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The Life of Fursa

Author: [unknown]

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Whitley Stokes

Electronic edition compiled by Beatrix Färber

Proofread by Beatrix Färber, Janet Crawford

Funded by University College, Cork, School of History

1. First draft.

Proof corrections by Beatrix Färber

Extent of text: 4835 words


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    Manuscript sources for the Irish text
  1. Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 2324–40, AD 1629; scribe: Michael O'Clery (Charles Plummer, Miscellanea hagiographica Hibernica (Brussels 1925) 190 section 39). A copy of RIA MS 968.
  2. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 968 (olim A. iv. 1 olim Stowe 9; see Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy, fasc. 22, 2780–83), c. 1627; scribe: Domnall Ó Duinnín (Charles Plummer, Bethada naem nÉrenn (2 vols, Oxford 1922), i p. xii).
  1. Laurentius Surius [=Laurence Suhr, or Lorenz Sauer] (ed), De probatis sanctorum historiis, 6 vols. and index (Cologne, 1570–75).
  2. Tomás Dávila, Historia, y vida del admirable, y extatico San Furseo, principe heredero de Irlanda, apostol de muchos reynos, y naciones. Maestro sapientissimo de reyes, y ministros, y monge antiquissimo del órden de N.P.S. Agustin. (Madrid: Lucas Antonio de Bedmar y Narvaez, 1699).
  3. Jacques Desmay, La vie de S. Fursy, patron de Peronne: recueillie de plusieurs anciens auteurs (Peronne 1715).
  4. Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture. Third edition, revised (London: John Murray 1891).
  5. Alessandro d'Ancona, I precursori di Dante (Florence 1874).
  6. George Herbert Moberly, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Oxford 1881).
  7. Charles de Smedt & Joseph de Backer, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae ex codice Salmanticensi (Edinburgh 1888).
  8. Whitley Stokes (ed), Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1890).
  9. Charles Plummer, Baedae Opera Historica (Oxford 1896).
  10. Margaret Stokes, Three months in the forests of France: a pilgrimage in search of vestiges of the Irish saints in France (London: G. Bell 1895).
  11. Sarah Gaynor Atkinson, St. Fursey's life and visions, and other essays (Dublin: M. H. Gill 1907).
  12. Charles Plummer (ed), Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae, 2 vols. (Oxford 1910; repr. Oxford 1968).
  13. Louis Harald Dahl, The Roman camp and the Irish saint at Burgh Castle: with local history (London: Jarrold & Sons, 1913).
  14. Norbert Friart, Histoire de Saint Fursy et de ses deux frères saint Feuillien, évêque et martyr, et saint Ultain. (Lille/Paris/Bruges/Bruxelles: Desclée, De Brouwer & Cie. 1913).
  15. James F. Kenny, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: ecclesiastical. An introduction and guide (Shannon I.U.P.: 1968. Repr. of 1929 ed., corrections and additions, and preface, by Ludwig Bieler).
  16. St. John D. Seymour, Irish Visions of the Other-World: A Contribution to the Study of Medieval Visions (London 1930).
  17. Mervyn Wall, The unfortunate Fursey (London: Pilot Press 1946). [Fiction] [Translated into German as 'Der unheilige Fursey oder das Irland der Frommen'] (Goldmann 1983).
  18. Mervyn Wall, The return of Fursey. (London: Pilot Press 1948). [Fiction]
  19. John Hennig, 'The Irish background of St. Fursey', Irish Ecclesiastical Review, 5th ser., 77 (1952) 18–28; repr. in Gisela Holfter & Hermann Rasche (eds.), Exil in Irland: John Hennigs Schriften zu deutsch-irischen Beziehungen (Trier 2002) 265–272.
  20. W. W. Heist (ed), Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae ex codice olim Salmanticensi nunc Bruxellensi, Subsidia Hagiographica 28 (Brussels 1965).
  21. Peter Dinzelbacher, 'Die Visionen des Mittelalters: ein geschichtlicher Umriss', Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 30 (1978) 116–128.
  22. M. P. Ciccarese (ed), 'Le visioni di S. Fursa', Romanobarbarica 8 (1984/85), 231–303.
  23. Pádraig Ó Riain, Corpus Genealogiarum Sanctorum Hiberniae. (Dublin 1985).
  24. Pádraig Ó Riain, 'Les Vies de Saint Fursy: les sources Irlandaises', Revue du Nord 68 (1986) 405–413.
  25. Peter Dinzelbacher, 'La littérature des révélations au moyen âge: un document historique', Rev Hist 275 (1986) 289–305.
  26. M. P. Ciccarese (ed), Visioni dell'Aldilà in Occidente: fonti, modelli, testi, Biblioteca Patristica (Florence, 1987) [ed. and trans. of Visio S. Fursei, 184–229].
  27. Eileen Gardiner, Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante, New York 1989, 149–195.
  28. Claude Carozzi, Le voyage de l'âme dans l'Au-delà d'après la littérature latine (Ve–XIIIe siècle), Bibliothèque française de l'École française de Rome, 189 (Rome 1994) [pp. 677–692: ed. and trans. of Visio s. Fursei, s. vii (2) (AD 656/7), from (a) London, BL, Harley 504, ff. 79–98v; s. viii; origin Péronne, Nivelles or Fosses; (b) Zürich, B cantonale, 8, pp. 352–78; s. ix (in part); origin Rheinau; (c) Rome, B Casanatense, 641 olim B IV 18, ff. 97–194; s. ix; Beneventan script; origin Monte Cassino].
  29. Pádraig Ó Riain, 'Sanctity and politics in Connacht c.1100: the case of St Fursa', CMCS 17 (1989) 1–14.
  30. Marguerite Quintelli-Neary, Folklore and the fantastic in twelve modern Irish novels [Reception] (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1997).
  31. Trefor Jones, The English Saints: East Anglia (Norwich: Canterbury, 1999).
  32. Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge 2000).
  33. Marilyn Dunn, Gregory the Great, the Vision of Fursey, and the origins of purgatory', Peritia 14 (2000) 238–254.
  34. Michelle P. Brown, The life of St. Fursey: what we know; why it matters (Norwich 2001).
  35. Marilyn Dunn, The vision of St. Fursey and the development of purgatory (Norwich 2007).
  36. Oliver Rackham, Transitus Beati Fursei: a translation of the 8th century manuscript, Life of Saint Fursey (Norwich 2007).
  37. Pádraig Ó Riain, A dictionary of Irish Saints (Dublin 2011).
    Digital images of Stokes's edition and translation
  1. Available at
    The edition used in the digital edition
  1. Whitley Stokes, The Life of Fursa in Revue Celtique. volume 25 (1904) page 385–404


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Profile Description

Created: Translation by Whitley Stokes (c.1904)

Use of language

Language: [EN] The text is in English.
Language: [LA] A few words are in Latin.
Language: [GA] Some words, phrases and quotes are in Irish.
Language: [FR] One word is in French.

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Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition: T201008

The Life of Fursa: Author: [unknown]


The Life of Fursa

The following Life, now for the first time published, forms part of the rich collection of biographies of Irish saints, preserved in the Royal Library, Brussels. The ms. is in the hand writing of Michael O'Clery, one of the Four Masters, who died about 1644, and the Life is said in the colophon to have been copied out of the Book of the Muinter Duinnín in the year 1629. The date of that book, and whether it still exists, I have been unable to ascertain.

The Life is a tolerably close version of chap. XIX of the third book of Baeda's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.1 It seems worth publishing, first, as a further contribution to the eschatology of the Irish2, secondly, as being, in a Celtic shape, the earliest of the series of mediaeval visions3 which culminated in the Divina Commedia; and, lastly, as containing several words absent from Prof. Windisch's Wörterbuch.

Our saint's name appears in two forms, Fursa and Fursu.4 Fursa is a Middle-Irish corruption of Fursae, gen. Fursai, which occurs (as is proved by the rhyme) in the Martyrology of Oengus, Jan. 16. The latinised Furseus is from Fursae. The form Fursu is found in the Book of Leinster 349f, 372d, the Annals of Ulster, A.D. 647, and the Yellow Book of Lecan,


410d17, where a short collection of maxims (illegible in the facsimile) is headed ‘Apgiter crabaidh inso sis Fursu (Craibdigh)’5 ‘This below is the Alphabet of Piety of Fursu the Pious.’ Fursae and Fursu may come from a root *vort and be cognate with Lat. ‘versutus, vortere’, etc.

‘The Irish authorities’, says Mr Plummer (op. cit., II, 176) ‘differ widely as to Fursa's pedigree’; and indeed it is impossible to reconcile the genealogical statements in the Book of Leinster, p. 349f 38, with those in the same ms. p. 372d, and in the Martyrology of Donegal, p. 18, unless by the supposition that there were two or more saints of that name.6 Thus according to the Book of Leinster, p. 349f:

    {column 1}
  1. Fursu
  2. Mac Fintain
  3. Maic Findloga
  4. M Degrota
  5. M Luachain
  6. M Laga Lethain
  7. M Conaill Anglonnaig
  8. M Feic
  9. M Rosa
  10. M Fachtna
  11. M Senchada
  12. M Ailella
  13. M Cestaig
  14. M Rudraige
  15. Gelges ingen Aeda Find máthair Fursu.
  16. {column 2}
  17. Vel ita:
  18. Fursu
  19. Mac Fintain
  20. Maic Findloga
  21. M Conaill
  22. M Luachain
  23. M Lugdach Laga7
  24. M Eogain Moir qui et Mog Nuadat


And according to the Book of Leinster, p. 372d 60: ‘Brónach ingen Milchon maic Buain ca mbáe Pátric i ndáire, máthair Mochae Noendromma oc Loch Cuan, & Colmain Chomraire oc Uisniuch ocus Colmáin Mulind oc Daire Chaechain i nDal Riatai & epscuip Maic Erca o Domnuch Mór Maige Coba & Damnatan Slébe Betha & Fursu Craibdig in Perona.’

‘Brónach, daughter of Miliuc son of Búan, with whom Patrick was in bondage, (was the) mother of Mochoe of Noendruim at Loch Cuan, and of Colmán of the Casket at Uisnech, and of Colmán of the Mill at Daire Caecháin in Dalriada, and of bishop Mac Erca of Domnach Mór Maige Coba, and of Damnatán of Slíab Betha, and of Fursu the Pious in Péronne.’

According to the Martyrology of Donegal, (Jan. 16), Fursa's father was Lochín, of Dalaradia and his mother was Gelgéis (‘Bright Swan’), who was, according to one authority, daughter of Guaire Aidne, (ob. A. D. 662), and, according to another, daughter of Aed Finn.

The very modern appearance of the text is probably due to the transcriber, who seems to have substituted cc for g, cch for gh, tt for d, ff for bf, (i. e. eclipsed f), ao for oe, aoi for ói, in accordance with the spelling usual in the 17th century. The presence of the infixed pronouns, t and n points to the Middle-Irish period as the date of the translation. But the absence of deponents, and the occurrence of the preterite passive in -it (ro calmaigit) and the 2d pl. in -bair (fedabair), prove that it cannot be older than (say) the thirteenth or fourteenth century.


When Sigebert8 was on the throne of (East) Anglia then Fursa the Pious9 crossed the sea10 to seek a place and stead wherein he might dwell; for he was shining in word and deed, and wise in miracles and marvels, wherefore it was meet for him to go for pilgrimage and to get a pilgrim's stead. When that man came to the province of the East Saxons he was honorably received by the king, and a stead was bestowed upon him, and there he wrought to manifest the word of God; and a multitude of men were brought by him to belief, and others were confirmed in their belief, and faith and love of God were greatened by him.

Then tribulation and bodily weakness attacked him, and through his well-deservingness he was deemed worthy to behold the angels of heaven before him; and he saw a vision there; and this is the vision (wherein) he was admonished to be an incitement in teaching the word of God, inasmuch as he was certain to find death, and it was not known when he would find it, as Christ said: ‘Watch, for ye know not the day or the hour in which a hand will be laid upon you.’ And because of that vision he made haste and speed to build his monastery and to set it in order with regular disciplines. It was indeed a beautiful monastery there, built on the edge of the woods and the sea in a certain camp, and this was its name in English, Cnobheresburg11 i. e. a town named Cnobheri; and afterwards


Anna12, the king of that province, and thc other noble folk who dwelt in that town, added to it afterwards.

Now Fursa was of the kindred of the Gaels13, but though he was noble in blood he was nobler in spirit; inasmuch as from the time of his infancy he cared for sacred books and for holy disciplines, and, what is most becoming to holy men, doing beautiful deeds, those are what he used to do.

Howbeit, when he had built the church we have mentioned, a serious illness attacked him therein from one Saturday to another, as the Book of his own Life relates; and from evening to cockcrow he was taken out of his body, and he heard the chanting of the angels of heaven, and he beheld them before him. And this is what they were chanting: Ibunt sancti de uirtute in uirtutem’’

[Ps. 83, 8]

i. e. ‘the saints shall advance from virtue to virtue’, And this also they were saying: Videbitur Deus deorum in Sion’’

[Ps. 83, 8]

‘the God of gods will be seen on Mount Zion.’

Thereafter he was restored to his body till the end of three days, and on the third day he was taken up again, and then he beheld many more angels fighting against a great host of devils; and this is what they were endeavouring, to seize the road to heaven and to close it against Fursa, and to utter evil and abuse against him. However, they were unable to do that, for there were angels of heaven defending him on the road.

Now, says Beda, let him who wishes the vision which Fursa saw to be fully related read the Book of Fursa's Life.14

However, says Beda, there is one thing which we desire


to declare, namely, when he was taken up towards heaven the angels said to him: ‘Look down at the world’15, say they. There he turned and looked from above, and beheld beneath him a valley deep and dark in the lower part of the earth. He beheld four vast fires red-flaming in the air over that valley, and not far was the distance between those fires. Then he asked of the angels what things were the fires that he beheld, and the angels spake: ‘Yon’, they say, ‘are the fires that are consuming the world. The first fire, now, is the fire of Falsehood, for when each one is baptised he promises this, to renounce and refuse the Devil and his works. Those who afterwards do not fulfil that (promise) and transgress it, they are burnt in yonder fire. But the second fire is the fire of Covetousness, that is greed, when those that mark out or covet the things of the world for their greed rather than the heavenly things, 'tis they that are burnt therein. Now the third fire, that is the fire of Disunion, when ye do not deem it lamentable or sad that your brethren and your neighbours should be engaged in very vain things and in idle matters, 'tis then ye are burnt in yonder fire. The fourth fire, then, this is the fire of Impiety. They that are burnt therein are those who do not deem it loathsome to spoil and to plunder the weak and the wretched: 'tis they that are burnt in that fire.’

Then the fires grew and greatened, and they met so that (one) vast fire would be made of them. Now when Fursa drew nigh to the fires, fear seized him and he said to the angel: ‘Lord’, says he, ‘behold the fire coming towards us!’ Then the angel answered: and this he said: ‘Since it was not thou that has kindled them, thou wilt not be burnt in them; for though great and fearful is yon fire, it will not burn anyone save according to his merits; for every one's concupiscence’, saith he, ‘is that which burns him in yonder fire. For every one who is burnt in his body by unlawful desire, and hurts himself, after the separation of his body from his soul is burnt there by the punishment which he deserves.’


Then Fursa beheld one of the three angels who had accompanied him in his vision when he was before the fire, and the two other angels (flying) all around about the fire. And he beheld the devils flying through the fire, and warring against the righteous, and dragging them into the fire perforce. Then the devils were reviling Fursa; the angels, however, were protecting him. Then he beheld an army of angels there and a multitude of the holy men of his own Gaelic nation16, who were known to himself as priests of the folk of Ireland. So he heard a few words salutary as regarded him. And when they had finished saying those few words, they went together with the angels to heaven; but the three first angels remained with him to bring him (back) to his body.

Now when they drew nigh the aforesaid fire, the angel divided the flame17. But when Fursa reached the passage which the angel had made through the flame18 the devils seized one of the men whom they were burning in the fire, and flung him at Fursa, so that his shoulder and his shoulder-blade and his cheek burnt.19 And Fursa knew the man who had been flung at him, and remembered that the man had formerly given him part of his raiment. However, the holy angel then laid hold of the man and cast him again into the fire. Then said the Devil: ‘Do not cast him away into bondage, for as you accepted the goods of yon sinful man, so you must share his punishments.’ The angel answered and said: ‘Not through worldly greed did Fursa receive yon man's property, but in order to save his soul.’ And thus the fire abated. And the angel went beside Fursa and said: ‘The fire which thou hast kindled is what has burnt thee, for hadst thou not received something by favour of yon sinful man the reproach of his sin would not


have fallen npon thee.’ And after that the angel was instructing him as to what was proper for him to do in the case of men who repent at their death.

Thereafter then Fursa was restored to his body, and afterwards in his body was the mark of the burning which had been inflicted on his soul, so that it was manifest to the world's men who beheld how it was on his shoulderblade and his shoulder and his cheek. And everyone deemed it a wondrous tale that the mark of what was inflicted on the soul should be in presence of all on the body.20

His life afterwards (was spent) in teaching the men of the earth and celebrating the words of God, as he used to do before. And whatever he celebrated he himself would put into practice.

The series of his visions, he would relate only to those who asked (for them) from compunction of heart. ‘And still’, says Beda, ‘there remains a certain ancient of our monastic community, and he asserts that he conversed with a certain pious truth-telling man who declared that he himself saw Fursa, and conversed with him in Essex, and heard that vision from the cleric's mouth, and that it was related in winter-time. And though there was then a hard frost together with snow, and Fursa wore nothing but a thin, little garment, a copious sweat came from him, as if he were telling his tale at midsummer, through remembering the excessive fear that was on him in his vision.’

Howbeit, when Fursa the Pious suffered from the tumult of the great crowds that used to come to him in his own country, to wit, in Ireland21, he left that country and came to England, as we have said, together with a few brethren, after leaving all his friends and every thing else that he had. And there he built a beautiful monastery, and therein he celebrated the word of God.

So when he had finished these things, it occurred to


him to leave his monastery and the care thereof to (his brother) Fullan22 and to the other archpriests, namely Gobbán and Dicuill, and he was fain to go, free from all mundane matters, to a stead that was safer. So Fursa and Ultán23 quitted the monastery and went into a hermitage; and there they remained a year, labouring with their hands and in compunction of heart and prayer.24

Thereafter then, when Fursa beheld heathens and unbelievers destroying the monasteries and the whole province, he left evervthing in order in the monastery, and went over sea eastward to Frankland, and was honourably received by the king of the Franks, namely Clovis25, [or by] Ercinbald26, in the place named Latiniacum27, and a monastery was built by him; and not long after that he contracted his death-illness and reached the end of his life.28

The king Clovis, [or] Ercinbald, took the body, and guarded it in the porch of the church (which he was building at Perona) until the consecration of the church (itself) had ended. Now (when the church was ready and) when, the body was brought out of the porch to be buried near the altar, thus was it found, as if Fursa had died that hour, to wit, at the end of seven and twenty days after his death. And he was buried with veneration and honour in the church, that is, in the town called Perona29, and he was honourably exalted there, to wit, where many miracles and marvels are wrought for Fursa every day.


However, at the end of four years afterwards, a tabernacle was built for him apart, and into it his body was brought; and it was still found without doubt as it had been when he died.

There is here nought save a few of the tidings of Fursa. Let him who desires more of them see the Life of Fursa and he will find them.