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Iona School

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a seventh century Irish Gospel
a seventh century Irish Gospel

Ireland had been first christianized by relations with Romanized England in the 5th century, but the main work was led by St. Patrick who was sent to the island by Pope Celestine in 432. At his death in 493 Ireland had entered Christianity

Irish clergy quickly became more erudite than its continental counterpart, and Ireland became the place where literary tradition was preserved. As soon as the 7th century, Irish monastic schools became frequented by students from abroad who then diffused the acquired knowledge in Western Europe. Ireland had not only become the "Island of Saints" but, too -to use the quote complete- the "Island of Saints and Scholars." Irish zeal soon yielded too a great missionary movement: in 563 St. Columba crossed the sea to the desolated island of Iona, off coast of Scotland, where he founded the Iona monastery. From there -until his death in 597- he evangelized Caledonian Scots and Picts, created another center, Lindisfarne, and Iona monks left for missionary activity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, competing with the Roman people sent from Canterbury by St. Augustine (see Jarrow School). In another direction, St. Columbanus left for France from Ireland in 590. He had been a monk at the monastery of Bangor, a great Irish center of learning. He founded the monastery of Luxeuil which became the parent-house to many others. Columbanus then went to Bregenz, to Bobbio (founded with authorization of the Lombard king and which became a center of knowledge for northern Italy; Columbanus eventually died there), and to Rome. Fellows of Columbanus led their own work too: St. Gall, St. Fridolin, St. Fiacre, and others worked in Switzerland, along the Rhine, in France, Brabant, Germany, and southern Italy. Irishmen mainly targeted the countryside where paganism was still underlying. All this Irish activity not only brought a renewed Christianity unto the continent, but too the Irish learning

The Irish intellectual influence, in continental Europe and England, were to keep maintained beyond the missionarization by Colomba and Colombanus and his disciples: Ireland is to remain during a long span of time the country of such famed schools like Bangor and Lismore, or in Wales, of Caldey. The Irish masters, further kept being very influential in the kingdom of Wessex, southwestern England until by the early 8th century with large libraries existing in Malmesbury, Exeter and Nurthling. The Irish teachers and their pupils come in there as, in the other direction, the monks of the Wessex are going to train in Ireland! The Irish culture, even if it always was mostly with an influnce touching to an ascetic spirit and a spirit of missionarizing, more than a real intellectual influence, did however was featuring its specificities. The Irish culture is a scholarly culture. It's often -more than in the schools of Latin and Roman influence- alluding to mythology as the language constructions are more advanced and the poetic techniques more refined. And the Irishmen are more of a Greek language than the Latin! The Irish world, further, is seeing the monasteries of women taking an active part too into the intellectual life, as those are maintaining a correspondance with their men's counterparts, or copying books. The Irish monks invented the punctuation. The Irish culture, at last, is keeping a strong adherence to the liberal arts and with Neo-Platonicism, the critics of it pointing to that this attitude is prone to some to great closeness with the paganism of the Antiquity. Let's also recall that a constant accusation, however, against the Irishmen along the whole Middle Ages was that they were Judaizers, like with the Easter date or that they adhered too closely with the Old Testament, not considering their Neo-platonicism. The problem is that that Jewish influence has little explanation. Was it inherent to the Greek-Roman works to which the Irishmen were attracted by their celtitude? Did that came from the relationship of the ones who christianized Ireland with the old Roman world like, for example, the monastery of Lerins? Did it come from Jewish merchants who would have frequented the island at such or such time? At what time did it appear exactly? Nor will we forget that Ireland, like England received the Pelagian heresy -- and that was a reason for sending missionaries to these two countries in the middle and by the end of the 5th century A.D. Theodore of Mopsuestia, at the origin of heresy was also that of the Nestorianism. The relations of the Irishmen with the monasteries of southern Gaul probably put them in contact with the Semi-Pelagianism (School of Alexandria, Neo-Platonicism), another heresy as the Church hierarchy of that region of Gaul was in a strong relationship with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. A central figure, eventually, of all these movements, could be St. John Chrysostomus, from the Church of the Orient, a humanitarian and evangelical, who however was anti-jewish as those times was still the ones of Arianist German kingdoms and the ultimate remains of Rome in western Europe. Such missionaries like Willibrord, among the Frisians, or the famed Boniface, in Germany, did originate from their monasteries in Wessex, which had maintained those strong links with Ireland and the Irish culture, as Boniface will too be helped with numerous Irish monks in Germany. The works by Adlhelm, the abbott of Malmesbury, kept being read in continental Europe during all the Carolingian era. The Irish monasticism -the one St Colomban spread in continental Europe- was a rigorous one, and distant from the Benedictine equilibrium. The monks were subject to a great austerity as they slept little, they fasted a lot and mortified themselves, and they were submitted in all to their abbot

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