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The Celtic Church in Britain #11



by Leslie Hardinge (1972)


     High priority must be given to the role played by the
monastery during the Celtic period. It was more vital than that
of an average community a thousand years later. Its functions and
responsibilities were pervasive in the life of the people. The
laws of Ireland carefully defined the relationships which the
"tribe of the people" were to sustain to the "tribe of the
church". The sanctuary which the monastery provided for offenders
in need was jealously guarded. The laws and customs which
supported the idea of protection were richly flavoured by
regulations taken from the Liber ex Lege Moisi. The Old Testament
contained these provisions regarding asylum:

     Ye shall appoint unto you cities to be cities of refuge for
     you: that the slayer may flee thither, ... and the
     congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the
     revenger (Num. 35.10-12,25).

     The law tract Precincts laid down the Irish monastic concept
of the asylum which the Christian Church provided: "The church
protects sinners, so that they come out of it free or bond, as
they entered it, ... it shelters the trespassers ... so that
fines are accepted from them where death was deserved ... And she
is exempt for entertaining and advising at all times." This
privilege of refuge was granted not only to the fugitive who
entered the sacred enclosure of the monastic settlement, but it
was also given by the patron saint himself to any who might place
himself under his protection. An illustration of this is the
story of Curan and Columba whose sanctuary was violated and the
young man Curan slain by Diarmid. In terrible indignation Columba
was represented as cursing the murderer. As a result a battle
ensued in which the northern prince Hugh O'Neill defeated and
slew Diarmid at Culdremhe.
     Adamnan has preserved a story of a young girl who fled to
Columba, when he was studying with German in Leinster, while
still a young man. Her pursuer, ignoring the holy man and the
young disciple Columba, slew the girl before them. "Then the old
man in great affliction, turning to Columba, said, 'For how long,
holy boy Columba, will God, the just judge, suffer this crime,
and our dishonour to go unavenged?" He then pronounced a
terrible curse on the murderer, who immediately fell dead before
     A declaratory story was told of Diarmait's son Bresal, who
grabbed a cow from the nun Luchair of Kells "in the sanctuary".
His own father sentenced him to death for his crime. Bresal was
later restored to life by Becan, and all ended well after the
principle of asylum had been firmly underlined. 
     This concept not only afforded protection to persecuted and
afflicted Christians living among heathen peoples, it also worked
to enhance the prestige, power, and influence of the monastic
settlements themselves.


     Children were often entrusted to the members of the various
Christian communities to be brought up in the faith, in imitation
of the way Samuel was "lent to the Lord", and to be educated as
useful members of society. The laws and penitentials contain
several regulations covering the relationship of the child to the
monastic school and the school to the child. The Old-Irish
Penitential gives rules governing "boys of ten years old". The
penitential of Cummean also deals with the sins of little boys.
Even infants and very young children were thrust upon the
monasteries. This is strong circumstantial evidence of the
presence of women in some monasteries, because it would seem to
be highly improbable that men would tend the smallest babies.
Explaining St Paul's illustration of a "nurse cherishing her
children", the glossator remarked that "she makes every sound to
instruct her fosterling ... of us instructing fosterlings".
Brigit, Ira, and Bee, Hilda and the daughters of King Cualann,
were all educators of the smallest children.
     Cadoc received Elli as his foster-son when he was only a
little boy of three, and "loved him above the love of father and
mother". Colman, chief of Leinster, sent his baby son to be
reared by Coemgen. Rich and poor mingled freely. They all lived
in huts or in the outlying community. After their training had
been completed, the young people either continued in the
settlement or went out into the "tribe of the people" to fend for
themselves. The parents of the foster children were required by
law to provide clothes and payments to those who looked after
them. But there was also "fostering for affection" in which
relationship the foster parent supplied all the child's needs. If
the father failed to offer his son to the Church, he was obliged
to pay all the expenses of his education. If the son who had been
pledged to the Church by a pious father later decided to leave
its service, the parent was under obligation to pay only
two-thirds of the cost and the Christian settlement made up the
rest. Parents were encouraged to present their boys for
education, and were provided with lists of the fees, just as in
the Brehon schools.


     In commenting on the principle which the apostle Paul laid
down for Timothy: "For the Scripture saith, 'Thou shalt not
muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn', and, 'The labourer is
worthy of his reward'", the Old-Irish glossator remarked: "This
is an example from the Old Law to confirm the principle that it
is right to supply food and clothing to the clergy and students."
     The implication seems to be that the students made
contributions of labour to the running of the ecclesiastical
seminaries, and, in consequence, should be supported.


     The care of the wayfarer and pauper, the widow and orphan,
was regarded as a most important part of the practice of the
Celtic Christian. The Liber ex Lege Moisi provided for the
stranger, the foreigner, and the homeless, and the Celt obeyed.
No call for help was ever denied. Even to those from abroad who
desired an education, the Irish monasteries provided free board,
lodgings, books, and tuition. The ancient laws condemned
inhospitality as a crime, while the penitentials inveighed
against it as a sin.
     Lasair gave food away even during a famine so that he might
escape from the insults and reproaches of the poet-band. But the
Celt was hospitable because he loved people. His feelings may
well be crystalized in these lines:

     0 king of Stars!
     Whether my house be dark or bright, 
     Never shall it be closed against any one, 
     Lest Christ close his house against me.

     If there be a guest in your house 
     And you conceal aught from him,
     'Tis not the guest that will be without it, 
     But Jesus, Mary's Son.

     Brigit is represented as making a feast for Jesus in her
heart. Finnian of Clonard had 3000 whom he supported in his
settlement. Cadoc's generous hospitality has already been noted.
The founder or holy man to whom the original grant of land had
been made was called the patron saint of the monastery or
Christian community. The importance of his position can hardly be
exaggerated. A gloss of the law tract "Succession" thus eulogized
his person and office. He is one 24 who is the noblest; who is
the highest; who is the wealthiest; the shrewdest; the wisest;
who is popular as to compurgation; who is most powerful to sue;
the most firm to sue for profits and losses. And: every body
defends its members, if a goodly body, well-deeded, wel-moralled,
affluent, capable. The body of each is his tribe. There is no
body without a head.


     That this description applies with equal force to the leader
of "the tribe of the church" is corroborated by the Cain
     The leader of the Christian settlement originally possessed
the land, buildings, and the right of succession, which depended
upon him and the tribe to which he belonged. Not only in Ireland
but also in Wales abbatal tenancy was hereditary. This tribal and
hereditary occupancy was not solely of Celtic origin among Celtic
Christians, it also had its authorization in the Liber ex Lege
Moisi. Priests were chosen only from the tribe of Levi, and
especially from the family of Aaron, and succeeded their fathers
to holy office, and also to the possession of the sacred cities
with their suburbs. This certainly looks like the authority for
the Celtic Christians to continue the hereditary succession of
druid and Brehon in their own Christian communities. But while
hereditary laws applied, this did not preclude the aspiring
Brehon's fitting himself for his task through study. The
Christianized laws provided for almost every eventuality to
ensure that a suitable successor be selected for the leadership
of each community.
     The simplest application of this regulation of hereditary
succession was to a suitable son of the original founder-abbot,
as is evidenced by this couplet from the law tracts:

The successor should be 
The son of the abbot in the pleasant church 
A fact established by sense.

     This successor was called a "coarb". Later hagiographers
went to great lengths to establish him as the "heir" of the
     This enabled all the wealth and prestige of the monastery to
remain in the property of the heir. After the Viking period he
was called the "erenach" or airchinnech. Giraldus Cambrensis
noted that "the sons, after the deaths of their fathers,
succeeded to the ecclesiastical benefice, not by election, but by
hereditary right".
     Should the abbot have no son, or be a "virgin abbot", a
suitable person was to be chosen from "the tribe of the patron
saint who shall succeed to the church as long as there shall be a
person fit to be an abbot of the said tribe of the patron saint;
even though there should be but a psalm-singer of them, it is he
that will obtain the abbacy". Coemgen "ordained that the erenagh
in his church should be habitually of the children and posterity
of Dimma". But should neither the son of the abbot nor a suitable
person from the tribe of the saint be forthcoming, the law
provided for a third source:

     Whenever there is not one of that tribe fit to be an abbot,
     it [the abbacy] is to be given to the tribe to whom the land
     belongs, until a person fit to be an abbot of the tribe of
     the patron saint, shall be qualified; and when he is, it
     [the abbacy] is to be given to him, if he be better than the
     abbot of the tribe to whom the land belongs, and who has
     taken it. If he [the former] is not better, it is only in
     his turn he shall succeed.

     It occasionally happened that junior members of "the tribe
of the church" obtained grants of land on their own behalf in the
neighbourhood, and set up subsidiary communities of Christian
believers. These were regarded as extensions of the original
church or monastery. On some occasions a foster-son of the Church
settled with a few companions at a little distance, or perhaps
even across the sea. All these ancillary houses were regarded as
being legally bound to the original settlement of the patron
saint and were under the jurisdiction of his "heirs". The law
provided that:

     If a person fit to be an abbot has not come of the tribe of
     the patron saint, or of the tribe to whom the land belongs,
     the abbacy is to be given to one of the fine-manach class
     until a person fit to be an abbot, of the tribe of the
     patron saint, or of the tribe to whom the land belongs,
     should be qualified; and when there is such a person, the
     abbacy is to be given to him in case he is better.

     The term fine-manach grade described an inferior member of
the "tribe of the church" who was a tenant on the ecclesiastical
lands; or it might also indicate members of the Church who had
established places for themselves, or it might even include the
"people who give the church valuable goods". The law took care of
all eventualities thus:

     If a person fit to be an abbot has not come of the tribe of
     the patron saint, or of the tribe of the grantor of the
     land, or of the manach class, the "anoint" church shall
     receive it, in the fourth place; a dalta church shall
     receive it in the fifth place; a compairche church shall
     obtain it in the sixth place; a neighbouring till church
     shall obtain it in the seventh place.

     The "anoint" church was the one in which the patron saint
had been educated, or in which he had been buried. The dalta
church was one established by a foster-son or pupil in the
monastic settlement. A compairche church was one under the
jurisdiction of the patron saint, but situated at some distance.
A neighbouring church was one which, though not under the
authority of the patron saint, was simply located at a not too
great distance from it.

     Should all these sources prove unavailing, the monks were to
select a suitable person from among the "pilgrims" who had
sought sanctuary or hospitality among them, or even a responsible
layman might temporarily rule until he found some one more
suitable. This practice gave rise to many anomalies through the
centuries. The coarbs were not always bishops nor even priests.

     In Kildare they were always females. There is also a record
of a female coarb of St Patrick at Armagh. The one who inherited
the rights of the patron saint was a chieftain of considerable
power in the ecclesiastical community. The Annals contain a
nearly complete list of the abbots or coarbs, but do not indicate
successive bishops, who were more often than not in subjection to
the coarb-abbot, and who did not succeed one another. The names
in the Annals of the successors of Patrick are often called
abbots, while some are called bishops as well as abbots, and
others are styled simply bishops, and still others merely coarbs
of St Patrick. Nothing in this last title shows whether he was a
bishop or not. It is therefore well nigh impossible to trace
episcopal succession in Armagh. The coarbs of Patrick might be
bishop, priest, layman, or even a woman. In the eleventh century
this anomalous situation still existed in Ireland. Bernard wrote

     There had been introduced by the diabolical ambition of
     certain people of rank a scandalous usage whereby the Holy
     See [Armagh] came to be obtained by heritary succession. For
     they would allow no person to be promoted to the bishoprick
     except such as were of their own tribe and family. Nor was
     it for any short period that this succession had continued,
     nearly fifteen generations having been already exhausted in
     this course of iniquity.

     Before the time of Celsus eight of these coarbs had been
married men. After Malachy had been elected to office by the
Roman party, he strove to bring Armagh and its succession into
line with canonical practice.


     The composition of the early Celtic monastic household may
be discovered from the sources. The Catalogue of the Saints of
Ireland recorded that the original Christians, who were drawn to
the faith by Patrick and his successors, were "all bishops, ...
founders of churches ... They rejected not the services and
society of women, because, founded on the rock Christ, they
feared not the blast of temptation. This order of saints
continued for four reigns, that is, to 5. T. Olden long ago
strove to establish that this introduction of women into monastic
households was as consorts or spiritual wives. It would seem
less far-fetched to suggest that at the initial stage celibacy
was not enforced. Communities of men and women living together as
families were more likely in vogue. S. H. Sayce pointed this out
when he wrote: "As in Egypt so in the Celtic Church the
monasterium or collegium was an assemblage of huts in which the
monks, both cleric and lay, lived with their wives and families."
     In the Irish laws provisions covering the various members of
the monastic family are found. They recognized "virgin" and
married clerics of all grades, even lay recluses:

     There is a virgin bishop ... the virgin priest ... a bishop
     of one wife ... a virgin clerical student ... a clerical
     student of one wife ... a lay recluse ... of virginity ...
     lay recluses who are without virginity, if they be beloved
     of God, and their works great, if their miracles are as
     numerous, or if they are more numerous, in the same way that
     Peter and Paul were to John, and in the same way Anthony and
     Martin were.

     So there were evidently in Irish ecclesiastical
"virgin bishops", "virgin priests", "virgin abbots", and "virgin
clerical students", besides "virgin lay recluses". There were
also apparently married bishops, priests, abbots, clerical
students, and lay recluses. A comparison of the status enjoyed by
the "virgin" and married persons shows that virginity was held to
be superior. But being the "husband of one wife" did not debar a
man from any clerical office, not even that of recluse. In fact
the law goes out of its way to protect from censure or contempt
"lay recluses who are without virginity if they be beloved of
God". And so the writers of the "Lives" noted that the steward of
Cadoc had a daughter's, while Cadoc himself had a "son-in-law",
and his father a "monastery". The laws deplored "the son of a
religious without an hour for his order".


     The old and infirm often found shelter in the Christian
settlements. Even kings and queens entered these communities to
gain peace in their declining years. The old woman of Beare, on
the other hand, finding herself left behind by the march of life,
sadly lamented her change of fortune:

     I had my day with kings!
     We drank the brimming mead, the ruddy wine,
     Where now I drink whey-water; for company more fine 
     Than shrivelled hags, hag though I am, I pine.


     The biographers of the saints had recorded the traditional
make-up of Patrick's monastic "family":

     The family of Patrick of the prayers, who had good Latin, I
     remember; no feeble court (were they], their order, and
     their names.
     Sechnall, his bishop without fault; 
     Mochta after him his priest;
     Bishop Erc his sweet-spoken judge; his champion, 
     Bishop Maccaerthinn; Benen, his psalmist; and Coemhan, his
     chamberlain; Sinell his bell-ringer, and Aitchen his true
     cook; The priest Mescan, without evil, his friend and his
     brewer; The priest Bescna, sweet his verses, the chaplain of
     the son of Alprann.
     His three smiths, "expert at shaping, Macecht, Laebhan, and
     His three artificers, of great endowment, Aesbuite, Tairill,
     and Tasach.
     His three embroiderers, not despicable, Lupaid, Erca, and
     Odhran, his charioteer, without blemish, Rodan, son of
     Braga, his shepherd.
     Ippis, Tigris, and Erca, and Liamhain, with Eibeachta:
     For them Patrick excelled in wonders, for them he was truly
     Carniuch was the priest that baptized him; German his tutor,
     without blemish.
     The priest Manach, of great endowment, was his man for
     supplying wood.
     His sister's son was Banban, of fame; Martin his mother's
     brother. Most sapient was the youth Mochonnoc, his
     hospitaller; Cribri and Larsa, of mantles, beautiful
     daughters of Gleaghrann.
     Macraith the wise, and Erc, he prophesied in his three
     Brogan, the scribe of his school; the priest Logha, his
     helmsman, It is not a thing unsung, and Machui his true
     Good the man whose great family they were, to whom God gave
     a crozier without sorrow.
     Chiefs with whom the bells are heard, a good family was the
     family of Patrick.
     May the Trinity, which is powerful over all, distribute to
     us the boon of great love;
     The King who, moved by soft Latin, redeemed by Patrick's

     If this list is taken as even partially historical as to the
various categories of helpers in a Celtic monastery of the time
of its writer, possibly the eighth century, the picture emerges
of a well-organized Christian "city" consisting of many workers,
and sharing the products of their skill with each other.

     The chief was the abbot, who had under him a vice-abbot. The
religious duties, conducting services and ordaining clergy, were
carried out by the bishop or bishops. Then there were seniors,
the aged members of the society, who were consulted in matters of
importance. The rank and file of the city consisted of farmers
who tended the fields and orchards, the flocks and herds;
carpenters who kept the houses in repair or built new ones;
smiths who made bells and other objects of iron; jewellers who
fashioned brooches, buckles, and decorative cases for books or
the furnishings for the Communion service, and croziers; masons
who fabricated stone altars or constructed any stone building
that might be made. The baker prepared bread and other delicacies
with flour provided by the miller. The tanner took care of the
skins of animals killed for food, and turned them into leather
for sandals, cloaks, or writing materials, satchels and bags for
books and other uses. The embroideresses prepared the more
decorative clothes for the abbot and other clerics, and the
cloths for the altars, out of materials prepared by carders,
spinners, and weavers. At the gate the porter functioned, with
the help of the guard or the strong man, called the champion,
while the gardener provided fruit and vegetables and herbs for
the cooks in the kitchen; and the cellarer or steward was
responsible for the meal services. On the islands fishermen
procured food from the sea. The guestmaster dispensed
hospitality, while nurses took care of the fosterchildren and the
sick and infirm. Teachers instructed in the schools, and scribes
prepared books in the scriptoria, which the librarians carefully
tended. Everyone had his work to do. Even when a British king
left his realm and came to Ireland on a pilgrimage in order to
gain heaven, "he gave himself to manual labour like any monk
aserving God". But, on the other hand, and typical of Celtic
selfcontradiction, Finan protested to Mochuda: "It is a wretched
thing to make your monks into brute beasts; for it were better to
have oxen for ploughing and draught, than to put such torture on
the disciples of God." To which Mochuda replied with a chuckle,
"Well, O Cleric, 'tis the sweat of his own tonsure that heals
every one."


The size of the monastic "city" varied considerably. Finnian of
Clonard is said to have ruled over no fewer than three thousand
saints, while at the other end of the scale there are records
of communities of only a dozen men. Bearing in mind the
comparatively small population of the British Isles, and the
recurrent charge that Celtic Christians were few in number, the
average settlement could hardly have been very large, consisting
possibly of a few score persons.


     The individuality, which is characteristic of Celtic
philosophy of life, made the formulation of rules which were
universally acceptable in all communities impossible. The first
authenticated list of regulations which has survived was framed
by Columbanus.
     He left Ireland and established various communities on the
Continent. Here his regulae proved so severe that none but the
hardiest and most determined were able to live by them. When
Columbanus was banished from Gaul, he was very loth to return
home. Could a reason for this be that his way of living was not
the usual Celtic way of laissez-faire? It has been taken for
granted, without enough evidence, that the rules of Columbanus
were typical of the programme of the usual Irish monastic house.
There were possibly communities which lived in a manner suggested
by the rules of Columbanus, but they would represent one phase
only of many different kinds of Celtic monachism.
     Columba's "rules", like other Celtic monastic regular, were
of a much later date than Columba. They were fathered on earlier
saints to give them some measure of antiquity and authority. Even
at the late date when these rules were devised there were still
great differences between them. Each monastery went its own way.
This divergence in practice is humorously underlined by the
discussion between two monastic heads on the relative merits of
abstinence and wine drinking. One said, in effect, My disciples
are better than yours. They do not drink! To which the other
retorted, Mine will get to heaven anyway.

(WE AGAIN MUST REMEMBER THAT by this time many truths had been
lost.....going to heaven had come in, probably from the Roman
church. The truth is heaven is coming to us, to this earth, as I
prove in many studies on this website - Keith Hunt)


     Celtic Christians permitted "double monasteries",
settlements in which both men and women lived in the same or in
adjacent buildings, and generally were presided over by a woman.
Palladius, in the opening years of the fifth century, described
how the virgin Asella ruled over many religious persons,
including husbands and wives, in a building in Rome, and taught
them to live as monks and ascetics while still in their own
homes. Martin admitted a husband and wife to his community at
Marmoutier, and, as has been noted, a couple lived in the
monastery at Lerins. Double monasteries were founded in Gaul and
also in Britain, and continued in existence for centuries.
The Council of Agade (5o6) on the Mediterranean, at which Caesar
of Arles was probably present, prohibited the building of
nunneries near abbeys. justinian (529) forbade all who dwelt in
monasteries with nuns even to converse with them. Double
monasteries in England were permitted but deprecated by Theodore,
who none the less ruled that "it is not permissible for men to
have monastic women, nor women, men; nevertheless, we shall not
overthrow that which is the custom in this region". He evidently
felt that double monasteries were too strongly entrenched to be
overthrown immediately. Hilda ruled over what was perhaps the
most famous double monastery of her day at Whitby. Cogitosus'
"Life of Brigit" professed to describe a sixth-century monastery
at Kildare:

     The number of the faithful of both sexes increasing, the
     church was enlarged, having within, three oratories, large,
     and separated by partitions of planks, under one roof of the
     greater house, wherein one partition extended along the
     breadth in the eastern part of the church, from the one
     party wall to the other, which partition has at its
     extremities two doors; through the one in the right side the
     chief prelate enters the sanctuary, accompanied by his
     regular school and the ministrants of the altar; through the
     other, the abbess and nuns, when they communicate. Another
     partition divides the pavement of the house into two equal
     parts. There are two main doors-one for men, one for the
     Brigit invited a holy man from his solitary life to join her
in governing her settlement in episcopal dignity. She did not
hesitate to call her men-servants to dine with her. Ira (+
569) and Kieran (+ 520) also associated men with their
settlements, while Mochuda (+ 637) was beloved of thirty girls
who became nuns. Evidently the hagiographers had no doubt that
men and women lived together in the same establishments, and
their readers appear to have taken this state of affairs for
     The same story may be repeated for double monasteries in
England. Aebbe was abbess of Coldingham. On one occasion "one of
the brethren of the same monastery" spied on Cuthbert's vigils as
the holy man was standing all night in the sea and singing
psalms, and noted that otters dried and warmed the saint's feet.
Verca was abbess of a monastery at the mouth of the Tyne. She had
a "priest of the same monastery" living with the sisters," as did
Aelfflaed in her mixed monastery. And so the evidence might be
increased to point to the stage of monastic practice wherein men
and women lived in the same establishment. This was transitional,
between communities of families and the final separation between
the sexes. An insight into the actual practice of this kind of
monachism is given by this Old-Irish story of Laisran the
anchorite of Clonmacnoise. Clerical students used to take turns
at inviting him to their homes for entertainment:

     One night a certain clerical student took him to his house.
     He put a mantle under him. Laisran slept on his mantle. He
     sees a carnal vision, and he had not seen it from his birth
     till that night. He rises then. He began to weep and lament
     (?). "Woe to me ..." saith he. Then he began to pray, and
     recited the three fifties in prayer. Then a numbness came
     upon his lips. Then came an angel to him and said, "Be not
     sorrowful, what you have seen this night you have never seen
     before, and what caused even this is because the mantle on
     which thou hast slept (?) is a mantle which has not been
     washed since the married couple had it. A demon has ... it
     then because it has not been washed, for every garment that
     is taken from ... folk, a demon accompanies it as long as it
     is not washed.

     This anecdote reveals curious facts, evidently accepted by
its writer and its intended audience. The cloak which the
clerical student lent the anchorite had been slept in by "the
married couple," obviously the student and his wife. While the
hagiographer was intent on showing the ascetic prowess of Laisran
he unconsciously recorded the fact that married couples lived in
the same monastic settlement side by side with the most rigid
     Because of the presence of such records in the sources the
role of women in Celtic monastic practice is difficult to define.
Confusion and prejudice often fog the discussion of the evidence
which exists. The task of the historian is complicated because
stories have been devised as propaganda for celibacy. In the Old
Testament women occupied positions of honour. They could even
become prophetesses. Children were regarded as guarantees of
God's blessing. When the Christian Church began, the role of
women was simple and obvious. But with the rise of the ascetic
movement attitudes towards marriage gradually changed. What were
those who were already married to do about the religio-social
pressures towards celibacy? Some decided to maintain their family
existence for the sake of the children, but to live as brother
and sister. Single men determined to maintain a woman merely as a
housekeeper. But it soon became apparent that "spiritual
wifehood" of whatever kind was impracticable. In the end separate
establishments for the unmarried, both men and women, were
founded. Like the Western Church in general Celtic Christians
seem to have passed through the stages of development between 450
and 1150.

CHURCH - Keith Hunt)

     For Celtic hagiographers of the tenth and later centuries,
who probably knew little of the history and evolution of clerical
celibacy, the thought that saints of previous ages had been
married men with families appeared extremely anomalous. They
invented stories of these early Christians as explanations. Two
such fictitious anecdotes follow, quoted though long to
illustrate this tendency. The point of the first narrative,
written probably early in the ninth century, was that Scothin
lived with the ladies concerned merely as a "brother":

     Now two maidens with pointed breasts used to lie with him
     every night that the battle with the Devil might be the
     greater for him. And it was proposed to accuse him on that
     account. So Brenainn came to test him, and Scothin said:
     "Let the cleric lie in my bed tonight", saith he. So when he
     reached the hour of resting the girls came into the house
     wherein was Brenainn, with their lapfuls of glowing embers
     in their chasubles; and the fire burnt them not, and they
     spill [the embers] in front of Brenainn, and go into the bed
     with him. "What is this?" asks Brenainn. "Thus is it is that
     we do every night", say the girls. They lie down with
     Brenainn, and nowise could he sleep for longing. "That is
     imperfect, O cleric," say the girls, "he who is here every
     night feels nothing at all. Why goest thou not, O cleric,
     into the tub [of cold water] if it be easier for thee? 'Tis
     often that the cleric, even Scothin, visits it." "Well,"
     says Brenainn, "it is wrong for us to make this test, for he
     is better than we are.
     Thereafter they make their union and their covenant, and
     they part feliciter.

     A similar story is told of Ciaran. He was once on his way to
the mill to seek for oats:

     Then comes the daughter of the master of the mill, and she
     was seeking Ciaran, and he found favour in her eyes, for his
     form was more beautiful than that of anyone of his own age.
     "That is most hard for thee", said Ciaran. "Is it not this
     whereof thou shouldst take heed - the perishableness of the
     world, and Doomsday, and the pains of hell, in order to
     obtain them?" When the girl had gone home, she tells those
     tidings to her father and to her mother. These came and
     offered the girl to Ciaran. "If she offers her maidenhood to
     God," said Ciaran, "and if she serves him, I will be at
     union with her." So the girl offered her maidenhood to
     God and to Ciaran, and all her household their continual
     service, and the permanent ownership of them to Ciaran, from
     that time forward.

     Dare's daughter loved Benen. She was punished and died, but
after the performance of a miracle she was restored and "she
loved him spiritually. She is Ercnat." Of another liaison between
Benen and Cruimtheris the record goes: "Benen used to carry her
ration to her every night from Patrick." Cruimtheris was one of
the seamstresses in Patrick's familia. The very fact that a
cleric might visit a woman every night suggests a state of
affairs which would certainly be highly suspect in later ages of
monastic development. In the traditional story of later date
concerning Columba's prowess light is shed on the presence of men
and women in a community over which he presided:

     so long as the Devil heard Columba's voice at celebration he
     durst not stir rill Columba completed celebration, and till
     the news were asked of him afterwards by Columba. And it was
     a halter for the Devil who dwelt with a student at Armagh,
     who used to go there to another cleric's wife, i.e. when
     celebration and offering were made he used to visit her,
     until Columba once upon a time perceived the Devil beckoning
     to the student, and Columba forbade the student to go forth.
     So Columba's celebration was a halter to the Devil.

     This narrative was not directed against the clerical student
and his wife, but was told as a warning against the irregularity
of still another clerical student who visited a married woman.
There evidently arose no question about regular marriage among
clerics, but there was a feeling against affairs with married
     The later hagiographers appear to have taken it for granted
that women at one time lived on Iona, for "Erenat a virginal nun,
... was cook and robe-maker to Columcille". In another connection
the story goes that Columba "went round the graveyard in Iona and
he saw an old woman cutting nettles to make broth thereof". He
then decided that his cook should make him "nettle broth without
butter or milk" daily. Stories like these might be multiplied.
They were evidently devised to suggest that the old Celtic
saints, who according to persistent records were married, were in
fact living celibate lives in spite of their relationship with
women. A tenth-century poem puts the cruder narratives into
poetic form:

Crinog, melodious is your song.
Though young no more you are still bashful.
We two grew up together in Niall's northern land, 
When we used to sleep together in tranquil slumber.
That was my age when you slept with me, 
A peerless lady of pleasant wisdom:
A pure-hearted youth, lovely without a flaw, 
A gentle boy of seven sweet years.
We lived in the great world of Banva, 
Without sullying soul or body,
My flashing eye full of love for you,
Like a poor innocent untempted by evil....
Since then you have slept with four men after me, 
Without folly or falling away:
I know, I hear it on all sides,
You are pure, without sin from man.
At last, after weary wanderings, 
You have come to me again,
Darkness of age has settled on your face: 
Sinless your life draws near its end.
You are still dear to me, faultless one,
You shall have welcome from me without stint: 
You will not let us be drowned in torment:
We will earnestly practise devotion with you....
Then may God grant us peace and happiness! 
May the countenance of the King
Shine brightly upon us
When we leave behind us our withered bodies.

     After Mel had been accused of misdemeanours and had finally
been exonerated by Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland was reputed to
have ruled: "A monk and a virgin, the one from one place, the
other from another, shall not dwell together in the same inn, nor
travel in the same carriage from village to village, nor
continually hold conversation with each other." Olden
thought that these stories represented the actual practice of
having women in their lodgings as consorts. This practice had
been condemned by the Council of Nicaea (325), in its third
canon. While it is possible that this state of things went on in
some Celtic settlements, it would appear much more likely that
these later stories were told as propaganda for celibacy, and to
try to explain the condition of married monks and priests and
bishops in earlier times. The evidence that marriage was openly
practised by these Christians appears to be overwhelming.



The question whether or not women fulfilled any clerical
functions in the Celtic Church is an interesting one. When Theo-
lore set about regularizing the practices of the Christians, the
question of the status of women in England was one with which he

     It is permissible for women, that is, the handmaidens of
     Christ, to read the lections and to perform the ministries
     which appertain to the confession of the sacred altar,
     except those which are the special functions of priests and
     deacons. Women shall not cover the altar with the corporal
     nor place on the altar the offerings, nor the cup, nor stand
     among ordained men in the Church, not sit at a feast among

     According to the canons it is the function of the bishops
and priests to prescribe penance. No woman may adjudge penance
for anyone, since in the canons no one may do this except the
priests alone.
     Women may receive the host under a black veil, as Basil
decided. According to the Greeks a woman can make offerings 
[facere oblationes], but not according to the Romans.
     It would seem that these canons were designed to meet what
Theodore considered abuses among the Celtic Christians whom he
     There is a reference to the consecration of Brigit as a
bishop. On one occasion a discussion took place:

     "Why have the nuns come?" asked Bishop Mel. "To have the
     orders of penitence conferred on Brigit", says Mac Caille.
     Thereafter the orders were read out over Brigit, and bishop
     Mel bestowed episcopal order upon her, it is then that Mac
     Caille set a veil on [her] head. Hence Brigit's successor is
     entitled to have episcopal orders conferred upon her.

     There is another reference to this. Nadfraech, of the men of
Tuibhi, was Brigit's lector and her preacher, "for, she said,
after she had received orders from Bishop Mel, that she would not
take food without being previously preached unto". These
comminatory stories were probably told to establish the prestige
of the successors of Brigit's monastic holdings at a later date.
They point to the fact that their readers were very credulous, or
that in some few communities women were ordained to clerical, or
even to episcopal, functions in the Irish segment of the Celtic

THE CELTIC CHURCH. I have uploaded Dr.Sammuele Bacchiocchi's book
"The Role of Women in the Church" for an in-depth study on the
subject of women being "ordained" to the ministry  - Keith Hunt) 


     Samuel Johnson wrote to Charles O'Connor to the effect that
"the ages which deserve an exact inquiry are those times (for
such they were) when Ireland was the school of the West, the
quiet habitation of sanctity and literature". From the days of
Bede, and for two centuries after, the Irish educational system
was the attraction which drew multitudes to study in that island.
The purpose of Celtic education was twofold. It sought to train
clerics and to educate the lay people. Attendance at school was
not compulsory, but the people were urged to send their children.
Visitors from abroad were welcome. Irish schools influenced
England, Scotland, and the Continent, and Irish teachers were
among the most highly respected educators in the court of
Charlemagne. The curriculum, while including some secular
studies, was mainly religious. "Comgal took Mochua with him to
Bangor, where he read the canon of the Old Law and the New
Testament, and the ecclesiastical order." The "Lives" speak
exclusively of religious texts, the Scriptures, particularly the
Psalms, and monastic rules. L. Gougaud listed works which had
been noted in monastic libraries founded by Celts on the
Continent: Gospel books, psalters, hymn books, liturgical works,
poems, rules, penitentials, martyrologies, some patristic
writings, commentaries on the Gospels and Epistles and Psalms,
annals, and church histories. M. Esposito noted that "as far as
our evidence goes, the Latin literature current in Ireland at the
end of the sixth century was biblical and ecclesiastical, not
classical". Perhaps this is going a little too far, for Jonas
recorded that Columbanus spent "much labour on grammar, rhetoric,
geometry and the Holy Scriptures", and became "distinguished
among his countrymen for his unusual piety and knowledge of the
Holy Scriptures".
     A legend is told of Cummine, who was once asked what he
would like most in his church. "I should like it full of books",
he said, "for them to go to students, and to sow God's word in
the ears of every one, [so as] to bring him to heaven out of the
track of the Devil." In the "Lives" books are often associated
with the saints. On the day of his death Columba was depicted as
transscribing a book.
     Besides religious studies it would seem most likely, because
of the excellent products which have survived, that grammar,
poetry, art, and illumination, art metal work, mathematics,
geometry and astronomy were also considered. There must have been
some five divisions: vernacular studies, Irish legends, grammar,
poetry, and history; in Christian studies, theology placed
paramount emphasis upon the Bible; perhaps a slight consideration
of classical studies or what ever ancient authors might be
obtainable; aesthetic studies of art, poetry, and music; and
scientific studies, geography and astronomy and mathematics, all
received attention.


     Because of the smallness of the buildings instruction would
most likely be given in the open air, as far as possible. Small
groups of students would learn from one teacher, and then move on
to another. The age at which children commenced their education
was seven. A pleasant atmosphere probably reigned to give rise
to the Old-Irish comment: "It is the custom of good teachers to
praise the understanding of their pupils that they may love what
they hear." That oral teaching methods were used is also
suggested by the sources. The earliest textbooks for teaching
the alphabet were seemingly made up of simple passages from the
Scriptures, for we read of saints reading the alphabet when they
were actually studying the Bible. Columba, so the legend goes,
ate the cake on which the alphabet had been written, the Bible
being the bread of life, and so learned it all at once!
     There must have been an extensive vernacular study. The glosses
to the Epistles of St Paul, the Psalms, and parts of the Gospels,
were in Old-Irish. The scribe would hardly have written in
Old-Irish if he planned to preach in Latin. Adamnan told of the
singing of Irish hymns in honour of Columba as though this were a
regular practice. The "Amra Choluimb Chille" is probably a
ninth-century edition of a seventh-century text written in
Old-Irish. The "Vita Tripartita" is the earliest hagiographical
work in the Irish Church. E. MacNeill felt that it was written in
Irish with a mixture of Latin at the latest early in the eighth
century. The "Life of Cuana" contains a statement to the effect
that a blessing is invoked on the head of the scribe who
translated this biography from Irish into Latin. It would
appear, therefore, that there must have been a study of the
vernacular as well as of Latin in the Irish monastic schools.


     One of the most important and far-reaching of the activities
of the Celtic monastery was the work carried out in the
     This was attached to the school in which the pupils were
taught. Before the invention of vellum the ancient Celtic
scribes evidently used wooden slats covered with wax. These
were carried in leather cases for protection, and a sharp stylus
was used for writing on them. A picture of conditions in which
this work was sometimes carried on is pleasantly revealed in the
story of Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and the tame fox which carried
his psalter. While Ciaran taught, the fox would sit "humbly
attending the lesson till the writing on wax came to an end. And
he then would take it with him to Ciaran. But once the natural
malice broke through the fox, and he began to eat his book, for
he was greedy about the leather bands that were about it on the
outside." Skins were prepared and later made into vellum. Now
the scribe could gloat over his "white book", as he used quill
pens while he supported the manuscript on his knees or on a desk
of some kind. Books were often borrowed to be transcribed, and
the story of Columba's battle as a result of copying without
permission illustrates how jealously these manuscripts were
guarded. The ink was made of carbon, lamp-black, or fish bone
black, or the "green skinned holly" juice. The quills were from
geese, swans, crows, and other large birds.


     The work of the scribe was an honoured one. The deaths of
sixtyone scribes before 900 are noted, and forty of them lie
between 700 and 800. They were highly skilled artists and held a
respected position. Abbots and bishops also often filled the role
of scribe. But these scribes could also be very human and down to
earth. E. Hull has collected some personal expressions of the
feelings of Irish scribes recorded in the Lebhar Breac:

     I am weary today from head to foot!
     Twenty days from today to Easter Monday, 
     and I am cold and tired without fire or shelter.
     I shall remember, O Christ, that I am writing to thee, 
     because I am fatigued today. 
     It is now Sunday evening.

- Keith Hunt)

     An unnamed scribe wrote a note to his companion: "Ochone,
dost thou still serve for ink? I am Cormac, son of Cosnamach,
trying it at Dun Daigre, the place of the writing, and I am
afraid we have got too much of the mischief in this ink.

     And yet another scribe recorded his sentiments thus: "A
prayer for the students; and it is a hard little story, and do
not reproach me concerning the letters, and the ink is bad, and
the parchment scanty, and the day is dark."

     It was evidently just one of those days when nothing would
come out right. In still another context a young scribe boasted:
"Had I wished, I could have written the whole commentary like
this!" But the happiness of the scribe is also reflected in the
poems which were written from time to time. Here is a typical

     Over my head the woodland wall Rises; 
     the ousel sings to me.
     Above my booklet lined for words 
     The woodland birds shake out their glee. 
     There's the blithe cuckoo chanting clear 
     In mantle grey from bough to bough!
     God keep me still! For here I write
     A scripture bright in great woods now.

     Each scriptorium had its own library. The books were kept in
satchels, and hung from the rafters in the scribe's hut. The
satchels were of leather, and tooled and decorated. The more
valuable the book the more elaborate was the case in which it was
stored. Sometimes the container was made of metal, and
embellished with precious stones. The library of Bobbio, at the
end of the tenth century, contained no fewer than seven hundred


     A great amount of study has been devoted to a consideration
of the Celtic tonsure. The clearest description has been left by

     As for the tonsure that Simon the magician is said to have
     worn, I ask what faithful Christian will not instantly
     detest it and reject it together with all his magic. On the
     forehead it has indeed a superficial resemblance to a crown,
     but when you look at the back, you will find the apparent
     crown cut short, so that you may fairly regard this custom
     as characteristic of simoniacs, and not of Christians. 

     "Monks and clerics", Bede noted, differed not at all in
their tonsures. J. Dowden appears to have hit upon the most
feasible solution of the problem. Noting that the Celtic tonsure
had a superficial resemblance to a crown on the forehead, he
concluded that there was probably a tuft or fringe of hair left
in the front. The side view would suggest that the hair had been
shaved "from ear to ear". Whatever the mode of cutting the hair
the issue of the tonsure raised two questions. Firstly, the
Celtic hair-cut was slurringly called the tonsure of Simon Magus,
probably because the druids (magi) had cut their hair in that
fashion. It seems likely that, when the Christian cleric took
the place of the druid in Celtic life, he not only adopted the
right of hereditary succession, laws, and education from the
druids and adapted them to his own Christian usages, but he
apparently also dressed and cut his hair in a similar manner. In
Celtic lands a tonsure was a badge of office or status. There
were different kinds of tonsure. W. Stokes long ago pointed out
that there were two sorts of tonsure at least, and possibly
three, which were mentioned in the "Lives." There were the
clerical or monachal tonsure, the tonsure of the slave, and
the druidical tonsure, if different.
     Columbanus required his monks to "wash their heads ... on
every fifteenth day, or certainly on account of the growth of the
flowing hair. From the monuments, de Paor noted that
ecclesiastics often appear clean shaven, while laymen and
soldiers have drooping moustaches, and sometimes have forked and
pointed beard. S.Salvian described the tonsure of monks in his
age and locale as being simply a "close crop". Perhaps the short
haircut was originally selected as a badge to distinguish the
Christian from the "barbarian", and later became encrusted with
fictitious associations of sanctity. It would seem that at
different times and in different sections of the Celtic Church
tonsures varied.
     But, like the Easter controversy, the tonsure controversy
took on overtones of authority. The Romanizing party required all
the clerics to submit to the rulings of the Western Church. At
this distance the question arises, Why did such a simple thing as
a haircut rouse the feelings it did over a thousand years ago? A
parallel might be found in the case of the veil and the fez in
modern Turkey. Such inconsequential things distinguished the
older order of tradition and religion from the new order. The
veil and fez were symbols of the authority of the past. The power
that imposed its way and forced its symbols on the populace was
dictatorial. So was the Roman tonsure eventually imposed upon the
Celtic Christians.

DOES TODAY - Keith Hunt)

     It apparently took some time after the Easter controversy
had been settled for the tonsure controversy to be resolved. As
late as 887 there still existed differences, for in that year
"Anealoen the pilgrim came to Ireland, and the wearing of the
hair long was abolished by him, and tonsure was accepted."
     Although general acceptance of Roman practices came about in
695 in northern Ireland, there evidently were pockets of
resistance in certain parts of the independent Celtic Church. But
there was a ruling in an early Welsh law against the practice of
allowing the hair to grow long, which the new mode of hair-cut

"If any Catholic lets his hair grow in the fashion of the
barbarians, he shall be held an alien from the Church of God and
from the table of every Christian until he mends his fault."



     Another Celtic practice had to do with food. Besides the
restriction of diet which strict asceticism imposed, other
factors affected the Celtic Christian's choice of food. The Old
Testament regulations on the use of "unclean" flesh has been
noted already. There is evidence that some saints were
vegetarians and teetotalers for health reasons, which had nothing
to do with ascetic practice. Samson of DoL was very particular
about his own diet: "To be sure he was one who never, throughout
his whole life, tasted such a thing as the flesh of any beast or
winged creature; no one ever saw him drunk; never through change
of mind, or halting indecision, nor even in the least degree did
any kind of drink injure him in any way." The reason for this
careful consideration of what he ate was health:

     Moreover, it was a custom in the consitutions of this
monastery to bruise herbs from the garden, such as were
beneficial for the health, in a vessel and to serve it out in
small quantities to the several brothers in their porringers by
means of a small siphon for their health's sake, so that when
they came in from saying Terce they found the mixing vessel
already prepared with garden herbs. 
     Evidently the brethren had stumbled on the benefits of
vitamins and minerals from raw vegetables and herbs.
     The "Amhra Chulimb Chille" preserved an ancient tradition of
the dietary habits of Columba. He "used not to drink ale". He was
just as strict on diet as Samson, for "he used to avoid flesh or
the beef or condiment". He went so far as to resolve that "he
would not eat fish lest disease should take him". The Old-Irish
"Life of Columba" contained a similar account of his way of life.
And he used not to drink ale, and used not to eat meat, and used
not to eat savoury things, as Dallan Forguill said in the Amra:

He drank not ale; he loved not satiety; He avoided flesh. 

     The glossator remarked on the Apostle's warning "that he may
regulate foods, that is, to forbid lust, for if gluttony were
not, lust would not be". This connection between diet and lust is
most interesting. He also noted on St Paul's remark regarding
"meat and drink" that it "is not this that will bring you to
heaven, though it may be proper food". The impression left by
the few sources which touch on this point is that some of the
leading early Celtic Christians had a high regard for the place
of healthful living in maintaining Christian character.
     The regulations of Adamnan were based, in part, on the Liber
ex Lege Moisi. The law stipulated that swine should not be eaten
because they were unclean. Adamnan modified this directive:

     "Swine's flesh that has become thick or fat on carrion is to
     be rejected like the carrion by which it grows fat. When,
     however, the swine has grown smaller and returned to its
     original thinness, it is to be taken." 

     Should any animal with horns push and kill a man, it should
be slain, and its flesh cast out as carrion, so stipulated the
Hebrew law. Adamnan, on the other hand, ruled thus: "Swine that
taste the flesh or blood of men are always forbidden. For in the
Law any animal that pushes with the horn. if it kills a man, is
forbidden; how much more those that eat man." The Mosaic law
stipulated that only those creatures which had been slaughtered
so that the blood flowed freely from the body might be taken as

     Moreover ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of
     fow or of beast, in any of your dwellings. Whatsoever soul
     it be that eateth any manner of blood, even that soul shall
     be cut off from his people (Lev. 7.26-7).

     Adamnan clearly declared that he followed this regulation.
The flesh must be treated as carrion if not slaughtered

     For the fact that the higher blood had not flowed, which is
     the guardian and seat of life, but was clotted within the
     flesh ... he who eats this flesh shall know that he has
     eaten the flesh with the blood; since the Lord has forbidden
     this, it is not the cooking of the flesh but the shedding of
     the blood that is lacking ... Nevertheless, the fat and the
     hides we shall have for divers uses.



     Another Mosaic regulation had to do with the use of money,
and prohibited the receiving of usury: "If thou lend money to any
of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an
usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury." The "Excerpts
from the Book of David" incorporated this Mosaic legislation into
the Celtic penitential canons: "He who receives usury shall give
up those things that he had received."  The Old Testament
certainly was pervasive in Celtic thinking.


     Still another Old Testament regulation dealt with feminine
hygiene. Couples were to abstain from intercourse "during the
entire menstrual period". This was in compliance with the rule of
the Liber ex Lege Moisi which stipulated that a woman in this
condition was "unclean". Another penitential regulated a mother's
uncleanness after childbirth: "After the birth he shall abstain,
if it is a son, for thirty-three days; if a daughter, for
sixty-six days." This is an application of the Mosaic law also.


The position of a secondary wife or adaltrach was carefully
defined by the Senchus Mor, with stipulations which appear to
have grown out of the relationship of Abraham with Hagar and


     Among the charges which have been brought up against the
Celtic Christians on more than one occasion is that a man sinned
in marrying his deceased brother's widow. Giraldus Cambrensis

     "Nay, what is most detestable, and not only contrary to the
     Gospel, but to everything that is right, in many parts of
     Ireland, brothers (I will not say marry) seduce and debauch
     the wives of their brothers deceased, and have incestuous
     intercourse with them." 

     One of the points which Queen Margaret considered wrong in
the conduct of the Celtic Christian remnants in Scotland of
her day was "a surviving brother's marriage with the wife of a
brother who had died". This custom was a literal application
of the statute in the Old Testament known as the Levirate
marriage common among ancient Semitic peoples. Its purpose was
that the name of the deceased brother should not become extinct.
It was only carried out when the widow was childless, and only
until a male heir had been born. It was a misunderstanding of
this Celtic conscientious adherence to the letter of the Old
Testament which roused the censure of critics of its practices.





Keith Hunt

To be concluded with "Conclusions" 

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