Phoning in on St Columba

I’ll admit this post is primarily to test out the wordpress ap on the new iPhone. So far it’s slow (my fault not being used to these ‘keys’) and hard to edit.

The real bit of medieval news I heard today is that a Jeremy Irons has signed on to play Columba in a major movie on Columba’s mission to Scotland. Where is the excitement in a movie on a missionary? Well, it seems likely that Columba will battle Nessie and a few Druids as well. After all there can’t be a movie on the early medieval period without a dragon trying to kill the hero. If bad Beowulf and awful Arthurian movies are good for medieval studies then anything on Columba has to be a plus for those of us who want to promote medieval history. This will be a real novelty. A movie on a real medieval person!

The 300 (or 303)

When you think of ‘the 300′ you probably think of the recent movie on the famous Spartan-Persian battle of antiquity. Considered by historians all around as a pivotal battle in antiquity, the number 300 either spawned a legend that spread all the way to the British Isles or was such a common symbolic number that the Greek numbers are pure legend as well. If you look at the old Welsh legends and literature nearly every famed retinue, accounting of war dead, or size of an army is listed as 300 (or 303). When you look at it in a source like the Welsh Triads it is obvious that it’s a legendary motif (or meme?). If I recall correctly, the famed collection of elegies, Y Gododdin, refers to either an army of 300 or 300 dead (or both).

This all came to mind this afternoon as I continue to read Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009) where he writes on the battle of Miathi that

“Here it is said that 303 men were slain in Aidan’s service, which must represent a substantial proportion of his fighting strength. The point of the hagiographical story about this battle was probably to emphasize c. 640 the (former) efficacy of Columba’s patronage and protection of the family of Domnall Brecc, Aidan’s grandson. None the less, that a precise number of casualties was remembered suggests that the battle was famous and widely known to be very bloody. Columba’s hagiographer probably chose it from a list of Aedan’s several battles because a narrow victory illustrated his point best.” (p. 137)

Setting aside the importance of the battle of Miathi and Adomnan’s choice of it for the moment, we can have no confidence in the 303 tally. Whether Adomnan got the account of this battle from the Cummine Find’s collection of Columba’s miracles or directly from oral legends of Aedan, the earliest is could have been written was 30 years later and perhaps nearly a hundred years. What the 303 deaths tell me is that the hagiographical writer, Adomnan or Cummine, got it from oral history. Yes, it must have had the reputation as an important and/or bloody battle. However, probably what made the battle important is that two of Aidan’s sons fell in the victory, and it was a costly victory. Reports of an army of 300 or 300 (303) casualties are worthless. The number 303 does come up elsewhere so this exact number does not give any more confidence than 300. The importance of these numbers goes back to ancient symbolic use of the number 3. I don’t study the meaning given to numbers enough to be able to explain why multiples of 3 are found so often in folklore and mythology but they are.

Getting back to the battle of the Maithi in Fraser’s quote above: When Adomnan was writing in c. 700, the Scots had long lost control of Manu/Miathi territory to the Picts and Bernicians, so it was a reminder of territory now lost. Domnall Brecc, whose behavior is credited with loosing  St Columba’s protection, fell near Miathi territory and his death may have been the final Dalriadan effort to control the area. Adomnan may also be saying that St Columba provided Aedan with a victory over the Maithi but Domnall Brecc lost Columba’s protection and his life in territory possibly controlled by the Miathi. I suspect it was the region of Manu/Miathi territory that made this battle Adomnan’s choice rather than because it was a narrow victory. In the Life of Columba, Adomnan narrates Columba’s prediction that Domnall Brecc’s father  Eochiad will succeed King Aedan, and that Eochiad’s  two elders brothers will die before Aedan in the battle against the Maithi. In a later chapter he shows Columba prophecizing that Aedan is about to loose the battle against the Maithi unless they all pray for him, which they do and a costly victory is won.

So Adomnan’s scheme is:

  • Columba’s prayerful intervention gives Aedan victory over the Maithi perhaps consolidating some of his furthest won territory (that gives them a border with both the Picts and Bernicians),
  • Columba prophecizes that two of Aedan’s sons will die before him and they do in this battle
  • prophecizes that Eochaid will succeed, making Domnall’s eventual succession possible.
  • says that Columba’s protection of Aedan (and Eochaid’s) line will last as long as they do not cross Columba’s family in Ireland

We know from Cummine’s information inserted into the Life of Columba that Aedan’s grandson Domnall did make an alliance and fight againt Columba’s kin in Ireland and that since that time Dalriada had been dominated by outsiders. We know from the annals that Domnall died in battle at Strathcarron, which is very near Miathi territory.  Indeed, Fraser places Strathcarron within an enlarged Maithi region. It is possibly within the area that his grandfather Aedan had won control over after his battle against the Miathi. Adomnan ties up Domnall Brecc’s betrayal to the familia of St Columba (monastic and blood family) and its consequences in a nice little package that would have been obvious to anyone who read it at the time. The insertion of Cummine Find’s text into a later copy of the Life of Columba (preserving an otherwise lost text for us) is proof that Adomnan’s contemporaries understood exactly what he was saying and added these notes proof from Cummine’s text.

Pseudo-History and Historicization

After a long wait, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (New Edinburgh History of Scotland) by James Fraser has been published and arrived in my mailbox this week!  Its out in the UK, and should be soon available in the US. I’ve known about this book for several years so I’m rather eager to see what is here. Expect lots of Scottish blogging in the coming, oh say, months.  I wondered how long it would take before I couldn’t resist blogging and I didn’t get through the introduction. Sigh… it could take me a while to blog through a 434 page book!

So I think James makes a very good point in his discussion of sources when he notes that Bede and Adomnan of Iona (the two biggest sources for Scotland up to 795) as premier biblical scholars knew the value of parables in history. They had the gospel as their guide. In the gospel Jesus uses parables to convey truths.  A parable is a fictional story used to make a point, or a moral, to convey a truth. The fact that the story is fictional does not negate the truth or moral of the story. When previous historians referred to this era as full of fables (in a broad sense), they were partially correct. Much of what is written, particularly in Adomnan’s Life of Columba is parable/fable, but they were wrong to dismiss these sources as useless. An example from Fraser’s book:

“In Vita Columbae, Adomnan told a fable or parable of his own, adopting Jesus’ method of marrying surface fiction to deeper truth….He wrote that a man chased a girl down in Leinster. Fleeing from him, she came upon Columba and his teacher — real historical figures in a real place. The girl hid beneath their robes, but the man was not daunted and killed her with his spear. Adomnan had recently forumalated a law protecting non-combatants* from the scourge of war. Columba’s teacher in this parable, ‘in great distress of mind’ over the killing, represents the distress and sense of powerlessness of the whole Church prior to the introduction of Adomnan’s Law. But Columba, who correctly pronounces that the killer will be struck down immediately by God, speaks with a different voice: that of a Church newly armed with the Law. (p. 4)”

Fraser notes that this kind of story is called pseudo-history by academics. Pseudo-history of course means fake history, a disparaging term. Historians who don’t want to take the time to interpret and untangle historical parables dismiss these accounts as useless. It takes much more effort to understand these stories. At least we should understand that Bede and Adomnan didn’t view history as we do. Of course, neither did William of Malmesbury, Symeon of Durham or any other medieval historian. At least with Adomnan and Bede it should be obvious (though apparently not for earlier generations), where later medieval historians can fool even scholars into thinking that they view history the way we do. For medieval writers history, hagiography and biblical parables are viewed as being similar things. Its important to note though that Bede and Adomnna interpreted history the same way they interpreted the bible. They knew to look beyond the surface. They understood what they were reading, even if we don’t.

Getting back to Fraser… he notes that the Life of Columba is full of parables that tell spiritual or political truths, and the political truths refer to Adomnan’s day, not Columba’s. Indeed, I would add that the Life of Columba is more a collection of parables featuring Columba than a traditional hagiography. The Life of Columba has virtually no continuous narrative so we are left wondering about some very basic facts of Columba’s life.

“An important sub-category of pseudo-history in our sources sacrifices strict historical accuracy (as we might call it today) in the interests of more profound truths that were specifically historical, as monastic scholars understood the nature of history. Men like Bede and Adomnan were taught the great historical books of the Old Testament were, as St Augustine put it, ‘more concerned, or at least not less so, to foretell things to come than to relate things past’. …As top scholars, Bede and Adomnan thus expected history primarily to shed light on the predestined present or future. It is no surprise that they sometimes ‘discovered’ that it did so (and occasionally even helepd it to do so), reanalyzing historical scenarios in order to identify the hand of God at work.” (Fraser, p. 5)

If you think well, perhaps for Adomnan but not Bede, then recall how Bede rewrote the Life of Cuthbert. All hagiographers write history in this way, picking and choosing which tales to include by the moral or ultimate truth they wish to convey. We know from studying the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert and Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, that Bede was not above altering scenes to suit his purposes. He does the same in the Historia, and what else are those little moral stories Bede includes about common people or some nearly nameless monk but parables. Some may be historical and some may not be, almost all that aren’t complete fiction will have been reshaped by Bede to suit his purpose. As Fraser notes this kind of rewriting or reimagining of history is called historicization by academics. Fraser gives another example of historiczing that I think also illustrates the perils of interpreting these accounts:

“To see it in action, we may turn once more to Vita Columbae, this time to Adomnan’s story about a Pictish noble named Tarain, whom Columba assists after he is sent into exile. Did Columba really know a Pict with this name and these troubles? Maybe he did. On the other hand, Adomnna certainly did. Just as he was putting the finishing touches on his Law, a Pictish king called Tarain was cast out of his kingdom. He went into exile in Ireland, passing into obscurity. In Adomnan’s story, Tarain the Pict too finds sanctuary among Gaels. Historicizing of recent events by Adomnan may, therefore, be suspected here; in that event, the events described almost certainly never happened.

Does the story’s fabulousness render it useless? Not at all. Once we have caught him in the act, it becomes possible to learn more from Adomnan about the exile of King Tarain than any conventional source explicitly records. For example, Adomnan calls his character a mere nobilis or noble, not a rex or king — hinting that he accepted the validity of King Tarain’s deposition. Moreover, that Columba helps Tarain the Pict to find sanctuary hints that Adomnan, abbot of Columba’s monastery, was involved in helping King Tarain. Adomnan’s story ends with treachery: Tarain’s host murders him ‘my a cruel order’, and Columba pronounces that divine punishment will see his treacherous killed descend ‘to the infernal regions’. The underlying message will have been as clear to Adomnan’s contemporaries (assuming they were wise to his historicizing) as it is to you: whoever tries to have Tarain killed in exile ‘by a cruel order’ will earn a one way trip ‘to the infernal regions’.” (Fraser, p. 5-6)

I think it is without much doubt that historicizing went on in both Adomnan and Bede. However, as this story and indeed bibical parables illustrate, interpreting them is not so clear cut.  I might think that Fraser is drawing a bit too much out of this story, maybe you are ok with it. These parables are a double edged sword for the historian. I think its rather unlikely that the people who matter, Tarain’s secular hosts, will ever read or hear of Adomnan’s story. Perhaps this is Adomnan’s way of getting the message out to other monastics that the killer of Tarain is destined for hell. This would mean that either Tarain is already dead or Adomnan expects his death because of the number or power of his enemies. I’m sure Adomnan’s ability to prophecy or interpret contemporary politics within the Life of Columba is part of his superb legacy.


* Adomnan’s law is best known for its protection of women, more so than protection of non-combatants. Yes it protects the church and children, but the Law of the Innocents was famed even in medieval times for giving speical protection to women, especially from men in domestic situtations. So this parable could reflect the churches distress at domestic abuse or dangerous courtship (if you can call it courtship when her choice to to give in or die). See these are the various interpretations of parable, this story sounds more like a guy who can’t take no for an answer than an act of war to me.