Saturday 18 July 2015

Irish Monasteries in Germany: Cologne

As July 18 is the feast of the Irish Abbot, Minnborinus of Cologne, below is a paper by Father J.F. Hogan on the Irish monastery in that city, published at the end of the 19th century. Father Hogan produced a series of such papers and was something of a pioneer in the research of these foundations. It is interesting to note that devotion to Saint Brigid of Kildare was introduced to the city by these monks and that their monastery was dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, a saint much-beloved in Ireland.



COLOGNE was nothing more than a small collection of huts and sheds when Germanicus pitched his tent on the site which the city now occupies in the early years of the Christian era. It was there that his daughter, Agrippina, was born, amidst the noise of arms and the chatter of legions. This princess, who afterwards became so famous and so unfortunate as the mother of Nero, took a life-long interest in the place of her birth. She sent a colony of Roman nobles to found a settlement there; and the place was called Colonia Agrippina, to commemorate the circumstances of its foundation. Only the noblest patricians were allowed to take part in the enterprise; and to this fact the hereditary pride of the modern magnats of Cologne is duly traced. Those noble Romans undoubtedly marked with the impress of their genius and their taste the institutions and the buildings of their city. Colonia soon became the stronghold of the empire in the North of Europe. She was to the barbarians of Germany and Gaul the image and the eye of the mother city. The patricians of Rome and princes of the empire came in crowds to visit the new capital, to enjoy its baths, its palaces, its theatres, and its brilliant society. Vitellius was there when he was called to the throne, and Trajan assumed the royal purple within its walls.

Soon, however, on the break up of the mighty power which had ruled the world for close on a thousand years, a new order succeeded to the old. In Germany, as elsewhere, the change was preceded, accompanied, and followed by revolts, conspiracies, and foul deeds of every kind. When Clovis was crowned at Cologne, in 508, as King of the Franks of Austrasia, turmoil and confusion seemed to reign supreme. Nor did Clovis succeed in suppressing the outbursts of vice and crime that surrounded him on all sides. For upwards of a hundred years the superstitions of paganism, which had taken so strong a hold of the Teutonic nature, dominated the native tribes, and drove them to the most monstrous excesses of barbarism and cruelty. It was only towards the end of the seventh century that Christianity began to take root and flourish at Cologne.

No doubt Christian blood had been shed in the city as early as the end of the third century, when the martyrs of the Theban legion were, according to tradition, massacred there. It was there, too, that St. Ursula and her companions gained their crown of martyrdom, in the fifth century. No doubt the line of bishops of Cologne extends back as far as St. Maternus, a converted soldier, who preached the Gospel to the Ubii about A.D. 350 ; but under him and several of his successors the great mass of the population clung on to paganism.

No genuinely organized effort was made to introduce Christianity amongst them till the year 690, when the Irish monk, Tilmo, built a chapel in an Island on the Rhine, close by the city, and began to preach the good tidings of the Gospel to the pagans around him. St. Egbert of England had made some attempt to convert them on the occasion of his mission to the Frisians, but his efforts bore no fruit, and he was compelled to return to Hy. A similar fate was reserved for his countryman, Wigbert, who had spent several years in close retirement in Ireland in preparation for his mission. He too returned, disappointed and disheartened, to make up, by the austerities of his life and the examples of his virtues, for the failure of his missionary career. St. Egbert, however, urged others to attempt the task in which he confessed that he himself had failed ; and a full band of twelve monks, with Willibrord and Suidbert at their head, were directed towards the territory of the Frisians and of the pagan tribes that dwelt on their confines. Of these adventurous messengers, Tilmo, an Irishman, was one ; and in the division of territory mapped out to the labourers, Cologne and its people fell to his lot.

That Tilmo was a native of Ireland seems quite certain. The constant tradition of Cologne is to that effect. The oldest chronicles of the monastery of St. Martin speak of him as a native of Scotia, and tell us that he was at first a soldier, then a monk, and finally a preacher of the Gospel on the banks of the Rhine. Almost all the missionaries of this region were educated either in Ireland or in Hy; but when they went abroad to preach the Gospel they usually marked the institutions which they founded with the seal of their nationality. Hence it was that the establishment of Tilmo soon attracted other Irishmen, who immediately grouped themselves around him, and took up the work which he had initiated.

The following lines of an old poet simply hand down the tradition of centuries:

Agrippae dulces salvete Napaeae,
Dique Deaeque omnes quorum sub nomine terras
Liquimus Hybernas, atque has intravimus oras;
Has sedes servate Scotis, hie sistere terris,
Exiliique vagos liceat finire labores.

In the course of a few years Tilmo was joined by several other Irishmen, whose nationality is universally admitted,amongst them saints Wiro, Plechelmus and Otger. With their assistance a monastery, was established and dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, a saint whose renown was in all the churches in those days, and whose memory was specially venerated in Ireland as well as in France.

The Irish monastery of St. Martin was, therefore, the first Christian establishment regularly founded in the city of Cologne. From this rich granary the seed of Christian faith was distributed and scattered broadcast over the land, taking such deep root that it lasts to-day, and flourishes in one of the fairest gardens of which the Church can boast.

In the course of some years these Irish monks were joined by natives, and one of these, named Wicterp, made such progress under the Scoti, that he one day became Abbot of the monastery, and afterwards Bishop of Ratisbon. To this position his noble origin and powerful connection naturally helped him in a feudal age. The missionaries took advantage of his kinship with Plectrude, the wife of Pepin of Heristal, to secure the favour of princes and people. Wicterp was succeeded in turn as abbot by Alpho, Herbod, Aldegar, Patrick, Blasius, Heynian, Bartholf, Gottfried, Martin, Adolf, Benedict, Dithard, and Berthold. That some of these were native Teutons and some Scoti is quite certain. That some of these bear German names is no proof that they were not Irish, as many of the Irish missionaries modified their names to suit the tongue of the people to whom they ministered. Beatus, Virgilius, Fridolinus do not sound very Irish, yet all admit their nationality. German Protestant historians have no doubt about the Irish nationality of Clement the Heretic; yet Clement does not sound particularly Hibernian.

During the eventful period that intervened between 690 and 975, in which the above-named abbots lived and ruled, their monastery passed through many vicissitudes. Twice it was levelled to the ground by merciless invaders first, by the Saxons, and then by the Normans. In the year 972, Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne, brought Berthold, one of the monks of Lorsch or Lauresham, to govern St. Martin's. Gero, his successor, conferred many privileges on the monastery; but Warinus, whose curious history is one of the romances of the annals of Cologne, and who succeeded Gero, restored the monastery to Irish monks, and confided its government to the Irish abbot Mimborinus. Warinus also signalized his term of office by building, in the neighbourhood of the monastery, a chapel, in honour of St. Brigid of Kildare, which afterwards became, and long remained a parish church in the city of Cologne.

On the death of Mimborinus, in 987, one of the monks, named Kilian, was appointed to succeed him. He is described as a very religious man; and, we are told, that the Archbishop, Evergerus, with the consent of the Emperor Otho III., presented to him, for the use of his monastery and pilgrim monks, several farms, with the fishing of the Rhine attached; three churches, several manses, vineyards, and exemption from some of the taxes in the city and in the empire. He also got charge of the monastery of St. Pantaleon, in the city, as well as of St. Martin's. It is evident there must have been Irish monks in the former as well as in the latter of these monasteries.

The most remarkable of the line of abbots of St. Martin's was, however, Helias, whom the ancient annals of Cologne unanimously designate as St. Helias. He had come originally from the monastery of Monaghan in Ireland. He led a most austere life, Trithemius tells, and was on that account an object of hatred to wicked men, who feared his reproof. On the other hand, he was the bosom friend and counsellor of St. Heribert, Archbishop of Cologne, whose biographer, Landberth, tells us that when this illustrious prelate felt his end approach, he sent for his beloved Helias, who prepared him for death, and administered to him the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and all the final consolations of the Church.

On the death of Heribert, however, the new Archbishop, Pilgrinus, conceived an inveterate dislike for the Irish monks, and for Helias in particular, to such an extent, indeed, that he threatened to expel them from Cologne on his return from his pastoral visits through his diocese. He reckoned, however, without St. Helias, who prayed that if God was for the Irish monks Pilgrinus might never return to Cologne. Whether this be a legend or a fact, certain it is that Pilgrinus never did return. He died, as Marianus Scotus informs us, at the town of Neomagus, in 1035. Helias was honoured with the confidence of his successor, Herrmann, and ruled his two monasteries, St. Martin and St. Pantaleon's, with the greatest success. He was remarkable, however, for uncommon strictness in the enforcement of discipline. A French monk of St. Pantaleon having written, without permission, a neat copy of the Missal for the use of the community, Helias burned it, lest others should presume to act without previous licence. He died in the odour of sanctity, and was buried in the chapel of St. Benedict, with the epitaph:

Haec tumuli fossa conduntur Praesulis ossa
Heliae miri mirificique viri.

It is stated by many writers that Helias was a skilled musician, and that he was the first to bring the Roman chant to Cologne, Mabillon goes so far even as to suggest that he is the 'Stranger and Pilgrim' to whom Berno of Reichanau dedicated his work on The Laws of Symphony and Tone, a work well known in the history of music. If Cologne was thus indebted in the eleventh century for the Roman chant and for musical education to an Irishman from Monaghan, who had studied in Rome, it must be admitted that she is now paying back the debt, with interest, to Ireland, after a lapse of over eight hundred years.

The learned historian of the diocese of Cologne, J. H. Kessel, published, in the year 1863, a most interesting volume containing all the ancient documents bearing on the history of St. Martin's monastery. In the introduction to this work he bears eloquent testimony to the heroic labours of the Irish missionaries not only in Cologne, but all over Europe. He takes good care, in speaking of these Scottish monks, to make it clear that in ancient times ' Scotia ' was not the name of modern Scotland. Amongst the earliest apostles of Germany, he says, the Irish hold the first place. He gives a short account of the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, of its rapid conquest of the whole people, of its fruitful development, and of the great number of monastic schools that arose all over the country, and became what he truly calls the fountainheads of many streams that flowed over this favoured land, and fertilized the soil of regions which the vanity of superstition had hitherto rendered barren and worthless.

Whilst this noble race of the ' Scoti ' [he continues] was enjoying the heavenly light of Gospel truth, and was bearing such fruits of virtue and good works as ever reward the labours of those who live according to its standard, Germany lay buried in the darkest and densest of superstitions. She had not even any hope of better fortune, either as to the preparation for a future life or the conception of any duty towards a Supreme Being. Nor can we be surprised at the fact, for traces of the superstition which we find to have existed at Cologne, in the sixth century, prove to us how crass and vile were the pagan ideas and customs that then existed in our city. To rescue the Germans from such darkness the Almighty seems to have chosen the 'Scoti,' who, yielding with joy to His divine will, proceeded to make new conquests for the kingdom of Christ. As Mabillon, in his Annals of the Benedictines, remarks, the Scoti conferred four benefits on the German people 1. The faith which gives salvation. 2. The erection of bishoprics. 3. The introduction of arts and letters. 4. The knowledge of agriculture. Those who wish to realize the full extent to which we are indebted to the Scoti for these blessings have only to read the work of the learned Spittler, which is worthy of the closest attention.

These missionaries feared neither the dangers of sea nor of land. Armed with the cross alone they preached Christ crucified to kings and peoples. They gave their lives for the salvation of our forefathers who had not yet been born anew through the waters of Baptism. What bitter trials they sustained, what giant labours they performed, what adversaries they faced and obstacles they overcame, the learned Abbot Martinus Gerbert and Lumper, the historian, have fully told us, giving to each of these Scottish missionaries his share in the gifts of preaching or in the advancement of Christian virtue, of civilization, and of letters. It is, therefore, not wonderful that these Scots gained such authority, and won the favour of all good men to such an extent, that the vicissitudes of centuries could neither subvert nor undermine the veneration in which they were held. All this is mainly to be ascribed to the fact that they not only brought to the Germans the treasure of divine truth, but all the civilizing institutions of the Christian religion schools, hospitals, asylums, shelters for the poor, and all similar retreats. In the year 844, several of these institutions having been allowed to fall into decay, either by the negligence of the bishops or the vicissitudes of the times, a decree was passed, at the Council of Meaux, held in that year, ordering hospitals and such foundations to be restored, ' such as they had been instituted by the Scots of old.' Every province of Germany proclaims this race as its benefactor. Austria celebrates St. Column, St. Virgilius, St. Modestus, and others. To whom but to the ancient Scots was due the famous 'Schottenkloster ' of Vienna? Salsburg, Ratisbon , and all Bavaria honour St. Virgilius as their apostle. Similar honour is paid, in different regions, to SS. Alto, Marianus, and Macarius. To whom but to these same monks was due the famous monastery of St. James at Ratisbon? Burgundy, Alsace, Helvetia, Suevia, with one voice proclaim the glory of Columbanus, Gall, Fridolin, Arbogast, Florentius, Trudpert, who first preached the true religion amongst them. Who were the founders of the monasteries of St. Thomas at Strasburg, and of St. Nicholas at Memmingen, but these same Scots? Franconia and the Buchonian forest honour as their apostles St. Kilian and St. Pirmin. . . and those Scottish monasteries of St. Aegidius and St. James, which in olden times flourished at Nuremburg and at Würzburg, to whom are they to be ascribed but to the holy monks of ancient Scotia? The land between the Rhine and the Moselle rejoiced in the labours of Wendelin and Disibod. . . . The old and famous monastery of St. James, at Mayence, was founded, according to the best writers, by these same Scots. The Saxons and the tribes of Northern Germany are indebted to them to an extent which may be judged by the fact that the first ten bishops who occupied the see of Verden belonged to that race.

The immediate successor of St. Helias, as abbot of St. Martin's, was Mariolus or Molanus, who, according to Florence of Worcester, died in 1061. He is described by the poet -chronicler, Oliver Legipont, as -

Vir niveo candore micans et Pallade clarus.

Five other names complete the roll of Irish abbots of St. Martin's they are: Felan, Wolfhard, Hezelin, Isaac, and Arnold. Of the last-named, who died in 1103, the chronicler tells us -

Ultimus ille fuit praesul de gente Scotorum.

This was the period of decay in Irish monastic life at home owing to the Danish wars and other domestic causes. The monasteries abroad shared in the downfall of the establishments that had given them birth, and soon fell into the hands of the stranger.

The abbey of St. Martin, at Cologne, did not disappear, however, with its Irish monks. On the contrary, it continued to be one of the most important centres of civilization and learning in Germany. Nobles, and even princes became its mitred abbots. Many of its monks were heard in the halls of the University of Cologne by the side of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. Its library was frequented by scholars from all parts of Europe. But though it survived the storms of a thousand years, it succumbed to the French Revolution. By a decree of the 9th of June, 1802, it was declared national property. The goods of the monastery were seized, and the church was handed over to the pastor of St. Brigid's, to serve henceforth as a parish church. On the 3rd of July, 1803, the last abbot of St. Martin's celebrated his first Mass as parish priest of St. Martin's. The church, however, still remains a splendid memorial of the old foundations of the 'Scoti.' Around it cling the most sacred traditions. To the modern people of Cologne it recalls the most cherished memories of the Christian faith.


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 4th series, Vol. 3 (1898), 526-535

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