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Ch. 11: St. Malo

Intermingled, fantastically and inconsistently, with the story of St. Brendan, is that of St. Maclovius or Machutus, who has given his name to the seaport of St. Malo, in Brittany. His life, written by Sigebert, a monk of Gembloux, about the year 1100, tells us how he was a Breton, who sailed with St. Brendan in search of the fairest of all islands, in which the citizens of heaven were said to dwell. With St. Brendan St. Malo celebrated Easter on the whale's back, and with St. Brendan he returned. But another old hagiographer, Johannes a Bosco, tells a different story, making St. Malo an Irishman brought up by St. Brendan, and preserved by his prayers from a wave of the sea. He gives, moreover, to the Isle of Paradise the name of Inga, and says that St. Brendan and his companions never reached it after all, but came home after sailing round the Orkneys and other Northern isles. The fact is, that the same saints reappear so often on both sides of the British and the Irish Channels, that we must take the existence of many of them as mere legend, which has been carried from land to land by monks in their migrations, and taken root upon each fresh soil which it has reached. One incident in St. Malo's voyage is so fantastic, and so grand likewise, that it must not be omitted. The monks come to an island whereon they find the barrow of some giant of old time. St. Malo, seized with pity for the lost soul of the heathen, opens the mound and raises the dead to life. Then follows a strange conversation between the giant and the saint. He was slain, he says, by his kinsmen, and ever since has been tormented in the other world. In that nether pit they know (he says) of the Holy Trinity: but that knowledge is rather harm than gain to them, because they did not choose to know it when alive on earth. Therefore he begs to be baptized, and so delivered from his pain. He is therefore instructed, catechised, and in due time baptized, and admitted to the Holy Communion. For fifteen days more he remains alive: and then, dying once more, is again placed in his sepulchre, and left in peace.

From fragmentary recollections of such tales as these (it may be observed in passing) may have sprung the strange fancy of the modern Cornishmen, which identifies these very Celtic saints of their own race with the giants who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, inhabited the land before Brutus and his Trojans founded the Arthuric dynasty. St. Just, for instance, who is one of the guardian saints of the Land's End, and St. Kevern, one of the guardian saints of the Lizard, are both giants; and Cornishmen a few years since would tell how St. Just came from his hermitage by Cape Cornwall to visit St. Kevern in his cave on the east side of Goonhilly Downs; and how they took the Holy Communion together; and how St. Just, tempted by the beauty of St. Kevern's paten and chalice, arose in the night and fled away with the holy vessels, wading first the Looe Pool, and then Mount's Bay itself; and how St. Kevern pursued him, and hurled after him three great boulders of porphyry, two of which lie on the slates and granites to this day; till St. Just, terrified at the might of his saintly brother, tossed the stolen vessels ashore opposite St. Michael's Mount, and, fleeing back to his own hermitage, never appeared again in the neighbourhood of St. Kevern.

But to return. St. Malo, coming home with St. Brendan, craves for peace, and solitude, and the hermit's cell, and goes down to the sea-shore, to find a vessel which may carry him out once more into the infinite unknown. Then there comes by a boat with no one in it but a little boy, who takes him on board, and carries him to the isle of the hermit Aaron, near the town of Aletha, which men call St. Malo now; and then the little boy vanishes away, and St. Malo knows that he was Christ himself. There he lives with Aaron, till the Bretons of the neighbourhood make him their bishop. He converts the idolaters around, and performs the usual miracles of hermit saints. He changes water into wine, and restores to life not only a dead man, but a dead sow likewise, over whose motherless litter a wretched slave, who has by accident killed the sow with a stone, is weeping and wringing his hands in dread of his master's fury. While St. Malo is pruning vines, he lays his cape upon the ground, and a redbreast comes and lays an egg on it. He leaves it there, for the bird's sake, till the young are hatched, knowing, says his biographer, that without God the Father not a sparrow falls to the ground. Hailoch, the prince of Brittany, destroys his church, and is struck blind. Restored to sight by the saint, he bestows large lands on the Church. "The impious generation," who, with their children after them, have lost their property by Hailoch's gift, rise against St. Malo. They steal his horses, and in mockery leave him only a mare. They beat his baker, tie his feet under the horse's body, and leave him on the sand to be drowned by the rising tide. The sea by a miracle stops a mile off, and the baker is saved.

St. Malo, weary of the wicked Bretons, flees to Saintonge in Aquitaine, where he performs yet more miracles. Meanwhile, a dire famine falls on the Bretons, and a thousand horrible diseases. Penitent, they send for St. Malo, who delivers them and their flocks. But, at the command of an angel, he returns to Saintonge and dies there, and Saintonge has his relics, and the innumerable miracles which they work, even to the days of Sigebert, of Gembloux.

Charles Kingsley