Romanitas at Birr?

I was reading Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology (2000) last night. I’m always interested to see what he has to say about Adomnan, because he has been a long time scholar of Adomnan. I have also had a long-time interest in Adomnan. His chapter in Celtic Theology on Adomnan is very good. So the following statement in the chapter on Muirchu brought me up short.

(discussing the origins of Muirchu, first hagiographer of Patrick) “However all these arguments — including those which see the vita [of Patrick] as somehow connected with a reforming programme of romanitas being spearheaded by Adomnan and those at Birr in favour of Roman dating of Easter — are built only on a slim base of solid evidence.” (p 89)

Whoa… what romanitas agenda of Adomnan at Birr? O’Loughlin refers the reader back to his chapter on Adomnan, where a Roman agenda at the Synod of Birr is not discussed at all. If anything, Adomnan was defending Iona’s position in not accepting Rome yet.

Adomnan’s two intact surviving works, the Life of Columba and On the Holy Places (De Locis Sanctus), are notable for the absence of any reference to Rome. The Life of Columba would have been the perfect place to address Columba’s practices and Iona’s stance, but he chose not to do so. Probably a good thing that he didn’t because if he had addressed such a political hot potato, it may have put survival of the Life in jeopardy with one faction or another.

Adomnan certainly had an agenda at Birr, that of passing his Law of the Innocents, and protecting Iona’s interests. What text we have on this law makes no mention of Roman or any Roman agenda at Birr. So what does Bede actually say (HE V.15)…

“The priest Adomnan, abbot of the monks on the island of Iona, was sent by his people on a mission to Aldfrith, king of the Angles, and stayed for some time in his kingdom to see the canonical rites of the church. …He altered his opinion so greatly that he readily preferred the customs which he saw and heard in the English churches to those of himself and his followers… On his return home he sought to bring his own people in Iona and those who were in houses subject to his monastery, into the way of the truth…but he was unable to do so. So he sailed to Ireland and preached to the people there, modestly explaining to them the true date of Easter. He corrected their traditional error and restored nearly all who where not under the dominion of Iona to catholic unity…After he celebrated Easter in Ireland canonically, he returned to this own island and earnestly put before his own monastery the catholic observance of the date of Easter, but he was unable to achieve his end; and it happened that before the year was over he had departed from the world. Thus by the interposition of divine grace, it came about that a man who greatly loved unity and peace was called to life eternal so that he was not compelled, when Eastertime returned, to have a graver controversy with those who would not follow him in the truth.” (McClure and Collins, ed, Colgrave trans. p. 262-263)

Ok, so first of all we know the date of Adomnan’s death — 23 September 704. He had spent the previous Easter in Ireland, so that is spring 704 and he would have been in Northumbria in about 702-703. This is six years after the Synod of Birr in 697. Further we know that Adomnan made three trips to Northumbria during the reign of his friend and former pupil Aldfrith (r. 685-704); the previous two trips were in the late 680s. During one of those trips, he gives Aldfrith a copy of De Locis Sanctus, and he has it copied and distributed in Northumbria.

As O’Loughlin notes, Bede discusses Adomnan’s work De Locis Sanctus, and that Bede’s account of how Arculf, Adomnan’s informant, arrives at Iona is odd to say the least. According to Bede, the only way that Arculf arrived in Iona was to be blown off course in route home to Gaul. As O’Loughlin notes, that is one heck of storm that would blow Arculf off course so badly that Iona was their first safe port! Perhaps Bede doesn’t want to admit that Arculf intentionally went to visit Iona, even though they were outside of Roman. Given that Arculf is reputed to have visited as far as Jerusalem and Constantinople, it looks like he is visiting the ‘ends of the earth’ — south to Jerusalem, east to Constantinople, north to Iona and the west was his home. We really should suspect that Arculf would have also visited Rome. Its just too odd that a Gaulish bishop would visit Jerusalem and Constantinople, but not go to Rome, even if only en route home from Constantinople. In fact, Adomnan says nothing about Arculf’s travels after Constantinople, in other words, his route toward home or Iona. I think it is significant that De Locis Sanctus does not mention Rome.

As O’Loughlin discusses, Adomnan’s work is not a mere travelogue. He discusses many scriptural geography issues that Augustine of Hippo specifically pointed out needed to be addressed. His work begins with an extremely detailed description of Jerusalem and Palestine, then moves to Alexandria, Egypt, and on to Constantinople. He ends with a description of the island of Volcano near Sicily, which following Gregory the Great he identifies as the gateway to hell. Adomnan discusses a world map important to scriptural study and pointedly omits any reference to Rome and highlights the East.

The Cain Adomnan enacted at Birr in 697, preserved in a text written long after Ireland and Iona accepted Rome, has only one reference to Rome — among a list of saints called upon are the apostles, evangelists and Stephen, Ambrose, Gregory of Rome, Martin, ‘old Paul’, and interestingly George. The treatise as we have it now references Gregory the Great (para. 32) but makes no other reference to Rome. Interesting that Gregory the Great and George both figure in to Adomnan De Locis Scantus and Cain Adomnan; George being specifically discussed while using Gregory’s identification of Volcano as being the gateway to hell in De Locis Sanctus.

We have to recall that Adomnan’s supposed conversion to Rome while in Northumbria only a year before his death was used as evidence in Northumbria’s efforts to convert the Picts (Eastern Scotland) to Rome (HE V.21). It is a measure of the weight of Adomnan’s opinion that his reputed conversion was so important in Pictland. I find it very odd that Adomnan would be converting other churches to Rome, while his own monastery of Iona, over which he was abbot, refused to accept Rome. It is possible that Adomnan finally accepted that coming to Rome was inevitable and necessary for Iona’s future, but the monks may have seen this as weakness in their old and probably ill abbot. They could have easily chalked up his conversion to fatigue after his rigorous trips in his last two years. It is a remarkable testament to Adomnan’s will power that he began these journeys over the mountains and the sea at about age 75, finally making it home to Iona to die at age 77. However, as yet, I see no evidence that Adomnan had a Roman agenda at the Synod of Birr in 697.

I understand there will be a new book (or two) out on Adomnan in the next year, so I’ll be looking forward to new developments on Adomnan’s Roman conversion.


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