Why did monasticism play such an important part in the expansion of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Churches between 500 and 750

The term “monasticism” is not entirely straightforward: in this period the word “monasterium” was used to refer to a wide variety of institutions and it must be borne in mind that there was not some kind of ‘standard monastery’. The basic characteristics of monasticism were prayer and abstinence, although the levels of dedication demanded varied greatly and encompassed both coenobitic and eremitic forms.

We should not force anachronistic ideas onto monasticism in this period: the isolation and simplicity demanded by the Rule of St Benedict were generally not required until the reforms of the tenth century, although some monasteries, like Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, where Benedict Biscop’s rule was used, incorporated strong elements of Benedictine tradition. Indeed, in many monasteries, monks had considerable freedom of movement and clerics were also part of the community.

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Because of the later associations of the word “monastery”, some writers use the term “mynster” in discussing monastic establishments in this period; I shall not follow this pattern, since, as Sims-Williams points out, “monasterium” was considered in this period to encompass a broad range of institutions and did not necessarily then have the connotations it has subsequently acquired. It is my contention that these diverse monastic foundations played an important role in the growth of both the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon Churches in four main ways.

The first sense in which monasticism contributed to the Church’s expansion was in the conversion of pagans. Secondly, monks were most probably concerned to some extent with ‘front-line’ pastoral care, ministering to the faithful. In analysing this, it is necessary to consider the role of monasticism in relation to episcopal authority, where contrasts between the Anglo-Saxon and Irish Churches emerge.

It appears that, especially in the Anglo-Saxon Church, the monasteries played an important role in this area, though pastoral care was theoretically the preserve of the episcopate; while monasteries in Ireland were powerful, it is doubtful whether they contributed greatly to pastoral care. As well as engaging directly in ministry, monasteries thirdly provided much support for preaching and converting, particularly by copying texts, training religious personnel and perhaps providing inspiration.

Finally, monasteries provided a means by which kings and nobles could endow the Churches advantageously, thus increasing the wealth of the Churches. It is clear that monasticism played a major role in missionary activity in both Churches. The clearest evidence of this in the Irish Church is the conversions achieved by Iona. Oswald and Oswiu, future kings of Northumbria, were converted while in exile on Iona (this was important in the background to Aidan’s mission to Northumbria) and Adomnan refers to Columba converting ordinary laymen, for example by raising a boy from the dead.

As Anderson points out, Columba did not achieve the wholesale conversion of the Picts, but it is clear that he made significant progress, upon which his successors could build. Bede says that Columba converted the Picts “by his words and example”2 and Adomnan refers to miracles performed by Columba at the court of Bridei, the king of the Picts. 3 Bede perhaps makes the conversion seem somewhat straightforward: it would actually appear, given that Columba made seven journeys to Bridei, that the conversion was not swift, but it is highly likely that the conversion of the Picts should be attributed to Iona.

After all, the Picts were Christian by the time of Wilfred, and, as Charles-Edwards points out, it is highly likely that he would have claimed credit for this, had the Northumbrians (as Hughes suggests) been responsible! Mayr-Harting plays down the importance of missionary activity to monasteries, pointing out that it was expedient to ensure that the Picts were not hostile and that Iona only intervened in Northumbria when invited; however, the conversion of ordinary laymen does suggest that the community was keen to take its message to the pagans.

Similarly, there was monastic involvement in conversion in the Anglo-Saxon Church: Wilfred, for example, set up a monastery in the kingdom of the South Saxons to help secure their conversion. 4 Furthermore, the community at Melrose, under Boisil and then Cuthbert, was active in converting neighbouring people. 5 There do seem to be contrasts in the strategies of conversion deployed. On the one hand, the Irish Church tended to rely upon miracles and stern teaching in the style of St Martin of Tours to astound the heathen: Columba’s miracles and Cedd’s angry treatment of Sigbert6 are examples of this.

On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons tended to be more willing to adapt, cajole and induce like St Gregory: one of Wilfred’s strategies was to teach the South Saxons how to fish, and thereby win their support. 7 Generally, missionary activity involved the setting up of ‘daughter houses’, which would be subordinate (and sometimes tributary) to the main monastery. Examples of such houses include Applecross and Lindisfarne, which were two of Iona’s many ‘daughter houses’.

By establishing networks of ‘daughter houses’, monasteries like Iona, Lindisfarne, Clonmacnois and Bangor both acquired power for themselves (often across different secular kingdoms) and helped to cement the conversion of the area around the ‘daughter house’. Having converted people to Christianity, it was necessary to minister to them: monasteries in both the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon Churches were probably involved, to varying extents, in this crucial activity.

The strongest evidence relates to the Anglo-Saxon Church, with Bede describing the pastoral role of the monasteries in Northumbria thus: “Whenever a cleric or a monk went anywhere he was gladly received by all as God’s servant. If they chanced to meet him by the roadside, they ran towards him and, bowing their heads, were eager either to be signed with the cross by his hand or to receive a blessing from his lips. Great attention was also paid to his exhortations, and on Sundays the people flocked eagerly to the church or the monastery, not to get food for the body but to hear the word of God. 8 The impression that we get here is of monks (as well as ordained clergy) instructing people in Christianity, both inside and outside monasteries, thus contributing directly to the extension of the Church. Furthermore, Theodore’s Penitential envisaged monks prescribing penances to the laity and required that a monastery should leave behind a priest to provide pastoral care, if the monastery were to move, implying that the monastery would provide such care if it were present.

However, the claim that monasteries were heavily involved in pastoral work, which is central to Blair’s understanding of the role of monasteries, has not gone unchallenged. Cambridge and Rollason argue that pastoral care was not the paramount purpose of the monastery, claiming that such matters were properly the concern of the bishop and the secular clergy. A key aspect of their argument is that monasteries are not regularly distributed, but occur in clusters with considerable gaps, thus suggesting that they do not represent a ‘proto-parochial’ arrangement.

The evidence for this is highly ambiguous, and depends upon how regular an arrangement one requires to be convinced by the ‘proto-parochial’ argument: two of the areas that Cambridge and Rollason cite as showing uneven distribution (County Durham and Yorkshire) are in fact cited by Blair to support the totally opposite point of view, that there was a logical pattern of monasteries to facilitate pastoral work. Far more detailed and comprehensive studies would be needed to base any conclusion upon this evidence.

Far stronger evidence relating to the relationship between monasteries and the episcopate is provided by ecclesiastical legislation, which also helps us to consider the role of the monasteries in pastoral care in Ireland. The general thrust of most of the ecclesiastical legislation of this period is to emphasise the power and responsibility of the episcopate to organise pastoral care. In England, the Council of Clofesho (747) stressed that priests were to perform pastoral work, with the permission of bishops.

Moreover, in his letter to Egbert, Bede implores Egbert, a bishop, to take action to remedy the alleged problems relating to preaching (there were not enough priests) and monastic organisation (some monasteries had become highly secularised). Cubitt interprets this as evidence that monasteries actually had a relatively minor role in pastoral care. The difficulty is in reconciling this with the evidence, notably in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History”, that monks were involved in pastoral care.

It seems undeniable that theory prescribed a marginal role for monasteries in this regard; the same was true in Ireland, where synods and bishops emphasised the role of the episcopate rather than the monastic paruchia (the forerunner of the parish, Hughes alleges) in providing pastoral care. This is seen in “The Bishops’ Synod” (preserved in the “Collectio Canonum Hibernensis”), the Riagail Phatraic, the Rule of Tallaght and a letter of Bishop Gilbert of Limerick, which all stress that priests were neither to administer the sacraments nor to engage in other pastoral care.

However, the repetition of these instructions, which we see on both sides of the Irish Sea, suggests that they were being disobeyed, implying that monasteries were involving themselves in pastoral care, often to the chagrin of church councils and synods. It is particularly likely that this was the case in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which tended to have large bishoprics and relatively few priests (a similar situation existed in the British Church in Wales in this period).

Although Archbishop Theodore increased the number of dioceses, it would be difficult for a bishop to maintain comprehensive control of his see and it is likely that monasteries took on pastoral work, perhaps especially where little was organised by the episcopate: such an interpretation reconciles Bede’s account with the evidence from the councils. However, we can also draw the conclusion that some monasteries in Ireland were attempting to perform pastoral work, since it was necessary for it to be stated repeatedly that only priests could administer the sacraments.

Nevertheless, it is probably reasonable to conclude, as Sims-Williams does, that direct monastic involvement in pastoral care diminished over time, as such strictures were repeated. In the Anglo-Saxon Church, this came about as the episcopate grew more powerful, particularly after Theodore; in Ireland, it now seems unlikely that monks played a critical role in most pastoral work, given that the episcopate was relatively well established from the time of St Patrick.

We do not have evidence (like that of Bede for the Anglo-Saxon Church) to suggest that pastoral care was a routine part of Irish monasteries’ work, although some probably did become involved; indeed, evidence of day-to-day ministry is notably absent from Adomnan’s “Life of Columba”, suggesting that pastoral care was not integral to Irish monasticism. However, it is probably best not to see monasteries and the episcopate in opposition to each other: most of the time, as Thacker points out, they combined and co-operated as part of a ‘Church’.

The traditional interpretation of Irish monasticism, as advanced by Hughes, was that St Patrick’s episcopal system was overtaken by the spread of great monasteries, which dominated until the twelfth century, during the sixth and seventh centuries. It would seem, however, that this view is an oversimplification. It is true that some rich and powerful monasteries, such as Clonard, Clonmacnois, Iona and Bangor developed in the sixth century, but it is unlikely, as Charles-Edwards and Sharpe argue, that they marginalized the episcopate.

There was no shortage of bishops in Ireland (indeed, a tuath might have more than one, and it is questionable whether a tuath could be considered a tuath if it did not have a bishop9) and it seems that synods, which were attended by both bishops and the great abbots, were the main sources of authority: there was not a clear dichotomy between the episcopate and the monasteries, and it is likely that control of pastoral care resided with the episcopate, as Sharpe argues.

There was not quite this same degree of cooperation with joint synods in the Anglo-Saxon Church, but there is strong evidence that monasteries were at very least used by the episcopate to support pastoral work; a similar pattern is clear in Ireland. They did this by providing accommodation for priests as well as monks: this is seen in Repton (which Guthlac entered as a clerk), Clonmacnois and Armagh. Furthermore, Egbert refers to “clerici in monasteriis”. 10 Moreover, Wilfred acquired and set up monasteries in order to extend and express his power.

At very least, what we see is that monasteries were focal points of pastoral care, even if priests provided that care. It is also probable, especially in the Anglo-Saxon Church, that monks were personally involved in preaching and ministry at this stage, both from Bede’s comments and the attempts to stop them; parallel attempts in Ireland point to a similar conclusion, though we may suspect that the extent of monastic pastoral work was lower in Ireland, where the episcopate was more substantial.

Furthermore, there were other fundamental ways in which monasteries supported the Churches’ pastoral activities. Firstly, they provided training for people who would later evangelise and minister. For example, while Hilda was Abbess of Whitby, five people who subsequently became bishops were educated in the community. 11 Moreover, there were certainly schools for the education of oblates in Durrow, Melrose, Ripon, Repton and Monkwearmouth-Jarrow; it is quite possible that there were others.

Coupled with this education, monasteries were involved in the copying of manuscripts, the translation of texts and the writing of new works (for example, by Bede, Aldhelm and Adomnan). The availability of religious texts, not least vernacular translations of the Bible, must have been essential to preaching: the monasteries therefore provided an important underpinning to the Churches’ work.

It is harder to quantify the ‘inspirational’ contribution of monasticism, but it is likely that this provided considerable support for the expansion of the Churches. At least before the monasteries grew bloated (if we are to trust Bede that they did), they must have offered a powerful example of faith. Mayr-Harting is probably to correct to attribute the growth in the practice of penance among the laity, attested by Egbert,12 to the example set by monasticism: after all, monks were probably the most obvious exponents of penance.

The examples set by great figures, and perhaps especially the miracles of figures like Columba, Aidan and Cuthbert, must have been profoundly impressive to ordinary people, acting to draw them to Christianity and cement their faith. We need not worry about whether each and every miracle imputed to Columba by Adomnan (there are quite a few! 13) was genuine: the important point is that the stories of these miracles spread, not least through works such as Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History” and the Saints’ Lives, which were written in monasteries.

The influence of the cults of saints was strong: the relics of Cuthbert, in particular, were a focus for loyalty across the north. Furthermore, monasteries were responsible for much of the splendid iconography that accompanied the Christian message. It is unlikely that great masses of ordinary people ever saw many of the more splendid articles, but it would be reasonable to conclude, as Campbell does, that conspicuous display probably helped the Churches in converting nobles and kings, by aligning the Church with the aristocratic culture of the day.

Spectacular and beautiful creations like the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Cuthbert’s pectoral cross cannot but have impressed those who saw them, leading them to wonder at the strength of the Church. Monasteries could probably inspire effectively in very different ways: the splendour seen in some of the Anglo-Saxon monasteries and the asceticism of Columba’s Iona must both have been impressive, even though they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of display.

It is probable that monasticism was involved directly, to a certain extent, in pastoral ministry; it is certain that monasticism did much to support pastoral ministry, whether it was actually being carried out by monks or by priests. Finally, monasticism was significant in that it became a major source of wealth for the Churches. There were, as Yorke argues, considerable benefits that accrued to kings from the patronage of monasteries: as well as the belief that gifts of land would benefit their souls (the violent life of a warrior king probably necessitated considerable work for the good of the soul! monasteries represented a way of establishing control over newly conquered areas, in that they could inspire loyalty to a wider concept than a locality or family, particularly through the cults of saints. This is perhaps why Oswiu was initially prepared to help Wilfred in his attempts to acquire monasteries west of the Pennines and in southern ‘Scotland’. Moreover, kings must have welcomed the scriptoria of monasteries, in that they provided administrative assistance, for example in drawing up laws and charters. Such functions encouraged kings to endow monasteries.


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