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Saint of the week

The monk who defied a synod of bishops

St Columban (November 23) left a great monastic academy in Ireland to restore learning and religion to Gaul

By on Friday, 23 November 2012

St Columban’s Rule was less precise but much stricter than St Benedict’s

St Columban’s Rule was less precise but much stricter than St Benedict’s

Columban (c 543-615) demonstrates what a well-travelled and well-connected life it was possible to lead in the Dark Ages, even while aspiring to escape the world.

Born in Leinster, Columban became an outstanding Latinist. Fair and good looking, however, the model student attracted the attention of wanton girls (laviscae puellae). 

Horrified, he fled to a monk called Sinell, who inhabited an island in Lough Erne. He then spent many years in the great monastic academy at Bangor, near Belfast.

Around 585, Columban departed with 12 companions to Gaul. Their aim was to help restore religion and learning, in decay as a result of the political breakdown following upon the death in 561 of the Frankish King Clotaire I.

Eventually, about 590, Columban reached the Vosges mountains, where the Burgundian king gave him land at Annegray. The monastery which he founded proved so successful that he soon established a second, larger house nearby at Luxeuil.

Although the Rule which Columban enforced was less precise than that of St Benedict, it was certainly stricter, with lashings of corporal punishment. 

The Frankish bishops, however, objected not to the beatings, but to Columban’s preference for the Celtic method of calculating the date of Easter.

Summoned before a synod, Columban observed that the bishops would do well to examine themselves with meekness, and demanded to be left alone. He also wrote to popes Gregory I and Boniface IV, confirming his loyalty to Rome.

For some time the Frankish bishops were powerless against Columban because he enjoyed the support of King Theodoric II of Burgundy. In 609, however, Columban refused to bless the King’s bastard sons.

He also fell foul of Theodoric’s formidable grandmother Brunhilda.

So in 610 Columban was taken under military escort to Nantes, that he might be returned to Ireland. Before embarking, he sent to his Burgundian monasteries a letter of farewell which has been widely praised for its eloquence.

In the event, though, a storm drove his ship back to Gaul. He found refuge, first at Soissons, then at Metz, where Theodebert II, King of Austrasia, agreed to back his missionary work.

Near Zurich, though, Columban infuriated the local population by setting fire to a pagan temple and was forced to flee. Subsequently he departed into northern Italy, where he was kindly received by Agilulf, King of the Lombards.

Drawn into the theological controversies raging in Milan, he wrote another letter to Pope Boniface IV. The arguments he used were reproached for Nestorianism, the heresy which held that the divine and human natures of Christ were distinct. 

“But who,” Columban disarmingly asked, “will take any notice of a greenhorn like me?”

In 613, still assisted by King Agilulf, Columban established a monastery at Bobbio, in the Apennines.