Adamnán’s Life of Columba

Adamnan of IonaI have blogged about St. Columba here before; he was the first saint of the week and I revisited his life somewhat recently, and considered his relevance for early mediaeval demonology. Today, I am going to briefly consider not Columba but his Life, his Vita by Adamnán, the hagiography of an early ‘Celtic’ saint.

My post is inspired by a recently released article by Roy Gibson in the Journal of Roman Studies about, of all things, letter collections. What he has to say about ancient letter collections is very interesting, but is largely irrelevant to this saint’s life. What is relevant is his discussion of genre at one point when he is thinking about why ancient letter collections are not arranged in chronological order the way modern editors like to have them.

He has two genres that may have influenced them that are directly relevant to our reading of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. One is ancient biography as practised by Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius does not give his reader a blow-by-blow, chronological account of his subjects’ lives. Rather, he groups the events in their lives according to themes, of categories of actions from the emperor’s life.

The other relevant genre is encomium, the ancient practice of writing documents in praise of a person. These are not properly chronological, either, but grouped according to category and theme.

This helps me make a bit more sense of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. You see, when I first read this text, I found it a strange and troubling creature. Adamnán does not treat of his subject in chronological order. Indeed, I felt (feel?) it entirely impossible to get a proper biography of the saint from this Vita, a biography that begins with his birth, ends with his death, and gives the reader a series of events in the order they occurred.

Instead, Adamnán gives his reader collections of miracles of differing sorts, such as visions or healings or what-have-you. Since my main exposure to hagiography has been of the sort as is Athanasius’ Life of Antony or Cyril of Scythopolis various Lives of Palestinian monks, I found this way of telling a saint’s life odd and troubling, but I went along with it and read the various miracle stories with interest.

Now, however, I get it better. (All you need give me is an ancient precedent.) Early mediaeval Adamnán, who dies in 704, is writing within ancient traditions, not only of hagiography but of biography and encomium — indeed, one would argue that these are two of the most influential genres upon ancient hagiography. He is giving us reasons for Columba’s sanctity. He is showing us the various categories of miracle wrought by Columba. He is showing us the most important facets of this saint’s life. He is praising Columba and giving his reader cause to praise Columba, and thereby God himself, through this encomiastic piece of hagiography.

With this in mind, I’ve no doubt that more saints’ lives I shall inevitably come across will make more sense. The point is not a precise chronological account of the saint’s life. That is biography. The point is to demonstrate holiness and stir up the soul of the reader to worship Christ and live in sanctity as well. This can be effectively achieved with Adamnán’s style, I am certain.

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