priests for blessings for the same things, or offering the same things as offertory gifts or tithes, when the priests were able to come back. But it took a while for Ireland to have enough parish priests to handle country parishes, and some priests were too “modern” to be comfortable with giving blessings or taking alms in such an old-fashioned style. So often people just kept doing it the old way.)

4. St. Genevieve kicked butt. Basically she was a minor noblewoman, not particularly rich, but known to be both pious and a prophetess. She built the first church of St. Denis and successfully prayed that the Huns wouldn’t get to Paris, among other things. In the dangers of the time and in the absence of anybody more charismatic (in either sense) among the local bishops, she seems to have run a lot of stuff in her capacity as church lady extraordinaire. The only time she was a shepherdess was when she was a little kid living with her minor noble family in Nanterre.

5. We just passed the day of one of her feasts (in Paris), the Feast of the Miracle of the Ardents (or Burning Ones, Feverish Ones). Back in 1130, Parisians suffered an epidemic of a terrible fever, which at the time was called Sacred Fire. (It may have been ergotism from bad rye.) Nothing helped and many died, until the relics of St. Genevieve were brought across the river to a church of the Virgin Mary on November 26. Suddenly all but two or three of the sufferers were healed. Pope Innocent II instituted the feast in 1131 during a papal visit, although it was initially under the title “The Excellence of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Locals grumbled about this, and the name soon changed to give credit to the local girl. 😉

6. St. Genevieve’s prayers saved Paris from the Huns, from the fever, and from a great flood of the Seine. That’s why a lot of river towns are named St. Genevieve. She was also the Bourbons’ favorite patron when family members were sick, which was why the French revolutionaries tried and convicted her as a counter-revolutionary. (And that’s why most of her relics are at the bottom of the Seine.) She is still a patron saint of both Paris and all of France, and has fallen into undeserved obscurity among us moderns. (Although there’s a nice French webpage about her.) Her feastday is January 3.

7. There were a lot of interesting tidbits about the Gaulish language and the naming of French places. Given how much crazy stuff gets said about anything vaguely Celt-related, it’s nice to have some safe references to rely on. (And btw, “Genovefa” is Germanic/Frankish for “kin/kind/race” + “woman”, and means something like “clanswoman.” The French spelling “Genevieve” was the subject of much medieval French wordplay that took the name to mean something like “living spirit” or “spirit of life.”)

8. Bitel lists some Roman-government itineraries and maps that we have from the “Dark Ages.” She also talks about a useful list of all the government offices that were still being assigned to people in Gaul at that time (Notitia Dignitatum in translation, and Seeck’s edition in Latin along with links of interest). Bitel says a lot of interesting stuff about Christian “Romanitas” and how it was preserved in the new decentralized Europe, as well as how it was carried to places like Ireland that had never been Roman or Christian.

9. “Vowess” was the descriptive word for any woman living under vows of chastity/celibacy but living at home (her own home, her family’s, whatever). Since they were vowed not to marry, this provided protection from family pressure that even canonesses and nuns didn’t always get. The old idea of consecrated widows and virgins who weren’t nuns seems to have been folded into the vocation of vowess. Here’s an article with a nice tomb rubbing.

10. The subtitle of the book is “How Genovefa of Paris and Brigid of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe.” Um. Yeah. That’s about the only thing that this book doesn’t tell you. I blame the publishers.

11. There’s actually a recent historical novel that was written about all the stuff happening in the France of St. Genovefa and King Clovis/Chlodovech. It’s called Centurion’s Daughter, and it’s by Justin Swanton. Don’t know if it’s any good, but it sure looks interesting.

St. Genevieve, pray for Paris!

St. Brigid, pray for us!


1 Comment

Filed under Church, Saint Names, Saint Stories

One response to “Landscape with Two Saints, by Lisa M. Bitel

  1. “So actually, we hear about the goddess Brigit today because of the saint, not the other way around.” You know, that’s actually plausible. Counter-intuitive, maybe, and certainly against the “prevailing wisdom,” but certainly has the ring of plausibility about it.

    Thanks for posting the tidbits from this book–I’ll have to look it up sometime.

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