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From The Mediaeval Mind, A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor in Two Volumes, Volume I., MacMillan Co., New York, 1911; pp. 169-179.






THE northern peoples, Celts and Teutons for the most part as they are called, came into contact with Roman civilization as the great Republic brought Gaul and Britain under its rule. Since Rome was still pagan when these lands were made provinces, an unchristianized Latinity was grafted upon their predominantly Celtic populations. The second stage, as it were, of this contact between Rome and the north, is represented by that influx of barbarians, mostly Teutonic, which, in both senses of the word, quickened the disruption of the Empire in the fourth and following centuries. The religion called after the name of Christ had then been accepted; and invading Goths, Franks, Burgundians, Lombards, and the rest, were introduced to a somewhat Christianized Latindom. Indeed, in the Latin-Christian combination, the latter was becoming dominant, and was soon to be the active influence in extending even the antique culture. For Christianity, with Latinity in its train, was to project itself outward to subjugate heathen Anglo-Saxons in England, Frisians in the Low Countries, and the unkempt Teutondom which roved east of the Rhine, and was ever pressing southward over the boundaries of former provinces, now reverting to unrest. In past times the assimilating energy of Roman civilization had united western Europe in a common social order. Henceforth Christianity was to be the prime amalgamator, 170 while the survivals of Roman institutions and the remnants of antique culture were to assist in secondary rôles. With Charles Martell, with Pippin, and with Charlemagne, Latin Christianity is the symbol of civilized order, while heathendom and savagery are identical.


The conversion of the northern peoples, and their incidental introduction to profane knowledge, wrought upon them deeply; while their own qualities and the conditions of their lives affected their understanding of what they received and their attitude toward the new religion. Obviously the dissemination of Christianity among rude peoples would be unlike that first spreading of the Gospel through the Empire, in the course of which it had been transformed to Greek and Latin Christianity. Italy, Spain, and Gaul made the western region of this primary diffusion of the Faith. Of a distinctly missionary character were the further labours which resulted in the conversion of the fresh masses of Teutons who were breaking into the Roman pale, or were still moving restlessly beyond it. Moreover, between the time of the first diffusion of Christianity within the Empire and that of its missionary extension beyond those now decayed and fallen boundaries, it had been formulated dogmatically, and given ecclesiastical embodiment in a Catholic church into which had passed the conquering and organizing genius of Rome. This finished system was presented to simple peoples, sanctioned by the authority and dowered with the surviving culture of the civilized world. It offered them mightier supernatural aid, nobler knowledge and a better ordering of life than they had known. The manner and authority of its presentation hastened its acceptance, and also determined the attitude toward it of the new converts and their children for generations. Theirs was to be the attitude of ignorance before recognized wisdom, and that of a docility which revered the manner and form as well as the substance of its lesson. The development of mediaeval Europe was affected by the mode and circumstances of this secondary propagation of Christianity. For centuries the 171 northern peoples were to be held in tutelage to the form and constitution of that which they had received: they continued to revere the patristic sources of Christian doctrines, and to look with awe upon the profane culture accompanying them.

Thus, as under authority, Christianity came to the Teutonic peoples, even to those who, like the Goths, were converted to the Arian creed. Likewise the orthodox belief was brought to the Celtic Britons and Irish as a superior religion associated with superior culture. But the qualities or circumstances of these western Celts reacted more freely upon their form of faith, because Ireland and Britain were the fringe of the world, and Christianity was hardly fixed in dogma and ritual when the conversion at least of Britain began.

Certain phrases of Tertullian indicate that Christianity had made some progress among the Britons by the beginning of the third century. For the next hundred years nothing is known of the British Church, save that it did not suffer from the persecution under Diocletian in 304, and ten years afterwards was represented by three bishops at the Council of Arles. It was orthodox, accepting the creed of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and the date of Easter there fixed. The fourth century seems to have been the period of its prosperity. It was affiliated with the Church of Gaul; nor did these relations cease at once when the Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain in 410. But not many decades later the Saxon invasion began to cut off Britain from the Christian world. After a while certain divergences appear in rite and custom, though not in doctrine. They seem not to have been serious when Gildas wrote in 550. Yet when Augustine came, fifty years later, the Britons celebrated Easter at a different date from that observed by the Roman Catholic Church; for they followed the old computation which Rome had used before adopting the better method of Alexandria. Also the mode of baptism and the tonsure differed from the Roman.

At the close of the sixth century the British Church existed chiefly in Wales, whither the Britons had retreated before the Saxons. Formerly there had been no unwillingness 172 to follow the Church of Rome. But now a long period had elapsed, during which Britain had been left to its misfortunes. The Britons had been raided and harassed; their country invaded; and at last they had been driven from the greater portion of their land. How they hated those Saxon conquerors! And forsooth a Roman mission appears to convert those damned and hateful heathen, and a somewhat haughty summons issues to the expelled or downtrodden people to abandon their own Christian usages for those of the Roman communion, and then join this Roman mission in its saving work among those Saxons whom the Britons had met only at the spear’s point. Love of ancient and familiar customs soured to obstinacy in the face of such demands; a sweeping rejection was returned. Yet to conform to Roman usages and join with Augustine in his mission to the Saxons, was the only way in which the dwindling British Church could link itself to the Christian world, and save its people from exterminating wars. By refusing, it committed suicide.

A refusal to conform, although no refusal to undertake missions to the Saxons, came from the Irish-Scottish Church. As Ireland had never been drawn within the Roman world, its conversion was later than that of Britain. Yet there would seem to have been Christians in Ireland before 431; for in that year, according to an older record quoted by Bede, Palladius, the first bishop (primus episcopus), was sent by Celestine the Roman pontiff ”ad Scottos in Christum credentes.“1 The mission of Palladius does not appear to have been acceptable to the Irish. Some accounts have confused his story with that of Patrick, the ”Apostle of Ireland,“ whose apostolic glory has not been overthrown by criticism. The more authentic accounts, and above all his own Confession, go far to explain Patrick’s success. His early manhood, passed as a slave in Antrim, gave him understanding of the Irish; and doubtless his was a great missionary capacity and zeal. The natural approach to such a people was through their tribal kings, and Patrick 173 appears to have made his prime onslaught upon Druidical heathendom at Tara, the abode of the high king of Ireland. The earliest accounts do not refer to any authority from Rome. Patrick seems to have acted from spontaneous inspiration; and a like independence characterizes the monastic Christianity which sprang up in Ireland and overleapt the water to Iona, to Christianize Scotland as well as northern Anglo-Saxon heathendom.

Irish monasticism was an ascetically ordered continuance of Irish society. If, like other early western monasticism, it derived suggestions from Syria or Egypt, it was far more the product of Irish temperament, customs, and conditions. One may also find a potent source in the monastic communities alleged to have existed in Ireland in the days of the Druids. Doubtless many members of that caste became Christian monks.

The noblest passion of Irish monastic Christianity was to peregrinare for the sake of Christ, and spread the Faith among the heathen; the most interesting episodes of its history are the wanderings and missionary labours and foundations of its leaders. The careers of Columba and Columbanus afford grandiose examples. Something has been said of the former. The monastery which he founded on the Island of Iona was the Faith’s fountainhead for Scotland and the Saxon north of England in the sixth and seventh centuries. About the time of Columba’s birth, men from Dalriada on the north coast of Ireland crossed the water to found another Dalriada in the present Argyleshire, and transfer the name of Scotia (Ireland) to Scotland. When Columba landed at Iona, these settlers were hard pressed by the heathen Picts under King Brude or Bridius. Accompanied by two Pictish Christians, he penetrated to Brude’s dwelling, near the modern Inverness, converted that monarch in 565, and averted the overthrow of Dalriada. For the next thirty years Columba and his monks did not cease from their labour; numbers of monasteries were founded, daughters of Iona; and great parts of Scotland became Christian at least in name. The supreme authority was the Abbot of Iona with his council of monks; ”bishops“ performed their function under him. Early in the seventh 174 century, St. Aidan was ordained bishop in Iona and sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons of Northumberland. The story of the Irish Church in the north is one of effective mission work, but unsuccessful organization, wherein it was inferior to the Roman Church. Its representatives suffered defeat at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Fifty years afterward Iona gave up its separate usages and accepted the Roman Easter.2

The missionary labours of the Irish were not confined to Great Britain, but extended far and wide through the west of Europe. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monasteries were founded in Austrasia and Burgundy, Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria; they were established among Frisians, Saxons, Alemanni. And as centres of Latin education as well as Christianity, the names of Bobbio and St. Gall will occur to every one. Of these, the first directly and the second through a disciple were due to Columbanus. With him we enter the larger avenues of Irish missions to the heathen, the semi-heathen, and the lax, and upon the question of their efficacy in the preservation of Latin education throughout the rent and driven fragments of the western Roman Empire. The story of Columban’s life is illuminating and amusing.3

He was born in Leinster. While yet a boy he felt the 175 conflict between fleshly lusts and that counter-ascetic passion which throughout the Christian world was drawing thousands into monasteries. Asceticism, with desire for knowledge, won the victory, and the youth entered the monastery of Bangor, in the extreme north-east of Ireland. There he passed years of labour, study, and self-mortification. At length the pilgrim mission-passion came upon him (coepit peregrinationem desiderare) and his importunity overcame the abbot’s reluctance to let him depart. Twelve disciples are said to have followed him across the water to the shores of Britain. There they hesitated in anxious doubt, till it was decided to cross over to Gaul.

This was about the year 590. Columban’s austere and commanding form, his fearlessness, his quick and fiery tongue, impressed the people among whom he came. Reports of his holiness spread; multitudes sought his blessing. He traversed the country, preaching and setting his own stern example, until he reached the land of the Burgundians, where Gontran, a grandson of Clovis, reined. Well received by this ruler, Columban established himself in an old castle. His disciples grew in numbers, and after a while Gontran granted him an extensive Roman structure called Luxovium (Luxeuil) situated at the confines of the Burgundian and Austrasian kingdoms. Columban converted this into a monastery, and it soon included many noble Franks and Burgundians among its monks. For them he composed a monastic regula, stern and cruel in its penalties of many stripes imposed for trivial faults. ”Whoever may wish to know his strenuousness (strenuitatem) will find it in his precepts,“ writes the monk Jonas, who had lived under him.

The strenuousness of this masterful and overbearing man was displayed in his controversy with the Gallican clergy, upon whom he tried to impose the Easter day observed by the Celtic Church, in the British Isles. In his letter to the Gallican synod, he points out their errors, and lectures them on their Christian duties, asking pardon at the end for his loquacity and presumption. Years afterwards, entering upon another controversy, he wrote an extraordinary letter to Pope Boniface IV. The superscription is 176 Hibernian: ”To the most beautiful head of all the churches of entire Europe, the most sweet pope, the most high president, the most reverent investigator: O marvellous! mirum dictu! nova res! rara avis! — that the lowest to the loftiest, the clown to the polite, the stammerer to the prince of eloquence, the stranger to the son of the house, the last to the first, that the Wood-pigeon (Palumbus) should dare to write to Father Boniface!“ Whereupon this Wood-pigeon writes a long letter in which belligerent expostulation alternates with self-debasement. He dubs himself, ”garrulus, presumptuosus, homunculus vilissimae qualitatis,“ who caps his impudence by writing unrequested. He implores pardon for his harsh and too biting speech, while he deplores — to him who sat thereon — the infamia of Peter’s Seat, and shrills to the Pope to watch: ”Vigila itaque, quaeso, papa, vigila; et iterum dico: vigila“; and he marvels at the Pope’s lethal sleep.

One who thus berated pope and clergy might be censorious of princes. Gontran died. After various dynastic troubles, the Burgundian land came under the rule nominally of young Theuderic, but actually of his imperious grandmother, the famous Brunhilde. In order that no queen-wife’s power should supplant her own, she encouraged her grandson to content himself with mistresses. The youth stood in awe of the stern old figure ruling at Luxeuil, who more than once reproved him for not wedding a lawful queen. It happened one day when Columban was at Brunhilde’s residence that she brought out Theuderic’s various sons for him to bless. ”Never shall sceptre be held by this brothel-brood,“ said he.

Henceforth it was war between these two: Theuderic was the pivot of the storm; the one worked upon his fears, the other played upon his lusts. Brunhilde prevailed. She incited the king to insist that Luxeuil be made open to all, and with his retinue to push his way into the monastery. The saint withstood him fiercely, and prophesied his ruin. The king drew back; the saint followed, heaping reproaches on him, till the young king said with some self-restraint: ”You hope to win the crown of martyrdom through me. But I am not a lunatic, to commit such a crime. I have a 177 better plan: since you won’t fall in with the ways of men of the world, you shall go back by the road you came.“

So the king sent his retainers to seize the stubborn saint. They took him as a prisoner to Besançon. He escaped, and hurried back to Luxeuil. Again the king sent, this time a count with soldiers, to drive him from the land. They feared the sacrilege of laying hands on the old man. In the church, surrounded by his monks praying and singing psalms, he awaited them. ”O man of God,“ cried the count, ”we beseech thee to obey the royal command, and take thy way to the place from which thou camest.“ ”Nay, I will rather please my Creator, by abiding here,“ returned the saint. The count retired, leaving a few rough soldiers to carry out the king’s will. These, still fearing to use violence, begged the saint to take pity on them, unjustly burdened with this evil task — to disobey their orders meant death. The saint reiterates his determination to abide, till they all on their knees, cling to his robe, and with groans implore his pardon for the crime they must execute.

From pity the saint yields at last, and a company of the king’s men make ready and escort him from the kingdom westward toward Brittany. Many miracles mark the journey. They reach the Loire, and embark on it. Proceeding down the river they come to Tours, where the saint asks to be allowed to land and worship at St. Martin’s shrine. The leader bids the rowers keep the middle of the stream and row on. But the boat resistlessly made its way to the landing-place. Columban passed the night at the shrine, and the next day was hospitably entertained by the bishop, who inquired why he was returning to his native land. ”The dog Theuderic has driven me from my brethren,“ answered the saint. At last Nantes was reached near the mouth of the Loire, where the vessel was waiting to carry the exile back to Ireland. Columban wrote a letter to his monks, in which he poured forth his love to them with much advice as to their future conduct. The letter is filled with grief — suppressed lest it unman his beloved children. ”While I write, the messenger comes to say that the ship is ready to bear me, unwilling, to my 178 country. But there is no guard to prevent my escape, and these people even seem to wish it.“

The letter ends, but not the story. Columban did not sail for Ireland. Jonas says the vessel was miraculously impeded, and that then Columban was permitted to go whither he would. So the dauntless old man travelled back from the sea, and went to the Neustrian Court, the people along the way bringing him their children to bless. He did not rest in Neustria, for the desire was upon him to preach to the heathen. Making his way to the Rhine, he embarked near Mainz, ascended the river, and at last established himself, with his disciples, upon the lake of Constance. There they preached to the heathen, and threw their idols into the lake. He had the thought to preach to the Wends, but this was not to be.

The time soon came when all Austrasia fell into the hands of Brunhilde and Theuderic, and Columbanus decided to cross over into northern Italy, breaking out in anger at his disciple Gall, who was too sick to go with him. With other disciples he made the arduous journey, and reached the land of the Lombards. King Agilulf made him a gift of Bobbio, lying in a gorge of the Apennines near Genoa, and there he founded the monastery which long was to be a stronghold of letters. For himself, his career was well-nigh run; he retired to a solitary spot in the banks of the river Trebbia, where he passed away, being, apparently, some seventy years of age.

It may seem surprising that this strenuous ascetic should occasionally have occupied a leisure hour writing Latin poems in imitation of the antique. There still exists such an effusion to a friend:

Accipe, quaeso,
  Nunc bipedali
  Condita versu
  Munera parva.“

The verses consist mainly of classic allusions and advice of an antique rather than a Christian flavour: the wise will cease to add coin to coin, and will despise wealth, but not the pastime of such verse as the


”Inclyta Vates
  Nomine Sappho“

was wont to make. ”Now, dear Fedolius, quit learned numbers and accept our squibs — frivola nostra. I have dictated them oppressed with pain and old age: ‘Vive, vale, laetus, tristisque memento senectae.’ “ The last is a pagan reminiscence, which the saint’s Christian soul may not have deeply felt. But the poem shows the saint’s classic training, which probably was exceptional. For there is no evidence of like knowledge in any Irishman before him; and after his time, in the seventh century, or the eighth, Latin education in Ireland was confined to a few monastic centres. A small minority studied the profanities, sometimes because they liked them, but oftener as the means of proficiency in sacred learning.

The Irish had cleverness, facility, ardour, and energy. They did much for the dissemination of Christianity and letters. Their deficiency was lack of organization; and they had but little capacity for ordered discipline humbly and obediently accepted from others. Consequently, when the period of evangelization was past in western Europe, and organization was needed, with united and persistent effort for order, the Irish ceased to lead or even to keep pace with those to whom once they had brought the Gospel. In Anglo-Saxon England and on the Carolingian continent they became strains of influence handed on. This was the fortune which overtook them as illuminators of manuscripts and preservers of knowledge. Their emotional traits, moreover, entered the larger currents of mediaeval feeling and imagination. Strains of the Irish, or of a kindred Celtic temperament passed on into such ”Breton“ matters as the Tristan story, wherein love is passion unrestrained, and is more distinctly out of relationship with ethical considerations than, for example, the equally adulterous tale of Lancelot and Guinevere.4



1  Bede, Hist. Ecc. i. 13. Moreover, the chief partisan of Pelagius (a Briton) was Coelestinus, an Irishman whose restless activity falls in the thirty years preceding the mission of Palladius.

2  As for the Irish Church in Ireland, there were many differences in usage between it and the Church of Rome. In the matters of Easter and the tonsure the southern Irish were won over to the Roman customs before the middle of the seventh century, and after that the Roman Easter made its way to acceptance through the island. Yet still the Irish appear to have used their own Liturgy, and to have shown little repugnance to the marriage of priests. The organization of the churches remained monastic rather than diocesan or episcopal, in spite of the fact that ”bishops,“ apparently with parochial functions, existed in great numbers. Hereditary customs governed the succession of the great abbots, as at Armagh, until the time of St. Malachy, a contemporary of St. Bernard. See St. Bernard’s Life of Malachy, chap. x.; Migne 182, col. 1086, cited by Killen, o.c. vol. i. p. 173. The exertions of Gregory VII. and Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, did much to bring the Irish Church into obedience to Rome. Various Irish synods in the twelfth century completed a proper diocesan system; and in 1155 a bull of Adrian IV. delivered the island over to Henry II. Plantagenet. Cf. Killen, Eccl. Hist. of Ireland, vol. i. pp. 162-222.

3  The works of St. Columbanus or Columban, usually called of Luxeuil, are printed in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, 80, col. 209-296. The chief source of knowledge of his life is the Vita by Jonas his disciple: Migne, Pat. Lat. 87, col. 1009-1046. It has been translated by D. C. Munro, in vol. ii. No. 7 (series of 1895) of Translations, etc., published by University of Pennsylvania (Phila. 1897). See also Montalembert, Monks of the West, book vii. (vol. ii. of English translation).

4  The article of H. Zimmer, ”Uber die Bedeutung des irischen Elements für die mittelalterliche Cultur,“ Preussische Jahrbücher, Bd. 59, 1887, presents an interesting summary of the Irish influence. His views, and still more those of Ozanam in Civilisation chrétienne chez les Francs, chap. v., should be controlled by the detailed discussion in Roger’s L’Enseignement des lettres classiques d’Ausone à Alcuin (Paris, 1905), chaps. vi. vii. and viii. See also G. T. Stokes, Ireland and the Celtic Church, Lect. XI. (London, 1892, 3rd ed.); D’Arbois de Jubainville, Introduction à l’étude de la littérature celtique livre ii. chap. ix.; F. J. H. Jenkinson, The Hisperica Famina (Cambridge and New York, 1909 ). Obviously it is unjustifiable (though it has been done) to regard the scholarship of gifted Irishmen who lived on the Continent in the ninth century (Sedulius Scotus, Eriugena, etc.) as evidence of scholarship in Ireland in the sixth, seventh, or eighth century. We do not know where these later men obtained their knowledge; there is little reason to suppose they got it in Ireland.


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