Irish Schools. In these schools we find the origin of the future European Universities and of the famous “Ratio Studiorum” of the Renaissance time

After the fall of the Roman Empire, in 476, countless numbers of monks, philosophers, teachers and scribes, most of whom hailed from Ireland, brought a new wave of re-evangelization and moral-cultural renaissance to a Europe, ravaged by barbaric invasions, droughts, decadence and the disappearance of moral values. 

In time, the sophisticated efforts of these wise people in advancing both re-evangelization and cultural re-vival generated a genuine spiritual improvement. It in turn produced a healing and civic reunification of almost the entire European continent. 

In this epochal framework the Irish monks were the principal protagonists. By living their lives in the exemplary way they did, the monks, by example, proved that the power of the spirit and respect for values could be the catalyst to true and sustainable change. Thus, Christian faith and values became the healing basis of a new spiritual and cultural unity, upon which the foundations of the future Europe were laid. 

“We have learning for sale”. This extraordinary though simple statement, which Notker Balbulus, a monk in St. Gall (Switzerland), reported in his book on “The Life of Charlemagne”, was the new cultural renaissance call, attributed to two Irish monks, Clement and Albinus

It is told that they shouted it out publicly to curious onlookers in the marketplace and under the porticos of several churches in medieval France. Despite being “short and sweet”, this ancient one-liner, or “sound-bite”, as it were, describes well the cultural climate in place in Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire and before Charlemagne (742 – 814) began to reign in the West: a time when culture was almost forgotten everywhere; the gaunt spectre of barbarity was then on the rise and vast tracts of Europe were plunging into darkness. Skilled in learning and Holy Scripture, the two monks asked only for food, shelter, and pupils, in return for imparting knowledge.

Notice of their deeds reached Charlemagne, at the time, the most powerful personage in Europe. About 774, he received them at his court in Aachen, capital of the Kingdom of the Franks, now a city in modern Germany on the border with the Netherlands and the French-speaking portion of Belgium.  Much impressed by the enlightening scholarship and piety of the men and their pioneering methods, Charlemagne dispatched Clement to his Palace School, while Albinus was installed as Abbot of the monastery of St. Augustine in Pavia. 

The Palace School was headed at the time by the Northern English poet and scholar Alcuin (735 – 804), a former pupil of Colgan/Colgu the Wise of Clonmacnoise in Ireland. There is still extant a letter which Alcuin wrote from Charlemagne’s court, addressed to the Munster native, Colgan, then the principal teacher at Clonmacnoise in which he calls the Irish scholar: “My pious father and beloved master, Colgan” and states, amongst other things, that he is sending fifty sheckles of silver from himself and another fifty sheckles from his master Charlemagne, for the benefit of the school; he also sent a quantity of olive oil.

Alcuin could have well imported in the Franconian territory the educational system that he had experienced in Ireland.

The words of the above two “preachers” and the work of the scholar, Alcuin, appear clearly in one of the letters, addressed to the then barbarian King Charlemagne of whom he was an adviser, when dreaming the future University of Paris: ”If your intentions are carried out, it may be that a new Athens will arise in France and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the wisdom of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom”.

In his writings, the aforementioned Alcuin too recalled the services rendered to Christianity by “the very learned Irish masters who enabled the church of Christ in Britain, Gaul and Italy to make such progress”. So, he wrote from his retirement in Tours to Charlemagne in a letter of 803, in the latter part of which he envies, albeit in a positive manner, the influence and success of the fervent Irish at the Palace School. Furthermore, the Emperor “held the Irish in special esteem” and “he loved these strangers”, Einhard, the Frankish scholar and courtier wrote in the “Vita Karoli Magni”. 

Thus, why the Irish Schools were so important from the V century onwards?

Irish medieval schools had a great impact not only for their time but also for the spreading of culture throughout Europe immediately after the crumbling of the Roman Empire.

Irish pilgrims and monks were their founders and promoters wherever they went. Education of young and adult people, at home and abroad, figured high in their missionary programmes.

Kings, Princes and noble people in Merovingian times received them as missionaries to convert pagans, to secure peace in their territories on the continent, to enlighten their courts and to strengthen the Church’s organizations. In fact, they were renowned for their knowledge as well as for their piety. 

The importance of the Irish Schools can be detected by the King of England’s following gesture: It is said that King Alfred called on “Suibhne” or “Sweeny of Clonmacnoise” or Mollumby, the 34th Abbot of Clonmacnoise, “doctor Scotorum peritissimus”, in 891, to assist, together with other learned Irish scolars, at the foundation of the celebrated University of Oxford, established five years before, on the example of the then famous Irish schools. 

1. Subjects in the Irish Schools

In the Irish Schools pilgrims and scholars taught and students could specialise in subjects such as Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Grammar, Rhetoric,  History, Philosophy, Logic, Geometry, Physics,  Astronomy; also Medicine and Metal Work were introduced, together with Sculpture, particularly in relation to high crosses and metal work which included the art of fashioning intricate chalices, bells and other ecclesiastical vessels, including „Cumdachs”, elaborately decorated cases or “shrines” in which the precious books were safely stored. Amongst others, the Copying of books, both religious and non-religious, was a primary job for the expert Irish monks and pilgrims. Biblical exegesis and Holy Scriptures, much of which committed to memory, especially the psalms, were the main subject. 

The White learning, which made the Irish monks famous, was described as learning and teaching based above all on the Bible but implying also other subjects. 

Grammar, Geometry, Physics and Biblical exegesis were available to the English students in Irish monastic schools in the 7th century, as Aldhelm, an eminent English scholar and Bishop of Sherbourne, wrote in a letter addressed to an Englishman named Ehfridus (Heahfrith), who had returned to England after six years of study in Mayo of the Saxons, “bursting with praise for learning”. In that letter Aldhelm complained of English students flocking to Ireland rather than staying in England for their education. “Why, I ask, is Ireland, whither assemble the thronging students by the fleet-load, exalted with a sort of ineffable privilege?” At the same time, he admitted that the “opulent and verdant country of Ireland is adorned, so to speak, with a browsing crowd of scholars”, admitting the prestige of Irish schools. 

In another letter, written to Wihtfrith, an Englishman, who intended to study in Ireland, Aldhelm advised him to avoid the teaching about the classical pagan deities, abundant in Irish schools, underlying in this way their classical teaching. 

He described Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, his tutor, as being “hemmed in by a mass of Irish students, like a savage wild boar checked by a snarling pack of hounds”.

The venerable Theodore, however, was able to counter the challenging students “with the filed tooth of the grammarian”.

Also, Bede confirms that Irish monastic schools produced secular learning despite their priorities of promoting religious study and ecclesiastical education. For example, he relates an anecdote, attributed to the Englishman Willibrord, of “a scholar of Irish race who was well-read in literature but utterly uninterested and careless in the matter of his eternal salvation”. In other words, Bede made it clear that a student at an Irish monastic school might be more concerned with the life of the mind than with the salvation of his soul. Both, Aldhelm and Bede, may have envied the Irish Schools for their prestige but, as ecclesiastics, they were concerned primarily with religious education. 

Latin was the main subject in the Irish Schools after the Biblical studies. As the language of the Church, it was also the primary intellectual language of the Middle Ages. During this period, Irish scholars studied and, in turn, taught those Christian Latin authors deemed most important by the Church, while they also created an extensive Hiberno-Latin literature of their own. In other words, learned culture in medieval Ireland was, effectively, bilingual. Thus, Ireland was the first Western European country to create a literature in Latin and in Irish that comprised secular and religious subjects, distinguishing itself for the teaching of the classical world.

After the introduction of the Latin alphabet, adopted and modified into the so-called “Irish Alphabet,” it became the communication-way among teachers and pupils. As a result the fluency of the Irish in the classics was the wonder of all visitors. 

Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish monks. “The weight of their influence on the continent,” stated James Westfall Thompson – an American historian, specialist in the history of medieval and early modern Europe -, “was incalculable”.

Most biblical commentaries between 650 and 850 were written by Irishmen. 

Although the “white learning” was the most highly prized, there was also a great interest in the classical literature of Rome in the monasteries of Ireland, which had largely disappeared elsewhere in Europe after the Germanic invasions and the collapse of the Roman Empire. It can rightly be claimed that the Irish monks had a major role in preserving and restoring classical learning and literature wherever their monasteries were established and wherever their influence spread across Europe from Brittany to Bavaria and eastwards to Krakow and even as far as Kiev, and southwards to Bobbio and Pavia in Italy. St. Columbanus himself wrote in elegant Latin, which displays familiarity with Latin classics. He wrote a boat song, “Carmen Navale”, in hexameter verses, which shows traces of the Latin classics. We find echoes in his writings of Virgil, Ovid and Horace

The Irish monks were convinced that the Word of God “enlightens everyone coming into this world”, and that all human truth finds its origin and its fulfilment in Divine Truth. They used the Latin language and literature for the spread of the Gospel of Truth. Seeking first the Kingdom of God and His justice, they found human learning and literature added unto them as well. 

It is documented that there had been schools in Ireland before the time of St. Patrick, most of which were for the study of the Brehon Law, but Irish literature, Story-telling, Music and the Art of writing verses were also studied. A learned class of teachers was carefully trained to preserve traditions in the ancient Ireland.  There were schools of “lawyers to expand the law; schools of historians to preserve the geneaologies, the boundaries of lands, and the rights of classes and families; and schools of poets to recite the tradition of the race”, as Alice Stopford Green wrote in her book on the Gaels. 

2. Irish scholars: famed at home and abroad. 

Irish scholars were famed at home and abroad throughout the Middle Ages. They brought with them a bit of Ireland, wherever they went: the Christian values and a new literate culture in Latin. 

Their presence can be traced through Scotland, England, Wales, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria and beyond. 

In Britain, “The English great and small were by their Irish masters instructed…”, St. Bede stated in his “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” – The Ecclesiastical History of the English People -. 

Iona and Lindisfarne were the cradle of many scholars, tutored by the Irish monks. 

Columba, who had trained as a poet before becoming a cleric, was the first of the great wandering Irish monks, who went to Scotland “pro amore Dei”, where he established the monastery of Iona around 563. 

A significant body of literature, both in Latin and Irish, was produced there. Columba died in 597.

Fursa is another Irish cleric to go to establish a monastery among the Anglo-Saxons of East Anglia around 632. 

In France, Columbanus, was the first of the great Irish pilgrims to the continent. Trained in Grammar, Rhetoric, Geometry and Holy Scripture at the monastery of Bangor, County Down in Northern Ireland, he left the monastery around 590 and travelled with twelve companions to the Merovingian kingdoms in the region of Burgundy, where he founded monasteries at Annagray, Fontaines, and Luxeuil true centres of Irish influence for several centuries.

Also, Fursa went within a few years from East Anglia to France. He founded a monastery in Picardy, north of Paris. It was known as Peronna Scottorum “Péronne of the Irish,” and became, like Columbanus’ Bobbio in northern Italy, a European centre of Irish influence. He died around 650.

Bobbio in Italy, founded by St. Columbanus, was the centre, for many centuries, of religious, philosophical, scientific, artistic and social life. 

Columbanus left a surprisingly large body of writings, such as letters (some to popes), monastic rules, penitentials and poems.

Jonas, an Italian monk, wrote a “Life of Columbanus”, who died in 615, more than 100 years later.

In Switzerland: Gallus, one of Columbanus’ companions to the continent, fell ill and then unable to continue the journey to Italy with his master. He established a great monastery, whose impact can be gauged by the fact that several Lives were written about him. Among his biographers are such noted 9th century intellectuals as Walahfrid Strabo and Nokter Balbulus.

St. Gallen’s monastery, one of the most important in Europe from the 7th to the 19th century and its library among the richest and oldest in the world for its precious manuscripts, are world heritage’s treasures.

Their music school became the “Wonder and delight of Europe” on those far-gone days. Gall died around 630.

In Austria, Irish monks educated young people in the “Schottenkloster” to work also in Chancelries of the country. They were instrumental in the foundation of Vienna’s University. Virgil was famous as Bishop of Salzburg.  

In Germany: Kilian was most successful and revered at Würzburg where he died martyr. During the Vikings incursions in Ireland religious manuscripts and secular works of the monks were removed away to the safety of monasteries in Wurzburg, Mainz and Ratisbon.

Ratisbon is the place where Marianus Scotus founded the St. Jacob’s monastery that became the Alma Mater of 12 other monastic centres of great cultural influence.

Other Irish scholars had an important cultural role in Europe.

Dicuil was one of them, active in the Carolingian court. 

His scientific skills certainly had a massive influence not only on medieval Europe, but also on much of the then known world.  

Of him we know that he wrote between 814 and 816 an astronomical work, a compute in four books, as “The Catholic Enciclopedia” asserts in its Vol. IV. In 825 he produced: “De mensura Orbis terrae”, a geographical summary including information on Europe, Asia, Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia. 

The work also contained information pertaining to the area of the earth’s surface, the length and breadth of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the five great rivers, certain islands and the six highest mountains. It is, as many believe, probably his best work. In this early treatise on world geography, he related the account of an Irish pilgrim to the Holy Land which included a description of the “barns of Joseph” on the Nile, as the Egypt’s pyramids were called. 

It seems that the monk Fidelis informed him (762?) of his journey along the canal then existing, between the River Nile and the Red Sea, while other “travelling” clerics passed on information relating to the Faroe Islands and Iceland and on Irish hermits who sailed to isolated islands in the North Atlantic and used eyewitness accounts of these same hermits in Iceland (before the arrival of the Norse) to describe the midnight sun. 

Though he bases his writings on the Emperor Theodosius II`s “Mensuratio orbis” (y. 435), Dicuil also uses the works of Pliny the Elder, Gaius Julius Solinus, Paulus Orosius and Isidore of Seville, but in the end, he still manages to arrive at his own valuable conclusions. So Dicuil, following the example of many of his other companions and contemporaries in transcribing manuscripts and other works, is our best source for obtaining detailed information of the surveys, undertaken by order of Theodosius II

In 825 his most famous work, “De Mensura Orbis Terrae” – On the Measurement of the Earth -, appeared. 

Sedulius Scottus is another widely known Irish scholar in the Carolingian courts. We know practically nothing of Sedulius until he reached the continent. By 848 he was in Liège, Belgium. His most famous work is “De Rectoribus Christianis” – On Christian Rulers -. It belongs to the genre “Specula principum” – mirrors for princes – or instructions for rulers. One of its main tenants is that the ruler is appointed by God to protect and assist the Church. The Anglo-Saxon homilist, Wulfstan (d.1023), relied on Sedulius’ work in writing his own “Institutes of Polity”. By 874 Sedulius disappeared from history.

Johannes Scottus Eriugena – “Scottus” means “an Irishman” and “Eriugena”, “born in Ireland” -, is the most widely respected thinker among the Irish scholars in Carolingian France. He was a contemporary of Sedulius Scottus. Bertrand Russell called Johannes “the 9th century most astonishing person” and went on to say that “he was an Irishman, a Neoplatonist, an accomplished Greek scholar, a Pelagian, a pantheist”.

His knowledge of Greek and his reliance on Greek texts in the original, was unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. He must have arrived at the palace school of Laon, northeast of Paris, by 845. By 851 he produced his “De Praedestinatione” – On Predestination – in which he defended free will, but he relied primarily on philosophy rather than on divine revelation for its defense.

Like Sedulius, we know practically nothing of Johannes, except through the works he produced on the continent. His most famous is “De Divisione Naturae” – On the Division of Nature”.

*Enzo Farinella, giornalista

Enzo Farinella