19.01.13 O'Hara, ed. Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe

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Caitlin Corning

The Medieval Review 19.01.13

O'Hara, Alexander, ed. Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe. Oxford Studies in Late Antiquity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2018. pp. xxiv, 320. ISBN: 978-0-19-085796-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Caitlin Corning
George Fox University
ccorning@georgefox.edu

This volume contains fifteen essays associated with a conference titled "Meeting the Gentes--Crossing Boundaries: Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe," held in 2013. It was part of a larger project at the Austrian Academy of Sciences on "The Columbanian Network: Social Networks, Elite Identities, and Christian Communities in Europe." O'Hara states in his introduction that this volume focuses in part on ideas of reciprocity and cultural hybridity. Columbanus and his followers interacted with and represented many different communities. These diverse encounters led to conflict and exchange that ultimately transformed all sides. By examining these areas of intersection, the essays "reconstruct the circuits of communication in which positions, identities, notions of Christianity and orthodoxy, and different views of the world were discussed in the post-Roman West" (9).

This book is divided into five sections. In the first, "Columbanus in Context," Damian Bracken explores "Columbanus and the Language of Concord." He discusses the Christian understanding of concord through writers such as Augustine and, most critically, Gregory the Great. In addition, he analyzes the ways in which Columbanus' use of the metaphors of ships, choirs, and bodies in his letters creates complex and multi-layered understandings of the role of unity and leadership in the church.

The second section focuses on Columbanus' time in Ireland. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín in his article, "The Political Background to Columbanus's Irish Career," discusses the possibility that Columbanus may have belonged to a cadet branch of the Uí Bairrache and that "Columbanus was not just a contemporary of Cormac mac Diarmata but had close personal and dynastic links to the king" (58). In addition, Ó Cróinín highlights the complex political and religious ties in Ireland, Dal Riáta, and the British kingdoms in the period when Columbanus departed for the Continent. Putting these two pieces together, he argues that Columbanus would have been quite at home at the royal courts and that the saint had "a deep-rooted understanding of how the worlds of politics and religion were inseparable" (65).

Elva Johnson builds on the issue of Columbanus' Irish identity in "Movers and Shakers? How Women Shaped the Career of Columbanus." She explores the influences of Columbanus' mother and the female hermit mentioned by Jonas. In addition, she discusses the more limited political role of women in Ireland along with the church's struggles to change Irish cultural assumptions with regard to divorce and multiple partners to ensure male heirs. She argues that these, in turn, influenced Columbanus' interactions with Brunhild and Theodelinda. Finally, in "Columbanus's Ulster Education," Alex Woolf discusses Uinnianus and the various ideas and works Columbanus might have encountered in Ulster.

The next section comprises four essays discussing Columbanus and the Frankish world. Ian Wood in "Columbanus in Brittany" examines Columbanus' arrival in or near the Golfe de Morbihan and possible associations of this area with Gildas or his disciples. Wood also argues that the information about Waroch and Guntram provided by Gregory of Tours helps to inform the earliest period of Columbanus' time on the Continent. "Columbanus and Shunning: The Irish peregrinus between Gildas, Gaul, and Gregory" by Claire Stancliffe uses Columbanus' letters along with other contemporary documents to explore the relationship between Gregory the Great and the saint, which she argues covered a period of at least six years (122). She believes that Gregory's own concerns with the Gallic bishops were informed in part by Columbanus' correspondence. She writes that Columbanus may have reached out to Gregory for advice due to contradictions in Gildas' writings with regard to how to respond to corrupt leaders. She then explores the concepts of shunning and excommunication in the Irish and Merovingian contexts to better nuance Columbanus' conflicts with Brunhild and Theuderic.

In "Orthodoxy and Authority: Jonas, Eustasius, and the Agrestius Affair," Andreas Fischer re-examines Jonas' portrayal of Eustasius, Agrestius, and the Synod of Mâcon (626/27) to examine why Jonas felt compelled to address these events. He argues that they must be seen within the context of missions and concerns about orthodoxy and heresy. Fischer believes that while Agrestius is presented as being in the wrong in the Vita Columbani, Jonas was critical of Eustasius' behavior as well, as this "conflict had exposed the Columbanian community to the arbitration and authority of the bishops at the council" (158). Herwig Wolfram in "Columbanus and the Mission to the Bavarians and the Slavs in the Seventh Century" explores not only the seventh-century archeological site at Herrenchiemsee, Bavaria, but the missions by Columbanus, Eustasius, Agrestius, and Amandus.

Section 4 continues the focus on Alamannia. In "Between the Devil and the Deep Lake Constance: Jonas of Bobbio, interpretatio Christiana, and the Pagan Religion of the Alamanni," Bernhard Maier examines the three miracles involving Columbanus and beer in the Vita Columbani. He specially focuses on VC 1.27, where Columbanus comes upon the Alamanni about to perform a ritual for Woden involving a giant cask of beer. Maier argues that this narrative reveals nothing about the pagan religion of the Alamanni and instead functions as a narrative device. Continuing on this theme, Francesco Borri, in his article "Drinking with Woden: A Re-examination of Jonas's Vita Columbani1.27," takes a different tack to look more specifically at how Jonas' audience might have understood this narrative. He concludes that there seems to have been some interest in Woden in this period both as an ancient ruler or as a god.

Yaniv Fox examines what can be learned about the situation in Alamannia during the missionary activities of Columbanus and Gallus. He argues that it is possible to cautiously use the later hagiographical sources to reconstruct the political context in this early period and believes it is important to see the missions "as part of a greater program of Merovingian expansion and reorganization of the eastern Frankish frontier" (219). Philipp Dörler continues the discussion of Gallus in his essay "Quicumque sunt rebelles, foras exeant! Columbanus's Rebellious Disciple Gallus." However, he focuses more on the goals of the Vita Vetustissimaand what this might reveal about the longer-term importance of Columbanian monasticism in St. Gallen.

The final chapters of the book discuss Bobbio and also Columbanus' legacy. In "Columbanus, Bobbio, and the Lombards," Stefano Gasparri argues that Bobbio should be regarded as a royal monastery since it received no private donations in the seventh century. However, he cautions that, in spite of this, it had no mission or military focus and was not used to extend royal power into disputed lands. Instead, it provided a way for the crown to demonstrate its power through the patronage of an important ecclesiastical foundation. In the last chapter, Albrecht Diem's "Disputing Columbanus's Heritage: The Regula cuiusdam patris" compares this rule with Jonas' writings to examine the stressors that faced the Columbanian communities after the saint's death. Diem believes that the Regula cuiusdam patris should be dated to the first decades after Columbanus' death and thus reveals much about this period. He theorizes that this document might have been written by Agrestius or one of his supporters and represents those in the Columbanian monasteries who were challenging the changes occurring under Columbanus' successors (265). Diem also has included a new translation of the Regula cuiusdam patris.

All of the essays in the volume accomplish the aim of examining the ways in which the diverse communities of Ireland, Merovingian Gaul, and Lombard Italy influenced Columbanus and his followers and were, in turn, challenged by his movement. The authors have carefully and creatively teased out the well-known documents to deepen our understanding of this period. Many of the essays also reinforce and nuance ideas across multiple chapters. For instance, Maier, Borri, and Fox all reference the scene where the Jonas describes the Alamanni rite for Woden, yet they use this to examine the role of this narrative in the Vita Columbani, the role of Woden in the seventh century, and the ways in which Wetti and Walahfrid expanded this narrative in the Vita Galli, respectively. Each essay also includes an up-to-date bibliography that will be invaluable to scholars wanting to explore these topics. This is an important volume of well-written essays that contribute much to the field and is highly recommended.

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