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Christian History Home > 1998 > Issue 60 > Ascetic Superstars

Ascetic Superstars
Irish monks and nuns are famous for their spiritual heroics.
Lisa Bitel | posted 10/01/1998 12:00AM

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As a young woman, Íte refused her lunch so often that God sent an angel to bring it from heaven. But the seventh-century Irish abbess was not so easily turned from other ascetic practices. As a tenth-century commentary told it, Íte carried a huge stag-beetle in the flesh of her side, under her clothes, which gnawed upon her day and night.

One day, though, when the insect got loose, Íte's sister nuns immediately killed it. Their abbess sternly reproved them: "Where has my fosterling gone?" she demanded. "For that deed, no nun shall ever rule after me."

Irish monks and nuns such as Íte are famous for their severe asceticism. Even in the early Middle Ages, others marveled at the bizarre ways of the Irish.

Monasticism was unique in Ireland. It wasn't bishops in cathedrals as much as abbots in monasteries who set the pace for Christianity there. To understand Celtic Christianity, then, we need to understand Celtic monastic life, especially the ascetic marvels of Irish monks and nuns.

The routine of devotion

Daily life in monasteries varied considerably. The most populous monasteries, such as Clonmacnoise or Kildare, were run by noblemen and women who had turned to the religious life—though sometimes abbots were married men with children, who also lived in the monastery.

An Irish monastery could be a single mud hut occupied by an aging hermit, or a little family farm with a small shrine in the back pasture, or a sizable settlement with hundreds of houses, churches, and estates. The greatest monasteries of Celtic lands were large villages peopled by priests, bishops, monks, and nuns—as well as their families, along with farmers, craftsmen, traders, pilgrims, and tourists.

The officers of a monastery were often kinsmen; nephews followed uncles in the abbacy, and brothers shared the responsibility of governing the community. When a noble family dominated a particular monastery or group of monastic houses, members were able to pass offices and ecclesiastical property to the next generation. They were also able to attract donations of land and goods from powerful relatives in secular life. In fact, rejects and losers from tribal politics—younger sons, leaders of less successful clans, or women—continuously filled leadership positions in Irish monasteries.

Unfortunately, aristocrats did not always leave their politics behind when they entered the enclosure. Monastic communities sometimes assisted their secular kinsmen in battle, and occasionally even went to war against each other. In 836 the monastic annals noted the monks of Armagh came down to Kildare and actually started a fight within the holy complex of Saint Brigit. One famous king of the province of Munster, Cormac mac Cuilennáin, was also a monk, bishop, and scholar; he was slain in battle in 908.

A monk's routine depended upon his status. Those who grew up inside the monastic enclosure were educated since childhood in the Psalms, which they repeated daily. They learned prayers, hymns, Bible, theology, church laws, penitentials, and the histories of their patron and other saints. They might also have training in secular laws, which monastic scribes copied, or in the poems and sagas and histories of his people. An educated monk might even become a poet.

Those less educated might be another kind of manach, which could mean both "monk" in the sense of a man in holy vows or just a laboring client of the men and women who prayed for a living—in other words, a farmer or herder living on monastic property.

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