Vita Sanctae Brigidae I, by an unknown author.
London, British Library, MS Additional 34124
§105, f 111v:
Alio autem die Sancta Brigita per potentissimam fortitudinem fidei aliquam feminam post uotum integritatis lapsam . et habentem pregnantem ac tumescentem uuluam benedixit : et decrescens in uulua conceptus sine partu et dolore eam sanam ad penitentiam restituit : illa sanata est et gratias Deo egit :
“And on another day, St Brigid, through the most powerful fortitude of faith, blessed a certain woman who had slipped after a vow of integrity [physical virginity], and had a swollen [“praegnantem”] and even ready to burst [“tumescentem”] vaginal opening; and the gathered-together thing [“conceptus”] in the vaginal opening having dwindled, without anything brought forth [“partu”], without pain, she restored her to healthy penitence. That woman was healed and gave thanks to God.”
This is not a story about abortion or even miscarriage. It’s a story about an STD being healed. And the wording is purposefully using sexual imagery for a rather yucky consequence of vowbreaking. The words are being used in an unusual way that is just barely inside literary usage.
The difficulty is that (as far as I know, anyway) there isn’t any early medieval STD like that. It sounds more like a tumor, edema, or cyst.
But there are plenty of early Christian and early medieval stories of male desert monks or Irish monks suffering from various bodily illnesses, which are seen as having been given them or allowed to happen to them as an object lesson. There are also stories about how certain bad things couldn’t happen to one, if one took precautions or acted properly. (For example, St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, with numerous stories showing that demonic possession doesn’t happen to people who earnestly say grace before meals.)
We’re supposed to get the moral of the story, then. This woman broke her vow of virginity. The word used, “integritas,” also can mean physical wholeness in the sense of a healthy, uninjured body, as well as physical virginity. So her vowbreaking was being punished by her health breaking; and the saint’s prayers did not just heal her body, but helped her become healthily penitent about her actions.
It’s also not clear that this woman was a nun; she could have been a laywoman. Girls and boys taking private vows of virginity before entering official religious life, or in lieu of being allowed to enter religious life, seem to have been pretty common throughout the early Christian and medieval world.
The interesting thing about St. Brigid folklore is that it echoes a lot of desert monk and Greek monk stories, not Celtic stories. For example, hanging your cloak on a sunbeam as a sign of purity and focus, as well as Eden-like powers over nature, is found in Greek monk stories.So it would be interesting to find out if this is another outside-of-Ireland monk motif.
That said… of course the presence of common story motifs does not mean that the event did not happen. Humans love to recount events in the style of their cultures or literatures, with the cultural moral of the story pointed out, or with a reversal of the culture’s usual point. And more to the point, God seems to like to echo specific motifs (BIblical or otherwise), as a way of explaining the miracle as a sign to humans, and making them think about the connections made by the motifs.
Article by David Howlett about the really strange, poetically nerdy way that the Vita Sanctae Brigidae I was written. His ideas about this passage are not the same as mine, but they don’t conflict with my interpretation in a way that would prove me wrong.
The Vita Sanctae Brigidae II, by Cogitosus, uses this same miracle story with very similar wording, but without the weird nerdy counting, and prose poem sentence structures, and rhetorical features. Migne leaves this specific story out, but the full Cogitosus text is on the internet. (In Latin, but not in the facing English translation, which is kinda annoying. I give my own translation, as with the translation above.) Here we go:
 Potentissima enim et ineffabili fidei fortitudine aliquam feminam post votum integritatis fragilitate humana in iuvenili voluptatis desiderio lapsam et habentem iam praegnantem ac tumescentem uterum fideliter benedixit. Et evanescente in vulva conceptu sine partu et sine dolore eam sanam ad paenitentiam restituit. Et secundum quod omnia possibilia sunt credentibus, sine ulla impossibilitate innumera quotidie miracula operabatur.
“For with the most powerful and ineffable fortitude of faith, she faithfully blessed a certain woman who had slipped into juvenile desire of pleasure with human weakness, after a vow of integrity [physical virginity], and had now a swollen [“praegnantem”] and even ready to burst [“tumescentem”] belly [“uterum”: womb or abdomen/belly]. And after the gathered-together thing [“conceptu”] in the vaginal opening having vanished without anything brought forth [“partu”] and even without pain, she restored her to healthy penitence. And according to how ‘All things are possible to those who believe,’ (Mk. 9:22/23, VL) she was working innumerable miracles every day, without any impossibility.”
This is Chapter II, section 12 of the Vita Sanctae Brigidae II. It seems a little easier to mistake this one for a real pregnancy instead of a disease, because “uterus” is usually used for “womb” in a Christian context. But the adjectives still seem really to be pointing at an unnatural situation.
That said, you can see that it’s weird that everybody in the academic world just assumed that it was a pregnant nun story. I don’t want to say “prurient tropes” or “anti-Catholic tropes,” but….
OTOH, it may be as simple as that both stories were translated and discussed by the same academic person, S. Connolly, in articles published in 1987 and 1989; and it’s normal for one person to have the same opinion without examining alternate explanations, over the short term. (Unless you’re me, and you change your mind a lot in the middle of the night when the evidence suddenly looks different.) Everybody else is just copying Connolly on how to interpret, even when you have Howlett taking the structure of Vita Sanctae Brigidae I radically differently. And honestly, the 1980’s were not a high point of Latin study among academics, so maybe it just slid past any classics or medieval Latin experts that might have objected. (And usually academics are arguing about whether I or II is the older Life.)
There is only one other use of “tumescentem” that I found on a Google Books search that refers to a woman’s ladyparts at all — and this one talks about “uterum.” It’s in Seneca’s essay “Consolatio ad Helviam matrem,” 16, 3. This is a letter that he wrote to his own mother, Helvia, to console her for having heard that Seneca had been sentenced to exile, not long after one of Seneca’s children had died.
Medieval people respected and read lots of Seneca’s philosophy, and thought that he might have almost become a Christian. (There is even an early Christian epistolary fanfic consisting of letters between Seneca and St. Paul.) So it is very likely that Cogitosus’ wording is a deliberate reference.
In section 16, Seneca says that his mom should be strong enough to face grief with proper Stoicism, because she has no “womanish vices.” Specifically, he says that “impudicitia,” shamelessness, “the greatest evil of the age,” has not been her problem, and:
“You have never been ashamed of your fecundity as though it were a reproach to your youth. You never hid your swelling belly [“tumescentem uterum”] as though it were an indecent burden, nor did you ever tear up [“elisisti”] your conceived [“conceptas”] hope of children within your womb [“viscera”] after the custom of many other women, all whose esteem is to be found in their beauty (“formam”).”
Probably I am reinventing the academic wheel here, but Seneca is a very “moral of the story” kind of guy to quote. And he was saying IN THIS VERY PASSAGE that abortion was wrong, so one assumes that Cogitosus was under no illusions that abortion by a saint could be right. It was probably another indication that it was a disease being healed, not a baby being eliminated. It’s also possible that this is proof that Cogitosus wrote first, and that the Vita I was written for different goals and thus left out more of the references. (But not all of them, in that case.)
Anyway, I’m discussing this story because it came up on Reason and Theology’s YouTube video, “Has the Catholic Church Ever Accepted Abortion?” (starting about 25 minutes in) as well as a highlight video about St. Brigid. It’s a very good video about the tricks that anti-Catholic writers use to fool people, or themselves, and how we can see through them.
I haven’t read these two articles that get quoted by everybody, and which are where the usual translations come from; but here’s the citations for them —
S. Connolly and J.-M. Picard, “Cogitosus’ Life of St. Brigid: Content and Value,” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), 16.
S. Connolly, ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value,’ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 119 (1989), 45.
The article linked in the Reason and Theology video does mention other Irish saints with similar stories, but where the literary “game” with extra meanings has been turned into something flatter and more problematic. There are two lives of St. Ciaran collected in Plummer’s Bethada Naem nErenn, both of which deal with the Bruinnech abduction story, and flatly say that she was forced, and that she is torrach, pregnant.
I think the point here is the king’s disregard for Ciaran’s mother’s obligations as a fosterer, and his disregard for God’s power, and his assumption that an equally royal girl will be his low legal status concubine and that nobody can stop him. It might even be connected to war, because the girl was from Munster and the king was from Meath. But this sort of thing needs study, not assumptions.
What is clear is that Ciaran in the story just makes the Sign of the Cross over the girl, which would not generally be considered an aggressive act. He is turning the situation over to God. So what happens next is a reassertion of God’s order in human society. We are not told whether the child is dead, taken to Heaven, time traveled out of existence, never really there, or what.
The second Ciaran life gives no moral to the story. But the first one has Ciaran say to the king, “You have no power here. The God of Heaven is between us, and my weal or woe is not in your power.” So maybe it’s about getting away from this guy, given that the woman in the case spontaneously dies to get away from him when she sees him again.
UPDATE: So anyway, with the Seneca reference in the Brigid story, and with a probable reference to Hosea 9:11 with “sine partu,” maybe it is about pregnancy? But maybe it’s more about a covenant curse consequence, and thus a judgment come upon her? I’m confused, frankly. But whatever it’s about, obviously it’s full of disapproval of abortion, given the anti-abortion references; so it can’t be an abortion story of any kind.
So… new theory. There’s a natural condition called “fetus resorption” or “embryo loss,” where a baby just dies and is reabsorbed by the mother’s body. It’s very common with rabbit mothers under stress, but it does happen to human pregnancies as well. (Usually because of an infection or disease. So there’s still maybe a disease reference.) No miscarriage takes place, per se, and there’s usually no external signs or pain or internal scarring. It doesn’t normally happen at a point when a pregnancy would be showing, but theoretically it could happen.
So maybe we’re also supposed to understand this story as Brigid submitting the woman to God’s providence or judgment?