Columba’s Excommunication

In my previous post on the feast of St. Brendan, I mentioned that Adomnan’s use of Brendan of Birr is odd. Then in the last few weeks I’ve read the newest paper by James Fraser on Drum Cett (Early Medieval Europe, summer 2007) that is largely about how events portrayed as being from Columba’s life refer to Iona’s present issues in c. 700. Interactions between monastic families in Adomnan’s day are represented by discussions between their founders in the Life of Columba. Columba meets so many monastic founders, because these scenes represent interactions between Iona and the founder’s monastery in c. 700.

This has made me wonder about the coincidence of Adomnan getting ratification of his ‘Law of the Innocents’ at the Synod of Birr in 697 and Brendan of Birr giving counsel not to confirm Columba’s excommunication (Life of Columba III: 3).

The gist of this passage is as follows: Columba is coming to a synod “convoked against him”. Brendan of Birr sees Columba coming and rises to warmly greet him. The others rebuke Brendan for welcoming an excommunicate.

“If you” replied Brendan, ‘had seen what the Lord deigned to disclose to me today, concerning this chosen one whom you refuse to honour, you would never have excommunicated him. For in no sense does God excommunicate him in accordance with your wrong judgement, but rather glorifies him more and more.” (Sharpe trans, p. 207)

They challenge why he believes this, he explains a heavenly vision, and “the elders dropped their charge, for they dared not continue with their excommunication.”

This is the only time Adomnan mentions Columba’s reputed excommunication. It is mentioned in no previous sources. Such an important event should have been recorded somewhere, the annals or elsewhere in Iona’s literature, or Bede’s history, or some other saints’ life. Bede and Iona’s opponents in Northumbria surely would have seized on an excommunication of Columba as further fodder for their case against Iona in the long and drawn out dispute over Iona’s recognition of Rome’s primacy (and the Easter question) that was settled for England at Whitby. That Columba’s reputed excommunication comes up no where among the writings of Iona or her opponents is very strange indeed.

Could it be that the excommunication in question was really of the family of Iona in c.697? Adomnan’s triumph occurred on the 100th anniversary of Columba’s death; this is not likely to be a coincidence. Did Adomnan, along with allies at Birr, call the great counsel to respond to Iona’s critics? Could the ‘Law of the Innocents’ be a statement of where Iona’s heart was, to prove to the rest of Ireland that they were not heretics? Given Columba’s reputation as a patron saint of war, the Law of the Innocents’ protection of women, children and clerics from war could be seen as an extension of Columba’s martial protective sphere. St. Columba mediates victory for his friends and protects the innocent. Perhaps Adomnan’s triumph at Birr forestalled Iona’s excommuncation from the other churches of Ireland.

[Note that the text of Cain Adomnan (Law/Cannon of Adomnan) as we have it today is not the original of the law. The surviving law treatise calls on Adomnan, now considered a saint in his own right, to enforce the law. Given that Cain Adomnan was proclaimed on the 100th anniversary of Columba’s death makes it very likely that the origianl law by the Abbot of Iona, considered co-abbot with St. Columba, referred to Columba.]

How can Adomnan address Iona’s current peril in the Life of Columba? He does it by the same way he has addressed other current issues, by working a meeting of Columba with the symbolic representation of Birr (Brendan of Birr) into the Life. If we see this episode as representing anything in the Adomnan’s present, then the impending confirmation of Columba’s excommunication must refer to Iona’s perilous position realitve to the other churches that had already accepted Rome’s authority. Brendan of Birr saves Columba, just as the synod of Birr may have temporarily spared Iona. Later in the Life, Columba returns the favor and sees of vision of Brendan of Birr entering heaven. You honor my saint, I’ll honor yours…

The multiple late stories of Columba’s excommunication then are all likely fictional to give a back story to Adomnan’s remarkable oversight on the cause of Columba’s reputed excommunication and exile. Given that Columba’s most important relic in the later middle ages is a psalter in a book shrine that was carried before the armies of Scotland for centuries, it is not surprising that at least one story of the excommunication involved Columba’s copying of this psalter, and a more elaborate version includes a battle over the book. It wasn’t Columba’s excommunication that made the book special, it was the book that created the copyright story to explain the reputed excommunication. Columba’s unusual association as a patron saint of war has given rise to elaborate modern scenerios for his excommunication as well. I find it more likely that Adomnan is once again working out his current problems in the text of the Life of Columba, and that Columba had never been really excommunicated.


One thought on “Columba’s Excommunication

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑