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The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part II

The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization–Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his look at how Celtic monks saved civilization, Part II. (Click here for Part I.)


Celtic Monastic Settlement, Skellig Michael

Celtic Monks: From Hermits to a Community of Scholarship

Last time we saw how the Celtic monks who began as hermits, living alone in beehive stone huts, ended up banding together in communities all across Ireland where they would pray and study together. They were scholars, and with the growing chaos on the European continent, they began to receive refugees looking for scholarly pursuits, apart from wars and political unrest.

Living in a Typical Celtic Monastery

What was such a Celtic monastery like? Monks lived in isolation from each other, in wooden  or wattle huts. The better abodes were beehive stone huts, and these, of course, are all that have survived. In the west of Ireland, where wood was scarce, this was their only option. These individual cells were clustered around common buildings. As T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin describes in The Course of Irish History:

“…the monastic enclosure included within it the church, usually built of oak, with a stone altar, sacred vessels, relics and handbells for summoning the congregation…; the refectory, with its long table, and adjoining it the kitchen, containing an open fire, cooking utensils, and a large cauldron of drinking water; the library and scriptorium, with manuscripts suspended in satchels by leather straps from the walls and an ample supply of writing materials—waxed tablets, parchment, quills and sylos, inkhorns and the rest. A workshop and forge were situated nearby, while outside the rampart came the cultivated lands and pastures belonging to the monastery, furnished with farm buildings and in addition a mill and limekiln.”

A Day in the Life of a Celtic Monk

What was life like in such a place? Four simple words describe the monk’s lot:

  1. Pray
  2. Fast
  3. Study
  4. Work

Celtic Monks Setting Out on a Mission

When a man joined a monastery, he was expected to embrace self-denial. Every Wednesday and Friday was a fast day, during which a monk wouldn’t eat until late afternoon. During Lent, their single small meal of the day would have to wait until evening. When guests arrived, these rules were relaxed. A typical diet might consist of bread, eggs, milk, and fish, with meat served on Sundays, festivals, and when guests arrived. (A monk must truly have welcomed the arrival of guests.)

A monk spent much of his day working in the fields, copying manuscripts in the scriptorium, or making all kinds of articles needed for daily living. In the fields, there was plowing the ground, sowing the seed, harvesting the produce, and threshing with the flail to separate grain from stalks.

Some monks specialized in more artistic efforts, like making sacred vessels from metal. In monasteries near the sea, monks would spend long hours in boats, fishing, bringing back not only fish, but tales of the ones that got away.

Most Were Laymen, Not Priests

Surprisingly, most of the inhabitants of these monasteries were laymen, not priests. Only a few had taken sacred orders. No doubt this was due to the the monasteries’ welcoming atmosphere as a place of refuge from the world, the promise of a life in God’s service, and the hardships of early medieval life everywhere else.

Each monastery was headed by an abbot, who might appoint his own replacement.

For more tasks in such a place, we turn again  to Moody and Martin: “Other posts in the monastery were those of scribe, cellarer, cook, guestmaster, miller, baker, smith, gardener, porter, and so on.”

That gives us a view into the daily life of a Celtic monk. Next time, with Part II, we’ll examine monastic discipline and the task that was most important for preserving civilization through the Dark Ages—copying books.

Sources for this post were The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin and How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.