Studies in Church History: Ecclesiastical History Society, 47, Saints and Sanctity, May 20 (2011)
Veneration of the martyrs as powerful intercessors and exemplars of Christ-like fortitude is one of the earliest and most powerful manifestations of Christian religious practice. Not only were martyrs thought to be assured of salvation, but the blood which they shed was conceived by Tertullian as ‘seed’ for the upbuilding of the Christian Church. As legends of their lives and, more importantly, the manner of their deaths developed over time, martyrs would also function as valuable instructors in the essentials of the Christian life, their speeches before death often assuming a sermon-like quality. By the ﬁfth century recourse to the relics of martyrs was also already well established.
This paper examines part of that future: late medieval and early modern Gaelic Irish devotion to the early Christian martyrs as evidenced in the vernacular manuscript tradition. It is argued here that, from the ﬁfteenth century onwards especially, one can discern an increasing appetite, among literate lay people of means in particular, for vernacular lives of some of the most popular Christian martyrs. This set in train a process whereby Latin originals were acquired and translated for the consumption of a more assertive and conﬁdent native Irish aristocracy – sometimes relatively faithfully and at other times less so. In the case of the latter, the introduction of peculiarly Irish elements to the narratives was not uncommon and facilitated their becoming embedded in the vernacular.