Medieval Irish History: Early-Christian Period (5th-9th Centuries)


Figure 1.--The Book of Kells wascreated about 800AD. It is one the most beautiful and ornate manuscripts ever created and a jewel of medieval Irish Christianity. This is a portrait of St. Matthew. His hair ornate clothing is probably a good representation as to how the Irish nobility dressed in the era just before the arrival of the Vikings.

Ireland was Christianized by St. Parrick and other Christian missionaries. Scholars disagree about St. Patrick, but Christian missionaries did convert the country (5th century). Ireland like pre-Roman Britain was not literate. As result it is only with Christianity that Ireland became a literate country, at least a small part of the Irish population, mostly churchmen. It does mean that Ireland begind to have a written historical record. This was at first Latin, but gradually written Irish (Gaelic) also appears. The Irish seem to have been especially interested in the intelectual pursuits that literacy brought. The Irish produced some of th the earliest, and perhaps the richest, vernacular literature in early-medieval Europe. Ireland proved to be one of the few corners of Europe not overwealmed by the Germanic tribes which overwealmed Western Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Gradually Ireland became an important Christian center. Located on the perifery of Europe, it never felt the force of the barbarian invasions and the resulting Germanic political and cultural influence. While Christianity was asaulted by the Germanic barbarians, the Celtic kings and nobles in Ireland promoted a vibrant Christian culture. Irish monks, pilgrims, explorers. illuninists, and scholars became renowned throughout Western Christendom. Irish monks helped preserve great literary treasures. Thus during the height of the Dark Ages, Irish monastaries were centers of learning and respositories of knowledge. One of the jewels of medieval Irish Christianity was the famed Book of Kells, one of the most remarkable manuscripts of early-medieval Europe. Irish missionaries played an important role in converting the pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes that had invaded and conquered most of England.

Political Structure

The political stucture of ancient Ireland is poorly understood, complicated by the fact tghat there are no written records. Some sources report a pentarchy, meaning an island dominated by five principal political entities, kingdoms are probably more accurately chiefdoms. They included the cóiceda or "fifths" of the Ulaid (Ulster), the Connachta (Connacht), the Laigin (Leinster), Mumu (Munster) and Mide (Meath), although there is considerable disagreement about this. This pentarchy had disappeared, perhaps as a result of the economic decline associated with the Irush dark ages. New dynasties arose, including the Uí Néill in the north and midlands and the Eóganachta in the south-west. The Uí Néill descended from the former Connachta, reduced the former fifth of the Ulaid to whatis now counties Down and Antrim (4th-5th century). They created the tributary kingdom of the Airgíalla in central northern Ireland and the Uí Néill kingdom of Ailech in the western area of the north. . The Irish annals describe ongoing battles between the Uí Néill in the north and the Laigin in the midlands. The Uí Néill eventually prevailed as far south as the Kildare/Offaly border and claimed the kingship of Tara. Thiswas the beginning of what would becomne known as the High Kingship of Ireland. A new division developed. In the north was Leth Cuinn, "Conn's half" after Conn Cétchathach, reputed descebdent of the Uí Néill and Connachta. In the south was Leth Moga, "Mug's half", after Mug Nuadat, who claimed descent from Eoganachta. There were claimshat thisas aivision beginning before Christianization (2nd century). Many historians believe tht it was a much more recent devlopment, perhaps emerging with the growth of Uí Néill power (8th century). [Ó Cróinín]

Patricius

Patricius came from a well-to-do if not rich family. We might call the family middle-class. His father Calpurnius was a curialis (tax collector), making him a member of the lesser nobility. Collecting taxes is not quite as advantageous as it may sound. A curialis who did not collect his expected taxes for the emperor would have make up the difference from his own pocket. Parricius' grandfather Poitus was a Catholic priest. Patricius while nominally a Cristian, had little interest in religion. And he sold his nobel rank. He was preparing for a clasical education with all the certainties of a well-ordered Roman Empire. The Romans had ruked Britain for over tree cebtures. Ad few Romn Britons at the dawning of the 5th century expected that to change despite increasing seaborn raids by the wild Irish tribes to the west. A fleet of black coracles moved into the eastern coast of Britain, we think the Severn estuary. We believe that the year was about 401 AD. One eyewitness says they the raiding Irish captured 'many thousand' young Britons, boys and girls. We are not sure about the ages, but they included both boys and girls and because of Patrrick teenagers. We do not know if they took chilfren. Patrick later reports that the girls had it hardest of course because they faced rape. To capture many thousands if correct would presumably take some time. This of course was at the time that Rome was withdrawing legionaires from Britain to attempt to stem the Barbarian invasions closer to home. It suggests that the Britions themselves had no organized self defense system of their own. The Romans probably did not want this because it might develop into a challnge to their authority. And there was no political structure other than the Imperial system. The 16-year old Patricius captured and enslaved by Irish raiders. He was a till only partially eduvated, unmotivated teenger. Slaves were a major target of the Irish raiders. If they could not find valuables, they could always find people to enslave. They took him back to Ireland as a slave along with other captives and their other booty. Miliucc was a Ri (Rex), but actually more of a chieftan than what we would think today s a king. He seems to have ruled a hill and surrounding territory in Antrim. We know nothing about him, like countless others of these Irish Ris who perhaps headed a few dozen families and made their living principally by cattle rustling. His kingdom was an inland area. He or a kinsman thus purchased Patricius in a slave market, rather than actually participating in raids himself. He is only know to history becaue he kept Patricius as a slave sheperd boy. Miliucc must not have paid much as according to Patricius he was given little in the way of food or clothing, suggesting that British slaves were easy to come by and thus not worth much in the way of care. Such boy slaves could apparently be easily and inepensively replaced which tells us a great deal about conditions in Roman Britain at th time. Patricius describes his life as an Irish slave shepard boy, he was, '... chastened exceedingly and humbeled in truth by hunger and nakedness and that daily". [Patrick] Surely Patrick must have been given some food and clothing, otherwise he could not have survived. But it clearly was not much. Patricius seems to have survived principally because he had a hardy constitution.

Christianization

Ireland was Christianized by the Roman slave boy PAtricius who we of course we now know as St. Parrick and other Christian missionaries. After about 6 years of hinger and cold, Patricius experienced visions instructing him to escape. He managed to escape to northern Gaul (France). There he was ordained a priest and eventually rise to the rank of bishop. He could, however, not forget Ireland and its still pagan people. Bishop Patrick returned to Ireland (432 AD). He was not a learned scholar. Having missed his education as a teenager, he never fully mastered a classical curriculum. Patrick's success in Ireland is fascinating. He surely must be greatest of all the early Christianed missionaries. Unlike Christianity and Islam. There were no conversions by the sword. Nor were there obvious advantages. Christianit grew in part within the Empire because tre were advantages. Both slaves and women saw that Christianity whatever its theological appeal offered the prospects of raising their status in society. He is said to have used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. Scholars disagree about St. Patrick, some claiming the story is more legend than fact. Two surviving documents, the "Confessio" and Patrick's "Letter to Coroticus" prove that at least part of the Patrick legend is historical fact. Patrick and other Christian missionaries suceeded in converting the country (5th century). Ireland like pre-Roman Britain was not literate. As result it is only with Christianity that Ireland became a literate country, at least a small part of the Irish population, mostly churchmen. It does mean that Ireland begind to have a written historical record. This was at first Latin, but gradually written Irish (Gaelic) also appears.

Literaure

The Irish seem to have been especially interested in the intelectual pursuits that literacy brought. The Irish produced some of th the earliest, and perhaps the richest, vernacular literature in early-medieval Europe.

International Situation

Ireland proved to be one of the few corners of Europe not overwealmed by the Germanic tribes which overwealmed Western Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Gradually Ireland became an important Christian center. Located on the perifery of Europe, it never felt the force of the barbarian invasions and the resulting Germanic political and cultural influence. We know that the Germanic tribes had the ability to cross water. They used it to invade Britaon as well as tgo cross to North Africa. Why they declined to invade Ireland is not known.

Irish Church

The extraordinary flowering of Irish culture is the most notable aspect of early-medieval Ireland. Ireland's conversion to Christianity was unique. The power of the Celtic tribes had been broken by Rome four centuries before the Germanic invasions. Only in Ireland did the Celts survive as more than a small pocket. Elsewhere in the West, the Church and culture became dominated by the Roman Church. In Ireland the Celtic Church developed and helped preserve the Celtic flavor of Irish culture. While Christianity was asaulted by the Germanic barbarians, the Celtic kings and nobles in Ireland promoted a vibrant Christian culture. Rome's notable scholarship disapeared as the Germanic barbarians seized control of the Western Empire. Christianity withdraw into scattered sanctuaries. The early medieval church in Ireland different. It was protected by Irish kings and nobels. Ireland remained untouched by Germnic invaders. The Irish church was dominated the country and a brilliant ray penetrating the European Dark ages. Today we can still see the beautiful high stone crosses produced as pagan Ireland melded into medieval Christian Ireland. The Irish, including monks, pilgrims, explorers. illuninists, and scholars, while ignored by Germanic invaders became renowned throughout Western Christendom. Most notably, Irish monks helped preserve Roman scholarship that was lost in the wake of Germanic invasion and pilage. Irish monastaries were centers of learning and respositories of knowledge. One of the jewels of medieval Irish Christianity was the famed Book of Kells, one of the most remarkable manuscripts of early-medieval Europe. It is preserved today in the lluminated bible that can be seen today in the library at Trinity College in Dublin. The Book of Kels was created in Ireland and northern Britin (about 800). The monks who were the scribes abd artists used beautiful and intricate imagery to illustrate the text of the four Giospls. There are full page illustrations of Chrust, the Virgin Mother ahnd child, and the Desciples. Smaller decorative illustrations are used throughout the text. The Book received its mane from the Monestary at Kells where it was cared for throughout most of the medieval period, but nor where it was created.

Importantce

Although Ireland was to become a European backwater, in the early Medieval era, Ireland was a center of learning and Christianity in a Europe dominated by Barbarians. A historian writes< "Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment--in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claomed, a Stone Age culkture--had one momement of unblemished gloy. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were jut learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature--everything they could lay thir hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the ruble and ruined vineyards of the civilization that they had over-whelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everyrhing that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Minks, who single-handedly refounded European civilizationthroughout the continent in the bays and valley of their exile, the world that came after them would have been n entirely different one--a world without books. An our own world would never have come to be." [Cahill, pp. 1-2.]

Destinctiveness of the Irish Church

Patrick and colleagus cristianized Irelans at the very time the Roman Empire was under increasing strain from Barbarian invasions and in only a few decades largely destroyed. This meant that for an exrended period, the Irish Church was not only Western Church with political support, but isolated grom Rome. In a world of Barbarian invasions and the final collapse of the Empire, there was no way communicating beween Rome and Ireland. While Patrick was abishop who was wildly sucessful in his mission, he was not the most learned of Christian scholars. He probably, for example, was not familar with Augustine, the central figire in medieval Christian theology. Thus Celtic culture palyed a greater role in the Celtic Church than any other regional chirch in the Roman world. And thus for about two centuries the Celtic Church developed in its own for some three centuries (mid-4th to mid-7th century). Brigid founds Kildare (c500).

Re-Chritianizing England

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded Roman Britain were pagans who attacked and relentlessy drove the Romanized Britons west. They had little interest in Christianity and the Romanized Britins had no interest in saving the souls of their persecutors. The Irish Church took on this task and this was well before the first Roman missionaries arrived in southern Britain. Irish missionaries played an important role in converting the pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes that had invaded and conquered most of England. Columcille leaves Ireland for Iona (557). Columbanus sets out for Gaul (590). Death of Columcille (597). Eventually the Celtic church had to compete with the Roman Church only after the first Roman missionaries finally appeared in the south. Augustine, the papal librarian, baptizes the English king of Kent at Caterbury. Columbanus dies at Bobbio (615). Aidan founds Lindisfarne (635).

Synod of Whitby (664)

The Synod of Whitby (664) was a central event in the history of British Christianity. Whitby was a Celtic monastary--Saint Hilda's double monastery of Streonshalh (Streanoeshalch) which came to be alled Whitby Abbey. And the Celtic Church beginning at Iona had made gret progress in coverting northern Britain. King Oswiu of Northumbria precided over the Synod. It should be not be thought that the King was aware of or intgerested in the very real differences in Roman and Celtic Church practives. The Synod is generally reported as deciding on very superficil practices, the monastic tonsure and how to calculate the date to celebratee Easter. These were things that King Oswiu could see and observe. Perhaps even more important, the Roman priests produced more impressive relics. This apprently impressed the King to rule in favor of the Roman Church, even though it was the Celtic Church that had converted a substantial part of his kingdom. King Oswiu ruling established Roman Catholic practice as the religious standard for the Kingdom of Northumbria, the first step in brining the Celtic church into the mainstream of Roman Catholic culture. The Synod also transferred the episcopal seat of Northumbria from Lindisfarne, a Celtic Monastary, to York. Northumbria ws only one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but it was by far the most important and influential. Bishop Wilfrid (c634 - 709), presented the Roman case. He subsequently became Bishop of Northumbria. Colmán who argued the Celtic case returned to Iona where the monks did not at first change their practices. Colmán was allowed to take some treasured relics of Aidan, who had been key in coverting the Northumbrians back with him Io Iona. To replace the departing Celtic ecclesiastics, Oswiu chose mostly Irish clerics who had adopted Roman traditions.

Sources

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Historic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Doubleday: New York, 1995), 246p.

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. "Ireland, 400-800", in Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History of Ireland Vol 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 182-234.

Patrick. Conession.







CIH







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Created: 1:26 AM 10/7/2012
Last updated: 9:57 PM 5/10/2014