Columban, St.

Columban, St.
(d. 615)
   Irish monk and missionary of the late sixth and early seventh century who left an important legacy on the continent with his establishment of the monastery of Bobbio in Lombard Italy and of other monastic communities in the Merovingian kingdoms. His missionary activities were part of the Celtic tradition of peregrinatio, or pilgrimage, and foreshadowed the missionary activities on the continent of Anglo-Saxon monks like Boniface. A man of learning as well as piety, Columban is the earliest Irish monk who writings survive in any quantity, and whose piety and learning had a profound impact on the cultural and religious life of Merovingian Gaul.
   Although his date of birth is uncertain, Columban may have been born around 560 in Leinster in Ireland. He received some education while young and later entered the monastic community at Bangor, where he acquired an excellent education and developed a command of Latin. He was introduced to a wide range of Christian authors, but probably few if any classical writers. As was true of all monastery students, Columban studied the Bible extensively and was introduced to the works of the great Christian fathers, including St. Augustine of Hippo, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Jerome, among others. He also was introduced to the rigorous practices of Irish monasticism, which included extreme mortification of the flesh, such as standing in the icy waters of the North Sea, hour after hour, arms outstretched in a cross, in prayer to God. He learned, accordingly, that humbling of the self was the key to salvation. He also absorbed the Irish tradition of missionary work-leaving home and family behind to spread the gospel in strange lands.
   It was this tradition that led him to the continent in 590 with a group of disciples. And upon his arrival in Merovingian Gaul he began the work of a missionary, reforming the flawed practices of the Frankish church and establishing important new religious institutions to improve religious life. He was granted territory by the Merovingian king of Burgundy, Guntram, and used this grant to establish a famous monastery at Luxeuil, as well as monasteries at Annegray and Fontaines. These houses, especially Luxeuil, soon attracted numerous converts, particularly from the Frankish aristocracy, because of the rigor of the monastic life there. Columban's disciples were not all men, however, but included numerous Frankish aristocratic women, because the Irish monk cultivated friendships with women and recognized their spiritual equality. As a result, Frankish noble men and women supported his monastic reforms and founded monasteries, including so-called double monasteries of monks and nuns. He introduced Celtic Christian religious practices, including the practice of private penance.
   His community was not just a center of disciplined religious life but also a center of learning, focusing on the study of the Scriptures and the church fathers. He reinvigorated a tradition of learning in the Frankish kingdom that had lain dormant and encouraged his monks to read and improve their rudimentary Latin skills. Although it is uncertain whether he encouraged the study of classical authors, his own writings show clear influence of Virgil and other Roman literary greats. Columban himself left an important literary legacy with his monasteries. Perhaps most important was his monastic rule, the earliest Irish monastic rule known to us. The rule instructs the monks on matters of silence, food and drink, religious duties, and monastic perfection, and it is infused with Columban's ethical teaching and religious rigor. His literary corpus also includes sermons, poems, and letters, including one to Pope Gregory I, called the Great, in which he defends the Irish means of determining the date of Easter.
   Although well received by many Frankish nobles, Columban was not so well received by the Frankish clergy. His indictment of the lax ways of the Frankish church and his efforts at reform alienated a number of native church leaders. He also ran afoul of Frankish religious leaders for his continued endorsement of Irish practices that differed from those of the Roman church, including the Irish way to tonsure and way of reckoning Easter. Perhaps even worse, Columban refused to recognize the authority of the bishops, because in the Irish tradition the authority of the abbot was supreme over monks, priests, and bishops. His strict discipline also caused difficulties with the powerful queen Brunhilde. He frequently criticized her way of life. In 611, he visited the court of Brunhilde and her grandson Theuderic and refused to bless Theuderic's children because, Columban said, their mothers were prostitutes. Enraged, Brunhilde chased Columban from the kingdom.
   After his expulsion from the Frankish kingdom, Columban wandered the continent for a while before settling in the Lombard kingdom in Italy. He received a grant of land from the Lombard king and founded another very important monastery at Bobbio in 614. Like Luxeuil, Bobbio was a center of learning and religious life and attracted converts from the local population as well as other Irish missionaries. Although Columban died in the following year, 615, he left an important legacy in Italy and the Frankish kingdom as a result of his learning and dedication to the monastic life, and his work prefigured the activities of later Irish and Anglo-Saxons missionaries on the continent.
   See also
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
 ♦ Clarke, Howard B., and Mary Brennen, eds. Columban and Merovingian Monasticism. Oxford: British Archeological Reports, 1981.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ Lawrence, Clifford H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2d ed. London: Longman, 1989.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1978.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms. 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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