Posted August 12, 2009
Book: Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare built Christianity in barbarian Europe
Author: Lisa Bitel
Oxford University Press. New York. 2009. Pp. 299
An Excerpt from the Jacket:
At a time when Europeans still longed to be Roman and were just learning to be Christian, two extraordinary holy women — Genovefa of Paris (ca 420-502) and Brigit of Kildare (ca. 450-524) — began to roam their homelands. One of these saints raised an apostolic church in the imperial city of that would become Paris. The other scavenged fragments of that dwelling empire for the foundations of a grand Roman basilica built deep in barbarian territory. Both brought Christianity and romanitas (Roman-ness) to their people. By examining the ruins of their cities and churches, the workings of their cults, and the many generations of their devotees. Lisa Bitel show how Brigit and Genovefa helped northern Europeans map new religion onto familiar landscapes. Ladscape with Two Saints tells the twin stories of these charismatic women but also explains how ordinary people lived through religious change at the very beginning of the Middle Ages.
Tales of ancient conversions on distant landscapes have much to teach us about lived and built religion, why people choose new beliefs, and how they act out those beliefs in meaningful ways. The combined history of Brigit and Genovefa explains not just how a couple of legendary peripatetic women could become targets of devotion, but how and where Europeans became Christian and what it meant to them on a daily basis. The story of these two saintly cults — not just in the pages of manuscripts, but on the streets of cities, in the stones of cemeteries, and in the walls of churches — also demonstrates the pervasive influence of gender and ethnicity, as well as regional culture and material environment, on the whole process of religious change. Bitel contends that in the building blocks of their churches and the tracks they once traveled, Genovefa and Brigit show us what the written words of missionaries and theologians never can: the active participation of converts in the history of their own conversion.
An Excerpt from the Book:
Gender had been built into the Irish landscape long before Christians arrived. Land belonged to men, but much of the landscape belonged to women — or, at least, to female entities. Legal properties and secure boundaries were gendered male, but mutable political territories and ambiguous sacral sites had feminine connotations. A long tradition of territorial goddesses persisted in the names and legends of natural features of the environment. The Boyne River which wound through one of the island’s greatest prehistoric necropolises, bore the name of the goddess Boann. Emain Macha, the famous ritual complex surmounted a hill named after the triple goddess Macha. Two hills of Kerry were named for the breasts of the protectress Anu. In some of the oldest vernacular legends of Ireland, supernatural mistresses from the otherworld decreed which warrior kings would build kingdoms and dynasties. Aspiring monarchs mated with these divinities to prove their virile right to rule historical territories. Even the annual festival at Tara supposedly involved the ritual coupling of a king and a goddess.
. . .Gender influenced both the theory and the practice of Irish religious landscapes. Early medieval writers used femaleness to represent the crossing and transgression of boundaries, lost or inaccessible landscapes, and degenerate, dangerous environments — that is, the land’s most pagan places. Female characters moved through and took control of environments in ways that the real women of early medieval Ireland never could. The goddess figures and other-worldly women of story, for example, seem to have represented fickle eruptions of nature that led to social or political chaos but not for everyone — only for those men who had betrayed them. In various early medieval texts, Mother Ireland and Roisin Dubh did not welcome all their sons; they played favorites. The discursive landscapes of early Irish literature were neither negatively nor positively female, nor even consistently female. The land was a woman when it misdirected or harmed men. Survival depended on reading the landscape for its fixed points and visible limits. Boundaries moved, people rearranged and crossed them, and landmarks deceived because they were essentially female.
Table of Contents:
1. Paris before Genovefa: the landscape enters history
2. Sacral Paris
3. Genovefa’s territory
4. Paris after Genovefa
5. Crossings and conversations
6. Ekphrasis at Kildare
7. Brigit goes to ground