Dr Caroline Brett writes: At the University of Sydney’s Eighth Australian
Conference of Celtic Studies on 11-14 June 2013, Dr Lynette Olson organised a
special colloquy on the First Life of St Samson of Dol. The aim was to assess what progress has been
made in recent years in understanding this key text for early medieval British
and Breton ecclesiastical history, and whether it can be taken any
further.The answer to the second was a
resounding yes, although not all the delegates agreed on the detail!
The First Life of St Samson of Dol is potentially a
key source for early medieval British (and Irish) Christianity and the politics
of early Brittany. Ostensibly the
biography of a monastic founder and bishop from south-east Wales who ended his
life at Dol in Brittany some time in the second half of the sixth century, it
has aroused controversy among scholars for more than a hundred years. The problems turn on the date of the text’s
composition, on the reality or otherwise of an earlier biography which the
author of the existing text claims to have used, and on the relationship
between this existing biography and its putative model. Various dates between the early seventh
century and ca.850 have been proposed
for the existing text, and the model or Vita
primigenia has been characterised as everything from an eye-witness account
by a relative of the saint, to a literary figment of a ninth-century
propagandist’s imagination. The
arguments seemed to have reached an impasse by the time the full range of them
was presented in Joseph-Claude Poulin’s encyclopaedic Hagiographie bretonne in 2009.
However, the debate has been potentially re-animated by Richard Sowerby
in an article in Francia, 2011, in
which he suggested new grounds for distinguishing between the successive
authors’ contributions, and put in a powerful argument for a date around 700.
Dr Lynette Olson saw this as an opportunity for a
renewed attempt to make some solid progress on the understanding of Vita Prima Samsonis, and invited a group
of Samson scholars, or ‘Samsonites’, to the University of Sydney to offer their
responses to Sowerby’s article and their thoughts on various aspects of the
text. The original line-up of Samsonites
included, in alphabetical order, Caroline Brett, Karen Jankulak, Constant Mews,
Lynette Olson, Joseph-Claude Poulin, Richard Sowerby, Ian Wood and Jonathan
Wooding. Unfortunately Ian Wood and
Richard Sowerby were eventually unable to attend, but it is hoped that their contributions
will be included in the published conference proceedings. Karen Jankulak too was unable to attend, but
her paper was brought and read by Jonathan Wooding.
For the five remaining contributors the upshot was a
highly stimulating two days in which we went ‘head to head’ with St Samson and
discovered ... if not a final solution to our problems, nevertheless a feeling
that, as Wooding memorably put it, ‘our history is moving in the direction of
our text’ and that the potential exists to put Vita Prima Samsonis at the centre of early Insular Christianity.
This blog is written and maintained by members of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, University of Cambridge. We study the history, languages, literatures and material culture of medieval Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia.
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