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.

Adomnan of Iona Bibliography

An updated bibliography from my old website. There will be a permanent link on the Adomnan page in the left margin of Heavenfield.

Primary Sources

Sharpe, Richard. Editor and translator. (1995)Adomnan of Iona: Life of St. Columba. Penguin.

Anderson, A.O. and Anderson, M.O. ed. and trans., Revised by M.O. Anderson. (1991) Adomnan’s Life of Columba Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Anderson, A.O. (1922) Early Sources in Scottish History Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. (Irish Annals etc)

Bede Ecclesiatical History of the English People. (1994) Edited by Judith McClure and Roger Collins. Oxford University Press.

Carey, John (1998) King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings Dublin: Four Courts Press. (Fis Adomnain: The Vision of Adomnan, 10-11th century)

Herbert, Maire and Padraig O’Riain (1988) Betha Adamnain: The Irish Life of Adamnan Irish Texts Society.

Macpherson, James R., trans.  (1895)ThePILGRIMAGE OF ARCULFUS IN THEHOLY LAND (ABOUT THE YEAR A.D. 670). Palestine Pilgrim’s Text Society. [Adomnan’s De locis sanctis]

Meehan, Denis, trans., De Locis Sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1958).

Meyer, Kuno (1905) Cain Adamnain: An Old Irish Treatise on the Law of Adamnan Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ni Dhonnchadha, Mairin (2001) “The Law of Adomnan: A Translation”, p. 53-68 in Adomnan at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents. Thomas O’Louglin, editor. Four Courts Press. (partial translation, sections 28-53)

Secondary Sources

Broun, Dauvit and Thomas Owen Clancy, Editors. (1999) Spaes Scotorum (Hope of the Scots): Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Duncan, Archibald A.M. (1981) “Bede, Iona, and the Picts” p. 1-42 in The Writing of History in the Middle Ages: Essays Presented to Richard William Southern Edited by R.H.C. Davis and J.M. Wallace-Hadrill. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fraser, James E. (2002) The Battle of Dunnichen, 685. Tempus. (King Bridei who won the battle was reputed to have been a friend of Adomnan).

Herbert, Maire (1988) Iona, Kells, and Derry. Oxford.

Herbert, Maire (2001) “The World of Adomnan” p. 33-41 in Adomnan at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents. Thomas O’Louglin, editor. Four Courts Press.

MacDonald, Aidan (1997) “Adomnan’s Monastery of Iona” p. 24-44 in Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba Cormac Bourke, Editor. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

MacQueen, John (1989) “The Saint as a Seer: Adomnan’s Account of Columba” p. 37-51 in The Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions. Hilda Ellis Davidson, ed. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd.

Ni Dhonnchadha, Mairin (1982) ‘The Guarantor List of Cain Adomnain, 697′ Peritia 1: 178-215.

Ni Dhonnchadha, Mairin (2001) “Birr and the Law of the Innocents”, p. 13-23 in Adomnan at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents. Thomas O’Louglin, editor. Four Courts Press.

O’Loughlin, Thomas. (1992) “The Exegetical Purpose of Adomnan’s De Locis SanctisCambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 24: 37-53.

  • (1994) “The library of Iona in the late seventh century: the evidence of Adomnan’s De locis sanctisEriu 45:33-54.
  • (1995) “Adomnan the illustrious” Innes Review 46:1-14.
  • (1996) “Adomnan and Mira RotunditasEriu 47: 95-99.
  • (1996) “The View for Iona: Adomnan’s mental maps” Peritia 10:98-122.
  • (1997) “Adomnan and Arculf: The Case of an Expert Witness” Journal of Medieval Latini 7:127-146.
  • (1997) “Adomnan’s De Locis Sanctis: A Textual Emendation and an Addition; Source Identification” Eriu 45:37-40.
  • (2000) Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writings. Continuum.
  • (2001) “Adomnan: A Man of Many Parts” p. 41-52 in Adomnan at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents. Thomas O’Louglin, editor. Four Courts Press.
  • editor, (2001) in Adomnan at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents. Four Courts Press.
  • (2007) Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Location of the Biblical Drama (T. & T. Clark, London).

Picard, Jean-Michel (1982) “The Purpose of Adomnan’s Vita ColumbaePeritia 1:160-77.

  • (1984) “Bede, Adomnan, and the Writing of History” Peritia 3:50-70.
  • (1984) “The Metrical Prose of Adomnan’s Vita Columbae : an Unusual System”, p. 258-271 in Ireland and Europe: The Early Church P. Ni Chathain and M. Richter, eds. Stuttgart: Klett Cotta Verlag.editor.
  • (1991) Ireland and Northern France AD 600-850 Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Richter, Michael. (1999) Ireland and her Neighbors in the Seventh Century New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sayers, William (1993) “Spiritual Navigation in the Western Sea: Sturlunga Saga and Adomnan’s Hinba” Scripta Islandica 44:30-42.

Sharpe, Richard (2000) “The Thriving of Dalriada” p. 47-61 in Kings, Clerics, and Chronicles in Scotland 500-1297: Essays in honour of Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday Simon Taylor, Editor. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Smyth, A. (1984) Warlords and Holymen: Scotland AD 80-1000. Edinburgh University Press.

Skene, William F. (1876, Reprint 1971) Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban Volume I: History and Ethanology. NewYork: Books for Libraries Press.

  • (1877, reprint 1971) Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban Volume II: Church and Culture. New York: Books for Libraries Press.

Williams, A. , Smyth, A. and Kirby, D.P. (1991) A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales c500-c1050. London: Seaby Publishers.

Wetherill, Jeffrey (2003) “Adomnan, Iona and the Life of Columba: Their Place Among the Continental Saints” The Heroic Age. Issue 6.

Wooding, Jonathan M with R. Aist, T.O. Clancy, & T. O’Loughlin. Eds. (2010). Adomnan of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. Four Courts Press. [Collection of papers from the conference on Adomnan of Iona 704 – 2004]

  • Adomnan and Donegal by Brian Lacey
  • Adomnan at the Court of King Aldfrith by Barbara Yorke
  • Charity with peace: Adomnan and the Easter question by Clare Stancliffe
  • Adomnan and the art of teaching spiritual sons by Jennifer O’Reilly
  • Adomnan and the mortality of war by James Fraser
  • Adomnan in medieval Gaelic literary tradition by Thomas Owen Clancy
  • Adomnan among the bird-hunters: tradition and creativity in ‘Beannachadh Seilg’ by Mary Law
  • The archaeology of writing in the time of Adomnan by Ewan Campbell
  • Adiutor Laborantium – A poem by Adomnan? by Gilbert Markus
  • Adomnan, Arculf, and the source material of De Locis sanctis by Rodney Aist
  • The De Locis sanctus as a litergical text by Thomas O’Loughlin
  • On the circumstances of Adomnan’s composition of the De Locis sanctis by David Woods
  • The structure and purpose of Adomnan’s Vita Columbae by T. M Charles-Edwards
  • Adomnan’s Vita Columbae and the early churches of Tiree by Aidan Mac Donald
  • Adomnan’s voyaging saint: the cult of Cormac Ua Liathain by Dan Tipp and Jonathan Wooding
  • The anti-Pelagian motif of the ‘naturally good’ pagan in Adomnan’s Vita Columbae by Tomas O’Sullivan
  • Heavenly apparitions and heavenly life in Adomnan’s Vita Columbae by Katja Ritari
  • Visions of divine light in the writings of Adomnan and Bede by Stephan Sharman

Woods, David. (2002) “Arculf’s Luggage: The Sources for Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis Ériu 52: 25-52.

  • (2002) “Four Notes on Adomnan’s Vita ColumbaePeritia 16: 40-67.

The Long Seventh Century

There seems to be a new trend to name certain transitional centuries as “long centuries” because the important events that happened tend to wrap over both century marks. Its not surprising that real life doesn’t match our numbering system. I’ve heard of the long 19th century* – from the American Revolution to World War I – a transition from the kingdoms of the European colonial powers to the beginning of the modern era with the development of modren democracies and communism. As pivotal as the 20th century was, its main events really run from World War I to I suppose to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I really wonder when historians will see the current era beginning. And will it be globalism (led by the internet) or terrorism that characterizes this era? Not really a topic for Heavenfield. I saw an call for papers today for Kazoo that evokes “the long 11th century”. I suppose for Anglo-Saxons it has to be the long 11th century because they are no longer in control of their destiny by the 12th century. I wonder though if it should be the long 12th century from Edward the Confessor (1060s) to Magna Carta under John in 1215. This is not really a topic for Heavenfield either.

I would like to consider here that the seventh century is such a transitional century. A long seventh century makes sense even if only because it is the period primarily covered by Bede’s History. It is an important century for many reasons not least of which are that most people in the British Isles were converted to Christianity in this long century and there was a transition from tribal rule to recognizable medieval kingdoms. So how would we define a long 7th century?

570s to c. 720?

If we are bold enough not to strictly use Bede’s History and also look at the others peoples of the British Isles, then I think it starts to take shape around the 560s to 720s. Ironically its not English dates that I would bracket the era with…. c. 570 sees the rise of the partnership between St. Columba and King Aedan mac Gabran (c. 574). Aedan was the dominant power in the northern half of Britain until the battle of Degsastan in 603. Bede was so concerned about the coincidence that Augustine of Canterbury arrived in the same year that St Columba died that he gave Augustine a double entry in 596 and 597 in his chronological summary so he can show that Augustine was sent to Britain in 596 before the death of Columba (but he chickened out and had to be sent again and didn’t arrive until 597). For that matter, the way Bede writes about the battle of Degsastan, multiple dating methods, and “from that time no Irish king in Britain has dared to make war on the English race to his day” shows how powerful the Irish of Aedan’s day were. For Bede the battle of Degsastan was pivotal. Among the English, the royal dynasties begin to become visible in the last quarter of the 6th century so that beginning the “long 7th century” then works for them. Among the Britons, the 570s they are still dominant in almost half of southern Britain (south of Hadrian’s wall) with the ‘Men of the North’ in their prime and in Wales, Powys is strong in the western midlands with kings Cynan Garwen and his son Selyf. In 570, the British still control a contiguous western flank of Britain from Strathclyde to Cornwall. In some ways we could say that in 570 Celtic peoples are dominant overall.

Going to the other end of the spectrum, I would end the long 7th century around 720.  There is no need to end it with Bede’s death since he tells us little about recent history. Ending in c. 720 coincides with the acceptance of Roman rites by Iona, the expulsion of Columban clergy from Pictland, the reign of influential King Necthan mac Derilei in Pictland, the end of the Ætehlfrithings in Northumbria and the rise of Æthelbald in Mercia. The British have been broken. Strathclyde is a small island of Britons in the far north. Wales is a collection of feuding kingdoms obsessed with what went wrong and Dumnonia/Cornwall have been separated off from other Britons (and perhaps interacting with Brittany as much as Wales). Ireland is not as easy to fit into this but the long 7th century still fits for them at least in the evolution of their monastic system and its conversion to Roman rites and eventually organization.

So how would you define the long 7th century?


*There is an important German history book that looks at the long 19th century that first brought the concept to my attention. For North America and Europe, this definition seems to make sense, but perhaps not for other continents.

Random thoughts on St Oswald at Prayer

From Bede’s History III.12 (McClure and Collins, p. 129)

“It is related, for example, that every often he [King Oswald] would continue in prayer from matins to daybreak; and because of his frequent habit of prayer and thanksgiving, he was always accustomed, whenever he sat, to place his hands on his knees with the palms turned upwards. It is also a tradition which has become proverbial, that he died with a prayer on his lips. When he was beset by the weapons of his enemies and saw that he was about to perish he prayed for the souls of his army. So the proverb runs, ‘May God have mercy on their souls, as Oswald said when he fell to the earth'”

This passage has attracted the most attention for his palms up posture. I’ve read here and there some odd talk about it reflecting pre-Christain postures. Nonsense… look around your local church and then look at ancient murals and art and you will see palms up postures throughout.

What has attracted my attention is the claim that he prayed continually from matins to daybreak. This is one sleep deprived king! Did he have insomnia? Matins is supposed to be the midnight office and daybreak is lauds. Obviously, matins can’t be really midnight. In reality various monasteries and churches set matins at various times of the night. It is likely that each monastic system had a schedule set for daily prayer, and it was practiced by members of the house(s) where ever they were. It seems likely that Oswald followed the schedule from Lindisfarne, led by a personal priest. This also suggests that the hours of the office were done somewhere within Bamburgh’s enclosure so that it was easily accessible to Oswald.

It is one of the mysteries of Oswald’s reign that his personal priest is not mentioned. We know that his brother Oswiu had personal priests — Utta, later Abbot of Gateshead, and Eadhead, later Bishop of Lindsey– and his son Oethelwald had Caelin, brother of bishops Cedd and Chad, as his personal priest. All of these priests were from the Lindisfarne family, and as the founder of Lindisfarne it is almost certain that Oswald would have had an Irish priest by his side. There wouldn’t have been any English priests trained until at the very earliest late in Oswald’s reign. Given that Bede is promoting the close relationship between Oswald and Bishop Aidan I suppose its not surprising that his personal priest, who really couldn’t be Aidan, isn’t mentioned.

One of the things this calls to mind is that first of all, Oswald was surely, remarkably pious. After an evening in the hall with his court, getting up before dawn for prayer is impressive. It may also be the only time during the day when a king could quietly think. Once the rest of the court awakes, the day’s business will begin and by evening his hall will be full of his retainers. It also occurs to me that this formal position, with palms turned up, indicates that Oswald was a rather impressive, kingly figure otherwise these odd details would not have been remembered.

This also brings up Oswald’s understanding of Latin. How many kings would go daily to hear the office if they couldn’t understand it. Granted, he may have just wanted to be present when what he considered to be sacred rites were preformed and to pray silently to himself. Still it all suggests quite a lot of formation on Oswald’s behalf done by Iona before he returned and afterwards fostered by the monks of Lindisfarne.

Hours of Prayer

Sunday someone asked me how many times a day medieval people prayed and I said 7 or 8. I realized that I’m a little fuzzy on what the canonical hours are, their names and what they have been transformed into today. So, this is going to be a short-hand version I hope will be helpful to you and will serve as notes for me. Wikipedia actually seems to have a pretty good summary of the Liturgy of Hours.

Pre-Vatican II and through out the medieval period, the divine hours were:

  1. Matins: night office usually prayed around midnight. Also called nocturns or a vigil.
  2. Lauds: dawn.
  3. Prime: first hour of prayer at about 6 am.
  4. Terce: third hour of the day, about 9 am.
  5. Sext: sixth hour prayer, about noon.
  6. Nones: ninth hour prayer, about 3 pm.
  7. Vespers: early evening prayer, about 6 pm or so.
  8. Compline: upon retiring usually about 9 pm.

This organization was introduced to the western church by John Cassian (d. 435) and popularized by Benedict of Nursia. In Ireland, it appears that John Cassian had a more direct influence on monastic development long before the Benedictine rule came there. Bede describes Bishop Wilfrid and his Abbot Benedict Biscop being instrumental in introducing the Benedictine rule to England in the mid-seventh century. In a contemporary elegy, St Columba of Iona (d. 597) was said to have been a student of Cassian and Basil.

He ran the course that runs past hatred to right action. The teacher wove the word. By his wisdom he made glosses clear. He fixed the Psalms, he made the books of Law known, those books Cassian loved. He won battles with gluttony. The books of Solomon, he followed them. Seasons and calculations he set in motion. He separated the elements according to figures among the books of Law. He read mysteries and distributed Scriptures among the schools, and he put together harmony concerning the course of the moon, the course which it ran with the rayed sun, and the course of the sea. He could number the stars in heaven, the one who could tell all the rest which we have heard from Colum Cille.

Section V Elegy for Colum Cille

Dallan Forgaill (fl. 597), Clancy p. 104 (Gaelic)

This does not mean that Columba actually knew Cassian but that he had studied his writings. Fixing the psalms is establishing the order that the psalms are said in the monastic office. The psalms have always been the primary text of hourly prayer. Cassian was the vital link between east and west. He was a good friend of Patriarch John Chrysostom and transmitted the prayer routine he learned from the desert fathers in Egypt to the West. He established his monastic system at St Victor in Marseilles. His memory was harmed by his attempt to mediate, or find a third way, between Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians. This led to his being labeled a semi-pelagian after his death. Irish adherence to Cassian’s ways may be the root of many of the false claims that they were Pelagian.

Dallan Forgaill is a Gaelic secular poet, contemporary with Columba. Often a befriender of secular poets, Columba soon became their patron saint. This long elegy has ten sections. This elegy is one of the oldest surviving pieces of Gaelic (Old Irish) poetry. The language is so archaic that later copies of it are glossed so that later medieval Gaelic speakers could understand it.

The Book of Common Prayer recognizes four hours for prayer: morning prayer (a combination of matins and lauds), mid-day prayer, evening prayer (vespers) and compline.


Thomas Owen Clancy, ed The Triumph Tree: Scotland’s Earliest Poetry AD 550-1350. Canongate, 1998.