Monthly Archives: March 2022

St Brendan’s Voyages in the North Atlantic and His Medieval Best Seller

As a university student, I once spent a summer working on the Shetland Islands.  In a yard by the sea just outside Lerwick, we broke and cut reinforced concrete off pipes rejected for the pipeline that would link the North Sea oil fields to an oil refinery in Sullom Voe at the north end of the main island.  Nearby, I used to see a man building a boat.  He was a loner, with a handsome chiselled face and rangy body. When I asked an English friend about him, he said he was building it to row across the Atlantic on his own, not telling anyone. I don’t know if he made it or not.  Whether that urge was courageous or suicidal, it seemed to me nonetheless admirable.  It seems even more so now in the social media age where nothing matters if it is not shared. 

My English friend was intent on settling in Shetland as a crofter and he worked with us in our primitive endeavours smashing concrete to make the money to achieve that. His plummy accent suggested that it was far from that lifestyle that he was raised.  There’s a certain class of people that are drawn to remoteness. Few however have the universal appeal, spiritual import, or cultural impact of St Brendan and his followers as they pursued their epic quest around the North Atlantic.

We like to think that St Brendan and his monks sailed and rowed across the Atlantic by its shortest route, from Kerry to Newfoundland. That it was technically possible using the technology of the time was demonstrated by Tim Severin in 1976-77.  That it was achieved in the 6th century, alas there is no evidence.

St Brendan may not have crossed the North Atlantic to Canada but he and his crew unmistakably traversed at good part of the Ocean, certainly as far as Iceland.  That much is evident from the ancient account of his voyage, the medieval best seller, Navigatio Brendani.  Written in Hiberno-Latin around 800, it was translated many times and is regarded as “popular Irish work of the entire Middle Ages…..It took on the stature almost of a European epic.”[1]  There are some 120 manuscripts running from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, spreading as far north as the Baltics, east to Russia and south to the Iberian Penninsula.[2] 

St Brendan himself was an historical figure, born c.484 in Co Kerry, somewhere around Tralee Bay, possibly near Fenit or Kilfenora.  Baptised by Bishop Erc, he was fostered between the ages of one and six by St Ita, famous for her virtues and her school where she taught many of the patron saints of Ireland as young boys.  True faith, pure heart and simple life were her watchwords.  Brendan would visit her throughout his life and abide by her counsel. Famed for his chastity, even as young boy of ten years, he mercilessly beat a young princess for daring to ask him to play with her.[3]

As a follower of St Finnian, Brendan became known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.  He founded monasteries where he sailed, including the Aran Islands, islands off the Scottish coast, in Wales and Brittany.  His most famous monastery was at Clonfert in east Galway.

The Brendan voyage was particularly popular with the Anglo-Normans from the twelfth-century onwards.  The Normans were very keen on commissioning histories and biographies of their illustrious relatives in what was a deliberate creation of a distinct lineage and identity regarding Norman society.  As new conquerors and arrivistes, this makes sense. It was part pride in their achievements and part promulgation of their legitimacy to hold what they had won by conquest. 

Aristocratic women from the Carolingian through to the Middle Ages were keen patrons of literature, using their wealth to further the arts in the expensive business of translation and publication. They exercised their patronage to ensure the development of culture within their societies.[4]

As Susan M. Johns notes in Noblewomen, Aristocratic and Power in the Twelfth Century Realm, “In twelfth-century England and Normandy it is significant that women had a role in the patronage of innovative forms of literature which affected the development of secular literature.  Royal women were in the vanguard of patronizing these new forms of literature.”[5] Benedictine monk and church historian, Hugh of Fluery praised his patron, Adela of Blois, for her “generosity, intelligence and literary skills.” Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I who was son of William the Conqueror, commissioned William of Malmesbury to write his famous The Deeds of the King of England.  She also commissioned a life of her mother, Margaret of Scotland and, in turn, her granddaughter Matilda of Boulogne commissioned a life of her maternal grandmother, Ida of Boulogne.

It was also Queen Matilda that commissioned the translation of the Voyage of Brendan as a poem in French around the turn of the twelfth-century.  “It is the earliest surviving example of a poem in octosyllabic form, and prefigured romance literature” notes Johns. The Brendan epic was immensely popular:

 “It is a Celtic version of the classical odyssey poem, a well-worn literary theme, and thus possibly particularly popular at the Anglo-Norman court, given the eleventh-century Norman expansion into England, Wales and Sicily as well as the recent preaching and popular response to the first Crusade.  Thus Queen Matilda patronised a poet who was not only experimental and at the vanguard of creativity with fictional forms but who could provide the court with a cosmopolitan and exciting travel story.”[6]

We thus have a fascinating conjunction of wealthy and powerful royal women at the apex of societies created by the Norman warrior elite, who sponsor culture and entertainment, finding a popular hit in the life of an ascetic Irish monk devoted to the renunciation of this world and the creation of the monastic ideal. Is it possible to understand this popular appeal reading the tale today?

In my view, I think so.  Startlingly vivid images live on after a read-through of the Navigatio Brendani. [7]  Of the tortured Judas on his rock in the ocean, swarmed by demons and his pitiful pleading. Of the island of smithies hurling fiery rocks at Brendan and his crew such that the sea boiled.  The famous dejeuner sur le balon. Of a tree festooned by birds who chant and speak, bells ringing as they beat their wings (actually it is explained that they are the temporary embodiment of angels neutral during the war with Satan, a reference that brushed with heresy). Of the gigantic pillar in the sea (an iceberg) and its inexplicable net.  Of the clashing monsters of the deep and of the air. Of the monk from whose chest a demon emerges. Of the anchorite covered in white bodily hair living on a high circular island with little more than two caves, a stream and a helpful otter to get him going with supplies of fish.

There is the authentic but en passant reference to voyaging on the sea, the sense of brine, the description of difficult landing spots, and the chores of finding supplies.  Of hoisting the sail and either rowing or surrendering to the wind and currents in faith of God’s will. Naturalistic it certainly is, but it is not realism.  Its purpose rather is the other-worldly, the divine architecture of space and time, and how its gyres turn all about the heavens and earth so that Brendan and his crew return each of their seven years on the sea to the same place in accordance to the liturgical calendar, notably his high point, Easter devotions.

Their seven years of voyages are cyclical, calling in to meet other monasteries, hermits and anchorites, descriptions redolent of real encounters.  Their grail is ostensibly finding the Promised Land of the Saints but it in truth it is an allegory about the ideal monastic life. 

Amidst these gyrations, the fixed centre is the imperturbable figure of St Brendan, the man of God, the father of his group of monks.  He is the conduit for God’s will, commanding demons, reassuring his panicked companions, presciently seeing through the illusions to the divine purpose. His quest is successful as indeed he finds through a liminal fog the paradisiac Island suffused in divine light, moving beyond our time and space.  He can return home, his pilgrimage successful, to die as pre-ordained.

It is also clear that however fantastical the images, the tale is referencing actual locations, notably the Faroe Islands, Rockall, and memorably Iceland.[8] That he reached Greenland and the Sargasso Sea is, according to one authority, Elva Johnson, merely speculative. Had the tale said that Brendan sailed west to the Promised Land of the Saints one might argue he reached Newfoundland (like Severin’s landing at Hamilton Bay) but it is clear from the text that he sailed east. 

That said, Irish monks including St Brendan did in fact extensively explore the North Atlantic and settled its islands in the search of the perfect monastic life such as famously at Iona in the Hebrides. Brendan himself, in addition to his main establishment in Clonfert (east Galway) established monasteries in the islands near Iona.  He was not alone in this as Comgall of Bangor and Colum Cille did so too.[9] Dicuil, an Irish geographer of the early ninth-century, notes that Irish monks settled Iceland around 795 and recent research suggests they settled on the Faroes.[10] 

For the Normans, then, the appeal of the Brendan voyage seems clear.  It is a familiar literary form.  It is an adventure for an adventuring society, ready to head into the unknown.  The search for the New Jerusalem implicit and at times explicit in Brendan’s quest resonates with the prize of the actual Jerusalem, seized by the Crusaders in 1099, in which Normans played a key role.  This was only a few years before Matilda commissioned the translation.  The voyage involves a group of men headed by a leader whose qualities the Normans admired in their own leaders: calm in a crisis, matter of fact in the face of daunting odds (the English stiff upper lip traces back to the Anglo-Normans), ingenious in finding solutions in the nick of time. Brendan faced into the North Atlantic just as they had themselves ventured from the Norman Dukedom to conquer England, Sicily and Antioch.  These were men who understood the risks and rewards of venturing into the unknown.  And that success depended on coherence within the group.  When Brendan has chosen his fourteen brothers, he gathered them in one oratory and told them of his ‘fixed determination’.  “How does this seem to you. What advice would you give?”  In unison, they replied: “Abbot, your will is ours.  Have we not left our parents behind?  Have we not spurned our inheritance and given our bodies into your hands?  So we are prepared to go along with you to death or life.  Only one thing we ask, the will of God.”   The audience of Norman aristocrats listening to the cadences of this part of the Brendan epic would have recognized their own ethos, the coherence and discipline that had made them the most successful knightly adventurers in history.  If the monks wielded love and the Normans swords, they were still all soldiers, a strong motif both in the Navigatio and for the monastic tradition generally.  Both believed that they were doing God’s will. Brendan’s triumph mirrored their own wishes that their violence and invasions would all turn out well in the end, would be in fact in accord with God’s plan.  Everyone likes a Hollywood ending.

The Normans would have shared too St Brendan’s insatiable curiosity. Marvelling at the wonders of nature was for monks a way of understanding God through the world he had created.  Yet for St Brendan, his curiosity is almost a torture.  When he sees the birds cover the tree so thickly that the tree can barely be seen, he was so tormented for an explanation about them that tears flowed down his cheeks in a rare humanizing vignette: ‘God, who knows the unknown and reveals all that is secret, you know the tortures of my heart, I implore your majesty to have pity and revel to me, a sinner, through your great mercy your secret that I now look upon with my eyes.’[11] 

Above all, the Brendan voyage is a Christian tale, told as fiction based on threads of real events and snippets from real places, but ultimately an allegory about the path to God.  “Brendan’s battlefield in within himself.  Heroic struggle in the Middle Ages, while cosmic in its conventional trappings, is essentially a personal quest for knowledge or enlightenment, a psychological conflict, a psychomachia.”[12]  It is a Christian tale for a society infused with zealous religious fervour.  This was so intense that it changed their social mores to adopt monogamy and primogenitor as a rule of political succession.  It generated the corpus of values that became chivalry and stirred literary imaginations to create romantic literature. It propelled all ranks of society to join in long and dangerous pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the sometimes map-cap journeys that were the crusades. 

Reading the tale of St Brendan is like watching a clockwork diorama.  The boat circulates and arrives on its liturgical schedule, scenes unfold, patterns repeat, numbers freighted with meaning like 3, 7, and 40 recur, time becomes timeless, all unfolds as it must. “Almost every episode in the Navigatio Brandani revolves around a unit of time pregnant with religious meaning, resonant with symbolic import, rich with biblical reminiscence.”[13]

The prize that Brendan sought, salvation, appears to differ markedly from the very material wealth and status that the Normans sought.  Yet in reality, the Normans were, too, prepared to invest heavily in salvation, endowing and building abbeys, churches and cathedrals.  They funded in large part the great renaissance of the early Middle Ages expressed in such soaring triumphs as Chartres Cathedral and Mont St Michel. For the warrior elite, how to resolve the contradiction of being killers and good Christians was a conundrum, the easing of which gave the Church its great political leverage.  That leverage forged a partnership between the church and kings that was fundamental to the creation of the centralised nation states emerging in Western Europe from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards.

For though St Brendan’s ultimate goal was unity with God and paradise, he reached this, at least allegorically, through a search for an earthly paradise, the Promised Island of the Saints, an actual place where no one dies, no seasons change (once thought a consequence of the Original Sin and the Fall[14]), and light shines perpetually independent of the sun and moon since paradise is beyond time.  Certainly, one had to pass a portal of fog to access it, a liminal entry point between the real and the perfect, but enter it one could.

Like El Dorado or even the Maltese Falcon, it is what dreams are made of: “Christians believed that there might be an earthly paradise, although they debated about its nature and location. For some, it was the Garden of Eden, lost in the east. For others, there was a paradise under the Caucasus Mountains in Central Asia….many more came to see it as being hidden in the ocean to the west.”[15]  This notion was but a short step from seeing St Brendan landing in North America as an early European claimant to the landmass, divinely ordained.

For all its combination of biblical and classical tropes, the Brendan voyage is very recognisably Irish with its roots in the immrama genre.  Journeys to and adventures in otherworldly places.  Islands that appear and disappear like Hy Brasil.  Fogs as liminal entry points.  Talking animals that are guides, lost souls, or tricksters.  Not surprisingly there are no deer turning into beautiful women or beautiful women disappearing into the mist but there are evouring monsters bearing names.  Places of eternal youth too, recalling like Tír na nÓg.  The hero’s return home and his death.  All echo through Brendan’s voyage. 

The other strong Irish element is the ascetic ideal of the monks.  Towards the end of the eight-century asceticism enjoyed a strong revival in Ireland, just as the Brendan voyage was being written.  Derived from Egypt and Syria, notably in the example of St Anthony, and influenced by the teachings of British saints like St Gildas and St David, the ascetic ideal appealed strongly to many in early Christian Ireland.  Asceticism became deeply inculcated in its monastic life, a movement led by the Célí Dé, or companions of God.  The culdees, as they were know, were rigorous ascetics though now they formed groups, unlike the anchorites of previous times.  “It is surely reasonable to apply the words ‘reform’ or, better, ‘religious revival’ to these developments”, writes the indispensable Kathleen Hughes in her classic The Church in Early Irish Society.[16]

One of the culdee leaders was Máel ruain, founder of Tallaght and it is probably no coincidence that the first reference to Brendan’s adventures is associated with Tallaght.  In this context, the Brendan Voyage serves to rally the troops in rejection of the laxities of the ‘old church’.  The culdees rejected meddling in the real world, such as missionary trips to Europe, and saw great dangers in exposure to women.  Voyaging in the Atlantic in search of inspiring fellow-travellers was a feasible alternative to simply staying put.  Cross-vigils (arms outstretched), vigils in water, flagellation by another monk, and long fasts from food and water, rote learning and long recitations,  were some of the rigors the culdees put themselves through. Like them, Brendan and his monks fast regularly, often only eating every second or third day.  Like them, Brendan and his monks only ease their routines for liturgical celebrations.

For all the devotions and asceticism of Irish monasteries, Ireland in the 9th century was a place of violence and turmoil.  The first Viking attack on Ireland occurred in 795 and they continued to plunder the monasteries, interrupting its Golden Age for decades.  They were out for plunder which they found in the monasteries and for slaves, which they found in the populations which had settled around the monasteries. What people they did not take as slaves, they slaughtered and then burned the monastery.  This was a new type of warfare, unfamiliar to the Gaelic Irish where heretofore warfare was a largely aristocratic activity focused on cattle-raiding.  Quite how much turmoil the Vikings sowed in Ireland is hard to judge.  Certainly it was significant since the Viking focus was on the monasteries that provided the urban hubs for Gaelic Ireland as centres of worship, learning, craft, culture and trade.[17] 

Gaelic Irish kings like Feidlimid, king of Munster, raided and burn monasteries, though less frequently than Vikings.  Paradoxically he was regarded as a leading ascetic, scriba et ancorita. Monasteries themselves fought each other, with even St Brendan’s at Clonfert engaged in pitched battles.  For protection, monasteries often were led by abbot-kings, the better to afford them protection.  Families controlled monasteries through inheritance and their integration into Gaelic society inevitably meant they were embroiled in its regnal wars.  Writes Hughes: “So the old practices went on, and while one anchorite dwelt alone in his hermit’s cell, renouncing this wretched world, another who held a kingdom, assumed abbacies, burned churches beyond his own borders, and slew their inhabitants.”[18]  Amidst all this turmoil, no wonder that the Navigatio Brendani was needed to hold up an ideal of the monastic life.

All of this would seem to point to weakness of the monastic system, a lack of centralised authority and hierarchy that the ascetic revival was by nature not equipped to mitigate or repair.  As Ó Croinín points on in his Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, now the standard historical survey of the period, the ‘new orthodoxy’ about the Irish church at this time is that there was no organization.  This is not a view that Ó Croinín shares and he points the fact that there were no disagreements about dogma and doctrine and, moreover, the regular synods of church leaders were capable of concerted disciplinary action, such as the censuring of St Columba and exile to Iona.[19]  This debate centres on the nature of political control, whether a society or political entity can be organized without being centralized. It is central to later debates around political organisation in Ireland prior to colonization.  Colonizers justified their conquests and destruction of Indigenous societies for their lack of centralization even if the evidence of organisation is all round them.  

Ironically enough, just as Queen Matilda was commissioning a translation of the Navigatio Brandani three centuries later, the Irish church was undergoing a period of serious reform, an attempt to strengthen the diocesan structure that has failed to take root, with increased communication with Rome and the introduction of the Benedictine rule.  Ireland’s reputation in Europe as a place of moral laxity in the church was doing its reputation real damage. This was used by English Churchmen to argue for an invasion of Ireland later in the century.

“Monastic and clerical life were thus drawn into the continental pattern as never before, and liturgical customs were revived. Twelfth-century architecture and sculpture bear the imprint of these fundamental changes”, writes Hughes, citing the example of Cormac’s chapel on the Rock of Cashel, consecrated in 1134, with its continental Romanesque influences (and to my mind redolent of Jerusalem in its use of bright sandstone, not grey granite).[20]

The new orthodoxy turned a critical eye to pre-reform literature and a provoked a caustic dismissal of the Brendan Voyage as an insult to the saint. Hughes sums up the scholar’s distain: “Are we to believe that Brendan, for the sake of a rumour, irresponsibly abandoned the three thousand brethren whom God had committed to his direction; that he wandered for seven years, celebrating Easter on a whale’s back, seeking on the seas what is promised in heaven?  The whole story is condemned as silly, crazy, and hostile to the faith.”[21]

Crazy it may have seemed even in twelfth-century Ireland but the allure of the Navigatio Brandani was enduring, precisely because seeking heaven on earth might was not be crazy if you could get there without paying the normal price of admission, namely death.  Brendan’s Island was a mainstay of medieval and renaissance cartography as Johnson notes, placed variously off the coast of Africa, just north of the Canaries, or in the Atlantic.  “Between 1526 and 1721 four naval expeditions left the Canaries in search of the promised land of St Brendan.”[22]  As Anderson writes: “Columbus mentioned Brendan’s Island, the Earthly Paradise, in his diary. It remained on navigational charts into the eighteenth century.”[23]  This despite the tale’s own location of the island to the east and near Ireland.

If it is unlikely that St Brendan did reach Newfoundland, that is not to say that a monk or monks did not set out across the unknown and make landfall on the North American continent. The hardy ascetic monks of Ireland were more than able for the rigors of such a journey.  More importantly, they had the ideology to attempt such a feat, an act of zealous devotion to their beliefs.  At the outer edge of the world they would have expected to meet and challenge demons, testing their spiritual valour as soldiers of Christ.  They would have emulated Christ’s exile from heaven while on earth saving mankind.  To truly emulate Christ, one had to embrace exile. For those with an expectation of return, such a journey would have been a pilgrimage.  More universally, such a venture would been a response to innate human curiosity to look beyond the horizon, a powerful drive in our nature that humans as a species have exhibited throughout their existence.

Finding any traces of Irish monks beyond Iceland is hard to imagine but possible. Until then, we must leave the honours to the Vikings who managed the journey in 1000 AD, the first time that humans finally closed the loop by travelling completely around the world. Along the way, they had destroyed the monastic settlements in the remote islands of the north North Atlantic and ended the wanderings of the monks in search of ideal locations to live their ideal life on earth.

In global terms, the Vikings’ achievement was less impressive than at first appears.  The already established sea route from the Persian Gulf to Guangzhou in China would remain the longest until the sixteenth century, as least twice as far as Columbus. Nonetheless the Viking journey of Leif Ericson was epic, putting in place the final link in a global trade route that arguably was the starting point of globalisation:

“In 1000, Viking explorers closed the global loop.  For the first time an object or a message could have travelled across the entire world.  True, we do not know – yet!- of any item that did so.  But because the Viking voyages to Canada in the year 1000 opened up a route from Europe to the Americas, it is fact – not supposition – that a network of global pathways took shape in that year.”[24] 

That the Vikings were hunting for monastic settlements and their riches means that indeed Irish monks like St Brendan played an inadvertent part in stimulating globalization.

Eamonn McKee


26 March 2022

[1] Dáibhí Ó Croinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Routledge, 2017), 2nd Edition.  Ó’Croinín notes that there is little solid evidence to support one contending author, Israel Scottus. P. 242.

[2] John D. Anderson, The Navigatio Brandani: A Medieval Best Seller, The Classical Journal, Apr-May 1988, Vol 83 pp 315-322.  This is an excellent account and analysis.  While the earliest text is from Germany in the tenth century, there is a reference to the voyage in the Martyrology of Tallaght from around 800, as he notes.

[3] Rev. John Ryan, SJ, Irish Monasticism, Origins and Early Development, (Talbot Press, 1931), p 249.  This is a learned, charming and detailed account of its subject matter told from the perspective of unshaken belief.

[4] Similarly in the animal kingdom.  Female orcas are fertile from ten years to forty but live to eighty and scientists believe their role is to preserve and pass on culture and knowledge to the rest of the pod.  “Scientists currently believe that the presence of healthy older females, not depleted by pregnancies or distracted by nursing, has a knowledge-transmitting function: they can, in effect, serve as the group’s resident professors!”  Martha S. Nussbaum, What We Owe Our Fellow Animals, NYRB, March 10, 2022, vol. LXIX, 4, p 36.

[5] Manchester University Press, 2003, p 36.  Johns is doing fantastic work excavating the role of the woman, so often buried and ignored by contemporary chroniclers and subsequent historians alike. See also John’s Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages, Nest of Deheubarth (Manchester University Press, 2013) for the life of a woman hugely consequential in the history of Ireland but barely known in Ireland.

[6] Ibid, p 37.

[7] The Voyage of St Brendan, Journey to the Promised Land, translated by John J O’Meara, Dolman Texts 1 (Dolman Press).

[8] See Elva Johnson, The Voyage of St Brendan, Landscape and Paradise is Early Medieval, Brathair 19 (1), 2019.

[9] Michael Richter, Medieval Ireland, The Enduring Tradition (Gill and MacMillan, 1988), p 51.

[10] Ibid, p 40 and p 41.

[11] O’Meara, p 20.

[12] Anderson, p 317.

[13] Ibid, p 321.

[14] Johnson, p 48.

[15] Johnson, p 37.

[16] Methuen, 1966, p 174.

[17] Kathleen Huges, The Irish Church, 800-1050, NHI, I, pp 636-639.

[18] Hughes, p 193.

[19] Pp 167-168.

[20] Ibid, p 271.

[21] Ibid, p 273

[22] Johnson, p 50.

[23] Anderson, p 316.

[24] Valerie Hansen, The Year 1000, When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalisation Began (Scribner, 2020), p 23 and p 25.


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