Atlantic Navigators: The Brendan Voyage
Lecture by Tim Severin
Given at Gresham College, on October 3, 2005
Overview: A first-hand account of a harrowing voyage from the south-west coast of Ireland across the North Atlantic in a small open boat skinned with ox hides. Tim Severin and his companions set out to test whether the legendary voyage of the 6th century Irish monk, St Brendan, was based on the real life adventures of early medieval seafarers.
Introduction: Thank you for coming along to listen to me today. What I’m going to talk to you about is a voyage that I made in 1976/1977. It took two sailing seasons. It wasn’t intended that way; the idea was actually to do it in a single season. It was the first of my major projects, and it was to test whether the story of St Brendan, which was hugely well known during the later Middle Ages, could have been true. The story was called theNavigatio. It was about the voyage of St Brendan, who sets out with a party of monks in a boat made of leather, and has various adventures on the way, stops at various islands, and reaches a great land far in the West. Some people of course have said that he reached North America. Well, I made the voyage really to test whether that was physically possible. When I say that it was very well known, it was well known to the extent that Columbus, when he was half way across, actually stopped his little flotilla of three vessels and said, “This is about the area where we should find the islands which St Brendan visited.” Columbus believed in the story and the islands were marked on the map. So I made the Brendan voyage to see if this could have been possible, and researched the sort of vessel that might have been made. What I’m going to do is I’m going to run the documentary film of that voyage, and during this, I’m going to stop it and comment and so forth on how it’s going.