What is a hagiography?

I mention Brigid’s hagiography a lot in my writing. And it’s mostly Cogitosus and Bethu Brigte I talk about. This is because Cogitosus is the earliest Life we have available to us readily and the Bethu Brigte is the earliest one using Irish, albeit it Old Irish, rather than the modern Irish I speak. I can usually double check a translation anyway with the Old Irish easier than I can the Latin either way.

And, if I’m honest, I thought the hagiography was just an old time biography when I started this journey, years ago. But, I learned differently.

What’s the meaning of the word “hagiography”?

Well, the word ” hagiography” comes from two Greek words: hagios meaning “holy” and graphia meaning writing. So, the term “hagiography” means literally: holy writing.

However, in terms of usage, it has come to mean a specific type of holy writing. It usually refers to a kind of biography of a holy person, ecclesiastical leader, saint. And yes, I say a “kind of biography” on purpose. These weren’t biographies in the modern sense – facts and the person’s experience of the events that shaped them.

Hagiographies recorded the way the holy person or saint lived, the miracles they completed, their martyrdom (if applicable). They were a way to show Christians how to live a Christian life. What were the values and principles and morals that the saints showed that mere humans could copy?

Copying the Son of God was one thing, but a hagiography showed how an “ordinary” person showed humanity as well as Christian values.

A picture of St Brigid looking very holy.
Why was hagiography so important in the early Christian Church?

Well, hagiography was quite important in the early church for spreading the word. It is easy to transport, copy, shared a book, while not necessarily available to the entire populace,… It was the early church equivalent of “going viral”, if you will.

And, yes, it was definitely a form of propaganda. The Cogitosus Life of St Brigit is well-recognised as a means of promoting Kildare as the potential primacy of Ireland (they were up for the honour with Armagh. Spoiler alert – Armagh won).

Hagiography inspired people. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Christians or potential converts. Inspiration was the key. Either by the miracles wrought by the power or God or the way they stood fast in the face of martyrdom. Even someone like St Therese of Lisieux, although she lived in the 19th century, is an inspiration to many people today. Her example of the small ways to live a good Christian life is very valid today.

(Don’t worry, I’m not straying into a promotion of St Therese!!)

But, we must recognise – these miracles were hugely important in building that feeling of community for many people in the early church.

OK, fine, hagiography is important. But what has it to do with St. Brigid?

We have potentially 7 Lives of St Brigid. From these seven, it is possible that all seven were based on a compilation by a lad called Ultan, Bishop of Ardbraccon. Now, this is in Meath, near where Brigid’s mother, Broicseach, was born. His reasons for interest in St Brigid is obvious, right?

Anyway, we have seven early lives, although we only have authors for three of them.

The Seven main Lives of St Brigid

The Life of St Brigit by Cogitosus, written approx 650-675CE. Reputedly, as I said above, propaganda for Kildare. (70+ copies exist today!)

Vita Prima, author unknown, but thought to heavily reflect Ultan’s original text, written 7th or 8th century. (25 copies exist today)

Bethu Brigte, my favourite hagiography cos it’s written in Old Irish as well as Latin. The date here gets even more vague, sometime between 600CE and 900CE. And as far as I’m aware, the language determines that date, rather than anything else.

The Metrical Life (so-called because it’s written in Latin hexameter) written by a bishop of Fiesole, Italy called Donatus. Now Donatus was reputedly born and reared in Ireland, hence his interest in St. Brigid. 2004 lines of verse, so fair play to him! He lived 829 – 876, so it was written sometime during that period.

Life of St Brigid by an English monk called Laurence, prior of Durham, in the 1130s. Yeah, we’re getting later now alright, and this was in and around the time of some reformation in the church.

12th century redaction of the Vita Prima – interestingly, scholars sometimes call this the Animosus Life, because it was thought to be the Life referred to in Donatus, but more modern scholars believe Donatus was referring to Cogitosus. Please notice the “believes”, “thought” and distinct lack of definite fact here!

Abridged version of the Vita Prima, written- even more vaguely – sometime between 900 and 1200 CE. It’s in the form of a homily and appears in the Leabhar Breac and The Book of Lismore.

Are these the only hagiographies available?

There are plenty of other, more minor or less important, thorough lives available as well. Check out Chapter 3 of Noel Kissane’s Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend and Cult for more details. And indeed, this book provided the list above as well. Very useful book in generally.

Once the printing press was invented in the 15th century (thank you Herr Gutenberg), the laborious process of copying manuscripts by hand wasn’t completely eliminated, but it was certainly easier to print multiple copies of the same hagiography!

So, we can see a bit of an explosion of religious literature in particular following this invention. Indeed, the Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed. Now, the later or more minor lives add very little in terms of extra or new information to our knowledge on Brigid. But’s that’s ok. Really, those redactions or outlines show her popularity through the centuries more than anything else.


So there we go. An outline and explanation of what a hagiography is, what the major Brigid hagiographies are and why they are important.

Not bibliography, but a fascinating insight into how our ancestors from around the Christian world thought about one of Ireland’s most helpful and probably most venerated, saints. And a good insight into the deity as well, in my opinion!

Author: galros2

I've been working with Brigid for many years now and looking to share my experience and knowledge with those who wish to learn. Check out my links here: Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/brigidsforge Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MyBrigidsForge School: https://brigid-s-forge.teachable.com/ Blog: https://mybrigidsforge.com/

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