The Barbarian Conversion. 2nd of 3. Patrick and the “Regions Beyond”

Patrick was evidently the first Roman to go as a missionary to the regions beyond the borders of the Empire. “Patrick crossed that threshold upon which, at the end of Chapter 1, we left Augustine and Prosper hesitating.”[1]

Irish tuath. In Ireland the strongest social force was the tribe, or tuath (plural tuatha, tribes).[2] Kinship is the strongest social force among tribal peoples all over the world, even today. Patrick appointed bishops to administrate over tribes, not territories. Patrick’s understanding of the need to administrate the Christian movement by respecting the family lines may perhaps be seen in his reference to ‘the sons of kings who travel with me.’[3] Leaders of a monastery would be selected from the sons of a tribal chief’s.[4] At least ten out of the first thirteen abbots of Iona were of the kin of Columba.[5]

When we think of “monasteries,” we may imagine reclusive hermits who isolated themselves from the world. Some Irish monasteries were different; they were organized as sending bases. “In a missionary country,” wrote William Marnell, the monastery and not the parish is the obvious pattern of organization.”[6] The Irish established churches as well, but a church is only a lighthouse, steadfast and immoveable. A monastery—as conceived by the Irish—was a sending base. From the monastery in Bangor, Ireland, young men—the peregrini—carried the flint of the gospel far away, where there was no lighthouse. They believed God would show them where to live, where to strike the sparks of Christian faith and where to start a new sending base. Generations later, when the dystopian hellscape of 6th century Europe was tamed, great numbers of unreached peoples had become Christian. It was natural, then, that churches should provide pastoral and administrative to a Christian population. But in non-Christian countries, “the obvious pattern” even today is the establishing sending bases.

Irish monks carried the Christian message ever farther into Irish hinterlands. The sixth century saw the foundation of a number of monastic communities which were to achieve great renown in the history of Irish spirituality and learning—Bangor, Clonard, Clonfert, Clonmacnois, Durrow, Kildare, Monasterboice, to name but a few. It was one generation later when Irish monks crossed the sea to Scotland, to northern England, and even to mainland Europe. That brings us to the Irish mission to the Frankish kingdoms, led by Columbanus.

Columbanus Baptizes Thousands in modern-day France. Columbanus—“the white dove”—was educated at the monastery in Bangor in Ireland. There he recruited twelve companions to sail to the mainland of Europe. We have Columbanus’ own words attesting to his vow ‘to make my way to the heathen to preach the gospel to them.’[7] He organized his first monastery-sending base in Burgundy, “where he deliberately built on the ruins of a temple to Diana.”[8] There was a favorable response:

Men thronged to join the devoted band or came, repenting of their sins, to receive the remedies of penance. Soon sheer numbers and the need of productive land required the creation of a new center. Luxeuil, eight miles away, where the warm springs had attracted many in Roman times, was founded and rapidly became a community of thousands.[9]

Sheer numbers of converts made it necessary for the Celtic missionaries to found a new center at Fontaines, three miles northward. In 610 Theuderick II forced Columbanus to leave Luxeuil. Appointing a monk named Eustace to carry on the work there, Columbanus took to the road on a great clockwise journey along the Rhine River, through France and Switzerland with Gall, his lifelong friend and disciple. Gall established the monastery south of Lake Constance that still bears his name. By the mid-800’s the Abbey of St. Gall had become “the intellectual center of the German world.”[10] Columbanus continued to northern Italy, establishing the monastery in Bobbio between Milan and Genoa. Upon his death in 615, his achievement in making disciples became apparent, as new leaders took up his cause.

Abbots would consecrate new missionaries to establish new sending bases ever farther away. In France at least twelve French centers were established, including Paris (St. Denis), Besançon, Rouen, and Strasbourg, Saint-Valéry, Remiremont, and Fontenelle and Jumièges in Normandy. They followed the valley of the Main to Mainz and Würzburg and moved south to Munich and beyond. Bern and Theinau in Switzerland had their Irish monastic establishments north of the mountains, as did St. Gallen nestled in the Grissons . . . They brought the light to Salzburg in Austria; to Piacenza, Bobbio, and Fiesole in northern Italy; to Rome itself, and beyond Rome to Taranto and Palermo. Other Irish monks ranged from the Faroes and Iceland in the north to Sicily in the south. [11]

Paulinus and Conversion of York. About the year 619 an Italian missionary named Paulinus made his way from Kent (where 50 missionaries arrived with Augustine in 597) northward to York, to the court of King Edwin, Edwin was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler of his day.[13] He was baptized at York on Easter Day, 12 April, in the year 67. Members of his family and many of his warriors were baptized as well. The king founded an episcopal see at York; Paulinus was its first bishop. For the remainder of his life until his death in battle in 633 King Edwin strenuously encouraged the missionary activities of Paulinus.[14] It is important for readers to remember that the ruler must give his approval before the people in his realm would convert to Christianity. The history of the advance of Christianity would follow this pattern. This is what happened when Oswald, the king of Northumbria, promoted Christianity in region of his rule.

Aidan, the Apostle to England. Shortly after his return to Northumbria, Oswald sent to Iona for a teacher who might lead a mission to his people to continue the process of Christianization begun by Paulinus. The teacher was the monk, Aidan, consecrated a bishop before his departure. Aidan came to Northumbria in 635 and worked there until his death in 651. Recent research into the interconnections of the Northumbrian and Dalriadic ruling houses has established the likelihood that Oswald and Aidan were kinsmen. The spatial as well as the blood relationship between king and bishop was close; for Oswald gave Aidan the island of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, in the North Sea just off the coast of Northumbria, as the site for his monastic community and episcopal seat.[31]

Mass baptisms often took place. Rather than asking whether the baptized were all believers, one should ask, “Did Christian faith deepen after baptism, as full-scale teaching began?” History tells of the continuing process of Christianization. In this way Europe can be said to have become Christian.

The Holy Spirit called missionaries from men, and sometimes women, who resided in the monastic houses of Europe. There were also churches, but church administrators tended to concern themselves with teaching Christians. The history of the advance of Christianity is the history of those few occasions when missionary monks went to the wilderness. When Queen Bertha asked for missionaries to convert the English, Pope Gregory sent 50 missionaries from the monasteries of Rome. Boniface was the missionary to the German people, Anskar to the Swedes, Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.[15] Boniface, Anskar, Cyril and Methodius were missionaries sent by monasteries. (Do churches ever send missionareies to “the regions beyond?”). Away with the idea that monks stayed in cloisters (closed houses). When the missionary impulse was felt, it was felt in the monasteries. “Throughout the whole period of the Roman empire,” Fletcher wrote, “not a single example is known of a man who was appointed bishop with the specific task of going beyond the frontier to a wholly pagan region.”[16] Sadly, this state of affairs did not vex the leaders of the Church. This is a cautionary tale for the times in which we live.

Adapting to some religious practices of non-Christian people. There is the problem of adapting to the religious practices of non-Christians with whom the missionaries came in contact?  How much elasticity or ‘give’ did missionary Christianity have in an early medieval context? In 601 AD, when Augustine wrote from England for instructions, Pope Gregory wisely replied,

The idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. When this people see that their shrines are not destroyed, they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true God. Thus, while some outward rejoicings are preserved, they will be able more easily to share in inward rejoicings. It is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds, just as the man who is attempting to climb to the highest place, rises by steps and degrees and not by leaps.[17]

Beyond the Imperial Frontiers. Ulfila Among the Goths. Ulfila, German for Little Wolf (d. 383?). His ancestors were carried off from Cappadocia by Goths in the middle of the fourth century.[18] His ancestors were Christian. They were, in Gibbon’s words, “involuntary missionaries.”[19] Ulfila was the inventor of a Gothic alphabet. He translated the Scriptures into their language—with the exception of the books of Kings. This was because these books contain the history of wars, while the Gothic people, being lovers of war, were in need of some force to restrain their passion rather than incite them to it.

Audoen, founder of the monastery at Rebais, was promoted through royal agency to the bishopric of Rouen in 641 and held that see until his death at an advanced age in 684.[20] During Audoen’s episcopate several monasteries were founded with his encouragement in the lower Seine.[21]

Audomer (also called Otmar or Omer). One of the churches he founded later grew into a great abbey, and the abbey into a town named after him: Saint Omer. The founding of commercial cities often followed the founding of early medieval monasteries.)[22]

Eligius. The successor of Acharius in the bishopric of Noyon was Eligius (Eloi), another remarkable member of this network. Eligius owed his advancement to his outstanding talent as a goldsmith. His early training had taught him how to manage coinage: he was entrusted with the mints of Marseilles and subsequently Paris for much of the 620s and 630s.[23] Eligius was very devout. When engaged upon his craft of goldsmithery he would have an open Bible in front of him so that he could study the word of God while working. He employed his wealth, which given his opportunities, must have become considerable, in ransoming captives, especially ‘from the people of the Saxons who at the time were being rounded up like sheep and scattered abroad.’[24]

Buchinus. The first abbot of Ferrières, by name Buchinus, was one of these freed prisoners, a convert from paganism. Many of the first generation of monks at Solignac were drawn from the same source. The foundation document of Solignac survives, dated 22 November 633. It is a revealing document; we find ourselves in a familiar world. A generous land endowment had been granted ‘by the munificence of the most glorious and devout King Dagobert’; the first abbot, Remaclus, had been a monk of Luxeuil; the monks were to observe the characteristic mixture of the Benedictine and Columbanian rules. Eligius and Audoen were consecrated bishops together in 641. During his episcopate at Noyon until his death in 660 Eligius did much good work in ministering to his flock, including ‘the barbarians who dwell along the sea coast, as yet unploughed by the share of preaching’ as his biographer puts it.[25]

Amandus, Exile for Christ. One Amandus was 20 when he joined a monastery in France. He made a vow ‘that he might never be permitted to return to his own land, but might spend his whole life on pilgrimage (in peregrinatione),’ an exile for Christ.[26] Encouraged by the community of St. Martin he evangelized the valley of the river Cher until he came to Bourges.[27] He was appointed a “missionary bishop” France without a fixed diocese. Everywhere he established monasteries—Elnone in Flanders, Barisis-au-Bois near Soissons (c.644) and Nantes on the edge of the Cevennes (between 662 and 675)—the latter in the teeth of opposition from Bishop Mummulinus of Uzes. (The bishop hired some contract killers, but providentially they got lost in a fog.)[28]

Amandus Among the Basques. Said Amandus’ biographer:

Amandus heard of a people formerly known as Vaceians, far to the south, now called Basques. They were so plunged into error that, given up to auguries and other superstitions, they adored idols instead of God. This race is spread throughout the Pyrenees in rough and inaccessible country and, by its daring and mobility in battle, often raided the Frankish borders. The man of God Amandus, taking pity on their error, laboured earnestly to rescue them from the devil’s hold.[29]

Bede’s English Monasteries. There were many more monastic houses in Bede’s England than Bede mentions. Some are revealed to us by the evidence of charters, the formal written record of their foundation or endowment. Such are Bath, for example, or Farnham in Surrey founded in about 687. Some are attested by the evidence of hagiography: Nursling in Hampshire, evidently renowned for its learning when the young Boni­face entered it in about 700; the nunnery at Wimborne in Dorset, mentioned in Rudolf of Fulda’s Life of St Leoba. At some sites archaeol­ogical investigation or surviving architectural fragments have served to confirm the witness of the texts: such are Repton in Derbyshire, or Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. At other places archaeologists have revealed what appear to have been monastic sites of which no written record whatsoever has survived: at Brandon in Suffolk, for example, or at Flixborough in Lincolnshire.

Monastic communities were anything but uniform. Some were small, like Dicuill’s Bosham which had only (in Bede’s words) “five or six brothers.” Others were very large indeed; in the year 716 there were about 600 monks in Bede’s monastery, the biggest population ever recorded in an English monastic house. Some were poorly endowed, others extremely wealthy. Bishop Eorcenwald’s monastery at Chertsey acquired within a few years of its foundation a landed endowment of 300 ‘hides’. The hide was a unit used in the assessment of land for services or tribute-payment and it is notoriously difficult to convert it into an area measure. However, if we adopt a widely canvassed view that an equivalence of one hide to about 120 acres is at least approximately correct, then Chertsey’s estates were even more extensive than those of Amandus’ foundation at Elnone in Flanders. Founding even a modest monastic house was an expensive business. It is therefore not surprising that all identifiable monastic founders were of royal, princely or aristocratic rank – as we have seen that they were in Gaul (with the single rule-proving exception of Eligius). The most detailed surviving account of an English monastic foundation ­one that in terms of its endowments was by no means in the top flight, with a recorded landed holding about half the size of Chertsey’s – was furnished by Bede in his Life of the Holy Abbots. Benedict Biscop, the founder of the double house of Wearmouth-Jarrow, must have spent a fortune on the masons, glaziers, relics, books, pictures, vestments.[32]

This is precisely the point. Benedict Biscop was a man of enormous wealth. He had to be, to indulge a taste for monastic foundation. He was unusual in that, thanks to Bede, we know a lot about him; unusual in his single-minded pursuit of a demanding monastic ideal; and unusual in the high value he set on learning. But he was not unusual in his lavish endowment of his foundation. The men and women of royal and aristocratic families in seventh- and eighth-century England were extremely generous benefactors. This was a most important factor—some might judge the most important factor—in the gradual Chris­tianization of the English.

The monasteries that were founded in early Anglo-Saxon England were agents for the dissemination of Christianity among the laity living nearby. The anonymous biographer of St Cuthbert, writing in about 700, shows us the saint when a monk at Melrose in the 650s travelling down Teviotdale ‘teaching the country people and baptizing them.’ We cannot doubt that the populations who lived on the ample estates of Chertsey or Wearmouth—and many another community: Abing­don, Barking, Coldingham, Dacre, Ely, Folkestone, Gilling and so on—received some pastoral ministrations, however rudimentary, from the clergy of the landlord-church. When Bede tells us that the people of Sussex did not care ‘to adopt the way of life nor to heed the preaching’ of Dicuill and his fellow-monks at Bosham he reveals his expectations of the evangelistic role of such a community. Sometimes the missionary function of a monastic foundation is made unambiguously plain in a document. On account of this activity, Aidan, Columcille’s beloved disciple and first abbot of Lindisfarne, has far better claim than Augustine of Canterbury to the title Apostle of England, for, as the Scottish historian James Bulloch has remarked, “All England north of the Thames was indebted to the Celtic mission for its conversion.”[33]

References Cited

[1] R. A. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, 1st American ed. (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1998). 86

[2] Ibid. 89

[3] Ibid. 90

[4] Ibid. 91

[5] Ibid. 181

[6] William H. Marnell, Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe (New York: Seabury Press, 1978). 27

[7] Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. 142

[8] Gerald H. Anderson, Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (New York: Macmillan, 1998). ”Columbanus” article by James P. Mackey. 146

[9] John Thomas McNeill, The Celtic Churches; a History A.D. 200 to 1200 (University of Chicago Press, 1974). 159

[10] Louis Gougaud and Victor Collins, Gaelic Pioneers of Christianity; the Work and Influence of Irish Monks and Saints in Continental Europe (6th and 7th Cent.) (Dublin: M.H. Gill, 1923). 6

[11] Marnell, Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe. 2

[12] Ibid. 2

[13] Marnell, Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe. 3

[14] Ibid. 4

[15] Ibid. 6

[16] Ibid. 28

[17] Ibid. 254

[18] Ibid. 72

[19] Ibid. 76

[20] Ibid. 143

[21] Ibid. 143

[22] Ibid. 144

[23] Ibid. 145

[24] Ibid. 146

[25] Ibid. 146

[26] Ibid. 148

[27] Ibid. 148-149

[28] Ibid. 153

[29] Ibid. 153

[30] Ibid. 162

[31] Ibid. 163

[32] Ibid. 155

[33] Ibid. 200