Columbanus and Gall – Irish monks do missionary work on the Continent.

(The following bullet point extracts are from a presentation given by Dr. Magdalen Bless)

  • England is under Roman rule until 400 A.D. and becomes Christianised.
  • Ireland and Scotland are not of any interest to the Roman Empire and are thus not influenced by it.
  • The European Continent along the west of the Rhine is under Roman rule and becomes Christianised. The Pope resides in Trier. Heathen Germanic tribes live to the east of the Rhine.
  • Migration at the end of the 4th Century: Huns invade the east, the Germanic tribes are forced westwards where they influence the Christian territories whose inhabitants revert back to paganism.
  • During this period of migration, (invasion of barbaric pagan Germanic tribes in the highly-developed Roman Empire) Continental Europe is at its lowest point culturally. Ireland stands out with its scholars. Not only Irish but also knowledge-hungry Britons and Continental Europeans are studying in Irish Monasteries.
  • Ireland maintains its great Celtic culture (after the Greek and Latin it has the most important written culture in Europe).
  • Ireland and India have similarities: Ireland is the most westerly periphery, India the most easterly, of the indo-Germanic or indo-European cultural area. In India, the Brahmans make up the highly respected educated class, in Ireland the poets and Druids, whereby the highest Druid is of equal standing to the King. Kings maintain a close relationship with the Druids and listen to their advice.
  • Scholars/Academics have years of training, much of it learning by heart. They are the custodians of the oral tradition.
  • Christianity comes to Ireland much later than the Continent, but more steadily. Ireland remains unaffected by migration. (5th Century).
  • Christianity in Ireland is documented in written form since the 5th Century (St Patrick, from Britain, was a missionary here around 432).
  • In his writings Patrick mentions monks. From the 6th Century on, the Irish Church is predominantly monastically influenced (numerous monastic foundations and monks and abbots who ecclesiastically set the tone).
  • Thanks to their educational background (scholarship, science and books are essential for Irish monks), monks are spiritual leaders, rivals of, and later successors of, the Druids.
  • Irish monks stress the practice of ascetism (in the Indo-Germanic culture this is a long tradition; in India the Yogi plays an important role). The idea behind this is that through their refusal of physical needs and self-denial, the monks can combine all their energies to such an extent that they achieve healing powers, prophetic ability and influence over nature.
  • Special features of Irish Christianity:
    . abbeys and monasteries instead of dioceses.
    . alternative calculation of Easter (same as the Eastern Orthodox Church)
    . auricular confession in place of openly confessing one’s sins before the whole   community
    . different baptismal ritual – in addition to the head, the feet are also sprinkled with water
    . druidic tonsur (hair cut from ear to ear, the forehead shaved instead of the circular tonsure)
  • Monasteries are inter-connected and partially develop into monastic towns with several thousand inhabitants. Therefore, larger towns do not exist beyond the confines of the monastery. In the monasteries, the important clans of Ireland can continue their traditions which ensure the protection and rights of their members.
  • The monasteries develop into religious, financial, cultural, educational, economic and spiritual centres on the island. The monks teach, study and do research and produce books which are written and illustrated at the highest artistic level.
  • Peregrinatio: a special feature of the Irish monks is the Peregrinatio pro Christo, that is leaving their native land for Christ. The underlying idea behind this is that the real homeland, which is the goal of the journey through life, is the afterlife and the coming home to Christ in heaven.
  • In Ireland, a community member leaving the confines of the clan or community/monastery is without protection and rights. But monks now begin to commit to exactly this kind of ascetism, the voluntary exile they choose so as to live as hermits in remote areas. This way of life is called ‘green martyrdom’. However, as these voluntary exiles enjoy the same protection as kings or bishops in Ireland, this choice is actually no longer a case of exile or self-denial. For this reason, whole groups of monks now start to leave Ireland and set off to foreign parts as free as the birds of the skies. They are in search of the so-called ‘white martyrdom’. For the Irish monks, plagued by homesickness, this voluntary exile is considered a heroic act.
  • Columbanus (543-615) is the first Irish abbot to leave Ireland forever for the Continent for the purpose of Peregrinatio pro Christo. He had been living for many years in Bangor Monastery (founded in 558), one of the most important spiritual centres in Ireland. At around 50 years of age, and with 12 companions, including Gall, he leaves Ireland.
  • At the request of the Frankish King Childebert II, Columbanus settles in the former Burgundy region and establishes three monasteries in the Vosges Mountains: Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaine.
  • Monasteries already exist in Gaul in the late 4th Century but, like the Bishop’s Seats there, they are principally the reserve of the local Romanesque Gallic upper classes, who are close to the lowly-educated nobility. Columbanus’s Irish Monastery model, which is not under episcopal control, breaks through their church structure. The sons of the Frankish nobility very quickly flock to Columbanus’s monasteries and become monks or get a training. With these new monasteries, which they now permanently support, the Frankish nobility become emancipated from their characteristically Romanesque church structure.
  • Thanks to the movement of the Irish/Scottish monks begun by Columbanus, almost 330 monasteries are set up in the 7th Century, above all in the north of Franconia.
  • The accomplishments of the learned and bookish Irish monks lie in the preservation of the written forms and traditions of the antique literature of Early Medieval Europe.
  • Columbanus’s monastery rules:
    . humility is uppermost, for example obedience of the monks towards their superiors
    . spiritual concentration is expected of the monks
    . they should maintain a modest lifestyle
    forsake personal possessions
    live a chaste life
    have meagre meals
    remain in silent recollection and meditation
    . p
    rayer and intellectual activities (studying, reading and writing)
    . work in agriculture, building, care of the sick, hospitality towards guests, education
  • Visitors come to the monasteries in search of religious instruction, advice, healing, food, and the selling and buying of goods
  • The ‘message’ of the monks does not so much consist of passing on the message of Christianity verbally, but rather they cover the specific needs of the people through their agricultural knowledge as well as the education of the nobility and practical and spiritual religious services. Through example, they lead the population to Christianity.
  • After nearly 20 years of work, Columbanus and his monks are expelled because he refuses to bless King Theudebert II’s illegitimate sons and grandchildren (and also at the insistence of the bishops).
  • He returns to Nantes, his ship is stranded, he returns to Metz via Soissons and Paris. He is welcomed (again?) by King Theudebert II who sends him (with a letter of protection) on a mission to the predominantly pagan Alemanni and Celticromani in the eastern periphery of his kingdom. The aim of this is to improve their integration into the Franconian Empire.
  • Thereby his purely spiritual pilgrimage becomes a missionary task. The group of monks therefore move up the Rhine and into today’s Switzerland.
  • Via Zürich(old Roman settlement Turicum) they move along the lake to Tuggen.
  • To destroy the heathen Gods, they set the temple on fire which leads to their lives becoming endangered. This causes them to flee.
  • Via Ricken and Toggenburg they reach Arbon(also a Roman settlement, Arbor Felix). There they discover a Christian community and the Priest Willimar. He advises them to settle in Bregenz, a former Roman town, but now in ruins.
  • Here they also destroy the temples of the heathen Gods and are once again banished. (2 monks are killed).
  • In 612Columbanus hastily flees Bregenz and moves further up the Rhine, and over the Alps to Italy to the Kingdom of Lombards. The King there is so taken with Columbanus that he converts to Catholicism and he permits him to found a monastery on a site in Bobbio, in an Apennine valley in the Piacenza Province.

San Colombano Abbey is famous for its auditorium and rich library in which important handwritten texts by Irish monks are preserved.

  • Columbanus dies in Bobbio in 615 at around 75 years of age.
  • In 612, Gall remains behind in Bregenz, ill and rebellious. He returns to Arbon and meets Willimar. Together they find a refuge for Gall in what is today St. Gallen. In 640, at about 95 years of age, Gall dies.