Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreamsby Ian C. Bradley, Bradley, William McTaggart
The current fascination with Celtic Christianity is the latest manifestation of a lingering love affair stretching back over the last 1300 years. This book explores how the native Christian communities of the British Isles from the fifth to the tenth centuries have been idealized and appropriated by a succeeding generation who have projected their own preconceptions and prejudices onto a perceived "golden age" of Celtic Christianity. It provides a fascinating study of the chasing of dreams and the making of myths.
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For all the saints who from their
The first wave of interest in Celtic Christianity, c.664-800
The concept of Celtic Christianity is almost invariably associated with the notion of a golden age between the mid-fifth and mid-seventh centuries. This period saw the flourishing of the best-known Irish and British saints Patrick, whose arrival in Ireland in or after 432 could be said to mark its start, Brigit, Ninian, David, Columba, Columbanus and Aidan, whose death in 651 perhaps marks its end. It also saw the founding of the great monasteries at Clonmacnoise, Derry, Durrow, Glendalough, Iona, Llantwit Major and Lindisfarne. Often described as the age of saints, it seems to have combined missionary zeal, spiritual energy and simple faith in exceptional measures.
It is almost entirely thanks to the work of writers and artists living long after this period that we think in these terms. From the centuries concerned we have virtually no direct evidence, either literary or archaeological. The early Christians were probably too much involved in missionary work and setting up churches and too preoccupied with thoughts of imminent judgement to reflect on their times or leave records for posterity. Such literary production as did take place, in a society in which literacy was probably very limited, was largely confined to the basic biblical and liturgical texts needed to carry on an itinerant preaching and sacramental ministry. Early churches and monastic buildings were constructed of wood or wattle and daub andhave left less obvious traces than the stone buildings of later centuries. It is very doubtful if British and Irish Christians in the sixth and seventh centuries saw themselves as living in a golden age or regarded some of their contemporaries as saints. Indeed, one of the very few contemporary accounts of the state of the church that has survived from this period, Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae, written in the mid- to late sixth century, paints a picture of almost universal gloom and looks back longingly to the days of Roman occupation. For this British monk, at least, the Celticity of the early British church was a matter for lamentation rather than celebration.
It is, of course, the misty and vague aura surrounding this age that accounts for much of its appeal. The absence of hard facts has allowed hagiographers, romantics and propagandists for various causes to weave myths and spin legends. This process began in the mid-seventh century, in circumstances and for reasons that will be explored in this chapter, and has continued ever since with particular bursts of enthusiasm occurring in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, around the time of the Reformation, during the latter part of the nineteenth century and in our own day.
The first and perhaps most influential of these successive waves of rediscovery and reinvention involved the writing-up of certain individuals from the fifth and sixth centuries as saints. This process of hagiography, which was inspired to a large degree by ecclesiastical power politics and the scramble by certain churches to prove their supremacy over others, has profoundly coloured our perception of Celtic Christianity. It has focused attention on a handful of figures like Patrick, Columba and David. That these particular individuals led holy lives seems highly likely, but their status as spiritual supermen almost certainly owes more to propaganda battles being waged long after their deaths than to their actual achievements. One of the most distorting aspects of the cult of the Celtic saints has been to create a small group of `star performers' and neglect the life and work of many other pioneer evangelists. Recent research has revealed, for example, the number of British and Irish missionaries active in Ireland before Patrick. It has also shown that neither Columba nor Ninian deserves the accolade of apostle of Scotland and that the Picts were almost certainly converted by monks whose names have largely been forgotten. The personality cult is only one unfortunate aspect of this concentration on saints. It has also almost certainly given us a highly misleading picture of spiritual Power Rangers charging around performing spectacular miracles and founding hundreds of churches.
If these men were the spiritual supermen that their later hagiographers made them out to be, then it seems strange that nothing was written about them in their own lifetimes, nor, indeed, in most cases, for too or more years after their deaths. It is just conceivable that contemporary accounts of their lives were produced and subsequently lost. The Viking raids, which first hit Ireland in 795 and inflicted huge damage on monasteries around the British Isles over the next 100 years, undoubtedly destroyed many early manuscripts. In his seminal work on the sources for the early ecclesiastical history of Ireland, James Kenney points to the almost complete dearth of hagiographical material existing in Ireland in the pre-Viking period. Several of the earliest surviving manuscripts of saints' lives are, in fact, to be found in Continental libraries, notably in northern Italy and Germany where Irish monks first penetrated during the sixth and seventh centuries and increasingly settled in the aftermath of the Viking incursions. The earliest known lives of both Welsh and Irish saints were actually written on the Continent. The seventh-century life of Samson, which may be the earliest extant biography of a Celtic saint, was written in Brittany, as were all subsequent lives of Welsh saints produced until the time of the Norman conquest. The mid-seventh-century life of Columbanus, unusual in being written very soon after its subject's death, was the work of Jonas, an Italian monk who had entered the monastery of Bobbio in northern Italy in 618. Another early Irish life, that of Fursa, who died around 649, was produced by a member of the community that he had founded in Gaul.
It is surely not coincidental that those Welsh and Irish monks who left their native shores were the first to be eulogised and crowned with the hagiographical haloes of Celtic sainthood. Again and again it has been outsiders and exiles rather than native Celts who have been most attracted to Celtic Christianity and most assiduous in identifying and celebrating its distinct ethos and character. Distance lends enchantment to the view culturally and geographically as well as chronologically. The appeal of what was later to become known and recognised as Celtic Christianity was perhaps first felt in mainland Europe. There are many testimonies to the high regard with which wandering Irish monks on the Continent were held because of their scholarship and spirituality. This is not simply a case of prophets being more honoured outside their own homelands. The experience of exile has also been an important element in promoting the appeal of Celtic Christianity, as it has in spreading Celtic romanticism more generally. The Welsh monks who went to Brittany and the Irish monks who settled in mainland Europe, especially those who had been forced to emigrate by Anglo-Saxon and Viking harassment, could be excused for harbouring an idealised view of the land and the church they had left behind. They helped to reinforce two of the most potent themes that were to become associated with the idea of Celtic Christianity, a wistful sense of longing for a lost homeland and a perpetual sense of exile and pilgrimage.
In comparison with this activity on the Continent, the lack of local interest in the lives and achievements of the pioneer Christian missionaries of the British Isles in the century or so following their deaths seems all the more striking. This neglect was relatively short-lived, however. The late seventh century saw the beginnings of what was to become a significant monastic industry, the systematic production of Latin Vitae Sancti, celebrating the lives and achievements of the Celtic Saints. The total corpus of these works is not huge just over 100 Latin Vitae covering sixty saints have been identified, ranging in date from the late seventh to the fourteenth century but with the great majority being written in the earlier period. They form a distinct and highly influential genre. Perhaps their most striking characteristic is that their subjects were all dead, and in most cases long dead. Virtually all those whose lives were written up belonged to the fifth and sixth centuries. It is entirely a retrospective exercise. As Richard Sharpe has pointed out, `all the positive signs suggest a complete lack of interest in the heroes of the contemporary church'. There are no Vitae for such key figures as Maelruain of Tallaght (d. 792), who seems to have been instrumental in the eighth-century monastic reform movement associated with the Célí Dé, or Blathmac, a monk of Iona put to death by the Vikings in 825 when he refused to reveal the location of Columba's shrine, thus making him one of the few Celtic Christian martyrs. There was no attempt to write about these figures in later Vitae and bring them into the company of Celtic saints. Even thirteenth- and fourteenth-century lives continued to regard the mid-seventh century as a cut-off point after which there were no more saints.
There is, indeed, a strong sense in the early hagiography that the more distant the past, the more saintly were its inhabitants. A `Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland', thought to date from the first half of the eighth century, divided the religious history of Ireland, which was regarded as coming to an end in 665 rather than at the time the manuscript was written, into three epochs, each with its own order of saints in a descending degree of sanctity. For the period from 432 to 544 an Ordo sanctissmus of 350 holy bishops and founders of churches was listed. The 300 bishops and priests recorded as living between 544 and 598 constituted an Ordo sanctior, while the 100 bishops, priests and hermits listed for the period from 598 to 665 were accorded the lesser status of an Ordo sanctus.
What accounts for this apparently sudden desire to recapture, and rewrite, early indigenous Christian history and why were the mid-660s taken as its stopping point? In Ireland, 665 was the year of a great plague which seems to have caused numerous deaths, not least in the monasteries. Possibly its devastating effects provoked a realisation of the urgent need to put down in manuscript form what had hitherto been transmitted orally, as well as stimulating thoughts on the coming day of judgement. Recognition of the need to record the past more systematically may well have coincided with a stage in monastic development where the initial missionary push had slackened and there was more time to devote to history and reflection. There is also some evidence that following the plague there was a slippage of standards in Irish monasticism and a slide into worldliness. It is from this period, for example, that the practice arose of having lay abbots appointed through hereditary succession. Reaction against these trends, which showed itself in the Célí Dé reform movement, may also have inspired a nostalgic looking back to a lost golden age of asceticism.
In the ecclesiastical history of mainland Britain, 664 is a key date as the year of the Synod of Whitby, that great set-piece debate between representatives of the `Celtic' and `Roman' churches. It is, in fact, highly questionable whether this was as important or decisive an event as it has often been portrayed. What is undeniable, however, is that there were tensions between British/Irish and Anglo-Saxon/Roman usages and attitudes and that Whitby did mark a significant victory for the latter. It may well have left those on the `Celtic' side feeling the need to assert its roots and traditions. One of the immediate consequences of Whitby was the retreat by Colman, the defeated Bishop of Lindisfarne, and his followers back to Ireland to set up their own monastery there. It would hardly be surprising if this and other similar communities in exile became centres of self-conscious `Celticism'. The outcome of the Whitby debate may also have promoted a new interest in the early Celtic experience on the other side. As we shall see, there are reasons for believing that the late seventh-century lives of Patrick and Columba were written by enthusiastic `Romanisers'. Perhaps we encounter here for the first time a phenomenon that has played a significant role in the successive revivals of Celtic Christianity over the last 1,300 years. Just as outsiders and exiles tend to give more honour to prophets than their own kinsfolk do, so victors are apt to romanticise what they once sought to destroy. There are plenty of examples in history to show how a despised and marginalised culture suddenly becomes attractive and quaint to those who have succeeded in subduing it. One only needs to think of the transformation in the perception of Highland Scotland by the English and Lowland Scots that took place after the suppression of the Jacobite rebellions. Something similar may have happened to the perception of `Celtic' Christians after Whitby. No longer a serious threat, they became, in the eyes of those who had defeated them, heroic, almost tragic remnants of a pure and primitive Christianity.
The identification and idolisation of certain individuals as saints in this period was not an isolated insular phenomenon. Peter Brown has charted how saints' cults developed throughout Latin Christendom, beginning with the veneration of martyrs in the fourth and fifth centuries and spreading so that by the end of the sixth century `the graves of the saints ... had become centres of the ecclesiastical life of their region'. Across Europe, growing concern about sin and judgement, possibly stimulated by the rise of the ascetic movement, brought a new emphasis on the need for patrons and friends within the company of heaven. Saints filled this role. With miracle stories demonstrating that their powers extended beyond death, they came to be seen as invisible companions, role models and intimate protectors. Where the British Isles, and Ireland in particular, seem to have differed from the Continent is in the extent to which cults of purely local saints arose. Whereas in other parts of early medieval Christendom these were not much in evidence before the ninth century, Ireland already had a good many well-developed local saints' cults by the end of the eighth century. There is no Continental parallel to the Martyrology of Tallaght, which dates from around 800 and commemorates a very large number of native saints. It is almost certainly because of the proliferation of these local cults that Ireland has such an exceptionally large number of saints. It has been said that more saints seem to have lived on that one island in two centuries than in the rest of the world in the entire period since. In fact, as Professor Padraig Ó Riain has demonstrated, a relatively small number of actual early saints was almost certainly expanded into a multitude because of the tendency of Irish cults to fragment and localise. Many of those whom we think of as different saints are probably simply variations on the name of a single original.
The development of monasticism in Ireland and Wales (and so by extension into what we would now think of as Scotland and northern England) from the seventh century onwards played a key role in shaping the cults of Celtic saints. Almost without exception, the saints whose lives and miraculous achievements were celebrated in the Vitae were monks. In some cases, indeed, of which Patrick is perhaps the leading example, they were almost certainly made more `monkish' than they actually were in real life. Their lives were written by other monks, generally from monasteries with which they were associated. The overall effect may well be to give an over-monastic bias to the picture that we have of Celtic Christianity: Wendy Davies has argued that this distortion certainly applies in the case of Wales. The prime requirement for sainthood in this first wave of hagiography and Celtic Christian revival was the foundation of a monastery or, better still, a family of monasteries. From the mid-seventh century onwards there seems to have been a great scrabble among churches and groups of churches to attribute their foundation to a saint from the golden age of c.450-650. From the eighth century onwards virtually every church in Ireland traced its origins to the church-planting activities of one of the early saints. Almost 3,000 ecclesiastical sites across the country have the name cill (church) coupled with the name of a saint from this early period.
Claims to foundation by a particularly holy and venerable figure were not, of course, peculiar to churches in the British Isles. Continental Christianity also looked to saintly patrons, following the example of the church in Rome which claimed establishment by Peter and Paul. Lacking martyrs, and anxious not to boost the territorial claims of bishops, the rising monastic communities of Ireland (those in mainland Britain would follow somewhat later) looked to their own in the search for founding fathers. This explains two of the most striking and distinctive features of those who were `canonised' in the great wave of hagiography that characterised the first period of Celtic Christian revival. They were local figures and were almost without exception founders of monastic churches, or at least cast in that role by their hagiographers. It is also undeniably true that, in the words of Kenney, `the importance of each is commonly in proportion to the subsequent fame of his chief foundation'. The fact that we regard the likes of Patrick, Columba, Brigit and David as the greatest Celtic saints perhaps has less to do with the actual holiness of their lives than with the success of the monastic establishments which they actually or supposedly founded.
We are brought face to face here with the rather unedifying agenda that lay behind the deliberate creation of the idea of an `age of saints' in what must rank as one of the most successful and enduring pieces of brand-labelling in the history of marketing. Perhaps we should not be too cynical about what was happening. It seems reasonable to believe that the particular individuals chosen to carry the role of monastic founders and patrons were already known and popular for the sanctity of their lives. The dynamic between actual reputation and popular devotion on one hand and formal hagiography on the other is sadly all but impossible to explore because of the almost total absence of sources in the former areas. While oral tradition must surely have fed into the written lives produced by the hagiographers, we cannot be sure how far this led both real-life memories and popular folk beliefs to find their way into the Vitae which are so often our only source for the lives of their subjects and one of very few sources for the nature of Celtic Christianity in its golden age.
What, for example, are we to make of the miracle stories that so dominate the Vitae and which have proved so disconcerting for post-Enlightenment rationalists but so attractive to post-modern charismatics, mystics and New Agers? Are they there because they actually happened or did the hagiographers fill their pages with accounts of wonderworking to echo the miracle stories in the Gospels or to cast their subjects in the mould of the great heroes of pre-Christian Celtic mythology? Was this, indeed, what public opinion demanded? Kenney has argued that
Saintship itself was, to the popular mind, a concept of the magical order. Its essential characteristic was not moral goodness but the possession of that mysterious power which works miracles. The `sanctifying grace' of the legendary saint neither arose from habitual virtue nor resulted primarily in holiness: it was the Christianised counterpart of the magic potency of the druid.
The extent to which pre-Christian material was woven into early Celtic Christian literature is fiercely disputed among modern scholars and lies at the heart of the debate between nativists and anti-nativists in the field of Celtic studies. What is in no doubt, however, is that the prominence and prevalence of miracle miracle stories in the Vitae Sancti has played a significant role in forming one of the most powerful and enduring impressions about Celtic Christianity, namely its fusion of pagan Christian themes.
In fact, there was quite possibly a more prosaic, political reason for the prominence of miracle stories in the Vitae Sancti. They fulfilled a vital function in the hagiographer's prime task of promoting the claims of a particular monastery. Whatever they may have been like in life, and it is welt nigh impossible for us to know, the Celtic saints had one overriding role in death and that was as key players in the game of ecclesiastical power politics. It was, indeed, in order to play that role that they were turned into saints. The main purpose of a Vita was often not, as tends to be assumed, to encourage the faithful but rather to demonstrate its subject's sanctity and superiority over other saints, in the interest of promoting the authority, prestige and financial interests of the monastery which claimed him or her as founder or patron. For this purpose sanctity meant power, defined in the ability to work miracles, preferably more spectacular than those practised by the patrons of other rival communities. The emergence of the Vitae in the late seventh and eighth centuries coincided with the development of the cult of relics which further enhanced the miraculous powers of saints. Often, indeed, a Vita was written specifically to accompany and explain a set of relics in the possession of the monastery whose claims it was promoting.
Excerpted from Celtic Christianity by Ian Bradley. Copyright © 1999 by Ian Bradley. Excerpted by permission.
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