Friday, 4 December 2015

Primitive Irish Monasteries II

We continue the series on early Irish monasticism by Father Jerome Fahy with a paper looking at the contribution made by monastic schools to learning, art and literature. His pride in these achievements comes across, even if modern scholars have questioned the Irish credentials of Sedulius, author of A solis ortus cardine. The author does not shy away though from laying out the realities of the monastic rule and ends by crediting Saint Patrick personally for giving Irish monasticism its eastern-style ascetic character.

PRIMITIVE IRISH MONASTERIES.— No. II.

“Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum."

THE Chief Schools of Ireland were Monastic. It must, however, be remembered that after the convention of Drom Ceata there were established several secular schools, which retained, at the same time, a strictly Christian character. For the maintenance of such schools the State made generous provision. They were generally placed under the control of the Bards.

The privileges then guaranteed by law to the Bards were very important. The chief poet ranked next to the king. At the royal table his place was next the monarch. He was provided with a stud of six horses, and allowed a large retinue to whom the doors of the nobles of the land were always hospitably open. In the Chieftain's territory he could claim annually as emoluments thirty cows and the grass. And such was the esteem in which the Bards were held, that the high privilege of personal sanctuary was conceded to them.

The qualifications which the State required in the chief masters of their schools, were high and varied. They should be familar with the Gaedhlic literature in prose and poetry. They should be also learned in the languages of ancient Greece and Rome, and familiar with the Sacred Scriptures. Under the control of the Head Master the law made provision for the following staff: —

1. For a " fifty man,'' whose duty it was to chant one hundred and fifty psalms daily.

2. For a scholar, who taught ten of the twelve books of the regular college course.

3. For a historian, who professed history and some parts of Divinity.

4. For a lecturer, who professed Grammar, Geography, Criticism, Enumeration, and Astronomy.

The full course of studies followed in primitive Irish Schools, extended over a period of twelve years. It is, however, right to add, that this course while extending to the highest grades of knowledge, included the merest elementary studies. During several years of this protracted course, tales and poems are found as constantly recurring subjects of study. Many of those poems and tales were historical. It was the last year of the course that was exclusively devoted to the study of oratory and poetry.

This somewhat protracted study of ancient tales and poems, may appear to some a great waste of time. It should, however, be remembered that many of those tales and poems were historical; and were regarded by such authorities as Flan of Monasterboice, as valuable sources of information. Any attempts at falsifying their contents, were visited with severe penalties. In the case of Brehons or Ollamhs it entailed forfeiture for life of all the valuable privileges attaching to their offices. Sometimes indeed the introduction of much that is purely imaginative, seems to mar their historical value. And yet it may be argued that the love of an imaginative people for the ideal, may be gratified in the minor incidents of historical narratives, without affecting the historical value of the leading events. Even O'Curry is of this opinion; but he adds that there are many of those tales from which those elements of the supernatural and ideal are carefully excluded.

The Monastic Schools of Ireland were, however, its chief centres of Education. The languages of Greece and Rome were studied with a passionate ardour within these peaceful inclosures. Many of the extant compositions of the monks of the period evince graces of style, often perhaps marred by pedantry, but still highly creditable considering the period. Such portions of the writings of Sedulius and Columba as have reached us, would alone establish the cultivation of the ancient languages in Ireland at that early age. The Paschal work of Sedulius, written in heroic verse, was favourably noticed by the Fathers of a Council celebrated at Rome under Pope Gelasius. Some of the hymns of this holy and learned Irishman have been favoured with a permanent place in the Church's liturgy. Such is the hymn: 

—"A solis ortus cardine"

sung at lauds in the office of the Nativity. Who can read the beautiful introit of the Masses of the Blessed Virgin—"Salve Sancta parens" — and not be struck as well by the elegant latinity as by the deep piety of the same writer? Probably the most candid and competent critics of the 19th century would agree with St. Ildephonsus of Toledo, in his estimate of Sedulius, and style him " Bonus ille Sedulius poeta evangelicus, orator faoundus, scriptor catholicus."

St. Columba, too, was passionately devoted to poetry; but he prefered to clothe his rich imagery and wealth of thought, in the language of his country rather than in that of the Church. Of the several poems which he composed in the Irish language, eleven were extant in the days of Father Colgan, on none of which is it necessary for us to dwell.

We find that he also composed some Latin poems. One of those — the "Altus," referred to by St. Columba himself as "My holy Altus," was deemed worthy of praise many centuries ago by Pope Gregory. It has been recently published by a scholar of our own day. We think that most readers will be struck by the vigorous and graphic reproduction of scripture imagery which it exhibits. The following we would present to the reader as a fair specimen of its imagery and versification: —

Regis Regum rectissimi
Prope est dies Domini,
Dies irae et vindictae
Tenebrarum et nebulae
Dies quoque augustiae
Maeroris ac tristitiae, &c.

It is true that the foregoing and other passages in the poem, we may look in vain for the classic beauties of Sedulius or the literary graces which are found in every line of the poems of Venantius Fortunatus.Though in common with most others we are struck with the sombre beauty which several passages present, we await with deep interest the estimate which the modem critical world may form of this remarkable memorial of the past, which has been recently placed before the public through the learned labours of the Marquis of Bute.

Columbanus, also, his extraordinary missionary labours notwithstanding, found time to compose many remarkable works in the Latin tongue. Amongst those, his book against Arianism is styled by a certain writer a work of " flowery eradition." The classic beauties of his poetical Epistle, which he wrote at the advanced age of seventy-two, have been deservedly eulogised. In harmony of metre, and elevation of Christian sentiment, the following couplet from that composition may well be classed among the gems of Christian poetry : —

''Omnia praetereunt, fugit irreperabile tempos"
'' Vive vale laetus, tristique memento senectae."

St Columbanus also wrote in the same language a commentary on the Psalms. Nor was he the only Irish Monk of the period who wrote on this portion of the Sacred Scriptures. A fragment of a commentary on the Psalms written by St Caimin of Inis Cealtra, on the Shannon, is still extant, and it is believed to be in the very handwriting of the author.

But the studies of our primitive monks in the ancient languages were not confined to sacred subjects. They also made themselves familiar with the classic authors of the Augustan age. "They explained Ovid; they copied Virgil; they devoted themselves especially to Greek literature." Such indeed was their peculiar taste for Greek that they sometimes wrote their Latin works in Greek characters.

Among the literary curiosities of that age, which have fortunately survived the wreck of centuries, is a copy of Horace written in Irish characters. It was discovered at Berne; and has been pronounced "Antiquissimus omnium quotquot adhuc innotuerunt."

We may well be surprised at the spirit of independent inquiry with which our early monks entered on the investigation of even abstruse scientific problems. In illustration of my meaning I may refer to St. Virgilius, who, contrary to the almost universally received opinion of his time, and undeterred by the hostility which a misapprehension of the the character of his teaching excited against him at Rome, boldly maintained the spherical form of the Earth. In truth one knows not which to admire more in Virgilius, his apostolic zeal, his profound theological knowledge, or his successful study of obscure scientific problems. Surely the varied attainments os such a scholar point suggestively to the schools in which his gifted mind had been moulded and his knowledge acquired. But such cursory references to the learning of the period as the limited space of our article renders imperative, can convey but a shadowy picture of the extent, variety, and worth of the teachings of our monastic schools during the first three centuries of our Christian history. We cannot, however, pass away from this portion of our subject without reference, however brief, to other labours of an important kind, which engaged much of the attention of our early monks.

It is well known that monks laboured zealously from the earliest period, for the preservation and multiplication of books, by carefully made copies. Indeed the extent to which manuscript copies of the Holy Gospels, and of other portions of the Sacred Scripture, were multiplied in Ireland, is simply astonishing. Saint Degan is said to have transcribed with his own hand, as many as three hundred copies of the Gospels. The artistic beauty with which many of those manuscripts were executed, is regarded by competent art critics of our own times as absolutely marvellous. The Book of Kells, a manuscript attributed to the sixth century, is unrivalled. The lapse of centuries has not dimmed the brilliancy of its glowing colours. Its unique ornamentation has elicited flattering encomiums from scholars of European fame. Mr. J. D. Westwood, a learned Englishman, and the author of "Paleographia sacra pictoria," writes: " Ireland may be justly proud of the Book of Kells. The copy of the Gospels traditionally said to have belonged to St. Columba is unquestionably the most elaborately executed manuscript of early art now in existence,'' And again he writes: "At a period when the fine arts may be said to be almost extinct in Italy and other parts of the Continent, the art of ornamenting manuscripts had attained a perfection almost miraculous in Ireland . . . The invention and skill displayed, the neatness, precision, and delicacy, far surpass all that is to be found in ancient manuscripts executed by continental artista." Another equally flattering is the estimate which Dr. Keller of Zurich formed of Irish Caligraphy. "It must be admitted,'' he writes, "that Irish Caligraphy in that stage of its development which produced those examples, had attained a high decree of cultivation, which certainly did not result from the genius of single individuals, but from the emulation of numerous schools of writing, and the improvement of several generations." Hence we find Mr. Brash boldly maintaining that the origin of this art of illumination which in Ireland attained its highest degree of perfection in the sixth century, must have been prior to the introduction of Christianity to our country. However that may be, the purely Irish origin of this art is attested by Dr. Keller, Digby Wyatt, and other eminent archaeologists. And here again analogies at once interesting and striking, have been observed between the Irish and Eastern systems of ornamentation. We again cite the words of Ferdinand Keller, "That the Irish system of ornamentation does actually find an analogy in Eastern countries, is proved by the illustrations published by C. Knight in a small work on Egypt. We then find the serpentine bands of the Irish ornaments appearing already in the earliest Egyptian and Ethiopic manuscripts, and with a similarity of colour and combination truly astonishing."

The art of carving in wood and metal, was also successfully cultivated in our early monasteries. The same St. Dagan, who laboured so assiduously in copying the Holy Scriptures, is said to have carved three hundred crosiers, and to have made as many bells. Many of the ancient bells, crosiers, and reliquaries, now preserved in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, illustrate the remarkable degree of success to which this art had then attained. Referring to those evidences of the civilisation of a remote past, O'Curry justly observes: " Many of those articles exhibit a high degree of skill in the workmanship, great beauty of design, and most delicate finish of all the parts."He also adds that any description would be inadequate to convey a true idea of their beauty. I do not wish to be understood as intending to imply that such artistic gems as the Cross of Cong, or the Shrine of St. Patrick's copy of the Gospels, or the celebrated and sacred battle-standard of the Northern Princes, belong to the period under review. Neither can I join in the admiration sometimes too profusely lavished on the style and finish of our early bells.But while they exhibit a lower degree of artistic taste, of beauty, and originality of design, and perfection of finish, then do our early illuminated MSS., still they speak highly of the skill of our carvers in metal in so remote an age. Additional proofs might easily be cited to establish the successful results of the labours of our primitive monasteries in the departments referred to. The testimony of Montalambert is so flattering, and of such undoubted authority, that I shall quote it here without apology. "There" he says, "were trained an entire population of philosophers, of writers, of architects, of carvers, of painters, of caligraphers, of musicians, poets, and historians.

This fruitful activity, with which art and the sciences were cultivated by our early monks, proved no hindrance to their acquiring the still higher science of the saints. Though our Monasteries were practically universities of a world-wide fame, in which profane sciences were taught with marked success, they were sanctuaries as well, in the pure and sacred atmosphere of which, souls were able to soar to the most sublime heights of sanctity. Nor were the evidences of this confined to Ireland. It manifested itself in extending the epapire of the Church, and in building up effectually what the barbarians had destroyed. And theirs is a fame the lustre of which has not been dimmed by time. Franconia cherishes the memory of the martyred Bishop St, Killian; while at Salsburg, Virgilius, another Irishman, is held in imperishable veneration. Spain honours our St. Sedulius; while France and Italy vie in doing honour to the memory of the austere Columbanus and others. To enumerate the names of those who are honoured as saints in England and Scotland, would prove tedious here. At home the large number of saints of that period is attested by our Martyrologies, by the well-attested facts of their austere penitential observances, and their almost incessant devotional practices. Their earnestness was unaffected; their spirit of self-denial was heroic; their faith was simple and profound. To us who live in an age of self-indulgence and material self-seeking, the arduous duties of their daily lives would seem impossible of fulfilment. But we possess authentic records which show the scrupulous docility with which those duties were observed, and which proclaim to every age the instructive history of their holy lives.

Some of the most ancient of our Irish Monastic roles are fortunately extant, and make us familiar with the duties daily observed by our early monks. The complete rule of of St Ailbe of Emly, published by a learned contributor to the old series of the IRISH ECCLESIASTICAL RECORD, is a document of undoubted authenticity and authority. It takes us back to the time when Celtic Monasticism was at its height, under the immediate disciples of our National Apostle, and reveals to us the true character of Monastic life in that early and famous period. In the words of the eminent writer in the ECCLESIASTICAL RECORD already referred to, "it tells us the principles which guided the monks in the practice of religions perfection; it sets before them the daily routine of community life; it mentions the various superiors, their spiritual dunes, the virtues to be practised, the faults to be shunned ; it descends to the minutest details connected with the religious; and gives even the quantity and the quality of the food to be used at their frugal repasts."

The rule of St. Columbanus casts additional light on this interesting subject. The fundamental principles of Christian perfection, as they are found in the Gospels, and are inculcated by the examples of the saints, are clearly enjoined. Hence, we find that poverty, chastity, and obedience, were regarded as the strong triple basis on which our primitive monks would raise the structure of evangelical perfection. For speaking alone with a woman, St. Columbanus imposed on the monk guilty of that offence, a fast of two days on bread and water. On a monk who might be guilty of the violation of his vow, a fast of six years on bread and water was imposed, while the years of his penances were to continue for four years longer. Like rigorous penances were imposed for similar offences by the penitential of St. Cummian. St. Ailbe's rule inculcates obedience to ''The chaste rule of the monks."

And, again, in Strophe 33, of the same rule, the monk is required to be " holy and pure of heart." In Strophe 46, it is enacted that women be strictly excluded from the monastery. Indeed, we know that the manner in which the law of celibacy was observed throughout Ireland merited the eulogies of Venerable Bede; even centuries later, it elicited the far more unwilling admiration of the hostile Gerald Barry.

The strict observance of obedience must have been essential to the existence of the vast communities common at the period. Hence its observance is strongly inculcated by St Ailbe in the 13th Strophe of his rule —

'' Let not Satan take thee in his ways;
Be submissive to every one who is over you.''

The slightest violation of this duty of obedience was cause. Nor were the brethren free to transfer their allegiance capriciously, from one superior to another. The discipline of our primitive monasteries required that a monk could not pass from one monastery to another without cause. It was only when the cause of religion or charity, called away special members of any community, that the necessary dispensations were given.

The poverty of those communities may be estimated not so much from their renunciation of earthly goods, as from the austerity of their lives. Nor do I hesitate to add that the extraordinary austerities practised in our early monasteries constitute another unique feature in their history. And if we take into account the severity of our climate, we should not hesitate in stating that those austerities have seldom been equalled, never surpassed, in the Church's experience of monastic discipline.

A solitary daily meal had to supply the wants of failing nature; and this was supplied at None. Bread and water, with a slice of honeycomb, constituted the usual fare. The seniors were allowed the additional simple luxuries of mead and water cresses. This rule was relaxed only in favour of the sick, who were allowed the use of flesh meat. St Columbanus, filled with that austere spirit with which he was imbued at Bangor, regulated the food of his monks with at least equal seventy, in the many continental monasteries of which he was the founder.

The bell tolled at None to summon the brethren from the Church to the refectory.

''When the Beatus has ceased at the altar,
Let the bell for the refectory be heard.''— Strophe 85.

After this daily meal the bell summoned them once more to the Church for thanksgiving

''To the King who giveth food."

Thus the varied duties of the monks seem to have been arranged with a rigid regard to order; and the sound of the bell — as in modern communities — gave notice of the time set aside for each duty.

The strict observance of silence justly regarded as essential to holy recollection, was also enjoined in our early monasteries. From its observance the superior was exempt. The obligation is thus inculcated in the 23rd Strophe of St. Ailbe's rule.

'' Except you be a ruler (abbot) or vice abbot,
'Till the hour of one you speak not.
Afterward for those who perform penance,
Each one in his silence shall be silent."

Amongst the other practices which give a distinctive character to early Irish monastic life, I may mention that of frequent genuflections. This somewhat singular practice of daily genuflections is thus prescribed in St. Ailbe's rule, Strophe 17:—

''A hundred genuflections at the Beatus,
A hundred genuflections every evening. ''

Certain prostrations are also prescribed. A prostration at the Church door is permitted. Strophe 27. Three prostrations are prescribed on arriving at the Chancel, Strophe 25. This peculiar religious observance seems to have been recommended to the Irish by the practice of St. Patrick himself. We are informed by his biographers, that he daily practised hundreds of genuflections. A practice thus consecrated by our Apostle was naturally copied by his spiritual children. Hence we find this habit of frequent genuflections mentioned by St. Cumin of Connor, as among St Jarlath's penitential practices.

''Jarlath, the illustrious, loved,
Three hundred genuflections each day,
Three hundred genuflections each night."

Nor was this religious observance confined to Ireland. We find it recommended by the Fathers of a Council celebrated at Clevesho, in England, A.D. 747. It was practised in the East long before. Even prior to the advent of St. Patrick to our shores, these prostrations are known to have constituted a remarkable portion of the penitential exercises of St. Simon Stylites.

Some learned writers suppose that our early monks did not adopt a particular form of monastic dress. And yet we think it is not easy to reconcile such an opinion with the spirit of that exact and comprehensive code of discipline, which, as we have seen, regulated for them the minutest actions of their daily life. We know that our primitive monks rigidly adhered to a special form of tonsure. There can be little doubt that St. Patrick received at Tours the habit worn by St Martin's disciples, which, according to Sulpicius Severus, was of camel's hair. Indeed Dr. Lombard distinctly tells us that our Apostle received the monastic habit from St. Martin's hands, the colour of which he states was white. That he retained this habit in Ireland must be highly probable; and seems to harmonize with and explain a passage in the Tripartite in which the angel on Croagh Patrick refers to the hairs on St. Patrick's "Casula". We are also informed by Dr. Lombard that our Irish monks continued to copy the example of their great model by wearing simple habits of undyed wool.

We find our early monks reverently and faithfully copying our great Apostle in everything; adhering with an almost superstitious reverence to his religious observances. We shall have occasion to consider in our next paper, an additional interesting proof of the same spirit, in their love for the Sacred chant in which he instructed our ecclesiastics.

J. A. Fahy.

THE IRISH ECCLESIASTICAL RECORD, Vol. 4 (1883), 348-368


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