The mediæval Bestseller

Ich laz ioch zeichen hiufc sehen, daz ir mir wol geloubet. Sant Brandanes houbet daz schouwet hie, daz han ich.

— from Der Pfaffe Amis by Der Stricker.

  The Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis is never a kind of any 'true' record of the life of Saint Brendan himself ; it was perhaps a part of the records which was written by his successors or his descendants, for passing down the founder's name to the later generations. The Life of Saint Brendan, written both in Latin and Irish, and the Latin Prayer of Saint Brendan ( Oratio Sancti Brendani ), are also among the manuscripts born from the cult of the saint.

  However, the Latin Navigatio alone, had a different background. It was created during about the eighth and ninth centuries in Munster region of the southern part of Ireland, and later around in the tenth century, a bunch of the Irish monks were wandering across the Kingdom of Lotharingia, building their religious communities and copying the Navigatio on Hiberno Latin codices. Thus such a huge volume of transcriptions after one another, from the same exemplar, were created in many places across the Continent, spinning off lots of their variants. Now the existing versions of the Latin Navigatio are 125 manuscripts in total, so aptly called 'The mediæval bestseller' by a German scholar.

  The monks did not have any crafts or devices for typography, so it took very long time and required tedious labour when the scribes copied hand by hand their exemplars for producing codices. Nevertheless, they created such a long list of Latin Navigatios, so it is quite easy to imagine they had a large range of general readers, who were among the limited classes of clerics, nobles and intellectuals, and that the Latin versions won such a wide popularity.across the Continent.

  Later, a Benedictine by the name of Benedeit( Fr., Benoit ) compiled his adaptation of the original Latin (ca.,1121 ? ) ; at the same time vernacular translations / adaptations of the Latin Navigatio were reproduced and copied in Spain, Italy, Holland and Germany, which were then gushing other inspired spin-offs one after another very rapidly.

  With the popularity of the saint never ceased, and when Gutenberg invented typography, now this voyage story was circulated and reached among the far wider readers. One good example of such printed one was the Middle English version made by William Caxton( 1484 ), and German 'Volksbuch' of incunabula, published by Anton Sorg, Augsburg, in 1476. The latter German versions in particular, reprinted over twenty times, marking the first bestselling printed book in history. This fact tells vividly that the saint's Voyage tale was so fascinating not only for the upper class who usually read Latin literatures, but also for the general folks. And Germany, along the Baltic parts in particular, saw the Brendan cults not less flourishing than in Ireland. Actually, according to Carl Selmer, a local German place called 'Brandenburg', which was later become the famous title for Six Concertos composed by J.S. Bach, derived from Saint Brendan himself. *

  Then why did that particular voyage tale enjoy such a wide range of its translations or printed books?   Unlike other Immrama, the Navigatio chiefly featured 'a saint's life' ; with eerie elements within this tale admitted though, it is the main purpose of the Voyage was, all the same, the quest for their 'Promised Land', reaching it, and their safe return to their homeland, Ireland, that fascinated the public minds who lived across the Continent, and whose greatest interest was, in a word, discovering a New World, with some boosts in their scientific or technological developments. Also the Latin Navigatio was an important informant for cartographers, who interpreted the 'Promised Land of the Saints' in Navigatio would have been the same as 'Fortunate / Blessed Isles' appeared in the classical mythologies, even with adding them on their maps as 'Saint Brendan's Isle(s)'. Moreover, Christopher Columbus himself believed in the Brendan's Isle on a Toscanelli's map, setting sail for his quest of New World across the Atlantic. It can be said that all of the Europeans then, more or less, had a view of the globe deeply affected by the Saint's Voyage. However, the Latin Navigatio doesn not say a word about a 'westward voyage' by the company of Saint Brendan.

  There is another factor for the popularity : allegory on 'travel to the Otherworld'. Saint Brendan, still alive, visited 'another world', and then returned to the real world safely. This ancient motif of 'shadowland visited by a mortal being' can be found ubiquitously across both the East and the West, which also appears frequently on the codices created by the Irish monks. The Latin Navigatio was reckoned as a representative another-world tale yet one saint's story, NOT pagan Immrama written by Irish, adopted or quoted in many of the literary works of late mediæval Europe. Topographia Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), so-called Breton cycles including Roman de Renart, for example. Moreover, the Saint's episode appeared in the legend on the Singers' Contest at Wartburg Castle, and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks(Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche), as well as Der Pfaffe Amis by Der Stricker, quoted above ; the Till Eulenspiegels even burrowed the whole phrase above from Pfaffe Amis! And also it was told that Latin Navigatio offered an inspirational source for the renowned poet Dante Alighieri's magnificent La Divina Commedia. So, given all of such historical facts, at least it can be said Latin Navigatio had such a great impact over the whole literary world across the mediæval Europe.

The End of the Legend, but...

  The Latin Navigatio, a sort of a social phenomenon which fascinated explorers seeking the New World, or intellectuals reading Latin literatures, as well as general public, began to lose its huge attraction.

  The biggest reason of decline of Navigatio's popularity is, in a word, the campaign of Protestants' reformation against Roman Catholic church, touched off from Germany in 1517 by M. Luther, as well as by J. Calvin, in France. This reform movement spread over the whole Continent like wildfire, causing for decreasing hagiolatry and the saints' Vita on the constant ebb. The Latin Navigatio, the womb of many many versions in various countries or regions across the Continent from the early Middle Ages, saw its last spin-off of German Volksbuch format from a publisher in Augsburg in 1521 ; hencefoth, no vernacular versions would be added to its pedigree any more. While the 'target readers' of the original Latin version were clerics or monks who had good command of reading and / or writing in Latin, the general readers who lived in the late Middle Ages after some 500 years since the Latin Navigatio had compiled, had little understanding of the 'messages' within this voyage tale ; the Irish Saint's Voyage was taken as a mere fairy one or 'a tall yarn'. Moreover, since the 'real' discoveries of the New World, the European explorers discovered unknown lands one after another, then people began to recognise that there was no such island as 'Saint Brendan's Isle' or 'Earthly Paradise', so one thinks this trend also may have caused the decline of the popularity of Latin Navigatio.

  Now, in the late ninteenth century, scholars were beginning to pay their attention to the long tradition starting from Latin Navigatio in a new perspective ; there appeared some theorists claiming that a party of the mediæval Irish monks, including Saint Brendan, should have been credited for the first European discovery of North America. This assertation is still question at issue, however, there emerged an English explorer / writer who thought it was high time that someone should begin a voyage experiment, buiding a replica of the traditional Irish curraghs as used by Brendan's company, and to see it might have crossed the North Atlantic ; that guy was by the name of Tim Severin, lives in Cork, a port town located along the South-west coast of Ireland.

* For further detail on the origin of Brandenburg, cf., Carl Selmer, The Origin of Brandenburg(Prussia), the Brendan Legend, and the Scoti of the Tenth Century, Traditio 7 (1949), pp. 416-33.

← Back Top Next→
back to The end of Celtic monastery back to Home go to Revived Legendary Voyage