HIS101 logo Background to
The Voyage of Saint Brendan (Anonymous)

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2002)
Return to the Syllabus

 

Brendan was an Irish monk who died around 575CE. This story, which was written down some time in the eighth century, concerns a seven-year voyage on the uncharted seas west of Ireland by Brendan and seventeen other monks. Because the story has so many incredible coincidences with Biblical stories, many people doubt its authenticity, and scholars have tried to decipher the underlying geographical and historical truths in the story. Their research has led to speculation that Brendan's group may have reached the Americas long before the Vikings or Spaniards. This excerpt contains sections from the beginning and end of the trip, plus a description of the undulating island of Jasconius.

Definitions

 

Background

As the story of Brendan shows, Europeans in the Middle Ages did not all believe that the earth was flat and that a ship would fall off the edge if it sailed too far to the west. Instead, stories like that of Brendan excited the popular imagination, and seemed just as believable as the stories told by overland esxplorers like Marco Polo, who reached China in the late 13th century.

Map of North Atlantic and picture of a coracle (boat)
The North Atlantic Ocean and an Irish "coracle" boat

SOME IRISH HISTORY

Christianity reached Ireland during the late Roman empire, thanks to the efforts of Bishop Palladius, who is believed to have arrived there in 431. He found Ireland occupied by Celtic peoples organized in tribes under the leadership of chieftains. The following year, a specially trained missionary named Patrick took his place and founded churches in Meath, Ulster, and Connaught, and possibly the bishopric of Armagh as well. Although he converted many of the Irish chieftains, most of the population remained pagan, so Patrick also began to train priests.

As chiefs converted, they donated land to the Church. For a time, the Church remained under the control of a single abbot descended from Patrick, but after the withdrawal of Roman legions from Britain and Gaul, the system of organization created by Patrick began to unravel. By the 8th and 9th centuries, a large number of Irish monks began to leave for the European mainland, where Charlemagne's conquests opened new avenues to spread Christianity.

The period from 500-900 was the "Golden Age" of Irish monastic scholarship. A school founded at Aranmore in the late fifth century drew students from all over Europe, while a monastery at Clonard attracted about 3000 students who lived in huts and received instruction outdoors. The Clonard school produced the "12 Apostles of Ireland" who went on to found schools all over Ireland and later on the continent. Meanwhile, a monk named Columba founded the first monastery in Ireland about 533, and later went on to found the first church in Scotland in 563. Also, the Book of Kells, a lavishly illustrated Christian manuscript, was written during this period.

In 590, a monk named Columban of Leinster went to the continent where he founded monasteries at Luxeuil, Gall, Wurzburg, Salzburg, Tarantum and Bobbio. A century later, Irish monks founded another group of missions in eastern France. By the end of the eighth century, the Irish monasteries seemed strong enough to challenge Roman control over Christianity in Europe north of the Alps.

Irish history changed dramatically in 795 with the arrival of the first Norse invasion. Prior to this, Ireland had neither cities, stone bridges, nor significant foreign trade, but the arrival of sea-borne invaders from Scandinavia provided an incentive to build fortifications. Dublin (founded in 840), Waterford and Limerick became centers for trade with the Norsemen. About this time, Irish Christianity started to lose its strength. After Brian of Munster defeated the Norse in 1014, Ireland fell into civil war for more than a century that only ended when Dermond MacMurrough appealed to King Henry II of England to stop the fighting in 1167.

THE IMPACT OF TRAVEL STORIES IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

In a world without television, radio or even printing, story-telling was a popular form of entertainment, and travels to exotic places served as suitable subjects for storytellers. We have already seen that Herodotus' writings included many tales of distant lands. Other examples from this course include Exploration in the Ancient World by Pliny the Elder, The First Contact of Crusaders and Turks by the anonymous vassal of Bohemund of Sicily, and The Fall of Constantinople by Villehardouin.

One of the most significant and enduring travel accounts from feudal Europe is The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian. This story, which describes the experiences of a Venetian merchant who spent seventeen years in the Mongol Empire, offered Europeans the first detailed account of lands east of the Muslim world since the Roman Empire. The following list of chapter titles gives an idea of the book's approach:

Book One: Account of the regions visited or heard of on the journey from the lesser Armenia to the court of the Great Khan and Shangtu
  1. Armenia Minor, the port of Laiassus and of the boundaries of the province
  2. of the province called Turkomania, where are the cities of Kogni, Kaisariah and Sevasta, and of its commerce
  3. of Armenia Major, in which are the cities of Azingan, Argiron and Darziz of the mountain where the ark of Noah rested and of a remarkable fountain of oil
  4. of the province of Georgiania and its boundaries of the pass where Alexander the Great constructed the Gate of Iron and of the miraculous circumstances attending a fountain at Teflis
  5. of the province of Mosul and its different inhabitants, of the people named the Kurds, and of the trade of that country
  6. of the great city of Baudas anciently called Babylon and of the various sciences studied in that city and how it was taken
. . . and so on.

Polo wrote his book while in prison at the end of the 13th century. Its popularity is evident from the fact that it was recopied by hand for more than 150 years--the printing press was not introduced in Europe until the late 15th century--until the first printed edition was published in 1559. It is full of descriptive passages such as:

"The city of Karakoran is about three miles in circuit, and is the first place in which the Tartars [Mongols] established their residence in remote times. It is surrounded by a strong rampart of earth, there not being any good supply of stone in that part of the country. On the outside of the rampart, but near to it, stands a castle of great size, in which is a handsome palace occupied by the Governor of the place."

The passages that most excited European readers concerned gold. Polo's book includes chapters with titles like "Of the province of Bascia lying to the south, of the golden ornaments worn by the inhabitants in their ears, and of their manners," "Of the kinds of rewards granted to those who conduct themselves well in fight, and of the golden tablets which they receive," "Concerning the twelve thousand barons who receive robes of cloth of gold from the emperor on the great festivals," "Of the province of Balashan, of the precious stones found there and which become the property of the king, and of the dress with which the women adorn their persons," and "Of the city of Mien, and of two towers, one of silver and one of gold."

Others were enthralled by the possibility of winning converts to Christianity that was suggested by chapters like "Of the religion of the Tartars, of the opinions they hold as to the soul, and of some of their customs."

In all cases, travel literature was rare before the introduction of the printing press, so most of the travel stories known to Europeans came by word-of-mouth from merchants, wandering monks, and Crusaders.

Questions

  1. By what means did Brendan and his colleagues travel?
  2. What happened to Brendan when he finally returned home?
Return to the Syllabus