The title of this book is important for understanding its content. It is not “Two Saints in a Landscape,” but “Landscape with Two Saints.” It is the landscape—physical, cultural, and religious—that is primary, and the two saints who are the agents of change within it at a particular time (the fifth century of the Common Era) and into its future.
The two saints in question are Genovefa (better known to most of us as Geneviève), and Brigit. In a monumental work of scholarship compressed into a scant 250 pages of text (the remaining pages are occupied by succinct but wide-ranging notes, bibliography, and index), Lisa Bitel shows how two women were instrumental in moving the landscapes of Paris and of Ireland toward their Christian future. To say that little is known of these women’s “historical” lives is to overstate the case. Virtually all we know of them comes from hagiographies written decades and centuries after they lived, and those hagiographies are shaped as much or more by the needs of the times in which they were written as by any memories of the saints themselves. Genovefa was essentially an “urban” saint instrumental in the origins of Paris as a religious and royal center; Brigit, like her island, seems more like a nature spirit, perhaps as much an incarnation of a pagan ancestor, the goddess Brig, as a Christian saint. One might say that Brigit created a Christian Ireland to replace the pagan Ireland of Brig, but without shedding Brig’s useful characteristics. Genovefa was a builder and a healer; Brigit was a healer, a discoverer of wells, and a gatherer of community at Kildare. Genovefa’s associations were mainly with ecclesiastical men, and she left behind a church staffed by canons; Brigit’s were mainly with women, and her legacy was a community of vowed religious women.
Bitel is skillful in drawing the parallels and contrasts between the two saints, occasioned by their “personalities” in interaction with their physical, cultural, and religious circumstances. Gaul, so much closer in space to Rome, absorbed romanitas much more rapidly and readily than distant, rural Ireland, where imported forms were always underlain by native heritage, much as Brigit reflected Brig. This book will be most accessible to medievalists, and especially to students of cultural and religious geography, because it is conceived and written in intellectual categories most common to those disciplines. Nevertheless, it is a serious work, and deserving of serious study even by non-experts who wish to explore these strange and different worlds from which we have inherited more than we know.