Columban (DNB00)

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COLUMBAN, Saint (543–615), abbot of Luxeuil and Bobbio, was born in Leinster in 543, the year of the death of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino. His youth was studious, and he became well versed in literature and in the works of the grammarians. As he grew to manhood his singular beauty exposed him to many temptations from his countrywomen. In order to resist these he applied himself with redoubled diligence to his work, and studied grammar, rhetoric, and geometry with all his might. Still troubled by carnal desires, he sought counsel of an aged woman, who lived as a recluse. She bade him flee from temptation. In obedience to her advice he left his parents and his home, and went to dwell with a learned doctor named Silene,' probably Sinell, abbot of Cluaininis in Lough Erne (comp. Vita S. Columbani Abb. by Jonas, a monk of Bobbio, and almost a contemporary, and Lanigan, Eccl. Hist. ii. 233, 263). While with him Columban composed a metrical version of some of the Psalms and wrote other poems and treatises. After a while he left Sinell and entered the monastery of Bangor on the coast of Down, which was then under the rule of its founder, St. Congall, where he was conspicuous for his devotion and the strict discipline of his life. After remaining there many years he longed to go as a missionary to foreign lands, and, having obtained the reluctant consent of his abbot, sailed with twelve other monks who wished to accompany him to Britain. They made only a short stay there, and then, probably in 585, went on to Gaul. Constant wars and the consequent negligence of the priests had caused religion to decay throughout the dominions of the Merovingian kings. Christianity indeed remained, but men no longer cared to practise self-mortification and penance (Vita, p. 11). Columban preached in various places, and then went to the court, his biographer Jonas says, of Sigebert, king of the Austrasians and Burgundians. This must, however, be wrong, for Sigebert of Austrasia was slain in 575 (St. Greg. Ep. Turon. iv. 52), and this king must therefore have been either Guntramn of Burgundy, who died in 593, or Hildebert II, who succeeded his father Sigebert in Austrasia and his uncle Guntramn in Burgundy. It is probable that Columban arrived at the court of Hildebert after he had succeeded to Guntramn's kingdom (Orderic, 716 A). The king received him graciously, and begged him to remain in his country, offering him whatsoever he would. Columban refused his gifts, and only asked that he might settle in some desert place. The king agreed, and he and his companions took up their abode in the wilderness country of the Vosges mountains, where they found the ruins of an ancient fortification to which the tradition of the day gave the name of Anagrates (Vita, p. 12), the present hamlet of Anegray, in the commune of Faucogney, department Haute-Saone. There they lived very hardly, sometimes having nothing to eat save grass and the bark of trees. About three leagues distant was the abbey of Salix or Le Saucy, and the cellarer Marculf, who was sent by his abbot to carry food to the strangers, spoke so much of Columban's holiness that many disciples joined him and much people resorted to him. Columban, however, loved solitude. He often withdrew himself from his little society, and only taking one youth as his companion would abide for a time in some lonely place. He had a full share of the tenderness of character and the love of all living things conspicuous in St. Columba, St. Patrick, and, indeed, in the Celtic saints generally. Birds, it is said, would light on his shoulder that he might caress them, and as he wandered in the forest squirrels would run down from the trees and nestle in his. cowl. Like other Celtic saints, too, he was eager, dauntless, and passionate.

When the number of monks became so great that they could not all live together in the ruins at Anegray, Columban determined to build a monastery in the immediate neighbourhood, and chose the site of the once famous baths of Luxovium or Luxeuil, about eight miles off. The ruins of the Gallo-Roman town lay on the borders between Austrasia and Burgundy, at the foot of the Vosges mountains, in a district that had long lain deserted, and was thickly covered with pine forests and brushwood. When, probably in 590, Columban obtained a grant of Luxeuil from the king, he found the images of pagan gods standing among the ruins of the ancient town. Leaving a certain number of monks at Anegray, he built a monastery for the rest here. The sons of many Prankish nobles entered his new house, and that too soon became full to overflowing. He accordingly built another monastery at Fontaine. He kept the headship of these houses himself, and was often at one or the other of them. At the same time he spent many days in solitary retirement, and he therefore appointed provosts who were to govern the monks in each convent under his direction. It was for these congregations that he drew up his rule. Obedience ' even unto death ' was the basis of his system. Less precise than the rule of St. Benedict, Columban's rule enjoined severe labour as a means of gaining self-control, without laying down any particular regulations. Self-denial was to be universally practised, but was to stop short of any privation that might hinder devotion. Vast as the power of the abbots was as regards the duty of obedience, they were not allowed to inflict punishments at their own discretion, for a minute penal code is appended to the rule prescribing the exact penalties for various offences. Corporal punishment is generally ordered, and the number of stripes to be administered is laid down in each case. Something of the unpractical spirit of Celtic monasticism appears in the sentence that the purity of the monk was to be judged by his thoughts as well as by his actions. Columban's rule was followed in Gaul before the rule of Benedict, and was formally approved by the council of Macon in 627. It is printed in the 'Collectanea Sacra' of Patrick Fleming, an Irish monk, and in 'Bibliotheca Maxima Patrum,' xii. 2 (see also Laningan, ii. 269, and Neander, Ecclesiastical History, v. 37-44). The number of Columban's monks increased rapidly, and it is said, though on no very good authority, that he instituted the ' Laus perennis ' in his convents, a system by which each monk in turn took his share in the divine service, so that the voice of praise rose continually from the congregation. Columban adhered to the Celtic usages as regards the date of Easter, the shape of the tonsure, and other matters (Bædæ, Hist. Heel. ii. 4). The Frankish bishops, who seem to have looked on his growing influence with some jealousy, urged him to conform to the Roman practice. He wrote letters to Gregory the Great on the subject of the difference of ritual. Three of these letters never reached the pope ; Satan, he says, hindered their delivery. One is preserved: it is respectful, though at the same time the language is bold and free (Fleming, Collect. 157, ep. v.) The bishops in 602 held a council to judge him. Instead of appearing before this council Columban sent the bishops a letter written in a tone of dignified authority, in which he bids them examine the question with meekness ; he reminds them that he was not the author of these differences, for he and his companions followed the practices of their forefathers, and prays that he may be allowed to remain in the woods where he had dwelt for the last twelve years, and so be near the bodies of the seventeen of his brethren who had passed away (ib. 113, ep. ii.) At a later date he also wrote to Pope Boniface (the third Boniface 606-607, the fourth 607-615) asking his protection. Columban at this time was strong in the favour of the royal house, and so the bishops seem to have taken no further steps against him.

Before long Columban lost the support he derived from the Burgundian court. Attracted by his holiness Theodorik II, king of Orleans and Burgundy, often came to Luxeuil to seek his prayers and counsel. The king, who had put away his wife, lived very evilly, and in 609 Columban took advantage of one of his visits to urge him to put away his concubines, and have children by a lawful wife and queen. The king was inclined to obey him. Columban's conduct, however, enraged the king's grandmother, the famous Brunhild, for she feared that if her grandson married she would lose much of her dignity and power. It chanced one day that Columban visited the old queen at the town now called Bourcheresse. When Brunhild saw him enter the hall, she brought the sons that different concubines had borne the king and set them before him. He asked what they wanted of him. 'They are the king's sons,' she answered ; 'strengthen them with thy blessing.' The quick temper of the Celtic saint was thoroughly roused. 'Know this,' said he, 'that these boys shall never hold the kingly sceptre, for they are the offspring of the stews' (Fredegarius, c. 36). After this Brunhild and the king acted spitefully towards Columban, and though a temporary reconciliation took place the abbot again excited their anger by writing to warn Theodorik that unless he amended his life he would withdraw from communion with him he would, that is to say, personally separate himself from him, as St. Ambrose did from the Emperor Theodosius, a wholly different matter from a general excommunication (Lanigan, ii. 279). On this Brunhild stirred up the nobles against the abbot, and incited the bishops to find fault with his monastic rule (Vita, 18). Urged by the party thus formed, Theodorik went to Luxeuil and ordered the abbot to grant free access to his convent to every one alike, according to the custom of the country. Columban refused, and shortly afterwards the king sent him to Besancon that he might there await his pleasure. No restraint was put upon the abbot's movements while he was there, and so he quietly returned to Luxeuil. When the king heard of his return he sent soldiers to drive him out of the monastery, ordering that none save his Celtic monks were to accompany him. Columban left Burgundy in 610, after having spent twenty years there. He and his companions were conducted with considerable harshness to Auxerre, and thence to Nevers, where they were made to embark on the Loire. From Tours, where he visited the tomb of St. Martin, Columban sent a message to Theodorik warning him that in three years he and his children would be destroyed utterly. At Nantes the party was to be shipped off to Ireland. While waiting there for a vessel Columban wrote a touching letter of farewell to the monks he had left in his Burgundian monasteries. With many passionate expressions of grief he bade them obey their new head, Attala, and requested that he would remain with them unless there arose some danger of division about the Easter question (Collect. 132). It is said that the ship that was to have taken him back to Ireland was miraculously driven ashore, and that he and his monks were allowed to go whither they would (Vita, 22; Fredegarius). They visited the court of Hlotair (Clothaire) II, king of Neustria, at Soissons, and were warmly welcomed. While Columban was at the Neustrian court the king consulted him as to whether he should join Theodebert or Theodorik in the quarrel that was then impending between them. Columban, it is said, bade him help neither of them, declaring that within three years the dominion of both should be his. Although earnestly pressed to abide in Neustria, he refused to do so, for he desired to visit other countries. In 611 he left Neustria, and, guarded by an escort provided him by Hlothair, travelled to the court of Theodebert, king of Austrasia, at Metz. Theodebert received him graciously and offered to settle him in any place that he thought would be a suitable station for mission work among the heathen people of the surrounding districts. Columban went to seek out a field of labour for himself; he ascended the Rhine, and entered the present canton of Zug. Here he and his monks preached to the Alemanni and the Suevi. In his zeal he set fire to a heathen temple, and this so enraged the people that he and his party were forced to flee. They went to Arbon on the Lake of Constance, and thence to the ruins of the ancient Bregentium, now Bregenz, where they established themselves. Columban again destroyed the images of the heathen people, but the preaching of St. Gall, who was one of his companions, and who knew the language of the country, had considerable effect, and the missionaries appear to have been unmolested.

The overthrow of Theodebert at Tolbiac in 612 brought Bregenz under the power of Columban's enemies, Theodorik and Brunhild (Fredegaritus, c. 38). He therefore departed for Italy, leaving St. Gall, who either was or pretended to be sick, behind him (Walafrid, i. 8; Lanigan, ii. 291), and in the same year as the battle of Tolbiac arrived at Milan, having spent about a year at Bregenz (Walafrid says three years, but this, as Lanigan shows, is probably incorrect). He was received with great kindness by the Lombard king, Agilulf, and appears to have remained at Milan for a year. During this time he disputed with the Arians,and wrote a treatise against their doctrine, which has not been preserved (Vita, 29). At the request of Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda he wrote a letter to Boniface IV on the subject of the Nestorian heresy, which prevailed widely in northern Italy. In this letter he appears to defend the Nestorian doctrine, and urges the the matter to a general council. In 613 Agilulf gave him a grant of land in the Apennines, and there he founded his monastery of Bobbio, rebuilding an old church which he found there, and building another. While he was thus engaged a messenger came to him from Hlothair telling him that his prophecy had been fulfilled. Theodebert had been defeated and slain in 612, and his conqueror, Theodorik, had died the next year. Hlothair slew the sons of Theodorik, and was now king over all the three Frankish kingdoms. He wished Columban to come to him. This, however, the abbot refused, and only begged the king to show kindness to his monastery at Luxeuil. He died at Bobbio on 21 Nov. 615, and was there buried. His memory is held in honour in northern Italy, and is preserved in the name of the town San Columbano. His name is really only another form of Columba (Vita, i.) The example of missionary zeal set by St. Columban found many imitators both in England and Ireland. About fifty years after his death his rule was superseded by the rule of St. Benedict. Nevertheless his work did not perish, for in Gaul no monastery for many years became so famous as his house at Luxeuil, while in Italy the congregation he founded in his last days was full and flourishing a century and a half after his death (Paulus Diaconus, iv. 41), and long continued a seat of learning and a stronghold of orthodoxy (Dict. of Christian Biog. art. 'Columban').

Columban's extant works, collected and published by Patrick Fleming, are: 1. 'Regula Monastica,' his Rule, in ten chapters. 2. 'Regula coenobialis . . . sive Liber de quotidianis pcenitentiis monachorum,' his book of punishments for the offences of monks, in fifteen chapters. 3. 'Instructiones variæ,' including seventeen discourses. 4. 'Liber de modo . . . pœnitentiarum,' a penitential. 5. 'Instructio de octo vitiis principalibus.' 5. 'Epistolæ aliquot,' letters to the synod of 602, his parting charge to the monks in his Burgnndian houses, to Boniface III and IV, and to Gregory the Great. 6. His six poems on the vanity and vexations of life, including an epigram 'De Muliere;' the authorship of one of these 'Rythmus de Vanitate . . . vitæ mortalis,' is doubtful (Wright). Besides these : 7. A commentary on the Psalms is not in Fleming's collection. The collected editions of his works are: 'Patricii Flemingi Hiberni Collectanea sacra, seu S. Columbani . . . acta et opuscula,' 8vo, Augsburg, 1621, fol. Louvain, 1667, which includes the life by Jonas and the Miracles, and reprinted from this the 'Opera omnia' in the 'Bibliothecæ Patrum,' and in Migne's 'Patrologiæ Cursus completus,' tom. lxxxvi., 1844. The rules are also in Goldast's 'Parseneticorum Vet.' pars i., Messingham's 'Florilegium Insulæ Sanctorum,' fol. Paris, 1624, and Lucas Holstenius's 'Codex Regularum,' ii.; the poems with the 'Rythmus' are in Goldast's collection, and in 'Dionysii Catonis Disticha de Moribus,' 8vo, Zwickau, 1672. Fuller information will be found in Wright's 'Biographia Literaria,' which also contains some account of the works. The commentary on the Psalms is in 'II codice irlandese,' Rome, 1878.

[Vita S. Columbani, by Jonas of Bobbio, in Fleming's Collectanea and Mabillon's Acta SS. Ord. S. Ben. Sæc. ii.; Walafrid Strabo, Vita S. Galli (Mabillon's Acta SS. ii., Goldast's Alemann. rerum Script, i.); Fredegarii Schol. Chron. (Recueil des Hist. ii. 413); Aimonis Flor. de Gestis Francorum, iii. c. 94 (Recueil des Hist. iii. 113); Paulus Diac. iv. c. 41 (Pertz); Bædæ Hist. Eccl. ii. c. 4 (Eng. Hist. Soc.); Lanigan's Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, ii. chap. 13; Montalembert's Monks of the West, ii. 447; Neander's Ecclesiastical History (Stebbing), v. 37–44 (Clark's Theol. Lib. xv.); Wright's Biog. Lit. i. 142–63; Dict. of Christian Biog. i. 605–7.]

W. H.