A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity

Inspired by some discussions on Facebook around a year ago as well as this interesting blog post, I have some thoughts on ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

First of all, I am not entirely sold on the author of that interesting blog post trying to dismantle the concept of ‘Celtic’, simply because there are cultural similarities between the ancient and early mediaeval Irish and Scottish, as well as between the ancient Gauls and the British, and all sorts of other things. I do, however, sympathise with the desire to disentangle the idea of a monolithic ‘Celtic’ world. As he points out, we do not speak of the Germanic-speaking peoples in the same way (but they still have many similarities).

Anyway, if it turns out that what we imagine as ‘Celtic’ Christianity is, in large part, historically false, or, in large part, not unique to the Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, I think we should do a few things, as follows.

First, if there is spiritual or theological truth in the poorly re-constructed images of Insular Christianity, then hold onto it. It may not be something that large quantities of early mediaeval Irish and Scottish monks believed, or it may not be something unique to them, but if it is true, take it, even if it’s not rooted in history.

Second, why not engage in an Insular Ressourcement?* Ad fontes! My recommendation is to check out Insular Christianity and its sources up to: 793 (the beginning of the Viking Age), 911 (the end of our earliest Irish Annal), or 1066 (the end of the Viking Age and the arrival of the Normans who would not only conquer England but spend significant energy in gaining territory in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland as well).

And in Insular Christianity, I include England, for it is part of the cultural mixture of this world, the place whereby Mediterranean ideas went North and West, where Irish missionaries went South and East. It is converted through the efforts of the Iona monks such as Aidan as much as by the Roman bishop Augustine. I realise that if you are allergic to the English, this will not please you overmuch, but it should be profitable. The Venerable Bede is well worth reading, as is the Dream of the Rood. Furthermore, the ‘Germanic’ elements of English culture do produce something that is a bit different from what you get in Ireland. By seeing the similarities and differences between the English and Irish forms of early mediaeval Christianity, a bit more context is added.

As C S Lewis recommends that one read Plato or Athanasius for oneself, so does the concept of ressourcement. Thankfully, there are many resources available for an InsularRessourcement. If your interests are particularly ‘Celtic’ — Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, plus the Isles, here are some translations of such material (I list only stuff I’ve actually read):

-Adamnán’s Life of St. Columba (7th century). Available online and as a Penguin Classic.

-St. Patrick’s Confession (5th century). Available online and as a very affordable book.

-There is a version of the Voyage of Brendan here; a different version — that which I have read — has been translated for Penguin in the volume The Age of Bede, itself an expansion upon the earlier (out-of-print) book Lives of the Saints. Brendan himself is sixth-century, the accounts of the voyage are later.

-A great resource is Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery; this includes some works by St. Columba himself, such as the one I appended to the end of my brief bio for him the first time he was Saint of the Week.

-The Internet Medieval Sourcebook also has a good selection of early Celtic literature available for those who are seeking.

The Book of Kells. The mediaeval world was not all dark and gloomy, not all just the words of books, but a world of fine objects such as this one.

And if you’re not afraid to mix Anglo-Saxon with Scot, here’s some Early Medieval English Christianity for a taste:

-The Venerable St. Bede (7th-8th century): Life of St. Cuthbert is online and in The Age of Bede as well — this volume includes Bede’s Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow as well as Eddius Stephanus’ Life of St. Wilfrid; The Ecclesiastical History of the English People is online and (so I’m told) best read in its Oxford World’s Classics translation. I have also translated his account of Caedmon here.

-The Dream of the Rood is available online and in the Everyman book Anglo-Saxon Poetry, a volume full of very interesting poems, including the narrative Andreas, that mingles Mediterranean and Germanic in its telling of St. Andrew.

-The Internet Medieval Sourcebook again has a good selection of Anglo-Saxon literature.

-The Lindisfarne Gospels. Christianity is more than just words, and even our books show it! The best online resource is the one given by the British Library.

I am probably not actually the best guide for this, though. My specialties for this era are south and east of these isles. Hence my third recommendation: read Insular Christianity in its mediaeval context. If s0-called ‘Celtic’ Christianity begins with Patrick, things afoot on the isles are concurrent with Sts. Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus. Start c. 400 and grab a book or two about the late antique and early mediaeval church:

-R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Read this after the closing chapters of:

-H. Chadwick, The Early Church. Both are from the Pelican History of the Church.

-J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology.

-For the material aspect of the Early Medieval world, see N. Wolf, Romanesque, from Taschen.

If you’re curious to know what else I, of all people, have to say about Christianity in early mediaeval Britain and Ireland, you should read ‘Rosslyn Chapel, “the Celts”, and the Christianisation of Europe’ to start, and then a large quantity of weekly saints, including our first-ever, St. Columba (who was revisited and whose demonological struggles were considered), the ‘Celtic’ saints Patrick, AidanKentigern (Mungo), and the English saints Cuthbert, Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, Bede, Caedmon, Hilda, Alphege. Alphege may be pushing it — he’s eleventh-century. As well, there is ‘The Venerable Bede on Prayer.’ I should post my thoughts from November’s trip to Lindisfarne soon, I think …

*Ressourcement is a ‘return to the sources’; I have blogged about the ‘original’ ressourcement, about monastic ressourcement, and about the current ‘evangelical’ ressourcement. These returns to the sources all involve the reading of ancient and early mediaeval Christian texts as a way of moving forward in contemporary theology and practice.

4 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity

  1. Given that law/ the creation of codes of conduct tell us much about how groups identify themselves [says the canon law person!!]… might I also suggest a most excellent source :
    Ludwig Bieler, The Irish Penitentials, (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Volume V), 1963.

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