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Festival of Ideas Outreach: Saints & Dragons

Charting geographic and historical territory from St Columba’s defeat of the Loch Ness Monster to the dragon vanquished by St George, ‘Saints and Dragons’, a Festival of Ideas session presented by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic on Saturday October 25th was created with an audience of under 10s in mind but ultimately attracted the attention of a selection of visitors of all ages. Brigit for vinyl

Designed by graduate student Julianne Pigott, as part of the Isaac Newton Trust funded Mapping Miracles project which examines miracle accounts from hagiographical texts composed across the regions of the medieval Insular world, ‘Saints and Dragons’ encouraged participants to explore the patterns, convergent and divergent, in miraculous animal encounters recorded in texts composed about saints associated with modern-day Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

The subject of no fewer than eight hagiographical texts in Latin and Old/ Middle Irish, St Brigit, was the first of six saints to whom attendees’ attention was drawn. Drawing on accounts from the seventh century Latin text composed by Irish author Cogitosus, listeners were introduced to twelve Brigidine miracles, as they handcrafted crosses in accordance with a pattern attributed in modern folkloric tradition to the fifth-century nun. From the wondrous reproduction of meat she had previously fed to a stray dog, to her ability to calm wild horses and straying cattle, younger audience members were enthusiastic about the fantastical elements of the Brigit narrative.  Crossing the Irish Sea to Scotland, the audience was introduced to Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, a seminal source for historians of the period, but also the first literary account of the Loch Ness Monster. The holy man’s victory over his watery foe marks the only textual sighting of the monster before 1933 but this earliest identification of Nessie is often known only to medievalists and Latinate scholars; the adult participants in ‘Saints and Dragons’ certainly appreciated the value in familiarising themselves with the medieval roots of a modern legend.


In a further exploration of the connections between past and present, the younger cohort was presented with a brief introduction to the manuscript and textual history of these tales, with particular reference to the ninth century Irish poem Pangur Bán and its adaptation by contemporary filmmakers as a customised narrative for today’s Disney saturated audience. The account of the journey of this text, from ninth century European manuscript to twenty-first century animated movie replete with child-friendly musical accompaniment, provided an appropriate preface to a consideration of Welsh Saint Melangell’s position in popular lore as the saviour of hares.

Tracing the ahistorical Melangell from a putative lifespan in the sixth century, through a text likely written in the twelfth, committed to vellum in the sixteenth and reports of a traveller to the region in the eighteenth, mature participants became more familiar with the particular challenges encountered by the historian seeking to disinter the truth of these tale. Meanwhile younger audience members were entranced by the vision of St Melangell sheltering the hares and rabbits under her voluminous skirts!


The most popular storytelling section of the event was St George’s defeat of the dragon in Cappadocia, though listeners were taken aback to discover that the infamous victory by England’s patron saint occurred in modern Turkey rather than on local soil. The theme of 2014’s Festival of Ideas was ‘identity’ and the St George narrative challenged assumptions readily made by modern readers about the origin and reliability of narratives accepted in today’s popular culture as unassailable truths. Seeking to refocus attention on the sometimes very localised nature of identities, both medieval and modern, the final saint’s tale recounted was that of St Æthelthryth of Ely, whose association with the Cambridgeshire region is historically attested and confirmed in bountiful literary productions.


‘Saints and Dragons’, though originally intended to serve only younger Festival attendees, evolved on the day of delivery to meet the expectations of a more diverse audience than anticipated. From the lively pictures and colourful crosses produced by the youngest participants to the probing questions raised by teenaged Classicists, the session exemplified the continued resonances of medieval saints’ stories for modern audiences, as narrative accounts in which certain aspects of identity are firmly implicated. The miracle accounts relied upon in the session explored how the relationship between place and people is neither fixed nor finite and challenged long, and often fondly held, assumptions about Insular patron saints and the intimacy of the connections upon which modern regional identities are, at least in part, founded. The work done by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic lends itself exceptionally well to exploring and bridging the gaps, both perceived and real, between disparate Cambridge communities. Audience members in attendance at ‘Saints and Dragons’ cannot have failed to notice the universal themes, with personal relevance, which suffuse narratives composed in wildly different times and areas across the medieval Insular world. Those connections remain as relevant and requisite to good political and personal relationships today, as then.


FUNDING: Isaac Newton Trust & Converting the Isles Network

 We are delighted to announce that Mapping Miracles investigators Sarah Waidler and Dr Jennifer Key will shortly commence work on a postdoctoral project funded by the Isaac Newton Trust, under the stewardship of Principal Investigator Dr Máire Ní Mhaoniagh, in cooperation with the Cambridge based Converting the Isles Network. The intention of this six-month project is to produce a trial database of miracle motifs relating to conversion to Christianity found in insular hagiography. The database will encompass saints’ Lives written in Old English, Latin, Middle Welsh and Old and Middle Irish, from the seventh to twelfth centuries. 

converting isles

Leeds Roundtable Report

The second Mapping Miracles roundtable session was held at the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July 2014. Following on from the successful roundtable event that concluded the Mapping Miracles May conference, the Leeds session was intended to further explore some of the key questions relating to the priorities of creating a miracle taxonomy and designing and delivering a database. The session was extremely well-attended by participants from a variety of disciplines and the interdisciplinary and international nature of the Congress enabled the Mapping Miracles team to introduce the project to a new audience. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces from the May conference as well! After an initial project introduction and progress report by Sarah Waidler and Dr Jennifer Key, the discussion of miracle taxonomies and the challenges inherent in producing such a resource was opened to the floor. Moderated by Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes, the session triggered some lively debate over the practicalities of producing a database, the priorities for developing a taxonomy and the nature of the corpus from which the data come. An indication of the texts included in the database was deemed by many participants to be essential to the user-friendliness of any database. It was also suggested that the database would only be useful once a critical mass-point of texts had been reached, and that the list of texts included would need to be made available as part of the database. The issue of quality control was again raised, which reinforced to the team the need to think carefully about processes for data-gathering. A number of participants also discussed how they would use such a resource, and the list of potential search terms that were flagged-up by participants provided the team with a helpful indication of how a Mapping Miracles database might eventually be used.


Mapping the Miraculous: Saints and Sinners?

On Friday 2nd May, the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic served as the venue for the launch of a new graduate-led project ‘Mapping Miracles’ and judging by the crowds in attendance, it seems probable that saints and sinners continue to exercise the interests, if not the consciences, of medievalists. While it was noted during proceedings that one of the saints whose commemoration fell on 2nd May was Saint Zoe who died a martyr having been roasted alive, no roasting of speakers or delegates occurred last week. The smoked duck served at the conference dinner in Trinity Hall was the only flesh consumed by flames!

The AHRC and Chadwick Fund sponsored ‘Mapping the Miraculous: Hagiographical Motifs and the Medieval World’ was organised by three ASNC graduate students, Robert Gallagher, Julianne Pigott and Sarah Waidler, with their colleague at the University of St Andrews, Jennifer Key. The ambition for the day was to generate and facilitate discussions about the theoretical and practical utility of a planned database of miracle accounts in saints’ lives, composed in the Insular world between 600 and 1300. The organisers invited speakers from a diverse range of scholarly backgrounds to ensure the broad appeal of the day’s programme to students and established academics alike. Given the heaving masses spied in the faculty social area throughout the course of the day, we’d have to say that ambition was realised.

Fresh from the televisual glory of The Plantagenets on BBC 2, Professor Robert Bartlett of the School of History at St Andrews, opened proceedings with a masterful survey of hagiographical miracles. Any reader who has had recourse in the last six months to Bartlett’s Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? is familiar with his astonishingly detailed knowledge of the corpora of European hagiology, but to witness him deliver this fifty minute survey of the genre, without pause for breath or even to play the scales on his water glasses, was a genuine privilege for all present. Spanning accounts from the seminal Life of Saint Martin of Tours to that of Edward the Confessor, Bartlett posited that scholars are best advised to approach textual accounts from both a literary and ‘forensic’ perspective, with appropriate acknowledgement of the conventional topoi of the genre. Ultimately, he argued that the burden of proof of sanctity shifted over time from measures of the persuasiveness of narrative accounts to the provision of witnesses and material evidence. He characterised this transition as being from the ‘congenial to cold reality’. Professor Bartlett brought equal measures of both to the day.

The second session of the morning saw papers presented by ASNC’s own Dr Rosalind Love and by Thomas Clancy, Professor of Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow. Both chose to focus their attentions on individual saints and consequently we were treated to two meticulously researched and intricately argued papers. The audience for Dr Love’s paper was potentially given the scoop on a rather significant finding but rather than spoil the surprise here, we encourage readers to look out for Dr Love’s next published contribution to the field.  Professor Clancy’s paper on Adomnán was a testament not only to the continued purchase of Iona and her abbots on the collective imaginations of Insular scholars but on the enduring value of the island’s hagiographical output, and how what Clancy termed the ‘textual stratigraphy’ of the canonical texts might best inform our understanding of the changing priorities and pragmatics of the miraculous.

Any anticipation of a post-prandial slump was diminished by the lively delivery of papers from Professor Catherine Cubitt and Dr Christine Rauer. In what was arguably the most historicist of the papers presented on Friday, Cubitt examined the textual origins and narrative development of the account of Pope Martin’s martyrdom in the Life of St Eligius. Her arguments elicited some interesting discussion about the most expeditious route to sainthood, though none of those present volunteered for martyrdom. Christine Rauer deserves plaudits for the most audacious product-placement of the day: The Old English Martryology was firmly on display throughout her authoritative, and occasionally irreverent, survey of the complexion and context of miracles in what she argues was potentially a preacher’s handbook for para-liturgical use.

The final formal session of the afternoon saw delegates turn their attentions to Wales and Ireland, respectively. Dr Barry Lewis of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, and a much loved member of the ASNC family, examined accounts of church formations in Wales and the miracles associated with these narrative accounts in different hagiographical genres. As always, Lewis brought an incredible command of detailed analysis to the fore and we look forward to hearing more from his Welsh Saints project in due course. The final speaker of the day, who had traversed the Atlantic Ocean to be present, was Professor Dorothy-Ann Bray, whose name will be familiar to all who seek to unlock the mysteries of Irish hagiography. Professor Bray’s 1992 volume ‘A List of Motifs in the Lives of Early Irish Saints’ retains a central importance in the library of current researchers. With an astonishing degree of generosity and not a little self-deprecation, Professor Bray outlined her personal experience of developing a motif index, and none could fail to appreciate the extent to which she under-sold her contribution to the field.

Having listened to experts all day, the graduate organisers braved the lion’s den to share further details of the project and to open to the floor to general discussion. Sarah Waidler and Jennifer Key outlined the team’s ambitions and were met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. Though no cheques were immediately forthcoming, a variety of contributors offered practical advice on funding applications, and the team hopes to have positive, though not miraculous, news in this regard soon. The tone of the discussions made it very apparent that a substantial demand exists for this research resource and ASNC’s role in delivering this database is testament to the positive consequences of the Department’s interdisciplinarity.

And what of the saints and sinners mentioned at the outset? We are pleased to report that the only sin in evidence was over indulgence in biscuits. Some have been heard to suggest the unending provisioning might have been due to saintly intervention, but we can neither confirm nor deny a miracle at play.

The organisers of ‘Mapping the Miraculous’ would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank all of the speakers, their supervisors and the Department, the delegates, and the undergraduate helpers for all the support and assistance that made the day possible.

Talking Hagiography

The Mapping Miracles team had their first opportunity to discuss the aims and hopes of the project at a day-long hagiography workshop, organised by our very own Sarah Waidler, which took place at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Cambridge on 27 November. The aim of the workshop was to consider recent, on-going and future research concerning Insular saints, their cults and hagiographies.

The day began with a wonderfully thought provoking presentation by Pádraig Ó Riain, who argued that the Irish O’Donohue Lives make far more sense as products of the twelfth century (or later) than the eighth century, for which Richard Sharpe has argued on linguistic grounds. Barry Lewis followed, offering an overview of his current collaborative project, ‘The Cult of Saints in Wales: Medieval Welsh-Language Sources and their Transmission’, which aims over the next four years to construct a comprehensive database of material on medieval Welsh saints, including many vernacular poems that have never been edited previously. Following lunch, Gilbert Márkus treated us to a preview of the newly constructed online database of saints in Scottish place-names, which is the culmination of three years’ work by a team of researchers at the University of Glasgow and which, as Gilbert demonstrated, has tremendous potential for understanding the development of cults and their relationship with the Scottish landscape. In what was the last presentation of the day, Julianne then presented on behalf of the ‘Mapping Miracles’ team the vision of our project.

Each of the presentations stimulated much discussion amongst the workshop participants. Points of comparison were drawn between varying hagiographic traditions, while the logistics and potential values of such databases and collaborative projects provoked lively debate. Julianne did a great job of debuting our project and we received lots of useful, considered feedback. In particular, the terminology of our project was put under scrutiny (just as we hoped!), which highlighted how vital it is to establish a valid, comprehensive taxonomy for our project. We were also quizzed on how we would manage contributions from researchers who approach with information. This gave us lots to think about and we hope to continue these discussions at our conference in May. All in all, the hagiography workshop was a fantastic day – and was capped by a fun roundtable session, led by Rosalind Love. We hope everyone enjoyed it as much as we did and thanks to all the organisers, speakers and attendees!