Holy Body, Wholly Other: Sanctity and Society in the Lives of Irish Saints

Holy Body, Wholly Other: Sanctity and Society in the Lives of Irish Saints

Johnson, Maire Niamh

Doctor of Philosophy, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, April 21 (2010)


“Holy Body, Wholly Other: Sanctity and Society in the Lives of Irish Saints” focuses on the ways in which Ireland’s hagiographers portrayed holy otherness in the Lives of their subjects, using the Latin vitae, the vernacular bethada and the Lives containing both languages that survive from the 600s through the end of the fourteenth century. This study considers three broad themes, namely the transition of a sanctified essence into a holy body and the resulting alteration of an otherwise mortal form into a wholly other, the saintly prosecution of vengeance against those who wrong the body Christian and the enactment of hagiographical healing to bring the community of the faithful back to full integrity. These themes are analyzed within the social and cultural context of medieval Ireland, and are particularly compared with the biblical, apocryphal, heroic and legal writings of the Irish Middle Ages. Depictions of male and female saints are also compared and contrasted, as are the shifts in such depictions that occur between Latin and Irish narratives. Throughout the Lives the language of the laws of church and society inform the saint’s portrait, firmly situating these holy men and women within the sphere of medieval Ireland.

Elements of Irish sanctity are drawn from vernacular heroic saga, but the predominant influence upon the Lives of Ireland’s sanctified is a powerful combination of apocryphal and canonical scriptures, demonstrating that Irish holiness can only have emanated from heaven. This combination, moreover, differs between male and female saints and between Latin and Irish Lives; holy men are modeled very strongly upon both Old and New Testament figures, while lady saints are painted more in the hues of imitatio Christi. Further, Latin vitae follow patterns capable of speaking to both Irish and non-Irish audiences alike, while vernacular Lives observe models that needed to appeal only to the Irish themselves.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Toronto

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