St. Brendan

St. Brendan (also called Brenainn, Brandan, or Brandon) was born in 484 CE and died in 577 or 583 CE, traditionally on May 16 (St. Brendan’s Day). He was abbot of the monastery at Clonfert in County Galway, in the west of Ireland, and is said to have been its founder. He was a renowned traveler, earning him the name “Brendan the Navigator.” Aside from the Navigatio, the main source for the life of Brendan is the Vita Sancti Brendani, written around 1000 CE and surviving in both Latin and Irish (see Sources for the Navigatio). Brendan is most famous for the story told in the Navigatio, about his voyage in search of “The Land of Promise of the Saints.” Readers assumed that this “Promised Land” was located somewhere in the western Atlantic.

It has been suggested that Brendan sailed as far as Newfoundland or Labrador, via the so-called “stepping-stone route” (Ireland, Outer Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland); this hypothetical voyage was reenacted by Tim Severin in 1976 and 1977.   Others have argued Brendan preceded Columbus on his southern route to the Azores and on to the Caribbean. Thus, Brendan is sometimes cited as the first European to have visited America.

Whatever the truth, the Navigatio probably reflects genuine navigational achievements by medieval Irish monks, for whom ocean travel was a kind of spiritual exercise; it was their version of the withdrawal into the desert of iconic hermits like Saint Anthony (see Sources for the Navigatio). Small numbers of Irish monks settled in both the Faroe Islands and Iceland, and the Navigatio seems to reflect these experiences.

The Navigatio

The date of the Navigatio is controversial. Our earliest manuscripts date to the 10th century, but scholars date the text to before the middle of the eighth century or as late as the early ninth—the text we have may be based on a lost earlier version of the story.

The author was almost certainly Irish, possibly an expatriate writing in France or elsewhere on the continent, or he may have been a monk at Clonfert, writing for the local community about a local tradition. Since the Navigatio was in Latin, its audience will have been almost exclusively ecclesiastical.

The Navigatio was enormously popular in the Middle Ages, surviving in about 125 manuscripts (none in Ireland), and the story was retold in Anglo-Norman, Dutch, German, Venetian, Provençal, Catalan, Norse, and English.

Influence of the Navigatio

The Navigatio (along with versions of the story in vernacular languages) left its mark on the modern imagination. Whether or not Brendan landed in America before the Vikings, the story of his Atlantic adventures was taken seriously as geographical information. The Portuguese were inspired by Brendan to explore the Atlantic and discover the Azores, and Columbus was certainly aware of the story. “Brendan’s Island” was included in navigational maps as late as the 18th century, and reports of sightings, and expeditions to find it, continued into the 19th century. The thought that there was some kind of paradise to be found in the west exerted a powerful hold on the European imagination. One modern book for children owing much to the Navigatio is surely The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) by the brilliant medievalist C. S. Lewis.