Saturday, June 9, 2012

Columbanus and the First Individualist

Columbanus was somewhat of a unique individual amongst those at the end of Roman Empire, is such an end can be stretched to the beginning of the seventh century. He stands out for a multitude of reasons that recent authors have noted. Within the past two years three biographies of the wandering Irish monk have been written and they each have certain positive attributes. I review each accordingly. The three books are those by Tristram [[ASIN:1856076865 Columbanus: The earliest voice of Christian Ireland]], Reynolds [[ASIN:0321338898 Columbanus: Light on the Early Middle Ages (Library of World Biography Series)]] and Richards [[ASIN:1845401905 Columbanus]]. I will review each in turn but there is some commonality I shall include in each.

Reynolds has written a splendid work on Columbanus. Of all that I have read his is clearly the best. It is clear, well written, and concise, covers all the points, lacks the risky speculation of others, and fills in the gaps of the world around Columbanus.

Chapter 2 is a summary of what his youth may have been like. There is a great deal available on early Ireland in this time but unlike other areas there were no real cities or centers of humanity, the country was highly disperse and the ruling class was fluid. In addition there was often war like interactions that had been an inherent part of the Irish culture and perhaps that also contributed to the temper we see arising in Columbanus.

Chapter 4 describes his entry into the Monastery. He goes from one at Cleenish on the north end of the Shannon onto Bangor the dominant one at the time. The author makes an excellent reference to the writings of Columbanus at this time on what was to become the Three Chapters controversy. One of the key questions would be; how did the Irish perceive these issues, which were often weighted by Platonic understanding. For example did they have access to Plotinus and they clearly must have been fluent in Greek since many of these writings were in the original Greek. The author has a good discussion on pp 34-35. On p 37 there is a brief discussion on his leaving Bangor and going to Gaul. The details are brief.

In Chapter 5 the author makes a detailed discussion of the "white martyrdom" of leaving Ireland for good. However there is the potential forced return we see later and one may ask how these relate. Chapter 6 is a superb discussion of the Merovingians. The author has done a great job in a few pages of laying out the players, the culture and the issues. However there is the knowing issue of just how well they managed to communicate. This is somewhat discussed out on pp 50-51. Namely the Irish had Latin, as did the Merovingians, but the pronunciation and localisms were significant. It is never clear if Columbanus managed to develop a proficiency in the native Frank language, itself with significant regional variants. On p. 50 when Columbanus enters the land of the Franks one wonders about the communications. Irish was not spoken in the Frank territory nor does it appear that the Irish spoke the Frankish tongue. Latin was a lingua franca but pronunciation and dialects would yet have prevailed. One need look no further than Gregory of Tours and his Latin, a highly clumsy and fragmented Latin, nowhere Ciceronian. Likewise the Latin of Gregory of Rome, the Bishop of Rome, was simple but an amalgam of Roman political style of the late sixth century.

Chapter 7 discusses the battle with the bishops. The author does a superb job in this area. The Irish were egalitarian. They were the first individualists. As such they did not see any reason to be managed by bishops. This would be an ongoing battle for Columbanus. Chapter 8 is a discussion of the miracles. Frankly the discussion of Columbanus and the bears is always delightful but these in many ways is classic for what at the time were people considered saints.

Chapter 9 is quite interesting for it brings Columbanus to the Lombards in and around Milan and to Bobbio his final monastery. Here there are many issues brought up by the author. The Lombards were Arian, namely Christ was from God the Father, not another personhood. Second Columbanus as noted on p 88 he notes "the Irish valued a man's principles more than his position" was in essence the central tenet of individualism. He was not a subject but a person. Further the author states, "Columbanus suggested disobedience if the pope were in error" is noted by the authors as a basis of what one was to see in the Reformation. One could suggest likewise it was also the individualistic nature of the Irish, again one of the only countries NOT occupied by Rome.

There are a few weaknesses, in my opinion.

First, the bibliography is written in a manner which is nearly impossible to read. All references are combined in a single paragraph. Whether this is the author, the publisher, or the editor it is truly a poor and ineffective choice.

Second and this is a question of intent, the book is almost an academic treatise, yet there are no references to sources.

Third and this is a significant issue there are no direct quotes from Columbanus. Many of his works are readily available and hearing his voice would have been useful. Perhaps a new translation would have merit here however.

Fourth, it would have been quite helpful to have contained some of the dialog between Gregory and Columbanus. I understand the problem, namely the Latin is the original, and translations are often poor, but a key point of insight would have been a better understanding of that dialog. Jonas may refer to it but it may very well be a powerful analysis on its own as a window to the new world of the individual versus the subject, the new world view versus the old world view.

As a general note amongst all of the books reviewed, the spelling of names is nowhere consistent. The problem is the multiplicity of sources. This of course is compounded when the spelling is from multiple languages as well.

Why is it useful to understand Columbanus? That in a sense is the underlying theme of each of the three books mentioned. It is especially critical to understand the period between 600-650 AD. As stated by Reynolds in his title, it was the Early Middle Ages, NOT the Dark Ages.

The reasons for better understanding Columbanus and this particular period in history are as follows:

1. Columbanus came from Ireland, and Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Thus his world view and that of all the free Irish at the time was not colored by Roman world views. They were never to that point a captive people, they were free and individuals. Thus they belonged to themselves and not to an Empire. Religion was personal.

2. Gregory came from Roman ruling class, a grandson of a Pope. Gregory was effectively at war with Constantinople and the Eastern Church. Gregory did not allegedly understand Greek, Columbanus did, and Gregory was in a sense the last Roman. The Empire was entrenched in Constantinople, and it looked eastward, worrying about Persia. Gregory looked westward, and saw opportunities in the Church in the tribes now living there.

3. Gregory is at odds with Columbanus and the Irish. Gregory was from a world of Groups, one belonged to Rome, one belonged to the Church, and one belonged to the Empire. One was never an individual. The clash was I believe at the heart of the battle between the two. The evidence of that is that Gregory sends an Italian, Augustine, to Canterbury to rule the Church, where logically the Church had a whole nation of educated scholars and devoted believers next door in Ireland. That act was the poke in the eye by Gregory against Columbanus and all Irish and was, in my opinion, the beginning of the battle between England and Ireland which continues to this day.

4. The Arian faith was that of a single God, devoid of the complexities placed and piled atop one another by the early Church Greek Fathers, including the Trinity. The Arians in many ways paralleled the same path seeing humanity in Jesus but not the complexity of Trinitarian Christology. In a sense there is a strong parallel between the Arian faith in a single God and the position of Christ as with the other single God beliefs that included Jesus. The relationship therefore between Columbanus and the Lombards, his work with Theodelinda, the Lombard Queen, and the ability to build his final open monastery in Bobbio was a tribute to his ability to cross the line while maintaining his faith.

5. Columbanus thus represents the advent of the individual, in the context of both the State and the Church. Although respectful of the Bishop of Rome, he showed no humbling before him when it came to discussions of faith. He also showed no bowing before Kings and Queens, he understood how to deal with them. In many ways he was an example of a modern man. There were no national boundaries for Columbanus.

6. In conclusion, I argue that there were no Dark Ages, just a transition from a salve based Empire transitioned into a Middle Ages, which in many ways was a long progression into modern society. The Dark Ages is a term used oftentimes in ignorance. Gibbon talks of the Fall of Rome, was there also a Fall of Carthage? We do not see the Fall of Egypt, Greece, and Persia. Why just Rome? I would argue it was in tune with the British Empire and its world view. Here with Columbanus we have the Birth of the Individual, a single person who can cross lands, tribes, cultures, languages, religions, and talk to a Pope as an equal in thought.