The Far Western Christian Civilization of the Celts

The Far Western Christian Civilization of the Celts

The history of the Celts makes an almost dangerously fascinating study for a nation as sympathetic with losers as it the British. Not once but twice did the Celts bid fair to mould the whole of Europe to their unique way of living. Moreover, after each attempt traces of Celtic culture still remained; and so attractive are these that historians cry out in admiration and almost in dismay when they contemplate the world that might have been had not Roman soldiers in the first event, and Roman ecclesiastics in the second, excelled in the efficiency of their organization.

Celts first settled in Western and Central Europe before 2,000 B.C. By 500 B.C., pressure from the north and south had caused them to expand, at first defensively and then offensively, till soon their people spread west and east from Ireland to Asia Minor, carrying with them those tools, domestic utensils, weapons and personal ornaments by which archaeologists have been able to measure the immensity of their geographical range when at the height of their power, and from which we can surmise what kind of a people were the pre-Christian Celts.

Though it stands to reason that only skilled warriors could successfully challenge the Greeks and Romans and Teutons for so long (an indeed we have ample proof in the hundreds of impressive camp sites in the British Isles alone, and in their helmets, shields, swords, spears, chariots and harness trappings, that the Celts delighted in warfare) yet it was not primarily as warriors, nor even as successful farmers and traders, that these people shone: they were above all brilliantly gifted artists and craftsmen. From the intricately designed necklets, armlets, chain-girdles, rings and brooches in bronze and gold to the simplest household pottery, every object they made is startling and effortflessly beautiful. Plant motifs were among the forms borrowed from Greek art; but in Celtic hands all alien designs were transformed into a rhythmical abstract art so original that its like has never been seen in the world before or since.

Though the Celts no longer dominated the Continent, yet in the British Isles this art was still in full flower when Julius Caesar crossed the Channel, thinking thus to complete the last chapter in the Roman conquest of the western world. England and Wales the Romans did indeed master: but when, at the beginning of the fifth century, Roman legions withdrew and Rome itself fell before the oncoming rush of Teutonic barbarians, two Celtic strongholds yet remained untouched in the outposts of Scotland and Ireland. It would seem incredible that a people surviving in freedom only at the extreme western edge of the western world should do other than decline rapidly through spiritual and geographical isolation. Yet what actually happened through the impact of Christianity on Ireland and Scotland was the appearance of the Far Western Christian Civilization of the Celts. Without its far-reaching light and learning of the Dark Ages would have been dark indeed. As it was, throughout the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, men were drawn like moths to Ireland and Iona, from whence poured in turn those irresistible, white-clad Celtic missionaries.

For the Far Western Celts incorporated Christianity into the pattern of their lives with the same characteristic enthusiasm and originality as was shown by their forefathers when introduced to the Greek art forms that changed the evolution of Celtic art; and as these craftsmen did not copy but transformed the patterns they saw, so the Celts of the Dark Ages made of the outward conventional pattern embellishing the doctrines of orthodox Christianity, a new way of living that was beautiful, dynamic and essentially their own.

How profoundly the spiritual and mental structure of the Far Western Churches had come to differ from the structure of those deriving directly from Rome, was made plain during the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries by the constant collisions between them, in each of which a shocked Rome was almost always the first to take the offensive. These collisions did not take place till after an enforced segregation of Far Western Christians lasting 150 years (roughly from 400-550) caused by the submergence of the once Roman Continent under successive waves of Teutonic barbarians. Only when the subsiding chaos made it possible did there begin to arrive from Ireland an ever-increasing stream of Celtic missionaries to settle in France, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and even Russia. So great was their influence throughout the Continent that they very nearly won for the Far Western Christian Civilization the honour of being the chrysalis from which the future Western Society should be born. Very nearly: but not quite. That honour fell instead to the Roman branch of the Catholic Church largely because she had inherited from Imperial Rome a knowledge of provincial and monarchical government, and of the terrific power obtained through unity under one supreme earthly head. Thus a love of independence, of tribal democracy, combined with a constant tendency to enthrone reason above authority, proved alike the glory and the ultimate undoing of the Celtic Church.

The British Isles in the early days of Christianity were still thickly wooded and therefore extremely damp. The pre-Christian Celts had failed to master the huge European forests, and their descendants the Britons, Scots, and Picts likewise ignored the rich soil of their island woods, farming only in naturally open country. Gerald of Wales, however, reports that, unlike their continental ancestors who never ventured to live inside forests, the early Britons (possibly through fear of their enemies) were given to erecting their huts like hermits in the heart of the woods. No doubt the Celtic hermits inherited this love of shade. “How well I write in the greenwood!” remarks a happy monk in the margin of the book he is engaged in copying, doubtless contrasting his leafy ceiling with the dank winter chill of his often fireless cell. Fires burnt, however, in the middle of most Celtic huts, mitigating somewhat the draughts and darkness: but even in Romanized countries all real comfort vanished at the approach of the barbarians. That Christ should be born in the snow and share His birthday with that of the sun He made begins to move the most urbane of Roman pens to pity and wonder. As Paulinus of Nola put it: “Colour comes back with His bright face.” How vividly, then, must the descendants of Celtic sun-worshippers have expressed their praise of the miracle of the Incarnation. One of the Celtic contributions to the ritual of the Roman Church is the annual lighting of the Paschal fire. In pagan times in Ireland no fire might be lit on 25th March till the High King drove out from Tara accompanied by his druids to light the beacon on nearby Slane, the glow of which marked the glorious resurrection of spring. St. Patrick it was who first broke the ancient rules, and made of this act a Christian symbol.

In pagan times the druids had been the priests, seers, and magicians of a religion which taught the widely held Indo-European belief that death is but a mid-point in a long life; but which (though possibly only in the late, decadent stage we know of) also included such dark rites as human sacrifice. Spirit dwelt in fountains, trees and sacred stones, and were so venerated and sometimes so feared that Celtic missionaries, after exorcizing these “demons”, had hastily to replace them with saints that the course of the people’s worship might be re-directed into Christian channels. Missionaries proved far more successful in correcting the lax sexual morals they found among their fellow Celts in Ireland and Scotland than in ridding these countries of almost incessant warfare between chiefs of rival families. How then are we to count for the fact, too often forgotten, that despite these perpetual feuds scarcely any of the hundreds of unarmed missionaries lost their lives in Ireland; while apparently not one was killed by Celts in Scotland? The answer lies at the heart of the ancient moral code. The druids of Gaul are reported by Diogenes Laertius to have taught the Celts “to worship God, to do nothing evil, and to practice bravery”. The Celts of Ireland and Scotland obviously considered men of God to be as sacred as the gold in their pagan temples which (writes a Greek historian about 100 B.C.) no Celt dared touch though they were “excessively fond of money”. With their love of moderation Greek and Roman observers are amusingly shocked by what they call “vehemence”. They complain that Celtic soldiers are “intolerable in victory and faint-hearted in defeat”; to which faults are added “much folly, arrogance and love of ornament”.

To this day the male Highlander in full dress is a unique and gorgeous figure. The sight of his ancestors fairly astonished the Romans, given as they were to thinking of such ornaments as brooches and necklets as the prerogatives of women. “Celt warriors,” writes Diodorus Siculus, “wear bracelets and armlets, and round their necks thick rings all of gold, and costly finger rings, and even golden corselets. They have dyed tunics flowered with colours of every kind, and striped cloaks fastened with a brooch, and divided into numerous many-coloured squares.”

But if Celtic chiefs flaunted “brilliantly dyed garments worked with gold” such as would normally deck a princess, their women, with a like disregard for contemporary conventions, were in the habit of fighting alongside them in battle. Not till the seventh century did a Christian monk procure the final exemption of Celtic women from military service. Women who in pre-Christian times attended assemblies and were consulted on all important occasions by their men, naturally played a large part in the Far Western Christian Civilization. There is at least one record of a co-educational school; and several of little princesses studying with boys in such eminent monasteries as Candida Casa in Scotland, and Clonard in Ireland. From the first, Christian women dedicated themselves to teaching; and it seems to have been St. Brigid who was the inventor of the double monastery that was to become so popular a feature of the Celtic Church in England. She had a group of monks attached to Kildare who lived close enough to do the outdoor work for their sisters. In exchange the nuns cooked, mended and wove for the brothers, and doubtless nursed them when ill. The whole community worshipped in the same church; though at Kildare the sexes were divided by a barrier which ran up the centre aisle. The double monasteries seem always to have been in charge of a woman who reigned supreme, even over the resident bishop. Small wonder that when St. Augustine’s followers found double monasteries flourishing among the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria as a result of their conversion by Celtic missionaries from Iona, they viewed them with amazement tinged with horror. There being no precedent for such customs in the Roman Church, her priests felt strongly that the dangers must outweigh the advantages.

Though they had a profound love of learning, the pre-Christian Celts never thought of writing. The druid bards, judges and guardians of the law, taught orally, carefully passing down from generation to generation the knowledge and mythology accumulated over a thousand years. Their pupils developed prodigious memories: yet it was with the liveliest enthusiasm that they greeted the Latin alphabet, introduced by Christian missionaries, as an easier means of preserving the best of the past for posterity. The dead High King Leary had not long been standing fully armed in his fifth-century Irish grave, awaiting the pagan day of judgement, when a group of converts among his people revised the country’s laws and set them down in Latin letters adapted phonetically to fit the Irish tongue. They called this work The Great Tradition.

For Christianity did not check the native arts. On the contrary, the revelation that God so loved the Celtic world that He had given His only begotten Son for its salvation brought that culture to its glorious culmination. Among the Scots of Ireland countless monks sprang up to praise God in stone, metal, music, poetry, painting or calligraphy, so that men marvelled to see a land alive with saintly artists and poetic saints. Two stream of culture now ran happily side by side: the new monastic schools and the old native schools of law, science, literature and poetry. The abbots of the sixth century who, through their extraordinary standing in the country, became virtually its ministers of education, decided from the first that a combination of classical and Celtic schools of thought was henceforth to be the ideal. The most promising monks were sent to take long courses in astronomy, mathematics, poetry and music from the bards. St. Columba’s Irish poetry is a result of this wide vision, as is also the great learning of those wandering Christian scholars who, by the eighth century, had founded at least seventy-five monastic schools in Europe – a full century before the great dispersion in the ninth century when the Norsemen destroyed every single Irish monastery.

The word “monastery” conjures up a most misleading picture of the Christian settlements scattered all over Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany, and forming the focus of the religious and cultural life of the people in these Celtic lands from the fifth to the middle of the ninth centuries. Monasteries in the Celtic sense of the word meant groups of men or women – families – who were housed in villages of squat little bee-hive cells, each occupied by one or more monks or nuns. The cells were always placed inside an earthen rampart and were grouped about the somewhat larger cell that served as the church. Because we know there were frescoes depicting Christ and His apostles in early Gallican churches in touch with the British Isles; and because St. Brigid is known to have had like pictures in her notably spacious church at Kildare, we may be sure that though the exteriors of Celtic churches were humble and unassuming as the exteriors of the monks and nuns who prayed in them, yet inside these men and women allowed their passion for ornament and colour (which in pre-Christian times they would have expressed on their persons) to have full play in the adornment of God’s houses. All pictures, hangings and embroidery were destroyed by the Norsemen. But there remain enough chalices and patens of gold, silver, enamel and glass to give us a glimpse of the quality of Celtic church furnishings.

In these communities special cells must have been set aside to house the scribes, the leather workers and the workers in metal. But such dark, primitive buildings would make it preferable to work outside whenever possible. And it is well known that Celtic monks preferred to pray outside also, inheriting as they did a fellowship with nature so deep that only the mysterious sky seemed a roof great enough for most of their ancestors’ pagan temples. The priests among the monks continued the ancient tradition of the sacred groves by baptizing in rivers rather than in fonts and by teaching and preaching in hillsides rather than in pulpits. Even the Eucharist was celebrated outside. Both St. Martin and St. David had portable, shaded tables for the purpose. So many Celtic monks were fishermen, carpenters, farmers and shepherds that the outdoor atmosphere of the gospel story fitted marvellously into their daily lives.

Only men of perfect physique could have survived the life of toil, privation and long hours of prayer demanded of Celtic monks. Not only did they survive a regime which had proved hard enough discipline for Egyptian monks constantly warmed and fed by the rays of the sun, but they actually throve on it, surpassing their Egyptian models by adding the evangelical to the contemplative life.

These then, were no escapists, no dreamers. Indeed they were so aware of the splendour of life that they grudged each minute wasted in sleep. We can see the boundless energy and reserves of patience in the spiral and interlacing designs on stone, in metal and in their exquisitely written manuscripts. Again and again we are told of the depth and range of their voices. Being both physical and spiritual athletes they must have been good to look on, their thin, rugged faces lit up with humorous, intelligent eyes. Only their tonsure would have struck us as odd. For they shaved their heads from ear to ear, but kept the rest of their hair long. In this they followed the Eastern monks, who had copied the slave tonsure as a mark of their submission to Christ. Their hands were strong; yet very gentle to bird, beast or child; and skilful beyond belief with a fine quill pen in them. They wore two long garments, the under one white and the upper of natural-coloured homespun; while in cold weather they added a cloak with a pointed hood attached. Gloves they sometimes wore and their feet were almost always shod with sandals. No Celtic monk travelled without a stout walking-stick and, hung from his shoulder, a leather satchel containing his precious books.

An unexpected addition to the luggage of Celtic abbots, bishops and saints is the harp, which, be it noted, was considered, with the sword and the book, to be one of the three jewels of Christian Wales. The fighting and scholarship of the Far Western Celts ha left more mark than their prowess in music, for alas, they recorded nothing that they played or sang. But music teachers from their monasteries came to have a great reputation on the Continent; and at home, nothing delighted the people more, when entertaining a passing abbot, than to hear his latest hymn, accompanied and sung by himself. For the most part born minstrels following a tradition thousand of years old, such an audience was both appreciative and critical. And Gerald of Wales remarks that in Ireland, even in the twelfth century, a singing bishop could still draw an admiring crowd. Back in the sixth century the British historian Gildas admire “the tuneful voices of Christ’s servants, sweetly modulated, singing the praises of God”.

As befitted so musical a people, Celtic services appear to have been always fully choral; and through St. Hilary, St. Martin and St. Ninian, the idea of Perpetual Praise sung by relays of monks reached the Far West from the East. The numerous psalms were sung antiphonally, and there were many responses and musical parts in which the people also snag to God in what Gildas calls “strains of ecclesiastical melody “. These melodies varied in the different Celtic lands. The Britons of Wales and Strathclyde were, owing to their history, a sadder people than the unconquered Picts and Scots. The sadness is inherent in their legends when compared with those of the Scots of Ireland. And indeed it would seem that the contrast between the temperaments of Britons and Scots showed itself also in their music. The melodies of Ireland, remarks Gerald of Wales, are not slow and harsh like those of his own country, but, on the contrary, “quick and lively, and withal sweet and blithe in tone”. Those of us who have heard the folk songs of the Western Islands sung in the inimitable native style, can form at best only a faint idea of how movingly or joyfully the various aspects of the Christian revelation were borne on wings of Celtic song through the Dark Ages.

There remain, however, hundreds of the beautiful things made by the hands of the men whose music has vanished. No student of Celtic Christianity is worthy of the name who has not visited a library where at least he may pore over photographic reproductions of these remains, and thus familiarize himself with the Celtic conception of beauty. Christian artists made three additions to the decorative flowing forms already in use: interlacing, which they often combined in their designs with zoomorphism and polychromy. None of these innovations was discovered by Far Western artists. Interlacing they developed perhaps from the simple knot pattern to be found in second and third-century churches in Syria and Egypt, though a similar fondness for piercing knotted or plaited patterns is to be found in Nordic art also; while the strangely coiled and elongated animal forms that so often form part of the interlacements may have originated from as far away as South Russia, though again the Teutonic pagans of Northern Europe had also long been partial to them. There were neither peacocks nor vines in Iona, nor in the monasteries of seventh-century Ireland. Their presence in the Book of Kells can only be accounted for by the frequent contacts at that time between the Celtic Church and such semi-tropical countries as Syria and Egypt. Again the art of polychromy (Celtic monks used scarlet, yellow, blue, green and purple when illuminating their manuscripts) must have been the result of trade during the Dark Ages with the Eurasian steppe. This art was exactly what the Far Western Celts required to perfect the copies of the scriptures they wrote so exquisitely. Of the colours themselves, only purple was made from a native product. Blue was ground from lapis lazuli; and how, in those troubled times, a continuous supply of the mineral reached Celtic monasteries from distant Asia remains a mystery. But to those who would know the results of incorporating these three unrelated foreign elements into the Celtic are of the Scots of Ireland, it cannot be too often repeated: go and see for yourselves what the monks accomplished on vellum, on leather, and in stone, copper, gold, silver and enamel, always remembering that what still remains to be marvelled at is but a fragment carelessly neglected by the plundering, burning Norsemen, who succeeded in destroying almost all the abstract but profoundly imaginative art created during Ireland’s Golden Age.

Let us be thankful, however, that in spite of the Norsemen we can still study a few of the wonderful Celtic crosses. In pre-Christian times upright stones, sometimes of colossal size, were used to mark graves or important places. The beautiful High Crosses of Ireland were the culmination of the conversion of this custom to Christian purposes. The first step was taken by St. Martin, whose masons baptized stones revered by the pagan peasants of Gaul by incising on them the Chi-Rho monogram made from the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name, a device widely known through its use on Constantine’s banner. From Gaul the Chi-Rho symbol arrived in Scotland, to be used by St. Ninian and his followers on gravestones at Whithorn and Kirkmadrine, in Wigtownshire. They used the simplified from of the symbol, consisting of a horizontal line crossed by a very small-headed P; and they surrounded it with a circle. The same symbol is found on stones in Wales and Cornwall, but none has been found in Brittany or Ireland.

The next step was the incision on Christian grave-stones of a simple cross with a circle. Then followed the shaping of the stone itself. In Brittany the tops of many dolmens were cut away to form an insignificant cross on a disproportionately huge pedestal; and in Cornwall, too, the sixth and seventh century crosses are surprisingly primitive. The tops of stout upright stones are roughly rounded, and the equal-armed cross incised inside the circle sits on a pedestal nearly as wide. Sometimes, as in the Cornish cross of St. Teath is a Maltese cross in a ring of glory, with a trequetra carved on each arm. It stands on an elegantly tall pedestal and, unlike the other types of crosses mentioned, is a real work of art. The small, sturdy Welsh crosses are also designed and decorated by real craftsmen, and like those of Cornwall and of the Brito-Pictish church in Scotland, they are equal-armed within a circle and, if upstanding, on a separately decorated pedestal. Of many fine examples, perhaps the finest are the crosses at Nerran and Carew, in Pembrokeshire.

The glorious High Cross of Ireland is to be found in that country and in the western parts of Scotland converted by St. Columba. Thousands were made by Irish monks from the seventh to the tenth centuries. In this form of Celtic cross the short arms protrude beyond the ring of glory and the tall shaft forms part of the whole design. On the four sides of these square shafts the monks either carved well-known symbols and significant Bible scenes for the edification and instruction of the many who could not read, or they left the small, crucified figure to tell His own tale of those who gazed up from some fifteen feet below. Over the entire surface of the last type of cross, rhythmic designs of interlacings are exquisitely carved. Both the instructional and more abstract High Crosses rank among the highest artistic achievements of any civilization.

Whether we study this Golden Age among the Celtic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Brittany, or among their English converts in Northumbria, the driving force is plainly seen to be Christianity. And yet, outside the countless monasteries there was no apparent revolution in the lives of the people taught and converted by the monks. They continued to live under their tribal system of government, whose ancient laws, in Ireland, needed only slight revision to satisfy St. Patrick. As in other Celtic countries, the land was divided between many sub-kings and chiefs, all members of special families inheriting the honour to have one of their number chosen. The High King himself was likewise elected. He acted as supreme judge and president of assemblies, but was chosen above all for his abilities as commander in chief. Slaves are mentioned among Celtic converts; but in Wales, at any rate, they could win freedom through becoming master smiths, poets, or scholars. So high was learning rated that bards and judges continued, as in pre-Christian times, to be exempted from military service.

Their enemies complained of the restless minds of Christian Celts: their bodies, too, were remarkably active, St. Brigid and her nuns covering the rough roads of Ireland at such a rate that their cart sometimes overturned. Well-to-do Picts also journeyed about Scotland in similar two-wheeled carts, though riding must have been the more comfortable way to travel. St. Ninian rode; but many of the saints and the great majority of the people moved about on foot. It was not uncommon for Celtic pilgrims to arrive in Jerusalem, having walked all the way, and many were those who tramped the Roman roads to visit the tombs of Peter and Paul at Rome. With a new motive they followed their ancient trade routes, which led either from Nantes or from Kent, through Gaul, to the East; and for the rest and refreshment of these pilgrims a chain of guest-houses was set up along the route by the Irish monks working on the Continent.

Christianity in the Far West wrought no apparent revolution except in the lives of Celtic monks, who were striking examples of the truth that the greater the sublimation of the sexual instinct, the higher the degree of civilization reached. The amazing outbreak of spiritual, mental and physical activity within their monasteries puts one in mind of a hive of bees released from confined darkness into a blazing flower-garden by a sudden burst of hot sun. They are the same bees that worked and waited all through the long grey night; but now they swing rapturously through blue air to dive deep into flower after flower.

For as long as five and a half centuries the art, the religious ardour, and the wide learning of the Celtic monks continued unmatched in the West. Of their reputation as scholars, there is ample contemporary evidence. A Welsh writer, possibly biased, credits them with “the sum of Western knowledge”. Charlemagne’s English friend and councillor, the scholar Alcuin, of York, writes of the debt owed to “the very learned Irish masters who enabled the Churches of Christ in Britain, Gaul and Italy to make so great progress”. Another ninth-century scholar – a German this time – extols Ireland, “which has filled the Church with its knowledge and its doctrine”. While a ninth-century Frank, writing at the time of the dispersion, is apparently so surrounded by Celtic scholars that: “Why should I mention Ireland,” he cries, “of which almost the whole people, despising the dangers of the sea, migrate with their crowd of philosophers to our shores?”

Even if Celtic monks had not been strongly addicted to the sea they would have despised its dangers when contrasted with the fiery terror of the Norsemen. The only alternative to exile was death or slavery. So they carried abroad in their homesick hearts memories of childhoods spent in and out of peaceful little Irish cells, not one of which they could ever hope to see again. It was the custom in Christian Ireland for a small boy of good family to go to boarding school at seven, where a male or female teacher prepared him for the monastery school. He practised writing on was tablets and learnt to read from the Latin psalter, while his hands were trained in metal work or carpentry. Having mastered the elements the boy entered the monastery school, where the next stage in his education began. From then on, until he was ready to play an active part in monastic life, his father paid annually for his education was a cow or a pig, though foreigners were always boarded, lodged and educated free. At intervals examiners (who were paid in food) were brought in to test his progress in grammar, geometry, natural philosophy, and interpretation of the scriptures, huge portions of which he early knew by heart. This zest for education among better-class parents (who had long had the odd habit of placing the boys in charge of foster-parents) was nothing new in Wales or Ireland, where it had always taken twelve adult years to achieve the coveted status of brehan (guardian of the law) or filid (teacher, poet and judge).

It is not surprising that the schools produced as many saints as scholars. They fed the mind with all that was best in native, classical and Christian literature, with the sole intent of making it ever more receptive to the study of divine thought. Unlike St. Gregory, who denounced secular learning at Rome, the Celtic monks considered that the wider the mental vision, the more they saw of God. With this end in view they studied the epic poetry of Virgil, the prefect Latin prose of Cicero, the grammar of Priscian, the satires of Juvenal and Horace, and the comedies of Terence. It is probable, but not certain, that the Greek works of Homer and Plato were also read. It was in Greek that the Briton Pelagius defended himself in the fourth century, when on trial for heresy in the East. Cummian, writing in the sixth century, quotes many Greek authors in his endeavour to prove to his fellow Celts in Southern Ireland that the Roman computation of Easter is more correct then the Celtic. By the ninth century Greek had certainly become part of the curriculum, for John the Scot, and Sedulius the Scot, were almost as familiar with it as they were with Latin. But if Celtic scholars show themselves familiar with the classics and with the theological works of St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Athanasius and St. Augustine of Hippo, their own works prove that with the Bible their minds were not so much familiar as completely saturated.

Perhaps the only science they studied in which this fact is not at once obvious is that of mathematics, for which, with their love of the abstract in art and their keen, inquisitive and accurate minds, the Celts had a natural flair. Even in pre-Christian times the works of Pythagorus were known to them through their contacts with the East. Livy, writing in the first century B.C., tells of a Gaul who accurately foretold an eclipse, adding that “to the Roman soldiers the Gauls seem almost godlike in their wisdom”. Bede’s reckoning of the exact day and hour of another eclipse, which took place in May 664, differs from that recorded in the Annals of Ulster. In 1903 Lord Kelvin checked the calculation to find that the Irish astronomers were correct. In the Eighth century the Irishman Firgil, bishop of Salzburg, taught the Pythagorean doctrine, then current in Irish schools, that the earth was not flat but round. Nothing remains of the turmoil created among the rival Roman missionaries by this heresy in their midst but a letter written by Pope Zachery in answer to the charge sent to him by the English bishop, Boniface of Mainz. Being a third-hand account of Firgil’s teaching, and, moreover, one that has passed through the pens of two to whom it make nonsense, the account is somewhat garbled. Firgil is said to believe “that there are under the earth another world and other men or sun and moon”, which belief Pope Zachery denounces as “a perverse and unrighteous doctrine, an offence alike to God and to his own soul”. None the less, for forty years Firgil remained unconverted at Salzburg, and his belief in the Antipodes was upheld in the ninth century by another and greater Celtic scholar, John the Scot.

Undoubtedly it was the classical training that gave so great an impetus to Celtic reasoning powers and filled with self-confidence those Celtic saints and scholars so often confronted by hostile authorities less able to conduct a rational argument.

With the philosopher John the Scot, who lived from 845 to 868 at the court of Charles the Bald at Laons, this passion for dialectic reached its height. Probably because of the position held in Ireland by secular learning, he placed philosophy quite naturally on an equal footing with theology. At last time there were in Europe only three or four scholars who knew any Greek at all. Yet he had so complete a mastery over the language and thought of Plato that not only could he make an able translation of a Neo-Platonic work sent from the East to his patron, but as a pastime he wrote Greek verses and further enjoyed himself in confounding anyone luckless enough to disagree with him by his terrifying use of syllogism. Baffled, his enemies could only call these methods of argument “inventions of the Devil”. His book On the Division of Nature treats of the constitution of the universe and boldly concludes that God must be in all creation and all creation in Him. Four hundred years later the book was publicly burnt in Paris as heretical. But in the ninth century the Church could not reach up to take the measure of this giant in her fold. Imprudently she called him in to refute the doctrines of one who distressed Germany by preaching pre-destination to Hell. Applying his usual methods, John did so, but he went on to discuss Hell and Sin themselves, and before he could be checked he had argued them both out of existence. In 855 he had to be publically reprimanded for his neglect of the doctrines of the Fathers of the Church, and for the excessive use of reason he employed instead of their authority. None the less, the minds of his continental contemporaries of the Carolingian Renaissance were more influenced by him than by any other foreigner.

There are further glimpses of that far greater Renaissance of the fourteenth century in the determination shown by Celtic scholars to explore both the inner and outer world at first hand – or as near as might be. In the seventh century Adamnan of Iona noted down all he could learn from a passing pilgrim lately returned from Palestine. It mattered not if the man’s descriptions varied from those the good abbot had imagined himself. They were from one who had actually walked the streets of Bethlehem and Jerusalem and breathed the air of Galilee. When his guest had gone, Adamnan busied himself with shaping his notes into a little book which he presented to his foster-son Aldfrid, king of Northumbria.

It was in the eighth century that the monk Fidelis left his Irish monastery to make a trip to Egypt. He brought back much interesting information of which good use was made by Dicuil, who finished his great work on geography in 825. As a boy he heard Fidelis describe the Pyramids, which that explorer had felt impelled to measure lest no one in Ireland should credit their size and shape. Dicuil records Fidel’s measurements (since found to be perfectly accurate) along with his account of a lion hunt and his thwarted endeavours to identify that part of the Red Sea crossed by the Israelites. Dicuil also wrote books on grammar and astronomy; and in each of these works is seen the characteristic contempt for accepted traditions. Thus, after quoting him, he gives reasons, founded on observed facts, for disbelieving Solinus. Though intrigued by the mystery of the tides he refuses to discuss them, as he does not live by the sea. A true scientist, he is, however, like all Celts, a poet t heart, and might well have composed the epic (written by an exiled Scot seeking a place at Charlemagne’s court), the peroration of which is here given in Helen Waddell’s beautiful translation.

So long as the mighty axis of the starry sphere revolves, and dark night is driven off by the shining stars, so long as Phosphor rises splendid from towering waves, and the swift wind lashes the deep, so long as the rivers foam down to the sea, and the clouds touch the threatening peaks and the valleys lie low with their bogs, and the high hills rear their jagged crests, so long as the splendour of kings blazes with ruddy gold, Age after Age the Muses. Gifts abide.”

In the heart of this passage lies something of the peculiar charm of the Far Western Celtic Civilization, coming as it does from one educated in the king of monastic community already described. It is written in Latin (for Latin is the language of the Bible, the Church and of the classics) by one who had mastered almost all the books his world contains. Yet it is not of their contents but of Nature as he sees her that he writes: and he writes both as an observer and a lover.

St. Columba’s Irish verses show why so many of his fellow abbots chose, like him, to place their monasteries within sight and sound of the sea. Always the Celts had been sea-farers and the great Julius Caesar himself was moved to pay handsome tribute to the size and invulnerability of their war-ships. For coastal trips and comparatively short voyages the monks used the buoyant coracle, lightly and strongly constructed of osiers covered with skins. But when, in the sixth century, St. Brendan the Navigator prepared for his longest voyage, he built a ship such as Caesar admired. She was of Irish oak, and large enough to contain a crew of sixty. In her St. Brendan searched the seas for seven years for those Blessed Isles which were, to the Celts, hard pressed from the east, their refuge hidden beyond the setting sun. Invisible only to the outer eye, this paradise was so vividly imagined by them that St. Brendan, who was a practical man, concluded that the stories current about the Blessed Isles tallied with the Biblical description of Eden. Born by the sea and educated at Clonard, where he learnt enough astronomy to take his bearings from the stars, it seemed to him that he was left with no alternative but to go and prove his theory for himself, for the benefit of mankind, and for the glory of God.

He failed to reach his goal as his people failed to give birth to the new society in the West. For both, the odds were too great. But just as the story of the life and death of the Far Western Christian Civilization reads like an epic today, so the story of the voyage of St. Brendan became a best-seller in medieval Europe. He undoubtedly mistook Hekla for hell and, according to Dr. Little, called at the Bahamas, and even reached Florida. Reading his fearful and marvellous adventures in the great waters, and of the strange plants, beasts, birds and islands discovered by him during his seven years’ search, sailor after sailor grew convinced that St. Brendan had found the Blessed Isles, and for a thousand years their ships continued at intervals to comb the Atlantic far a paradise irretrievably lost with the disappearance of the countless Celtic monasteries that were the Blessed Isles of the Dark Ages.



A Study of History, Vol. II. Arnold Toynbee.

Christianity in Celtic Lands. Dom Louis Gouguard.

The Background of Art. D. Talbot Rice.

History of Celtic Art. Augusta Lamont.

Brendan the Navigator. Dr. Little.

Carolingian Art. Roger Hinks.

The Wandering Scholar. Helen Waddell.