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The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part III

The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part III

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at how the Celtic Monks of Ireland saved civilization, with Part III.

Last time, we saw what a typical monastery might have looked like and what a Celtic monk might have done all day. The four words that describe his existence were: Pray. Fast. Study. Work.


Church and Tower at Glendalough Monastic Settlement, Ireland

Irish Monastic Discipline

One can see how, while living such an austere lifestyle, it might be easy, occasionally, to slip. The rules of Columbanus show us the penalties the monasteries imposed on those who strayed from the expected norm. For small infractions, the least penalty was the recitation of three psalms. After that, the penalties increased in severity, with six to a hundred lashes given on the hand using a leather strap. One could also be sentenced to long periods of fasting or silence. The worst offenses might require exile or banishment. The penalty for murder was ten years in exile, during which the offender might have to exist for a time on bread and water. Yet, despite the austere lifestyle and the penalties for straying, the monasteries grew.

The Celtic Monasteries Welcomed and Grew

Previously, we saw how the Irish monasteries grew in size and number. Some newcomers came from Ireland. Others were priests and scholars fleeing the chaos and disorder on the continent. Surprisingly, only a few individuals in a monastery were priests. Most were simple laymen. But because of the influx from all over, the monasteries grew and spread across the Emerald Isle. And when the continental refugees arrived, they brought with them the great works of Western civilization. Not just biblical works, but Plato, Socrates, Euclid, and Homer.


Page from the Book of Kells

The Celtic Monks Copied Books

One of the most important duties of a Celtic monk, for those with the aptitude, was the copying of manuscripts. And the Irish monks and their students copied everything they received—not only the Bible, but also Greek and Latin literature. They copied pagan works, mind you. The Celtic monks even recorded their own ancestral tales, such as The Tale of the Tain. Churchmen outside of Ireland disapproved of this welcoming view of non-Christian writings. But the Irish monks’ ready acceptance of all literature, no matter its religious worldview, helped to preserve the great works of western civilization.

But think what it meant to copy a book back then. Gutenberg and his printing press were hundreds of years away. Every document had to be painstakingly written by hand, dipping the quill in the ink pot several times to finish even one sentence. The copying took place one letter, one page, one book at a time. Such long, tedious work was perfect for the monk who wanted to sacrifice his life for Christ. But also good for saving literature that otherwise might be forgotten, burned by advancing barbarians, or hidden in a cache somewhere, never to be found again.

The monks copied Bibles, of course, and they did so on long-lasting vellum paper, usually made from calfskin. We note that it might have taken as many as 170 calves to provide enough vellum for one Bible. And we have qualms today about eating a single serving of veal parmigiana!

They Illuminated Books in Glorious Color

It was in Ireland where they began the custom of illuminating books with rich, colorful covers and illustrations depicting biblical events. The Book of Kells, housed in Trinity College Dublin, was created around AD 800 and includes all four Gospels in Latin. I’ve been there and seen it. It’s a remarkable work.

Thus we see how western civilization was saved. The monks began with a desire to cloister themselves from the world. They progressed to building communities of like-minded scholars. And they ended with an environment that welcomed the collection, copying, and preservation of the great works of the human mind.

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.

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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.

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The Celtic Monks that Saved Civilization, Part I

The Celtic Monks that Saved Civilization, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the Irish monks, the monasteries they created, and their role in preserving the written works of western culture.

The Monks That Saved Civilization


A Monk At His Work

Everyone today owes a debt of gratitude to the Irish monks. It was they—as the barbarians invaded the continent, bringing anarchy, plunder, and constant warfare—who kept safe the written record of western civilization. Thus concludes Thomas Cahill in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.

But how did this come about? Before Patrick, ancient Ireland was feared as the place that sent raiders to steal children from their beds in the dead of night. It was where wild men, painted blue, with starched, spiked hair, ran naked and screaming into battle. And before Patrick, the island of Celts was mainly illiterate, using a primitive form of runes for boundary markers. It was only Patrick who began the process of bringing the written word to Ireland. This was the land at the end of the world, the island at the westernmost edge of Europe, beyond which, “There be monsters”. How did such a land produce Celtic monks and monasteries that would become bastions of scholarship?

The Monasteries Began with St. Patrick

The monastic movement in Ireland probably began with St. Patrick. We’ve told his story in previous posts. If he had studied on the Gallic Island of Lerins in the Mediterranean, as seems likely, then he would have been introduced to the monastic way of life. It was barely beginning on the continent. After his death, this trend only increased among the Irish who were only too ready for a new kind of martyrdom.

“Green Martyrdom”

As Thomas Cahill tells us, with the introduction of Christianity many new Christians looked for a kind of “green martyrdom”. Denied the red martyrdom of death by blood, they looked to become a living sacrifice for Christ—to become “a green martyr”. Their willingness is explainable when we understand that within the Irish character are strains of melancholy mixed with wild abandon. (Ah hah, is that where I get it from?) As G.K. Chesterton once said,

“For the great Gaels of Ireland,
Are the men that God made mad.
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.”

In a previous post we talked about how Celtic women sometimes sought celibacy as a way to dedicate their lives to Christ. Sometimes, they even banded together into communities of virgins. The same was true of men. And when they joined a monastery, they became part of a community of learning and scholarship. The monasteries began with the intent to live in isolation—witness the number of beehive stone huts scattered throughout the Emerald Isle. But these huts, big enough for only a single individual, ended up being clustered in communities of monks.


The Monks’ Beehive Stone Huts on Skellig Michael

From Hermitage to Monastery

Within these new monastic communities, the Celtic monks accepted noble and commoner alike. Not only for service in the cloister, but also just to learn and study. That is what the Venerable Bede, an English historian, tells us. Thus did these Celtic monasteries establish centers of scholarship.

In the sixth century, Kevin of Glendalough began as a hermit living in a rock cave. But he ended up with a community of  monks living all around him. For Kevin they built a beehive stone hut. For themselves, single mud huts. For the community, a small church. Each lived by himself in his own small dwelling. At appointed hours, they gathered together to recite the Psalms and pray.

Word spread, and people arrived from all over, just to learn. On the continent, many lands were dealing with war and chaos. Political leadership was constantly changing hands. So monasteries patterned after Glendalough eagerly accepted these scholarly refugees from a Europe in chaos. In the process, they took in a wide variety of people, ideas, and books. And in various places around Ireland, towns arose that were more like universities than monasteries.

Next time, we’ll continue our look at the way of the Celtic Monks, with Part II.

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

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.