Local heroes: The sociocultural context for the development of vernacular saints' lives in Old Irish, Old Norse, and Old English

Date of Completion

January 2003


Literature, Medieval




This dissertation investigates the vernacular lives of three native saints, Brigit, Olaf, and Guplac, within the context of the heroic and literary traditions of Ireland, Scandinavia, and England during the Middle Ages. The chapters will scrutinize where these portrayals lay on a continuum between the competing traditions that affected their formulation: On the one end lay the widely disseminated, influential Latin vitae; at the opposite end lay the popular epics of the vernacular literary heroes and mythical figures. These particular saints' lives embody the different tensions—and the creative resolutions—between these competing traditions in very different ways: Brigit as the reformulation of a pagan deity; Olaf as the land-hungry viking king; and Guplac as the quintessential Anglo-Saxon warrior in a new kind of battle. While the Irish texts seem to encase the pagan within the Christian and the Norse appear to add Christianity as merely another trait of a successful warrior, the English texts combine warrior with saint by recasting suffering and sacrifice as heroic traits. ^ While any translation of narratives and traditions from one language and culture to another inevitably leads to some changes, the lives of local saints reward particular attention because they arose not from a simple borrowing from one group to another, but rather from a blending of cultures. Previous studies have catalogued differences within the versions of each of these lives, but they have only begun to investigate the cultural and literary significance of these changes, failing to recognize fully the distinctive origins of these legends. Moreover, by comparing the ways that traditions about these saints develop within their separate (but similarly bellicose) cultures, it is possible to consider what was common to the process of Christianizing these warrior heroes, as well as what was distinctive about each culture's interpretation of the continental model. ^