Iona: Cradle of Celtic Christianity

Hello, dear readers!

It has been quite awhile since I have written any new content for the blog, and I apologize for that. What with one thing and another, including and especially the book launch, I have had little time to devote to my regular posts here.

For new readers, thanks for coming aboard! This is my online home,  a place where I have a chance to share with you my fascination with 7th century England, as well as other topics that might hit my fancy.

I have several series going on here at The Traveller’s Path. I’ve done several posts on various aspects of life in 7th century England, including literature, Anglo-Saxon society, important people, special places, the Celts, and others. One of these days I will group them all under the various topics for easy access on the blog – when I get some time. Heh.

It’s been awhile since I have done a deep dive into one of the important places in 7th century England, so today I will rectify that by doing a deep dive into one of the most important places, that of the island of Iona, and more specifically, the Celtic Christian monastery located there.

Iona is a small island, found in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. This mainly treeless island is about 2 km wide and 6 km long, and is found about 2 km off the coast of Mull, one of the larger islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s a tiny dot on the map, and it’s hard to imagine how such an inconsequential place could have had the impact on life in the 7th century that it did; an influence that lasts even today.

The reason why this tiny island had such a huge impact is because this is where the great Saint Columba founded his monastery in 563 AD after being exiled from Ireland*. He came there because at the time it was in the Irish Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, and its king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. Columba and his monks immediately set to work building the small wattle and daub buildings typical of the time. Eventually the monastery would include the church, a refectory (kitchen/dining hall), scriptorium (library), monks’ cells/dormatories, and a guesthouse. There is also indications today of what is called Columba’s day room, a small building where Columba, as the abbot, worked and wrote. A small ditch encircled the monastery proper, a physical reminder of the set-apartness of this sacred space from that of the world.

The name of the island at the time was Hii, the Latin form of the original Gaelic name that meant something like “yew-holder” or “yew-place”.  That sentence is deliberately vague, because the truth be told this little island had many names stretching back over a long time, and it’s very difficult for modern historians to determine exactly what the locals called it at any given point in time. After all, the Hebrides have been occupied by people who spoke many different languages, from British Gaelic to Irish Gaelic, Pictish, Latin, and many variations of all of those.

Adoman, Abbot of the abbey from  AD 679-704, wrote the first hagiography of Columba. His attempt at changing the Gaelic name of the island to Latin resulted in the name Ioua, which morphed into Iona in the 13th century due to a transcription mistake, as the “u” and “n” look very similar in the insular uncial writing used by Adoman in the 7th century. Hii comes from Bede’s Latin name for the island in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in AD 731. Hii was the Latin translation of the Gaelic word I (pronounced “ee”)which was one of the names for Iona at the time. Clear as mud, right?

Once Columba and the monks had the buildings they needed for the monastery, they wasted no time on their missionary pursuits. They were incredibly successful in sharing the Gospel with the Picts and the Gaels of Dál Riada, and spreading out from there into the territory of the Picts in northeast England and further south, into the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

St-Martins-Cross-and-Iona-Abbey

St. Martin’s Cross, which is the original cross still standing where it was installed, sometime between AD 750-800. The arms look short as they originally would have had wooden or metal extensions attached on the ends to make them longer. Amazing that this cross survives after all those years! It sits just outside the entrance of today’s Iona Abbey. Image from Seaview Bed & Breakfast

As the monks’ influence grew, and as the distances between Iona and the places where they worked grew ever more distant, the monks started setting up satellite monasteries in the territories where they ministered. Soon there was a growing network of these monasteries scattered all over the north, all looking to Iona as their spiritual “head”. Iona continued to grow in influence and prestige, and by the time the seventh century rolled around, it was an important centre of learning, with a highly esteemed school. The monks at Iona were kept busy in part with copying important manuscripts housed in their scriptorium, which would then be sent out to the satellite monasteries, which over time were found not only in England, but over on the Continent as well, in Gaul.

It is this process of the re-seeding of important works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and teachers back into the Continent after the chaos and destruction of the fall of Rome that author Thomas Cahill describes in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Far-off Iona was sheltered from the storms of looting and destruction that occurred when the barbarian hordes finally conquered Rome and the Dark Ages descended upon the Continent. Cahill’s premise is that without these Irish monks, who valued learning and knowledge and preserved the ancient wisdom even though it clashed with their faith in some ways, all of that knowledge could easily have been lost. And where would we be today without it?

But the monks on Iona not only copied books such as the Bible, or Homer’s Iliad. They also created some beautiful illustrated manuscripts, the foremost of those being the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Gospel book, similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels, consisting of the four Gospels in Latin, and accompanied by marvellous illustrations. I am going to do a separate post about this stunning work of art at another time, but suffice it to say, it is one of the treasures of British art.

Of course, the monks at Iona were practitioners of the uniquely Celtic brand of Christianity that developed in Britain after the Roman legions left the island. Once the Roman Christians returned during the mission of Augustine in AD 596, these two “flavours” of Christianity began to clash, and kept an uneasy peace, until the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when the tide definitely swung in favour of the Roman Christians (also an upcoming post, stay tuned!). Many of the Ionian monasteries accepted the decision of the Synod and began to follow the Roman ways. But a few monasteries held out, including Lindisfarne and the mother house, Iona. In fact Iona continued in the practice of Celtic Christianity until the eighth century, in AD 715, when it finally adopted the Roman practices.

Iona’s influence was further diminished with the arrival of the Vikings. The first attack on Iona happened in AD 795, and many other attacks occurred over the next 30 years, resulting in the death of many monks and the plundering of treasure. Somehow the monks managed to protect both their beautiful Gospel book and important relics, including Columba’s bones, throughout this time, but in AD 878 the remaining monks had had enough, and they left, taking the illuminated Gospels and Columba’s reliquary with them, ending up in Kells Abbey, in Ireland. Which is how the Book of Kells got its name.

Today Iona is home to around 120 people, but it is still a place of pilgrimage for people the world over. The original Early Middle Ages buildings are long gone, but in the 1920s the ruins of the old Benedictine monastery on the island were restored and the buildings are now used by the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community who are, according to their website, “a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.”

I think Columba would be pleased by that, and to know that even today, every year hundreds of pilgrims go to Iona for spiritual retreats, prayer, and worship, and to seek to encounter the living Christ whom Columba followed.


*If you want the whole story behind Columba’s exile, have a look at my previous post linked to above. It’s a fascinating tale.

Featured image from Wikipedia

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