Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.03

Alexander O'Hara, Jonas of Bobbio and the Legacy of Columbanus: Sanctity and Community in the Seventh Century. Oxford Studies in Late Antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xv, 322.  ISBN 9780190858001.  $85.00.  ISBN 9780190858018.  ebook.  


Reviewed by Michael Herren, York University; University of Toronto (aethicus@yorku.ca)

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In this interesting book, Alexander O’Hara manages to juggle three demanding topics: Jonas of Bobbio’s strategies as a hagiographer exhibited in his famous Vita Columbani; the religious thought and achievement of Columbanus based on Columbanus’s own writings; and the concept of monastic spirituality in the seventh century. He sets all three topics in the framework of Merovingian history and politics. These themes are distributed among seven chapters: 1. Conflicting Visions of Community: The Legacy of Columbanus; 2. New Rules: The Agrestius Affair and the Regula Benedicti; 3. An Italian Monk in Merovingian Gaul; 4. “Stilo Texere Gesta”: Jonas the Hagiographer; 5. Jonas and Biblical Stylization; 6. The Miracle Accounts; 7. Sanctity and Community. O’Hara appends an up-to-date list of the manuscripts of the Vita Columbani (168 in all), a bibliography, and a full index.

Students of late antique/early medieval history are aware that Columbanus was a highly controversial figure. The saint’s “contrariness” expressed itself in two areas: the theological and the pastoral. We know his stances on a variety of subjects because we have his own letters. Columbanus entered the fray of Christological controversy in his impassioned letter to Pope Boniface, in which he urged the pontiff to hold a Council to resolve the Aquileian schism, which he viewed as an impediment to the conversion of the Arians. He quarreled with another Pope and with the Gaulish bishops over the dating of Easter, maintaining the rightness of the Irish tradition in celebrating the feast based on the 84-year cycle of Anatolius. His condemnation of the concubinage of Theudebert led to his expulsion from the Merovingian kingdom. In the pastoral area, schism in his own community occurred due to his zealous enforcement of the monastic rule. The result was that a large part of the community remained at Luxeuil, Columbanus’s main foundation, while Columbanus himself, some of the seniores, and a part of the Irish contingent found refuge at Bobbio in a remote corner of the Lombard Kingdom.

O’Hara deftly shows how Jonas tweaked his biography of the saint, omitting anything that would imply that he was a heretic (by continental standards), and glossing over the controversy in the community known as the “Agrestius affair” after the leader of the mutiny. He also omitted all references to the growing use of the less rigorous Rule of Benedict, which had supplanted Columbanus’s regula monachorum even at Luxeuil, and the so-called regula mixta, which combined the Benedictine Rule with that of Columbanus (pp. 73-79). Above all, Jonas strove to demonstrate that Columbanus’s legacy was a lasting one, overlooking modifications of the strict discipline demanded by the founding saint.

Chapters 4-6 are devoted to the techniques used by Jonas for shaping his portrait of the saint. Jonas begins his account with a discussion of his sources, mainly eyewitnesses alive at the time of Columbanus’s mission. Jonas, writing “shortly after the death of Dagobert I (d. 639)” (p. 153) had become a monk at Bobbio in 616 (p. 101), only months after Columbanus’s death (23 November 615). There would have been a number of younger monks who knew Columbanus and were still alive up to and at the time of writing and would have been reliable witnesses. To be sure, Jonas, who appears to have been widely read, used numerous other sources — biblical, hagiographical, patristic, and classical — to flesh out his portrait.

One would like to have more detailed discussion of the alleged classical sources, that is, to what extent did Jonas really know the classical works he alluded to, or did he get them second-hand? O’Hara lists Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (not well known before the eleventh century), “possibly Caesar’s De bello gallico”, Pliny’s Historia naturalis, and Varro’s De lingua Latina (p. 134). The alleged Ovid parallel is convincing, but it is a single swallow. It is an intriguing possibility that Jonas knew a line from a work by the early poet Livius Andronicus rather than the historian: “Ut Livius ait, nihil esse tam sanctum religione tamque custodia clausum, quo penetrari libido nequeat” (p. 133).” Printed as such, the line looks like prose. But a scansion shows a mixture of cretics and glyconics that point to a poet rather than a prose writer. A source for the line has not been securely identified. Jonas’s style is learned for its time, and it is sprinkled with occasional mythological and ancient historical allusions. However, more evidence is needed to substantiate the hypothesis that its author could have received a classical education at Susa in the seventh century.

I must also quibble with O’Hara’s discussion of Jonas’s knowledge of Greek. The meagre list of Jonas’s Greek vocabulary (p. 143) consists of only 25 items, some of which are common Greek ecclesiastical borrowings, e.g. cenodoxia (misprinted as cendoxia), dogma, eulogiae, orthodoxa, schisma. As O’Hara acknowledges, about half of the items on the scanty list repeat the graeca in Columbanus’s letters. Two of the words listed are almost certainly not Greek: baiola (“a female servant”) and cathenatos. The first word, connected to the verb baiolare is not of Greek origin (see Walde-Hofmann, Ernout-Meillet, and De Vaan, s.v.); Cathenatos is probably just a misspelling of Latin catenatos, “chained” (for cathena for catena see Stotz, Handbuch zur lateinischen Sprache des Mittelalters VII 138.3).

Despite these quibbles, there is a great deal that is valuable in O’Hara’s book. It portrays the continuity of a type of monasticism and set of beliefs that reflects those of the earliest phase of Irish Christianity. These include the preference for an effort-based spirituality as opposed to the reliance on grace advocated by Augustine; a limited acceptance of miracles and relics; and an historically-based biblical exegesis. But most importantly, it portrays the strategies of a highly intelligent and resourceful hagiographer, who skillfully manages to preserve the legacy of a great spiritual figure despite attempts from within and without to destroy it.

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