Brendan in the Vernacular

brendanAfter nearly a year of neglect, its time to get back to blogging on St Brendan the Voyager. I’ll be picking up on the church year soon but for now I’d like to look at the vernacular translations of the Navigato Sancti Brendani abbatis.

The development of the voyage of Brendan is a complex one that weaves together the original mythical tale of voyaging with a more traditional hagiography of St Brendan. The voyage legend and hagiographical material interacted at multiple phases in the development of this literature. It is generally believed that the original Latin version was written in c. 730-830, though elements of the legend may be older. The first hagiographical account of St Brendan appears to be later than the Navigato.

The eight easily accessible English translations of vernacular versions of the Navigato are:

  • Middle Dutch: De reis van Sint BranDaan (Saint Brendan’s Voyage), surviving from c. 1400 but derives from a lost mid-12th century version in the Rhineland.
  • Middle High German: also derived from the same lost mid-12th version from the Rhineland.
  • Ventian: One of four Italian versions of the legend, possibly dates to the end of the 13th century.
  • Anglo-Norman: Dates to the era of Henry I, patronized by one of Henry’s wives Matilda or Adeliza (manuscripts survive mentioning one or the other).
  • Occitan: Survives in just one manuscript that contains the date 12 June 1211.
  • Catalan: Two Catalan versions survive, though one is very close to the Occitan version. The shorter, more unique version has been translated into English and survives in a 14th century script.
  • Norse: Survives only in a single fragment of a manuscript of the 13th century, linguistically it appears to have been written before 1300 probably in Norweigan.
  • English: Brendan is found in the earliest versions of the  South English Legendary (before 1300) and Caxton’s Golden Legend first printed in 1484, contained Brendan from the beginning.

As we shall see in due time, most of these vernacular accounts strip out almost all of the original meaning of the navigato, of Brendan’s voyage through the church year – his spiritual pilgrimage- and stress the more fantastic adventures. In several of these versions, Brendan is the only figure actually named and all geographical landmarks of Ireland and the North Sea have been stripped out. Thus, Brendan becomes an everyman voyager. Eventually, I’ll take them one at a time and compare them to the original Latin Naviogatio Sancti Brendani abbatis.


WRJ Barron and Glyn S Burgess, Eds. The Voyage of St Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation. University of Exeter Press, 2002 (paperback printing with new indexes, 2005)


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