Sunday 9 February 2020

Marianus Scotus of Donegal

February 9 is the feast of the Blessed Marianus Scotus, an eleventh-century Irish scholar and monastic who went from his native Donegal to Germany, following in the footsteps of much earlier Irish saints like Saints Columbanus, Killian or Virgil.  I have already printed a full account of the career of Blessed Marianus in a paper by Bishop William Reeves here, but below an American writer gives us a useful reminder of him and of the part played by the Irish in the spiritual and intellectual life of continental Europe. It appeared in 1923 in a syndicated piece in the New Zealand press and is part of that country's Papers Past digitized collection.

Marianus Scotus of Donegal

(By H. M. O'Malley, in America.)

High among the Bavarian Alps, remote from continental highways, the inhabitants of Oberammergau participated once again in the survival of a medieval mystery play repeated every decade since 1633. Through generations these people have held to the spiritual beauty and noble dignity of the early practices of our ancient religion. Remembering, too, that on the whole, the province of Bavaria stood as a bulwark against the force of the Reformation, we may well look backward through the centuries preceding that period for the particular source that has inspired so powerful and sublime an expression of faith as the Passion Play.

The pages of an old chronicle, a labor of love compiled within the Benedictine cloisters of Ratisbon about 1090, delight us with a fascinating revelation that opens up the story of the missionary work of the Irish monks in Germany. The Life of Marianus Scotus of Donegal was written by another Irish monk who remains anonymous, while both were members of the famous community at Ratisbon. Its authenticity is verified by Aventinus, a scholar of Vienna, who became the acknowledged annalist of Bavaria.

Archbishop Healy’s careful study of this priceless manuscript has shown that Marianus was of the Mac Robertaig family, Anglicised as Mac Groarty. Both in Donegal, educated by the monks of Drumhome in that county, Marianus left Ireland with his companions in 1067 to make a pilgrimage to Rome. The dates of his birth and death do not appear, but he is described by the writer as being at this time, according to an eye-witness, “a handsome, fair-haired youth, strong-limbed and tall, moreover a man of goodly mien, and gracious eloquence, well trained in all human and Divine knowledge.”

We are somewhat surprised to learn as the chronicle continues that the pilgrims intended to visit Bishop Otto of Bamburg on the Main, about one hundred miles east of Frankfort. But the advantages of the Rhine route were well known by Irish pilgrims to Rome as early as the eighth century and they were deviating but slightly from the journey made by St. Columbanus in 610 A.D. through Mainz and Mannheim to Zurich and over the St. Gotthard Pass. Furthermore, as the biographer of St. Columbanus tells us that about 620 monks from the monastery he founded at Luxeuil, in Burgundy, went as missionaries into Bavaria, it was only natural that Irish travellers should take a route which would offer them such hospitable retreats as those established by their countrymen along the Rhine.

Bound to his brother Marianus by the closest ties the faithful chronicler gives us such intimate and sympathetic incidents as the vigil spent in prayer which decided Marianus to make his permanent abode at Ratisbon where, even on his arrival, there were other monks from Ireland living in the monastery of Obermunster.

Christianity at this time, 1070 A.D., had long been firmly established in Germany, following at first the line of Roman outposts. During the present year, the Cathedral of St. Michael at Fulda will commemorate its eleven hundredth anniversary. The original church was begun in 822, A.D. and marks the site of the earliest Christian worship in Germany.

This time-worn parchment which preserves for us the record of Marianus of Ratisbon, as ho is later called, is but one of the more famous of similar documents of priceless value to the historian, the artist, and student of letters. Through these annals and chronicles restored to us from ancient monasteries we learn that this missionary work of pilgrims from the “Island of Saints and Scholars” had been going on all over Europe since St. Columbanus left Bangor in 575 A.D,, almost five centuries before Marianus the scribe and commentator determined to renounce his pilgrimage to Rome and dedicate his life to God in the Benedictine monastery at Ratisbon. In the history of no other country is there a record such as that of the missionaries who took Christianity and learning into Europe from the only land where culture had survived the ravages of the hordes that swept away Roman civilisation.

Before returning to the story of Marianus, it will be profitable to see. what can be learned about the early Irish missionaries from the various chronicles of the time, facts and events that 'are not wanting, in romance and glory, though written by that “class of humble but useful writers, the annalists, who merely relate,” says Cicero, “without adorning the course of public affairs”.

In summing up these authentic sources Zimmer says that near the end of the seventh and the beginning of the eight century a series of missionary establishments extended from the mouths of the Meuse and the Rhine to the Rhone and the Alps, while many others founded by Germans were the result of the work of the Irish monks. We learn, too, from these records that many times an Irish monk was invited to become abbot of one of these continental communities, and thereupon would send for his brothers in an Irish school to come to assist him, and that frequently a house was given over entirely to monks from Ireland who ministered to a locality. Many an Irish saint on pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem took up a foreign abode, like Marianus at Ratisbon. St. Cathaldus on his return from the Holy Land remained in Taranto, Italy, where he is venerated to-day as patron saint. A canton and city in Switzerland is named for St. Gall, and the figure of St. Fridolin, who built a church and monastery on an island in the Rhine near Basle in the last half of the seventh century, is borne on the banner and arms of the canton of Glarus. St. Livinus, said to have been Archbishop of Dublin, apostle to the Frisians, the early inhabitants of the Netherlands, was martyred there in 656. St. Kilian, the apostle of Franconia, with two other Irish bishops was martyred at Wurzburg in 688. The register of one abbey contains a line of Irish abbots from 704 to 729. Another Columbanus labored at Ghent in 957, more than three centuries after St. Columbanus. In Cologne in 975 the monastery of St. Martin was given up to the Irish brothers, and Finigan, Abbot of Metz, was head of an Irish community there many years before his death in 1003. Many Irish scholars who later became saints  have left their records as chaplains to the rulers who encouraged their zeal. In many regions the patron saint most intimately associated with native traditions was, curiously, a stranger from Ireland, as in the case of St. Fiacre, the patron of French gardeners, who cleared the forest about Meaux.

With these general statements about the great number of Irish missionaries and the extent of the territory in which they laboured, we can better understand the motives which led Marianus of Donegal to select a German monastery on the-Danube as his future home.

Archbishop Healy says the noble testimony borne to the learning, zeal, and charity of this pure-souled Irish monk in the land of the stranger shows that, not "without good reason, he and his countrymen were so warmly welcomed and so generously treated in all the great cities of medieval Germany."

Such was the life and character of Marianus, of Donegal that Ratisbon became the most important Irish settlement in Bavaria, a renowned seat of learning for centuries. The monastery founded by Marianus in 1076 was replaced by a larger one in 1111, and his biographer tells us that numbers of his countrymen followed him, seven of his immediate successors being natives of the north of Ireland.  Going out from Ratisbon these monks founded 15 monasteries in Bavaria, one at Wurzburg, in 1134; at Nuremberg, in 1140; St. George at Vienna, in 1155; at Eichstadt, in 1183; and St. Mary, at Vienna, in 1200. "What will be the reward of Marianus and pilgrims like him, who left the sweet soil of their native land?" wrote his brother in closing his story of the saintly scholar. Perhaps tho best answer to the question is in the Passion Play at Oberammergau.

Marianus Scotus of Donegal,New Zealand Tablet, Volume L, Issue 3, 18 January 1923

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