A Scottish Abbey in Austria? Irish and the undarkening of the Dark Ages?
Everything ties together, one way or another. Let’s walk from Ireland to Austria, with Celtic footsteps across Germany.
While the Romans never conquered Ireland by sword, St. Patrick, son of Roman Britain, did with his golden tongue. He brought Christianity, literacy and connection to Mediterranean civilization with the Emerald Isle. And the Irish missionaries of the Dark Ages repaid the favor to Europe, relighting the lights lost with Rome’s fall.
Let’s work our way from those Dark Ages to Renaissance Germany.
The Roman Empire lost western Europe in the 400’s and 500’s AD, shrinking into the east Mediterranean Byzantine Empire and ushering in centuries of the Dark ages. Mighty Rome shriveled from a population of over a million, a world city, to a meager 10,000 inhabitants huddled amid ruins.
Roman civilization and its literacy nearly collapsed; the Church was the one institution that continued to hold the West together and preserve its heritage. And untouched Ireland and its Church bore generations, centuries of missionaries who re-lit the lights across the west, first within the British Isles, then to France, and on to heathen central Europe.
The Celtic Church in Ireland, "Island of Saints and Scholars”, stood outside the storm, and Celtic missionaries began spreading the gospel, writing and the arts of civilization first across the British Isles- we all know St. Patrick circa 400 AD, and happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! But he was not alone. More Irish missionaries spread the faith among the Angle-Saxons and Picts, then took their mission to the continent.
They restored not just bare literacy, but built monasteries that actively preserved the learning of antiquity, slender ties to the wealth of ancient thought.
St. Columba from Ireland spread the faith to the Picts (early inhabitants of Scotland), and founded Iona Abbey in the 560’s.
Well, that's Great Britain (which strictly speaking is the island with England, Wales and Scotland, while Ireland is the Little Britain)- across the waters, the Irish would not stop there! The converted the Angle and Saxon heathens, and turned their eyes and feet to the Channel.
A generation later came St. Columbanus, who inaugurated the outreach to the continent. France at the time was still Francia, with a ruling class that spoke a Franconian dialect of Old High German (after Charlemagne, in the 800’s, they assimilated into the larger French population), and was still consolidating Christianity there.
St. Columbanus crossed the waters, and founded his first abbey, Luxeuil, in Burgundy, France in 590 AD (the Germanic Burgundian conqueror class was likewise soon to dissolve into a Burgundian French populace).
603, St. Columbanus couldn’t keep his wandering feet still, and was on to Allemania* (what is now Switzerland and southwest Germany), winning some converts and founding monastery in 603 in Bregenz across the Rhine by the (modern) Swiss-German border in 603, before spending his last years building his third abbey, Bobbio, in northern Italy in 614 AD.
Even then, people were doing spin-offs- his companion Gallus founded a monastery in what’s now Switzerland in 612, today the Swiss city St. Gallen. Each foundation rippled its influences out to further daughter churches, and by the 700’s and 800’s, literacy was starting to take root across the upper Danube basin.
But they were just getting warmed up! Well, when the missionaries met martyrdom, it was generally by swords, not flames. But they kept coming on, and won out.
The happening St. Kilian, born in Ireland in the mid-600’s, served first at Iona. In the 680’s AD, he went to Würzburg that was ruled by the pagan lord Gosbert, and spread the gospel from there across East Franconia (now in northern Bavaria) and Thuringia to the northeast, till meeting martyrdom there. He disapproved of Gosbert and his wife’s behavior, and she had her men kill Kilian and companions. But who named anything after her? Yet there are German churches by the dozens named for St. Kilian (here are two equivalent lists: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilianskirche and https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilianskirche)- not that he founded them all! Churches have been named for him long over a thousand years after his death- those are some likes! And some churches gave their names to their villages.
It’s more than just churches: in the Thuringian woods of German stands the Kilianstein, a great boulder rising above the trees, named for St. Kilian, the Irish saint who brought Christianity and literacy to large swaths of Germany. The legend has it that St. Kilian’s missionary successes infuriated the devil into slamming his walking stick into the earth where it remained embedded.
With the Celtic inspirations, Angle-Saxons followed their example: the Angle-Saxon Boniface, Apostle to the Germans, (that’s not ‘Goodface’, it means ‘Goodfate’) preached to the heathen Germanic tribes in the first half of the 700’s. He served as bishop of Mainz, and as bishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, he founded a string of monasteries, before meeting martyrdom in Frisia along the North Sea coast.
That didn’t stop them from pouring in- and for centuries. Let’s turn to Virgil of Salzburg (or Feirgil in the Irish spelling), who was an Irish scholar who went to Francia in the 740’s, and then on to the Bavarians, where he became bishop of Salzburg, and converted the Slavs of what is now Austria’s Carinthia. Churches named for him dot Austria and Tyrol, not to mention getting the Salzburg Cathedral named for him.
Celtic footsteps across Central Europe and beyond.
The Hiberno-Scottish church (Irish-Scottish), now fully unified with Rome, kept pouring it-
not just a theologist, philosopher and poet like Johannes Scotus Erigena = John the Irish-born 800’s in Francia, but two Marians (‘he of the Virgin Mary’) founded Schottenkirchen, foundations staffed by ‘Scots’ (at the time, the word applied to Irish and Scotland’s highlanders alike- Gaels, all of them):
Marian the Scot of Mainz (and Cologne and Fulda), 1050’s, and composed a history of the world from Creation to 1082 and Marian the Scot of Regensburg of the 1060’s settled in Regensburg, Bavaria and devoted himself to beautiful calligraphy of the Scriptures, still admired today.
Gaels and more Gaels crossed the waters, founding the filling the Scots Monastery of St. James of Regensburg, which in turn established a string of further monasteries across southern Germany. Many of these Schottenstifte (Scottish, or Gaelic, monasteries), continued to have Celtic monks into the 1400’s and 1500’s, before phasing German monks in.
When the duke of Austria made the town Vienna his capital city in 1156, he needed a monastery, because he had so few literate administrators- call the Celts! And he did call the Schotten down the Danube to him (from Regensburg specifically), where they founded the Schottenkloster, the Benedictine Abbey of Our Dear Lady of the Scots. The monastery was hospital and hospice, scholarium and library, and school of scribes secular and religious.
It's still there today, with all the Kilian churches, and a constellation of other foundations, and the foundation of education across central Europe. Courtesy of Celtic footsteps across Germany.
*P.S. When I called Allemania the southwest corner of Germany and Switzerland, a few of you may say wait- in French and Spanish, that means of all Germany- yes, they generalized the name of the nearest tribe, the Allemanni (‘all the guys’) to all Germans, not at all unusual.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia/WikiMedia Commons
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