Celtic Christianity Overview

Celtic Christianity

The map's intention is not to be comprehensive but merely to offer a sampling of persons, foundations and artifacts from the period. The legend's differentiation between Roman, Britain, Irish and Anglo-Saxon is somewhat artificial but is suggestive of slightly different flavours and currents of Christianity at this period. Similarly, the distinction between saint and scholar has more to do with emphasis than strict categorisation. Even the indication that the initial inward influence into Britain and Ireland being from Rome is misleading as there were certainly influences originating further east from Coptic Egypt or, even Syria. As Heinrich Zimmer's wrote:

It is only of late years that facts have come which alone will explain many Oriental ideas, the existence of which in the West puzzled historical students. These facts explain peculiarities of the Celtic Church and monasticism. In Gaul, Syrian and Eastern monasticism was flourishing when Christianity came over to Ireland. In Irish monasticism we should therefore expect to find traces and Oriental practices in the constitution, customs, the learning, the art, and the architecture of the early Celtic Church. Some peculiarities of Irish monasticism, for instance, can be explained by a reference to Syrian ideas and customs. Now the anchorite institution is a peculiar mark of Eastern monasticism. In the West it took a more practical turn, the monks being the great civilizers of the Middle Ages. In Ireland we find the enclosed anchorite flourishing side by side with the agricultural and artistic monk. Anchorites of this kind were imported from Syria to Gaul and thence to Ireland, where this institution flourished in greatest vigor ... The type of the early Celtic monastery is to be sought not among the Latins, but among the Greeks and Orientals.

The years 535-536AD saw extreme weather events that appear to have initiated a decade of catastrophe. The cause appears to have been an enormous volcanic eruption which triggered catastrophic global cooling, precipitating famine, cultural conflict and plague across the planet. The years in which the heat of the sun was shielded by the volcanic dust appear to be 536~539AD. The Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that in 536:

a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness... and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.'

 In Ireland in the Annals of Ulster (online version) we have the following terse entries:

The first recorded harbinger of the plague ( Plague of Justinian ), which subsequently engulfed both the Eastern Roman and Sassanid empires, was the sighting in 541AD of plague ships off the coast of Suez. The rats carrying the fleas infected by the deadly bacteria, Yersinia pestis, were able to spread by ships first via ports and then overland. Similar to the Black Death the mortality rate among settled peoples was estimated to be about 30%. In Ireland in 544AD St. Columcille and his fellow students had to leave the school of St.Mobhi of Glasnevin to avoid the plague. It possibly also affected Ciaran of Clonmacnoise who died shortly after the founding of the famous monastery in 544AD.

The plague was to reoccur periodically in Europe up until the mid eight century. The entries in the Annals of the Four Masters (online version) for Ireland respectively are:

I mention this episode at length as it may have facilitated the founding of Celtic Christian communities on the continent where there would have been much agricultural land left untilled in the wake of the famine. There were certainly remarkable migrations of peoples that changed the demographics of Europe before and after this period but still, for small groups of monks to setup such foundations without a military dimension being in play was remarkable.


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Celtic Christianity

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Monks and Scholars
Monastic Settlements
Illuminated Books
Important Events
Colder Climate
High Crosses
Insular Treasures