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§ 23. Columbanus and the Irish Missionaries on the Continent.


I. Sources.

The works of Columbanus in Patrick Fleming’s Collectanea sacra (Lovanii, 1667), and in Migne: Patrolog., Tom. 87, pp. 1013–1055. His life by Jonas in the Acta Sanct. Ord. Bened., Tom. II., Sec. II., 2–26. (Also in Fleming’s Coll.)

II. Works.

Lanigan (R. K.): Eccles. Hist. of Ireland (1829), II. 263 sqq.

Montalembert: Monks of the West, II. 397 sqq.

Ph. Heber: Die vorkarolingischen Glaubenshelden am Rhein, 1867.

Lütolf (R.C.): Die Glaubensboten der Schweiz vor St. Gallus. Luzern, 1871.

Ebrard: Die iroschottische Missionskirche (1873), pp. 25–31; 284–340.

Killen: Ecclesiast. Hist. of Ireland (1875), I. 41 sqq.

W. Smith and H. Wace: Dict. Christ. Biography (1877), I. 605–607.

G. Hertel: Ueber des heil. Columba Leben und Wirken, besonders seine Klosterregel. In the “Zeitschrift für Hist. Theol.,” 1875, p. 396; and another article in Brieger’s “Zeitschrift für Kirchengesch.,” 1879, p. 145.


While the Latin Benedictine monks worked their way up from the South towards the heart of France, Keltic missionaries carried their independent Christianity from the West to the North of France, the banks of the Rhine, Switzerland and Lombardy; but they were counteracted by Roman missionaries, who at last secured the control over France and Germany as well as over the British Isles.

St. Columbanus107107    Also called Columba the younger, to distinguish him from the Scotch Columba. There is a second St. Columbanus, an abbot of St. Trudo (St. Troud) in France, and a poet, who died about the middle of the ninth century. is the pioneer of the Irish missionaries to the Continent. His life has been written with great minuteness by Jonas, a monk of his monastery at Bobbio. He was born in Leinster, a.d. 543, in which year St. Benedict, his celebrated monastic predecessor, died at Monte Casino, and was trained in the monastery of Bangor, on the coast of Down, under the direction of St. Comgall. Filled with missionary zeal, he left his native land with twelve companions, and crossed over the sea to Gaul in 590,108108    The date assigned by Hertel, l.c., and Meyer von Knonau, in ”Allg. Deutsche Biographie,” IV. 424 (1876). or in 585,109109    The date according to the Bollandists and Smith’s Dict. of Chr. Biogr. Ebrard puts the emigration of Columbanus to Gaul in the year 594. several years before Augustin landed in England. He found the country desolated by war; Christian virtue and discipline were almost extinct. He travelled for several years, preaching and giving an example of humility and charity. He lived for whole weeks without other food than herbs and wild berries. He liked best the solitude of the woods and eaves, where even the animals obeyed his voice and received his caresses. In Burgundy he was kindly received by King Gontran, one of the grandsons of Clovis; refused the offer of wealth, and chose a quiet retreat in the Vosges mountains, first in a ruined Roman fort at Annegray, and afterwards at Luxeuil (Luxovium). Here he established a celebrated monastery on the confines of Burgundy and Austrasia. A similar institution he founded at Fontaines. Several hundred disciples gathered around him. Luxeuil became the monastic capital of Gaul, a nursery of bishops and saints, and the mother of similar institutions.

Columbanus drew up a monastic rule, which in all essential points resembles the more famous rule of St. Benedict, but is shorter and more severe. It divides the time of the monks between ascetic exercises and useful agricultural labor, and enjoins absolute obedience on severe penalties. It was afterwards superseded by the Benedictine rule, which had the advantage of the papal sanction and patronage.110110    There is a considerable difference between his Regula Monastica, in ten chapters, and his Regula Coenobialis Fratrum, sive, Liber de quotidianis Poenitentiis Monachorum, in fifteen chapters. The latter is unreasonably rigorous, and imposes corporal punishments for the slightest offences, even speaking at table, or coughing at chanting. Ebrard (l.c., p. 148 sqq.) contends that the Regula Coenobialis, which is found only in two codices, is of later origin. Comp. Hertel, l.c.

The life of Columbanus in France was embittered and his authority weakened by his controversy with the French clergy and the court of Burgundy. He adhered tenaciously to the Irish usage of computing Easter, the Irish tonsure and costume. Besides, his extreme severity of life was a standing rebuke of the worldly priesthood and dissolute court. He was summoned before a synod in 602 or 603, and defended himself in a letter with great freedom and eloquence, and with a singular mixture of humility and pride. He calls himself (like St. Patrick) “Columbanus, a sinner,” but speaks with an air of authority. He pleads that he is not the originator of those ritual differences, that he came to France, a poor stranger, for the cause of Christ, and asks nothing but to be permitted to live in silence in the depth of the forests near the bones of his seventeen brethren, whom he had already seen die. “Ah! let us live with you in this Gaul, where we now are, since we are destined to live with each other in heaven, if we are found worthy to enter there.” The letter is mixed with rebukes of the bishops, calculations of Easter and an array of Scripture quotations. At the same time he wrote several letters to Pope Gregory I., one of which only is preserved in the writings of Columbanus. There is no record of the action of the Synod on this controversy, nor of any answer of the Pope.

The conflict with the court of Burgundy is highly honorable to Columbanus, and resulted in his banishment. He reproved by word and writing the tyranny of queen Brunehild (or Brunehauld) and the profligacy of her grandson Theodoric (or Thierry II.); he refused to bless his illegitimate children and even threatened to excommunicate the young king. He could not be silenced by flattery and gifts, and was first sent as a prisoner to Besançon, and then expelled from the kingdom in 610.111111    For a full account of this quarrel see Montalembert, II. 411 sqq.

But this persecution extended his usefulness. We find him next, with his Irish friends who accompanied him, on the lake of Zurich, then in Bregenz (Bregentium) on the lake of Constance, planting the seeds of Christianity in those charming regions of German Switzerland. His preaching was accompanied by burning the heathen idols. Leaving his disciple St. Gall at Bregenz, he crossed the Alps to Lombardy, and founded a famous monastery at Bobbio. He manfully fought there the Arian heresy, but in a letter to Boniface IV. he defended the cause of Nestorius, as condemned by the Fifth General Council of 553, and called upon the Pope to vindicate the church of Rome against the charge of heresy. He speaks very boldly to the Pope, but acknowledges Rome to be “the head of the churches of the whole world, excepting only the singular prerogative of the place of the Lord’s resurrection” (Jerusalem).112112    “Roma orbis terrarum caput est ecclesiarum, salva loci Dominicae resurrectiois singulari praerogativa.” He died in Bobbio, Nov. 21, 615. The poetry of grateful love and superstitious faith has adorned his simple life with various miracles.

Columbanus was a man of considerable learning for his age. He seems to have had even some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. His chief works are his Regula Monastica, in ten short chapters; seventeen Discourses; his Epistles to the Gallic Synod on the paschal controversy, to Gregory I., and to Boniface IV.; and a few poems. The following characteristic specimen of his ascetic view of life is from one of the discourses: “O mortal life! how many hast thou deceived, seduced, and blinded! Thou fliest and art nothing; thou appearest and art but a shade; thou risest and art but a vapor; thou fliest every day, and every day thou comest; thou fliest in coming, and comest in flying, the same at the point of departure, different at the end; sweet to the foolish, bitter to the wise. Those who love thee know thee not, and those only know thee who despise thee. What art thou, then, O human life? Thou art the way of mortals, and not their life. Thou beginnest in sin and endest in death. Thou art then the way of life and not life itself. Thou art only a road, and an unequal road, long for some, short for others; wide for these, narrow for those; joyous for some, sad for others, but for all equally rapid and without return. It is necessary, then, O miserable human life! to fathom thee, to question thee, but not to trust in thee. We must traverse thee without dwelling in thee—no one dwells upon a great road; we but march over it, to reach the country beyond.”113113    Montalembert, II. 436.

Several of the disciples of Columbanus labored in eastern Helvetia and Rhaetia.

Sigisbert separated from him at the foot of the St. Gothard, crossed eastward over the Oberalp to the source of the Rhine, and laid the foundation of the monastery of Dissentis in the Grisons, which lasts to this day.

St. Gall (Gallus), the most celebrated of the pupils of Columbanus, remained in Switzerland, and became the father of the monastery and city called after him, on the banks of the river Steinach. He declined the bishopric of Constanz. His double struggle against the forces of nature and the gods of heathenism has been embellished with marvelous traits by the legendary poetry of the middle ages.114114    See the anonymous Vita S. Galli in Pertz, Monumenta II. 123, and in the Acta Sanct., Tom. VII. Octobris. Also Greith, Geschichte der altirischen Kirche … als Einleitung in die, Gesch. des Stifts St. Gallen(1857), the chapter on Gallus, pp. 333 sqq. When he died, ninety-five years old, a.d. 640, the whole surrounding country of the Allemanni was nominally Christianized. The monastery of St. Gall became one of the most celebrated schools of learning in Switzerland and Germany, where Irish and other missionaries learned German and prepared themselves for evangelistic work in Switzerland and Southern Germany. There Notker Balbulus, the abbot (died 912), gave a lasting impulse to sacred poetry and music, as the inventor or chief promoter of the mediaeval Laudes or Prosae, among which the famous “Media vita in morte sumus” still repeats in various tongues its solemn funeral warning throughout Christendom.

Fridold or Fridolin, who probably came from Scotland, preached the gospel to the Allemanni in South Germany. But his life is involved in great obscurity, and assigned by some to the time of Clovis I. (481–511), by others more probably to that of Clovis II. (638–656).

Kilian or Kyllina, of a noble Irish family, is said to have been the apostle of Franconia and the first bishop of Würzburg in the seventh century.



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