I don’t know Irish, so that Irish in parentheses in the title is possibly wrong. Anyway, this blog is many things, as you know. One of those things is not only to be a source of meditations upon the Great Tradition of Christianity — ancient, mediaeval, modern — but also to draw you to the sources — texts, art, practices — of the Great Tradition. To that end, I put together some bibliographies a while ago (basic, not-so-basic, on the Trinity, the Church Fathers online as well as ‘where to begin‘); there’s a chance I should tweak these, but every time I try, I don’t know what to add/remove!
To these bibliographies I have now added ‘Sources for “Celtic” Christianity.’ I think there is much wisdom amongst Christianity as it was practised in the British Isles from the Late Roman period to the Early Middle Ages (and beyond, frankly — two words: St Anselm). A lot of other people have, over the years, found something fresh and new in these Insular expressions of the Christian faith, such as we find in poems like this one attributed to St Brigid of Kildare (451-525):
I would like to have the men of Heaven
in my own house;
with vats of good cheer
laid out for them.
I would like to have the three Marys,
their fame is so great.
I would like people
from every corner of Heaven.
I would like them to be cheerful
in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus, too,
here amongst them.
I would like a great lake of beer
for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
drinking it through all eternity. (Source: Celtic Literature Collective)
Irish, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon saints live in a world that, to modern(ist/ised) eyes seems liminal in many ways. They wrestle with demons. They encounter Christ and the saints in dreams. They feel a oneness in God’s good creation. They make friends with birds. These men and women from the edge of the mediaeval world draw us in.
Much ink has been spilled over the centuries praising the early saints of Ireland and Scotland, and in the past several decades there has arisen a movement of ‘Celtic’ spirituality amongst Protestant Christians that has both ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’/’charismatic’ strands. Some of the material from this Celtic spiritual movement is fairly accurate in its portrayal of Insular Christianity. Other material is not — although some of that other material may still be helpful to modern readers!
Thinking about ‘Celtic’ — Insular — Christianity, I wish to strip away much of this modern romanticism. Yes, there is much good amongst these particular Christians. If they can enliven your spiritual life, set you on fire for Christ, and draw you nearer to him — good! But they are not perfect, and Christianity on the Continent was not hopelessly lost and warped, either. In order, therefore, to clarify the water, we need to come to grips with the actual writings and sources and art and liturgy of these communities.
What were the actual spiritual practices of Christians in Ireland and the British Isles?
What was their relationship with the Continent?
What were their theological teachings?
The best place to start is the writings themselves. So I put together a bibliography of primary sources. I’ve not read them all, but hopefully they will be helpful. If there are texts within my temporal bounds (up to 793) that I should include, let me know!
Tomorrow, 16 November, is the feast of Queen St Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). St Margaret is kind of a big deal around here. Edinburgh’s oldest building is a wee, 12th-century chapel dedicated to her up at Edinburgh Castle (when Thomas Randolph demolished the Castle in 1314, he left the chapel intact out of respect). Just to the West of the city is South Queensferry (named after Queen Margaret) — this takes you to North Queensferry in Fife. Edinburgh also has a Queen Margaret University. The Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics all have churches named for her. Dunfermline has the foundations of her old mediaeval shrine.
My first contact with Queen Margaret was her chapel up at the Castle — a lovely bit of Romanesque. I then encountered her at the Christian Heritage centre at the church I attend — she is remembered there for her piety and acts of charity towards the poor of Edinburgh. Indeed, her biographer, Bishop Turgot of St Andrew’s, was a big fan Queen Margaret’s acts of mercy.
Queen St Margaret is also one of the last Aethelings! This alone makes her pretty cool. She is a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great and granddaughter to Edmund Ironside. When the Danes made good their bid for the English throne, the Aethelings took refuge on the Continent. Margaret was born in Hungary. In 1057, however, Margaret was back on English soil. And when the Normans made good their bid for the English throne in 1066 (recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the French being God’s punishment on the English for their sins), Margaret’s young brother Edgar was, in fact, a source of resistance against the William the Bastard (to no avail, obviously).
Margaret wisely fled the Normans who weren’t overfond of English nobility, and the Aetheling ship landed in Fife on the Firth of Forth at St Margaret’s Hope (not its name at the time!), where they were met by King Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ (yes, from Shakespeare’s Scottish play). In 1070, Margaret and Malcolm were wed.
According to Turgot, Margaret wasn’t all that fussed about getting hitched and procreating and all that sort of thing. Nonetheless, she did her duty as a wife, but tried her best to spend more of her time praying and reading the Bible than being tied down by the worldly cares of her man. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t Turgot feeling awkward at the obvious sanctity of a non-virgin mother of several children who seemed to have a happy marriage — few mediaeval saints are married, after all, and virginity/celibacy was regarded as a higher way of life by many Christians since Late Antiquity. On the other hand, maybe these thoughts had infiltrated Margaret as well as Turgot, so she felt compelled to express her feminine piety in non-marriage-related ways, extolling the virtues of virginity? Who knows.
Anyway, Malcolm and Margaret seem to have ruled well together. Margaret did not convert the court into a semi-monastic world as some pious mediaeval monarchs seem to have attempted. Neither did she indulge in the sort of lavish lifestyle many a mediaeval aristocrat would have enjoyed. Since she believed in duty and decorum, for example, she made sure that the people at court were well decked out.
As mentioned above, Queen St Margaret is famous for her acts of mercy. She would wash the feet and feed the poor herself. She gave alms regularly and encourage Malcolm Canmore to do likewise. She established the ferry at Queensferry for the many pilgrims headed for St Andrews.
Her piety is also known from her love of books and of the Scriptures. She spent many hours reading, and we still have her own Gospel Book, now in the possession of the Bodleian Library. It is a fine specimen of eleventh-century English/Insular manuscript production.
When St Margaret was not engaged in acts of mercy or reading the Scriptures, she could often be found at prayer. In Lent she had a particularly rigorous personal round of prayers every morning. According to Turgot, she recited the entirety of the Psalter. Twice.
Really, this love of Scripture and Psalm-singing makes her sound quite Presbyterian. 😉
St Margaret’s personal piety also involved the visiting of hermits and other holy men throughout Scotland, whose wisdom and way of life she greatly admired. She sought the counsel of Turgot, both when he was in Dunfermline, and later as Bishop of St Andrew’s. She fasted and ate and drank with moderation, although this seems to have adversely affected her health.
As a monarch, Queen Margaret’s pious activity had much influence on the church of her day. She and Malcolm founded the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dunfermline where they had been married, now Dunfermline Abbey, with a palace nearby. She requested that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury and her spiritual father, to send up Benedictines. Dunfermline Abbey thus became Scotland’s first Benedictine Abbey. The present building dates to David I (of course) and is a fine Romanesque structure:
Margaret also requested that Lanfranc send up some clerics from England who were well versed in the canons and ways of the Roman faith. Thus was hosted a synod where the Scottish church was regularised to be in greater conformity to existent Roman practice, such as starting Lent on Ash Wednesday instead of Clean Monday (because Sundays do not count to the forty days in western canonical practice, so four extra days are to be hunted down), receiving Holy Communion on Easter, and not working on Sundays.
There was also at this synod a move to regularise the celebration of the Eucharist in some parts of Scotland that was at the time being performed ‘according to some sort of strange rite, contrary to the usage of the whole Church.’ (Turgot, Life of St Margaret II.20) What this entails, we do not know. My little booklet from St Margaret’s chapel claims the use of Gaelic, but Turgot does not say that. It is some sort of rite, not the language thereof. In the notes to his translation, William Forbes-Leith says that this was probably the rite of the Cele De (those who have devoted themselves to the service of God), who seem to be a particular variety of secular canon that was established in the Scottish church in the ninth century, and the name sometimes refers to unmarried laymen who lived together in community. Their rite both before and after St Margaret differed from the general practice of the rest of the Scotland. Presumably it is something was developed for themselves by themselves much like the offices of the different religious orders in later centuries.
What I’m digging at, then, is not that there was some widespread, homegrown, anti-Rome ‘Celtic’ liturgy being practised everywhere before St Margaret and that it was in Gaelic. What I think is going is rather that certain groups in certain parts of Scotland had developed their own, homegrown, personal liturgies that had nothing to do with our romanticised conceptualisations of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Roman’ Christianity.
In all, St Margaret led a holy lifestyle in the midst of her worldly care. I have no doubt that it was probably easier for the nobility to spend so many hours in prayer than for the labouring class. Nonetheless, the evidence for what goes on throughout the mediaeval world is that few nobility seem to have used their freedom to be religiously disciplined. They used it instead for licence. Indeed, so do most of us when given our own time, forgetting the words of St Paul that we were bought at a price and our life is not our own. How many of us, given an extra half hour, pray or read the Scriptures instead of catching a show on Netflix?
This alone makes Queen Margaret, the pearl of Scotland, a cut above the rest.
And her acts of mercy are the evidence that such prayer and Scripture reading actually had an effect.
Queen Margaret died in 1093 and was buried with her husband in Dunfermline Abbey. You can still see the foundations of her shrine there today. Her head, which was placed in its own reliquary in the Middle Ages, was squirrelled away to France during the Reformation by pious Catholics. Her body and that of Malcolm reside in the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain — where I spent a week, unknowing of their royal presences! An opportunity lost.
This is partly an attempt to get the Saint of the Week off the ground, partly a commemoration of St Patrick’s Day.
Today I (sort of) read the fifth-century Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine. In the year 431, he tells us:
Palladius, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, was the first bishop sent to the Scots believing in Christ. (trans. A. C. Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, p. 68)
Now, if you’re not really paying attention (especially to dates), you are likely to take that as a reference to missionaries to Scotland. But it’s not. It’s a reference to a missionary to the Scots, who, at this stage, would have been a people group living in Ireland.
The Chronicle of Ireland gives us much the same thing for 431 (as do most [all?] other chronicles that touch on Palladius):
The kalends of January. In the 431st year from the Incarnation of the Lord, Palladius was ordained bishop by Celestine, bishop of the city of Rome, when Aetius and Valerius were consuls, and was the first to be sent to Ireland so that they might believe in Christ, in the eighth year of Theodosius [II]. (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, p. 63)
One would hope that the next year would be more informative about this not-so-famous bishop for the Irish. We get:
The kalends of January, AD 432. Patrick, i.e. the archbishop, came to Ireland and began to baptize the Irish in the ninth year of Theodosius II, in the first year of the episcopacy of Xistus, 42nd bishop of the Roman Church, in the fourth year of the reign of Lóegaire son of Niall . (This is the reckoning of Bede, Marcellinus and Isidore in their chronicles.) (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, pp. 63-4)
In its ensuing chapters, The Chronicle of Ireland gives us information about St Patrick’s mission. But the first we hear of Palladius is also the last.
My well of primary sources for early Irish history having now run dry, I turn to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer, a trusty book if ever there was one; it comes complete with a bibliography for each entry, after all. According to this source:
Palladius seems to have landed and worked mainly in Wicklow, where three places, Tigroney, Donard, and Cilleen Cormac (near Dunlavin), claim to be churches founded by him. His apostolate was not of long duration and was soon forgotten; it was in the interest of those emphasizing the role of Patrick that it should be. It seems likely that Palladius went from Ireland to Scotland, whether from distaste for his task or from the hostility which he encountered, or both, is not clear. He died there and the place of his death is claimed to be Forddun and there is still a cult of him in Aberdeen. It seems certain that Palladius and not Patrick was the first bishop to work in Ireland, that he is not to be identified with Patrick, that the evidence for a papal mission of Palladius is stronger than that for Patrick, and that a Scottish tradition that he preached in Scotland for twenty-three years is unreliable.
So there are the rest of the details we know about Palladius. What I think is most important, regardless of the task of sorting out the Palladius-Patrick chronology (which would require getting a hold of some other chronicles), is that Patrick is not the first missionary in Ireland. Not only that, neither Patrick nor Palladius is the first Christian in Ireland. Our earliest reference to Palladius is contemporary, and according to it, there were already Irish believing in Christ.
Palladius’ job was to go and be their pastor, their shepherd, to oversee the work and life of the Christians there, and to help link them with the wider Christian world. He seems to have given up on the Irish and gone to Scotland, but his little entry in Prosper is still of great significance for students of Christianity in Ireland.
His feast is July 7, so maybe you should drink a green beer in Palladius’ honour this July.
As I travel through the messiness that is church history from Constantine to the Reformation, hunting for those whom the institutional church hunted, I would like to branch off on the cusp of the big issues of the Middle Ages to bring to you …
The Synod of Whitby
Why is the Synod of Whitby worth bold letters in the centre of the page? Because the popular myth that surrounds Whitby, one that is intimately linked with modern visions of the ‘Celtic Church’, is that in 664, when King Oswiu and Northumberland chose to follow the current Roman calculations for Easter, they became ‘aligned’ with the Roman Church against the ‘Celtic’ Church in a clash of civilisations and worldviews. It was free-spirited Celt vs bureaucratic, legalistic Roman. Many people call 664 the end of Celtic Christianity. If you’re interested in Celtic spirituality, don’t look any later than this.
So, especially since the gathering was called by the King of Northumberland, it seems the perfect fit for the nastiness that is the official church and its organisms after Constantine ruined everything by daring to give bishops tax-free status.
I just read Benedicta Ward’s little booklet A True Easter: The Synod of Whiby 664 AD, and, well, the truth is messier and, quite frankly, doesn’t support the above reading which draws more upon nineteenth-century nationalism and contemporary Protestant/agnostic searches for early (Christian) spirituality that doesn’t require the presence of a Bishop in Rome.
First, what was this gathering actually about? It was about two things: the date of Easter and how monks should shave their heads. True story. That is all it was about. The latter is not so important. The former, on the other hand, was a big deal all over the ancient and early mediaeval church.
Why is the date of Easter a big deal? Why does it matter whether people celebrate it at the same time? Well, as the Venerable Bede points out, when the King of Northumberland celebrated Easter on one date and his Queen another, one would be feasting while the other was fasting (this is how similar the two practices were; basically the date was the only difference). This is the general complaint about different dates of Easter from time immemorial. It also matters because almost the entire liturgical year is centred around Easter; it sets the dates for the fast of Lent as well as the baptisms which traditionally occur at Easter and Pentecost. It was important for the ancient and mediaeval Christians, who lived in an almost completely oral society for whom visible signs meant more than they do today, that those who are united internally — that is, doctrinally — be united visibly as well.
The dispute about Easter first pops up, according to tradition, in the late 100s when some Christians in Asia Minor were found to be always celebrating Easter on 14 Nisan, that is, Passover — they were accordingly called Quartodecimans. Some people call the Roman episcopus Victor who sent the letter on this issue to the eastern churches the first ‘Pope’. Whatever that’s worth, Quartodecimans were not the end of such disputes, since calculating Easter is a bit tricky. Constantine, who very often tried to help the church find unity and uniformity in various matters, ruled that everyone should follow the Bishop of Alexandria, since Egyptians are good at astronomy and stuff. This didn’t stop Pope Leo I a little over a hundred years later arguing with the Bishop of Alexandria about what the right date would be.
Around 457 (while a frustrated Leo was Bishop of Rome), the Church in Rome decided to follow the Easter tables by Victorius of Aquitaine. This usage spread to the whole western Church that was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, including the Church in Ireland, which was in the process of being evangelised by missionary-bishop-monks sent from Rome.
So how do the Rome-evangelised churches in the south of England, and the Ireland-evangelised churches in the north of England end up with different dates for Easter?
Well, in 525, everyone’s favourite short monk from Scythia, Dionysius Exiguus, came up with new tables for calculating the date of Easter that would run until 1063. These were a bit better at calculating the combined solar-lunar cycle that determines Easter (apparently a tricky thing to this day), so the Roman Church and those in communion with her on the continent adopted the new cycle.
Ireland and Wales (and, as a result, the missions in Scotland and England) did not. I imagine this is because there was not a lot of contact between them and Spain and Gaul (let alone Italy!), especially since Spain and Gaul were busy being consolidated into barbarian kingdoms at the time, with the occasional invasion by a neighbour. When Augustine of Canterbury turned up in 597, the Welsh Christians resisted his calculation of Easter; for them, it does seem to have been a mark of resistance and individuality.
Sixty-seven years later at Whitby, however, the Irish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons and Irish who favoured the old Roman dating of Easter, and the Kentish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons who favoured the new Roman dating, were all simply appealing to what they saw as the authentic tradition. They had all partnered in mission, and some of them were married to people from the other side of the debate. Theologically, they were in agreement. It was the thorny issue of Easter and how to shave a monk’s head over which they disagreed. As Benedicta Ward paints the scene, this was a meeting of friends, of Christians who loved one another who wanted to solve a problem.
Except possibly Oswiu, for whom this was also a matter of secular politicking.
Anyway, the new Roman position won. Although Colman resigned his bishopric and monastery, his replacements in Lindisfarne were still Irish-trained; the only difference was the fact that they would follow the new date of Easter. When he left, some of the English monks followed him to Iona.
Ward points out that Bede speaks highly of the Irish missionaries and monks, finding their obstinacy concerning dating Easter as the only general fault. Their devotion to the theological truths of Easter he praises.
Eventually, all of England, Ireland, Scotland, and the isles adopted the new Roman date of Easter. While this may sound like reading history backwards, it still strikes me as inevitable. The entire church on the continent followed this practice, as did the churches in southern England with a mix in Northumberland. The Church of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages esteemed unity, and the celebration of the Church’s chiefest and principal feast was an important demonstration of that unity.
If you’re looking for a Roman church imposing its power over local practices, look not to the Synod of Whitby.
I would like to share with you several thoughts about method. Because perhaps my blog has inspired you to set out and read more ancient, medieval, (‘counter’)Reformation, ‘modern’ Christianity. There are two important, and (I believe) valid ways of reading historical Christianity — one is a devotional quest that asks, ‘What does this writer/piece of art/piece of music speak to me?’ This need not know history — but it must never parade as history.
The other, which I am to address now, requires the careful study of historical methodology to bring out different treasures than the above, the treasures that represent the authorial intention of a piece, the realities it addressed in its specific context and time. These, if of use, can still often be applied to today, just as the above is automatically applied.
Both, I repeat, are valid as approaches to texts as pathways to the divine.
But only the second is worthwhile as an approach to historical theology or the history of Christianity.
One area where the first and second often blur is the study of early mediaeval Christianity in Britain, Ireland, and associated smaller islands in their vicinity (henceforth ‘Insular’). This is most often perpetrated in the guise of an imagined ‘Pan-Celtic’ form of Christianity whereby all the quite varied cultures and polities and Celtic languages of Britain are imagined to be united in a golden age that precedes a post-seventh-century ‘Romanisation’ of Insular Christianity.
That’s something I’ve dealt with briefly before, and will mostly put to the side in what follows, as I turn my attention to the varied Germanic-speaking peoples who settled in Britannia following ca. AD 410 and whom we (and, eventually, they themselves) call ‘Anglo-Saxons’.
The Germanic-speaking peoples of western, northern, and central Europe are also imagined to be culturally monolithic in much the same way Celtic-speaking peoples are. This sort of ethnography is not precisely helpful when trying to understand a particular object or moment of history. Let us turn now to the Ruthwell Cross, which is in modern Scotland (early mediaeval Bernicia-Deira/Northumberland) near the Solway Firth. It’s very awesome and worth a visit — I’ve blogged about it here.
Of interest to my discussion is the poem on the Ruthwell Cross. It is about Christ mounting onto the cross as a triumphant, warrior king. This description is said to reflect the martial values of ‘Germanic’ society — certainly it reflects the martial values of Anglo-Saxon society, values largely shared by other peoples of western Europe after the ‘fall’ of Rome (itself a confused historiographical issue). Here’s the poem:
God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)
I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together. I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)
Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)
Wounded with spears,
they laid him, limb weary. At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)
My concern, to finally start getting to the point, is that some people apparently argue that this poem as well as the powerfully majestic ‘Dream of the Rood‘ are based on earlier, pagan versions. The evidence that they are based on pagan versions comes from the fact that in Eddic poetry of Scandinavia (Iceland and Norway, to be precise), Odin hangs from the World Tree Yggrdasil as part of his acquisition of Wisdom.
Now, if we wish to see all Germanic barbarians as the same, and especially Anglo-Saxons and their Norse cousins, this is a quick and easy interpretation to make.
But we can’t do this. It’s not historically viable. I’ve felt this for a long time, and Guy Halsall recently corroborated my concerns as I readsome of his book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West over a McFlurry today. He argues that we cannot use Eddic poetry as evidence for fourth-century Germanic-speaking peoples, given the fact that said Old Norse literature was recorded after the year 1200. To point out the fallibility of such uses, he writes:
One would make enormous errors reading central medieval christological ideas into late antique depictions of Christ. The Christ of the Saxon epic, the Heliand, is hardly recognisable as the Christ discussed by St Augustine 400 years earlier but the bishop of Hippo and the author of the poem would both have recognised a pictorial depiction of the crucifixion. These differences occurred even with written scripture, such as did not exist for ‘Germanic’ paganism, to anchor ideas. (p. 123; the Heliand is contintenal Saxon, not British)
All sorts of things happened between the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, when they would have parted company with the ancestors of the Old Norse writers of the Eddic lays, and the writing down of the lays. And all sorts of things happened in the two or three hundred years between the Anglo-Saxon peoples’ arrival in Britain and the erection of this cross.
The two hundred years of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain included the embracing of Christianity and a potential Christianising of a potential Odin poem; it also included various encounters with the post-Roman inhabitants of the islands and the cultures of Celtic-speaking Britain and Ireland. But did they have this particular myth about Odin? We can never know. We know they worshipped a divinity called Wotan; a conspicuous number of Anglo-Saxon kings trace their lineage to him. Yet it is dangerous to assume that we know any of the content of Anglo-Saxon pagan religious belief, which was probably at least as varied as Bede’s alleged Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
The Old Norse did have this myth.
But in the eight hundred years or so between the Anglo-Saxon departure from the Continent and the Old Norse writings, all sorts of things happened to the Old Norse — they became Vikings, developed complex kingship systems, settled Iceland and Greenland, explored Canada’s East Coast, founded Dublin, conquered Normandy, became Christians, traded with peopls in eastern Europe, visited Constantinople….
How can we say if this Odin story was the inspiration for the Ruthwell Cross?
I believe that saying as much is part of the ‘all Germanic peoples are the same’ myth of modern ethnography as well as the false idea that barbarian conversions were all necessarily syncretistic to some degree, and therefore succumbing to parallelomania — if a ‘Germanic’ or ‘Celtic’ Christian does something (or even has a name) that resembles some a ‘pagan’ ancestor did, this is evidence of syncretism. Which, quite frankly, it very often is not.
Did you know that the ‘Celtic’ abbey of Iona came stocked with the continental Fathers in Latin? (A very ‘Romanising’ thing for these free ‘Celts’ to do!) I have no evidence that they or Lindisfarne had access to Venantius Fortunatus (d. 609), but wouldn’t you say that ‘Vexilla Regis’ is as martial a predecessor as anything else? Alas, that he is so late and so classical! (Because, of course, no barbarian ever liked classical Latin.)
Abroad the regal banners fly,
now shines the Cross’s mystery:
upon it Life did death endure,
and yet by death did life procure.
O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.
Note that the ‘banners’ would better be translated as ‘standards’ — thus, martial. Written by a Latin Christian within a strong, classical tradition of Latin poetry. What can we do with that? The cultures of the ancient and mediaeval worlds are not simply ‘warlike barbarians’ and ‘civilised Greeks and Romans.’ None of it is so simple, as the above shows. The values we stereotype as ‘Germanic’ or ‘Celtic’ were very often also ‘Classical’, especially in this period.
My theory, since ‘Vexilla Regis’ is too late, is that there is a certain amount of cultural similarity throughout western Europe at this time regarding some aspects of the military in culture (that is to say, the rise of the warrior aristocracy), and that the Christians who live in a warlike age have warlike images of the crucifixion. The fact that Christ is hanging on a tree as a king in both cases requires no interference from Odin and Yggdrasil — for Christ is the king (very much so in the Anglo-Saxon hero-hagiographic poem Andreas) who hung on a tree.
These are the real origins of the similarities, if you ask me, not some shared primeval Germanic memory common to Anglo-Saxons in southern Scotland in the 600s and Scandinavians in Iceland and Norway in the 1200s.
Now, not all of you have read the Ruthwell Cross Inscription, ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, and Venantius Fortunatus, let alone some of the secondary literature. So how can you be a discerning reader? I mean, you’re not doing PhDs (well, some of you aren’t).
Many good translations of sources come with good introductions. Unfortunately, while the Penguin Classics translation of documents pertinent to Alfred the Great comes with a good introduction, Letters from a Stoic by Seneca does not. So Penguins, though readily available, are hit and miss, both as translations and as introductions.
However, I would say that you can generally trust the introductions to the volumes in the following series: Oxford World’s Classics, Translated Texts for Historians, SVS Press’ Popular Patristics Series, Ancient Christian Writers, and the Classics of Western Spirituality.
Study is a spiritual discipline, so if you are really interested in, say, the devotional practices of St Cuthbert and other monks of Lindisfarne, be willing to take the time to verify how your sources are to be interpreted. For ancients, go to your local public library and see if they have Johannes Quasten’s Patrology or Hubertus Drobner’s The Fathers of the Church. Look up the author in The Dictionary of the Middle Ages or The Dictionary of Byzantium. In the case of Cuthbert, see what the Cambridge Companion to Bede may have to offer.
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.
At least nine, and possibly more than twenty, people have read yesterday’s post, Brief Thoughts on the Green Man. I would like to draw the attention of my readers to some posts here that may de-fuse any sticky situations that may arise from people who think I’m off my rocker or have no clue what I’m talking about. In anti-chronological order, they are:
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):
-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.
–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.
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:
My wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel, a Scottish Episcopal Church in the village of Roslin just outside Edinburgh, the other day. It has been made famous by the infamous Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code. Its (probable/possible) connexions to the Knights Templar has made for a wealth of exuberant speculation about the myriad decorations in this Collegiate Church of St. Matthew.
Outside of things directly traceable to the Freemasons, with whom the St. Clairs — the Lords of Rosslyn — have historically-attested connexions, most of this speculation is … silly, in my opinion. The sort of silliness borne of people who hear “Freemason” think “Templar” and then see something ornate and think “Code,” rather than “MEDIAEVAL.”
In this beautiful, ornate chapel there are 110 Green Men. Now, if you don’t know about the Green Man, he’s not a mediaeval proto-extraterrestrial. He is a carven image of a man’s head surrounded by foliage and with foliage coming out of his mouth. Some modern renderings of the Green Man make him entirely out of plants. The Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel, from what I saw, are of the former variety.
Here is what the current Earl of Rosslyn in Rosslyn Chapel says:
Over one hundred [Green Men] have been counted in the interior of the building, a profusion of pagan fertility symbols not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition. … The green man symbolised the capacity for great goodness and the parallel scope for significant evil. (21-22)
The Earl goes on to give us a bit of Robin Hood, connecting him with the Green Man.
What surprised me and provoked this post was the statement that pagan fertility symbols are “not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition.” What Celtic tradition, exactly? That of Freemasonry? Or that of the Irish monks who were virulently anti-pagan and Christianised Scotland? Or that of the … continental … Gothic … architecture of Rosslyn Chapel …??
Facts: The Green Man is not peculiarly Celtic, and Rosslyn Chapel is not especially “Celtic”, and this region of Scotland was settled by Anglo-Saxons in the Early Middle Ages, so it was not really very “Celtic” by 1446 when construction began on the chapel.
I’m not going to argue that the Green Man is something other than a pagan fertility symbol (I reckon that’s exactly where he comes from — as to why he’s on churches, that’s a different question altogether), although I’m curious as to the stuff about goodness and evil — it sounds like romanticised neo-paganism to me.
But I am going to argue that the presence of pagan things has nothing to do with Celtic-ness in these whereabouts, even if the Pictish population of Mid- and East Lothian had not been assimilated by the Germanic invaders. Or, at least, if it’s related to Celtic-ness here, it’s just as related to Italian-ness in Italy, Cypriot-ness in Cyprus, Spanish-ness in Spain, French-ness in France, Germanic-ness in the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.
Conversion to Christianity took a new turn after Constantine’s conversion in the early 300’s, a turn that was kicked into high gear by Theodosius I in 381 when pagan rites in the Roman Empire were outlawed. Justinian (r. 527-565) sought the forcible conversion of pagans throughout Asia Minor and hunted down idolaters in his Christian capital of Constantinople. With a growing number of Christian rulers and potentates, conversion to Christianity became a matter of more than merely personal conviction.
In some cases, as with Olav in Norway or Charlemagne amongst the mainland Saxons, converting meant that you got to keep your life. In other cases, converting meant you got to keep your land, your titles, your money. In some cases, converting meant that you got a better job at court, or extra land, extra titles, and extra money. There were very compelling reasons to become a “Christian”, and not all of them had to do with the death of a Jewish rabbi c. AD 33.
The Christianisation of Europe is an interesting phenomenon as a result. It is true that there has always been a notable population of sincere, honest, devout, catechised Christians in the cities and towns of Europe. It is also true that paganism often went underground in the Middle Ages — even in an ostensibly “Christian” city such as Constantinople; this is often what “witches” were up to, I suspect — worshipping pre-Christian deities with pre-Christian rites.
Sometimes, paganism was simply syncretised into Christianity. Thus, at the Church built on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus, to this day women wishing to conceive wrap threads around the building. There is the possibility that St. Brigid of Kildare (not to be confused with the many other Sts. Brigid) was just the slapping of an ST onto a local deity. A lot of local festivals of fire have been maintained to this day. There are more, but I’m tired.
All of this is to say that the Celtic-speaking peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were no more keen on paganism than the Germanic-, Romance-, Greek-, and Slavic-speaking peoples of mainland Europe. Any pagan connexion the Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel may have is not due to any so-called “Celtic” connexions the area may have had.
But, you see, this problem is the problem of the mythic “Celts.” Everyone lays claim to the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, sometimes tossing in some of the continental Gauls for fun. The evangelicals see them as some sort of Church free from Roman influence, while the Catholics see them as good Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox as good Western Orthodox. The Neo-pagans and New Agers get all excited about them, too, and lay claim to these peoples as their own. One article I’ve seen discusses the similarities between “Celtic” thought and St. Maximus the Confessor; another wonders at the great similarities between “Celts” and Buddhists.
Basically, say anything you like about being free-spirited, and earthy, and in touch with nature, and making distinctive art forms, and believing in the closeness of the numinous, and being free from oppressive hierarchies, and about making Christianity real to the culture you’re in — or about resisting subversively the influx of Christian ideas — and attribute it to “the Celts”, and you have a hit. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.
So many of the things people imagine to be distinctively Celtic, such as Green Men or the persistence of pagan images and ideas throughout the Middle Ages, are, quite simply, Mediaeval. But we don’t have enough Mediaevalists to go around, do we?
Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.
St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.
Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.
Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.
This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.
The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.
The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.
Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.
Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.
The path of Bollandist may be futile.
The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.
When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.
So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?
Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?
Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.
St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.
St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).
St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.
St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.
These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.