Early Christian Ireland (5)

Eleanor Hull
Early Christian Ireland | start of chapter

Pavia became a great centre of Irish learning. In 825 the French King Lothaire, who had been educated under two Irish teachers in the schools of his grandfather Charlemagne, desired one Dungal to accept the post of Principal of Pavia University, while Clemens remained at Paris.

The edict of Lothaire declares that “through the extreme carelessness and indolence of certain superiors, true learning had been shaken to the very foundations on all sides”; therefore it had pleased him to desire that students should assemble from Milan, Brescia, Lodi, Vercelli, Genoa, Como, and other neighbouring towns, to the instruction to be given at Pavia under the superintendence of Dungal, and that neither poverty nor distance should serve as an excuse to the people.

Dungal was one of that “vast train of philosophers” who, Eric of Auxerre says, removed to France in the ninth century, along with “almost all Ireland” flying as refugees before the Norse and carrying with them their books and valuables.

The Irish saints’ names scattered so thickly about Belgium, France and Brittany, and the great number of Irish manuscripts in foreign libraries, attest the truth of this passage. Dungal had arrived at the Court of Charles the Great about 780. He was a poet, theologian, and astronomer, and he became the trusted friend of the Emperor, to whom he wrote a letter that is still extant. In a Latin poem addressed to Charles he calls himself the Irish exile (Hibernicus exul). It begins, “These verses the Irish exile sends to King Charles.” His letter is on the subject of a double eclipse of the sun which occurred in 810; the phenomenon so much excited the curiosity of the Emperor that he asked Dungal, then a recluse in St Denis, to write for him an explanation of the event.

At Pavia he speedily attracted students from the surrounding states, many of whose names are still remembered, and his school acquired wide celebrity. He greatly esteemed Virgil and was acquainted with the early Christian Latin poets, such as Prudentius and Fortunatus. His numerous Latin verses prove his taste and his love of poetry. In a poetic address to the Emperor he exclaims, “Dost thou demand of what avail are the verses of our song? Ah, my friend, dost thou not know the names of the Muses, or can it be that scornfully thou dost despise their gifts? While the starry worlds revolve in their loftiest orbits … so long will be heard throughout the ages the everlasting names of the Muses by whom the glorious deeds of kings are celebrated.”[52]

Another Dungal, whose tracts show some acquaintance with the works of Greek as well as of Latin authors, took part in the discussion that rent the Church during part of the eighth century about the honour that should be paid to images. He was called upon as the only man able to enter into controversy with the Spanish bishop, Claudius, on this subject of the Western iconoclasm.[53]

Nearly all the chief Irish saints wrote hymns and poems, both religious and secular, sometimes in Latin and sometimes in the native tongue. We find chance compositions penned on the borders of old manuscripts at home and abroad, such as the “Student’s Address to his Cat” or the “Lines to the Blackbird”—the one written on the margin of a codex of St Paul’s Epistles in the monastery of Carinthia, the other as a marginal note on a copy of Priscian found in the monastery of St Gall.[54]

Columcille wrote his tender and patriotic verses in both tongues; his contemporary and namesake, Columban, left several Latin poems written while he was abroad, notably the charming epistle addressed to his friend Fedolius in Adonic verse, in which he prays him “not to despise these little verses by which Sappho loved to charm her contemporaries.”

The Book of Hymns of the ancient Church of Ireland has a number of early hymns and eulogies of Irish saints both in Irish and Latin. The poetic fervour of the hermit monks, who lived in the closest intimacy with nature, brought forth a group of poems, both on religious subjects and on the natural beauties of the woods and streams and stormy ocean beside which they passed their peaceful days. These poems are unsurpassed in any literature for the delicacy of their sentiment and their vivid perception of the life of bird, and beast, and insect, the humble companions who lent interest to their solitude.

The most important of the gifts of knowledge which the Irish were able to restore to a rent and distracted Europe was the study of the Greek tongue. From a very early period the study of Greek seems to have formed part of the curriculum in Irish monastic schools. Columcille is said as a child to have “learned Greek grammar,” though his earliest lessons were given him by a bard.

The abbot Aileran of Clonard, writing about the year 600 a curious work on the mystical meaning of the names in our Lord’s genealogy, quotes apparently from Philo as well as from Origen, Jerome, and Augustine. The old glossaries occasionally give Greek equivalents for Irish words, and Greek vocabularies and paradigms have been found in Irish manuscripts abroad. These occasional words in glossaries do not necessarily argue any extensive acquaintance with the language, but they show that its study was still alive in Irish monastic schools in the ninth century.

It was from St Gall that the Greek copy of St Paul’s Epistles with a Latin translation between the lines, known to scholars as Codex Boernerianus, was brought to Dresden. It dates from the ninth century and was therefore probably acquired or copied either in the time of the abbot Mœngal (under whom the school of St Gall attained its greatest fame both as a seat of learning and as a school of music) or in that of Grimald, who was abbot from 854 to 872, and who bestowed upon the library a collection of valuable manuscripts. The few fragments in Irish script still remaining at St Gall are made up into miscellaneous collections, in which the precious St Gall palimpsest of Virgil is found side by side with several very ancient fragments of the Gospels.[55]

Two Irish scholars of the ninth century are admitted to have been the first Greek authorities of their day. These were Sedulius Scotus (‘the Irishman’) and Johannes Scotus. Sedulius, who was Abbot of Kildare about 820, sought the Court of Charlemagne and was appointed by him to an important post at Liége, where he remained for many years. He arrived there one winter’s day, through deeply drifted snow, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, but he received a welcome appropriate to his gifts and learning, and soon entered upon his professorial duties. He continued at Liége from 840 to 860 and died soon afterward at Milan. He tells us that “many learned grammarians” from his country were studying under his tuition at Liége. It is probable that his Treatise on Government was written for the instruction of Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald, for whom also he composed numerous poems.

When Charles visited the monastery Sedulius the Irishman presented a poem in his honour. He wrote commentaries in which he displays his reading by the variety of works from which he quotes. He corrects his Latin New Testament by a Greek original and he refers to the Hebrew readings. He composed a grammatical treatise on the basis of Priscian and Donatus, as well as the Treatise on Government of which we have spoken, which was discovered in the Vatican Library by Cardinal Mai. He was not only a man of exceptional erudition and versatility, but he was also a graceful Latin poet. His verses on “The Lily and the Rose” in which these flowers contend in rivalry for the palm of beauty are worthy of Thomas Moore. He is not to be confused with the fifth-century Italian poet of the same name who wrote the Carmen Paschale.

Undoubtedly the most remarkable thinker produced by the Irish schools and one of the foremost thinkers of the Middle Ages was John ‘Scotus’ or ‘Scotigena,’ or ‘John the Irishman,’ though he preferred to call himself John Ériugena, from Ériu, the old native name of his country.[56] John lived at a time when Western Europe was disturbed by the invasions of the Northmen, who were pouring down upon Northrumbria and Ireland, sacking the towns of Western France, Bordeaux, Rouen, Toulouse, and making their way inland to the gates of Paris. It was “with the din of war crashing around him” that, sometime about 847, John crossed over to France to obey the behest of Charles the Bald, who, amid the terrors of war, was building up under his own immediate care a school of philosophy at which learned men from every country were welcomed and given the opportunity of promulgating their ideas. The man, “little of stature but of merry wit,” who came at his call from Ireland captivated the affection of the King, as his teaching was speedily to stir the attention of Europe.

It was John’s knowledge of the Greek language that induced the French King to invite him to his Court. Though his capital was then at Laon, he was attracted to Paris by its neighbourhood to the abbey of St Denis, which Charlemagne had chosen as the burial-place of his house, and which was then universally believed to have been founded by Dionysius the Areopagite, the earliest Athenian convert of St Paul. Works attributed to this man were supposed to have been discovered, but the knowledge of Greek, the language in which they were written, had so completely died out in the west that no one could be found to translate them.

Charles probably remembered that an Irish teacher in the schools of his grandfather Charles the Great, and whom he had met at Liége, was not only a learned Latinist and a graceful Latin poet, but possessed as well some knowledge of Greek. The memory of Sedulius induced him to send for help to Ireland, and John, on his arrival, was able to carry out the wishes of his patron, and produce a translation which, owing to the then general ignorance of the language, threw Anastasius, Librarian of the Vatican Library, into the deepest astonishment. “It is wonderful,” he exclaimed, “that this uncivilized man, dwelling on the confines of the world, should have been able to understand such things and to translate them into another tongue.”

It was from his knowledge of Greek philosophy, especially of Plato, that John rose to the conception of things which he elaborated in his great work On the Division of Nature. “In the simplicity of his general plan,” it has been said, “he surpasses all the philosophers of the Middle Ages.” He accepts Plato’s conception of a world of ideas as the pattern on which the sensible universe is made, thought to him being the only reality and goodness its essential significance. The inherent dignity of man’s nature must assert itself in the end.

“The soul may forget her natural goods, may fail in her striving towards the goal of the inborn virtues of her nature; the natural powers may move, by fault of judgment, towards something which is not their end,” but not for ever, for the universal tendency of things is upward.

“Our nature is not fixed in evil; . . . it is for ever moving, and seeks nought else but the highest good, from which as from a beginning its motion takes its source and to which it is hastening as to an end.”

Since all things proceed from God, so in God they find their final perfection. John was not a pantheist, for he believed in personal immortality. “This,” he writes, “is the end of all things visible and invisible, when all visible things pass into the intellectual, and the intellectual into God, by a marvellous and unspeakable union; but not, as we have often said, by any confusion or destruction of essences or substances.” His effort was to produce a philosophy of religion; he was led to conclusions on the essential goodness of human nature, and the negative and transient nature of evil, which were not acceptable in his own day, but many of which were revived, perhaps unconsciously, in the works of later thinkers.

This belief in the dignity of human nature and its innate desire for good marks the conceptions of two mediæval Celtic teachers, Pelagius and John Scotus. The one, with restless energy, was untiring in endeavouring to get his views accepted by a Church to which they were unwelcome; his doctrine is still the only heresy against which, in the Articles of the English Church, its adherents are warned by name. The other addressed himself to a more limited audience; and up to the death of his patron, Charles the Bald, John continued to enjoy the protection of this enlightened prince, whose scholar’s instinct led him to encourage unfettered discussion, and whose respect for learning made him the personal friend of the scholars who gathered round him.

John came to a dreadful end at the hands of his own pupils and his own countrymen. On the death of Charles in France he was invited to repair to England by King Alfred the Great, and placed by him in charge of Malmesbury Abbey. Here he is said to have fallen a victim to the turbulence of his Irish pupils, who set upon him with the sharp ‘stiles’ with which they wrote, inflicting wounds of which he died.[57]

It was not only in classical studies that Irishmen of the ninth century stood in the forefront of the knowledge of their time. They were also geographers and mathematicians. Fergal, or Virgil, of Salzburg has the double reputation of being a teacher of geometry and a missionary. At home he had been abbot of Aghaboe, and he must have been beloved in his native land, for he is one of the few among the host of Irish teachers who went abroad who is remembered in the annals and martyrologies of the homeland. His death is recorded in the Annals of Ulster under the date 784.

On going to France he was recommended to Odilo, Grand Duke of Bavaria, by King Pepin (752–768), to fill the see of Salzburg. He had already achieved a reputation before leaving Ireland, for he was known there as the Geometrician; from his Greek studies he had learned the theory that the earth was a sphere and that there are antipodes. This theory was believed to run counter to the religious doctrines of the day, and Fergal was condemned again and again by the ecclesiastical authorities. But he still continued to maintain that the world was round, that the sun and moon passed beneath it, and that there must be inhabitants on the other side. No measures were actually taken against him, and he seems to have gone on quietly administering his diocese, while occasionally he startled the mediæval world with new knowledge, wrought out in his study in the intervals of episcopal work.

An equally interesting writer was Dicuil, who lived about 820 or later, and who wrote in his old age a geographical work called De Mensura Orbis Terræ, which was discovered by M. Letronne about 1812 in the French National Library. Dicuil was a very intelligent man who was not content merely to compile an account of the world’s geography from the records of the classical writers, though he was familiar with these and quotes from Solinus, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Priscian, and many others. But he was also at great pains to find out any new material which could be contributed at first-hand by those who had travelled in little-known regions. The island of Iceland, for instance, was not discovered and peopled by Norsemen before 874, but Dicuil, who probably wrote half a century earlier, gives a long account of it. He corrects the common idea of his day that the island was surrounded with a sea of ice, remarking bluntly that those who made such reports “have evidently lied”; but he says that at a day’s sail farther north the frozen ocean had been found, for certain clerics who visited the island went beyond it in the depth of winter. He describes, among other interesting details, the long days near the solstice, when the sun “hardly disappeared at all, but seemed only to hide itself behind a hill, so that, even during its short absence, the light of day does not fail.” All this, he says, he had learned from some Irish anchorites who had visited the island over thirty years before and had remained there from the month of February till August.

The account he gives of these hardy wanderers, who, despairing of finding nearer home the quiet they longed for, had pushed their way into the frozen seas, remarkably bears out the tradition handed down in the Icelandic Landnámabóc, which gives the history of the settlements on Iceland by the Norse. This old book says that when the Norse arrived in the island, flying before the harsh laws of Harold Fairhair, they found there already “Irish bells, books, and croziers.”

This passage is so interesting, as bearing on the wanderings of the Irish anchorites, that it will be well to quote it in full. It occurs in the prologue to this native record of the ‘land-takes’ of Iceland and runs as follows:

“Before Iceland was peopled from Norway there were in it men whom the Northmen called Papas [Fathers]; they were Christian men, and it is held that they must have come oversea from the west, for there were found after them Irish bells, books, and crooks [croziers], and more things besides, from which it could be understood that they were Westmen. These things were found east in Pap-isle, and it is stated in English books that in those times voyages were made between those countries.”[58]

It is an important testimony to the accuracy of this Icelandic record to find that Dicuil had conversed with those who knew some of these early explorers. He had also met a “man worthy of trust” who related to his master, the abbot Sweeney (Suibhne), how he had landed on the Faroe Isles after having navigated “two days and a summer night in a little vessel of two banks of oars.” He found that they also had been inhabited nearly a hundred years before by eremites who had gone out of “our Scotia [Ireland],” but whom the inroads of the Northmen had driven away from Faroe, since which time the islands had been inhabited by an innumerable multitude of sheep, who were probably the descendants of those introduced and reared by the Irish hermits. To this day the sheep that are found on the Faroe Islands are of a breed unknown in Norway, but resembling those of the Western Isles of Scotland and the inhabitants have a peculiar method of rearing their sheep, unlike that of Norway. The name Faroe or Faerey Isles means “The Sheep Islands.”[59]