Preserving the body Christian: the motif of “recapitation” in Ireland’s medieval hagiography
The Heroic Age A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)
This paper argues that Ireland’s medieval hagiographers adapted and transcended the saga motif of beheading with that of ‘recapitation.’ Firmly rooted in the power of confession and penance, the motif depicts the Church preserving itself intact, particularly from brigandage.
The hagiography of medieval Ireland, growing as it did in the same monastic medium as vernacular saga, possesses some intriguing and uniquely Hibernian motifs. One of the most curious of these distinctly Irish motifs is that of the re-attached head, wherein saints are portrayed rejoining removed heads to their abbreviated trunks, ‘recapitating’ and reviving the slain whole and hale. Partly an Hibernian twist on the ultimate imitatio Christi, the miracle of resurrection, these acts are not to be understood quite so simply. If a broader approach is taken, incorporating sources such as the vernacular sagas and hero tales, the picture grows more complex; abundantly figured in this secular genre is the ideal warrior, a man whose honor, battle prowess, and prestige were often defined by decapitation and severed heads.