The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)   |   Issue Editors: Celia Chazelle & Deanna Forsman

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Preserving the body Christian: the motif of "recapitation" in Ireland's medieval hagiography

Máire Johnson  
Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto

2007 by Máire Johnson. All rights reserved. This edition copyright 2007 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  This paper argues that Ireland's medieval hagiographers adapted and transcended the saga motif of beheading with that of 'recapitation.' Firmly rooted in the power of confession and penance, the motif depicts the Church preserving itself intact, particularly from brigandage.

§1. The hagiography of medieval Ireland, growing as it did in the same monastic medium as vernacular saga, possesses some intriguing and uniquely Hibernian motifs.1 One of the most curious of these distinctly Irish motifs is that of the re-attached head, wherein saints are portrayed rejoining removed heads to their abbreviated trunks, 'recapitating' and reviving the slain whole and hale. Partly an Hibernian twist on the ultimate imitatio Christi, the miracle of resurrection, these acts are not to be understood quite so simply. If a broader approach is taken, incorporating sources such as the vernacular sagas and hero tales, the picture grows more complex; abundantly figured in this secular genre is the ideal warrior, a man whose honor, battle prowess, and prestige were often defined by decapitation and severed heads. Hagiography seizes upon and manipulates this head motif, and in so doing transcends the heroic model, but there is still more to the story; as an examination of both head-taking and head-restoration within the social and cultural context of medieval Ireland reveals, these motifs convey very specific messages.

§2. Indeed, just as the writers of vernacular tales used beheading and severed heads to portray themes of honor, prowess, justified vengeance, and other concepts defining the ideal warrior, so also hagiographers do not depict their saints recapitating just anyone. Rather, the recapitated and revived are seen as members of the Church body; their restoration to life not only undoes a violent deed, but returns both the formerly slain and the body of the Christian faithful to physical integrity. In the process, particular elements of sanctity are revealed, creating in the saint a new exemplar to which the imagination of the Irish faithful might aspire; key tenets of Irish belief and practice are also exposed, such as the power of a saint's word, the extension of personal sanctity into a saint's holy object, and most especially an emphasis on confession and penance. Further, Irish hagiographers' use of the recapitation topos comments on particular institutions they perceived as threats to the body Christian; among those for which they reserved an especial venom are the professional warbands known as the fíana.

§3. As roving retinues of varying size who lived on the edges of society and raided settlements for their sustenance, sometimes acting in the service of particular leaders but often serving themselves alone, the fíana have been called groups who came together 'for the purpose of making war on their own account' (Meyer 1910, ix). Fían-members occupied an interestingly peripheral state; simultaneously viewed as protectors and as potential threats, their independence and externality made them unpredictable, particularly if their raiding became excessive (Meyer 1910, ix). The very traits that made the fíana indispensable to early Irish society also made them suspect; the Church in particular often viewed them as dangerous elements bent upon attacking and destroying the body of the Irish faithful (MacCana 1987, 93).

§4. Indeed, fían-membership is often equated with the practice of díbergach, or brigandage, both in vernacular saga and in hagiography (McCone 1986b, 6). It further seems that in Irish terminology, fían and díberg were closely related, the first referring to a wider context in which the second might arise; 'when the fíana were good, they were very, very good, but when they were bad, they were díbergaig' (MacCana 1987, 96-7).2 It is of little surprise that the writers of Ireland's medieval hagiography would choose to register complaint against such a social institution, and it is in the service of this commentary that the motif of recapitation plays one of its strongest roles. Far from being solely the hagiographical reply to vernacular literature's manipulation of the beheading topos to portray the warrior ideal, answering with the model of the saint, the re-attached head bespeaks a wholly Christian view of medieval Ireland, both as it was and as the Church desired it to be.3

§5. In the vernacular literature of medieval Ireland, head-taking is a part of the normal prosecution of combat. Heads are collected after the vanquishing of a foe, demonstrating the victor's superior battle prowess. Cú Chulainn is probably the warrior best known for this act, gathering legions of heads throughout his life, including those of charioteers, warriors, and princes; one has only to skim the ninth-century Recension I of the Táin bó Cúailnge to find numerous examples.4 Although the Ulster hero's allies treasure the mountains of his grisly trove as 'trophies', his single-handed skill is a source of grave disquiet to his enemies (O'Rahilly 1976, ll 2362-6, 2380-4). Cú Chulainn is not alone, however; among the many others who lop off heads after combat is the fían-fighter Oscar, lauded for leaving his enemies 'headless' in the late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century Acallam na Senórach (Dooley and Roe 1999, viii and 33-4).

§6. Heads taken in conquest may be more than just proof of success; the decapitation of a defeated opponent and the bearing away of the disembodied part is often an act of vengeance. In the eighth- or ninth-century Bruiden Atha I, the Fenian leader Finn mac Cumhaill delivers such retribution upon a man named Currech, avenging the beheading of his wife, Badamir (Meyer 1893).5 In another tale from the Acallam, the fíana of Ossory pursue vengeance against the rival fían-leader, Goll mac Morna, because Goll's brother slew the Ossory chief; after a long siege the Ossory band enters Goll's fortress and decapitates him (Dooley and Roe 1999, 60). Goll mac Morna himself, in the twelfth-century Macgnimartha Finn, is responsible for beheading Finn's father, Cumall; that murder is the source of hereditary blood feud between Finn and the sons of Morna (Nagy 1985, 209-21).6

§7. Disembodied heads can also literally describe the traits expected of an ideal warrior. In 'Reicne Fothaid Canainne' of the late ninth or early tenth century, the head of Connaught fían-leader Fothad Canainne relates many of the traits of a worthy and true fighter to his paramour, the wife of his rival and slayer, Munster fían-chief Ailill Flann Bec. Included in that listing are generosity through the imparting of gifts, avenging the death of a leader or of fellow fían, and fighting to the bitter end without showing fear (Meyer 1910, 5-21 verses 24-9, 42-3, 48).7 In 'Togail Bruidne Dá Derga', a story dating in its current form to the eleventh century, King Conaire's severed head praises his champion Mac Cécht for loyalty, service, and valour in the face of great adversity (O'Daly 1968, 113; Stokes 1902, §157; Knott [1936] 1963, §157).8

§8. Bodiless heads can even impart marvelous gifts, possessing a vital essence enthroned in the skull and obtained from the blood. In the apparently ninth-century 'Siege of Howth', Ulster hero Conall Cernach gains not only the 'glory' of his defeated foe, Mes-Gegra, but the healing of his crossed eyes by placing Mes-Gegra's hewn-off head upon his own (Stokes 1887).9 Fían-warrior Diarmaid, in the fourteenth-century Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, uses the heads of a defeated chieftain and four vanquished kings to liberate Finn and the fíana of Ireland from magical paralysis, rubbing the blood from the heads' cut necks upon his fellow fighters (Ní Shéaghdha 1967, ll 1631-41, 1645-50).

§9. It can be seen from this brief overview that the vernacular tales surround their heroes with removed heads, the contexts of which define the ideal hero as fierce and skilled in battle, possessed of exceptional honor, and loyal to his leader and fellow fighters even unto the prosecution of vengeance. It is also possible, however, to find these traits outside of sagas, where head-collecting becomes more than a literary motif gone wild. A quick study of early Irish society as represented in the laws and annals shows that the lopping off of heads seemingly conveyed many of the same messages in regular social interaction. Indeed, this evidence might be expected; one would hardly think a motif would be so consistently used if it had no echo in the mind of its audience.

§10. According to early Irish law, there were very clear cases when inflicting death by violence incurred no penalty, including battle, the slaying of a thief caught in the act or of an unransomed captive by the wronged party, self-defense, mistaken identity, and the killing of a criminal whose act was considered grievous enough for the forfeiture of his legal status (Kelly 1988, 128-9; Binchy [1941] 1970, §21 and 86 nn.). Additionally, if someone committed homicide and did not pay the appropriate penalties, the victim's kinsmen were not only permitted but expected to exact vengeance in blood feud on behalf of the one slain (Binchy [1941] 1970, §25). We have already seen how these legalities played out in the literary genre; annal entries, however, also record many instances of beheadings in early Ireland, often enacted in retribution for a killing.

§11. For example the twelfth-century Chronicum Scotorum (CS) tells how in 623 the mother of the slain Dór, the son of King Áed Allán, called for the decapitation of Dór's killer, one Failbhe Flann Fidhbadh, the King of Munster (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 56, 57).10 Plundering across territorial borders, especially if accompanied by murder, was also grounds for retaliation which often included, according to the annals, beheading; under that category falls the entry at AU 1001, according to which Aengus mac Charraich overtook and defeated the marauding men of Munster, possibly brigands or fían, beheading them and retrieving the stolen goods (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill 1983, 430, 431). AFM 1068 relates how Murchadh Ua Briain, the heir of Munster, was slain and beheaded by the men of Teathbha in vengeance for his having 'plundered and preyed' on them (O'Donovan [1854] 1966, 2:895).11 Further, AU 1126 reports that Rúadrí ua Tuachair made a 'treacherous raid' into Airthir; in response, the Airthir killed Rúadrí's men and beheaded Rúadrí himself (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill 1983, 570, 571). In a society where military retribution was frequently required in response to neighboring kings, territories, or rival fían-bands marauding across boundaries, the warrior becomes a necessary figure, and an ideal of considerable relevance.

§12. Early Irish law also delineated the expected behaviour of a just ruler. The early eighth-century Audacht Morainn enumerates the duties of a good king, including securing the peace and defending the borders; his justice results in abundant harvests and fish as well as 'well-begotten' children (Kelly 1976, §§12-21).12 The good ruler is also enjoined to 'not redden many forecourts, for bloodshed is a vain destruction of all rule and protection from the kin for the ruler' (Kelly 1976, §29). Further, according to the contemporary law text Críth Gablach, a king could lose his honour price as royalty and have his compensation value reduced to that of a commoner if he committed acts unworthy of a king (Binchy [1941] 1970, §40 and 86 nn).13

§13. Naturally there were leaders, whether kings or men possessing only royal ambitions, who violated these tenets, neither seeing to their own people nor avoiding undue violence against others; annal entries tell of the decapitations of several. AU 980, for example, records that King Muiredach son of Flann of the northern Uí Néill killed his kinsman, the heir intendant, in a bid to gain the throne; inside of a month, however, his own sept beheaded him in turn, exacting restitution in blood for their slain kinsman (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill 1983, 416, 417). CS 1043 reports that Aedh Ua Confiacla, the dynast of Teabhtha, was beheaded by the men of Midhe after the monks of Clonmacnoise had fasted and rung St. Ciarán's sacred bell against him several times; the repetition of these cursing (and possibly excommunicatory) measures, intended to compel Aedh to emend his behaviour, strongly suggests that Aedh was an exceptionally unloved leader. His slaying occurred, according to the entry, at exactly the same place where he had denied the clerics' petitions, making of his decapitation a justified retribution (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 234, 235).

§14. In this outline of the vernacular literature, laws, and annals, the shape of the warrior's place in early Ireland is discernible. Such an individual was seen as necessary in a world where raids and battles were nearly endemic, and where laws allowed blood vengeance for wrongful slaying; the terminology of decapitation conveys a strong message concerning both those committing the act and those losing their lives by it. The taking of heads illustrates not just the prestige of a good warrior, whether champion or king, but the fate of one who violates the expectations of justice held by his people, portraying a cultural mind-set where the warrior is an integral member of the population. As a figure of honor, loyalty, valour, and battle skill, the warrior was a man who took heads where it was demanded and whose own head was sacrificed if he failed in his duties.

§15. Saints were certainly not exempt from these laws in medieval Ireland, and Ireland's hagiography does contain instances of killings undertaken in the service of the Church, usually for perjury or the profanation of a saint.14 However, hagiographers generally chose to present an alternative to violence, adapting a number of motifs found in vernacular literature to their own purposes, including that of the severed head. Bodiless heads and headless bodies find a different expression in the tales of the saints, most often seen when holy men and women glue back on what has been cut off. In the process, a new image appears, in which the ideal Christian is diametrically opposed to the secular hero. Further, important elements of early Irish Christianity are defined, verbal wars against social structures that supported the cultural need for the warrior model are waged, and the saint is shown able to keep both the body faithful and its individual members intact.

§16. Hagiographical appearances of the re-attached head create quite a complex tapestry. In one strand, the Church criticizes the custom, sanctioned in Irish secular law, of enacting blood feud.15 This message is seen in the Vita S. Coemgeni Abbatis de Glenn da Loch from the late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century Dublin compilation, which describes Coemgen forcibly rebuking two men for beheading a pair of girls, an act they confess was undertaken in vengeance for ill treatment received at the hands of the girls' parents. Coemgen's language explicitly condemns the involvement of members 'of the feminine sex' (feminini sexus); implicitly, the condemnation extends to the use of the girls as pawns in what can only be understood as blood vengeance. Transgressing Church law, individuals pursuing these deeds must be excluded from the community of the faithful; the slayers, however, confess their crime and do penance, and Coemgen's acceptance of their contrition is symbolized in part by his miraculous recapitation of the slain girls. Not only are the innocent children restored to life and the violent acts against them undone, but the sins committed by their erstwhile slayers are fully expunged; even as the girls are restored to physical health, the men are granted spiritual integrity, and the community of the faithful is made intact (Plummer [1910] 1997, 1:239-40 ch. 11).

§17. The special status of recognized inclusion in the Christian flock is another element of recapitation intriguingly depicted in a second episode of the Dublin Vita S. Coemgeni. This particular strand of the motif gains a stronger coloration when the killers are not men bent on vengeance but two monks, 'scolastici' aggravated to the point of rage by their colleague's incessant questions, and the punitive treatment they receive contains no small amount of commentary on the proper conduct of monks. Unlike the stinging rebukes delivered in the first episode, Coemgen simply instructs his hospitaller to avoid granting the newcomers full hospitality. Once the monks confess their wrongdoing to Coemgen, however, their penance must be accomplished; rather than Coemgen himself recapitating the fallen brother, the saint sends the slayers with his sacred staff (baculum), instructing them to trust in God's mercy. That mercy, and the saint's sanctity, are so powerful that as soon as the brother's head is replaced and the baculum laid up on his chest, he rouses as if he had only been deeply asleep. The erasure of his brothers' terrible act signifies the acceptance of their penitence by God and Coemgen (Plummer [1910] 1997, 1:252-3 ch. 38). These transgressors are not criminals or pursuers of blood retribution, but simply strayed sheep who fall prey once only to their passion; their act and its reversal, accomplished by penance, confession, and holy mercy, highlight the monastic ideal of subjugating one's own emotions in service to God.

§18. Another thread in the tapestry of recapitation is the power of a saint's spoken promise.16 In the Dublin collection's Vita S. Ite Virginis, Íta's vow to her artifex and brother-in-law Beoanus, that he and his wife will have a son, is a primary impetus behind her re-attachment of Beoanus' head. His wife's barrenness already causing childlessness, Beoanus' beheading in battle only complicates issues further. As soon as Íta recapitates him, Beoanus reunites with his wife, and Íta's vow is shortly fulfilled by the birth of their little boy. The saint's spoken word possesses its own potency, setting events in motion which cannot be forestalled. Indeed, both Íta's promises and her healing prayers over Beoanus' body seemingly confer some of her sanctity upon him; his newborn child, the product of Íta's saintly skill, is named Mochoemóg, a lad who later becomes a saint in his own right (Plummer [1910] 1997, 2:121-2 ch. 18).

§19. One of the most vibrant strands in the motif of recapitation is the Church's condemnation of brigandage, particularly that undertaken by rogue fían. One of the earliest hagiographical appearances of the re-attached head bespeaks this criticism, seen in the Vita S. Aidi Episcopi Killariensis of the Salamanca codex, a vita Sharpe includes among the eighth- or ninth-century O'Donohue group of texts (Heist 1965, 167-81).17 In Áed's tale, the victims are three nuns decapitated by brigands (latrunculi) while out collecting milk; not only are they women, but they are clearly marked as members of the Christian community (Heist 1965, 172, ch. 16). Further, the use of the term latrunculi is part of the hagiographical message, since in Hiberno-Latin, latrunculus was not clearly distinguished from the Irish fían (Sharpe 1979; McCone 1986b).18 When Áed recapitates the three nuns, he reverses the violence of the latrunculi, restoring the women to physical health, life, and the body of the Church; as in Coemgen's miracle, Áed's act also reunites the former killers with the community of Christ through forgiveness and the erasure of their sin.

§20. In the Dublin version of the Vita S. Mochoemog Abbatis de Liath Mochoemog, the deceased is a young monk named Dagán, decapitated by 'followers of the leader of Ossory' (satellites...ducis Osraighi) while herding the monastery's calves. A lad to whom Mochoemóg had vowed to give communion before the boy died, Dagán is restored by the combined efforts of Mochoemóg and Saint Cainnech, a chief religious figure of the region of Ossory; once recapitated, the boy receives Communion from Mochoemóg, fulfilling the latter's promise (Plummer [1910] 1997, 2:178 ch. 27). Although the satellites ducis Osraighi are not explicitly called latrunculi or latrones, they are probably a band of fían in the service of that leader; the Ossory fíana had an extraordinarily bad reputation for violence and wolfish savagery (McCone 1986b, 20-2; Carey 2002). Not satisfied with merely the ecclesiastical restoration of a slain Christian to the Church body, as in the Vita S. Ite the weight of a saint's word comes into play; after all, a saint can hardly default on a promise. Mochoemóg and Íta both display potent sanctity through their very speech, their vows providing motivation for the recapitations they perform, the ultimate purpose of which always returns to the preservation of an intact Christian community.

§21. Saint Berach re-attaches the head of a young monk also, here named Sillén, in his Betha of perhaps the late twelfth or thirteenth century, and in so doing comes face to face with the nine brigands (díberccach) who had removed it (Plummer [1922] 1997, 1:41-2 ch. 29; 2:41, ch.29).19 Given the overlap in terminology between díbergaig and fíana, it seems Berach confronts nine fían-fighters on a raid; indeed, the "díberccach" are described in the text as bent on ravaging the province of Connaught.20 Berach immobilizes the men with his saintly power until they do penance, begging his forgiveness; he then compels the malefactors to replace Sillén's head, an act reminiscent of Coemgen sending his monks to their fallen comrade. It is thus shown that while warriors may take heads, and even put them back where they belong, it is the saints who truly rejoin the separated, and Berach is no exception. Revisiting a saint's extension of sanctity into secondary objects, Berach prays over a pool reed he then wraps around Sillén's neck, whereupon the lad rises, intact (Plummer [1922] 1997, 1:41-2 ch. 29; 2:41 ch. 29). Once again recapitation reunites the divided, bringing head back to neck, monk back to life, and brigand back to the Church, the sin of the last not only figuratively but literally expunged.

§22. A description of Ciarán of Clonmacnoise recapitating the victims of brigands appears in the Salamanca Vita S. Ciarani Cluanensis of the late fourteenth century—the saint retrieves and re-attaches the heads of three monks decapitated by latrones while cutting wood. As so often seen, the malefactors confess and perform penance, seeking pardon; the saint's act of resurrection grants them that cleansing absolution by erasing the sin completely (Heist 1965, 81 ch. 14). Even as the monks, the monastic community, and the Church are all restored to integrity, so also the penitent latrones turn from their violent ways and are welcomed again to eternal life in the body Christian.

§23. Thus far, the victims have all been innocents wrongly killed while pursuing the normal agrarian duties of their homesteads. However, there are a couple of instances when the slain is a sinner, and the saint's own judgement comes into play. In the case of Abacuc, whose false oath under the hand of Ciarán of Clonmacnoise results in a gangrene that swiftly severs his head, the saint opts not to replace the liar's lost part. Instead, Ciarán takes both the abbreviated Abacuc and his loose piece back to Clonmacnoise, where the decapitated man lives a further seven years, neither fully dead nor fully alive, completely ailing or completely healed, truly embraced by or truly separated from the Christian community (O'Grady 1892, xix, 453).21 Abacuc's perjury causes his decapitation, but the sin is not severe enough to warrant actual death; his inability to then perform proper penance allows Ciarán to impose the seven-year sentence of headlessness upon him.

§24. Although a sinner is not going to deserve the miracle of recapitation, a former sinner is another matter; once confession and penance are enacted, saints are bound by duty to aid the souls of those shriven. However, heads do not have to be replaced perfectly, and it is again Ciarán of Clonmacnoise who demonstrates this tenet by intentionally botching the re-attachment of Coirpre Crom's head. A wicked and bloodthirsty man, Coirpre pours out his transgressions to Ciarán and makes satisfaction for them the day before his beheading. The saint almost unwillingly finds himself fending demons away from Coirpre's head, and when he replaces it on its proper platform he deliberately leaves it twisted at an angle. From that point forward, Coirpre Crom (Coirpre the Crooked) can hardly fail to be reminded as much of the price of his former sinfulness as of the reward of the forgiveness that brought him back to life, both in this world and the next (Stokes 1905, 369-73).22

§25. Even the innocent can be recapitated with scars, though they are never anywhere near so dramatic as with Coirpre Crom. Beoanus is left with a vestigium vulneris (Plummer [1910] 1997, 2: 122 ch. 18). So also Dagán possesses a cicatrix, and Ciarán's three monks have a circulus cruentatus around their necks (Plummer [1910] 1997, 2:178; Heist 1965, 81 ch. 14). Scars are not universal, but they're far from unusual; remainders of miracles, they provide clear evidence for doubters much the way Jesus' nail-wounds were bloody verification of his identity as the Crucified after his Resurrection.23 Indeed, it is explicitly stated in the Salamanca Vita S. Ciarani that the scars on the monks' necks remain 'so that ... the faithful would be strengthened in faith and unbelievers confounded' (ut...fideles in fide consolidarentur et infideles confundarentur) (Heist 1965, 81 ch. 14).

§26. Returning again to the Church's opinions on brigandage and the fían, hagiographers of Ireland's saints expended considerable verbal ammunition depicting a religious entity perfectly capable of protecting itself from their threat; indeed, the miracle of recapitation brings their deeds literally to naught. The influence of the Church's condemnation of these groups was also felt beyond the boundaries of saints' tales, particularly in ecclesiastical statutes. The body of early Irish law included statements condemning brigands to 'the black mires of Hell' along with heretics and sorceresses; brigands were also ranked with other Church enemies, such as pagan druids, and accorded the most minimal sick-maintenance from any who wounded them (Kelly 1988, 50, 60). A heavy price was to be exacted for the slaying of a child of any rank, as the honor price due to a parent for the murder of a child seven years old and younger was equivalent to that of a cleric (Kelly 1988, 79, 83). At the same time, however, secular law held that an offense against a woman was merely an offense against her male guardian, granting her a value only equal to a portion of his own (Binchy [1941] 1970, §§11, 24, 33; 80-1, 86 nn).24

§27. With regard to the treatment of women, however, this penalty was not high enough for the Church, and from early on various ecclesiastics promulgated their own laws, or cána. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Cáin Adomnáin of the 690s, which forbade the killing of women 'in any manner', on pain first of the removal of the right hand and left foot, followed by the offender's death and the payment of a fine by the offender's kindred. If the woman was slain by a host, the penalty was to be meted out either to every fifth man or, if a smaller group, by dividing their number into thirds; one third paid the fine, one third received the limb removal and capital punishment, and the final third were exiled from Ireland (Meyer 1905, 23, 25 ¶33). The Cáin Adomnáin further sets forth fines and penalties for the rape, sexual importuning, and assault of women (Meyer 1905, 33 ¶55). Homicide itself, whether of women or men, also received particular ecclesiastical censure. The eighth-century 'pseudo-historical prologue' to the great law codex, the Senchas Már, condemned killers broadly; all those who committed homicide were to receive the death penalty, along with anyone who allowed them to escape (Carey 1995, 142; McCone 1986aa, 5-10, 24-6).25

§28. In the twelfth-century commentary on the early ninth-century metrical martyrology the Félire Óengusso Céli Dé, the notes under September 23 summarize not only the Cáin Adomnáin but the three other cána of Ireland, the Cáin Phátraic, the Cáin Dáire, and the Cáin Domnaig (Stokes [1905] 1984, 210 Sept 23).26 Although the latter two, forbidding slaughter of stolen cattle and work on Sunday, certainly underlie much of Ireland's hagiography, the Cáin Phátraic's prohibition against slaying clerics plays a part as significant as that of the Cáin Adomnáin specifically in the appearance and use of the recapitation motif; saints re-attach the heads of clerics more often than those of any other victims of beheading. Chronicum Scotorum reports the imposition of the Cáin Phátraic three times in a short period, namely 806, 811, and 823; additional promulgation is noted in AU 734, 737, 767, and 783, suggesting a chronic problem with violence against clergy (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 86, 87, 100, 101, 106, 107; Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill 1983, 186, 187, 190, 191, 220, 221, 238, 239).

§29. This inveighing against the activities of brigands is also seen in the canon law of early Ireland. The late fifth- or sixth-century 'Synod of the Bishops' decrees a year's penance for Christians who commit murder (Bieler 1975, 56 canon 14).27 The Canones Hibernenses of the seventh century not only set forth penances for parricide (fourteen years on bread and water), homicide (seven years on the same diet), killing a pregnant woman (a fine equivalent to the value of twelve bondswomen, each equal to twelve fowls or thirteen 'shekels'), and killing a mother and her child (intriguingly, the same as killing a pregnant woman), but also demands stiff punishments for the injury or slaying of clerics, to be determined according to the severity of harm and the victim's ecclesiastical grade (Bieler 1975, 160 canons 1-3, 8-10; 170 canons 1-9).28 If a bishop is wounded, for example, so that blood spills and the injury requires dressing, the penalty includes death; if the victim is a priest, the sentence is mitigated to limb amputation (Bieler 1975, 170 canons 1, 7).

§30. The promulgation of these severe ecclesiastical laws and censures suggests that the Church deemed herself, and the community of Christ at large, to be under a fairly constant threat; that innocent clerics and civilians were apparently regularly targeted by hosts, small and large, adds credence to the arguments of the Church against groups such as the fían-warbands. The annals certainly record attacks by Irish retinues on ecclesiastics at least thirteen times just between 804 and 936.29 It was of benefit to the Church to have some warriors around; warfare was hardly preferable, but legitimate fighters were not broadly condemned as were those the Church labeled 'brigands,' and monks themselves occasionally enacted their own justice for all kinds of wrongdoing through various types of decapitation.30 It further seems highly probable that díbergaig and, by extension, the fíana, were deemed to be at least nominally Christian; brigands brought to heel by saints do not convert, but they confess and do penance, indicating an extant membership, however badly transgressed, in the body of the faithful. Indeed, that such men would profess the Christian creed only to commit violent acts against civilians and other members of the community of Christ certainly adds ammunition to the arsenal the Church proposed to wield against them in Ireland's hagiography.31

§31. The intriguing repetition of disarticulating and re-assembling neck joints raises the question of whether some significance might have been attached to the head itself. Beyond the obvious considerations of Christ as the head of the Christian faith or Patrick as head of the Irish Church, there is some tantalizing evidence that a subset of medieval Irish may have viewed the head as the location of the human soul. The eighth-century Collectio canonum Hibernensis, for example, contains two canons on the subject: the first establishes that it is at the location of the head, not the bones or ashes of a martyr, that resurrection will occur; in the second, it is explicitly stated that some believe the head is the home of the soul (Wasserschleben 1885, 206 ch. 10, 233 ch. 4). Additionally, the twelfth-century commentary to the Félire Óengusso mentions that a Christian without a confessor, termed a soul-friend or anamchara, is a person without a head, offering intriguing parallels to the prominent status of confession in Irish Christianity, the cleanliness of burdened versus shriven souls, and the ties between recapitation and penance in hagiography (Stokes [1905] 1984, 64 Feb 1, 180-2 Aug 4). It is tempting to recall also the depictions in saga literature of the marvelous essence enthroned in the skull and capable of imparting its owner's powers on another through its blood, as seen above in §8.

§32. All these data strongly suggest that hagiography's re-attached heads bear a relationship (beyond the anatomical) to the severed heads of heroic saga, the abundance or nature of which defines a warrior ideal predicated upon a society familiar with battle, raiding, and brigandage. Hagiographers, too, knew these same societal elements, but chose to move beyond them, adapting heroic concepts in the service of a new ideal they offered to their Christian audience. The slaughtered are returned to life, brigands repent, sinners are judged, and penalties are meted or satisfied according to the transgressor's degree of penitence. The targeting of children, women, and clerics in violent acts is criticized, monastic concepts of emotional control and obedience are espoused, saintly sanctity is extended beyond the saint's person into words and objects, and particularly vehement condemnation is registered against the activities of the díberg and fían, all through the replacement of disembodied heads.

§33. Most importantly, however, all these messages are vital strands in the tapestry of a topos that reveals the Irish Church to be an intact organism capable of undoing even the most extreme wrongs, both for the transgressor and the transgressed, often with a unique dry humor. By taking the decapitated and making them whole again, saints make manifest the absolution granted to the slayers even as the wounded are awakened from death. Not only are head and body reunited for individual Christians wrongly slain (and their identity as Christians must be re-emphasized), but the killers—clearly deemed strayed members of the faith themselves—gain erasure of their sins and re-entry into the Church. Through the motif of recapitation, the power and primacy of confession and penance in the Irish Church are given a brilliant display; the revived and the wrongdoer are restored to physical and spiritual integrity, brought back into the life of this world as well as the eternal life of the faithful. It would be hard to find a more dramatic—or more Irish—reintegration of the lost into the found, thereby preserving intact the entirety of the body Christian.


1.   See (McCone 1990) for an in-depth discussion of the influence exerted on vernacular tales by religious writings, and vice versa, particularly in the role played by Scriptural allegory. See also Bray 2001, Bray 2003, Heist 1968, Picard 1981, and Stancliffe 1992 for excellent studies of the miraculous in Irish hagiography. This paper was originally presented at the Seventeenth Annual Irish Conference of Medievalists, Kilkenny, Ireland, June 2003. Many thanks to Ann Dooley, Mark Kowitt, Dorothy Ann Bray, Charles MacQuarrie, and David Klausner for their kind suggestions. Any remaining errors are my own.  [Back]

2.   MacCana (1987, 97) further adds that it is possible, in the tales of the tenth century and later, that the distinction may have been a legal one in which fíanas designated the activity of those warbands bound in service to a king, whereas díbergach was undertaken by the same men when 'free lance' and 'without the constraints and responsibilities' of royal patronage. In support of this assertion is a comment in the ninth-century Tecosca Cormaic (Meyer 1909, §3, line 23; §19, ll 4-5), in which 'fíanas without overbearing' is listed amongst those things that are best for the tribe; likewise, associating with marauders, the díbergaig, is equated with 'fraternizing with an evil-doer.' Despite Christian overtones to this text, the Church does not generally seem to have subscribed to such a delicate distinction.  [Back]

3.   For this study, I have attempted to maintain an approximate chronological framework for the various Latin vitae and Irish bethada, based largely upon the outline provided by Richard Sharpe (1991, 296-384). According to the evidence of linguistics and content, Sharpe posits an original source for a subset of ten vitae preserved in extant collections, a subset he calls the O'Donohue Group and dates in compilation to around 800 from earlier sources. These ten vitae, Sharpe writes, exist in close copies distributed amongst the three great manuscripts of such texts, the thirteenth-century Dublin compilation, the Oxford compilation of the early fourteenth century, and the Salamanca codex from the late fourteenth century. Sharpe (1991, 390-9) also lists the names of those saints who lived and died before the eighth century, and whose original vitae were likely composed before the tenth century, providing a brief catalogue of the location of the most complete versions of these texts and their source manuscripts; only the early saints from that list are included in this study, whether the materials concerning them are in Latin or Irish. Where provenance for a vita or betha could not be otherwise established, the date of the manuscript containing it has been used as a terminal reference point. See Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin (1996, 4-7) for important qualifications to Sharpe's manuscript history; also note Ó Riain's (1994, 28-39, 98, 109-12) proposed revisions of the chronology of the Salamanca Codex and the Oxford collection. Finally, it should be clarified that "vitae" refers to Latin works, "bethada" to writings in the vernacular, and "Lives" to texts in both languages. All translations from Latin are mine; translations from the vernacular rely heavily upon other scholars' work.  [Back]

4.   The date of Recension I of the Táin has been convincingly placed to the ninth century by Pádraig Ó Riain (1994, 31-7). Also see (Ó hUiginn 1992) for discussion of dating relative to the source material of the text. For just a few instances of Cú Chulainn's head-collecting, see (O'Rahilly 1976, ll 330-5, 739-58, 897-906, 947-54).  [Back]

5.   Kuno Meyer's (1893) text is edited and translated from Royal Irish Academy MS D.IV.2. He dates the short story to the ninth century (Meyer 1910, xix) but in the more recent edition and translation by Vernam Hull (1941, 322-3), taken from the Yellow Book of Lecan MS, Hull dates the tale to the eighth century on linguistic grounds.  [Back]

6.   Nagy (1985, 302 n.1) says that he based his own translation on the work of Kuno Meyer in 1882. Meyer (1910, xxvi-vii) dates the Macgnimartha to the twelfth century. Curiously, the tale of Fotha Catha Cnucha (Hennessy 1873-5, 90-1) places the origin of the feud to the slaying by Goll not of Cumall but of Luchet, the fían-warrior who destroyed one of Goll's eyes, and beheading is not mentioned. The latter tale is dated to the eleventh century by Meyer (1910, xxv).  [Back]

7.   For dating, see (Meyer 1910, xix) where initially the story is listed as eighth- or early ninth-century; however, in the introduction to the story itself (1-3) Meyer states that secure dating of the entire story is impossible, but places the poem, cited here, at the end of the ninth or early tenth century on linguistic and metric grounds. In the tale, Fothad Canainne's disembodied head also mourns that he will not see heaven; importantly, it is not his pursuit of another man's wife but his tendency toward battle and mayhem, following the war-goddess Mórrígan instead of heeding the Christian God, which underlies Fothad Canainne's condemnation to hell. Such religious commentary parallels the hagiographical arguments laid out in the saints' tales against the fían, and places this tale on the border between hero tale and homily.  [Back]

8.   Eleanor Knott ([1936] 1963, x-xii) follows the work of Rudolf Thurneysen and dates the composition of the original, Leinster-based tale to the ninth century, with its Ultonian bent added in the eleventh-century compilation from two ninth-century fragments. Kim McCone (1986b, 4-5) has pointed out further that the authors of this particular tale 'recognized no significant difference between the practice of díberg and membership of a fían.' See for instance passages such as (Stokes 1902, §141) and (Knott [1936] 1963, §141) for the equation of the fían warbands both with the heroic characteristics of the warrior and with the raiding and marauding of the díbergaig. This equation bears import when considered alongside the evidence of the saints' tales, as below in §§ 19-22 below.  [Back]

9.   'The siege of Howth' was antedated to the tenth century by Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville, based upon the tale appearing in a tenth-century poem. See (Stokes 1887, 47) for a summary of de Jubainville's statement.  [Back]

10.   The same event is found in 623 in the Annals of Ulster (AU) (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill 1983, 112, 113). See also the year 624 in Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (AFM) (O'Donovan [1854] 1966, 2:243).  [Back]

11.   Also see CS 1068 (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 246, 247).  [Back]

12.   These same tenets are echoed in the seventh-century 'De xii abusiuis saeculi' of Pseudo-Cyprian (Hellmann 1910, 52-3), wherein a king's justice, if dispensed correctly, is linked not only to the peace and comfort of his people but also to the fruition of harvest and the serenity and temperance of the weather and the seas.  [Back]

13.   Binchy ([1941] 1970, xiv) places the dating of the extant redaction of Críth Gablach to the early years of the eighth century based on internal references.  [Back]

14.   The appearance and expression of saintly vengeance is a present project of mine. Here, it is useful to comment that beheadings do occur as a result of a saint's justice, as in the story of Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and Abacuc (below, §23), but most of the time this sort of retribution is limited to other forms of death, such as: being lifted up and dropped on one's head (Bieler 1979, 130-2); being slain by one's own allies in the confusion caused by a curse (Bieler 1979, 90); being swallowed by the earth (Plummer [1910] 1997, 1: 42-3); or being burnt up on the spot (Bieler 1979, 156; Plummer [1910] 1997, 1:42-3). Generally, though, saintly vengeance is not quite so deadly.  [Back]

15.   See the discussions above in §§10-11. Also see (Kelly 1988, 128-9; Binchy [1941] 1970, §21, §25 and 86 nn.) for the enumeration of Irish secular law on legal killing and blood vengeance.  [Back]

16.   The power of a saint's promise as an underlying cause of recapitation appears in a number of more secular tales in which the role of the saint is otherwise fairly minor. One of the clearest examples is found in the twelfth-century Cath Almaine, wherein the young harper Donn Bó, decapitated by victorious enemies after battle, is still able to return home to his mother intact. The re-attachment of the harper's head fulfills a vow made in St. Colum Cille's name; even though the saint himself does not speak the vow or perform the miracle in person, he and his name are still considered surety that Donn Bó would survive to tell his mother news of the battle, thus facilitating one of the more notable recapitations in Irish literature. The tale also shows beheading as an expected punishment for profanation of the Church and attacks on civilians, as meted to Fergal and his men in battle for previously having 'greatly maltreated the Church' (Stokes 1903, 47; Ó Riain 1978).  [Back]

17.   See (Sharpe 1991, 196-384) for the chronology, summarized above in note 3. There are other appearances of the head motif in Ireland's early hagiography, such as in the Vita S. Brigidae of Cogitosus from the end of the seventh century (Vita Brigidae, col. 0135E, ch. 22). To my knowledge, however, in none of these cases is there an actual replacement of removed heads and subsequent resurrection; instead, the saint prevents the actual decapitation through prayer, creating simulacra so realistic that the beheaders even end up covered in gore. Further work on this topic is forthcoming.  [Back]

18.   According to Sharpe (1979, 82-6), latrunculus (robber, bandit) was virtually interchangeable with both latronus (brigand, robber) and laicus (warrior, layman), both of which terms he also links to the Irish láech (warrior) and fían. Sharpe also links latrunculus/laicus/láech/fían with paganism due to the appearance of these terms in conjunction with non-Christian Church enemies in the laws stipulating both ecclesiastical and secular punishments for brigandage, some of which I mention below in §§ 26-9. Colmán Etchingham ([1999] 2002, 290-317, esp. 300-6), however, argues cogently that the association of some non-Christian behaviours and symbols with the fíana does not necessarily mean that, as a group, they practiced pagan rites; instead, writes Etchingham, the term laicus more likely referred to nominal Christians guilty of great sins, such as the murder and mayhem of díbergach, and who had yet to confess and perform the correct penances to purge those sins and be considered again true members of the community of Christ. Continued involvement in activities clearly antithetical to Church doctrine, particularly if in opposition to a prior profession of the faith, would certainly have augmented the enmity of the Church toward the fíana as pagans and apostates. This theory is supported by the evidence centered on the recapitation motif, particularly by the fact that apprehended brigands are not shown converting; it also helps to explain the extraordinary hagiographical emphasis on confession and penance.  [Back]

19.   Kenney ([1929] 1979, 402-3) holds that Berach's Betha antedates his Vita, the latter of which exists in a unique copy in the Oxford collection and is printed by Plummer ([1910] 1997, 1:xxxiii, 75-86). Sharpe (1991, 265-6, 370) dates the Oxford texts to the early fourteenth century, and the Vita of Berach in particular to no earlier than the thirteenth. Thus I have taken Berach's Betha as late as seemed prudent, and applied to it a dating of the late twelfth or thirteenth century.  [Back]

20.   Díberccach is the older form of díbergaig found in the text; it also appears as díberccaigh. See §4 above for the equation of fían and díberg.  [Back]

21.   Abacuc's vernacular tale is found in the Book of Leinster of the twelfth century; it is also reported in the annals, including the likewise dated Chronicum Scotorum, at 544 (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 48, 49).  [Back]

22.   Dating the vernacular Coirpre Crom anecdote is a challenge. The Brussels manuscript in which it is found is from around 1630, but the manuscript shares its folia with the twelfth-century Martyrology of Gorman (Stokes 1905, 360-1). Likewise, the tale is also known from the late fifteenth-century Book of Lismore, the contents of which mingle the Old and Middle Irish traits of sources potentially descending as far back as the eighth or ninth century (Stokes 1890, v-xvii). It can also be located in the Book of Uí Maini and the Book of Fermoy, both of which, being dated to the fourteenth or early fifteenth century, are somewhat earlier than the Book of Lismore (Kenney [1929] 1979, 381). Thus, placing Coirpre Crom's story to the thirteenth or early fourteenth century seems reasonable. This particular anecdote may possibly have arisen from a need to explain how a such a sinful and bloody-handed individual as Coirpre Crom could end up bishop of Clonmacnoise, as noted at CS 899 (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 150, 151)." [Back]

23.   See John 20:24-9 for the tale of Doubting Thomas and his need to insert his fingers into Christ's wounds before believing.  [Back]

24.   A cétmuinter, or chief wife, was worth a restitution equivalent to one-half her husband's value, while a temporary concubine, or dormuine, was worth one-quarter (Binchy [1941] 1970, §§11, 24; 80-1 nn, 'cétmuinter'). Importantly, women, children, and various other dependants had no honor price of their own; instead, the fee was compensation for their injury or death payable to their legal guardians (Binchy [1941] 1970, §33; 86 nn).  [Back]

25.   McCone (1986a, 10n. 24; 12) establishes that the text is of ecclesiastical provenance by demonstrating the parallels between the dispensation of law to the Irish by Patrick, as laid out in the prologue, and the presentation of Mosaic Law in the Old Testament. Indeed, in the seventh century, Tírechán explicitly compared Patrick to Moses from the very start of his Collectanea concerning the saint, saying that he was first seen by the Irish, upon his return as an evangelizer, 'with written tablets in his hands, in the Mosaic fashion' (cum tabulis in manibus scriptis more Moysaico) (Bieler 1979, 122 ll 16-17). Patrick is also said to be 'following the Mosaic, Elijian, and Christian teaching' (tenens disciplinam Moysaicam et Heliacam et Christianam) (Bieler 1979, 152, ll 10-1; 164 ch. 54).  [Back]

26.   The dating of the commentaries in all the manuscripts of the Félire Óengusso has been convincingly settled to around 1170 by Pádraig Ó Riain (2002, 4-7, 9-12), as he establishes the dependency of the commentaries on the Latin Martyrology of Drummond which, based upon internal references, appears to have been prepared at Armagh in the time of Archbishop Gilla Meic Liac (d. 1174).  [Back]

27.   Kathleen Hughes (1966, 44-50) argues for a sixth-century date for this circular letter attributed to Patrick and his two bishops, Iserninus and Auxilius, noting that the canons clearly reflect a church still strongly contesting with native Irish paganism while simultaneously portraying more ecclesiastical structure than would have been likely in the mid-400s. Bieler (1975, 2) would take the attribution literally and date the document to the fifth century mission of Patrick himself. The citing of the Synodus Episcoporum as an authority in the eighth-century Collectio canonum Hibernensis indicates that the seventh century is the latest possible dating; see, however, Charles-Edwards (2000, 245-7) for additional support of a possible late fifth- or sixth-century dating and refutation of placements in the 600s, as well as an excellent analysis of prior arguments for and against these chronologies.  [Back]

28.   Bieler himself dates the Canones to the middle of the seventh century (1975, 9); the use by the eighth-century Collectio canonum Hibernensis of some of the tenets in the Canones supports such a dating. Generally, the Collectio is thought to have been compiled either at the very end of the seventh or the early years of the eighth century, perhaps around 725 (Bieler 1975, 9; Wasserschleben 1885, xiii).  [Back]

29.   See for example CS 823, 829, 832, 833, 836, 842, 846, 856, 863, 899, 908, 912, and 936 (Mac Niocaill and Hennessy [1866, 1964] 2003, 100-179). It's tempting to wonder whether this chronological concentration might provide a key for dating some source material of the Lives.  [Back]

30.   See for example the justice enacted by Saint Buite against his monastery's gardener, who gives leeks to his hungry wife and child against the vow he made to Buite to not give away anything belonging to the monastery without seeking Buite's permission; in punishment, Buite says 'may the head that is on your neck fall to the earth in this hour' (decidat...caput quod est super collum tuum in hac hora super terram) (Plummer [1910] 1997, 1:95-6 ch. 28). One is also put in mind the punitive acts against liars such as Abacuc, seen in §23.  [Back]

31.   This argument is further explored by Etchingham ([1999] 2002, 290-317); see note 18.  [Back]

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