Cogitosus and Aldhelm

I picked up Lisa Bitel’s Landscape of Two Saints tonight and quickly came to the following passage: [Cogitosus is the author of the first Life of Brigit of Kildare in Leinster.]

“Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherbourne (d. 709), composed poems for a mixed community of religious men and women. In fact, Cogitosus may have inspired Aldhelm, who read Irish religious works, whose own writings were copied in Ireland, and who composed for female audiences and patrons as well as for men. Aldhelm’s poem in dedication of Saints Mary’s church near Malmesbury for the abbess Bugge (ca. 675) combined material and symbolic description of the building with rituals performed there by a community of nuns and monks. His verses about the new construction are similar in structure and vocabulary to Cogitosus’s description of Kildare, thus helping us to interpret the more elliptical phrasing of the Irishman.

Saint Mary’s was a “lofty structure” (praecelsa mole) with an altar in the apse dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and twelve other dedications of altars or niches to the apostles. The interior glowed with sunshine through its glass windows, filling the rectangular nave with light. A golden cloth covered its altar. A jeweled chalice and silver paten set atop the altar reflected light like the stars in heaven, a motif common in the tituli. A precious cross and embossed thurible, dangling over the altar, completed the decorative ensemble. Aldhelm elaborated an iconography of heavenly light that inflamed the reader’s and viewer’s spirits, leading them to an internal as well as aesthetic appreciation of the sacred space. “Let bright glory” be offered to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he exclaimed.

Like Cogitosus’s ekphrasis, Aldhelm’s poem set images in motion, locating them in time as well as space. His reference to the liturgical cycle reminded readers of Rome, seat of the apostles, and Jerusalem, scene of Christ’s passion. Mention of the liturgy also impelled readers into imaginative movement through the spaces of the church. When Aldhelm described the congregation’s singing and praying, he placed people and ritual at precise points, looking at particular objects or scenes. For instance, he mentioned the dialogue of women and men in “twin choirs”, taking turns singing and reading scripture, thus emphasizing the presence of both sexes and their segregation within the church. The experience is even more vivid for readers when Aldhelm evoked the sounds and smells of Christian ritual, recalling the fragrance of incense drifting from thurible  in the apse. His readers  thus not only shared Aldhelm’s vision of the church but also participated in the feelings and movements of the clerics and congregants from different places within the church. Aldhelm may have intended this and his other poems to become part of the architecture when carved into walls as tituli. ” ( Bitel, 2009, p. 153-154)

Interesting, given that as I’ve written about here before, Aldhelm has also been associated with Iona. There isn’t an actual reference to place him in either place. Of course, Aldhelm didn’t need to actually travel to Kildare to read Cogitosus’ Life of Bridget. Perhaps we should just follow Bede’s lead and accept that Ireland had an exceptional education system. Anywhere Aldhelm studied, major texts would have been available to him. This could account for the influence of Cogitosus on Aldhelm and Irish work on Virgil that is reflected in the work of both Aldhelm and Adomnan.

Kildare does have some interesting contacts with Wessex, being the primary monastery of Leinster, the Irish kingdom closest to Wessex across the Irish Sea and they were early adopters of Rome. It is possible that Agilbert’s study in Ireland was in the south around Leinster in part because they had trade ties to Gaul and shared Roman rites. Kildare’s early adoption of Roman rites could have also drawn Aldhelm to southern Ireland to study. If he traveled around south-eastern Ireland during his studies, it is almost certain he would have at least visited Kildare.  Aldhelm may have known how close Cogitosus’s description of Kildare really was to reality.

One of Cogitosus’ intentions was to show Kildare to be as grand as any basilica in Gaul or Rome. As Bitel (p. 142-5) discusses, Cogitosus portrays Brigit’s life as a pilgrimage from her rustic roots to fame enshrined in the grand city of Kildare, a maxima metropoliana (great episcopal town) on the order of Gaulish cities ruled by Metropolitan bishops. “What mattered to Cogitosus was not how many miles separated Kildare from Rome but how close an approximation Brigit’s followers could make of Rome at home” (Bitel, 2009, 142). This was an ambition that Aldhelm could have shared for his own people.

Reference: Lisa M. Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford University Press, 2009.


4 thoughts on “Cogitosus and Aldhelm

  1. Nice article however it could be good if you would publish more articles about Britons, Dal Riadans and Picts.

  2. Thanks for highlighting the St. Mary’s description, I hadn’t come across it before.

    “It is possible that Agilbert’s study in Ireland was in the south around Leinster in part because they had trade ties to Gaul and shared Roman rites. Kildare’s early adoption of Roman rites could have also drawn Aldhelm to southern Ireland to study. If he travelled around south-eastern Ireland during his studies, it is almost certain he would have at least visited Kildare. Aldhelm may have known how close Cogitosus’s description of Kildare really was to reality.”

    Indeed. The most likely location for the famed Rath Melsigi has long been considered Clonmelsh, in Co. Carlow: a prime position for the above activity. [Ó Cróinín, Rath Melsigi, Willibrord, and the earliest Echternach manuscripts, Peritia 3 (1984) pp. 17–49]. (Alas, now with a huge quarry at the location).

    However it seems to me to be extremely elusive as to how realistic Cogitosis’ description of the Kildare Basilica actually was. Not in terms of internal division, or foci within, (which certainly seem to have parallels with St. Mary’s, which I’m delighted to find out) but in terms of overall size and extravagance. There is little reliable archaeological evidence of any contemporary ecclesiastical structure anywhere in the country resembling anything like it.

    That aside, of course, there are also suggestions within Cogitosis of contemporary links abroad:

    28(2). Once she generously gave away to the poor “the foreign vestments from overseas” belonging to his distinguished eminence Bishop Conleth, which he was wont to use on the solemnities of the Lord and on the vigils of the Apostles when offering the sacred mysteries on the altar and in the sanctuary. [Cogitosus’s “Life of St Brigit” Content and Value Connolly & Picard, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117, (1987), pp. 5-27 (Available on Jstor)]

    I’ve always assumed a very wide ranging and ‘busy’ network of travel and communication routes across the Irish Sea area, between the respective ecclesiastical centres (independently of Bede!). Its only a few years before the events of Ecgfrith and Adomnán after all. A cursory look at the Irish Annals for the 650’s onwards show lots of entries concerning Anglo-Saxon events. Plus there’s also increasing amounts of seventh century Gaulish E-ware pottery showing up on Irish sites right up the east coast and far inland too.

    There was certainly a lot of Hiberno-Saxon-Gaulish student exchange programs!

    1. Terry, you would probably be interested in Lisa Bitel’s book, Landscape with Two Saints .

      There are a lot of Anglo-Saxon entries in the Irish annals, and some are unique, not mentioned elsewhere like the death of Abbess Aelfflaed, King Oswiu’s daughter. Iona clearly had extreme interest in what was going on in Northumbria. The problem is though that we don’t know when the Irish annals were written, and even if part of it was contemporary material can be retrospectively inserted later.

      If I recall correctly, Cogitosus was a signatory to Cain Adomnan at the Synod of Birr in 695. Of course they had opposing views on Easter. Adomnan’s Iona was still holding out on recognizing Rome.

  3. I am very much looking forward to getting the book, I love all of Lisa’s work.

    The annals are only identifiably contemporary from 650AD onwards. I think the the AS entries are some of our more concrete examples, especially when the information has no political relevance to later times:

    i.e. AU 699.1
    A Murrain (Plague) of cattle in the land of the Saxons.

    Versus the obvious later additions:

    ie. AU 735.7
    Bede, a learned man of the Saxons, rested.

    Cogitosis wasn’t at Birr, in 697 though. I reckon you are thinking of Múirchú who was a signatory, as he famously refers to Cogitosus as his ‘spiritual father’ in his life of Patrick. However, he does so in the past tense, and general opinion is that he was deceased by then.

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