Monday 8 May 2017

'Murdered Saints and Salmon' by Karen Maitland

Chapel of St Mary, Glastonbury Abbey.
Photo c1865. Cornwell University Library
Today is the feast day of St Indract or St Indracht, who is said to have been martyred in around 700. What I find fascinating about this obscure saint, is not whether he really existed, but the way his story evolved throughout the Middle Ages, which reveals so much about the medieval mind-set.

For peace-loving men, saints attract a lot of trouble and in St Indract’s case it all revolved around food. Early writings about him, draw on an account (now lost) by William of Malmesbury (1095-1143). According to him, Indract was the son of an Irish King, who set off on a pilgrimage to Rome with seven or nine companions. Ireland was suffering a terrible famine and when Indract and his band travelled back through England, they were carrying bags of grain to relieve their people's suffering. They took shelter overnight at Huish Episcopi where a thegn named Horsa who was in the service of Ine, King of the West Saxons (688-726), decided that these royal pilgrims must be carrying gold in their sacks. Horsa and his cutthroats murdered Indract and his companions for this imagined gold, disposing of their corpses in a pit.

But throughout the hours of darkness, great beams of light shone up from the pit revealing the crime to King Ine. He had the corpses reinterred near the high altar of St Mary’s Church in Glastonbury Abbey, where they become the focus of a local cult until the old church was destroyed by fire in 1184. But legend has it that one body was never removed from the pit, and on the night of the 8th May, a light shines up from ground marking its resting place. Later writers give Shapwick as the place where the men were murdered and the bodies concealed.

By 1478, William Worcester claims that the number murdered by Horsa and his men was 100, not merely 10, and that the murderers watching the disinterment of the corpses, were driven into a guilty frenzy and ripped each other to pieces. This reflects the medieval superstition of the period that a murdered victim will reveal their killer if the guilty party is brought into the presence of the corpse or touches the body, when the corpse will bleed afresh or cry out.

The cult surrounding this Celtic saint seems to have mainly been limited to the south west of England and the original legend which William recorded might simply have been a story created to explain an earlier internment of unidentified bodies in the abbey. But it would have brought some welcome income from those who came to venerate the martyrs.

In 14th century, John of Tynemouth, a monk at St Alban’s abbey, recorded the same story of the murder, but with a new legend, which appears to have originated in Cornwall. John has St Indract travelling to Rome with his sister St Dominica, and their companions. But when they reached Temerunta on the banks of the Tamar, they decided to remain for a while. There Indract struck his staff against a rock and well full of salmon sprang up. Then he planted his staff in the ground, where it sprouted into an oak tree to give them shelter. But one of their number stole some salmon in addition to his allotted rations and their fish supply failed. In another version of the legend, the party quarrelled about a fish weir. But both accounts have the group splitting up and St Indract going off to Rome with nine companions.
Medieval Fishing & hunting c.1480

Salmon were vital to the medieval economy and many fish weirs were constructed during the Middle Ages. We know from records there were numerous disputes over ownership and the obstruction caused by these weirs, and cases brought over the rights to take the fish from rivers, so that the idea that a saint was involved in a bitter dispute over salmon, would have seemed entirely feasible to the medieval pilgrims and monks.

But salmon were also important Celtic symbols. Their ability to return the same spawning beds made them symbols of memory and wisdom. The salmon was said to have gained its spots when it ate nine hazelnuts from the nine trees of wisdom, which grew at the heads of the seven major rivers in Ireland and the two holy wells of Connla and Segais. In Irish mythology, it was said that if a man ate the Salmon of Wisdom which had swallowed nine hazelnuts in the sacred well, he would gain all the knowledge of the world. In the celtic tale, the poet Finegas finally caught the salmon after seven years fishing. He ordered his servant, Fionn, to cook it for him and on no account to eat any, but the boy licked his finger burnt by the hot juices from the fish and he gained the wisdom instead.
Atlantic salmon. Timothy Knepp

The oak tree was equally important to medieval life, for it not only provided wood for buildings and ships, but acorns upon which the household pigs could be fattened for free. But it too had sacred links. For both the Norsemen and Celts, groves of sacred oaks were the setting for not only for religious rites, but as places where old enemies would swear binding oaths of peace.

In the Middle Ages, oak leaves were worn as a protection against evil spirits and community meetings were often held beneath oak trees, so that people would be protected from those who might try to curse them, or from witches who would send their familiars in the form of animals to discover what was being discussed. Bede records that when St Augustine wanted to preach in a building on the Isle of Thanet, King Ethelbert of Kent ordered that the meeting be held under an oak tree in case St Augustine and his followers were ‘skilful in sorcery’ and might attempt to deceive and bewitch the king and his men.
Oak leaves and acorns on the choir screen, Lincoln Cathedral
Photo: Poliphilo

It is interesting that the salmon and the oak, which were such important symbols in pre-Christian Celtic mythology, should still be significant enough to be woven into the hagiography of the Christian saint at late as the 14th century. A seamless blending of the pagan and the Christian in the medieval mind, complete with a sacred tree and a holy well.

1 comment:

Sue Bursztynski said...

It's an interesting story, but doesn't surprise me. A lot of pagan elements turn up in Christian traditions, after all; it was a good way to get converts, but I also think some people just didn't change everything when they converted.