The Celtic Church Abroad

The Celtic Church Abroad

In the fifth century, while Britain, Scotland and the Continent were laid low by the Teutonic invasion, Ireland not only remained immune but contrived to profit by the disaster. In close touch with Gaul, Spain and Italy through St. Patrick’s Church, it was to Ireland that scholars from these countries fled, as to a Christian stronghold beyond the reach of barbarism. The books and fresh ideas they brought (and continued to bring throughout the next three centuries) verge of starvation in a land reverted to a wilderness of forest, haunted by dangerous wild animals. Undaunted, St. Columban planted his cross at Annegray on the site of a ruined Roman town. Just how physically strone were these athletes of God can be seen when we know that with their primitive tools they rapidly felled the surrounding trees and prepared the ground for the seed they sowed. Before the winter they had housed themselves in the little bee-hive huts typical of monastic Celtic settlements, and in the church and library their precious books and vessels were also safely under cover.

All through the winter the neighbouring people, who had watched with amazement the activities of the strangely garbed men, kept them alive with their meagre offerings. They never doubted their holiness, seeing that they not only built and farmed but sang as men had never sung in the Vosges before and, at the striking of their abbot’s bell, went repeatedly into their little church to pray. Soon the sick and sorrowing began to arrive from afar to plead for help. So many were there that, at first, St. Culumban was somewhat overwhelmed. It seems indeed to have been almost against his better judgement that he began to heal them.

The tall St. Gall, whom he had taught at Bangor, was the linguist of the party and at once set about compiling, in his pleasing Celtic script, a useful dictionary of Teutonic words and phrases with their Latin equivalents. In doing so he greatly helped the priests among the brothers to redeem “through the saving grace of Penitence” those shamed by the self-control and chasity of the brothers into seeing themselves as unworthy sons of God. That they should voluntarily have recited the psalms and undergone the whippings demanded by Celtic monks in an age when gross sensuality and unbridled violence were the besetting sins, seems at first surprising. But to all who knew how joyfully the monks consecrated every act with prayer it was plain that “the God of mercy dwelt among them”, and so eager were they to have some share in the peace within the monastery rampart that St. Columban had to found, in quick succession, Luxeuil and Fontaines. The three monasteries, of which Luxeuil became the chief, were close enough to allow of their being in constant and close touch with their founder.

“Seeing that these young ones have enough to eat is a great hinderance to one’s reading,” remarks a ninth-century Continental abbot, St. Columban, with three pioneer schools to cater for, found that it was all he could do to achieve even those periods of solitary prayer he craved for. He did not use his forest cave as a respite from his responsibilities, but in order to learn from God how best to frame the rule of communities working in conditions unknown in Ireland. St. Comgall had likened Christians without Soul-Friends to bodies without heads. Confession and Penance, therefore, formed the basis of the new rule which grew to be so revered in Northern France, despite its austerity, that many monasteries later made a brave attempt to combine it with the mild and sensible rule of St. Benedict.

For the deep happiness of the abbot, his monks and his little boys was infectious. On his travels Jonas often met bishops and abbots who remembered St. Columban as their spiritual father. He was a gentle with the little ones (only the very smallest were allowed to speak anything but Latin) as he was with the forest birds and beasts. “These came immediately at his command and he stroked them with his hand.” Like the little boys they were often to be seen at play about the saint, “just as cats frisk about their mistresses”. When he called them, even squirrels leapt eagerly from the branches to perch on his shoulder. And we know that Celtic saints delighted in flowers as much as they did in beasts and birds; for a garden formed part of every Irish monastery at home and abroad. It is said that at the sight and scent of a bowl of roses in the classroom, St. Columban creid out that not he but the gardener who had grown them was the true lord of Luxeuil.

St. Columban might have remained all his life in the Vosges but that the Frankish bishops professed themselves scandalized that he did not keep the Roman Easter. It is scarcely surprising  that they appealed against him in vain to the Pope’s legate, as they themselves still followed Rome’s abandoned computation of 457, and so conformed no more thanhe did. Probably the chief objection of the Frankish bishops to Celtic monasteries in their midst (and one cannot blame them) was the fact that St. Columban indignantly refuted their claims, as bishops, to interfere in the government of his communities. To an abbot of the Celtic Church these claims were so absurd that St. Columban ignores them in his famous letters to the Pope in defence of the Celtic Easter, and later, when Rome herself was suspected of heresy, in defence of the Catholic faith itself.

They are written in the admirable Latin prose taught at Bangor, and prove that at endof the sixth century, when St. Augustine landed in Kent, scholars of the Celtic Church were so well versed in the faith as it had been presented before the Dark Ages, that Roman innovationsand developments seemed heretical. “As for us Irishmen, dwellers in the uttermost parts of the earth, we are all disciples of Peter and Paul and all the disciples . . . .; but the Catholic faith which we originally received from you, the successors of the apostles, wehave held unimpaired.” Though St. Columban addresses the Pope as the “Most Beautiful Head of all the Churches in Europe”, the attitude of the Celtic Church to Rome is summed up in the following passage: “It was through the twin apostles of Christ that Rome became truly great in Irish eyes. But if that honour is to be preserved, the Chair of Peter must be left unstained. For he only keeps the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven who opens to the worthy and closes to the unworthy.”

Neither Pope Gregory nor his successor answered letters which, if read, must have shown them how delicate a problem confronted the Roman missionaries faced with an autonomous British Church. Indeed Bede tells us that “the Abbot Columban in France” had dismayed those Roman missionaries by informing them that the attitude of the British church towards Roman innovations had the full support of the Church of Ireland.

Considering that the successive Merovingian rulers of Burgundy (unlike so many of their converted nobles) disliked St. Columban as much as did the bishops, it is remarkable that twenty years passed before they succeeded in banishing him and his Irish and Breton disciples from the Vosges. The spirit of Celtic monasticism they could not banish, for Frankish disciples remained behind to uphold in the monasteries traditions too beloved of the people to be tampered with. Moreover, the persecution helped to spread St. Columban’s monasticism.

He and his party were taken under armed escort to Nantes to await an Irish boat, but they found a new patron in Chlotair, the Merovingian ruler of north-western France. Though St. Columban, aged seventy, wrote to the brothers at Luxeuil: “I am broken, I confess, by this cause, that while I tried to help all, they made war on me without reason,” he had no other wish but to lead his soldiers of Christ to fresh fields of conquest. Chlotair’s offers of land did not tempt him, though he correctly prophesied him to be the future ruler of all the Frankish dominions. He asked him only for an  escort to enable his party to recross France.

The site they eventually chose for a new settlement was in western Austria, to the east of Lake Constance. There they remained for three fruitful years, St. Gall causing much havoc among thedemons worshipped by their neighbours. But when St. Columban heard that, even in this remote spot, his work was once again threatened by the king who hated him, he did not wait to be expelled but accepted the invitation of the Teutonic king of the Lombards to cross the Alps and make his home in Northern Italy.

His biographer, Jonas, wasolny one of countless boys who continued to profit, not only by the precious books hauled over the mountains to Bobbio, but by the store of love, energy and wisdom that clung to the place long after its founder had died. One of the Frankish counts who met St. Columban was so haunted by the splendour of his life that he would recite his psalms Irish fashion, waist deep in an ice-cold stream. As other men longed to go to Rome, he longed with an unquenchable longing to see the land where the saint was born. Again and again personal contact with the saint affected men so. Hundreds of years later, when St. Francis of Assisi visited Bobbio, the indomitable spirit of St. Columban still glowed in the hearts of the monks. Though he was unmoved by the emphasis they placed on learning, St. Francis was greatly affected by their stories and by their way of living.

St. Gall did not, indeed could not, accompany St. Columban across the Alps to Bibbio. At the time he was far too ill. But St. Columban, suspecting a desire for independence, punished St. Gall by forbidding him to celebrate Mass till he heard of his death. The punishment was the measure of his anguish al losing an old friend from Leinster. Far from being ambitious, St. Gall combined a scholarly mind with an aptitude for indoor pursuits. During twenty-four years he had always contrived, with his nets, to keep the party well supplied with fish, and, like his master, he loved and tamed animals. He only wished to continue to make full use of the new language he had mastered, by teaching and preaching in the villages.

He moved south-west till he reached the site of the present townof St. Gall in eastern Switzerland, at that time the property of the Count of Arbon. This spot, he felt, should be his last resting-place. And through the generosity of the count, St. Gall and his twelve disciples were given enough land to support them and workmen to help them erect the buildings of their settlement. The community followed the Rule of St. Columban and St. Gall continued to garden, to farm, to fish the river Steinach, and to teach and to preach as was his wont. Like so many of the Celtic saints he had the “second sight” and so knew hte exact moment of St. Columban’s death. It is characteristic of St. Gall that he should at once offer Mass for the rest of his master’s soul. He wept whenhe received a letter relating how the dying St. Columban had ordered that his staff be given him as a token of absolution. He hung it in the place of honour over the altar of his little church.

Walahfrid, a monk at the monastery of St. Gall in the early tenth century, relates these few facts about the founder “whom the Lord chose from the neds of this earth to bring us salvation”, together with an account of other miracles of healing that undoubtedly continued to take place at the saint’s tomb throughout htat age of childlike faith.

St. Gall died in 640, his humble settlement typical of over one hundred founded all over the Continent by the friends and disciples of St. Columban. Most historians reckon European civilization to have retreated to its lower ebb during the seventh and the first half of the eighth centuries. But this period coincided with the peak of art and learning in Christian Ireland. After St. Columban’s death the flow of seventh-century missionaries from Irish monasteries continued to spread Celtic Christianity as successfully among small groups of Teutons on the Continent, as did the missionaries from Iona among the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria. The schools of the settlement founded by these abbots, bishop-abbots and bishops without sees, trained Teutonic students to rule strongholds of learning that grew steadily in size and importance throughout the Dark Ages.

Very few were placed west of the Seine; but in north-eastern France Celtic monasteries abounded, some of them double, and many following the rule of St. Columban. For the most part, the Irish missionaries who founded them seem to have travelled through England to cross the Channel from Kent. For the first, bands of pilgrims travelled among them (though sometimes they attached themselves to traders) braving cold, fatigue and the dangers of being robbed or killed that they might pray by the tombs of Peter and Paul at Rome or, nearer home, by those of St. Martin or St. Fursey. St. Fursey’s body had been moved to Peronne on the Somme, and the fact that the monastery was in charge of a most hospitable Irish abbot out Perrone high on the list of towns to be visited. There were flourishing Irish colonies in Cambrai and Cologne also. But so poor and so numerous were the pilgrims that they would have been a burden to the country had not the Irish themselves, from the seventh century onwards, gradually lined the roads to Rome with hospices to provide for them.

During the eighth century the Carolingians seized the Frankish dominions from the decadent Merovingians and, from then on, Frankish influence, and with it Celtic Christianity, swept eastwards through Germany to Czecho-Slovakia, Austria, Poland and Hungary. In Germany, though the energy and initiative of Irish missionaries, the Celtic Church rooted itself to such good purpose that the eighth-century English missionary Boniface was not so much the Apostle of Germany as the Hammer of the Celts who had already converted so many of the people.

It it worth noting that, like Wilfrid at the Synod of Whitby, the leader of this second and far longer round in the contest for the spiritual dominions of northern Europe through the cultural union of Celt and Teuton, had also had many contacts with Celtic-trained monks. It was under his English friend Willibrord, trained at Clonmacnoise, that Boniface forst worked as a missionary in Denmark. But in 719 he proceeded to Germany as the Pope’s own missionary, and much of the enthusiasm and devotion, typical of the Celtic Christianity he knew, was thus turned against the rival missionaries who confronted him wherever he went.

Celtic abbots who had conformed to Rome in the matter of Easter and the tonsure, now found other of their practices dubbed heretical. We find the Abbot Firgil protesting direct to the Pope when even the validity of their form of baptism was questioned. No Pope, however, denounced the Celtic Church, though many exhorted her monks to obey Roman-trained bishops. But Boniface grew bitter, working among so many and such tenacious Irish monks. In 742 he called the first of five fruitful councils, to consider how best to curb and correct the rival missionaries. Six years later, as a result of his work in Germany, Boniface was made archbishop with his see at Mainz, though even in this Roman stronghold he was surrounded by pilgrims from Ireland visiting their friends settled in the town’s flourishing Irish monasteries. Though he excommunicated many, occasionally Boniface could approve an Irish bishop, even going so far as to promote one of them to the important archbishopric of Rheims, an act which must have greatly rejoiced the large Irish colony in that town.

On the other hand, he tried in vain for ten years to oust the dangerously brilliant Irish Abbot Firgil, who, was the help of his Irish bishop, ruled supreme at Salzberg, from which missionary base his monks converted many Bavarians and Austrian Slavs. After Boniface died in 754. Firgil continued to teach Celtic Christianity for thirty years, and so influential was his following that this last part of his forty years in Germany was spent as bishop of Salzburg. In Ireland he had been abbot of St. Kenneth’s sixth-century monastery of Achabo. He died at Salzburg, renowned for the Celtic combination of learning and holiness.

Boniface failed to banish his Irish rivals; they had become too numerous and too much loved by Frankish knigs, nobles and bishops. But the fact that Firgil felt it improved his position to become bishop of Salzburg isenough to show how measures of Boniface had succeeded. He forced Irish abbots to conform, by his insistence that their monasteries came under the jurisdiction of bishops.

The eighth century was a momentous one for Europe, and Charles Martel and Boniface both helped to mould it. Only the victory of Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732 prevented the land from being permanently overrun by Mohammedan Moors. As it was, though he broke their power in the west, in the following centrury they still rivalled the Norsemen as a danger to the Continent, even raiding and burning the suburbs of Rome herself in 847. And had it not been for the indefatigable Boniface, the ceaseless flood of Celtic missionaries htat preceded the torrent of ninth-century Celtic scholars would have moulded northern Europe into so Celtic a pattern that she might well have remained as independent a force on the Continent as Brittany has done in France. Instead, by the ninth century, the Frankish emperors had become loyal servants of the Pope, and Christianity in their dominions had become sufficiently Romanized to absorb the enormous influx of Irish Christians driven across the sea by the horror of the norse invasion, as the Welsh had been by the Yellow Plague. They were welcome Christians; but it was above all for their learning that they were in demand. Without the steady flow of Irish teachers for illiterate Frankish kings and clergy there could have been no Carolingian Renaissance: and it is as teachers – not as saints – that the refugees are remembered.

The following story told by an Irish-trained monk of the monastery of St. Gall shows how, by the beginning of the ninth century, these refugees had adapted themselves to be instructors to the first Holy Roman Emperor.

“Charles himself was already lord in the western part of the world . . . when it came to pass that two Scots from Ireland arrived with some British merchants at the coast of Gaul, incomparably well versed in sacred and profane lore. Having no other wares to sell, they cried out daily time after time when buyers streamed near: ‘He who hungers for knowledge should come to us . . . because it can be bought here.’ . . . Charles ordered them to be brought before him . . . and asked them if they really possessed the true wisdom. . . . They answered that they would impart it in the Lord’s name. And when Charles proceeded to ask what they charged for it they replied: ‘We only crave of thee, O King, suitable places of resisdence and gifted men, food, drink and clothing without which this earthly pilgrimage cannot be completed.’ “

Charlemagne gave to them and to many another band of refugees all they asked for, for besides being the greatest general of his age and fighting no less than fifty-two campaigns for the enlargement of his kingdom and the defence of the faith, he had an insatiable hunger for knowledge of all kinds. Like so many of the Irish he loved, he read every Latin and Greek classic he could lay his hands on, had a zest for scientific explanations of eclipse and such-like phenomena, and adored music. At his accession in 771, the best library north of the Alps was at York where Alcuin, an English scholar monk trained at Clonmacnoise, had spared no effort to make it so. When returning from Rome c. 781 with yet more books, Alcuin met the Emperor and was drawn by his irresistible enthusiasm to forsake his beloved monastery and spend the next ten years educating Charlemagne and helping him to turn his unlettered courst at Aachen (or Aix-le-Chapelle) into one of the finest centresof learning in Europe. Many of his friends mong the scribes and teachers were Irish, the poet Joseph the Scot among them. When he retired he was succeeded by another Scot, Clement (one of those who had creid their wares) whom the king made head-master of his new school for children of all classes. No child of promise, he was determined, should suffer, as he did, from being unable to write; and he decreed that it was the duty of every monastery to teach boys to read and write Latin. Later, when he had proved his worth, Clement was entrusted with the education of the king’s grandson Lothair; and his school grew so famous for its grammar that students came to Aachen from monasteries far to the east.

One of Clement’s Irish companions, Dungal, was sent over the Alps to Lombardy, newly conquered by the king. There, at Pavia, not far from Bobbio, he organized so successful a school that in 825 Lothair paid it a visit and decided it was worthy to become the chief centre for liberal studies in Lombardy. Pavia university, founded by an Irishman, still flourishes; and among its later pupils was Colombus, discovered of America.

Till his death in 814, Charlemagne was a generous and appreciative patron, not only to such outstanding teachers as Clement and Dungal, but also to those Irish whose value to the Carolingian Renaissance lay in their unrivalled penmanship. Except in Rome, few books had survived the Teutonic invasion. Fewer still were those who could still read them, till Charlemagne put his Empire to school. At his command, however, Irish scribes worked ceaselessly to provide Irish teachers and Frankish libraries with much-needed copies of the classics. Most of these books were familiar to Irish monasteries; but some of those procured from Rome by Alcuin and his Emperor gave Irish scholars a chance to enlarge their knowledge of Greek and Roman thought. The Carolingian Renaissance was not inventive. Men were concerned solely with rediscovering and conserving the best of the past.

But howver eagerly classical paganism was studied by the Spansh, Greek, Italian, English and Irish scholars gathered together by Charlmagne, they were al thoroughlt Christian in outlook. To the king himself Christ dwelt in the hearts of the poorest and most ignorant of those who made the pilgrimage from Ireland to Rome. The countless pilgrims were often so loud and persistent in their complaints and demands for help that he would have been justified in treating them as a nuisance. But Charlemagne loved them and compelled all Frankish bishops to feed those who came their way. The majority of abbots, bishops and abbesses, however, already welcomed the strangers, some of whom could always be relied on to pay for their board and lodging by swift, accurate work with their quill pens.

Some bishops had their churches specially arranged for the convenience of pilgrims. For example, at Toul, where the bishops often fed Greeks and Celts together, “it was the custom to assemble daily at the different altars in the chapel where they offered the services of supplication and praise to God after the manner of their own countries”. At Fulda in Germany the abbot always had a special heated sitting-room and dormitory set apart for Irish wanderers whom he treated as his children; and their own numerous Frankis foundations, such as Cologne and Honau, were protected by the following degree: “The kings of the Franks have given freedom to all Irish pilgrims, to the end that none shall steal from them and no race except their race shall occupy their churches.” Charlemagne also saw to it that genuine pilgtims were exempt from the tolls paid by traders took advantage of the crowded roads to pose as pilgrims that measures had to  e taken to punish such frauds.

Most of the bilingual scholar monks from Ireland adapted themselves to Charlemagne’s lively court. They enjoyed the good French wine and were foremost amongst the composers of drinking songs. They wrote Latin poetry in which the rhymes are as ingenious and intricate as the non-rhyming metres of Irish poetry. But many of them must have been homesick for the

“Quiet and brothers’ love and humbleness,

Christ’s love on every head”

that they had known in the austere silence of their Irish monasteries. Such men suffered a double exile. To one young monk, who could stand it no more, his friend Colman sympathized in a long Latin poem exquisitely translated by Helen Waddell:

“Since, if but Christ would give me back the past

And that first strength of days,

And this white head of mine were dark again

I too might go thy ways.”

When, in 796, Alcuin retired to St. Martin’s monastery at Tours (he made it one of the most important Continental schools) the Irish – as in so many foundations not their own – were prominent among the teachers. The poet, Joseph the Scot , remained Alcuin’s dear friend and disciple; and his own verse had that Irish flavour to be found in so much English literature of the Dark Ages. Among the many to whom he wrote memorable letters were Charlemagne and (in lighter vein) the abbot of Clonmacnoise. While on a visit to England he missed the good French wine and wrote enviously to Joseph the Scot: “I see you as a young goat amongst the vineyards.” As he grew frailer he pleaded of one friend: “Pray for me: for the time draws night that this hostel must be left behind and I go out to things unknown.” He died in 804, ten years before the Emperor, and at the departure of each great figure the Irish scholars prayed for the soul of a most generour benefactor.

Until the accession of Charles the Bald, the ever increasing swarms of Irish refugee monks had to depend for help on Frankish bishops. They gave it freely, despite the complications arising from the wanderings of so many bishops without sees. Only frauds or heretics were punished or banished. But, unchecked by Charlemagne’s weak sons, Frankish nobles succeeded in ousting the Irish from much of their property. In 845, however, Charles the Bald confirmed a degree passed at the Council of Meaux stating that all Irish monasteries and hospices were to be restored to their rightful owners and reorganized for the use of Irish monks and pilgrims. Considering that a Celt, the Breton Prince Nominoe, had soundly defeated him but two years before, his action is the more generous.

That same year John the Scot reached Charles’ court at Laon, already alive with learned Irish monks. John was by far the mightiest scholar of them all. And, as Helen Waddell points out , he possessed a wit that few could resist. “ ‘ What is there between sottum and Scottum?’ said Charles one night when the wine was in them both. ‘The breadth of the table, Sire,’ said John.” Given security (John was master of the palace school and almost worshipped for the immense range of his knowledge by both the bishops and the Emperor) the Scots were always irrepressible. That the Franks enjoyed so many jokes, complaints and demands at their own expense speaks well for their sense of humour. Even the reckless was in whch the reasoning powers of John the Scot drpve him to flout authorities held sacred, earned him no more than a reprimand from bishops as fascinated as they were shockedand frightened. He Platonic philosophy and the contribution he was able to make to Western knowledge through his extraordinary grasp of Greek have already been described in the first chapter.

From the Sedulius the Scot there poured as effortless a flow of poetry as of philosophy from John. Though he arrived in Liege c. 848, ragged, wet, cold and hungry, he so captivated Bishop Hartgar that he appointed him to teach in the cathedral schools. The stream of verses sent to his palace was so remarkable that many a poet shown them was fired afresh and the brilliant Irish monk was introduced to all the great who passed through the town. Nor did the bishop grudge him the wine he required so often to rouse his genius. If he delayed to send it, Sedulius lost no time in writing.

“His grievances are the grievances of all scholars; a house that is dark, fitter for the habitation of moles than of philosophers, as he gravely points out to Hartgar; no key; abominable draughts, the east wind as much at home inside as out; worse than all, a really horrible beer. No child of Ceres this, though it has the yellow of her hair; neither Jordan nor Mosells begat it, but the Brook Kedron, a beast of prey in a man’s inwards; O gods, remove the creature to the Styx, and as you love me, Bishop, a poultice, a poultice! And the bishop chuckled, says Sedulius, and granted his request.”

We owe it to Helen Waddell that we can enjoy the cream of Sedulius’ gay sober poems. Here also is her translation of his self portrait:

“I read or write, I teach or wonder what is truth,

I call upon my God by night and day.

I eat and freely drink, I make my rhymes,

And snoring sleep, or vigil keep and pray.

And very ware of all my shames I am;

O Mary, Christ, have mercy on your man.”

Small wonder the brethren in the Liege monastery school enjoyed his company as much as his teaching. For two sets of six of them, he wrote a song to be sung “so that all the world hears it”; and, as a hint to the long-suffering bishop, a lament for a gift he never received – a sheep worried by the dogs on its way to his field.

His Christmas and Easter songs are lovely in their tenderness.

“Last night did Christ the Sunrise from the dark,

The mystic harvest of the fields of God,

And now the little wanderings tribes of bees

Are brawling in the scarlet flowers abroad.

The winds are soft with birdsong; all night long

Darkling the nightingale her descant told,

And now inside church doors the happy folk

The Alleluia chant a hundredfold.

O father of thy folk, be thine by right

The Easter joy, the threshold of the light.”

And who but Sedulius would have thought to bring Irish scholars to the feet of the baby Christ at Bethlehem? “Mary,” he tells us, “did not say nay to the wise men from the west, though they brought no gifts but learning.” Surely they were welcome too for the wisdom htat was part of the Far Western Christian heritage. It shines through the famous words ascribed by some to Sedulius himself. “To go to Rome, much labour, little profit; the King whom thou sleekest there, unless thou bring Him with thee, thou findest Him not.”

So much for the Latin poetry of this self-termed “second Orpheus”, who could be relied on to produce suitable and often moving odes for every occasion. He could not but know that his poetry was unsurpassed by his contemporaries. His Latin prose was also admirable. For the young sons of Lothair, he wrote a book on Christian conduct; and for his fellow scholars, commentaries on St. Jerome and the Psalms. Though he had an extensive knowledge of Greek, he could not write verse in it as did St. Paul’s epistle, complete with Latin translation, which is believed to be in Sedulius’ own handwriting.

The Scots of the ninth century were ingreat demand for their learning, though some of their religious customs seemed strange to their Frankish friends. There were even one to two heretics among them. None the less Dungal in Italy and John the Scot in Germany were each chosen to defend Catholicism against an outstandingly dangerous heretic. For the most part, however, the Irish taught: and they so fired their pupils with a love of pagan literature that not only were the earliest copies of twelve of the great Latin classics made by scribes of all Carolingian Renaissance, but at the monastery of St. Gall, one of Moengal’s pupils translated Latin classics into German; while other St. Gall monks, eager to help local students, translated the Paternoster, the Creed and their Rule into Swabian.

By the time the Irishman moengal arrived at St. Gall in 850, the original monastic settlement had greatly grown and changed. The abbots of an abbey rich enough to employ several hundred serfs were no longer Irish but Swabian, and the Rule htey followed was no longer that of St. Columban but of St. Benedict. But the abbey lay not far from one of the main routes to Rome and, being an Irish foundation, Irish pilgrims and scholars were always welcome, as was the torrent of refugees, many from Iona and Kildare, who made their way there in the ninth century. During the seventh and eighth centuries the increasing number of serfs enabled more and more monks to become priests and scribes; and there is evidence that Irish scribes were among those who worked in the cloister school; though only fifteen beautifully illuminated pages remain out of the hundreds they produced for this famous library, in which Irish books were listed separately in a ninth-century catalogue comprising some seven hundred manuscripts in all.

Moengal excelled in teaching allthe seven liberal arts. He seems to have introduced Greek into the curriculum of St. Gall, and being a rare muscician, he fired the monks with an increased interest in instrumental music. We know that the organ was used to accompany hymns in sixth-century Brittany; while today it is only one of several instruments, including hte drum, brought into church to celebrate the feast day of a Breton saint. At St. Gall, before Moengal’s arrival, only the harp featured on special occasions. To it he added the organ, the psalter, the flute and the cymbals, and one would give much to have heard the effect of this weird orchestra above the singing of the brothers. The vestments of the Benedictine priests were gorgeous. For, like Celtic monks, they poured into their churches and all that took place in them, all the colour and splendour lacking in their simple lives. The interior of the abbey-church was adorned by carvings and fresco-paintings, many of their metal work, Franks and Swabians marvelled at the slender lines of Irish chalices. In science too, moengal and his fellow Scots excelled. There were sun-dials at St. Gall, as there had been from the first in Irish monasteries; and astronomy was taught with the aid of some kind of globes.

Life at St. Gall went on smoothly (its security enhanced by the terrible tales of far-off Norse raids told by refugees) till Huns from the east reached it in 925. Even then the brothers were not caught unawares. They fled with their pricless library to the friendly monastery at Reichenau where another contingent of Irish monks resided. And when they returned, only their wine and their livestock had been taken by the raiders. But northern monasteries, beginning with those nearest the coast, had suffered surprise attacks from Norse raiders throughout the second half of the ninth century. By 881 pirates had sacked Liege where, as in almost all Frankish towns, Irish refugees became homeless for the second time. To scholars like Sedulius and John the Scot, the senseless burning of so many books must have been anguish.

Despite the number and severity of Norse raids, they never completely paralysed Christian life. Irish pilgrims from a land of ruined monasteries stil made their way on foot to Jerusalem. And by the tenth century so many were going to Rome that a monastic hostel was founded there for their benefit. The learning of the ninth century was never quite forgotten. In those happier days Martin the Scot had lectured on Greek at Rheims, and his lectures were still copied faithfully by the scholars of many countries, including Spain. The tenth century even produced an Irish saint, Coloman, remembered to this day in the legends of Austria and Germany. He may have been one of the many who sought solitude on the Continent; or he may have been a missionary. Whichever it was, he was murdered in 1012, an event which so shocked the people that the Emperor, Henry II, erected at Melk a tomb in his honour. It was much frequented by Irish pilgrims who, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, took the overland route to Palestine by way of the Danube and Vienna.

Marian the Scot was a typical eleventh-century figure. Banished from Moville at the age of twenty-eight for some small offence, he arrived at the Irish monastery at Cologne in 1056. After two years htere he was ordained priest at Wurzburg (in Irish canonical law no man under thirty might be ordained) and went on to Fulda, in which monastery he had himself enclosed in a cell where another Irish recluse had lived, died and been buried. Every day Marian said Mass for his soul; and, while William the Conqueror busied himself with the conquest of England, he wrote his Chronicle, from which much valuable information about Ireland and the Continent can be gleaned. After ten years he got permission to move south-west to Mainz, where he was again voluntarily enclosed and where he eventually died, much revered by the Germans.

During the first half of the twelfth century, St. Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, walked to Rome, as so many men had done before him, including Wilfrid at the age of seventy. On the way he stayed with the great reformer, St. Barnard, at Clairvaux, and so impressed him that St. Barnard wrote his Life.

To recapitulate: the first influx of Irish monks to the Continent (where they were always called Scots) consisted for the most part, of sixth, seventh, and eighth-century missionaries working from monastic bases; and the second, of ninth-century scholars working at court schools or in their own or Frankish foundations. The third and last influx did not take place till the second half of the eleventh century, but it continued vigorously till starved for lack of Irish enthusiasm and Irish moneyby the widespread decline in religion and morals which started in hte fourteenth century and led eventually to the Reformation.

It came about in this way. On their way to and from Palestine, eleventh-century pilgrims passed through the town of Ratisbon, on the Danube, in East Bavaria. There were so many that it soon became impossible to accommodate them all in the small Irish monastery founded in 1076 outside the city walls. So, in 1090, a mission from Ireland was given land on which to build a far larger one inside the town. From the first, the new Benedictine monastery of St. James wasentirely staffed by Scots – no mean feat for a Church considered by St. Malachy to be sunk into a shameful apathy. Even more surprising, before the brothers had completed the walls of the church (which even now shows signs of Irish handiwork) hteir abbot had despatched a mission through Poland to Russia. The Irishman in charge reached Kiev, on the Dnieper, and made so good an impression despite great language difficulties that, when he returned to Ratisbon, his party was weighed down with valuable furs. These were sold with enough profit to pay for the roof of both church and cloister. No doubt the St. Gall monks heard howthis church was roofed, for from the first htey were in touch with the newventure. The Ratisbon brothers built a chapel to St. Gall and, in swift succession, they founded five daughter houses. Though there were excellent schools in all of them, they were, like the mother house, primarily there for the use of pilgrims. Among the better known towns along the routes by which Irish monasteries were planted, were Vienna, Nuremburg and Wurzburg. For two hundred years the whole groups was under the authority of the abbot of St. James, Ratisbon, and because they were exclusively manned by Scots, many a mission set off west to Ireland with the purpose of abtaining now recruits. For two hundred years the supply never failed, and during all that time Ireland continued to send money to the far-distant Schottenkloster. One of the earliest of many donors was the king of Munster.

With David the Scot we reach the last Irish exile learned enough to make a name for himself throughout the Continent. He became head of the cloister school at Ratisbon about a hundred years after its foundation and when it was at the height of its vigorous activity in teaching and preaching. At the daughter house of Wurzburg he taught also, till the Emperor, Henry V, discovered him and carried him off as his chaplain. Among his duties was the writing of the history of the Emperor’s Italian campaign, and the work must have given great satisfaction as David’s, though a priest, did not scruple to praise the Emperor’s high-handed action in taking the Pope prisoner. But despite his popularity, by 1020 David the Scot had forsaken both the court and the Continent to become abbot of Bangor on Dee, in North Wales. There he supervised the translation to a grander tomb of the bones of St. Dubricus, the first great bishop of Wales.

In 1515 the Scot of Ireland were faced at Ratisbon by Scottish monks from Scotland. These claimed that the name Schottenkirche (or Scots kirk) proved the monastery to have been founded originally by Benedictines from Scotland. In this singularly unjust and ignorant claim they were upheld by the Pope. The Irish were evicted, and until 1893 interloping Scottish monks occupied the buildings and used the library.

To us, acquainted as we are with the patient industry characteristic of Celtic Christianity at its best, the episode is hard to forgive. Irish monks were so lovable. In the margins of the books they copied, ninth-century scribes sometimes gave expression in Latin or Gaelic to feelings that make them vividly alive even now. “We are from Inch-madoc (Nendrum), Coirbre and I,” may well be part of a silent conversation, and reading it, there before us are three monks their heads close together and their eyes wide with the thought of the Irsih monasteries they had left for Christ. “Oh! My hand!” and “I am very cold!” are perhaps the commonest and the most pathetic exclamations; while many are the prayers such as: “May Mary and Patrick help my hand!” “Three pen dips did that last column”, has a pleasant sense of achievement behind it, and htere is a quiet happiness, too, in: “nightfall and time for supper”, however sparse the upper may have been.

The extreme poverty and austerity practiced by monks of the Celtic Church made them keenly aware of nature. And they had so tender a love for the animal creation that one Irish monk even mourned a pet fly. “The white cat has gone astray from me” is written in the Gaelic journal of a monk in Ireland, and it was when he was about to exile himself from Ireland that another monk found comfort in writing: “I think I will take the little cat with me.” Even in the far-off monastery of St. Paul in Austria, a ninth-century monk hada cat as companion. He kept a commonplace book in which he wrote this poem, so delightfully translated by Robin Flower.

“I and Pangur Ban, my cat,

‘Tis is like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.


Better far than praise of men

‘Tis to sit with book and pen;

Pangur bear me no ill will,

He too plies his simple skill.


‘Tis a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment to our mind.


Oftentimes a mouse will astray

In the hero Pangur’s way;

Oftentimes my keen thought set

Takes a meaning in its net.


‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.


When a mouse darts from its den,

O how glad is Pangur then!

O what gladness do I prove

When I solve the doubts I love!


So in peace our task we ply,

Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;

In our arts wefind our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.


Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night,

Turning darkness into light.”

Turning darkness into light may be said to have been the task at which Celtic saints and scholars excelled. And in this they succeeded largely because, like God, they so loved the world. There is a deep gratitude for the miracle of spring in: “Pleasant is the glint of the sun onthese margins”, and in that lovely sentence: “Sunday of a warm Easter”. In their kingship with nature, the monks forgot their exile. As for those lucky enough to be scribes in an Irish spring, they form part of a vast choir in which, as one of them observes so graphically, even “the woodland birds shake out their glee”.

Sedulius’ genial bishop of Liege once received a begging letter from a newly arrived Irish scholar in distress. “Christ,” he wrote, “is hidden in the hearts of His poor.” Celtic monks were poor indeed. They possessed almost nothing tangible. But because Christ dwelt in their childlike hearts – childlike despite the great learning of many of them – they were spiritual millionaires. And only saints are rich enough to carry through adventures as gloriously extravagant as those embarked on by the pioneers of Celtic Christianity.


All Saint’s Day, 1949.



Study in History, Vol. II. Toynbee.

Christianity in Celtic Lands. Gougaud.

Life of St. Columban. Helena Concannon.

Life of St. Gall. Ed. Maud Joynt.

The Abbey of St. Gall. J.M. Clark.

The Irish Tradition. Robin Flower.

The Celtic Church and the See of Peter. J.C. MacNaught.

Chain of Error in Scottish History. M. Hay.

The Wandering Scholars. Helen Waddell.

Mediaval Latin Lyrics. Helen Waddell.

Ecclesiastical History of England. Bede.