St. Adomnan the Lawyer

Did you ever notice that you can tell that Adomnan of Iona was a lawyer in all of his surviving works? Of course, to medieval historians Adomnan is best known as the promoter or author of the ‘Law of the Innocents’, which protected women, children and clerics from the violence of war and domestic abuse of women. This work gained Adomnan the praise of the 9th century Oengus the Culdee who wrote in his Martyrology for September 23:

“To Adomnan of Iona, whose troop is radiant, noble Jesus has granted the lasting liberation of the women of the Gaels.”

As ground breaking as this law was, what really wows the historians is the list of guarantors of the law, probably the most impressive group of kings, bishops and abbots of any similar medieval list. This is proof that Adomnan was a good politician too.

During Adomnan’s tenure as abbot of Iona he seems to have found a need for more local laws as well. The Canons of Adomnan — distinct from Cain Adomnan — have nothing to do with international politics, like the ‘Law of the Innocents’ or his work to liberate hostages from Northumbria. These canons are about simple things like food laws, what is good to eat even if scripture says all is ‘clean’. O’Loughlin quotes canon 1 in his Celtic Theology (p. 75):

“Sea animals found dead on the shore and where we do not know how they died, can be eaten in good faith; but may not be eaten if they are putrid.”

Sea animals here probably refers to mammals like dolphins, whales or seals. Jesus’ lesson that all foods are now clean, in contradiction to the Jewish food laws, played havoc with local food health norms.

In reality, we can see Adomnan the lawyer at work in all of his surviving works. Thomas O’Loughlin (Celtic Theology, 2000 and elsewhere) has written about the importance of Arculf, the eyewitness of the holy land, in Adomnan’s De Locis Sanctus (On the Holy Places). Even though more of this work is Adomnan’s own research than he admits, he feels the need to claim reliance on an eyewitness. Close inspection of the works shows that Arculf’s material is mainly descriptive of contemporary churches and shrines. Background material and conclusions come from Iona’s library.

Adomnan’s background is also apparent in his Life of Columba, where he provides a number of witnesses. In cases like Oswald’s vision of Columba, he provides a chain of witnesses back to Oswald himself. Adomnan builds his case for Columba’s sanctity carefully and methodically in the face of fierce criticism of Iona, as it became isolated from the growing insular church of Rome. Indeed, I wonder if Adomnan’s unique format of three books — prophetic revelations (I), miracles of power (II), and visions of angels (III) — also reveal is legal training. Rather than writing a narrative of Columba’s life, he has presented three different types of evidence, arranged as a lawyer might lay out his case.

In short, the corpus of Adomnan’s work — ‘Law of the Innocents’/Cain Adomnan, Canons of Adomnan, De Locis Sanctus, and Life of Columba — provides a unique window into the work and mindset of a seventh century Irish priest-lawyer. Adomnan may be a unique case of surviving works in international law (Law of the Innocents), local law (Canons of Adomnan), geography/exegesis (De Locis Sanctus) and theology/hagiography (Life of Columba). (I hope to write more on hagiography as theology in the future.) Adomnan wore many hats — priest, abbot, lawyer, exegete, historian/geographer, hagiographer/theologian, and politician. However, I believe that these works show the that he fundamentally saw and approached the world as a lawyer.

As today is St. Adomnan’s feast day, I would like to remember him with a collect written by Thomas Owen Clancy in The Radical Tradition: Revolutionary Saints in the Battle for Justice and Human Rights. (G. Markus ed., 1993, p. 114):

Lord God, your servant Adomnan, filled with the power of your Spirit, walked the paths of peace and justice and brought reconciliation to a divided world. Grant that by this same Spirit we may act wisely and courageously so that Innocents may find in your Church the sign of liberation for which they long.

One thought on “St. Adomnan the Lawyer

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: