Golden Age of Irish Monastic Scholarship

Golden Age of Irish Monastic Scholarship
Golden Age of Irish Monastic Scholarship

The golden age of Irish monastic scholarship spans the sixth through ninth centuries’ flourishing of art, literature, calligraphy, manuscript preservation, and research that transpired primarily in the newly established monastic schools following the fifth-century advent of Christianity in Ireland.

During this same period, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the so-called barbarian invasions into Europe by such tribes as the Goths, Huns, Lombards, and Burgundians caused the Continent to experience a tremendous decline in learning and culture.

Not only was the Irish church the brightest spot culturally in the West at this time, but many historians postulate that the great heritage of Western civilization, ranging from the Greco-Roman classics to Jewish and Christian works, would have been utterly vanquished were it not for the religious women and men of Ireland.

The golden age is best known for the scriptorium, in which biblical manuscripts were preserved, copied, and beautifully illuminated. Because of the medieval development of the Bible into an object of veneration and point of contact with divine power, the copying of Scripture became a favored avenue for creativity.

Illuminated manuscripts accompanied the sacred text with colorful and detailed graphic representations of the events being narrated and were bound in ornately tooled covers of precious metals, inlaid with jewels. Remarkable poet-historians synthesized the nation’s pagan histories with its new faith, by retelling these legends in light of Christian theological concepts, especially providence, grace, and redemption.

Moreover the missionary scholar Adamnan of Iona (624–704) prefigured England’s Venerable Bede (673–735) as among the first writers in the new genre of critical history and biography, which made distinctions between primary (firsthand or eyewitness) and secondary (based on firsthand or eyewitness) sources and employed criteria of authenticity that attempted to separate fact from fiction.

Although Christianity furnished the institutional catalyst that triggered the golden age, the potencies for its radiant growth of art and literature lay already embedded in the pre-Christian Celtic veneration for people of learning. In Celtic mythology, the god of literature, Ogma, attracted humans with golden cords fastened to his tongue.

Ancient Irish customs stipulated that the benevolent or malicious power of the poet should be respected above weaponry, and that the education of a prince in the skills of the mind was as important as his training in the art of warfare. The respect for the written word in no way diminished with the rise of Christianity; rather, the new religion transmitted the two priceless treasures of a written language and the legacy of Greco-Roman classical culture.

Scholars from Europe began immigrating to the island in the early sixth century to escape the “barbarian” invaders, and Ireland came to enjoy a Continental reputation as a refuge where beleaguered academics could find all the customary comforts of civilization.

In exchange for this wholehearted welcome, the immigrants brought a great wealth, their books, to their new home, which became the foundation of Irish monastic libraries. Disavowing the European ecclesiastical fear of the pagan classics, manifested by the decree of the 436 Council of Carthage that no believer should study Gentile writings, Irish monks instilled their students with both an appreciation of the Greco-Roman poets and philosophers and a well-rounded worldview that integrated the theology of Scripture and the church fathers with the ethics of Aristotle and metaphysics of Plato.

This produced a new breed of scholars characterized by a Scholastic mindset and a formidable accumulation of classical knowledge that was treasured and utilized in their civic and ecclesiastic endeavors.

These humanists imported many Latin grammatical structures and syntactic devices into the Irish language, thereby vitalizing a literary tradition in desperate need of renewal. For instance, while the pre-Christian method of writing, ogam, was so cumbersome that it was scarcely used outside of carved funerary or ceremonial inscriptions, an updating of the alphabet based on Latin script rendered writing easy and motivated educated people to transcribe their native lore and create new masterpieces.

The result of the linguistic revisions was that secular learning thrived alongside religious, and a monumental corpus of Irish vernacular literature developed that painted a portrait of an ancient pagan civilization unmatched elsewhere in the West. Not only was this recording of the oral tradition historically significant, but a further consequence of the conflation of Christian and pagan learning in Ireland was the rise of a new type of literature.

Eventually the imaginative spirit gripped the scribes, who were responsible for meticulously copying Christian and classical works but subconsciously absorbing their concepts and themes in the process, leading them to formulate their own tales enriched by indirect influence from these ancient sources.

The traditional voyages to seek Tir na n’Og (the Land of Youth, which greatly resembled the new heaven and new earth in New Testament thought) were supplemented by borrowings from Homer and given substance with the current geographical information to yield the famous Christian epic The Voyage of St. Brendan.

Furthermore the intimate and touching poetry devised by monk-poets furnishes modern historians with a unique and introspective vision of the lives of cloistered anchorites, encompassing their love of nature and animals, the mystical nature of their religious experience (Latin unio mystica, or mystical union with God), the stringency of their communal discipline, and even their irritated boredom.

Although the monastic schools were indebted to the European body of knowledge bestowed by refugee scholars, a far greater influence was exerted by the long indigenous tradition of education. In Ireland, learning found its mythological origin in Connla’s Well, a fountain in Tipperary over which grew nine hazel trees that simultaneously sprouted flowers and crimson nuts.

Mastery of the fine arts and poetry gave substance to the flowers, while the nuts were filled with knowledge of all the sciences. Instituted upon this primordial foundation, the pagan schools required 15 years of study and were run by poets and historians of the filid class (an order of historians, lawyers, eulogists, and satirists) and the druids.

Members of the filid class migrated with their students from village to village while the druids were sedentary in key cultic centers. They shared a common method of pedagogy: Teachings and folk tales were transmitted in fixed oral forms governed by patterns in style and meter, and repetitions of words and sentence structures that facilitated memorization.

In addition a reciprocal relationship of compassion was fostered between teachers and students: Teachers corrected students without harshness and provided their physical sustenance (food and clothing), while students adopted a lifelong obligation to protect their teachers from poverty and support them in old age.

The conjunction of instructional method and empathetic teacher-student bonds supplied the necessary motivation for students to master a dizzying array of disciplines, including grammar, law, genealogy, history, astronomy, geography, and metrical composition.

After St. Patrick converted the majority of Celts from the druid religion to Christianity and established monasteries to oversee each new believing community between 432 and 461, pagan schools were transformed into monastic schools, retaining the same teaching techniques and quality of humaneness between masters and pupils.

The biblical doctrine of Christian equality as sisters and brothers before God in spite of class distinctions introduced an element of democracy into education. Although early medieval Ireland could by no means be identified as a democratic nation, the bishops established laws through which all people, women as well as men, could earn money to attend monastic schools regardless of the capacities of their families.

One such law stipulated that a child whose parents could not afford the expenses of a school could pay one’s way by waiting on the children of the wealthy, who were obliged to accept such service and finance the child’s education. These laws fostered a demographic reversal from the pagan schools, such that most students at the monastic schools came from the lower and middle classes instead of the wealthy farmers and chieftains.

The 15 years of study were split into two segments: a five-year general education track, consisting of literature, history, law, and science, and an ensuing 10-year track for advanced students who wished to pursue the “Seven Orders of Wisdom.”

Most students ceased education after the first five years, while those wishing to pursue either a career in the church, greater learning, or both proceeded to the Orders. These included a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the Bible, the essentials of Christian theology, mathematics, astronomy, and the three technicalities of written composition (grammar, criticism, and orthography).

Since most graduates of the academic Seven Orders embraced their spiritual counterpart—holy orders—and later served as teachers themselves, the church procured a monopoly of Irish scholars while perpetuating its educational institution. So many students were attracted to the monastic schools that there was not accommodation for them, and they were forced to erect huts outside the monastery walls.

Gathering out of doors, the teacher, who typically sat or stood on a knoll, alternated his reading, translating, and expounding from books in distinct memorizable forms— which students would learn by rote—with questions that assisted students in understanding what they recited.

In addition to the monks and nuns, students at the monastic schools worked for varying lengths in the scriptoria proportional to their level of training. The beginner practiced with a metal-pointed stylus on long narrow tablets of yew wood coated with wax, which could be flattened clear and used repetitively. After the copying was completed, the student bound the tablets together with a pivot pin at one end so they could be opened and closed like a fan.

The student then wound leather thongs around the tablets, leaving the ends of the cords dangling for use as a handle. Skilled scribes made their reproductions on parchment (cow, sheep, or goat skin) and vellum (the younger and finer skin of these animals). They copied seated with the writing material resting on the knees or, if engaged in elaborate illumination, on a table.

For calligraphy the pen was a quill made from the wing of a goose, swan, or crow. The inkstand was made from part of a cow’s horn, and the ink was composed of thick and time-defying liquid carbon—characters on the medieval codices are still piercingly black today.

Completed books were sheathed in leather, labeled, and hung on pegs on the walls of the monastery library. The more precious, such as the renowned Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels (both lovely illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels in Latin), were encased in elegantly tooled leather covers and decorated, jewel-encrusted containers.

The greatest legacy of the golden age lay in the missionary activity of its monastic scholars, who spent as much time teaching within the Irish schools as traveling abroad to share the humanity of their education with the Continent and the Christian Gospel with their pagan neighbors.

Irish philosophers, scientists, and classicists were sought after by the courts of Europe and returned to the West disciplines of learning that had been obscured during the “barbarian” centuries of cultural stagnation. Under influences from Columba’s monastery, St. Aidan (590–651) carried the Christian message to the Northumbrians of the northeast coast of England.

He became friends with the Anglo-Saxon ruler Oswald, who had spent time in exile among the Irish and grown attracted to the life of these Celtic Christians. With Oswald’s cooperation, Aidan then journeyed to the people of Northumbria in 635 and founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, thereafter styled as Holy Island, which became a center of evangelism that firmly established Christianity in northern England by the mid-seventh century.

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