Sir Owain: Introduction


1 See Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick's Purgatory, pp. 7-43; Jean-Michael Picard, trans., Saint Patrick's Purgatory: A Twelfth Century Tale of a Journey to the Other World, intro. Yolande de Pontfarcy (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1985), pp. 18-21; Shane Leslie, St. Patrick's Purgatory: A Record from History and Literature, pp. ix-xv.

2 The Book of Armagh, compiled by a ninth-century scribe, contains the first surviving versions of two seventh-century Irish "Lives" of St. Patrick, one by Muirchu Macca Machteni and one by Tirechan, documents in Latin and English concerning the life of St. Patrick and the prerogatives of the See of Armagh, a Vulgate New Testament with various commentaries, and the "Life of St. Martin of Tours" (c. 316-67) by Sulpicius Severus (c. 360-420/425).
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Sir Owain: Introduction

Sir Owain is the story of the successful penitential visit of the sinful knight Sir Owain to Purgatory and the Earthly Paradise by way of "St. Patrick's Purgatory" on Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. Although much is obscure about the origins of St. Patrick's Purgatory as a place of entry into the next world, and much is debatable about the emergence of St. Patrick's Purgatory as a place of pilgrimage, this poem is a clear and vigorous version of Owain's journey, presented more in the form and manner of medieval metrical romance than of a didactic treatise or tract. The moral lessons remain clear, but that is not foreign to the medieval romances, which characteristically represent and celebrate an idea or ideal.

Ancient Irish legends associated the existence of an entry into the next world with the mission of St. Patrick (c. 389-c. 461) to convert the pagan Irish.1 In these legends, the Irish would not accept St. Patrick's teachings unless a man was able to enter the next world and return again. Providentially, God appeared to St. Patrick on an island in Lough Derg, by means of a vision or a dream, led him into a wilderness, or barren place, pointed out a pit that was the entry to Purgatory, and assured St. Patrick that anyone who stayed a day and a night in the next world would be cleansed of his sins. Apparently, as a gesture of authenticating good faith, God left behind a book and a staff. The book was often taken to be the Book of Armagh, which was thought to be a relic of St. Patrick. Legend here conflicts with reality, since the clearly ninth-century Book of Armagh, preserved in Trinity College Dublin, is too late for the fifth-century saint, and does not contain the information about "Godes priveté," divine knowledge not available to or appropriate for human beings, which the legend mentions.2 The staff may simply be a symbol of St. Patrick's episcopal authority, but Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1147-1216/20) associated it with St. Patrick's driving the snakes out of Ireland, and many legends assign the staff mysterious magical powers.

A second version of the origins of the entry says that St. Patrick drew a circle on the ground and cast a staff, already in his possession, into the middle of it, and a deep chasm opened up. A third version, apparently a more modest rationalization of the second, held that St. Patrick came upon a cave and experienced a vision of the next world within it. The first version, with its wealth of imaginative detail, was the most prominent down through the Middle Ages. In all versions, St. Patrick orders a church to be built over the site and gives it to the care of Augustinian Canons Regular (perhaps an anachronism, depending upon which dating of the origins of the Canons Regular one accepts).

The precise location of St. Patrick's Purgatory is unclear. There are two islands in Lough Derg: Station Island, the larger of the two, and Saints Island. Both comprised the site of a single Celtic monastic community and may have been located on the site of a still earlier pagan magical place. The location of the entry in legend seems to have been on Saints Island, though confusion of the two islands became common, and Saints Island seems to have been the preferred location through the Middle Ages. St. Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, did set up in the early 1130s on Saints Island a dependency of the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul, Armagh, under the control of the Augustinians Canons Regular, who certainly had been established, by St. Norbert, by 1100. Eventually the Canons assumed authority over both islands until the site was taken over by the Franciscans in 1632.

It is at about the time of the arrival of the Augustinians in the early 1130s, despite the suggestions of Irish legends, that St. Patrick's Purgatory truly became a destination of pilgrimage and penitence. It remained so until its suppression by Pope Alexander VI in 1497. So powerful, however, had the site become that pilgrimages resumed in the sixteenth century, with Station Island assuming primacy, maybe because it did in fact have a likely cave. The attraction of the site has been enduring. The church on Station Island was destroyed, and later rebuilt, in 1632, 1701, and 1727. In 1931, an enormous new church was built and pilgrimages to the site continue to this day. Such was, and is, the power of St. Patrick's Purgatory.

Regardless of what one makes of Irish legends, the first recorded pilgrimage was in 1152. The tradition had been so firmly established by that time that the "Purgatory" became a ubi-quitous object of theological and literary attention in the second half of the twelfth century, though the experiences of the pilgrims were probably less like that of Owain than that of Antonio Mannini in 1411, who recounts the bureaucracy of the necessary permissions and a penitential experience of a more familiar, mundane kind. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the mysterious potency of the story of St. Patrick's Purgatory in the mid to late twelfth century, when the religious reality of Purgatory far surpassed any question of geo-graphical actuality.

The seminal literary document associated with the rebirth of Purgatory at this special place, and the document that first gives an account of Owain's journey, is the Tractatus de Purga-torio Sancti Patricii by H. of Sawtrey. Here we are on firmer historical ground, at least in the origins and transmission of the narrative, because the text exists and its genesis can be reconstructed from contemporary ecclesiastical sources, even if they are not always precise. What seems probable is that a Cistercian monk, Gilbert, was sent with several other monks in the late 1150s to establish a Benedictine dependency in Ireland, probably at Baltinglas. Unable to speak Irish, Gilbert was given the assistance of an interpreter, Owain, either a Cistercian monk or an assistant to the Cistercians. Owain, in the course of a two-and-a-half-year association with Gilbert, told him of his own marvelous visit to Purgatory at Lough Derg. Gilbert returned to England by 1159 to become abbot of Basingwerk and repeatedly recounted Owain's story. Gilbert told H. of Sawtrey (the H was expanded to Henricus by Matthew of Paris in the thirteenth century) the story of Owain's journey. Among those to whom Gilbert recounted the story was another H., Henry, abbot of Sartis, who urged Sawtrey (or Saltrey) to commit the narrative to writing. The Tractatus itself merely identifies the author, the first H., as a monk of Saltereia, but there was a Cistercian monastery at Saltrey in Huntingdonshire. The person addressed in the Tractatus, the second H., is identified as the abbot of Sartis, probably Henry of Wardon.

Although the Tractatus does not specify, the visit of Owain to Purgatory occurred, according to various sources, some time between 1146 and 1154: 1154 according to the Chronicles of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), 1153 according to Matthew of Paris, or 1146-47 according to probabilities established by Robert Easting from the monastic records of abbacies. Henry of Saltrey did not in fact commit Gilbert's account of Owain's story to writing until some time later, perhaps 1179-81, or even later in 1189-90. The latter is the more traditional date; the former is persuasively argued by Easting, the most distinguished scholar on the subject.

The Tractatus is a serious Latin prose work which begins by establishing the authenticity of purgatorial doctrine by referring to St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine, even citing Augustine's division of the afterlife into four parts: the boni (the saved), the mali (the damned), the non valde mali (the "not completely evil" in a middle state), and the boni non valde (the "not completely good" in another intermediate state). The invocation of the authority of St. Augustine is especially odd in that St. Augustine believed Purgatory to be a "state," and the Tractatus, by its very nature, identifies Purgatory as a place, with a very specific location. The tendency of commentators between St. Augustine and the Tractatus had been towards a "place," though the Church was not definitive on the topic even at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Moreover, in the Tractatus, Purgatory seems in many ways to be the abode of the non valde mali and the Earthly Paradise seems to be the abode of the boni non valde. This is at odds with the idea in the Tractatus that souls, after purgation, move to the Earthly Paradise for an undet