One of the most charming poems in Middle Dutch is De Reis van Sint Brandaan (the voyage of Saint Brendan), dating from the 12th century. It is based on a Latin prose story, which was widely popular in the Middle Ages. It tells the story of the Irish abbot Brendan, who with 16 monks sets sail for finding the Island of the Blessed. Saint Brendan of Clonfert (c. AD 484 – c. 577) was indeed a historical figure, but the earliest story of his voyage dates from the ninth century. During their voyage, Brendan and his monks visit all kinds of mysterious islands. Traces of Celtic mythology are clearly visible in this story. On one occasion it is not an island, but a sea-monster, mostly considered a whale. The monks make a fire on it for cooking…
Note: this text is taken from the Bibliotheca Augustana (Transcription du manuscrit d'Alençon à la bibliothèque municipale d'Alençon, Codex 14, f° 1 r à 11 v., XIème siècle) and differs from the standard edition by C. Selmer (1959). Also the numbering of the chapters and the order in which the adventures appear differs in the various manuscripts. The translation below comes from a different edition, but apart from the beginning it mainly agrees with the Latin text below.
Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, Cap. XI.
Sanctus vero Brendanus sciebat qualis erat illa insula sed tamen noluit illis indicare ne fuissent perterriti. Mane autem facto precepit sacerdotibus ut singuli missas cantasset et ita fecerunt. Cum ergo sanctus Brendanus et ipse cantasset missam in navim, ceperunt fratres crudas carnes portare foras de navi ut condidissent sale et etiam pisces quos secum tulerunt de alia insula. Cum haec fecissent posuerunt cacabum super ignem. Cum autem ministrassent lignis ignem et fervere cepisset cacabus, cepit illa insula se movere sicut unda. Fratres vero ceperunt currere ad navim deprecantes patrocinium sancti patris.
At ille singulos per manus trahebat intus. Relictisque omnibus quae portabant in illam insulam ceperunt navigare. Porro illa insula ferebatur in oceanum. Tunc poterant videre ignem ardentem super duo miliaria. Sanctus Brendanus narravit fratribus quod hoc esset, dicens: Fratres admiramini quod fecit haec insula?» Aiunt: «Admiramur valde nec non et ingens pavor penetravit nos.» Qui dixit illis: «Filioli mei nolite expavescere. Deus enim revelavit mihi hac nocte per visionem sacramentum hujus rei. Insula non est ubi fuimus sed piscis. Prior omnium natancium in oceano querit semper suam caudam ut simul jungat capiti et non potest pro longitudine, quam habet nomine Jasconius».
illis: the brethren
mane facto: when morning had arrived
praecipio praecepi praeceptum: to instruct, order
singuli: one by one, individually
caro carnis (f.): flesh, meat
condo sale: to pickle
cacabus: cooking pot
ministro: (here) to add
fervo: to become hot, boil
cepisset: not from capio but from coepio coepi coeptum, to start, begin (mediaeval spelling)
deprecor deprecatus: to pray, beg
traho traxi tractum: to draw
ferebatur: the medial-passive of fero means `to move (one’s self)
super duo miliaria: from more than two miles distance
admiror admiratus: to wonder
valde: very much
nec non: very, indeed
pavor pavoris: fear
filiolus: diminutive of filius
expavesco: to be terrified
natancium = natantium
prior: the greatest
quaero quaesivi quaesitum: to seek, strive
ut simul: at the same time
pro longitudine: because of it length
iungo iunxi iunctum: to join (when whales jump above water, they have a curved back, hence the idea that they try to touch their tail with their head.)
Jasconius: latinization of the Irish word iasc, `fish’
16th century engraving.
Translation by D. O’Donoghue (1893)
When they drew nigh to the nearest island, the boat stopped ere they reached a landing-–place; and the saint ordered the brethren to get out into the sea, and make the vessel fast, stem and stern, until they came to some harbour; there was no grass on the island, very little wood, and no sand on the shore. While the brethren spent the night in prayer outside the vessel, the saint remained in it, for he knew well what manner of island was this; but he wished not to tell the brethren, lest they might be too much afraid. When morning dawned, he bade the priests to celebrate Mass, and after they had done so, and he himself had said Mass in the boat, the brethren took out some un–cooked meat and fish they had brought from the other island, and
put a cauldron on a fire to cook them, After they had placed more fuel on the fire, and the cauldron began to boil, the island moved about like a wave; whereupon they all rushed towards the boat, and implored the protection of their father, who, taking each one by the hand, drew them all into the vessel; then relinquishing what they had removed to the island, they cast their boat loose, to sail away, when the island at once sunk into the ocean. Afterwards they could see the fire they had kindled still burning more than two miles off, and then Brendan explained the occurrence: ‘Brethren, you wonder at what has happened to this island,’ ‘Yes, father,’ said they: ‘we wondered, and were seized with a great fear.’ ‘Fear not, my children,’ said the saint, ‘for God has last night revealed to me the mystery of all this; it was not an island you were upon, but a fish, the largest of all that swim in the ocean, which is ever trying to make its head and tail meet, but cannot succeed, because of its great length. Its name is Iasconius.’