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§ 19. The Culdees.


After the expulsion of the Columban monks from the kingdom of the Picts in the eighth century, the term Culdee or Ceile De, or Kaledei, first appears in history, and has given rise to much controversy and untenable theories.9292    To Adamnan and to Bede, the name was entirely unknown. Skene (II. 226) says: “In the whole range of ecclesiastical history there is nothing more entirely destitute of authority than the application of this name to the Columban monks of the sixth and seventh centuries, or more utterly baseless than the fabric which has been raised upon that assumption.” The most learned and ingenious construction of an imaginary Protestant Culdee Church was furnished by Ebrard and McLauchlan. It is of doubtful origin, but probably means servants or worshippers of God.9393    The word Culdee is variously derived from the Gaelic Gille De, servant of God; from the Keltic Cuil or Ceal, retreat, recess, and Cuildich, men of the recess (Jamieson, McLauchlan, Cunningham); from the Irish Ceile De, the spouse of God (Ebrard), or the servant of God (Reeves); from the Irish Culla, cowl, i.e. the black monk; from the Latin Deicola, cultores Dei (Colidei), worshippers of God the Father, in distinction from Christicolae (Calechrist in Irish), or ordinary Christians (Skene); from the Greek κελλεῶται, men of the cells (Goodall). The earliest Latin form is Kaledei. in Irish Keile as a substantive means socius maritus, also servus. On the name, see Braun, De Culdeis, Bonn, 1840, McLauchlan pp. 175 sq.; Ebrard pp. 2 sq., and Skene, II. 238. it was applied to anchorites, who, in entire seclusion from society, sought the perfection of sanctity. They succeeded the Columban monks. They afterwards associated themselves into communities of hermits, and were finally brought under canonical rule along with the secular clergy, until at length the name of Culdee became almost synonymous with that of secular canon.

The term Culdee has been improperly applied to the whole Keltic church, and a superior purity has been claimed for it.

There is no doubt that the Columban or the Keltic church of Scotland, as well as the early Irish and the early British churches, differed in many points from the mediaeval and modern church of Rome, and represent a simpler and yet a very active missionary type of Christianity.

The leading peculiarities of the ancient Keltic church, as distinct from the Roman, are:

1. Independence of the Pope. Iona was its Rome, and the Abbot of Iona, and afterwards of Dunkeld, though a mere Presbyter, ruled all Scotland.

2. Monasticism ruling supreme, but mixed with secular life, and not bound by vows of celibacy; while in the Roman church the monastic system was subordinated to the hierarchy of the secular clergy.

3. Bishops without dioceses and jurisdiction and succession.

4. Celebration of the time of Easter.

5. Form of the tonsure.

It has also been asserted, that the Kelts or Culdees were opposed to auricular confession, the worship of saints, and images, purgatory, transubstantiation, the seven sacraments, and that for this reason they were the forerunners of Protestantism.

But this inference is not warranted. Ignorance is one thing, and rejection of an error from superior knowledge is quite another thing. The difference is one of form rather than of spirit. Owing to its distance and isolation from the Continent, the Keltic church, while superior to the churches in Gaul and Italy—at least during the sixth and seventh centuries—in missionary zeal and success, was left behind them in other things, and adhered to a previous stage of development in truth and error. But the general character and tendency of both during that period were essentially different from the genius of Protestant Christianity. We find among the Kelts the same or even greater love for monasticism and asceticism the same superstitious belief in incredible miracles, the same veneration for relics (as the bones of Columba and Aidan, which for centuries were carried from place to place), the same scrupulous and narrow zeal for outward forms and ceremonies (as the observance of the mere time of Easter, and the mode of monastic tonsure), with the only difference that the Keltic church adhered to an older and more defective calendar, and to the semi-circular instead of the circular tonsure. There is not the least evidence that the Keltic church had a higher conception of Christian freedom, or of any positive distinctive principle of Protestantism, such as the absolute supremacy of the Bible in opposition to tradition, or justification by faith without works, or the universal priesthood of all believers.9494    The Duke of Argyll who is a Scotch Presbyterian, remarks (l.c. p. 41): “It is vain to look, in the peculiarities of the Scoto-Irish Church, for the model either of primitive practice, or of any particular system. As regards the theology of Columba’s time, although it was not what we now understand as Roman, neither assuredly was it what we understand as Protestant. Montalembert boasts, and I think with truth, that in Columba’s life we have proof of the practice of the auricular confession, of the invocation of saints, of confidence in their protection, of belief in transubstantiation [?], of the practices of fasting and of penance, of prayers for the dead, of the sign of the crow in familiar—and it must be added—in most superstitious use. On the other hand there is no symptom of the worship or ’cultus’ of the Virgin, and not even an allusion to such an idea as the universal bishopric of Rome, or to any special authority as seated there.”

Considering, then, that the peculiarities of the Keltic church arose simply from its isolation of the main current of Christian history, the ultimate triumph of Rome, with all its incidental evils, was upon the whole a progress in the onward direction. Moreover, the Culdees degenerated into a state of indolence and stagnation during the darkness of the ninth and tenth centuries, and the Danish invasion, with its devastating and disorganizing influences. We still find them in the eleventh century, and frequently at war with the Roman clergy about landed property, tithes and other matters of self-interest, but not on matters of doctrine, or Christian life. The old Culdee convents of St. Andrews Dunkeld, Dunblane and Brechin were turned into the bishop’s chapter with the right of electing the bishop. Married Culdees were gradually supplanted by Canons-Regular. They lingered longest in Brechin, but disappeared in the thirteenth century. The decline of the Culdees was the opportunity of Rome. The Saxon priests and monks, connected with the more civilized countries, were very active and aggressive, building cathedrals, monasteries, hospitals, and getting possession of the land.



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