BMCR 2019.08.41

Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe. Oxford studies in late antiquity

, Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xx, 320. ISBN 9780190857967. $85.00.


The history of late antique and early medieval monasticism undergoes a profound transformation thanks to the extraordinary personality of Columbanus. This book derives from the conference held in Vienna in November 2013, which inaugurated a three-year project on the Columbanian Network, funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences-Austrian Science Fund.

The specific theme of the conference and the book are the activities carried out by Columbanus on the European continent; his relations with the ecclesiastical and civil authorities of Merovingian Gaul; the arrival of Columbanus in France; his peregrinatio begun in 591 with a handful of volunteers from the Bangor monastery to which he had adhered; and his travels and monastic foundations in areas governed by different gentes and barbarian kingdoms.

The volume is organized in five parts, for a total of fifteen contributions. The introduction is by A. O’Hara, the author with Ian Wood of a 2017 English translation and historical commentary on the Vita Columbani and two other Vitae attributed to Jonas of Bobbio (Translated Texts for Historians, 64, Liverpool University Press). In this introduction the architecture and objectives of the book are outlined, emphasizing the characteristics of the “world” of Columbanus, and the interactions with the societies and cultures of the Roman-Germanic kingdoms in which he and his collaborators established the monastic foundations, from Annegray and Luxeuil onwards; mention is also made of relations with Pope Gregory the Great (for a broader development of the theme cf. C. Stancliffe, The Irish peregrinus between Gildas, Gaul, and Gregory, esp. 114-123). Special attention is devoted to the writings of Columbanus, and O’ Hara does well to evoke some precious formulations, in their cultural context, present in the letters of Columbanus (e.g., tota Europa occurs twice). Columbanus’ epistolary, a source relatively seldom used by historians, is here very well tilled in various other articles (cf. also T. Leso, Columbanus in Europe: The Evidence from the Epistulae, in “Early Medieval Europe” 21, 2013, 358-389). Some possible views on his literary education are highlighted (that Columbanus was a reader of Ovid, however, is a rather aleatory hypothesis, 14). Included also is his general vision that Christian universalism was able to unify the various populations established in the West.

In the first part, entitled Columbanus in Context, the paper by D. Bracken focuses on the Christian formation of Columbanus and the ethical and rhetorical model of the concordia. This topic can be linked to the second part of the volume ( The Insular Background), from which there is much to learn, especially among readers who are outside the privileged circle of specialists in the history of late antique and early medieval Ireland. In the second part, the profile of Columbanus’ character, his youth and his theological education (A. Woolf, Columbanus’s Ulster Education, 91-99) is presented, and Columbanus’ familiar connections to the prince Cormac mac Diarmata are put in evidence: the article by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (a great expert on the Irish High Middle Ages and Hiberno-Latin), The Political Background to Columbanus’s Irish Career, 53-68, is among the most appreciated for the elegance of the writing and the richness of the content. E. Johnston examines Columbanus’ attitude regarding the female sphere; some pages deal with the question of how a “sexist” mentality, spread in Irish society, influenced Colombanus (“his cultural identity had been forged in Ireland” 69), while most of the same contribution is set in Europe and dedicated to the relationships of the saint with some famous queens, such as Brunhild or Theodelinda.

Parts III to V complement one another: following the routes of Columbanus and his companions and disciples, the focus is here placed on Columbanus as a monk and leader of foundations in the Merovingian, Alemannic and Lombard areas, and the terminal point of his extraordinary activities in the institution of the monastery of Bobbio, near Piacenza. Moreover, in these contributions the theme of paganism, with popular magic and superstitious behavior, emerges several times, attested in various regions of the Latin West and to some extent rekindled, with grafts and syncretisms of new morphology, from the barbarian migrations. And it is in our opinion legitimate to speak, for Columbanus and his collaborators and heirs, of an itinerant monasticism with missionary purposes too (not only in the most technical sense of the conversion of pagans but also that of heretics). This applies to the Warasqui (A. Fischer, Orthodoxy and Authority. Jonas, Eustasius, and the Agrestius Affair, 143-163, esp. 143-146), considered more than a group of devotees to idolatry, a group characterized by mixed beliefs, heretical, syncretistic, pagan. This also applies to the Bavarians, for example, in the contribution of H. Wolfram ( Columbanus and the Mission to the Bavarians and the Slavs in the Seventh Century, 165-173), which starts from the discovery of the Herrenchiemsee monastery, datable to the late 7th century, to trace a synthetic profile of the religious situation in early medieval Bavaria; this concerns the Alemanni in general, in relation to the famous transfer and installation of Columbanus in Bregenz, on Lake Constance: Wolfram has no doubt that it was a context of coexistence and interaction between groups of Christians and pagans of varying identity and conviction.

The interaction of Columbanus with the alemannic society at Bregenz, narrated in the first book of the Life written by Jonas of Bobbio towards the middle of the 7th century, is one of the most extensively treated moments of Columbanus’s biography. This can be explained by the suggestiveness of the events described, both because here the missionary component of the action of the Irish monk takes on greater prominence in the sources, and because of the internal tensions in the movement that it lets us see, flowing into the friction of dark genesis with his disciple and future bishop, Gallus. B. Maier ( Between the Devil and the Deep Lake Constance, 177-187) reviews the famous episode of the encounter / struggle with a community of beer drinkers devoted to Woden (this is also important for the very rare mention in the literary sources of a Germanic divinity, without interpretatio, namely Woden); Maier doubts, especially on the basis of the lack of positive archaeological evidence, the reality of alemannic paganism, at least with regard to the specific ceremonial form described by Jonah of Bobbio:

“the true significance of Jonas’s story about Columbanus and the pagan Alemanni would not reside in its preservation of any authentic details of Alemannic ritual, but rather in the fact that this is the oldest example of interpretatio Christiana in the Germanic-speaking world” (184).

If we take into account the history of the gens or of the gentes defined in our documents concerning the Alemanni, it offers, in our opinion, a prevailing picture of a long persistence of traditional and not Christian faith: it is not easy to see why we should minimize it for our historical phase. Y. Fox ( Between Metz and Ueberlingen. Columbanus and Gallus in Alemannia, 205-223), analyzes the stay of Columbanus in Bregenz and in nearby Alemannic areas and centers, especially regarding relations with political authorities and those controversial relations with his disciple Gallus (the latter also reconsidered in P. Doerler, Quicumque sunt rebelles, foras exeant! Columbanus’s Rebellious Disciple Gallus, 225-240).

F. Borri (“Drinking with Woden. A Re-examination of Jonas’s Vita Columbani I.27”, 189-203) is more open to an acceptance – that is certainly not uncritical but not even hypercritical – of the episode’s ritual nucleus. It is a valuable article, in which Woden is linked, as is nowadays preferred based on a series of cross-references in the sources, to the identity and to the traditions of Lombard Italy, 191-194; furthermore, useful observations are made concerning another text by Columbanus, the Paenitentiale, composed significantly in Burgundy, a further region where Columbanus had been living for a period. Indeed, Burgundy was not exempt from pagan presences and behavior: the customs of the Christians stigmatized by Irish monks are regarded as depraved behaviors—or, not merely depraved, but depraved as would be the behaviors of pagans.

In these chapters, interesting hints are to be grasped here and there in relation to the problem of persuasion and vernacular languages, which often had to be drawn on to fit fully into regional contexts and to proceed with conversions: so for Gallus’s activities in Alsace (contribution of Y. Fox, 217 with note 70); so for the Slavs and the Avars, a pagan outpost in the heart of the Balkans and of Europe itself (“the language problem caused by an even greater impediment to the mission to the Slavs,” Wolfram, 171).

Part V concerns the cultural and religious heritage of Columbanus, after the foundation of the Bobbio monastery. Here we limit ourselves to recalling chapter 14, by S. Gasparri, Columbanus, Bobbio, and the Lombards, 243-258; the last paper of the volume, written by A. Diem, 259-301, deals with the structuring of the monastic community in the light of the Regula cuiusdam patris, reporting a commentated translation of this work (though we miss the integral Latin original, which would have allowed a more conscious judgment on the translation itself). The article by Gasparri is the only one in which the question of the purpose and functioning of the monastery of Bobbio is more directly addressed by providing a secure state of the historiographical debate. Gasparri underlines the close relations between the Lombard royal family and Bobbio Abbey. He starts from the presentation of a diploma with which the Lombard king Agilulf grants Columbanus and his companions (of course before the death of Columbanus, probably dating back to 613) the privilege of settling down in Bobbio and becoming owners of the monastery they established. The reconstructed picture also embraces the relationships between the Lombard powers and the Church of Rome, which in turn showed in various ways the recognition of the great importance of Bobbio. In this rapid but effective panorama of Bobbio’s history in the Lombard age, Gasparri examines religious dynamics as well: he considers irrelevant a perspective that focuses on the struggle between Aryans and Catholics, in that way counterarguing against a part of previous Italian historiography (above all, the works of G. Bognetti) that continued to consider it a politically significant element in Lombard Italy, in the 8th century; similarly for Gasparri (250), Bobbio—as well as the Irish monasticism that presupposes it—did not have a missionary role, in Italy, neither with respect to the Aryans nor with respect to the pagans (which Gasparri evidently believes remained alive in some measure in Longobard Italy of the 7th century). The scholar is also skeptical of the theory of the strategic military function of the monastery. At the end of the article, the pars construens lies in recognizing the experimental nature of a monastery under royal patronage and in the monastery as a tool of a new policy by the Lombard kingship. This part, although it structurally rejoins the article to the initial part, could perhaps have been more developed, but this does not detract much from the interest in one of the most effective and stimulating contributions of the volume.

On the methodological plan, it seems to us that the authors freely regulate themselves in their approach to hagiographic sources, with diversified tendencies to accept more or less the “narration” and the “narrative,” the substance of them, or even details, or vice versa to reject them in their entirety as an invention, without a predetermined, projected direction. The choices of the various positions in this regard are naturally motivated (e.g. I. Wood on Vita Gildae, 106; C. Stancliffe on Vita Columbani, 131-138, Maier on Vita Vedastis, 182-183).

To conclude, this is a volume that has only minor weaknesses. Published with elegance and editorial accuracy—there are very few misprints—it represents an improvement not only for knowledge of the historical Columbanus and early medieval Irish history, but also for knowledge of those populations of post-Roman Europe that constitute, as the title announces, the non-negligible social, religious, and cultural background of monasticism in the tradition of Columbanus.