The story goes, in a 7th century “life of St. Brigit” by Cogitosus,
that a high born man with a deceitful character lusted after a
certain woman and cunningly devised a way to have his way with her.
He gave her a precious silver brooch for safe keeping and then
unbeknownst to her, took it back and threw it in the sea. Since the
woman could not give it back to her, he hoped to force her to be his
slave-girl so that he might use her as he wished. The brooch however
was miraculously recovered from the belly of a fish and St. Brigid
dramatically interrupted the hearing at which the maiden’s fate was
decided by holding the brooch up for all to see.
I came across this passage this morning, very appropriately since
today is Brigit’s feast day. The story is included in an article by
Naimh Whitfield titled “More Thoughts on the Wearing of Brooches” Dr.
Whitfield uses this story to illustrate the high status value of
brooches in early medieval Ireland. The worth of a brooch was great
enough that the liability for loosing one could not only cost the
maiden her freedom, but also her virtue. I orignially became
interested in Whitfield’s writings for the technical information
about medieval goldsmithing techniques, but have found that she also
has some very insightful things to say about the cultural role of
brooches, that does quite a lot to put these objects into a
meaningful perspective. The article is in a book titled “Irish Art
Historical Studies in honor of Peter Harbison” Colum Hourihane
editor, Four Courts Press, 2004, ISBN 1-85182-847-8.