This is the first of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life. The first set of articles focuses on education.
In the early middle ages (roughly AD 500-1000), European civilization was in serious decline. The climate had gotten colder and wetter, resulting in a shorter growing season and declining population. People moved out of the cities into the countryside to try to survive, with the effect that many cities shrank, relocated, or disappeared altogether. With de-urbanization, education went into steep decline as well.
Roman imperial authority had collapsed in the Latin speaking half of the Empire, leaving local administration in the hands of the church as the last institution standing. The barbarian tribes that had migrated into the Empire during its decline brought their own ideas of government with them, which mixed with Roman and ecclesiastical administrative approaches to produce an uneasy blend that would eventually result in a new political system known as feudalism. Except during Charlemagne’s time (c.742-814), governing power was decentralized, pushed to local lords instead of kings by the press of political expediency and local circumstances.
Ireland was an exception to these trends in many respects. Since its conversion to Christianity under St. Patrick (387-461), Ireland developed a unique culture, with its clan-based social structure integrated with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the monasteries. Because the ancient pagan Druids had been extremely well educated, the Irish believed all religious leaders should be educated in all areas of learning, and so the Irish monasteries became great centers of education.
Into this world, Columbanus was born in 540. As a young man, he was quite good looking and attracted the attention of a number of young women. But he was also serious about his faith, so he consulted an older woman about what to do. She replied (slightly paraphrased), “Do you remember Samson? David? Solomon? Women are trouble. Get thee to a monastery!”
So Columbanus withdrew to the monastic life over the objections of his family. He literally had to step over his mother’s prostrate body at the threshold to his house when he left for the monastery of Lough Erne. He continued his education there, and then moved on to the monastery at Bangor.
At about the age of 40, Columbanus began hearing a call to leave the monastery and go on a peregrinatio (literally, a pilgrimage, but carrying with it the idea of exile from which you would never return to your homeland) to preach the Gospel. His abbot eventually agreed to let him go, and so he set sail to Britain, then across the English Channel to Carnac in Britanny, where he and his twelve companions began their mission (c.585).
Columbanus preached his way across the Frankish kingdom until he came to Burgundy, where he was welcomed by King Gontram and invited to stay. Columbanus agreed, and selected Annegray, a half-ruined Roman fortress in the Vosges Mountains, to start his first monastery.
Columbanus’s fame was such that he was quickly inundated with people from all walks of life who wished to join his community. He had so many people coming to him that he started a second monastery at Luxeuil in 590, then another at Fontaines, all of them governed by a strict rule he produced based on the practice of the monastery at Bangor.
Columbanus’s popularity began raising the ire of the local bishops. They resented his influence, the strict rules in his monasteries, his using the Celtic approach for setting the date of Easter rather than the Roman method, and the fact that he refused to submit to their authority. Columbanus defended his views strongly both locally and in letters to the papacy.
When Gontram died, he was succeeded by his son Childebert, who also died and passed the kingdom to his son Thierry. Thierry liked Columbanus, but when Columbanus began criticizing the immorality of the royal court, Thierry turned on him and demanded that he follow local church practices. When he refused, he was arrested.
The guards did not keep a close watch on him, perhaps because they were nervous about arresting a holy man. He soon escaped custody and returned to his monastery. Thierry then arrived with troops determined to send Columbanus and his companions back to Ireland. They were taken down the Loire River to the coast and put on a ship. A storm drove it back to shore, however, and the ship’s captain refused to have anything more to do with the brothers, so they once again began traveling through the Frankish territories.
They made their way to Lake Zurich, where persecution by the pagan population prevented them from settling. They then passed on to Lake Constance, where the local chapel with the relics of St. Aurelius had been converted into a pagan temple complete with idols. Gall, one of Columbanus’s companions, knew the local language, and so Columbanus had him begin preaching. The local population was converted to Christianity, and Gall stayed there to lead the church. About a century later, a monastery was founded there and named St. Gall in his honor.
In 612, local opposition once again caused Columbanus to move, this time into Italy. Northern Italy was ruled by the Lombards, an Arian tribe, though their king Agiluf had converted to orthodox Christianity due to the influence of his wife Theodelinda. Agiluf welcomed Columbanus and invited him to settle in Lombardy. Columbanus accordingly founded a monastery at Bobbio in 614, where he would live out the last year of his life.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Columbanus’s work on the continent. He became the prototype for many other Irish missionaries who preached the Gospel throughout Europe. His own monastery at Luxeuil sent out at least 63 known missionaries credited with starting over 100 other monasteries.
Along with evangelism, however, Columbanus’s impact was felt most strongly in the field of education. Like all Irish saints, Columbanus believed very strongly that spiritual leadership and education were inseparable. His monasteries were famous for their scriptoria and became major centers of literacy and learning. Nearly all surviving manuscripts from continental Europe produced over the next century came from scribes trained at the scriptoria at Luxeuil, Corbie (a daughter monastery of Luxeuil founded in 559 or 561), or Bobbio. Without his work, literacy would have all but disappeared in Gaul, and we would have even fewer manuscripts from that era than we do today.
Along with copying manuscripts, Columbanus’s monasteries also developed some of the most celebrated libraries in medieval Europe. Bobbio was particularly famous for its library, so much so that it was a major inspiration for the library in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose. It was also a stronghold for orthodoxy in Arian Lombardy. And although it was founded after Columbanus’s day, the monastery at St. Gall had one of the largest libraries in Europe, again started by Irish and British monks. Almost unique among medieval libraries, it remains intact today.
Columbanus was not the first Christian leader to have a major impact on education, and he would be far from the last. The biblical worldview teaches that God created all things, and so all things are sacred and worthy of study; it also tells us that all truth is God’s truth and can and should be studied as an act of devotion to God. In Christianity, the mind matters, and so Christians have founded schools wherever they went. A good example of this came a century and a half after Columbanus’s death in the person of Alcuin, a deacon of the cathedral at York and Charlemagne’s minister of education. We will look at his career in the next article.
 The monastery would be the nucleus of the town of St. Gall, which then became the capital of the Canton of St. Gall.
 Arians did not believe that Jesus was God, seeing him instead as something closer to an archangel. The orthodox position is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
 I.e. rooms where manuscripts were copied.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.