Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
18.02.03, O'Hara and Wood, trans., Jonas of Bobbio

18.02.03, O'Hara and Wood, trans., Jonas of Bobbio

If you've ever used any of the Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians (and for those of us who teach early medieval history, it is hard to imagine a course without them), you have Jonas of Bobbio to thank for it. Ian Wood and Alexander O'Hara tell us that the lack of a complete English translation of Jonas's monumental Life of Columbanus and His Disciples--arguably one of the most important hagiographical texts from early medieval Europe--gave John Davies the idea to start the TTH in the first place, which he co-founded with Margaret Gibson in the 1980s. But it was not Jonas of Bobbio but rather Gregory of Tours who inaugurated the series, with Edward James's translation of his Life of the Fathers. Only now in 2017, sixty-four volumes into the series and fourteen hundred years after Columbanus's death, do we finally have the first full English translation of his Life, along with Jonas's other hagiographical works. But they were worth the wait.

Traditionally Columbanus was viewed as a tenacious Irish emigré who rescued Christianity on the continent from a state of decay in the early seventh century, by founding monasteries in Gaul and northern Italy with a distinctly Irish culture that could be characterized as "Columbanian." That's a testimony to Jonas's forceful portraiture, because it's more or less what his narrative conveyed, and if a translation of his hagiography had come out in the 1980s, its introduction might have imparted a similar wisdom--though Ian Wood had already begun to suspect by that point that Gallic Christianity was more than Jonas had made of it. [1] But in 2017 things look very different. O'Hara and Wood point out that not only was Gallic Christianity a thriving, dynamic culture well before Columbanus showed up (which is evident in, among other places, its hagiography, its episcopal councils, and its monastic foundations and Rules). It was also already an international culture. There were British and Irish monastic settlements, for instance, that predated Columbanus's arrival. Columbanus's own self-imposed exile may have been even inspired by his personal icon Gildas, the British monk who wrote De excidio Britanniae and who probably immigrated to western Gaul and established a monastery on the mouth of the Loire.

The monasteries that Columbanus founded drew upon the variegated Christian culture that surrounded them, rather than isolating themselves from it, with the result that their monastic models were cultural hybrids rather than exclusively Irish. As Columbanus had done, his acolytes developed partnerships with local landowners, elites with connections to the court, royal officials, and rulers--all of which the translators' notes, along with an appendix of three translated charters, make especially clear. [2] Like Columbanus they also took positions on some of the theological controversies that had arisen among the Christianities of the eastern Mediterranean.

And it didn't take long after Columbanus's death for it to become clear that the monks and nuns who had been inspired by his example had developed very different ideas about what a properly "Columbanian" monasticism should look like. Each institution had its own persona, and even within a single monastery, the disagreements could be brutal. Jonas dedicated the second half of the Life of Columbanus to making sure his readers knew who among the saint's followers were getting it right; and although he was very rarely subtle on this point (unless reveling in the tragic deaths of one's opponents can ever be subtle), it is only recently that historians have begun to see how complex "Columbanian" culture was.

The translators also give us a brief but welcome introduction to Jonas himself: archivist of Bobbio, very likely the abbot of Marchiennes in northern Gaul, and also very likely the author of the Regula cuiusdam patris ad virgines (an identification we owe to the work of Albrecht Diem, which is outlined here in a few appendices). In his role as hagiographer, Jonas is passionate and smart, as many hagiographers in this period were; but what's rarer is the chance to see, over the course of multiple works, how the ideas of an early medieval intellectual morphed over time, in this case through the 640s and 50s. For as O'Hara and Wood point out, Jonas was also a person who changed his mind.

O'Hara and Wood base their translation on Bruno Krusch's 1905 edition in the MGH SRG, but given the difficulties of some its readings they also consult a manuscript that Krusch didn't know about (Metz, Grand Séminaire 1) in addition to making other reasonable adjustments. The English is clear and smooth without obfuscating some of Jonas's stylistic choices, like his vacillation between the historical present and the past, or his love of unusual words ("nitpicking and frivolous blather" for conperendinanti migrologa et fribola garrulanti [198]). Although Merovingian Latin abounds in participial phrases, the translation mercifully favors finite verb constructions when the alternative is bound to be ponderous: so, for example, we read that someone "spat on" a letter and threw it down, instead of throwing down a letter "having been smeared with saliva" (254).

Occasionally the English irons out some of Jonas's more metaphorical concepts, which blunts their sense maybe more than is necessary. Lubrice impulsationis is rendered as an "unreliable impulse" rather than a "slippery" one (261), for example, which makes the psychological theories that are at play here (both Jonas's and Cassian's alike) harder to see. Or the parents of Gibitrudis are said to think of her as their only "offspring" (206), which is more mechanical than the Latin pignora, a word that Merovingian writers liked to use for "relics," "children," and "financial pledges," often simultaneously. The choice to render the unfree dependents mentioned in Burgundofara's will (Appendix 6) as "serfs" with no further commentary is especially surprising, given the range of servile statuses that were masked by seemingly straightforward labels, a subject to which Alice Rio has drawn attention in her work. [3]

These minor criticisms only speak to the richness of the material that O'Hara and Wood have done us a great service in making more accessible. If you're a historian of the Merovingian period the value of this translation will already be obvious to you, but Jonas's vitae will be useful beyond specialist courses. For a class on hagiography or saints, they can show how a single writer worked within the constraints of different subjects and discursive goals: there is the single-minded hero who took a fairly radical approach to his dependency on God (Columbanus), the monks and nuns who settled into the business of regular monastic life (his "disciples"), the cerebral contemplative (John), and the traveling companion and teacher of Clovis (Vedast). For courses about Christianity, these texts engage some of the major debates of the seventh century: the relationship between political power and sacred space, the simultaneously conflicting and complementary bonds of family and monastery, the cultivation of Christian forms of cognition and behavior, monastic liturgical and regulatory structures, the plausibility of the miraculous, and the control that Christians had over their souls' fates in the afterlife. Courses on gender could scrutinize how the Life of Columbanus toggles between its protagonistic vir Dei--an epithet that Jonas bestowed on a select few men besides Columbanus--and Jonas's beloved monastery of Faremoutiers, whose nuns seem to have been experts in the art of dying well (though many manuscripts omitted this chunk of the narrative entirely). All three texts would also suit a course on travel and travelogues. Although Columbanus wins for the most miles traveled, and Jonas peppers his vita with place-specific notes about local bears, buffalo, beer, and butter, journeys drive the narrative arcs and character developments of John's and Vedast's stories, too. As a trio the vitae would provide a nice counterpoint to the more fantastical and long-distance adventures that we are familiar with from the Voyage of Saint Brendan, the Alexander legends, and monstrous cosmographies.

So Jonas, no stranger to royal treatment, has received it again with this translation and commentary, and he'd be thrilled to know that it will bring him many more readers--even though they are increasingly learning to put him in his place.

-------- Notes:

1. E.g. Ian Wood, "A Prelude to Columbanus: The Monastic Achievement in the Burgundian Territories," in Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism, ed. Howard B. Clarke and Mary Brennan (Oxford: BAR, 1981), 3-32.

2. These charters are the Lombard king Agilulf's donation to Bobbio, Pope Honorius's exemption privilege to Bobbio, and the will of Burgundofara naming Faremoutiers as her heir.

3. E.g., Alice Rio, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), and postdating O'Hara and Wood's translation, Alice Rio, Slavery after Rome, 500-1000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).