Columbanus 615 – 2015

The year 2015 will mark the 1400th anniversary of the death of Columbanus, Ireland’s missionary saint. Who was he and what impact did he have on Europe in the early Middle Ages? New books, an edition of his vita and archaeological excavations lead up to a series of conferences celebrating the life of this “Man of God”.

Annegray from the air. Source: ArTeHis and Sébastian Bully
Annegray from the air. Source: ArTeHis and Sébastian Bully

Columbanus [1] was born in Ireland in Leinster, presumably in AD 543. After having studied in his youth he moved to Bangor Abbey, founded by Comgall in AD 558. In AD 590 he left Ireland together with twelve missionary comrades. Slowly they made their way through France until they ended up in Burgundy. Here they met up with the king, who granted them an abandoned Roman Fortress at Annegray [2] in which to found a monastery. Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a medieval stronghold as well as the foundations of a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Part of the find was also a number of Merovingian graves. According to his vita, Columbanus and his friends experienced the living conditions as too harsh for their growing community and soon they negotiated a move to another Gallo-Roman castle near the baths at Luxeuil-les-Bains. Here was also a small semi-urban settlement which could support the monks initially.

Both sites were according to the Vita of Columbanus located in wild and overgrown locations covered with pine forests and brushwood. Nevertheless, series of excavations have demonstrated that both sites were equipped with large and spacious churches. And that at least the monastery at Luxeuil seems to have been located in what was already a thriving settlement.

From the excavations at Luxeuil-les-Bains [3] it appears that there was already an urban-like settlement in the 2. century. However, this had been abandoned in the first half of the 4th century to give room for a pagan cemetery. In the 5th and 6th centuries a large Early Christian Basilica was erected. Only part of this could be excavated, but it appears to have been app. 40 meters long and 19.5 meters wide. The entire nave, including the sanctuary, was filled with a multitude of Merovingian sarcophagi. Others were located outside to the east of the apse. With more than 125 such sarcophagi – of which a great number were very well preserved –the question must bee raised exactly how despondent the place was, when Columbanus arrived and began to erect his monastery. According to Sébastian Bully, who has been in charge of the excavations, this raises the question whether there might have been important geo-political reasons behind the donation of the place to the newly arrived Irish monks.

Columbanian Monasticism

Book of Durrow saint Matthew - cropped-small
St. Matthew from the Book of Durrow. Trinity College, Dublin MS A. 4. 5. fol 57. Source: Wikipedia

It has been widely debated in which way Columbanian Monasticism differed from that of the more ancient abbeys founded in the earlier period. One challenge is that the sources witness to the diversity, which came to characterise life in the different abbeys – both in the lifetime of Columbanus and later. Some features, though, seem to have been prevalent.

First of all the Irish Monks must have looked different. While the Latin Monks were tonsured with a crown, the Irish sported another type of hairstyle. Exactly how it looked is not known – some believe that the hair was shaved from the forehead from a line drawn from ear to ear with the back long and braided. Others have pondered upon other styles; in a recent article it has been suggested that the tonsure was formed like a triangle with the tip in front. Different they looked however, according to a group of bishops, who were instrumental in hounding Columbanus from Luxeuil.[4]

Celtic Penitentials

The Vienna manuscript, Lat. 2195, showing the decorative title and dedication of the Umbrense version of the Paenitentiale Theodori, fol 2v
The Vienna manuscript, Lat. 2195, showing the decorative title and dedication of the Umbrense version of the Paenitentiale Theodori, fol 2v. Source: Wikipedia

Apart from the peculiar tonsure, it seems as if the specific penitential lifestyle set the Columbanians apart from their contemporary brethren in the older monasteries spread out through Merovingian France.

Central to the missionary effort was definitely the strict Irish traditions, which in the beginning came to influence the daily lives of his brothers. These were infused with a particular brand of Celtic penitential practices as reflected in the Rule of St. Columbus. In general Late Antiquity was characterised by a ritual practice involving public penance, which might have serious communitarian consequences for the offenders (ultimately shunning). However, in the Early Middle Ages private penance became the norm. This new form of penance was associated with a new literary genre: handbooks of confessors known as penitentials. Containing long lists of all sorts of possible sins coupled with precise measures of the appropriate penance, which might absolve the sinner, became a widespread literary genre. Although hotly debated to what extent this “new” form of penitential practice was rooted in Ireland, there is no doubt that the earliest manuscripts holding penitential manuals have survived in insular manuscripts of the 7th century [5]. It is also apparent that Columbanus personally and later the Columbanians seem to have been instrumental in the mature development of this new form of religious life-form in the 7th century.

Characteristic was the constant ‘confession of devotion’ – some monasteries later required confession three times a day – followed by private and reiterated penance. Apart from fasting an important element was the intermittent withdrawal of the brethren into the wilderness for spiritual rejuvenation. Sometimes such forays into the wilderness were dispensed as a penitence called the “peregrinatio pro Christo”. Judging by Columbanus’ letter to Gregory the Great written in 604, it appears the abbot did not always believe his monks should decide upon this matter themselves. In this letter he asks:

“In the third part of my inquiry, please tell me now, if it is not troublesome, what is to be done about those monks who, for the sake of God, and inflamed by the desire for a more perfect life, impugn their vows, leave the places of their first profession, and against their abbots’ will, impelled by monastic fervour, either relapse or flee to the deserts.” (Letter of Columbanus 1, chapter 6)

Although Columbanus never got an answer as the Pope had died before he received the letter, the question does reveal the type of conflicts, which continued to exist between the old-fashioned “desert” spirituality and the more “modern” communal or coenobitic type, which was hastily developing in the 6th and 7th centuries, inspired by both Benedict and Columbanus.

The Easter Question

However, the main reason why Columbanus sent this letter to Pope Gregory the Great, was to appeal to the Pope concerning the conflict between the specific computi used for calculating the time of Easter [6], which was the main controversy between the Columbanians and the local bishops, who convened in 602 to condemn his practice of using the Augustalian Computus. This event was probably a reflection of the fact that Columbanus at the same time had involved himself in a far more dangerous dispute with his benefactors the, the royal Burgundian family.

According to his vita, Columbanus had objected to the fact that Theuderic II of Burgundy had no intention of marrying, but rather continued to live in a so-called ‘Friedelehe’ with a mistress: the mother of the king, Brunhilda is said to have approved of this, as it secured her position as Queen. As a consequence, she became one of his bitterest foes. In the end Columbanus was taken as a prisoner to Besançon. Although he succeeded in escaping, he was soon apprehended at Luxeuil, from where he was sentenced to be exiled back to Ireland. In the end, though, he succeeded in escaping this fate and was soon visiting Chlothar II, the rival to Brunhilde, as well as Thudebert (the brother of Thuderic). In the end Columbanus travelled to Metz and from there – following the Rhine – to Lake Zurich and further into Italy in 612. Here he was warmly greeted by King Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda of the Lombards, who gave him a tract of land in Bobbio near the Trebbia river. In 615 he died there; traditionally said to have happened in a small cave which may still be visited. His remains were laid to rest in the crypt at Bobbio Abbey. The present tomb is dated to the late 15th century.


Geophysics at Bobbio. Source:
Geophysics at Bobbio. Source:

As at Luxeuil, Bobbio was located in an area, which according to the Vita of Columbanus should be characterised as a secluded spot of wilderness, which commanded an almost super-human effort to inhabit and civilize. As it happens it was a well-known location on the road between Genoa and Piacenza. Even today it is famous for its hunchbacked Roman Bridge, Ponte Gobbo, which was definitely there, when he arrived there. It must be presumed that there was also at least some sort of settlement catering for travellers. Once again archaeology must be used to revise the hagiographic topos of saints “cultivating wilderness”, which flows through the Vita

However, archaeological excavations in Bobbio [7] have only recently been carried out, and much still needs to be done in order to get a proper feeling for the early monastic foundation there. This year, though, a group of archaeologists have dug into the central nave of the Basilica di San Columbano in order to get at least some indications of the earliest building phases of the monastery. This follows on GeoRadar survey carried out last year. These excavations have been carried out in a collaboration between a number of institutions in both Ireland, France and Italy as part of the major project: Making Europe: Columbanus and His Legacy.

Columbanus and His Legacy

In 618, just three years after the death of its founder Columbanus, Jonas of Bobbio (c. AD 600 – 659) arrived at the monastery of Bobbio Abbey. Soon after (between AD 639 – 643) he took it upon himself to write the vita of Columbanus [8].  Later he asserted that he had based his account of the great Irish saint on the testimony of persons who had known him intimately. This Vita seems to present us with an intimate account of the way in which the followers of Columbanus experienced the charismatic personality as feel as life and deeds. It has for a very long time been a problem that no scholarly edition and translation was available. This is to be rectified in connection with the upcoming celebrations of Columbanus and his Legacy by an edition, which has been prepared by Ian Wood and Alexander O’Hara [9]

The project: Columbanus and his Legacy 615 – 2015 was launched in 2014 in order to organise three conferences planned at Bangor, Luxeuil and Bobbio. At Bobbio this will be accompanied by an exhibition showcasing a number of prescious manuscripts as well as artefacts found in connection with the on-going excavations there. Unfortunately the website is currently not properly updated; some information may nevertheless be gained from the dedicated website Columbanus 2015


[1] The most recent overview of the life and legacy of Columbanus may be found in Power and Religion in Merovingian GaulColumbanian Monasticism and the Frankish Elites. By Yaniv Fox. Cambridge University Press 2014

[2] Les sites d’Annegray et de Faucogney: Sondages et prospections géophysiques/ete 2013 and Fouilles programmées et sondages/été 2014

[3] L’église Saint-Martin de Luxeuil-les-Bains (Haute Saône), duxième Campagne. By Sébastian Bully. In: Busema: Bulleting du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre, 2010

[4] The Celtic Tonsure: On the shape of the insular tonsure. By Daniel McCarthy. In: Celtica, 2003 Vol 24 pp. 140 – 167

[5] About penitentials: Penance in Medieval Europe, 600 – 1200. By Rob Meens. Cambridge University Press 2014

[6] About Easter: A recent presentation of this conflict may be found in Power and Religion in Merovingian GaulColumbanian Monasticism and the Frankish Elites, pp. 92 – 93

[7] Primo scavo archeologico nella navata centrale della Basilica di San Colombano a Bobbio

[8] The Vita of Columbanus has been published by Bruno Krusch in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatism editi. Vol 37:1905: Ionae Vitae sanctum Columbani, vedastis, Iohannis. 

[9] Jonas of Bobbio. Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Reome, and Life of Vedast. Translated with commentary by Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood. Series: Translated Texts for Historians. Liverpool University Press 2015 . ISBN-13: 9781781381762


Making Europe: Columbanus and His Legacy.


Columbanus and the Politics of Exile: Social Networks, Elite Identities, and Christian Communities in Europe,  c. 550- c. 750


Saint Columbanus Selected Writings coverSaint Columbanus: Selected Writings
by Alexander O’Hara
Veritas Publications 2015
ISBN-10: 1847305873
ISBN-13: 978-1847305879

Though he died fourteen hundred years ago, the words of Columbanus are as relevant today as they were in the sixth century. A poet, scholar, abbot and founder of monasteries throughout Europe, his legacy has inspired countless missionaries to follow in his path. Compiled by Alexander O Hara, with a foreword by Mary McAleese and introductory chapter by Fr Sean McDonagh, this beautiful selection of writings encapsulates the teachings of one of Ireland s best-known saints, providing a fascinating insight into the mind of a provocative and groundbreaking missionary.


Jonas of Bobbio by O'Hara and Ian Wood - CoverJonas of Bobbio. Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Reome, and Life of Vedast. 
Translated with commentary by Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood.
Series: Translated Texts for Historians.
Liverpool University Press 2015/16  (In progress)
ISBN-13: 9781781381762

The Life of Columbanus is a, perhaps the, central text for the history of seventh-century monasticism. The first book of the work describes the career of the Irish monk Columbanus, while the second describes his disciples – Eustasius, Athala and Burgundofara. It is a well-known text and has been translated into several languages, including French and Italian. An English version of Book I is in print, as is a translation by Professor Ian Wood of part of Book II. There are, however, good reasons for a new translation and commentary, and not just because the text is a central one. First, Columbanus died in 615: 2015 will therefore be a centenary year. Second, the current translation of Book I does not use the latest (1965) edition. Third, recent archaeological discoveries at Luxeuil, Columbanus’ most important foundation in Francia, have revolutionised our understanding of the saint’s actual impact. Whilst Jonas describes the site as an unoccupied desert, in reality it was a thriving cult site surrounded by major cemeteries which were already in use before Columbanus’ arrival – as has only become apparent in the last five years. This means that the text now has to be seen as a programmatic work, advocating a particular monastic style, rather than as a record of fact (a point that is not new, but which has been disregarded by many scholars). Moreover, while it is a programmatic work advocating a particular style of monasticism, since the 1970s it has become a good deal more apparent to what extent that style was novel, and to what extent it was merely the refinement of monastic practices already present before Columbanus’ arrival. Equally, it is becoming clear that some of the practices ascribed to Columbanus by Jonas reflect developments following the saint’s death, which the hagiographer wished to associate with the founding saint. As a result, the commentary on the text will in many ways be as important for students as the translation. The Life of John of Reome, also written by Jonas, is a short work which promotes the same values as are present in the Life of Columbanus, but which are here ascribed to an earlier Gallo-Roman saint. It is an important text, because it adds to our knowledge of the monastic movement to which the Life of Columbanus belongs. The Life of Vedast is also included in the volume for the completeness. It was identified in 1905, as being by Jonas and although this has been questioned in recent years, the objections are not decisive. The text unquestionably belongs to Jonas’ circle, even if he himself did not write it.


Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul by Yaniv Fox CoverPower and Religion in Merovingian Gaul. 
Columbanian Monasticism and the Frankish Elites
By Yaniv Fox
Cambridge University Press 2014
ISBN: 9781107064591
ISBN: 9781316057018

This study is the first to attempt a thorough investigation of the activities of the Columbanian congregation, which played a significant role in the development of Western monasticism. This was a new form of rural monasticism, which suited the needs and aspirations of a Christian elite eager to express its power and prestige in religious terms. Contrary to earlier studies, which viewed Columbanus and his disciples primarily as religious innovators, this book focuses on the political, economic, and familial implications of monastic patronage and on the benefits elite patrons stood to reap. While founding families were in a privileged position to court royal favour, monastic patronage also exposed them to violent reprisals from competing factions. Columbanian monasteries were not serene havens of contemplation, but rather active foci of power and wealth, and quickly became integral elements of early medieval statecraft.

The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom by Jamie Kreiner CoverThe Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom
by Jamie Kreiner
Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series)
Cambridge University Press 2014
ISBN-10: 1107050650
ISBN-13: 978-1107050655

This book charts the influence of Christian ideas about social responsibility on the legal, fiscal and operational policies of the Merovingian government, which consistently depended upon the collaboration of kings and elites to succeed, and it shows how a set of stories transformed the political playing field in early medieval Gaul. Contemporary thinkers encouraged this development by writing political arguments in the form of hagiography, more to redefine the rules and resources of elite culture than to promote saints’ cults. Jamie Kreiner explores how hagiographers were able to do this effectively, by layering their arguments with different rhetorical and cognitive strategies while keeping the surface narratives entertaining. The result was a subtle and captivating literature that gives us new ways of thinking about how ideas and institutions can change, and how the vibrancy of Merovingian culture inspired subsequent Carolingian developments.

Columbanus- Studies on the Latin Writings (Studies in Celtic History) coverColumbanus: Studies on the Latin Writings
By Michael Lapidge (Ed)
Boydell & Brewer 1997
ISBN: 978 -0-85115-667-5

Columbanus (d.615), the Irish monk and founder of such important centres as Luxeuil and Bobbio, was one of the most influential figures in early medieval Europe. His fiery personality led him into conflict with Gallic bishops and Roman popes, and he defended his position on such matters as monastic discipline in a substantial corpus of Latin writings marked by burning conviction and rhetorical skill. However, the polish of his style has raised questions about the nature of his early training in Ireland and even about the authenticity of the writings which have come down to us under his name. The studies in this volume attempt to address these questions: by treating each of the individual writings comprehensively, and drawing on recently-developed techniques of stylistic analysis new light is shed on Columbanus and his early education in Ireland. More importantly, doubts over the authenticity of certain writings attributed to Columbanus are here authoritatively resolved, so putting the study of this cardinal figure on a sound basis. Professor Michael Lapdidge teaches in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge.

The Bobbio Missal Yitzhak Hen and Rob Meens CoverThe Bobbio Missal: Liturgy and Religious Culture in Merovingian Gaul
by Yitzhak Hen and Rob Meens (Eds)
Series: Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology
Cambridge University Press 2009
ISBN-10: 0521126916
ISBN-13: 978-0521126915

The Bobbio Missal was copied in south-eastern Gaul around the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth century. It contains a unique combination of a lectionary and a sacramentary, to which a plethora of canonical and non-canonical material was added. The Missal is therefore highly regarded by liturgists; but, additionally, medieval historians welcome the information to be derived from material attached to the codex, which provides valuable data about the role and education of priests in Francia at that time, and indeed on their cultural and ideological background. The breadth of specialist knowledge provided by the team of scholars writing for this book enables the manuscript to be viewed as a whole, not as a narrow liturgical study. Collectively, the essays view the manuscript as physical object: they discuss the contents, they examine the language, and they look at the cultural context in which the codex was written.

Bobbio in the early Middle Ages by richter coverBobbio in the Early Middle Ages: The Abiding Legacy of Columbanus
by Michael Richter
Four Courts Press Ltd
ISBN-10: 1846821037
ISBN-13: 978-1846821035

Bobbio was the last monastery founded by St Columbanus, who died two years after its inception. It soon became the most important monastery in northern Italy.Several dozen manuscripts, some lavishly illuminated, have survived from the first three centuries of its existence. The largest body of Old Irish glosses passed through Bobbio before ending up in Milan.The evidence for Bobbio in the early Middle Ages is richer than for any Irish monastery in those times, with a substantial amount of source material available on the economic status of the monastery in the late 9th century. This is the first full-scale study of this institution, which celebrated its 1400th anniversary in 2012.


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