Irish Monks Invade the Continent

Chapter Nine

Irish Monks Invade the Continent

The people who made it necessary to write this book took long journeys. Notice the direction in which they travelled.

In Part One, you read about merchants, soldiers, and monks of the Roman Empire who travelled across the map of Europe from east to west. They came to these islands from Palestine, Rome and Gaul, and made history by preaching the Gospel of Christ to the Celts of the Far West.

In Part Two, you also read about people who affected our islands by crossing the map from east to west. But this time they were Teutonic pagans who made the journey, and they came as conquerors, not as missionaries. Only in the remote parts protected by hills and seas, were Christians in these islands able to practice their religion. Cut off from the continental Church, it looked as though Celtic Christianity could only survive by a miracle. But miracles do happen; and you have read how Celtic monks and nuns became the missionary saints of a flourishing Church that converted the Celts in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland.

Now in the last part of this book, the direction of the journeys has changed. It is the Celts who are on the move and, placed as they were, they certainly could not move from east to west without following St. Brendan’s whale into the Atlantic. Besides, a purpose lay behind their movements. Welsh monks travelled south to convert Brittany. Irish monks travelled south-east from Iona to convert Northumbria. And in this chapter you are going to read of the adventures of a few of those monks and scholar-monks who travelled south-east from Ireland to convert the pagans Teutons who had settled in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy.

Celtic Light-bearers

I have said before that the Popes lost the missionary spirit from the Fall of Rome in 410 to the reign of Pope Gregory at the end of the sixth century. But, long before that, you will remember that a Frankish king was urging St. Samson to build monastic settlements for his people near Rouen and Paris. And St. Samson was only one of many Welsh monks who at that time changed the lives of the Franks. For Celtic missionaries proved as popular with Franks and Germans as they were with their English cousins. Many of them were as enthusiastic followers as was the Frankish noble converted by St. Columbanus. So impressed was he by his Irish teacher that he tried to imitate him in everything. He even sang his psalms Irish fashion, waist-deep in a cold stream. And when he heard the monks speak of the marvels of Christian Ireland, he longed to go on pilgrimage to the land where his master was born. St. Columbanus’ friend, St. Gall, had the same power of inspiring people. Hundreds of years after his death, he was still remembered in Switzerland as the missionary ‘ whom the Lord chose from the ends of the earth to bring us salvation ‘. Nowadays, it is too often forgotten that the first to bring light to the people of the Dark Ages were not the Romans but the Celts of the Far West.

Very little is known about St. Gall. But St. Columbanus’ Life was written by a monk in his most distant monastery, Bobbio, in Northern Italy. This monk went there as a student soon after St. Columbanus; death in 615’ so he knew many of the saint’s friends. ‘Ireland,’ they told him, ‘lies in the furthest ocean and is not disturbed with fights with other nations. Here lives the race of the Scots who flourish in the doctrine of Christian strength.’

St. Columbanus was born in Leinster about 540 and, at first, lived the pleasant life of a Celtic chief’s son. He learn his Latin from one of St. Finnian’s Twelve Apostles of Ireland. But it was St. Comgall who inspired him at Bangor to give up teaching, at fifty (he was a brilliant scholar), to go to the rescue of the Continent.

St. Columbanus Goes to the Vosges

He and his friend, St. Gall, were ordained priests and with eleven others they set sail and landed on the coast of Brittany, where they could learn the latest news about the state of France. Their Welsh friends told terrible stories about the way the quarrelsome, lawless Frankish kings neglected their people and their land. On the contrary, he persuaded a party of Breton monks to join him, and off they strode across France, armed only with their staffs and singing Latin psalms.

The desolation they found in the Vosges mountains was a challenge. The local king was quite willing to give them some of the ruined land on which to build; for, plainly, he thought they must soon starve. St. Columbanus wisely chose to plant his first cross where a Roman town had once stood. Then his monks went to work with astonishing energy. The trees were felled, the land was ploughed; and, before the winter, the monks were safely housed in the little beehive huts that surrounded their church. They would have starved that first winter but their neighbours kept them alive with what little food they could spare. They knew these holy men because of the way they sang and prayed. Soon the sick and sorrowing began to arrive to plead for help; and when St. Columbanus healed them, they became his first converts.

Meanwhile, St. Gall played his part by fishing the rivers, learning the language, and writing out a dictionary of useful Teutonic words and phrases. It was a pity none of St. Augustine’s followers thought of doing this in England, because this little book greatly helped the Scots to teach their converts. They remembered that St. Comgall had compared Christians without Soul-Friends to bodies without heads. So they listened to the confessions of men and women who had learnt to sorrow over their disobedience to God’s law through watching the monks, who lived unselfishly as true sons of God. st. Columbanus’ converts were surprisingly willing to undergo the punishments he demanded as a sign of penitence.

The Training School at Luxeuil

Indeed, so popular was his strict rule that he soon had three monasteries in the Vosges, chief of which was Luxeuil. By the tenth century, this settlement had become a famous training school, and the mother of fifty daughter houses.

Small boys at school in St. Columbanus; monasteries were forbidden to speak, except in Latin. However, they loved their abbot, willingly weeded the rose garden that was his special delight, and enjoyed walking with him in the woods where the birds and squirrels hastened to pay him their respects. At Bangor, St. Columbanus had loved nothing better than a book. But now he was like the Irish abbot in Germany who wrote: ‘Seeing that these young people have enough to eat is a great hindrance to one’s reading.’ He did find time, however, for regular retreats in the forest cave where he could remain alone with God, except for an occasional visitor in the shape of a friendly bear.

St. Columbanus managed to work for twenty years in the Vosges before he was banished. It had to come. For though he was loved by the people and their chiefs, the wicked kings dreaded the fierce sermons he gave them when he visited their palaces. The Frankish bishops too disliked him. And no wonder. For he insisted that, though he was only a priest, they had no power to interfere in his monasteries any more than a bishop would have in Ireland. He argued, too, that it was he, not they, who kept Easter on the right date, and he began writing long Latin letters to the Pope in defence of the Celtic Easter. Later, when the Pope himself was widely suspected of being a heretic, St. Columbanus from far-off Ireland hastened to write to Rome from the Vosges as defender of the true Catholic faith.

Equal to the Pope

Politely he begins his letters: ‘To the Most Beautiful Head of all the Churches in Europe.’ But this does not prevent him writing to the Pope as an equal. ‘It was through the twin apostles of Christ [that is Peter and Paul] 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 the only true keepers of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven is he who opens the door to the worthy people and closes it to the unworthy.’

Scholars such as St. Columbanus were so thoroughly educated in the Christian Faith as it had been presented to their people before the Dark Ages, that many of the customs and teachings of Pope Gregory’s Church seemed to them wrong. St. Columbanus, defending his Easter, writes: ‘As for us Irishmen, dwellers in the most distant parts of the earth, we are all disciples of Peter and Paul and all the disciples . . . ; and the Catholic faith, which we originally received from you, the successors of the apostles, we have held unchanged.”

In England, Celtic Christianity found a belated champion in Archbishop Theodore; but on the Continent, no help ever came to Irish missionaries from the popes. For this reason St. Columbanus and his monks were at last forced to leave their monastery. ‘I am heart broken, I confess by this cause, that while I tried to help all, they fought me without reason,’ he wrote to his Teutonic monks at Luxeuil carrying on the good work so bravely without their founder. He was seventy. But when the king of Northern Italy invited him to work among his people he set off to cross the Alps on foot, carrying the precious books some of which are still in the library at Bobbio. At the time, St. Gall was too ill to make the journey. And when he recovered, he decided to settle in Switzerland. This was so keen a disappointment to Columbanus that he accused his friend of deserting him. But when he lay dying in 616, he sent his staff to St. Gall as a sign of forgiveness; and St. Gall, in tears, hung it in the place of honour above the altar of his little church. Their Irish friends were the only lniks these lonely men had with the land they had left for Christ.

The Irish Pilgrims

They could, of course, be sure of a night’s board and lodging from kindly Irish abbots at such places as Peronne, Cambrai and Cologne. But further south, they were at first less welcome. However, so many were the pilgrims that it was not long before Irish abbots began building inns for them along the road to Rome. Soon Frankish and German bishops showed how generous they could be. One set aside an altar in his church for the use of passing Scots who liked to celebrate Communion in their own way. Another, in Germany, had a specially heated sitting-room and dormitory for Irish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. He always called them his children, and no doubt they repaid his kindness by working as his scribes.

Even the poorest of these Irish pilgrims seemed to Teutonic kings and bishops enviably at home with a book and a pen. During the eighth century, a growing thirst for knowledge spread eastwards through Germany, Czecho-Slovakia, Austria, Poland and Hungary with the rapid growth of the Frankish Empire. Learned friends of the Irish missionaries already at work in France were sent for. and it was they who put the new Empire to school. For they arrived from Ireland eager to plant their life-giving monasteries wherever they were invited.

St. Boniface Made an Archbishop

But poor Bishop Boniface grew bitter, working among so many and such stubborn Irish monks. In 742, he presided at the first of five Church Councils that passed new laws to curb and correct the rival missionaries. From then on, Roman-trained bishops could interfere as much as they liked in Irish monasteries. The only remedy for the Irish was to give their own bishops the same power by allowing them to be consecrated by the Romans. Six years later, the Pope rewarded St. Boniface for his good work by making him Archbishop of Mainz. Though this town was considered pro-Roman, even here St. Boniface was surrounded by pilgrims from Ireland visiting their friends settled in the town’s flourishing Irish monasteries. It speaks well for the English archbishop that he once promoted a specially holy Irish bishop to be Archbishop of Rheims.

On the other hand, he tried in vain for ten years to oust the brilliant Irish abbot, Firgil who, protected by his Irish bishop against Roman interference, continued to rule supreme at Salzburg. He made the town a missionary base from which his monks converted many in Bavaria and Austria. After St. Boniface died in 754, Firgil continued to teach Celtic Christianity for thirty years. He also taught his monks that the world was round and that people probably walked about upside down on the other side of it. Bishop Boniface wrote to the Pope eagerly that here was a heresy indeed, and the Pope agreed that this fantastic belief was an affront to God and man like. But the scholars loved to listen to Irish lectures on Greek astronomy; and, despite the Romans, Firgil became bishop of Slazburg, where he died after forty years in Germany, renowned, as a true Celtic monk, both for learning and holiness.

Irish Scholars Follow On

But few Irish monks resisted St. Boniface as thoroughly as Firgil. It is true to say that, without St. Boniface, northern Europe would have been moulded into so Celtic a pattern that it might well have remained as independent a force on the Continent as Brittany has done in France. For the steady stream of sixth-seventh-and eighth-century Celtic missionaries was followed in the ninth century by a perfect flood of Irish scholars – refugees whose peaceful monasteries had been destroyed by Norse invaders of Ireland. As it was, though there were still as many Irish abbots as ever on the Continent, the Frankish emperors were by the ninth century loyal servants of the Pope. Because these Teutons still thirsted for learning, however, the refugee Irish were sure of a welcome. They are remembered, not as the missionaries or saints they might have been, but as teachers who brought back to life the forgotten classical science and literature to enrich the new Europe.

Charlemagne became Emperor in 771 and has much in common with our Alfred the Great. He was a brilliant scholar as he was a general. There were very few books left in Europe by that time; and fewer still, either Greek or Latin, that the king did not learn to read. He was also fascinated by science, and had a passion for music. All the grown-ups of his court at Aix-la-Chapelle had to go to school to learn Latin. He also ordered that no monastery should be without its school for children. For he himself had had no education and, to the end, he found it terribly hard to write his letters.

Here is a story about the younger emperor told by one of the Irish-trained monks at St. Gall:

‘Charles himself was already lord in the western parts of the world . . . when it came to pass that two Scots from Ireland arrived with some British merchants at the coast of France, incomparably well educated in sacred and classical learning. Having nothing else 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 had true wisdom. . . . They answered that they would teach it in the Lord’s name. And when Charles asked what they charged for it they replied: “WE only beg of thee, O King, suitable places to live in and intelligent pupils. Food, drink and clothes we need too, for without them this earthly pilgrimage cannot be completed.” ‘

Emperors Support Celtic Scholars

Many were the Irish scholars whose earthly pilgrimages were happily completed because the Frankish emperors and their bishops so hungered to buy the knowledge they had to sell. And until the pagan Norsemen began to batter at the new Christian civilization, Frankish emperors also gave generous protection to the Irish monasteries and Irish pilgrims scattered about their wide lands. The Roman-trained Frankish bishops, too, went out of their way to make the often home-sick exiles feel at home. Patiently they listened to grumble about board and lodging. And then Irish wit and turned sharply against these long-suffering kings and bishops, they so enjoyed the joke that the impertinent monks usually got presents instead of punishments.

I think we too would have found those monks most attractive to meet. Think of the stories Fidelis could tell – he who had tramped from his Irish monastery to Egypt to find out exactly where the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea. The shifting sand made this impossible. But all the way back across Europe, he paid for his night’s rest by his descriptions of the pyramids (which he had measured) and of how the Egyptians hunted lions.

Dungal Founds Pavia University

The emperor thought so highly of the refugee, Dungal, that he sent him across the Alps to found a university at Pavia. Columbus studied there before discovering America; and the place still flourishes to-day. But how many know that it was founded by a monk brought up in an Irish monastery?

In the middle of the ninth century, John the Scot was the only man in Europe who had mastered the Greek language and Greek philosophy. He lived for twenty years at the Frankish court, fascinating the emperor and his scholars by his wit and his unrivalled skill in argument. At the time, there was in Germany a dismal heretic who preached that many were bound for hell whatever they did. When the Frankish bishops failed to quell him, they sent for John the Scot. The heretic, they said happily, will never stand up to his logical Greek way of arguing. And sure enough, John had no difficulty in forcing him at last to agree that man can choose between heaven and hell. The only trouble was that John loved talking, and before they could stop him he set about proving, just for fun, that there were no such things as Sin and Hell. The poor Franks were as shocked as they were amused.

Sedulous the scot was another famous and much-loved refugee who helped to change Frankish ways of thinking. He arrived at Liege in 848, wet, cold and hungry. But the bishop liked his Latin, and never regretted making him headmaster of the church school. Besides, he much enjoyed showing his friends the Latin verses that arrived daily at his palace. Give enough good wine (and the bishop did his best), Sedulius could write true poetry on any subject. One of his songs, he said, was to be sung by twelve monks ‘so that all the world can hear it’. Another poem was about the tragedy of a present sent by the bishop that never arrived at all. This was a fat sheep killed by a dog on its way to Sedulius’ field.

His hymns have a lovely outdoor flavour about them. Here is one to be sung at Easter, translated by Helen Waddell. As you read it, remember that the ring of glory on every Celtic cross is the life-giving sun:

‘Last night did Christ the Sun rise from the dark,

The mystic harvest of the fields of God,

And now the little wandering tribes of bees

And brawling in the scarlet flowers abroad.

The winds are soft with birdsong; all night long

Darkling the nightingale her descent told,

And now inside the church doors happy folk

The Alleluia chant a hundredfold.

O Father of Thy folk, be Thine by right

The Easter joy, the threshold of the light.’

You know something of the light with which Celtic Christians helped the Church to defy the Dark Ages.

Wherever they went, they tried to replace the cruel rule of force by their unselfish rule of love. Though they led their world in learning for hundreds of years, Irish monks remained delightfully simple and full of fun. Many of them had pets to keep them company in their often lonely exile. Some day you must read the amusing poem in which an Irish scholar, at work in Austria, compares himself with Pangur Ban, his cat. It is odd that dogs are never mentioned. But even in Ireland, a lonely monk wrote sadly in his diary: ‘The white cat has gone astray from me.’ Another, about to leave for the Continent, comforted himself by writing: ‘I think I will take the little cat with me.’

Scribes, who worked in silence, often expressed themselves in the margins of the books they copied. I’m very cold.’ ‘Oh! My hand!’ and ‘May Mary and Patrick help my hand!’ are often to be found. ‘Three pen dips did that last column.’ ‘How well I work out of doors,’ and ‘Nightfall and time for supper’, tell a more cheerful story. Surely ‘We are from Nendrum, Coirbre and I’, is part of a silent conservation between three monks. For, reading the words, you can almost see their tonsured heads close together and their eyes wide with memories of Irish monasteries they had left for Christ.

Sedulous, the Irish poet, often wrote on the lovely story of Christmas. The three kings, he said, brought gifts that the Baby could see. But what of himself and his poor fellow scholars, if they went to the stables at Bethlehem? Would they too be allowed to touch the Baby they worshipped? At last he writes, joyfully: ‘Mary did not say no to the wise men from the east, though they brought no gifts but learning.’ Surely they were welcome too for the wisdom and humility they had inherited from the Celtic saints of the Far West.