Who was St Columbanus?
Most sources say that St Columbanus was born in Ireland in Leinster but the date of his birth was not recorded and can only be estimated from correlations with the dates on which his letters and other writings were published and with events in the lives of others when he was known to be present. On that basis, his year of birth is estimated as 541 though some scholars place it as late as the early 550s. However, the date of his death – 23 November 615 – is certain, as it was recorded contemporaneously. Therefore, he was between 64 and 75 years old at that time. His remains lie in the crypt of the monastery in the Italian town of Bobbio, where he ended his life as Abbot. St Columbanus’ feast day is celebrated on 23 November each year.
Hence this year’s celebrations of his life and work will mark the 1400th anniversary of the year of St Columbanus’ death. Columbanus was between 64 – 75 years old when he died; yet he set off on foot across the Alps from eastern France just three years before his death for his last great venture – the establishment of the monastery at Bobbio. On that basis alone, he was a truly remarkable and energetic man.
In Ireland St Columbanus is somewhat overshadowed by the reverence for our patron, St Patrick, who preceded him by about one hundred and twenty years and by other Irish saints who were active closer to home. Nevertheless, his place in Christianity is more accurately reflected in the description ascribed to him in 1950 by Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European Union.
At the congress in Luxeuil convened to celebrate the birth of St Columbanus in Luxeuil in 1950, Schuman said that, “St Columban, this illustrious Irishman who left his own country for voluntary exile, willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time. He is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe.”
Sources for the life of Columbanus
The principal source of reference on the life of Columbanus is the Italian monk Jonas who was a near contemporary in the abbey at Bobbio and was asked to write ‘a life’ of Columbanus by Attala, the abbot who immediately succeeded Columbanus. The book was written about 30 years after his death when there would have been live witnesses to the activities of Columbanus but one of its difficulties lies in the fact that it is not a history in the modern sense.
It was, however, not written in the style of or using modern historical methods. It was instead intended to draw people’s allegiance and admiration to a saintly man; it was a hagiography. The impact of this is that there was less concern with setting out precise dates and places and more emphasis upon mystical events and their contribution to the spirituality of Columbanus.
That is not to say, however, that this life of Columbanus is simply a fairy tale or invention. Hagiographies were then the most common way of recording the lives of significant figures – be they saints or kings or soldiers. It merely requires that the researcher who relies on it as a source must be aware of its provenance and must take care to seek other sources that can verify or refute the contents. In this respect the story told by Jonas (who also wrote a number of other ‘lives’) can be buttressed by documents that can be directly attributed to Columbanus as author and can be dated – and by knowledge of the lives of significant others with whom he had contact, such as the Frankish kings and various Popes.
Moreover, the methods of modern scholars can make use of other routes to dating and to authorships such as the artistic styles and materials used in objects that belonged to Columbanus and his contemporaries, and analysis of the literary styles and forms of language used in writings that are claimed to be his. For example, the small metal reliquary that Columbanus wore around his neck for many years can be dated to within a few years because of its similarities to other objects whose time of manufacture is known. Dr Conor Newman of NUI Galway, a leading expert on this era, has pointed out the similarities between St Columbanus’ reliquary – found in his sarcophagus in Bobbio – and the Clonmore Shrine on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. This helps to confirm the time of Columbanus’ active life.
Carol Richards has taken an approach of connecting Jonas’ account with a more general history of the Frankish kingdoms and the Catholic Church in its Roman and Constantinople embodiments, drawing upon other well-founded sources such as the accounts written by St Gregory of Tours, the Venerable Bede and others. Her accounts provide many useful opportunities to substantiate the hagiography with more grounded histories, providing much useful detail without substantially undermining Jonas’ chronology. Indeed, her references to known timings of such events as the lives and deaths of bishops and other figures in the areas where Columbanus was active, to the election of popes and to famines in Europe make important additions to and clarifications of Jonas’ story.
Early life in Ireland
The late Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, in his book on Columbanus, has suggested that in his pre-teen years the saint would have known Latin as the language of the Western church, though it would have been his second language, after an early form of Gaelic (Q-Celtic); and he would have had access to books.
Having decided to devote himself to the religious life, a decision that is said to be influenced by a nearby holy woman’s warning to him about the danger of becoming entrapped into a sinful life by a woman, Columbanus began his faith formation under the tutelage of Sinell, son of Mianiach, the abbot of Cleenish monastery in Fermanagh.
From there he moved to Bangor Abbey where he was under the authority of its abbot – St Comgall, who was himself a former pupil of St Fintan, and was reputed to be very strict.
Missionary journeys begin
At around the age of forty in Bangor, Columbanus seems to have found the monastic life there either insufficiently challenging or perhaps lacking in opportunity. Carol Richards picks up on the first possibility by quoting from a letter he later wrote to the monks of Luxeuil: ‘Hatred kills a man’s peace; love kills his integrity‘ and then reminds us that Jonas had suggested that at the age of forty his best chance of promotion to the position of abbot was to take off and found his own monastery.
The exact date of Columbanus’ departure from Bangor is not known but Carol Richards has attempted a more accurate estimate by correlating the fact that he arrived in France at a time of famine with an account of that same famine by St Gregory of Tours. On this basis, she suggests he left Ireland in the company of 12 other monks in the early months of 584, arriving in Brittany several months later.
Travelling in a small boat, they would not have been capable of making the journey on the open sea for extended periods. So, after a voyage that may have included stops at the Isle of Man; Holy Island off Anglesey; Bardsey Island in Cardigan Bay off the Welsh coast; the monastic settlement at St David’s (with which the Irish had longstanding links); and St Columb Major and St Austell in Cornwall, they made landfall near St Malo in Brittany. The village of Cancale, about 10km east of present-day St Malo has a granite cross that traditionally marks the site where Columbanus and his party landed.
From there they journeyed on foot, preaching to the local inhabitants in the area and made his way first to the North-Western Frankish (Neustrian) court at Paris. The following Spring (585) he set off further east, preaching along the way. Through these activities Columbanus came to the attention of the Merovingian Frankish king. Accounts and dates in relation to the complicated Frankish dynasty are confused and though Jonas and some other writers suggested that Columbanus was invited to the court of the Eastern Frankish King, Sigibert, it seems more likely from Carol Richards examination of other sources that the person who met him was King Childebert.
Establishment of the Frankish monasteries
It seems that, though he was made welcome at court in Metz, Columbanus and his fellow monks had stumbled into two cauldrons of ferment. Firstly, there was the uneasy alliance between the bishops, as representatives of the waning but still extant Roman imperial traditions and promoters of the doctrines of the Church, on the one hand, and the Frankish kings, who were adherents (or at least fellow travellers) of the Arian heresy. This held that the three persons of the Holy Trinity were not equal parts of a triune God and that the Son of God had been created by and was subject to the First Person. Columbanus, of course, preached against these errors.
Secondly, the previous king, Chilperic, had been assassinated – seemingly by someone he trusted to come close to him. It has been suggested that the Irish monks might have been thought by some in the area to be likely candidates as the assassins. For whatever reason, Columbanus and his followers decided to move on.
Nevertheless, the new king tried to persuade them to stay and make a settlement there. Columbanus refused the king’s offer and instead went off in search of a more suitable, more contemplative site – which he found in the environs of a ruined Roman fort at Annegray (in modern-day Haute Saone) in 592. Columbanus’s reputation for holiness spread rapidly and the monastic settlement grew – populated by monks and lay people who worked the surrounding land to provide the necessary food and goods.
As the community grew Columbanus moved to another site about 12 kilometres away at Luxeuil – where there is a more modern abbey on the site. Columbanus instituted a school and a scriptorium at Luxeuil where monks transcribed sacred or liturgical manuscripts. The famous “Luxeuil Lectionary “, a work of the seventh century, is a product of the scriptorium . Further growth in numbers necessitated the foundation of a third monastery nearby at Fontaine (-les-Luxeuil).
Around this time, in 595, King Childebert died, leaving as his heir his 9-year-old son Theoderic. Inheritance disputes led to fractures between the various elements of the Frankish territories and Theoderic was placed at the head of the Burgundian lands. Since Theoderic was too young to act as king, it was the custom to appoint a male guardian until he came of age at 15 years. Due to political rivalries in the various kingdoms of Francia and Burgundy, those in the extended family that might otherwise have fulfilled that role were ruled out and it is suggested that Columbanus took on the role. The other significant figure in the boy’s life was the queen mother, Brunhild.
Influence and intrigue at the court of Theoderic
When Theoderic reached adulthood and assumed the throne of Burgundy in his own right he took up with a number of concubines. Jonas, in his Vita Columbani, said that ‘as he very often visited Columbanus the holy man began to reprove him because he sinned with concubines and did not satisfy himself with the comforts of a lawful wife . . .’ One of his mistresses took a position of primacy in his affections, though he did not marry her; the practice of polygamy had been common among many of the Frankish kings.
A crisis for Columbanus now occurred in 610 when this mistress presented her two sons for him to bless. Columbanus refused to do so. Carol Richards suggests that this may have been primarily for political reasons rather than religious; ‘after all no child is responsible for its parentage.’ There was another agenda behind the mistress’s request: if her two sons received the blessing of Columbanus, who had been the king’s guardian and thus a senior personage in the royal household, this would legitimise her position and that of her sons within the royal lineage. Columbanus would now pay a price for his principled refusal.
Jonas, in his account, has it otherwise and identifies Brunhild, the queen mother, as the person with whom Columbanus had the dispute over the matter of the blessing, characterizing her as a bloodthirsty and vengeful figure. The more benevolent view of Brunhild was supported in the writings of Gregory of Tours, who wrote contemporaneously, and the balance of the wider evidence of 7th century Frankish politics seems to fall to the view that Theoderic’s mistress (believed to be Theodomanda) was the villain of the piece.
Further palace intrigues, fomented by Theodomanda. There was an attempted reconciliation initiated by the king but it was rejected by Columbanus. This prompted the king to seek a visit to the monastic settlements to demonstrate his sovereignty over the lands that he had earlier granted to the monks. Columbanus wrote to say that the monastery grounds were now in effect Irish (that is to say, the sort of the status that would be accorded to a modern day embassy), and that the king could not enter. Meanwhile, Theodomanda continued her intrigues and seems to have formed some form of alliance with the local bishops. They were seeking to serve the interests of the Roman wing of the Church (as opposed to the Byzantian sphere) and thus to build alliances with the local rulers. The local bishops were in any case antipathetic to those streaks of independence exhibited earlier by Columbanus over the matter of the fixing the date of Easter and in other practices of the Celtic church.
Principles, conflict and expulsion
The Pope, Boniface IV, who had been elected in 608, now turned Columbanus’ assertion that the monastery was an enclave of Irishness against him and said that he was now clearly in breach of the secular law. The king rode out to the monastery to put this point to him but was again refused entry to the monastery grounds and was accommodated instead in a guest house. He now threatened to withdraw his support (including financial support) if he was not granted access; Columbanus countered with a challenge that he would not leave and that the king would have to drag him from the property.
Having considered matters further, Columbanus succumbed to the battery of pressures upon him and left with the remaining six Irish monks. They appear to have sought sanctuary in Besancon (Jonas has it that they were imprisoned there) and were soon to be found under the protection of the local bishop, Nicetius, with the king’s men breathing down on them. Further stand-offs and negotiations followed and the Irish monks were then conducted under guard across France back to Nantes on the Brittany coast.
The most significant products of Columbanus’ time at Luxeuil were the two Rules that he wrote to codify the ways of life for both the monks and the lay people of the settlements. The Rules for the monks (Regulae Monachorum) set out the routines for prayer and fasting and the obligations and penalties that underpinned the life of the monks.