The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 16 (2015)

Continental Business

Michel AaijMailto: Icon

Auburn University Montgomery

©2015 by Michel Aaij. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2015 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Discussed in this review:

Jongen, Ludo, Julia Szirmai, and Johan H. Winkelman, eds. 2003. De reis van Sint Brandaan: Kritische editie van de Middelnederlandse texts naar het Comburgse handschrift, met vertalingen van de Middelnederlandse and Middelhoogduitse Reis-versie and van de Oudfrance and Middelnederlandse Navigatio-versie. Middelnederlandse tekstedities 13. Hilversum: Verloren. 256 pages, 17 b/w illustrations. ISBN 9789087041373.

§1. The Voyage of Saint Brendan is an important early medieval text which comes to us in many versions, in many languages. This Dutch book from Verloren containing translations of four different versions is the latest of a series of editions and translations in major western European languages: eight versions (including in English, Latin, and Occitan) were edited by Barron and Burgess in 2002 (revised as a student edition in 2005), German versions were edited by Fay in 1985 and Hahn and Fasbender in 2002, and Benedeit's Anglo-Norman version was edited by Short and Merrilees in 2006.

§2. The main component of De reis van Sint Brandaan is a Dutch edition of the Middle Dutch text from the Comburg manuscript (Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. poet. et phil. 2° 22, ca. 1400), a diplomatic edition of which was published in 1997 also by Verloren. It contains the Dutch verse text, in 2284 lines of trimeter rhyming in couplets, with a facing page translation. In addition, the editors have provided translations of Benedeit's Anglo-Norman version (early twelfth century), of a Middle German version (early fourteenth century), and of a Middle Dutch prose translation of the Latin Navigatio (fifteenth century).

§3. Properly speaking one should refer to the Voyage as a genre since the narrative comes to us in a variety of redactions and reworkings, in different languages and with different target audiences. Though containing aspects of hagiography in style and use of tropes, the text is best categorized as fictional travel narrative, and its study is of relevance to the field of medieval fictionality. In all of its forms the narrative contributes significantly to the idea of the Irish peregrinatio and to the study of the conception of the world between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, though it differs considerably from, for instance, the Mandevillian type of travel narrative: there is considerably less attention for medieval alterity than in those more fabulous narratives. This is not a text to discuss the conception of self in relation to the world; the focus is consistently on religious observance, and the ritualistic chronology of the liturgical calendar is an exploration of the spiritual rather than of the geographical self. While there is an abundance of physical and geographical material that at times exceeds allegory, the many circular motives coupled with an underdeveloped sense of geography (unlike Mandevillean narrative, there are no maps and hardly any directions here) give the narrative a visionary aspect.

§4. The basic plot of the narrative is simple: for one reason or another Brendan, a god-fearing and powerful abbot, is curious about God's secrets and decides to investigate them by setting sail with a group of monks. In some versions, he burns a book containing wondrous accounts and as punishment is to rewrite the book after encountering those wonders himself. During a seven-year journey many wonders are seen and the travelers' faith is strengthened. Two of Brendan's monks are taken away and one is returned, though burned in hellish torture; that monk was guilty of theft, an element carried over from the Irish tenth-century narrative Immram Maele Dúin. The wonders all have a direct allegorical meaning, most of which pertain directly to Genesis and to the crucifixion. The most curious of all wonders is the annual celebration of Easter, which always takes place on the back of a Leviathan-like fish. Found in all versions are an encounter with Judas and the visualization of his punishment (which takes place in two separate hells). A little man who measures the sea with a little cup serves as an image of presumptuous man who dares to question God's wisdom—a reflection of the Brendan who burned the book of wonders. A vision of Paradise is provided as the last moment in the journey before Brendan returns to Ireland.

§5. The four versions translated in this book differ significantly in detail; to point out such detailed differences is beyond the scope of a review. Somewhat surprising is the difference in quality between the Middle German and the other versions: the Middle German version has a very episodic quality to it, with staccato, paratactic language. Its inclusion is warranted (if it needs a warranty) by the mysterious horseman Helspran who indicates the way home to Brendan, and the editors use him in the introduction to explain that there is much unexplained in the family of Voyage narratives.

§6. The edition of the Middle Dutch text, while sparse in annotation, serves its purpose. The translations of all four are well done and very readable to a lay audience (that is, an audience not used to reading hagiography, for instance), and the translation of the Middle English varies nicely in tone, following the many registers of the original. Still, I wonder if the translations of the other three texts are as true to the original, and I noted a few colloquialisms with anachronistic qualities to them—Judas is called "sjacheraar" ("horse-trader," used pejoratively, 236), a decidedly post-medieval Yiddish-derived slang word that makes some sense in context, but it is an odd choice of words nonetheless. Colloquialisms such as "stek" (for "place," 232) and "lekker hapje" ("tasty snack," 236) are likewise a bit out of place. "Telepathic gift" (238) is a strange anachronism in the translation of a Middle Dutch text. The editors' note that they stayed as close as possible to the medieval texts (244) should be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, I found all translations to be eminently readable and, if the intended audience is to be taken as non-academic (with the footnotes explaining basic Christian concepts), well-suited to the purpose.

§7. The translations have explanatory footnotes, and there is a section with some textual notes in the material. Unfortunately those textual notes are not referenced with line or page numbers. Also, the source texts are not clearly indicated in one single place: the editions from which the editors worked are listed in the material after the translations, but one has to combine that with the information on the textual traditions in the introduction to properly identify the text; this is a bit awkward and unnecessary (the identification of the Middle Dutch Navigatio, for instance, is buried in a footnote on p. 16). The bibliography, on close inspection, is not completely up to date. Barron and Burgess's 2002 edition of seven versions is listed, but not the expanded 2005 edition. The important 2008 study Legend of Saint Brendan by Jude Mackley is not mentioned: its extensive analysis of the tropes of the Anglo-Norman version is worth citing, as are its helpful and comprehensive sections on Brendan scholarship. The student would have benefited also from reference to the 2004 bibliography by Burgess and Strijbosch, "the standard biographical work on the subject for many years to come," (Mac Mathúna 2004, 96) and to Burgess and Strijbosch, eds., The Brendan Legend: Texts and Versions, published by Brill in 2006: "an expert work … useful for many years to come" (Breeze 2007, 816). Unmentioned also is the edition of the Navigatio being prepared (still?) by Giovanni Orlandi (Mac Mathúna 2004, 96; Mackley 2008, 250); indeed, Orlandi is missing altogether from the bibliography. There are other small inconsistencies and errors: for instance, what is Anglo-Norman on p. 11 is Old French on p. 16 (and in the subtitle); and Benedeit's Voyage, rather than being the first octosyllabic French text, is preceded by the tenth-century Vie de St. Leger.

§8. If this review is overly critical, my apologies to the editors who have delivered a handy little volume of good translations of this important narrative. My mixed feelings are in part due to my doubts about the intended audience. A set of translations, while also appropriate for an academic audience, typically points to an informed but lay readership, and the sometimes jocular and rarely too-technical tone of the introduction indicates a popular audience as well. But such an audience is likely not that interested in a Middle Dutch edition of a text, and I find that the book seems to waver between committing to either audience. For the most part, the apparatus (with the noted caveats) suits a scholarly audience, but the tone of the introduction and the translations indicate a popular audience and, in my opinion, a scholarly audience can demand a much longer introduction with more historical context for the texts, the manuscripts, and their possible function—at twenty-eight pages it is short. Again, the translations are very legible and potentially open up the Brendan narrative to a much wider audience; as the editors note, there seems to be some popular interest in it as well, and that there is enough academic interest is borne out by the bibliography, and especially by the noted recent books (and scholarly articles) not included in the bibliography.

Works Cited

Breeze, Andrew. 2007. Review of The Brendan Legend by Strijbosch Burgess. The Modern Language Review 102.3: 815–816.  [Back]

Mac Mathúna, Séamus. 2004. Review of The Legend of St Brendan: A Critical Bibliography by Strijbosch Burgess. Catholic Historical Review 90.1: 95–96.  [Back]

Mackely, Jude S. 2008. Legend of Saint Brendan. Leiden: Brill.  [Back]