Irish monks had a very important role in Medieval Europe, which they transformed culturally and spiritually. Montalembert wrote: “It has been said and cannot be sufficiently repeated, Ireland was then regarded by all Christian Europe as the principal centre of knowledge and piety – superior to anything that could be seen in any other country of Europe.”
Britain, Scotland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Slovakia, Russia, Iceland, even Greenland are in many ways linked to them.
The greatest number of foreign students came from Great Britain—they came in fleet-loads,as Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (A.D. 705 to 709), expresses it in his letter to his friend Eadfrid, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who had himself been educated in Ireland.Many also were from the Continent. There is a remarkable passage in the Venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History” which corroborates Aldhelm’s statement, as well as what is said in the native records, and indeed in some particulars goes beyond them. Describing the ravages of the yellow plague in 664, he says:—”This pestilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English nation were there at that time, who, in the days of Bishops Finan and Colman Irish abbots of Lindisfarne, p. 146, forsaking their native island, retired thither, either for the sake of divine studies, or of a more continent life. . . .
All of the following European towns were founded by or linked to Irish monks; Bobbio, Fiesole, Lucca, Taranto, Lumièges, Auxerre, Laon, Luxeuil, Liège, Trier, Wurzburg, Regensburg, Rheinau, Reichenau, Salzburg, Vienna, St. Gallen.
Many dioceses in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Italy have an Irish Saint as their Patron. 7th century’s Columbanus, France and later in Italy(Bobbio); Cathaldus, Italy (Taranto); Finbar or Redrian, Italy(Lucca); Killian, from Mullagh in Co. Cavan, Austria(Wuerzburgh); Fergal or Vergil, the surveyor and satirist, from Kilkenny, & Colman, Patrons of Salzburg and the province of Lower Austria respectively.
Wendel in Saarland, Germany;
Willibrod in Luxembourg;
Columcille or Columba from Derry, prince of Tirconell, went to Lindsfarne, Northumbria, to Iona in Scotland and then to Iceland;
Fursa, travelled from Ireland to East Anglia, then to Lagny, just east of Paris, and Peronne, which would be known in time as Peronna Scottorum, Peronne of the Irish and City of Fursey;
Caidoc and Fricor advanced on Picardy;
Rufus in Val d’Aosta;
Gall, Columbanus best friend, founded St. Gallen in Switzerland;
Donatus, scottorum sanguine creatus, was bishop of Fiesole from 826 to 877;
Fiachra or Fiacre left Kilkenny and could claim to have opened the first Irish-run B&B in France when he established a priory and a guest house in the village of Brueil (now St. Fiacre), about 50 km east of Paris, he is known as the patron saint of gardeners and his statue – a spade in one hand and a book in the other – can be found in churches across France;
Brendan, the Navigator, reached Greenland and possibly, North America.
In 870 Heiric of Auxerre wrote in his Life of St. Germanus: Almost all of Ireland is migrating to our shores with so many philosophers. The French writer Montalembert wrote: “It has been said and cannot be sufficiently repeated, Ireland was then regarded by all Christian Europe as the principal centre of knowledge and piety – superior to anything that could be seen in any other country of Europe.”
Monastic schools in Ireland became centers of excellence for peoples from all over Europe. The historian Bede and an earlier English contemporary, Aldhelm, report that sizeable contingents of English students trained as missionaries in Ireland, specifically at Rath Melsigi, County Carlow, in Leinster. These English monks trained in Ireland in order to convert their pagan relatives on the continent. Several of them had successful ecclesiastical careers after their Irish training.
Bede and Aldhelm, being clerics, emphasized religious training, but both confirm that secular subjects were also taught at Irish monastic schools. Study of the scriptures was paramount, but they both make it clear that students often traveled from site to site seeking out teachers who had specialized knowledge in secular subjects as well.
During the early decades of the seventh century many Anglo-Saxon nobles were educated at Irish monasteries in northern Britain, specifically at Iona. Bede said that the Irish willingly welcomed the English students, gave them food, and provided them with books and instruction, without seeking any payment. When these Irish-educated English nobles returned to England, they invited Irish missionaries into their pagan kingdoms to evangelize. For example, the Anglo-Saxon King Oswald invited the Irish bishop Aidan from Iona into his kingdom, and Aidan founded the monastery at Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumberland around 635. The English historian Bede shows that Irish missionary activity in northern England was more successful at converting the pagan English than that started by Rome in 597 from Canterbury in the south of England.
Fresh arrivals came from Ireland; the monastery with Columba as its abbot was soon a flourishing institution, from which the Dalriadian Scots in the south and the Picts beyond the Grampians were evangelized. When Columba died in 597, Christianity had been preached and received in every district in Caledonia, and in every island along its west coast. In the next century Iona had so prospered that its abbot, St. Adamnan, wrote in excellent Latin the “Life of St. Columba”. From Iona had gone south the Irish Aidan and his Irish companions to evangelize Northumbria, Mercia, and Essex.
The monastery of Iona, founded by Columba, encouraged literary production in both languages. For example, one of its more famous abbots, Adomnán (679–704), the author of the Latin “Life of Columba,” wrote a description in Latin of the significant sites in the Holy Land called “On the Holy Places” (De Locis Sanctis). Abbot Adomnán also wrote and promulgated a law (Cáin Adomnáin, 697), written in Irish, which was intended to protect women, children, and clerics from the ravages of warfare.
Saint Columba, the founder of the monastery at Iona, has a Latin hymn, “Exalted Creator” (Altus Prosator), attributed to him. Three poems in praise of Columba rank among the oldest complete poems in the Irish language. One of them, the “Eulogy for Columba” (Amra Choluim Chille), has been dated on linguistic grounds to around 600, which coincides well with Columba’s death date of 597.
The monastery at Bangor also produced learned religious texts in Latin beside a vibrant vernacular literature of Irish tales. In the late seventh century a collection of beautiful religious poems and hymns in Latin, the “Antiphonary of Bangor,” was compiled there. Important vernacular literature also came from Bangor. “The Voyage of Bran” (Immram Brain), perhaps the earliest example of the Irish “otherworld voyage,” was written at Bangor. It tells of Bran’s voyage across the Western Ocean and recounts the wonders that he encountered in a sinless otherworld. It employs a motif whereby characters in a pre-Patrician context prophesy the coming of Christianity and the salvation of the Irish. Tales in Irish about the early cultural hero Mongán mac Fiachnai also originated at Bangor.
Columcille and twelve monks sailed to the tiny island of Iona off the western coast of contemporary Scotland establishing a teaching monastery. Columbanus of Leinster, also with twelve monks, sailed to the continent, they were uncompromising in their orthodoxy before princes and prelates who accused them of being contumacious as they expanded Irish monasticism down to Southern Italy.
Wandering Irish monk-scholars were a significant and positive force in the cultural development of Europe. They spoke and wrote in an uncorrupted Latin and thus served as ideal tutors and interpreters for the new dynasts in Europe, who trusted their diplomatic acumen. Fearless in evangelizing pagan tribes, the monks built their abbeys, which served the religious and educational needs of the population. Abbeys became European cultural centers. These monks motivated wandering tribes to settle by teaching them how to cultivate arable lands, plant fruit trees, and vines, to raise domestic animals. Irish monks instituted bee keeping and the brewing of beer. Next, wandering artisans settled in these farming communities, which eventually became proto-towns and a catalyst for the developing trading centers. In other words, the Irish monks were the societal architects of Europe.
The ancients wrote on papyrus, a material that did not grow outside of the Nile Valley. The enterprising Irish perfected a technique of making vellum from hides of calves or sheep, allowing them to replicate church Psalters. In effect, monks became history’s first copying machines. Nevertheless, copying the Bible or a Psalter was a costly endeavor, taking about 400 hides to copy the Old and New Testaments. Irish monk-calligraphers (6) used a writing concept called uncial and later the half-uncial or minuscule – the birth of the lower case alphabet (7). The primary job of a monk-scribe was to keep track of religious dates, especially the paschal fest, and critical events concerning the monastery. An ancillary benefit involved the recording of societal events, the beginning of western historical writing.
Book of Glendalough/ Leinster
Book of Kells
Two Classes of Schools.—The schools and colleges of ancient Ireland were of two classes, Ecclesiastical and Lay. The ecclesiastical or monastic schools were introduced with Christianity, and were conducted by monks. The lay or secular schools existed from a period of unknown antiquity, and in pagan times they were taught by druids. The Irish monastic schools were celebrated all over Europe in the Middle Ages: the lay schools, though playing an important part in spreading learning at home, were not so well known. These two classes of schools are well distinguished all through the literary history of Ireland, and, without interfering with each other, worked contemporaneously from the fifth to the nineteenth century.
General Features of Monastic Schools.—Even from the time of St. Patrick there were schools in connexion with several of the monasteries he founded, chiefly for the education of young men intended for the church. But when the great monastic movement already spoken of (p. 138) began, in the sixth century, then there was a rapid growth of schools and colleges all over the country: for almost every large monastery had a school attached. Many of these contained great numbers of students. Under each of the three fathers of the Irish Church, St. Finnen in Clonard, St. Comgall in Bangor, and St. Brendan in Clonfert, there were 3000, including no doubt monks as well as students; St. Molaise had 1500; St. Gobban, 1000; and so on down to the school of Glasnevin, where St. Mobi had 50. This last—fifty—was a very usual number in the smaller monastic schools. How such large numbers as those in Clonard, Bangor, and Clonfert obtained living and sleeping accommodation will be found described farther on.
In these schools secular as well as ecclesiastical learning was carefully attended to; for besides divinity, the study of the Scriptures, and classics, for those intended for the church, the students were instructed—as we shall see—in general literature and science. Accordingly, a large proportion of the students in these monastic schools were young men—amongst them sons of kings and chiefs—intended, not for the church, but for ordinary civil or military life, who attended to get a good general education. Those great seminaries were in fact the prototypes of our modern universities.
Extent of Learning in Monastic Schools.—We have ample evidence that both the Latin and Greek languages and literatures were studied with success in Ireland from the sixth to the tenth century; and that the learned men from the Irish schools were quite on a par with the most eminent of the Continental scholars of the time, and not a few of them at the head of all. Columbanus, Aileran the Wise, Cummian, Sedulius, Fergil the Geometer, Duns Scotus, and many others, all Irishmen, and educated in Irish schools, were celebrated throughout Europe for their learning. The most distinguished scholar of his day in Europe was John Scotus Erigena (‘John the Irish Scot’), celebrated for his knowledge of Greek, and for his theological speculations. He taught Philosophy in Paris, and died about the year 870.
Foreign Students.—In all the more important schools there were students from foreign lands, from the Continent as well as from Great Britain, attracted by the eminence of the masters and by the facilities for quiet, uninterrupted study. In the Lives of distinguished Englishmen we constantly find such statements as “he was sent to Ireland to finish his education.” The illustrious scholar Alcuin, who was a native of York, was educated at Clonmacnoise. Among the foreign visitors were many princes: Oswald and Aldfrid, kings of Northumbria, and Dagobert II., king of France, were all educated in Ireland. We get some idea of the numbers of foreigners from the ancient Litany of Aengus the Culdee, in winch we find invoked many Romans, Gauls, Germans, and Britons, all of whom died in Ireland. To this day there is to be seen, on Great Aran island, a tomb-stone, with the inscription “VII Romani,” Seven Romans. It is known that in times of persecution Egyptian monks fled to Ireland; and they have left in the country many traces of their influence. In the same Litany of Aengus mention is made of seven Egyptian monks buried in one place.
The greatest number of foreign students came from Great Britain—they came in fleet-loads,as Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (A.D. 705 to 709), expresses it in his letter to his friend Eadfrid, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who had himself been educated in Ireland. Many also were from the Continent. There is a remarkable passage in the Venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History” which corroborates Aldhelm’s statement, as well as what is said in the native records, and indeed in some particulars goes rather beyond them. Describing the ravages of the yellow plague in 664, he says:—”This pestilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English nation were there at that time, who, in the days of Bishops Finan and Colman [Irish abbots of Lindisfarne, p. 146, supra],forsaking their native island, retired thither, either for the sake of divine studies, or of a more continent life. . . . The Scots willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching, all gratis.”
Towards the end of the eighth century, it became the custom to appoint a special head professor—commonly called a Fer-leginn, i.e. ‘Man of learning’—to preside over, and be responsible for, the educational functions of the college, while the abbot had the care of the whole institution.
In all Irish history there is possibly no greater figure than St. Columcille. After founding thirty-seven monasteries in Ireland, from Derry on the northern coast to Durrow near the Munster border, he crossed the sea in 563 to set up on the bare island of Hii or Iona a group of reed-thatched huts peopled with Irish monks.
Ireland, however, for four hundred years to come still poured out missionaries to Europe. They passed through England to northern France and the Netherlands; across the Gaulish sea and by the Loire to middle France; by the Rhine and the way of Luxeuil they entered Switzerland; and westward they reached out to the Elbe and the Danube, sending missionaries to Old Saxony, Thuringia, Bavaria, Salzburg and Carinthia; southwards they crossed the Alps into Italy, to Lucca, Fiesole, Rome, the hills of Naples, and Tarentum. Their monasteries formed rest-houses for travellers through France and Germany. Europe itself was too narrow for their ardour, and they journeyed to Jerusalem, settled in Carthage, and sailed to the discovery of Iceland. No land has so noble a record in the astonishing work of its teachers, as they wandered over the ruined provinces of the empire among the pagan tribes of the invaders. In the Highlands they taught the Picts to compose hymns in their own tongue; in a monastery founded by them in Yorkshire was trained the first English poet in the new England; at St. Gall they drew up a Latin-German dictionary for the Germans of the Upper Rhine and Switzerland, and even devised new German words to express the new ideas of Christian civilisation; near Florence one of their saints taught the natives how to turn the course of a river. Probably in the seventh and eighth centuries no one in western Europe spoke Greek who was not Irish or taught by an Irishman. No land ever sent out such impassioned teachers of learning, and Charles the Great and his successors set them at the head of the chief schools throughout Europe.