The ancient Irish church/Chapter 8

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The position occupied by women in the ancient Irish Church is a rather difficult, but most interesting subject. In the olden times the women of Ireland were admitted to many employments that are generally regarded as being outside their province. Even in the field of battle they took their place, and it was not until the year 590 that they were exempted from service in the military expeditions. When Tara was in all its glory, the 'barrack of the warlike women' stood within the enclosure, not far from the palace of the king. From the first they played an important part in the history of the Church. They were, as we have seen, admitted freely to the monasteries, or at all events to some of them, and being admitted, they were not always confined to the less important offices. Some of the abbots evidently did not care much for this mixed system. Columba is said to have objected even to cows, giving as his reason, 'where there is a cow there must be a woman, and where there is a woman there must be mischief.' This, by the way, has been triumphantly quoted to show that women were excluded from Iona. But surely it is the very opposite inference that should be drawn. There were cows in Iona; therefore, according to Columba, there must have been women.

If the Lives of the Saints are to be believed, however, there were some who obstinately excluded women from their communities. In doing so they encountered determined opposition. Kevin of Glendalough is said to have hurled a woman into the lake, because in no other way could he overcome the persistence with which she insisted on obtaining admittance into the monastery. A curious story is also told about Senanus, the saint who has given his name to the River Shannon. He established himself with his followers in an island, and on one occasion a woman sailed across and demanded admission. He met her with a repulse: 'What have women in common with monks? We will not receive thee nor any like thee.' She began to argue with him: 'What! if thou believest that my spirit can receive Jesus Christ, why repulse my body?' But the saint was unmoved by the appeal. 'I believe thee,' he said; 'but no woman shall ever enter here. Go; God save thy soul; but go, return to the world; among us thou wouldest give scandal; thy heart may be chaste, but thy sex is in thy body.' Stories like these could never have taken rise if it had not been a recognised institution at one time for women and men together to form portion of the same community.

In other places they were far from resting contented with such unfriendly exclusion or grudging toleration. They became the instructors of men, and took upon them the training of those who were to be admitted to the priesthood. We read of one who did duty as 'Erenach' at Derry,[1] and who must therefore have transacted all the business of the establishment, superintended the farm operations, and received the visitors. Of another, we are told that she acted as 'soul friend,' or spiritual adviser to one of the opposite sex. In the Life of Saint Aidan, we are told, 'After Aidan had come to Ireland, he said, I am sorry that I did not ask my instructor who in this island of Ireland should be my soul friend. He was returning to Saint David, walking on the sea, when an angel met him and said, There was great confidence in what thou hast done, in going on foot over the sea. To which Aidan answered, I have not done this through confidence, but through the strength of faith. And the angel said to him, It is not necessary that thou shouldest have a soul friend, for God loves thee, and between thee and God there will be no intermediary one. If, however, thou wishest for a soul friend, thou shalt have Molue, the mother of Choche.'[2] A story like this could never have arisen if it were considered unworthy of a saint to have a woman for his soul friend.

Several instances are recorded of women rising to the highest offices in the Church, and becoming abbesses; that is to say, not mere superiors to communities of women, but heads of establishments formed after the same pattern as the rest, with priests and bishops amongst the inmates, who meekly submitted to the rule of the woman who was the head of the religious 'family.'

The most famous of these abbesses was Bridget, whose monastery at Kildare continued to be famous for many centuries. She was the illegitimate daughter of one of the Irish chiefs, and is said to have been remarkable for her beauty, until, finding it to be an obstacle to her usefulness, she prayed that she might be deprived of it; from which time she became remarkably plain. Probably this simply means that she was disfigured by an illness such as small-pox, and was thus led to dedicate herself to a religious life. At all events, she was one of the earliest converts, and for a time became the companion of St. Patrick, whom she accompanied in his preaching tours through the country. Eventually, she founded the monastic establishment at Kildare, which, like the others of that age, consisted of both sexes living together, and bound by the same rules. Having erected her monastery 'on the sure foundations of faith,' it soon became 'the head of nearly all the Irish churches, and the pinnacle towering above all the monasteries of the Scots, whose jurisdiction spread through the whole Hibernian land from sea to sea.'

After a time, she reflected that she ought 'to provide with prudent care regularly in all things for the souls of her people,' and came to the conclusion that 'she could not be without a high priest, to consecrate churches and to settle the ecclesiastical degrees in them."[3] Accordingly, after a time a bishop, who was also a worker in brass, was admitted to the community; but he became subject to the abbess in the same way as in some other places the bishop was subject to the abbot. Sometimes there was more than one bishop at Kildare. As far as we can judge, the establishment resembled in most respects the ordinary monasteries around them. There was the same entertaining of distinguished strangers and the coming and going of visitors; the same ceremony of washing the feet was observed, only it was done by the sisters instead of by the brothers; the same kind of work, too, went on; the ground was tilled, mechanical arts were pursued, and especially the work of producing illuminated manuscripts occupied a considerable portion of their time. Giraldus Cambrensis gives us a wonderful account of a copy of the Gospels which existed in his time, and which must have been of the same class as the Book of Kells. He tells us that it was miraculously produced. Every night an angel showed the scribe in a dream a copy of the designs he was to execute on the following day, and by the prayers of Bridget he was then enabled to reproduce them. 'In this manner the book was composed, an angel furnishing the designs. Saint Bridget praying, and the scribe copying.'

In later times the abbesses seem to have had less authority, and the establishment was nearly always under the control of some member of the royal family of Leinster, not unfrequently the heir to the throne. A remarkable peculiarity of the monastery at Kildare was the keeping up of a perpetual fire. Giraldus mentions it among the 'Wonders and Miracles of Ireland.' He tells us that 'this fire is surrounded by a hedge, made of stakes and brushwood, and forming a circle, within which no male can enter; and if any one should presume to enter, which has been sometimes attempted by rash men, he will not escape the Divine vengeance. Moreover, it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath.' There has been much speculation as to the meaning of this fire, bat its origin is lost in mystery, and is not impropably to be traced to the old Druidism. Henry de Londres, one of the Anglo-Norman archbishops of Dublin, believing it to be of idolatrous origin, caused it to be extinguished in 1220, but it was again relighted, and continued until the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. It furnishes us with an example of how the old Celtic usages were often tolerated by the Romish party when they could not be abolished.

There were many establishments in Ireland which owed their origin to Kildare. Saint Bridget's influence, we are told, 'like a fruitful vine, spreading all around with growing branches,' extended itself through the whole country. But their record seems, for the most part, to have perished. In a few places we read of abbesses, as for example in Clonburren on the Shannon, and Clonbroney in the County Longford. The latter was founded in the year 734 by Samthann, who was a poetess, and who is herself celebrated in verse by the literary king, Hugh Allen. He writes concerning her:

'Samthann for enlightening various sinners,
A servant who observed stern chastity,
In the northern plain of fertile Meath
Great suffering did Samthann endure.
She undertook a thing not easy,
Fasting for the kingdom above,
She lived on scanty food,
Hard were her girdles.
She struggled in venomous conflicts,
True was her heart amid the wicked;
To the bosom of the Lord, with a pure death
Samthann passed from her sufferings.'[4]

It is not quite clear whether there were other establishments in Ireland where both sexes were united under the rule of the abbess, as at Kildare. But it is certain that in England and on the continent there were many like it, where Irish, or at all events Celtic, teachers had made their influence felt. In France, for example, Saint Fara's monastery at Brie followed at first the Rule of Saint Columbanus. Earcongota, daughter of Earconbert, King of Kent, and her kinswoman Ethelberga, were inmates, and the latter was at one time abbess. But the establishment included brethren as well as sisters, for when Earcongota died, 'many of the brethren of that monastery that were in the other houses declared that they had then plainly heard concerts of angels singing, and the noise as it were of a multitude entering the monastery.'[5]

The famous Saint Hilda presided over such a monastery at Whitby in Yorkshire, and was in her day the upholder of Irish customs, although at the time the Roman missionaries in England were using all their influence against them.[6] She had been converted by Paulinus, first bishop of the Northumbrians, but had received most of her religious education from Saint Aidan, who came forth from Iona. She was strict in her discipline, and insisted on community of goods, 'so that after the example of the primitive Church no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property.' 'She obliged those who were under her direction to attend so much to the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might be there found fit for ecclesiastical duties, and to serve at the altar.' In this way she trained a large number for the sacred ministry, of whom no less than five became bishops. She seems to have been not only a ruler, but a preacher, for we are told that notwithstanding sickness, she never failed 'publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge.'[7]

Among those who acknowledged her as abbess was one whose name has come down to us as the first of the Anglo-Saxon writers, Cædmon, whose Metrical Paraphrase of Holy Scripture is not only a monument of literature, but presents us with the earliest attempt to translate the Bible into the vulgar language of the people.[8] Bede tells us that 'he sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis: and made verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from Holy Writ; the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection of our Lord, and His Ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the Apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavoured to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of and application to good actions; for he was a very religious man, humbly submissive to regular discipline, but full of zeal against those who behaved themselves otherwise; for which reason he ended his life happily.'

A branch of Hilda's establishment was founded thirteen miles from Whitby, and again a lady was placed at the head of it. Saint Bega, from Ireland, who is still commemorated by the name Saint Bees, which the place bears at the present day, and where in the well-known Theological College the same work of training candidates for Holy Orders is now carried on. At Barking, Coldingbam and Watton there were monasteries conducted on similar principles. The arrangement does not seem to have struck the Venerable Bede as incongruous or extraordinary, although he does relate some not very creditable incidents, which show that in some cases at least the system produced those evils which, on a priori grounds, one might expect would have destroyed it before a generation had passed. For example, one of the monks of Coldingham had, he tells us, a vision of an angel, who said to him, 'I having now visited all this monastery regularly, have looked into every one's chambers and beds, and found none of them except yourself busy about the care of his soul; but all of them, both men and women, either indulge themselves in slothful sleep, or are awake in order to commit sin; for even the cells that were built for praying or reading are now converted into places of feasting, drinking, talking, and other delights; the very virgins dedicated to God laying aside the respect due to their profession, whensoever they are at leisure, apply themselves to wearing fine garments, either to use in adorning themselves like brides, to the danger of their condition, or to gain the friendship of strange men; for which reason a heavy judgment from heaven is deservedly ready to fall on this place and its inhabitants by devouring fire.'[9] The result of this warning was a temporary reformation, but after a time, relaxing again into their former habits, the judgment threatened came upon them, and a fire destroyed the whole monastery.

All these English establishments, which were under the control of women, were founded by those who were of Irish origin, or had come under Irish influence. One may therefore conclude that this institution of the mixed monastery was one peculiar to the ancient Celtic Church, and that the position occupied by women was one of greater importance than was the case in any other country.

  1. Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 1134.
  2. Rees, Lives of the Cambro-British Saints.
  3. See Todd, Life of St. Patrick, pp. 11, 12, who here quotes from Cogitosus, Vita S. Brigidæ.
  4. Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 734.
  5. Bede. Eccl. Hist., iii. 8.
  6. Ib., iii. 25.
  7. Bede, Eccl. Hist., iv. 23.
  8. Ib. iv., 24.
  9. Bede, Eccl. Hist., iv. 25.