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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 28 - The Culdean Church; Overthrow of the Culdean Church


We return to the Celtic evangelization. The Culdee host which is seen doing battle with the darkness of Europe, is being numerously recruited both from Iona and from the colleges of Ireland. The result is that the Columban houses are multiplying, and the area of the evangelization is, year by year, being enlarged. We begin with France. Fridolt, as we have said, broke ground at Poitiers in 501. Having started the work at this central point he removed to the Rhine, a stream already historic, though the dwellers on its banks were still heathen. This dark land now began to see a great light. Ultimately Colurmbanus, as we have seen, came to the Vosges, and planted, along with other monasteries, Luxeuil, which became a fruitful mother of Culdee cloisters, which in due time dotted the Frankish plains to the west. Anthurius, a personal friend of Columbanus, we find enrolled in this army of evangelical crusaders. He founded a number of Culdean houses on the Marne, of which the most famous was the monastery of the Rebaix. His two sons, Dado and Ado, were united with him in this pious labour. At Hombeg, near Remirmont, to which Arnulf, of Metz, had retired [1] was not a cloisters but a single cell.

There came hither Germanus, the son of the senator of Treves, a lad of seventeen, who was instructed in the faith, and after being trained in agriculture, as was the Culdee fashion, he set out, in company of Fridvald, one of the few surviving brethren of Columbanus, in search of a spot on which to build a monastery. He found a suitable place on the banks of the Birs, a river well stocked with fish, and there he reared a cloister which he named Grand Ville. Other two houses owe their erection to him—St. Paul, upon the Wohrd, and one at Ursetz, on the Doubs. After Germanus came his contemporary Wandregisil, who had a more adventurous career. He set out for Bobbio, but on his way thither, stopped in the Jura. Thence he went to the well known Culdee Audoin, who had become bishop of Rouen, by whom he was consecrated as sub-dean. He afterwards repaired to the Culdee Abbot-bishop, Anudomar of Boulogne, who ordained him a presbyter, and now he founded the cloister of St Vaudrille. His exclusive work was the conversion of the heathen in the parts about. He lived amongst the wild men, and in this he evinced the genuine Culdee spirit. He took as his motto, "Not unto us, but unto Thy name be the glory."[2]

Under Clodwig II. the wealthy Frankish noble Leudobode founded the Cenobite cloister of Fleury, near Sully,on the right bank of the Loire, east of Orleans. The letter of foundation contains as witnesses the name of Odonus, four abbots, one presbyter, three deacons, of which one subscribes himself " deacanus et vice-dominus" also a lay deacon, an attender on the sick, and eight lay witnesses.[3] Culdean houses arose in Laon, Bourges, Paris, Solignac, Charenton, at the sources of the Moselle, in the mountains of the Jura, and on the banks of the Seine. "Towards the end of the seventh century," says Ebrard, " there were in the north of France alone, i.e., to the north of the Loire and the Rhone, more than forty monasteries, all daughters and grand-daughters of Luxeuil, and all obeying the rule of Columbanus." We find the whole of France, about A.D. 600, strewed with Culdee cloisters, Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphine excepted.[4] At that time it was not uncommon for persons to come all the way from Constantinople to Britain to learn the methods of evangelising.[5] In Aquitaine there existed a great number of Culdee houses. In that province, under the rule of the Western Goths, who had been converted from Arianism by Fridolt, the Culdee Church government appears to have been the prevailing form; almost, indeed, the universal form. King Witiza (701-711) commanded all his clergy to be married, or as Anisette expresses it, "he introduced everywhere the Culdee form of church government with its married clergy." This drew upon him the displeasure of the Roman clergy of Spain, who succeeded at last in expelling him from his throne. [6]Throughout the vast extent of French territory which has come under our eyes, " the Culdees,"' says Ebrard, "found no opposing agencies, no rival monasteries; they met with only a secularized and debased clergy. All the Merovingian sovereigns, Brunhilde excepted welcomed them." Their lands were cultivated, their subjects were instructed, and the disorders of the national clergy were held in check. These benefits repaid an hundredfold the patronage the Merovingians extended to the Culdee institutions.. Even so dutiful a son of the " Church" as Montalemlert cannot withhold the tribute of his praise from these early reformers—Protestants before the age of Protestantism.

" The great Abbey of Sequania (Luxeuil)," says he, "became a nursery of bishops and abbots, preachers and reformers, for the whole Church of these vast countries, and principally for the two kingdoms of Austrasia and Burgundy. Luxeuil was the most celebrated school of Christendom during the seventh century, and the most frequented. The monks and clerks of other monasteries, and, more numerous still, the children of the noblest Frank and Burgundian races, crowded to it. Lyons, Autun, Langres, and Strasburg, the most famous cities of Gaul, sent their youth thither."[7]

Pressing over the frontier of France on the east, the Culdees established themselves in the Rhine valley. The first to break a path into this wilderness of heathenism—for such this lovely valley then was—we have seen was Fridolt and Disibod; but its full illumination begins with the arrival of Columbanus in the end of the sixth century. His persecutor, Queen Brunhilde, became, unconsciously, a fellow-worker with the great missionary. As he fled before her, he kindled lamps of Divine knowledge in his track. While he passed upon his way, these continued to burn, and in the seventh century a line of Culdean churches and schools stretched along the whole course of the Rhine, from Moire, underneath the Grisson Alps, to the islands of the Rhine-delta.

It was the Culdee lamp that burned at Constance, at Basle, at Spires, at Worms, at Mainz, and at Cologne. Boniface, the emissary of Rome, came afterwards to put out these lights. Where the Culdee abbot had exercised his paternal government, Boniface installed a mitered hierarchy with lordly power; and where the simple Culdee oratory had stood, there rose a superb cathedral, in which the scriptural worship of Iona was replaced by the new and gorgeous rites of Rome.

Beyond the Rhine was a vast territory, broken by woody mountains and intersected by great rivers, stretching eastward to the mountain barriers of Bohemia. In that age this wide tract was inhabited by pagan races. It was a daring feat for the Culdee to carry his lamp into this great and terrible wilderness—this land overhung by the shadow of death; yet the ardor of the Culdee enabled him to accomplish this unspeakably hazardous, but unspeakably glorious enterprise. "One man," it has been said, "does the work, and another runs off with all the praise." It never was more signally so than in this case. The man who figures in history as the "apostle of the Germans " is Boniface, the emissary of Rome. The real "apostle of the Germans" was the Culdee Church. It was the first to break a pathway into this great heathen world. But for it the Germans might have continued the worshippers of Thor till Luther arrived. The missionaries of the North and the West knew well the moral condition of this land, and they entered it on purpose to plant the Cross on the ruins of its pagan shrines. The greatness of the conquest fired their imagination not less than their piety. And the work they came to do they accomplished, though at infinite toil and hazard. They spread themselves, in the course of their peregrinations, from the banks of the Rhine to the frontier of Bohemia. They searched amid the forests and the morasses and mountain chains of that vast expanse for suitable centers from which to diffuse the light, and having found such, they proceeded to erect their little city of log huts, with its oratory, its school, its refectory, its barn for storing their grain, and its mill for grinding their meal. It was another Iona on the German plain. Their little village they prudently enclosed with a rath; for their encampment was in the midst of barbarians, who were not likely to show much consideration to the strangers, till they knew something more of the errand on which they had come. Christian life was possible only in an insulated Christian community.

The first lesson the Culdees gave their heathen neighbours was in the arts. The fields around their encampment ploughed and cropped, the fishing-net flung into the lake or into the river, the gin set to snare the wild fowl or the roe, would suggest to the wild men, in whom the disposition to roam was still strong, the advantages of settled over barbarian life. The good order of the Culdee families was a yet higher picture of civilization not likely to be thrown away upon those who were both quick to observe and apt to learn. Years might pass till the Germans were gained to listen to higher teachings, but the patient labours of the missionaries, who gave their lessons by the wayside, in woods, anywhere, in short, were at last crowned with success; and over the whole of western Germany schools and churches arose, which there under Culdee government, and were fountains of Culdee theology.

We can give only a few of the names that figure in this first Christianization of Germany. From North Friesland and Heligoland to the Rhine Delta, and from the Rhine Delta through Hessen to the Saale; and on the Maine through the whole of Thuringia, known at this day as the Black Forest, did the sons of the Culdees lay the solid foundation of a mission-work in accordance with the Word of God.[8] One of the more distinguished of this mission band was Willibrod, an Anglo-Saxon by birth. He threw himself with great ardour into the conversion of the Germanic nations, and in the end of the seventh century he passed over into Holland, with eleven of his countrymen, and began operations among the Frieslanders. From thence he went to Heligoland, but being cruelly treated by King Radbod, who put a member of the mission-party to death, he departed to Denmark, where he evangelized. Finally he returned to Holland, where his second ministry was attended with remarkable success. We shall see in the sequel that he was ultimately compelled to lay these evangelical spoils at the feet of the Pope. He died at Utrecht, and did not live to see the damage which the compliance of his old age inflicted upon that cause for which he had spent the vigour of his manhood, with a devotion and success that have carried his fame down to our day. [9]

About the same time, or a little before (685), Killean, born in Scotland, entered the field. One Sabbath, as he sat in church, the text, " Whosoever taketh not up his cross and followeth me, cannot be my disciple," came into his mind, and he resolved to become a missionary. He set out with twelve companions for the country of the eastern Franks, among whom the labours of this little band of Scotchmen were rewarded with numerous conversions. The first conversion of Bavaria was by Eustasius about 618, a few years after the death of Columba. Its second evangelizer, Erfurt, was sprung of an aristocratic Frankish family, and under him the mission greatly prospered. Culdeeism ascended the Danube, entered the Lower Pannonia, churches and cloisters were founded everywhere in the region, on the Waller See and on the ruins of the Roman city of Salzburg. The years 696-710 embrace the labours of this missionary. The footsteps of the Culdees can be traced as far north as Iceland. They had their stations there, and continued their labours, relieving each other by turns, till driven out by the Norwegian invaders in the ninth century. "There were then," says Ara, the Norwegian historian,[10] "Christians there whom the Norwegians call Papas" (Fathers). "There were left by them," says another Icelandic writer, "Irish books, bells, and crooked staffs, and several other things, which seemed to indicate that they were west men," i.e., Culdees.

Throughout the wide extent of our survey Culdeeism stood distinct and apart in its faith, in its worship, and in its government from the Roman Church. As regards all these points the Culdee Church continued unchanged during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. Its one supreme authority was Holy Scripture. Each house—which combined in one, church, school, and colony—had an abbot chosen by its members, who exercised not lordly but paternal sway. To him the bishops, or missionary pastors, were subject. The bulk of its clergy were married men. They trained their own missionaries, and having ordained them, sent them forth to fields, the selection of which would seem to have been left largely to themselves. They dwelt in clusters of timber huts, and not in one stone building, as was the Roman fashion in succeeding centuries. They united agricultural labours with their mission work proper. Some of the richest provinces in Germany and France at this day were first broken in from the wilderness by the industry of the Culdees. They were indefatigable transcribers of theological treatises, psalters, and Holy Scripture. The museums of many of the Continental universities are stocked with the fruits of their pen. The Ambrosian Library of Milan has a Commentary of Columbanus on the Psalms, long ascribed to Jerome, which, with other Culdee relics, it accounts amongst its most precious treasures. The crowning gift of the Culdee pen to these early churches was a translation of the Bible into the vernacular. The first Frankish translation of the Scriptures, Ebrard says, was given by Oatfridis to the German people in 750. It was no part of the policy of the Culdees to keep under the spirit of their converts by imposing upon them the yoke of a foreign tongue, or the authority of a ruling city. The Gospel adapted itself to the nations among whom it journeyed, addressing each in its own tongue. To the Germans it became a German; to the Franks a Frank. The Romans invited the nations to come to Italy if they would receive the Gospel; the Culdees brought the Gospel from Italy to the nations.

The explorations of Ebrard have revolutionized our conceptions of the early Christian church of western Europe. History till now knew nothing really of this great, widespread, apostolic church. It had tracked the footsteps of a few individual Culdees; it had registered a few incidents of their story. But the facts it had picked up and transmitted were fragmentary, insulated, and failed utterly to give us any adequate idea of the importance and grandeur of the drama of which they were broken-off parts. History has enriched itself by this discovery which has made us acquainted with an enterprise of spiritual chivalry so vast and so long sustained that we hardly know where to look for its like. Historians had filled their page with the miserable jealousies, quarrels, and battles of Roman bishops and Roman councils when, lo! the veil rises from the sixth century, and there stands to view a church at Iona and Bangor, at the ends of the world, instinct with the spirit of the Bible, bursting with missionary zeal, pouring out armies of thorough-trained missionaries, who spread themselves south and north—in short, over all western Europe, and in the face of a thousand dangers— wars, deserts, seas, barbarous tribes—invite the nations to drink of the Water of Life from the golden fountains of the Scriptures. It is, says Ebrard, "of this Rome-free and essentially evangelical church, which was governed from the island of Iona, that Columba, the younger, writes that it numbered a thousand abbots, all under the jurisdiction of one Archimandrite." [11]

We shall sum up our rapid sketch of this church—in the presence of which that of Rome in the same centuries stands dwarfed—in the words of Ebrard:—"If now we look back upon all the ground we have gone over, leaving out of view altogether the extension which the Culdean Church had obtained up to 661 in Ireland, Scotland, and Northumberland, and confining our attention to its spread on the Continent, we find this religious community in France, at the beginning of the eighth century, existing in the heart of the National Church, and not merely tolerated, but over the whole country, from the Jura to Nantes, and from this, line as far north as the delta of the Rhine, Rome-free, and entirely unrestricted in its internal organisation, decidedly favoured by the Merovingian kings, even dominating the National Church in the sense of spiritual and intellectual influence, and often also taking a part in its external government by the appointment of its abbots to important sees. We find the whole of the northern half of France sowed, so to speak, with monasteries, with all their peculiarities, in unopposed development. Then we find the whole of Rhineland converted to Christianity by this Culdean Church, and ecclesiastically governed by it in its own peculiar manner; likewise the whole of the country now called Franconia, and Alamannia, and Bavaria, converted and ecclesiastically governed by Culdeans, and Culdeans alone. And if we are to speak of the influences of the British Church, as some express themselves, it must at least be confessed that these influences might be compared to the overflow of a river, which covers the whole land. All the distinctive peculiarities of the Culdean Church—its married priests, its sending out of its missionaries by twelve, its practice of constructing its settlements in separate houses, its subjection of chorepiscopi (or bishops of monasteries) to the rule of the abbots—all this we find in Bavaria and Alamannia in, 730-739, just as it was in Scotland in 565. It is all one and the same church-fellowship, that of the Viri-Dei, or in Irish, the Keile De. In the whole south and west, and in a great part of the north of Germany, before 'the apostle' of Germany was heard of, we find in existence a flourishing, well-organised, Rome-free church, whose sole supreme authority was the Holy Scriptures, and whose preaching was the word of the free redeeming grace of God in Christ Jesus."

Gladly would we permit the curtain to descend on the Culdee Church while yet its root is firm in the soil and its boughs are stretched from Iona in the West to Bohemia on the East, and its shadow covers France and Germany besides. Gladly would we spare ourselves and our readers the melancholy recital of the tragic extirpation of this once noble vine. We must, however, pursue our subject a little further. We behold Western Europe on the point of completing its reformation. The spiritual illumination which has broke upon it from the north is year by year filling its sky with glory, when, all suddenly, its nations are thrown back again into night. What has occasioned a reversal so sad? It is the off-repeated tale of profound dissimulation on the one side, and a too credulous trust on the other. Winfrid, an Anglo-Saxon by birth, and a Benedictine monk, in 719 seeks out Willibrod, then at the head of the Culdee evangelization, and under a great show of guilelessness and much pious zeal, insinuates himself into his favour. He desires to study the methods of evangelising under the Culdee leader. "He crept in beside Willibrod," says Dr. Ebrard, "as the wolf steals in beside the shepherd," and lived for three years with him, a professed coadjutor, but in reality a spy. At the end of three years he returned to Rome, whence he had come, and where he had been instructed.[12] Pope Gregory II. consecrated him as bishop, and changed his name to Bonifacius, the "good-doer," as if in anticipation of the services expected from him. He returned to Germany, no longer wearing the Culdee mask, but as the legate extraordinary of the Pope. He brought with him letters from the pontiff, addressed to all princes, enjoining them to assist him in ruling the churches over which he had been set. Supported by the authority of Carloman and Pepin of France, he proceeded to suppress the Culdee establishments by changing them into bishoprics subject to the authority of Rome. He founded in Germany the Sees of Wartzburg, Burabourg, Erfurt, and Aichstadt, and in 744 the monastery of Fulda. This was the method Boniface adopted to evangelise the Germans, even metamorphosing Culdee missionaries into Benedictine monks, and Culdee colleges into Romish Sees, by fair means if possible, by force where artifice failed. It was in this way that he earned his title of "apostle of the Germans." Even historians who think him deserving of the honour do not conceal the startling vices that deformed his life. Mosheim, for instance, observes of him that his "zeal for the glory and authority of the Roman pontiff equaled, if it did not surpass, his zeal for the service of Christ and the propagation of his religion," and that he " often employed violence and terror, and sometimes artifice and fraud, in order to multiply the number of Christians," and discovered a cunning and insidious turn of mind," and "ignorance of many things appertaining to the true nature and genius of the Christian religion." [13] The historian Ranke speaks in similar terms of this "apostle of the Germans." [14] Nevertheless, both ascribe to him, mistakenly of course, the glory of converting the Germans from heathenism. We see the foundations of Culdeeism beginning to be sapped.

What helped, doubtless, to pave the way for the fall of the Culdee Church, was the partial apostasy of Willibrod. In his latter days he was drawn into an acknowledgment of the supremacy of the Pope, and accepted at his hands the bishopric of Utrecht. Willibrod could plead precedents for accepting a Roman miter. Some eminent Culdees in the century before had accepted high positions in the National Church from the kings of France, though they still remained within the lines of Culdeeism. Willibrod accepted his appointment from the pontiff, a power before which, if one begins to bow, he is sure at last to fall. His locks were shorn, and though he still governed the Culdee Churches of Thuringia, it was with a diminished authority. Next, Boniface arrived from Rome as legate extraordinary, and soon to be primate of Germany. In his former pupil and colleague Willibrod now found a superior and master. The papal legate had no inclination to betake himself to the forests and break up new ground. It was not to his taste to risk his precious life amongst those of the Germans who were still heathens. He preferred to build upon the foundations that Willibrod and other Culdees had laid, and to effect a second conversion of Germany on the ruins of its first conversion.

Meanwhile, another cause hastened the downfall of the Culdean Church. The supreme political power of the West had passed from the Merovingian to the Carlovingian race. Pepin of Heristal stood up. He turned back the Moslem by his arms, and saved Europe. The Pope, seeing it for his interests, allied himself with this rising house. Thus the pontiff was able to wield the Carlovingian power against his rivals and enemies the Culdees. This turned the balance in the conflict. Boniface, the papal legate, was supported by the friendship and authority of the French monarch. Willibrod was handicapped in the struggle. He had to contend against both the papal and the royal power wielded by Boniface, now become primate of all Germany, and to whom he, as bishop of Utrecht, owed obedience. The issue was that Willibrod, after forty years labour (680-720), had to surrender this whole region to Boniface, and the battle was lost.

The transformation of these countries went on apace. It became the policy of both courts, that of Rome and that of France, to wear out the Culdees, and eventually efface every vestige of them. Where had stood a Culdee oratory or church, there rose a superb cathedral for the Roman worship. Where a Culdee abbot had ruled, there a diocesan bishop bore sway. Where a cluster of log huts, inhabited by Culdee brethren, had stood, there was erected a large stone building, in which monks of the Benedictine order sheltered. The words which Bishop Aungerville addressed to the friars of his day apply to the change we see passing on the Rhineland and the German countries with even more point:—"Now base Thersites handles the arms of Achilles; the choicest trappings are thrown away upon lazy asses; blinking night-birds lord it in the nest of eagles; and the silly kite sits on the perch of the hawk." The traveler, as he passes along the lovely valley of the Rhine, or visits the German cities, fails to reflect, it may be, that the ecclesiastical edifices that everywhere meet his eye and awaken his admiration are in truth the memorials of the great Celtic evangelization of the early centuries. These monuments of the wealth and power of Rome rise on the spots where Culdee builders were the first to rear human habitations, where Culdee agriculturists were the first to cultivate the ground, and where Culdee missionaries were the first to open the Book of Life to the eyes of the ignorant natives.

When the light of the Culdee Christianisation began to fade away, and at last went out, the shadows of the Dark Ages fell fast and thick. Who, we ask, is responsible for the loss of these ten centuries? There is no room here to hesitate. The Destroyer of the Culdee Church must answer at the bar of posterity to this terrible indictment. The fiat that decreed that the Celtic evangelization should be suppressed, also decreed that Christendom should abide for ages without light and without liberty. That decree will yet crush into dust many a marble tomb, and sweep from history's page many a name which at this hour shines brightly there. The world will not easily condone so great a crime once it has come to the clear apprehension of it. Meanwhile it is far from having attained to this. With a touch of Islam resignation it looks on the dark ages as a dispensation, so fixed and absolute that it was no more in its power to avoid passing through its darkness than it is in its power to forbid an eclipse, or stay the going down of the sun. But the world will one day come to think more rationally of it, and then it will ask why knowledge was enchained, and why so many ages were given over to wars and superstition and slavery, which, but for the suppression of the Celtic evangelization, would have been ennobled with freedom, enriched with the spoils of art, and crowned with the blessings of a pure Christianity.


Footnotes

1. Ebrard, Die Iroschottishe Missionskirche des sechten, sieventen und auchten Jahrhunderts, p. 313.

2. Ebrard, Die Iroschottishe Missionskirche &c. pp. 313, 314.

3. Ibid., p. 315

4. Ebrard, p. 318.

5. Ibid., p. 316.

6. Ibid., p. 320.

7. Monks of the West, Book vii. This brilliant work is not exempt from the charge of misleading. It confuses in the mind of the reader two very different classes of monks and monasteries, even the Culdee missionaries and the Roman monks who succeeded them, men of a wholly different spirit, and who worked for wholly different ends, and who ultimately succeeded in undoing the labours of the Culdee evangelists. But in this Montalembert has only followed the example of his church, which has claimed many of these early Culdees as belonging to herself, by placing them in her calendar of saintship. It will amuse the reader to learn that among others whom she has canonized is Columbanus, the man who was her greatest and most uncompromising opponent in the early ages. We need not say that these Culdees had been long in their grave before Rome ventured to "honour them," as Montalembert calls it, "with public worship."

8. Ebrard, p. 390.

9. Mosheim, cent. vii. part i. chap. i. See also Alcuin's Life of Willibrod, in Mabillon's Lives of the Saints.

10. Ara, Multeisius, cited by Lanigan.

11. Zeitschrift für die Hiatorische Theologie. Paper 5th. Die Iroschottishe Missionskirche des sechten, sieventen und auchten Jahrhunderts und ihre verbreitung auf dem Festland, p. 389

12. Ebrard, p. 393.

13. Mosheim, cent. viii., part i., chap. i.

14. History of the Popes, Book i., clap, i.