Early Christian Celtdom (ca. 400-1150)

By the time the Western Empire collapsed, Christianity had become its dominant religion. The Church was organized on a hierarchical diocesan model that was closely patterned after the secular Roman administrative system, drawing its resources almost entirely from urban centers. Little effort had been made to Christianize the countryside; so when the cities -- and all the institutions of Roman government -- fell apart, the Church was left with little in the way of a power base. The new Germanic overlords were either heretical Christians with no great incentive to help the Roman hierarchy, or non-Christians who had to be converted from scratch and whose every whim had to be entertained in order to ensure their continued cooperation. In this weakened state the Roman Church simply didn't have the means to coordinate its policies effectively, or to enforce a conformity of belief and practice throughout its vast jurisdiction. So non-Romanized Celtic areas like Ireland and northern Britain were free to absorb Christianity gradually, through the scattered efforts of individual missionaries who had no secular arm to back them up and no invading army to impose the new religion by force. This meant that Celtic communities had the time to adapt Christianity to their own culture and to devise native Christian institutions that were better suited to their tradition.

Originally the Roman Church had established a diocesan system similar to the one that already existed on the Continent. However, this met with a lukewarm reception in the Celtic world, where there were no cities that could serve as clearly-defined diocesan centers. What caught the imagination of the Celts instead was the concept of monasticism, which had spread into the Christian world from Egypt. The idea of a group of monks who lived as the extended family of an abbot (their adoptive father) on land that was granted to them by a territorial chieftain made perfect sense in the context of Celtic social tradition. Monastic asceticism was also a heroic ideal that appealed to the aristocratic warrior-caste. Although the history of Celtic monasticism is quite complex, it seems to have developed from two main sources: 1) poorly-documented but certainly authentic early contacts with the East, probably Egypt and Syria; and 2) the communities founded by St Martin of Tours, the great missionary-monk of 4th century Gaul. In the latter part of the 5th century a group of very active communities in South Wales served as the inspiration for most of the important early monastic foundations in Ireland. During the 6th century the Irish monastic movement flourished to an extraordinary extent, becoming in many ways the creative vanguard of Celtic culture. The custom of _peregrinatio pro Deo_ ("exile for the sake of God") led many enthusiastic missionaries to travel far from their native lands and found new monasteries throughout the Celtic world and beyond. Abbots were revered as spiritual masters who established their own norms of conduct and their own styles of worship within their communities. This emphasis on autonomy prevented any single set of standards from establishing itself throughout the Celtic Christian world, which remained astonishingly diverse.

Celtic Christian leaders were, naturally, not at all in favor of encouraging the survival of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, and occasionally denounced them publicly. This, however, had little effect on the general population, which continued those practices that were relevant to the agricultural cycle, sometimes converting deities into saints to make them more acceptable to Christian authorities. More problematic was the relation of the Church to the Druidic/ bardic institution, which had provided Celtic culture with its intellectual and historical resources, especially knowledge of the mythological precedents on which the social and legal traditions of the Celtic world were based (since Christianization had not come with foreign invasion and the imposition of alien social and cultural norms, Celtic society was still dependent on native institutions with clear pre-Christian roots). Stories like that of St Colm Cille of Iona defending bardic privileges at the assembly of Druim Ceat ca. 580 suggest that, after some initial conflict, an accommodation was sought between the Christian and pre-Christian cultural authorities. In Ireland the Druidic institution survived in the guise of _filid_ ("seers" -- ie, poets), _senchaide_ (loremasters) and _brithemon_ ("brehons", judges), who set about transmitting the essential lore of the culture while re-composing and re-organizing it to avoid clashes with Christian belief and practice. The great body of consistent, authoritative lore that served as the justification for all laws and customs was "updated" to make it operative in a Christian world. One of the fruits of this search for a new cultural standard was the _Lebor Gab‡la ƒrenn_ (Book of the Conquests of Ireland), compiled between the 9th and 12th centuries, which harmonized several native mythological traditions with the historical framework of the Bible, while eliminating all explicit mention of the worship of deities or other non-Christian beliefs. (Although our evidence from Celtic Britain is much spottier, the Latin works of Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth make it clear that the re-composition of native historical lore occurred there, too.)

"Writing" about old traditions was made possible by the legacy of Christianity. Since it was a religion founded on a sacred text, it encouraged literacy. At first Latin was the sole medium for writing, and literature in the Celtic vernaculars continued to be passed down orally in the traditional way, but gradually the Latin writing system was adapted to the native languages as well. By the 8th-9th centuries, literacy in the Celtic languages had become commonplace among educated clerics.

Despite the loss of vast territories to the English, some new Celtic communities appeared during this period. Colonists from Britain had begun settling on the Armorican peninsula of Gaul by the 3rd century CE, but in the aftermath of the English invasion they were joined by such huge numbers of refugees that the ethnic composition of the population was significantly altered, so that the region was re-named Brittany, reflecting the British origin of its inhabitants. At the other end of the Celtic world, territorial disputes in northeastern Ireland during the 5th century led to an Irish settlement in northern Britain, establishing the kingdom of Dál Riata in what is now Argyll. By the 9th century this Gaelic kingdom had merged with the native kingdom of the Picts to create a new entity, Scotland.

It was from the Columban monastery of Iona, itself a part of the nascent Scottish Gaelic community, that a highly successful missionary movement was sent in the direction of the English kingdom of Northumbria, implanting Celtic ideas of Christian community in northern England. One of its fruits was Lindisfarne, a mixed Irish-English monastery which seems to have been the starting-point for the brilliant tradition of Celtic manuscript illumination, a new vocabulary of Oriental interlace and developed La Tene geometric patterns which art historians refer to as the "Hiberno-Saxon" style (and the style that most people first think of whenever "Celtic art" is mentioned). This style spread throughout the Celtic world (especially in monasteries of the Columban lineage), eventually producing masterpieces like the Book of Kells, and becoming adapted to other mediums, like stone sculpture.

By the end of the 6th century Celtic missionaries on _peregrinatio_     (mostly from Ireland, but also initially from South Wales) had begun to found monasteries on the Continent, where they helped confirm the population's allegiance to Christianity and provided much-needed assistance to the weakened and often incompetent Roman Church outposts in Gaul and Germany. Yet even as the Roman hierarchy welcomed these new auxiliaries, it was made uneasy by their nonconformist practices. Because of the lack of regular communication between Rome and the Celtic world from ca. 450 to ca. 600, many of the important developments in Roman practice -- the change in the method of calculating the date of Easter, the standardization of the Roman rite (the Celts used the Gallican rite), etc. -- never reached Celtic Christian communities. Once regular links were re-established, most Celtic Christian leaders, unimpressed by what they saw of the Roman clergy and jealous of their autonomy, refused to change their traditional practices in favor of Roman standards. This led to continual clashes between Celtic-trained and Roman-trained churchmen, although Celtic Christians never banded together in a self-organized "Celtic Church" that opposed Roman jurisdiction. Roman authorities won the compliance of individual Celtic communities piecemeal, over a period of several centuries. One major turning-point in the process was the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the English kingdom of Northumbria abandoned the Celtic practices it had received and replaced them with Roman practices. This led many other communities (especially the prestigious monasteries of the Columban lineage) to follow suit.

However, this didn't lead to an immediate decline of the unique creative spirit in Celtic Christian tradition. The greatest masterpieces of Celtic Christian art and Old Irish poetry (with its unusual appreciation of unspoiled nature) were produced long after Whitby. During the 8th and 9th centuries in Ireland a movement called the CŽl’ DŽ (Companions of God, "Culdees") reacted against what they perceived as the "worldliness" of Roman practices by restoring the contemplative asceticism of earlier centuries. What really contributed to the weakening of the Celtic monastic tradition were the Viking raids which, starting at the end of the 8th century, plundered the monasteries and destroyed their libraries. With the eclipse of the monasteries the Roman Church could successfully re-assert the importance of the diocesan model it had been backing all along.

During the 11th and 12th centuries the Roman Church made sweeping changes in its structure and practices (introducing clerical celibacy and a more powerful central role for the Pope) that resulted in an institution more like the Catholic Church of modern times. It took several centuries for all of these changes to take root everywhere in the Celtic world. One of the methods chosen to implement the changes was the creation of new monastic orders (like the Cistercians) committed to the spirit of the new Church. Once these orders established monasteries headed by non-Celtic abbots in Celtic lands, and non-native prelates were placed in key administrative positions everywhere, native Celtic practices lost all support in high places. In 1152 the Synod of Kells officially abolished all native idiosyncracies in the Irish liturgy. The takeover of Celtic religious institutions by mostly Anglo-Norman prelates prepared the ground for the political takeover of most Celtic lands by Anglo-Norman feudal lords.  

Some important sites:















 Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli)

 Caldey Island (Ynys Pyr)  


 Sutton Hoo







 St Gall





 Some basic reading:

 Cunliffe "The Ancient Celts": pp.258-267

 James "The World of the Celts" pp. 162-175

 Rizzoli "The Celts" pp. 618-662

 Other suggested reading:

 Basic history:

 CHARLES-EDWARDS, T.M. _Early Christian Ireland_. 2001.

 CLARKE, Howard (Ed.). _Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age_. 1998.

 DAVIES, Wendy. _Wales in the Early Middle Ages_. 1982.

 LAING, Lloyd & Jenny. _The Picts and the Scots_. 1993.

 NIELKE, Margaret R. (Ed.) & DRISCOLL, S.T. (Ed.). _Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland_. 1998.

 O CORRAIN, Donnchadh. _Ireland Before the Normans_. 2003.

 O CROININ, D‡ibh’. _Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Longman History of Ireland)_. 1995.

 RICHTER, Michael. _Ireland and Her Neighbours in the Seventh Century_. 1999.

 SMITH, Julia      M.H. _Province and Empire: Brittany and the Carolingians_. 1992.  

 Society, economy, world-view:

 AITCHISON, N.B. _Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology, and the Past_. 1994.

 BITEL, Lisa M. _Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland_. 1996.

 CUMMINS, W.A. _The Picts and Their Symbols_. 1999.

 DAVIES, Wendy. _Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany_. 1988.

 KELLY, Fergus. _Early Irish Farming_.

 PATTERSON, Nerys. _Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland_. 1994.  


 KELLY, Fergus. _A Guide to Early Irish Law_. 1988. RICHARDS, M. _The Laws of Hywel Dda_. 1954.

 Celtic Christianity:

 BAMFORD, Christopher. _Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness_. 1982.

 BAMFORD, Christopher. _The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity_. 1990.

 BITEL, Lisa M. _Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland_. 1990.

 BOWEN, E.G. __The Settlement of the Celtic Saints in Wales_. 1950.

 BROOKS, Daphne. _Wild Men and Holy Places: St. Ninian, Whithorn and the Mediaeval Realm of Galloway_. 1994.

 CAREY, John. _A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland_. 1999.

 CHADWICK, Nora. _The Age of the Saints in the Celtic Church_. 1961.

 FERGUSON, John. _Pelagius_. 1956.

 HARDINGE, Leslie. _The Celtic Church in Britain_. 1972.

 HARRINGTON, Christina. _Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150_. 2002.

 HERREN, Michael W. & BROWN, Shirley Ann. _Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland From the Fifth to the Tenth Century_. 2002.

 HUGHES, Kathleen & HAMLIN, Ann. _Celtic Monasticism_. 1977. LOW, Mary. _Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions_. 1996.

 MARNELL, William H. _Light From the West_. 1978.

 McNEILL, John. _The Celtic Churches_. 1974.

 MENZIES, Lucy. _Saint Columba of Iona_. 1920.

 NAGY, Joseph Falaky. _Conversing With Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Mediaeval Ireland_. 1997.

 O'DWYER, Peter. _CŽli DŽ: Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750-900_. 1981.

 O'LOUGHLIN, Thomas. _Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writing_. 2000.

 REES, B.R. _Pelagius: Life and Letters_. 1998 (consisting of _Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic_ [1988] and _The Letters of Pelagius and His Followers_ [1991]).

 REES, Elizabeth. _Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers_. 2000. RYAN, John. _Irish Monasticism_. 1972.

 WARREN, F.E. (Jane Stevenson, ed.). _The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church_. 1987 (originally published in 1881).  


 FOSTER, Sally. _The St. Andrews Sarcophagus: A Pictish Masterpiece and Its International Connections_. 1998.

 HARBISON, Peter. _The Golden Age of Irish Art: The Medieval Achievement 600-1200_.

 HIGGITT, John (Ed.) & SPEARMAN, R.M. (Ed.). _The Age of Migrating Ideas: Early Medieval Art in Northern Britain and Ireland_. 1998.

 MEEHAN, Bernard. _The Book of Durrow: A Medieval Masterpiece at Trinity College, Dublin_. 1996.

 SULLIVAN, Sir Edward. _The Book of Kells_. 1986 [originally published in 1920].

 YOUNGS, Susan (Ed.). _'The Work of Angels': Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th centuries AD_. 1989.  

 Literary culture:

 McCONE, Kim. _Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature_. 1990.

 SMYTH, Marina. _Understanding the Universe in Seventh-Century Ireland_. 1996.  


 Locate and discuss the following political entities:  

 Dál Riata











 U’ Liatháin

 U’ Echan Coba  

 Identify the following and put them in historical context:

 Colm Cille

 Columbanus of Bobbio



 Maelgwn Gwynedd

 Samson of Dol

 Caoimgen of Glenn D‡ Loch


 Paul Aurelian

 Kenneth McAlpine [Cinnaed Mac Albainn]

 Dewi Sant

 Ciarán of Saigir

 Ciarán of Cluain Mic Nois

 Put yourself in the position of: a) a local ruler; b) his wife; c) a landowner with commercial activities; d) a small farmer; e) a bondsman; f) a bondswoman; g) a druid -- in a Celtic region that is just becoming aware of Christianity. In each case, which arguments would incline you to adopt Christianity? Which arguments would work the other way?  

 Choose a page each out of: a) the Book of Lindisfarne; b) the Book of Durrow; c) the Book of Kells. Which aspects of the style seem to continue elements in earlier Celtic art? Which aspects seem to be innovations? Can you suggest where specific innovations came from?  

 Imagine that you are a legal expert in early medieval Ireland and you are called open to give counsel in the following cases: a. the plaintiff is a woman whose husband has been publicizing intimate details of their sexual relationship.

 b. the accused is a man who made a contract of cooperation with a neighbor when drunk, and reneged on the deal when he was sober. c. the accused is a man who has killed a blacksmith and kept it secret, concealing the body.

 In each case. which course of action would you suggest to the chieftain delivering the judgment?  

 Imagine that you are a legal expert in early medieval Wales and you are called open to give counsel in the following cases: a. the plaintiff is a woman who became pregnant after a consensual encounter with a man in which he falsely promised a permanent relationship. b. the accused is a man who killed a cat that guarded the chieftain's barn. c. the accused is a man who publicly insulted the king. In each case. which course of action would you suggest to the chieftain delivering the judgment?      

 You are a wealthy 7th-century Irish farmer with four sons and a daughter. What are some likely ways the inheritance will be dealt with?  

 You are a woman and the only child of a wealthy 9th-century Irish farmer. What will you inherit? Your husband is a Welshman. What will your own children inherit?

 What was the custom of _peregrinatio_? How did it contribute to the spread of Christianity?  

 What were red, green and white martyrdom?  

Give and discuss four examples of Celtic Christian appreciation of wild nature.