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Pope Gregory the Great and the Irish
John R C MartynAbstractGregory the Great was born in about 540 into a wealthy family, and was very well educated in the Classics and in rhetoric. He rose in the Senate to become Prefect of Rome, the city's most important secular post. But at his father's death, he became a monk and converted his family's mansion in Rome and large estates in Sicily into seven self-supporting monasteries. After about six years as Papal emissary in Constantinople, he was chosen as Pope, and reluctantly took over the See in September 590, aged 50. Besides his many scholarly works, he wrote fourteen books of letters, used to unite and reform the Christian empire, with plenty of tact, humour and legal expertise, until his longed-for release from crippling diseases, in March 604. Using these letters, I hope to provide a new picture of the Pope's relationship with the Irish Church, and especially Columban, its leading representative in Europe at this time.1
Pope Gregory the Great's apparently close links with Columban and the Irish clergy between 592 and 601 are revealed through five of his letters: 2.43 (July 592), an encyclical sent to the Irish clergy, almost certainly including Columban; 4.18 (March 594) about an Irish priest valuable to the Pope in Rome; 5.17 (November 594) about Columban's reception of Gregory's 'Pastoral Care'; 9.11 (October 600) praising Columban; and 11.52 (July 601) about an Irish Bishop Quiritus. My version of Columban's letter to the Pope follows, with brief analysis of his irony, word-play and literary style. It shows how the Irishman's erudite and very rhetorical letter would have tickled the Pope's fancy rather than offend him.
The first reference to the Irish appears in letter 2.43, sent in July 592, an encyclical about a contemporary heresy, the Three Chapters schism. The recipients may have been from the East; the Pope had earlier written three letters to the bishops of Istria over this troublesome issue, on behalf of his predecessor, Pope Pelagius II, and the bishops were working fairly near to the East. But the most reliable of the manuscript groups is R, the first to include the 684 letters from all 14 books, and all four of its manuscripts read universis episcopis per Hyberniam, 'for all the bishops throughout Ireland.' The manuscripts comprising group E read per Hiberiam, a slip for Hiberniam, it seems, but possibly pointing to Spain (Iberia), which seems a far less likely place. The letter lacked a title. Pierre Minard2 suggested per partem Orientis, and I left 'Eastern bishops' in my translation of the letters. But I am now convinced that I was wrong, and that the letter refers to another small group of heretics who were active in Ireland. It should be noted that Columban was very much involved with this schism later on, in his relationship with the Lombard rulers, especially Duke Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda.3 In 592 Columban was still living in Ireland, preparing for his long pilgrimage in Europe. He was almost certainly one of those who read this encyclical from the new Pope, which forewarned him about his later problems over that schism in Gaul.4 This is the first possible link between Pope Gregory and Ireland, I suggest, and it may well have introduced the Pope's strong views on heresies to Columban.5 Among the scholars who have written on Pope Gregory recently, not one has made this Irish connection or any of the next four, and only one (Robert Markus) made any reference to Columban, but none to the Ireland of Gregory's time.6
Another tantalizing reference to the Irish appears in letter 4.18, sent in March 594, to Maurus, the Abbot of the monastery of Saint Pancras, in central Rome. Its church had been badly neglected, and the Pope ordered Maurus to look after the monks attached to the church, who were now to be responsible for its total care, 'in case the church might seem to lack the holy mysteries, when the priests to whom the church had been entrusted have been removed, we order you with this authority to continue employing the pilgrim [peregrinum] there.' Now the Irish monks were self-styled peregrini at that time, a particularly Irish form of devotion, and Columban used the term twice to describe himself in his letter. The Irish saints especially had to make a peregrinatio pro Deo or pro Christo [an overseas pilgrimage for God or for Christ's sake], normally to Rome and/or Jerusalem, just like the monk carrying Quiritus' letters in letter 11.52 below. It seems too early in 594 for this Irish priest, who was so welcome in the Roman church of Saint Pancras, to be Columban himself, as he only reached Gaul in 593, and as far as we know, he was not active in Italy until he was expelled from Gaul in 610. In his letter to the Pope in 600, he says that he is longing to see the Pope, if he has time, but not the city of Rome itself. In fact, in his surviving letter he does not suggest that he has already visited the Pope in Rome. But no other Irish monk or priest has been proposed. Yet to judge from the ending of Columban's letter (section 11), he expects his fellow pilgrims from Ireland to be well received by the Pope in Rome, as the Saviour has decreed. It is a pity, however, that he did not name any of these pilgrims. Again there is a link at least between one of Columban's fellow Irish missionaries and the Pope.
In letter 5.17, sent in November 594, the Pope was writing to Venantius, the bishop of Luni, in northern Etruria, and he ended with a very interesting reference to Columban: 'We have directed that those bearing this letter should hand over a copy of our "Book of Pastoral Care" to the noble priest, Columban. Please do not keep it for yourself, as we are sending over another copy of it as quickly as possible, for you to use.' The popularity of the Pope's Pastoral Care was revealed later by the very large number of its copies in England, considerably more than all his other works. He advised every bishop to have one. Lengthy extracts from his Pastoral Care were included in the Pope's nine-page initial encyclical, letter 1.24, dated February 591, and sent to the four Patriarchs. Five years later he sent a revised copy to his very close friend, Leander, bishop of Seville. The Pope continually updated and revised all of his literary works, and especially his commentary on Job, and I suggest that the two copies mentioned in this letter were sent for further critical feedback from two very talented scholars.7 Columban was active in Gaul at this time, and in his supposedly unanswered letter to the Pope, he said that the Pastoral Care had reached him, and then asked for copies of the Pope's homilies on Ezekiel and on the Song of Songs. Again the dating is interesting. In November 594, Columban had been in Gaul for a year or two and was already well known there. Those agents or the single agent bearing the book would surely have carried a message of some sort from the Pope. Anyway, the Pope and Columban were now clearly in contact on the mainland of Europe.
In letter 9.11, the Pope ends by both praising and blessing Columban: 'Besides this, we hope that our son and priest, Columban, who has been recommended to your Charity through his merits, may prosper both in your love, and from this recommendation of ours.' This letter was sent to Conon, the Abbot of the Lérins monastery in Gaul, in October 600. This monastery was at that time a major centre for Gaulish monasticism and for medieval music. The monk Augustine had visited Conon's predecessor, Abbot Stephen, on his way to England, and had reported favourably on the abbot and on his monastery in a letter to the Pope, 6.57. At the end of it, the Pope thanks the abbot for a generous and useful present to the poor of Rome: 'We have received the spoons and plates which you sent, and we thank your Beloved, as you have shown how much you love the poor, since you sent them what they really need.' Gregory was very much on the side of the poor, especially widows and orphans. Again, the relationship between the Pope and Columban is very evident, as they are associated through the Abbot of Lérins.
It should also be noted that the Pope personally recommended Columban to Conon, and he normally only sent recommendations like this to those who were actively seeking his support. Note also that he was well aware of the Irishman's merits - from reports by his very active agent in Gaul, especially selected by him for this tricky province, the priest Candidus, who had already been in contact with the Irishman,8 and also of course from Columban's letter. Note too that this letter to Conon was sent in October 600, not long after Columban's was sent to the Pope.
Another interesting letter and the last of the five is 11.52. This was sent on 1 July 601, to an unknown Bishop Quiritus (or Quiricus), and to the other bishops of the Catholic Church in Hibernia, or Ireland. Such is the reading of all the oldest manuscripts, but Gregory's editor, Norberg,9 changed it to Iberia, Spain, without any real justification. The monk bearing the Pope's letter had come to Rome, unfortunately without the letters entrusted to him by this Bishop Quiritus. The monk had been 'mugged' in Jerusalem, and had lost the letters, together with his own personal effects. They were perhaps stolen from his room in some hostelry, while he was praying in the Holy Sepulchre. As we have seen, a pilgrimage to the Holy City was far from unusual for monks and priests from northern Europe, especially for the peregrini from Ireland, and a route back via Rome would be quite natural. In my translation of the life of Saint Gregory, bishop of Agrigento, as a young man he was intent on visiting first Jerusalem and then Rome, before returning home to Sicily, and this would appear to have been a common practice for young priests and monks from Ireland.10
Much of this letter warned the bishops against the Nestorian heresy. The general council of 431 shows just how widespread this heresy was, and it remained so even in Pope Gregory's day. In letter 11.55, sent in July 601, the heresy was shown to be active in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, and it may well have appeared in both countries, brought in from the East by itinerant clerics or traders.11 The Pope's very full reply deals with the question as to whether Nestorians ought to be baptised when returning to the Catholic Church, or should just confess the true faith. Quiritus is told to anathematise Nestorius and his followers, and all other heretics, while replacing in their old positions those who now honour the synods accepted by the Catholic Church, and who admit the true version of Christ's nativity, before a full congregation.12
I suggest that the letter should retain its Irish title, although I have not yet found out any other definite facts about a Gaelic bishop, called Quiritus, except that late in the seventh century a Bishop Boniface Queritus appeared on an Aberdeen breviary.13 A similar non-delivery problem with a letter-carrier affected Columban, who in his third letter told the unnamed Pope:Some time ago, Satan hindered the bearers of our letters [plural again], written to Pope Gregory of blessed memory, that are attached to this one, which our Poor Self forwards to you to be presented and discussed, written not so much with a proud and devilish 'presumption' (as their wording shows) as in necessary proof of their true calculation of Ireland's rites and observances.Is it more than a coincidence that the agent of Quiritus lost his letters to the Pope, and the agent of Columban lost his letters to the Pope? And did Columban visit Ireland after his quarrels in Gaul, before returning for another eight or nine years? Perhaps he did. A very close connection is again possible, but is not easily confirmed.
Incidentally, there is an interesting Life of an Abbess Sadalberga, who was in charge of a doppelkloster at Laon in Gaul, and lived from about 605 to 670. It includes the anonymous biographer's statement that Pope Gregory melliflua remisit scripta ('sent back letters flowing with honey'). At that time scripta and conscripta were the normal Latin for 'letters,' but for books, opera or opuscula or libri. Early scholars rightly took this as a papal letter in reply, but not recent scholars.14 Note also that in his letter, Columban describes the Pope's Pastoral Care as being 'as sweet as honey'. Sadalberga's monastery followed the rules of Saint Benedict and of Columban also, the Irishman being very popular in Gaul (except with its bishops), and a later favourite in that country's monasteries and convents.15 For an argumentum ex silentio, there is no mention of Columban's letter(s) to the Pope in the early vita, the De sancto Columbano Abbate et Confessore in Nova Legenda Anglie edited by Carl Horsthan.16
But let us now look at Columban's letters, especially the first, controversial one, sent to Pope Gregory, of which my English version appears below. This was sent in 600, and Joseph Kelly argues that its timing explains its purpose. After his persistent attacks on the Frankish bishops over their loose morality and simony, Columban knew that he was becoming increasingly vulnerable, and one of their main charges against him was the Irish cycle for Easter, to them too close to the date of the Jewish Passover. But the Frankish Easter cycle was clearly different from Rome's, which was very awkward for the Pope. Gregory no doubt sympathized with Columban's attacks over the bishops' immorality and simony, the latter almost an obsession in his letters to the bishops and royalty in Gaul, but the Easter dispute probably made it difficult for him to give Columban his open support.17
This seems a possible argument. I suspect that the Pope either sent a written reply, or delivered a verbal message through Candidus, expressing his support for Columban, while still disagreeing with his Easter cycle. To avoid antagonising the Gaulish bishops, the ever-tactful Pope may have demanded any such letter's destruction, even though if it were used by Columban with caution, it could have helped his position during the following few years; it would certainly have raised his morale. The Pope's influence had strengthened in Gaul by 600, thanks to the successful passage of Augustine's party (due to the Pope's stream of letters four years earlier) and to Candidus' diligent work on his behalf. This is just an hypothesis, but the fact that Columban sent some letters to Pope Gregory that apparently failed to reach him does suggest that he was answering a letter, or at least a verbal communication, from the Pope.
Finally, I suggest that Columban's letter has yet to be interpreted correctly, although Walker did a good job in his book on Columban's works. But first I should like to show how the Pope was feeling when the Irishman sent him this long letter. In letter 10.14 (sent in July 600), Gregory summed up two years of dreadful bodily pain:'The second year has now almost ended my confinement to my wretched bed, suffering from such painful attacks of gout that on feast days, I can scarcely get up for a space of three hours to celebrate Mass. And soon I am forced by my severe pain to lie down again, so that I may tolerate my torment, while shaken by groans. And for me this pain is sometimes moderate and sometimes extreme.'And again:'Just look, it is now eleven months since I have been able to rise from my bed only on very rare occasions, just now and then. For I am afflicted by such great sufferings from gout, and from other terrible troubles, that my life is a most grievous punishment for me. For every day I faint from pain, and I sigh, hoping for the remedy of death. Indeed, among the clergy and people of this city of Rome, there has been such an invasion of fevers and sickness, that almost no one who is free, nor any servant, remains fit for office.'This shows that during most of the years 599 and 600 the Pope was extremely ill, although near the end of the year he did improve and wrote or dictated a batch of quite long letters, of a mostly personal nature.18 When he was unable to take Mass, it is very likely that the Pope put off replying to Columban's letter, if he did reply, until he felt better. I am quite sure that the letter did not offended him, but almost all scholars have suggested that it did.19 In fact, the Pope's letters suggest overall that he had a very high opinion of the Irishman, both as a scholar and as a minister, and they shared a similar fondness for rhetorical effects, as will appear when we examine the letter. I have included appendices showing the rhetorical skills and language and the self-criticism of Columban. Besides his studies at the newly founded monastery of Bangor, he became chief lecturer there and was clearly an inspirational teacher.20
In the Pope's letters, as we have seen, he recommends the talented Irishman, through his merits, and hopes that he will prosper, and calls him a 'noble priest.' Gregory and Columban were about the same age, the Pope being born in about 540 and Columban in about 543, they were both very well trained in Classical literature and in rhetoric, with a penchant for word-play, wit and irony, they were both fond of coining words for special effects, very often based on Greek originals. They both shared an aversion to the faults of the Gaulish Church, with its rampant simony, corrupt promotions, opposition to synods and general immorality, but both did all they could to reform it. They were both fully involved with the Three Chapters schism, they were both unusually active and very successful in founding monasteries, they both had remarkably good relations with royalty, they were both seen as friends of the poor and dispossessed, yet they both showed true humility. They both longed for solitude, and yet they both represented a large, demanding electorate.21 Columban showed plenty of reverence towards the See of Rome, and its commander in chief, Gregory, although it was a very different matter when he was berating Pope Boniface over the Three Chapters schism in letter 5.22 There is certainly nothing derogatory in the Pope's letters. Was Columban derogatory in his? A careful reading shows rather that the letter was full of wit and irony, very like many of the Pope's.23
It should be noted, however, how skilfully Columban used Saint Jerome to back up his persistent arguments over the Easter cycle. He first reported Jerome's praise of both Anatolius and Eusebius, then showed the Saint's opposition to Victorius, and finally suggested, somewhat audaciously it seems, that only heretics would dare to question the authority of the great Saint Jerome. He also used a word that was very rare elsewhere but was often used by Jerome, at an important point in his letter: sciolus, defending himself ironically as 'more a pilgrim than a sciolist,' that is a 'superficial pretender to wisdom.' By contrast, in his fourteen books of letters, Pope Gregory only refers to Saint Jerome on one occasion, in letter 9.26, where he defends his own practice of saying 'alleluia' at Mass, as being justified by the Church of Jerusalem, and by the 'tradition of Saint Jerome.'24 However, the Pope frequently uses the works of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Although he could write a scathing letter, Saint Gregory was basically a peace-lover, always keen for the law to settle disputes and for treaties to settle wars, and Jerome's frequently sardonic wit may not have appealed to him, although Gregory certainly would have read his works.
Finally, there is a significant word in the first letter used by Columban for self-condemnation, praesumptio [impudence]. It appears in a key passage at the start of section 5, and in letter 1 it is left unanswered. So too in letter 3, to the new Pope, where it is qualified by a damning adjective, diabolica, and the abstract's adverb, praesumptuose, refers below to the late Pope Gregory. But in his long and very critical letter 5, sent to Pope Boniface IV, Columban finally excuses himself, saying: non esse praesumptionem, ubi constat esse necessitatem ad ecclesiae aedificationem [there is no 'impudence,' when all agree that it is necessary for the education of the Church]. And such was his mission.
Appendix 1: Columban's praise of Pope Gregory (often ironical)
most august flower of Europe
fairest glory of the Roman Church
right to occupy Peter's see
most holy (twice)
true humility (twice)
vigilance (word-play on Greek grhgoria [vigilantia])
skilled in divine rhetoric
wise scholar (twice); holy wisdom
source of learning (twice)
so much to offer
full of learning
packed with holy mysteries
sweeter than honey
Appendix 2: Columban's self-criticism (ever ironical)
more humility and purity needed
writing more boldly than humbly
harshness in letter
asking too much, presumptuously, unfit demand
jerky, overstrained style [quite the opposite]
prone to hyperbole
timid (anything but!)
wretched sinner; bodily illness
Appendix 3: Columban's style (Letter 1, 162 lines)
Its grammar and syntax are sound and there are no over-long, complex periods. In fact, it is a good example of a rhetorical suasoria, very similar to many of the Pope's letters, with an undercurrent of irony. They were two very well read and intelligent men, both well trained in rhetoric. With his letter, Columban would have delighted its recipient, despite his sustained rhetorical plea for the Irish Easter cycle. If it was not answered, why, in letter 3, did he write again ('Satan blocked our letter-carriers once or twice'), and why was there no mention in it of Pope Gregory's failure to answer his urgent questions?
chilosus [ceiloz] 'lippy' (used humorously to describe his mouth)
micrologos [mikrologoz] 'of few words' (used ironically for his speech)
castalitas [kastalia] spring on Mt Parnassus (of the Pope's eloquence)
calcenteros [calkenteroz] 'stuffed shirt' (lit 'with brazen bowels') used by Suidas 1st century BCE against grammarian Didymus
bubum [boubwn] a groin's swelling (an ugly sound, with 'error')
scynthinium [skunqinion] 'wart', I suggest compound of rare words for 'skin' [skunion] and 'small mound' [qinion]
cleantilla (Latin) 'wife', ironical diminutive of tenderness, clienta lady client
computarius (Latin) from computus 'computation'
bar-jona (Hebrew) bar-columba 'dove'
Antithesis (with rhyme) and word-play
non me sapientem, sed esse sitientem
de parvo minus et de multo plus
rescribere ... caritas, exponere ... asperitas
antiquite roboratus ... antiquus error est, sed antiquior est veritas
vanitas ... scribendi, necessitas ... scribi
illud scripturae affirmare non possunt ... dum affirmant veram lucem posse
vivus sanctus emendare potest quae a maiore emendata non fuerint
non lux tenebras, sed lucem tenebrae superant
augustissimo ... egregio ... perito
stilo brevem, doctrina prolixum, mysteriis refertum (tricolon)
sine templo, extra Ierusalem, Christo ab eis crucifixo (tricolon)
nostrae solemnitatis initium, finem solemnitatis eorum (abc cba)
forte ... aliquantulum praeluceat [may perhaps shed a scrap of light]
cleantilla [sweet lady client] sexual innuendo, as many diminutives
deposco (more vivid)
Numquid cum illis communicandum est?
Quid ad rem pertinet?
Rhetorical Period endings
... illum reprehendit
... Christo mitto salutem / facerem si vacarem
Hexam: saltuatim et hyperbolice chilosum os aperire
vivi fontis venam vivamque ... vitam
haec soporans spina Dagonis hoc imbibit bubum
the streams of your wisdom
spiritual channel of the living fountain and stream of learning flowing from Heaven, spring up to eternity
this error of Gaul scraped away as if a wart
Appendix 4: Columban's Letter 1
1. To the holy Lord and Father in Christ, the fairest ornament of the Roman Church, like a most august flower of the whole of decadent Europe, to an illustrious bishop, seeing that he is skilled in the theory of divine eloquence, I, Bar-Jona, a worthless Dove, send a greeting in Christ.
2. Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Pope, let this not be too much for you, for I should like to ask about Easter, following that canticle: 'Ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.25 For although, since of course I'm a man of few words,26 that remarkable statement from a certain wise man, that he is said to have made at some stage on seeing a painted harlot: 'I do not admire the art, but I admire the face,' could be harmful, through my humble writing, to your glorious self, yet relying on the trust of your evangelical humility, I presume to write to you, and to add the business of my grief. For there is no pride in writing, when necessity forces one to write, even if is to one's superiors.
3. What do you say, then, about an Easter on the 21st or 22nd moon, which already (do not be offended by my words), is proved by many 'stuffed shirts'27 not to be Easter, as it is dark, of course? For, in my view, it does not escape your sharp mind how critically Anatolius, 'a man of amazing learning'28 as Saint Jerome says, whose excerpts the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, inserted in his Church history - and Saint Jerome praised this same work on Easter in his catalogue - disputes about this period of the moon. For against the Gallican authorities he passed an horrendous sentence concerning Easter (he says), with the comment: 'Certainly if the moon's rising has waited until the end of two watches, which marks the middle of the night, light does not prevail over darkness, but darkness over light. This is certainly impossible at Easter, that some part of darkness should prevail over light, since the festival of the Lord's resurrection is light, and there is no communication of light with darkness.' And if in the third watch the moon has begun to shine, without doubt the 21st or 22nd moon has risen, when it is impossible for a true Easter to be offered.29 For anyone who argues that Easter can be celebrated at this period of the moon, not only cannot affirm this on the authority of Holy Writ, but also incurs a charge of sacrilege and of arrogance, and danger to his soul, as he affirms that the true light that rules over all darkness can be offered with some rule of darkness.
We also read in a book on sacred dogma: 'Easter, that is the festival of the Lord's resurrection, cannot be celebrated before the passing of the spring equinox, the beginning of the fourteenth moon',30 namely so that it does not precede the equinox. And since Victorius has made this mistake in his cycle, he has thereby long since brought error into Gaul, or to put it more humbly, he has confirmed the implant. Since in fact, on what grounds can either of these stand, namely that the Lord's resurrection be celebrated before his passion, which is absurd even to think of, or that the seven days ordained in law by the Lord's bidding (only on which it is commanded that the Lord's Passover be eaten legally, to be reckoned from the 14th to the 20th moon), should be exceeded contrary to what is right and lawful? For the 21st or 22nd is outside the domain of light, since, as it has arisen at that point of time after midnight, and with darkness prevailing over light, it is wrong, they say, for the festival of light to be held.31
4. Why, then, being so wise, in fact with the very bright streams of your holy wisdom being spread throughout the world, do you observe an Easter of darkness? I am amazed, I confess, that this error of Gaul has not been long since scraped away by you, as if a wart.32 Unless perhaps I should think, what I can hardly believe, that while it is agreed that this has not been cured by you, you have actually approved of it. But your knowledge can be excused in another way and more honourably. Perhaps while you fear to be marked as an innovator like Hermagoras,33 you are content with the authority of your predecessors, especially Pope Leo.34 Do not, I beg you, rely simply on humility or gravity in such a dispute, that are often deceived. In this problem perhaps 'a live dog is better than a dead lion.'35 For a living saint can cure what has failed to be cured by another greater one. For you should know that Victorius has not been accepted by our teachers, or the ancient scholars of Ireland, or the most learned experts in calculating chronology, but as worthy of ridicule and sympathy rather than of authority.36
So I beg you, do not disdain to send to me quickly, timid as I am, and more pilgrim than pretender to wisdom,37 the fulcrum of your decision and the mark of your placable disposition, so as to curb the storm surrounding us. For I am not satisfied, after reading such great scholars, with the single judgement of those bishops only saying 'We should not celebrate Easter with the Jews.' Bishop Victor also made that statement long ago,38 but none of the Eastern bishops accepted his falsehood. Yet this sleepy spine of Dagon has drunk this swollen groin of error.39 Of what sort, I ask, is this most frivolous and inelegant sentence supported naturally by no evidence from Holy Writ: 'We should not celebrate Easter with the Jews'? How relevant is it? Should we believe that the guilty Jews celebrate Easter now, in that they lack a temple, are outside Jerusalem and they crucified Christ then in human form? Or should it be believed that the Easter of the 14th moon is rightly theirs, and not confess rather it is the Passover instituted by God himself, who alone clearly knows by what mystery the 14th moon was chosen for the exodus? This may perhaps shed just a little light for scholars like you.40
5. Let those who oppose this, although without authority, reproach God, because with his foreknowledge, he did not before then guard against the obstinacy of the Jews, so as to order nine days by law of unleavened bread, if he did not want us to hold Easter at the same time as them, so that even the beginning of our festival should not come after the beginning of theirs. For if Easter is to be celebrated on the 21st or 22nd, nine days will be counted from the 14th up to the 22nd, that is, seven ordained by God and two added by man. But if men are allowed to add something of their own to a divine judgment, I ask whether perhaps it seems to be contrary to that sentence in Deuteronomy, saying: 'Behold, you shall not add unto the word which I command you, nor shall you diminish aught from it.'41
But writing this more boldly than humbly, I know that I have brought upon myself a channel of very difficult presumption,42 without knowing that I would have to sail out of it. For it befits neither the place nor my rank that your great authority should be questioned by a discussion, as it were, or that you, who certainly have the right to occupy the see of Peter the apostle and key-bearer, should be absurdly troubled about Easter by letters from the West.
But you should not consider a vile body in this matter so much as many teachers both dead and living, who confirm the same points that I have noted, and believe that you are as it were having a discussion with them. For realise that I am opening my fully lipped43 mouth so piously, although my speech may be jerky and overstrained. And so either excuse your Victorius or else condemn him, knowing that if you praise him, a matter of faith will be raised between you and the aforesaid Jerome, who in fact praised Anatolius, opposed to this Victorius, in such a way that the follower of one will not be able to accept the other. Therefore, let your vigilance consider that, in testing the faith of the two authors above contradicting each other, there be no discord between you and Jerome in making a decision, so that we are not hemmed in on both sides, whether to agree with you or him. In this spare the weak, in case you show a scandalous disunity. For I confess to you simply that anyone attacking the authority of Saint Jerome for the Western Churches will be a heretic or expelled, whoever he is. For in all matters they express an undoubted trust in Holy Writ.
6. But as for those bishops who ordain contrary to canon law, namely for money, I ask, what's your decision? The writer Gildas44 called them simoniacs or plagues.
Should one really communicate with them? For many in this province are known to be like that, which is more serious. Or about others who are corrupted when deacons afterwards are elected to the rank of bishop? For there are some whose consciences we know in this matter, and when they were discussing it with our poor self, they wanted to know for certain if after this they could be bishops without danger, that is after either buying offices with cash, or concealing adultery while deacons - but I mean adultery with wives, and among our teachers this is thought just as sinful.
7. In the third part of my questioning, reply further, I beg you, if it is not troublesome, as to what should be done about those monks, who inflamed by their respect for God and desire for a more perfect life, turn against their vows and leave the places of their first conversion, and against their abbots' will, compelled by the fervour of monks, either relapse or flee into deserts. The writer Finnian asked Gildas about them, and he replied most eloquently, but from their love of learning, fear grows ever greater.45
8. All of these questions and many more, disallowed by the brevity of my letter, needed to be asked at present, but with more humility and purity, if bodily illness and care for my fellow pilgrims did not hold me back at home, when longing to go to you, to drink from that spiritual channel of the living fountain and living stream of learning, flowing from Heaven and springing up to eternal life. And if my body followed my mind, Rome would again put up with being despised, so that I would seek you now, not Rome, longing for you, while preserving the reverence for the saints' ashes, just as we read in learned Jerome's narrative how once some men came to Rome from the furthest boundaries of Hyele's shores,46 strange to say, as they sought something other than Rome. For although I admit I am not wise, but am thirsty, if I had the time I would do this too.
9. I read your book containing the Pastoral Rule,47 brief in style, prolix in learning, packed with holy mysteries. I confess that the work is sweeter than honey to one in need, and so, in my thirst, I pray you through Christ, bestow on me your works that, as I have heard, you wrote on Ezekiel with amazing talent. I read Jerome's six books on it, but he did not cover even half. But if you think me worthy, send me something from your readings in Rome; namely the final expositions of the book. Send too the Song of Songs, from where it says: 'I shall go to the mountain of myrrh and hill of frankincense'48 until the end, briefly treated with others' comments, or yours, I ask. And to expound all the obscurity of Zachariah, make his secrets public, so that a Western blindness may thank you over this. My demands are unfit and I ask for too much, as anyone would know. But you too have so much, as you well know less can be lent from a small sum, more from a big one.
10. Let love persuade you to reply and do not let the harshness of my letter prevent you from expounding, as anger blazes into error, and it is my heart's desire to honour you as you deserve. It was my job to provoke, question, ask, let it be yours not to deny what is freely given, to lend a talent to a request, give doctrinal bread as ordered by Christ. Peace be to you and yours. Grant me that you thus pray for a most wretched sinner just once in your holy prayers to our joint Lord.
11. I think it superfluous to recommend my people to you, whom the Saviour decrees should be received, as walking in His name.
12. And if, as I heard from your pious Candidus,49 you wanted to reply that what has been given strength by its antiquity cannot be changed, the error is clearly ancient, but truth is always more ancient, that refutes it.
Assoc Prof John R C Martyn, Centre for Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne
1 For a recent English translation of all 14 books, see my The Letters of Gregory the Great, trans with introduction, notes and index J R C Martyn, 3 vols (Toronto, 2004). A full bibliography is included. For the letters of Columban, see G S M Walker, Sancti Columbani Opera (Dublin, 1970). In the dated but still highly regarded work by F Homes Dudden, Gregory the Great: His Place in History and Thought 2 vols (New York 1967) he devotes several pages to Columban, but ignores Ireland otherwise. In recent major works, the only scholar to deal with Gregory and Ireland is François Kerlouégan, whose article 'Grégoire le Grand et les pays celtiques' appeared in C Dagens and J Fontaine (eds), Grégoire le Grand (Paris, 1986) 589-596. But he only mentions letter 5.17, as he describes the popularity of Gregory's works in Ireland, and their manuscripts, from the eighth to the ninth centuries. Adomnán was apparently the first to use the Pope's Dialogues in his Vita Columbani of about 700.
2 Registre des letters de Grégoire le Grand trans P Minard, 2 vols, books 1-3 (Paris, 1991).
3 See his fifth letter to Pope Boniface IV, who was all too fully involved in the controversy.
4 For two distinctive characteristics of the Irish Church at this time, its independent monastic system in Ireland and its vigorous overseas missionary activity, see G Boner-Maury 'Saint Columban et la Fondation des Monastères Irlandais en Brie au VIIe siècle', Revue Historique 83 (1903) 278.
5 For the Pope's strong views on heresy, see C Moreschini 'Gregorio Magno e le Eresie' 337-346 in Grégoire le Grand (Paris, 1986), and Martyn, Letters of Gregory, 84-87.
6 R A Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge, 1997). Other recent works are J Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London, 1980); C Straw, Gregory the Great. Perfection in Imperfection (Berkeley, 1988); G R Evans, The Thought of Gregory the Great (Cambridge, 1986); C Degans, Saint Grégoire le Grand: Culture et Expérience Chrétiennes (Paris, 1977). P Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Oxford, 2003) has a chapter on Columban, but makes no connections with the Pope except for the first letter. Likewise in J Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Philadelphia, 1986), the primary interest in Columban is his early example of a penitential, and in L M Bitel, Isle of Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland (Cornell, 1990), Columban marks a change from saints with magical cures to monks with medical powers, and prayers to ward off plagues. No work has analysed Pope Gregory's five letters at all.
7 For the Pope's revisions, see letter12.16a, his dedicatory letter to Bishop Marinianus attached to his homilies: 'As many cares had overwhelmed me, I had left my Homilies on Ezekiel to gather dust. They had been received just as I had delivered them before the people. But after eight years, at the request of my brethren, I took the trouble to look for my secretaries' folios, and running through them I emended them as far as my very stressful tribulations let me. Your Beloved had asked for these to be sent to you for you to read, but I believed it most inappropriate for you to drink despicable water, when it is certain that you regularly imbibe deep and clear streams from Ambrose and Augustine. I have sent you minor works, as you read major ones, so that as rougher food dulls your taste you enjoy more delicate dishes more eagerly.' See the interesting letter 12.6 for the use (and abuse) of the Pope's homilies by Abbot Claudius.
8 See below at the end of Columban's letter: 'as I heard from your pious Candidus'. The Pope wrote letters to a wide range of clergy and royalty in Gaul to facilitate the passage of the two groups of monks whom he was sending from Rome to England, and at the end of every letter he begged the recipient to favour his new agent Candidus, who was a priest, unusual for the Pope (sub-deans and monks were more usual).
9 S. Gregorii Magni Registrum epistularum libri ed D Norberg, Corpus Christianorum Series Lat 140, 140A (Turnhout, 1982). He followed the editor of MGH. His very early works (Studia Critica 2 vols (Uppsala,1937 & 1939); Syntaktische Forschungen (Uppsala, 1943)) were regularly used to justify some totally illogical variants in his edition, as in this case.
10 A Translation of Abbot Leontios' Life of Saint Gregory, Bishop of Agrigento, trans with commentary J R C Martyn, (Lampeter, 2004).
11 In his The Book of Pastoral Rule and Selected Epistles of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (Oxford, 1895), James Barmby opted for Kurdistan.
12 He demands an exomologesis, that is, a full, public confession of sin.
13 See M Ní Dhonnchadha, 'The Guarantor list of the Cáin Adomnáin, 697', Peritia 1 (1982) 178-215, at p 191: A Bishop Curetan (22 on the list) may well be related. He was Bishop of Rosemarkie, and in the Aberdeen Breviary for 16 March he is referred to as Bonifacius Queritinus. I owe this note to Julianna Grigg.
14 See, for example, Walker, Columbani Opera, xxv, note 4.
15 For her life see Vita Salabergae in AA SS Boll Sept vi, 521; also J McNamara et al, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (Durham NC, 1992) 176-194.
16 (Oxford, 1901). The vitae had been collected by John of Tynemouth, John Copgrove and others, and Columban's appears at 206-216, abridged from a vita by Ionas. It could be argued, fallaciously, that Columban never sent a letter to the Pope, as this seventh-century vita does not mention one. The vita describes Columban being forced to sail back to Ireland, until thwarted by a contrary wind, suggesting a possible short return.
17 So J F T Kelly, 'The Irish Monks and the See of Peter', Monastic Studies 14 (1983) 207-223. In 'The Letters of Columbanus to Gregory the Great' 213-223 in Gregorio Magno e il suo Tempo I (Roma, 1991) at p 222, Kelly considers Columban's letter 'simply too offensive to warrant a papal reply'.
18 In book 9 there are 240 letters (most from 599), almost all of them short, as are the 20 in book 10, but by early 601 there were many long ones, and many personal ones too (as in 11.23 to the young girls Barbara and Antonina).
19 Walker, Columbani Opera, xxxvi, is an exception, rightly claiming that its tone is firm, and yet respectful; the contents recognise Rome's authority, but show no tendency to compromise. But he does not appreciate Columban's rhetorical interplay. In Homes Dudden, Gregory the Great, he argues that Gregory was possibly 'offended at its independent tone'. Even Kerlouégan, 'Grégoire le Grand et les pays celtiques', accepts that 'le pape ne répondit pas'. In M Lapidge, Columbanus : Studies on the Latin Writings (Studies in Celtic History xvii, Woodbridge, 1997), Neil Wright purports to cover the five letters, but restricts his 63 pages to an excellent coverage of letter 5, although his appendix shows some examples of hyperbaton from letter 1. He mentions its rare Greek words in note 71 (see below), but gives some unlikely explanations from J W Smit, Studies on the Language and Style of Columba the younger (Amsterdam, 1971).
20 See Walker, Columbani Opera xviii.
21 In the comparison, just a few topoi are included that would be likely in any Bishop's claim, but most of the 18 or so are specific and several are very personal. This is the first such comparison.
22 Apologies and warm affection were combined, but with some stinging abuse, like 'the infamy of Saint Peter's See, where the Catholic Faith was not upheld,' and a conference was needed to counter the heretics favoured by the Pope.
23 For the Pope's wit and irony, see my translation, vol 1, 113.
24 In his contribution to Lapidge's Columbanus, Wright gives a dozen examples of borrowings from his favourite Church Father, Jerome, at p 66-73: not from the six books of Jerome's commentary on Ezekiel (noted in his letter to the Pope), but from his commentary on Matthew (four with key roles) and from his Epistulae (in letters 1, 2 and 4). In almost all cases Wright shows very astutely how effectively the Irishman uses his quotes from Jerome's epistles.
25 Deuteronomy 32:7.
26 The Greek word mikrologoz suggests his poverty of speech or captious nature (ironical).
27 A rude Greek word, calkenteroz. See the sheet above.
28 Anatolius was Bishop of Laodicea, 269. The quotation has been shown to be an Irish forgery, but it was accepted as genuine by Columban.
29 The African Pope Victor (189-198) was ready to accept these days. See below.
30 See Gennadius De Dogm Eccles 87.
31 The Irish preserved the old incorrect date of 25 March for the vernal equinox, but in Europe the correct Athanasian date of 21 March was adopted; with 21 March, by Irish reckoning, Easter might just fall before Good Friday.
32 For this likely coinage by Columban I suggest reading skunqinion, a little lump (qinion) of skin (skun[ion]), which certainly suggests a wart.
33 Hermagoras of Temnos, floruit c 150 CE, wrote 6 books on rhetorical theory, and his logical or legal kinds of status (issue) became the basis for school-teaching (and hair-splitting) in late Classical times. Gregory had studied rhetoric as a student and was studying it five years after he had become Pope. The erudite Columban had also studied it, it seems, in his monastic school (where some Greek was being taught). See Walker, Columbani Opera, xiv: 'very elementary Greek appears to have been known'. To judge from his erudite coinages, Columban's was hardly elementary.
34 Saint Leo I was Pope 440-461.
35 Taken from Ecclesiastes 9:4.
36 The Jewish Passover was on the 14th, as always. So if it fell on a Sunday, the Irish Easter might fall on that day. The Quartodeciman heresy was observing Easter on the 14th, whatever the day of the week. The 14th was the earliest Easter date in the Irish cycle, the 16th in Victor's.
37 The word sciolus was used by Jerome several times for a superficial pretender to knowledge or a conceited 'smatterer' (modern 'sciolist'). The specialised sense of peregrinus for an Irish 'pilgrim' is mentioned above. The rhyme and oxymoron of peregrino ... sciolo is most effective.
38 See Eusebius, Hist Eccles, 5.22.
39 The boubwn is only used here, and suggests a groin's 'swelling'.
40 This is a very tactful sentence, with a diminutive softening the verb, thus depicting the Pope as a true scholar, which he certainly was.
41 Deuteronomy 4:2.
42 A key word, used twice in letter 3 to the following Pope, together with diabolica praesumptione and the adverb praesumptiose. See above.
43 With the unique Greek loan (ceiloz) he has a neat oxymoron with pie ('piously').
44 Gildas, from Wales (c 500-570), after a pilgrimage to Rome, became the first historian of Britain, with his De excidio Britonum (c 516-547).
45 For Gildas see above. Saint Finnian (c 495-579), the patron of Ulster, also made a pilgrimage to Rome. For the letter, see A W Haddam and W Stubbs, Councils (Oxford, 1869-1878) 110.
46 Hyele near Tarraco (Spain), it seems.
47 See above. This was the Pope's most successful work, to be read by every new bishop.
48 Song of Songs 4:6.
49 The Pope's key agent in Gaul, especially in collecting the Church's income, half of it used to buy young British captives, who were trained in Roman monasteries and sent to help in converting the heathen in England. See my 'Augustine's failure as a mission leader' in Between Intrusions: Britain and Ireland between the Romans and the Normans (Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 7, Sydney, 2004) 13.