Monday 23 November 2015

The Death of Saint Columbanus, November 23

Below is the text of a most interesting paper which seeks to explain why Saint Columbanus is commemorated on 21 November on the Irish calendars, when the day of his repose or natalis is held to be on 23 November. It is usual for a saint to be commemorated on the date of his death, the ending of his earthly life then seen as the day of his heavenly birth. The dating system in the Martyrologies follows the old Roman practice, and I am very grateful that the translators of the various Irish Martyrologies worked out all those Ides, Nones, Kalends and Dominical Letters! The author of this paper, Father Bartholomew Mac Carthy (1843-1904), a pioneering Irish scholar in the field of annalistic and chronological studies, quotes many foreign martyrologies and other not so readily-accessible sources in presenting his case:


IN pursuance of the promise given in the April number of the RECORD, we submit to students of Irish Hagiology a solution of the question respecting the date on which St. Columbanus died. That his death took place in November, 615, is placed beyond dispute. The controversy has arisen in reference to the day of the month: opinions varying between the twenty-first and the twenty-third; or, according to the Roman notation employed in the MSS., between the eleventh and the ninth of the Kalends of December.

Could a question like this be decided in favour of the conclusion adopted by the majority, irrespective of the nature and force of their proofs, it were labour in vain to re-open the present discussion. Baronius, Mabillon, the elder Pagi, Soller, O'Conor, and Lanigan not to mention those who copy them are all agreed in accepting the twenty-first. This, it must be admitted, is a formidable array of authorities to contend against. Nevertheless, having examined the subject for ourselves, and having derived new evidence from a source unknown to these eminent writers, we have been led to the conclusion that our Saint was called to his reward on the morning of Sunday, November 23, 615.

Three original authorities are at present available for our guidance. These are a Biography; the Martyrologies; and a passage in the Life of St. Gall.

I. Some twenty-five years after the death of Saint Columbanus, his life was written by Jonas, one of his disciples. Strangely enough, it contains no details of the final scene beyond recording that, having passed one year in Bobio, the saint rendered up his soul to heaven, on the ninth, or, according to another lection, the eleventh, of the Kalends of December. The two readings, it is hardly necessary to observe, arose from the fact that the number was expressed not verbally, but in alphabetical numeration. Of the confusion caused by ignorant or careless transcription of this Roman notation, numerous illustrations will at once recur to all who are familiar with MSS., but the present instance has been, as far as we know, the most widely extended and the most long-lived.

We shall first set down the published readings of the disputed lection in chronological order. The numbers within brackets - No. 3 was not reprinted- are the dates of the first Editions:

1. Inter Bedae opera (1563), IX. Kal. Dec., Nov. 23.
2. Surius (1570), - Kal. Dec., Nov. 23.
3. Fleming (1667), - Kal. Dec., Nov. 23.
4. Mabillon (1688) XI. Kal. Dec., Nov. 21.

"As to the day," Lanigan writes, "some MSS. have, instead of XI Kal. Dec., IX. Kal., etc. But Mabillon and Pagi show that the former is the true reading." We begin, therefore, with Mabillon. As the tabulated statement shows, he was the first to alter the received Text: hence, it is important to learn in his own words the reasons which led him to introduce the change.

At the reference given by Lanigan, he states: "Columbanus died on the 11th of the Kalends of November [December], as Jonas writes. Hence the Edition of Surius and some old Martyrologies are to be corrected, in which his obit is assigned to the ninth of the same Kalends, as in the genuine Usuard and Ado, to whom Wandalbert, who agrees writh Jonas, is to be preferred." And in another work, not quoted by Lanigan, he has the following note : "In Usuard, Ado and Surius the reading is Nov. 23, but the memory of St. Columbanus is assigned to Nov. 21 in the Martyrologies of Wandalbert and of the Benedictines, which are supported by the MS. copies of the Life examined by us."

O'Conor transcribes and adopts these statements, and remarks that the error arose from inaccurate transposition of XI. and IX. This, of course, is true; but in the opposite sense to that intended by the author.

The principal argument employed by Mabillon is based upon the assertion that Jonas reads XI. - which, it is evident, assumes the question in dispute. The same objection holds good in respect to Wandalbert; since the only sources of information open to him were the old Martyrologies and Jonas. Now, as will be shown by-and-by, all the former, even Mabillon admits some, read IX. Unless, therefore, he evolved the date from his own consciousness, Wandalbert must be admitted to have taken it from a copy of the Vita which contained XI. The statement that Ado and Usuard read IX. is opposed to all the evidence we have collected, including that of the Bollandist Soller.

But what is specially noticeable is the matter-of-course fashion in which "some old Martyrologies," that lay awkwardly in his way, are quietly set aside by Mabillon in favour of the Benedictine Monk and the Benedictine Kalendar. Equally noteworthy is it how, in marked contrast with his desire for accurate information on another occasion, he contents himself in this place with a vague reference to MSS., without adding a word respecting their localityantiquity, or authority. And yet, Fleming's Collectanea was, of course, well known to him. Can it be, one is constrained to ask, that he did not care to enter upon an enquiry which might result in showing the inaccuracy, and so far lowering the prestige, of Benedictine authorities?

Be that as it may, it is pleasant to turn from such loose statements to the precision with which our martyed countryman handled the subject. Of Fleming it can be truly said that his life was chiefly devoted to collecting every scrap relating to St. Columbanus. But his enthusiasm did not blind his judgment. On the contrary, he declares with equal severity and justice, that since Surius, as usual, tampered with the Text, and Bede's Editors printed it incorrectly, both Recensions were equally worthless for historical students. Accordingly, he sought personally, and through such scholars as Miraeus, Rosweyde and Stephen White, for the best MSS., in order to present, the most accurate version of Jonas. Nor were his efforts, it is gratifying to learn, unavailing. "Whilst," he writes, "turning over a considerable number of MSS. for this purpose, the most ancient I met with was from the Monastery of St. Maximin at Treves, which was supplied by Father Heribert Rosweyde. From that I transcribed the whole narrative, as you have it here; I also divided it into chapters, and prefixed the titles, which were wanting in the Codex, from the Edition of Surius." This, therefore, is the highest authority which is ever likely to be forthcoming. The passage under consideration is given as follows: Porro beatus Columbanus, expleto anni circulo in antedicto coenobio Bobiensi, beata vita functus, nono Calendas Decembris animam membris solutam coelo reddidit.

The absence of a note upon nono Calendas, it is to be observed in conclusion, shows that Fleming was unaware of any different reading in all the MSS. consulted by himself and on his behalf.

II. We come next to the Martyrologies. Before discussing their relative value, it will be convenient to arrange them chronologically.

1. Martyrology (so-called) of St. Jerome (seventh century): Nov. 23. In Italy, in Bobio Monastery, deposition of St. Columbanus, Abbot.

2. Do. (prose) of Bede (eighth century): Nov. 23. In Italy, in Bobio Monastery, deposition of St. Columbanus, Abbot, who was the founder of numerous monasteries, and father of numberless monks, and rested in a good old age renowned for many virtues.

3. Do. of Rhabanus (ninth century): Nov. 23. In Bobio Monastery, deposition of St. Columbanus, Abbot.

4. Metrical Mart. of Wandalbert (ninth century):
Undenam Abba Columbanus sibi servat, ab ipso
Oceano: multis vitae qui dogmata sanctae
Religione pia sparsit sermone manuque.

5. Ado (ninth century) took the date from Wandalbert; and the entry from Bede. In one and the other he was copied by

6. Usuard (ninth century); who was transcribed, in turn, with the omission of the word depositio, into the

7. Modern Roman Martyrology. Though Usuard, like Ado and Wandalbert, was a Benedictine, and though his work was first read in that Order, yet in the present

8. Benedictine Kalendar, the feast is fixed at the 24th, and the panegyric states that the natal day is the 21st. The latter statement occurs also in the sixth lesson of their Breviary. This arrangement was adopted into the Irish Church ; but at what time we are unable to say.

9. The Martyrology of Donegal has Nov. 21 ; but in the case of Irish saints who lived abroad, its authority is not original.

In respect to Antiquity, the foregoing Table is decisive in favour of the reading IX. Kal. Dec. With reference to Authority, it will suffice to quote the words of Benedict XIV. in his Letter to the Chapter of Bologna: “As regards Martyrologies, it were an open insult to your erudition, if we doubted you were perfectly aware how highly that of St. Jerome is, and has been always, esteemed; to which holy men in process of time added the names of saints who lived after St. Jerome." Before showing how the old reading is confirmed by the Locality of the copies in which it is contained, we have to consider the proofs brought forward by those who adopted the new lection.

Baronius merely says that Usuard, Ado and others more recent, treat of Columbanus at Nov. 21. Mabillon's arguments have been dealt with already. Those of Soller are easily disposed of. He first ironically commends the authenticity and genuineness of a MS. Ado in which Saint Clement's eulogy is partially expunged at Nov. 23, to make room for the insertion of that of St. Columbanus. But what stronger proof could we have that whoever made the erasure considered the better reading to be that given in the Hieronymian Codices (IX.), which Soller rightly conjectures he had examined? Next, he says Ado and Usuard, there is no doubt, read XI. a matter in which we are not much concerned; and that Jonas agrees with them which is true of the copies that have XI., but not of those that read IX. Lastly, he states that the entry in 5 and 6 was composed by Ado, though, as we have shown, it was taken word for word from Bede.

The only critic who attempts to reconcile the conflicting readings is Antonius Pagi: " The lection followed by Mabillon," he decides, "is to be retained; for I have no doubt but that Columbanus died on Nov. 21, and was buried on the 23rd; and that some took occasion to corrupt the notation of the Life from having seen his festival entered on the 23rd in the Martyrologies of Luxeuil, Besancon, and Epternac. But they ought rather have inferred therefrom that Jonas marked the day of his death and those Martyrologists the day of his burial."

This takes for granted that depositio here means burial: an assumption which does not remove the difficulty in 5 and 6, where the deposition is entered at Nov. 21. Now, Pagi, we think, would find it hard to prove that the dead were consigned to earth on the day they died. But, to go to the root of the matter, depositio, we maintain, does not signify burial, but death, in Ancient Martyrologies. In the phrase depositio Columbani, the genitive, to use a grammatical expression, is subjective, not objective. In support of this, we append the following authorities :-

1. "What is Deposition?" asks St. Ambrose, "Not that, surely," he goes on to reply, "which is carried out by the hands of clerics in burying bodily remains; but that whereby a man lays down the earthly body in order that, freed from carnal bonds, he may go unimpeded to heaven. Deposition, in truth, is that by which we cast away evil desires, cease from offences, give over sin, and put aside, as if throwing off a heavy burden, whatever is prejudicial to salvation. Accordingly, this day is appointed for the chief celebration ; because, in reality, the greatest festivity is to be dead to vice, and to live for justice alone. Hence, the day of deposition is called the day of nativity ; since, when freed from the prison of our sins, we are born to the liberty of the Saviour."

2. This equation of depositio and natale is so closely resembled by that given in the Council of Clovesho (A.D. 747) as to tead one to believe the Fathers had the Sermon of St. Ambrose before them when drawing up the seventeenth Canon: Ut dies natalitius beati Papae Gregorii, et dies quoque depositionis, qui est vii. Kal. Junii, S. Augustini, Archiepiscopi . . . venerentur. St. Augustine of Canterbury, it is well known, died on the 26th of May.

3. Mabillon quotes from an Ancient Kalendar : May 26. Deposition of Augustine, Confessor ; of Bede, Presbyter. "From this," he concludes, "it appears that both died (obiisse) on the same day; but that the feast of St. Bede was put back to next day, to give a separate day to each." Venerable Bede, it is unnecessary to say, died on the 26th of May.

4. The Martyrologium Gellonense gives the deposition of St. Patrick on the 17th of March. But the Tripartite Life, the Memoir in the Leabhar Breac, and the Patrician Documents in the Book of Armagh all inform us that our National Apostle was not buried for twelve days after his decease.

5. Finally, Notker Balbulus equates the three expressions employed in the old Martyrologies : XVII. Kal. Nov. Depositio, sive transitus, vel ad aeternam vitam natalis dies, beatissimi Galli, Confessoris, festive celebratur.

Having thus dealt with the objections brought against the older reading, a few remarks will show how strikingly it is confirmed by local and personal circumstances connected with the Hieronymian Codices in which it is found.

Against the lection, we find three Benedictines. These were all contemporaries ; and two of them lived in one diocese (Treves). Furthermore, he who wrote first took the date, 235 years after the event, from a faulty copy of Jonas: from him it passed on to the second; and from the second to the third.

In favour of the reading, we have, to mention but some of the authorities, first, the MS. of Auxerre. It is unnecessary to dwell upon the intimate connection of this Monastery with the early Irish Church. Its Martyrology, Martene and Durandus declared, nobody would deny surpassed all others. Next, we have the community of Reichenau, which was in close amity with the neighbouring abbey of St. Gall. Their copy, according to Soller, was ancient, and of the best authority. Lastly we can quote the MS. of the monks of St. Gall themselves. How they obtained their information, we now proceed to show.

III. The oldest extant memorials of St. Gall are found in a brief Biography written about a century after his death, and known under the title of the Vita primaeva. The anonymous Author states that his facts came through the deacons Maginald and Theodore, who had attended the Saint to the end; and from others who either could testify from personal knowledge, or had been informed by eye-witnesses. The work, as was to be expected from a writer not thoroughly conversant with Latin, was characterized by solecisms and barbarous modes of expression. When, therefore, the school of St. Gall had become a famous seat of learning, the monks determined to have the Life re-cast in a more literary form. Accordingly, they prevailed upon their neighbour, the celebrated Walafrid Strabo, Abbot of Reichenau, to undertake the work. By him the diction was improved, the narrative expanded, and the text divided into chapters. The result was, the original Life became so completely forgotten that a copy in the Archives of St. Gall is the only one preserved. From this the Vita was edited by Father Ildephonsus Von Arx in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica.

Few who have compared them both will feel disposed to disagree with the Editor's judgment that the new Biography did not cast the least additional light upon the old. The evidence afforded by the passage bearing upon the present question would warrant a more severe condemnation. His heading of the chapter - How St. Gall learned the death of Columbanus both by revelation and by messengers - shows that Strabo missed its purport: whilst by the omission of a single word he extinguished, as far as in him lay, the historical evidence unconsciously afforded in the Vita primaeva.

We print side by side the original and the enlarged texts

Vita primaeva
Nam quodam dominico die . . . prima luce diei, vocavit vir Dei Maginaldum diaconum, dicens: Surge velociter, et prepara mihi ad missam celebrandam. Qui respondit: quid est hoc, domine? numquid tu missam celebrabis? Cui ille: Post nocturnam hujus noctis, inquit, revelatum est mihi migrasse praeceptorem meum Columbanum, pro cujus requie offeram Sacrificium.

Walafridus Strabo
Quadam itaque die . . . . . primo diluculo, vocavit Magnoaldum diaconum suum, dicens illi: Instrue sacrae oblationis ministerium, ut possim divina sine dilatione celebrare mysteria. Et ille: Num, inquit, tu pater missam celebrabis? Dixit ergo ad ilium: Post hujus vigilias noctis cognovi per visionem dominum et patrem meum Columbanum de hujus vitae angustiis hodie ad paradisi gaudia commigrasse. Pro ejus itaque requie Sacrificium salutis debet immolari.

To understand the Nam, it has to be borne in mind that the original writer's object was, not to record the day of their great Teacher's demise, but to illustrate in the case of St. Gall how faithfully obedience was observed in their little community. The preceding sentence is: Quibus aliquid extra regulae tramitem deviare omnimodo indignum erat. Nam - and then he proceeds to give a striking example.

Now, Maginald, who supplied the information at first hand, knew personally that St. Columbanus had said to St. Gall : "You shall not celebrate Mass until I die." He knew equally well the query in the Rule Obedientia autem, usque ad quem modum definitur ; and the answer that followed Usque ad mortem certe precepta est. When, therefore, he found himself suddenly called up, and ordered to prepare for the Abbot's Mass, what more natural than his astonishment and his query " You, master! You are not going to say Mass, are you?" But the Rule was not to be broken: God, he was told, had made known that the time of prohibition had come to an end.

All this happened on a certain day, writes Strabo, to whom the particular day mattered nothing. But not so to Maginald. He was not likely to forget the day and the hour - at day-break, on a Sunday morning. Had he not additional reason to bear them stamped upon his memory? Did he not have to start after the Mass, and foot it south all the way to Bobio, there to be told that the death had taken place at the day and the hour revealed to St. Gall?

Quodam dominico die, is the original reading. Plain words to express a simple matter of fact! But time has given them a value which the old Irish Deacon could have little foreseen they would ever possess. Their decisive importance in the present discussion is beyond question. Through them we can establish the accuracy of the reading nono Kalendas Decembris by the unerring test of Chronology. Sunday, it is to be assumed, began at the midnight of Saturday. The Dominical Letter of 615 is E ; New Year's Day, in other words, fell on Wednesday. The Regular November Letter is d. Accordingly, the first of that month fell on Saturday, and the 2nd on Sunday. Consequently, the 23rd fell on Sunday also. St. Columbanus, therefore, died on the morning of Sunday, November 23, A.D. 615.

Thus, after a lapse of more than eleven hundred years, a new witness arises to add another to the many and undesigned coincidences which so strikingly attest the veracity of our Ancient National Records.


The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume 5 (1884), 771-780.

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