TRANSITUS BEATI FURSEI - THE LIFE OF SAINT FURSEY
In the year 2000 I was privileged to deliver the first annual lecture in honour of St Fursey, subsequently published as 'The Life of St Fursey. What we know; why it matters', Fursey Occasional Paper No. 1 (Norwich, 2001). Therein I suggested that a desideratum that might be addressed by the Fursey Pilgrims, who organise the lectures, was the translation of the Vita Prima or First Life of St Fursey, also known as 'The Passage of St Fursey' into English. I am delighted to have been invited to contribute this foreword to that translation which has been produced by Oliver Rackham, at their behest.
Fursey (597-c.649) was the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England, arriving in East Anglia with his brothers, Foillan and Ultan, in 633, two years before St Aidan established his monastery on Holy Island. There he founded a monastery at Cnobheresburg (thought to be the former Roman Saxon Shore fort of Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth). Around 644 he continued his peregrinatio (voluntary exile for Christ), travelling to Frankia where he founded the monastery of Lagny-sur-Marne, to the east of Paris, and being buried at Peronne where his cult became a pilgrimage focus.
He is represented by Bede in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (III. 19) as a model of virtue (which is indeed the Old Irish meaning of Fursa), living the Gospel through preaching, service to those in need and the self-discipline of the hermit's life. He also won renown as the originator of the Christian visionary genre in the West, his premonitions of the delights of the blessed and the torments of hell preparing the way for Dante's Paradisic and Inferno. And yet, this important figure is comparatively little known today, partly because what little survives in the hagiographical record has not previously been available in English. Bede, who finished his Ecclesiastical History in 731, based his account of Fursey partly upon a 'little book on his life'. The earliest manuscript of this to survive is British Library, Harley MS 5041 ff.79-98, probably copied in northern France in the mid-eighth century. Although already a corrupt copy, this manuscript forms the basis of the present translation. A seventh-century continuation of the Life was added at Nivelles and during the ninth century his miracles were extrapolated to form the Virtues of Fursey. A Latin edition of all the manuscript sources was edited by B. Krusch for Monumenta Germanics Historica, script. Rerum Merovingicarum 4. Passiones vitceque sanctorum, pp.423-451: 7, pp.837-842 (Hanover, 1902, 1920).
A second Vita was composed on the Continent in the eleventh or twelfth century, and an Irish vernacular Life was also produced. References to Fursey and his followers also occur in other historical sources, such as the Annales Laubienses and the Annals of Ulster, and there are also hymns and a lorica or breastplate (a protective prayer) associated with him.
It is hoped that this translation will make the contribution and inspiration of Fursey's life available to a wider audience, in grateful acknowledgement of his role in helping to rekindle the light of the Christian faith in England during the seventh century ... and today.
MICHELLE P. BROWN