Tuesday 9 February 2021

The Irish Monasteries of Ratisbon

February 9 is the day on which we commemorate an eleventh-century Irish monastic who achieved fame in Germany, Blessed Marianus of Ratisbon. Behind this Latin name lies a Donegal man, Muiredach MacRobertagh, who left his homeland in 1067 on pilgrimage to Rome but ended up settling in Ratisbon. The monasteries of Ratisbon were among the most prominent of the so-called Schottenklöster, those monasteries of Germany founded and staffed by Irishmen. It is important to remember that in the early middle ages Ireland was often described in Latin writings as Scotia and that the term was only later applied to the country we know as Scotland. Marianus Scotus, as the founder is known is thus not Marianus the Scot but Marianus the Irishman. The later exclusive use of Scotia to denote Scotland was to have consequences for the Irish which went well beyond semantics.  For in the sixteenth century they would be dispossessed of the foundations they had made in Germany in favour of Scottish churchmen. Below is an 1894 paper by Father J. F. Hogan on the Irish monasteries of Ratisbon. In it the Irish Ecclesiastical Record's German specialist describes the history of the Irish monasteries of Ratisbon and their famous founder:


THE corporation of Irish monasteries in Germany that owed its origin to the blessed Marianus Scotus of Ratisbon, is well worthy of attention, not only on account of the great influence it exercised on the religious and artistic history of Germany, but also on account of the rapidity of its development and the extensive proportions which it attained. From the great foundation of St. James at Ratisbon (1090), branches were established in 1136 at Würzburg, in 1142 at Vienna, in 1160 at Memmingen, in 1166 at Constance, in 1172 at Nüremburg, in 1194 at Eichstatt, and at some intermediate or approximate periods at Erfurt in Saxony, at Oels in Silesia, and at Kehlheim in Bavaria. Other smaller foundations were also made; so that when the Abbot of St. James's attended the Council of Lateran, in 1213, and obtained from Pope Innocent III. The acknowledgment of his brotherhood as a religious union or congregation exempt from episcopal control and directly subject to the Holy See, he could count at least fifteen well established, and flourishing houses, all acknowledging him as their ruler and head. The founder of the original house at Ratisbon, from which all these establishments emanated and grew was Marianus Scotus, an Irish monk, who should be carefully distinguished from his illustrious namesake " Marianus the Chronicler," who died at Mayence in 1082. Both were, we believe, natives of Tyrconnell in Ulster. They were practically contemporaries, and had both emigrated to Germany, each on a mission of his own. The Irish name of Marianus of Ratisbon, was Muiredach MacRobertagh, a name which still flourishes in a modern disguise in the county Donegal. We are indebted to a manuscript composed by an Irish monk of Ratisbon, and happily preserved in the Carthusian monastery of Gaming, in Lower Austria, for the most detailed account of the life of Marianus. In this and other less complete biographies we find the substance of the following facts relating to the saint. Marianus Scotus, who is described by the chronicler as having been very handsome in appearance and most attractive in his manners, was carefully instructed whilst still young, in sacred and secular literature. In due course he assumed the monastic habit, and prepared for the expedition which was evidently the ambition of his life. In the year 1067 he left Ireland forever, accompanied, according to some, by two companions, Joannes and Candidus; and according to others, by seven, viz., Johannes, Candidus, Donatus, Dominus, Mordacus, Isaac, and Magnaldus.

Their chief object on setting out was to make a pilgrimage to Rome, breaking their journey, as was the custom, at the hospitable monasteries on the way. On this errand, they reached Ratisbon, where they were first received by Otto, the Bishop, who had been formerly a Canon of Bamberg, and who received them into the Benedictine Order, and gave them the clerical habit of that great brotherhood. After a short sojourn at the monastery of St. Michelsberg, they were allowed by their superiors to proceed on their way. Arriving at Ratisbon for the second time, they met with a friendly reception from Emma, the Abbess of the Convent of Obermünster, who employed Marianus in the transcription of some books. A cell was arranged for him at the Niedermünster, in which he diligently carried on his writing, his companions preparing the parchment for his use. Before resuming his journey southwards, he resolved to pay a visit to an Irish recluse named Murchertach, who lived the life of a hermit in the immediate neighbourhood. Murchertach had left Ireland long before Marianus, and had now spent many years in the practice of the most austere penances.

On this account, Marianus was deeply impressed when the hermit urged him to submit to the guidance of Heaven as to whether he should continue his journey to Rome, or settle at once and for ever in Germany. He passed the night in considerable anxiety in Murchertach's cell, and in the hours of darkness it was intimated to him that where on the next day he should behold the rising sun, there he should remain and fix his abode. Starting early on the following morning, he entered the Church of St. Peter outside the walls of the city, to implore the blessing of heaven on his journey. On coming forth, he beheld the sun stealing above the distant horizon. "Here, then," he said, "I shall rest, and here shall be my resurrection." His resolution was hailed with joy by the people. Emma, the Abbess of Obermünster, granted him the Church of St. Peter, for the use of himself and his brethren; and a wealthy citizen of Ratisbon, named Bezelin, built for them, at his own expense, a small monastery, which the Emperor Henry IV. soon after took under his protection, at the solicitation of the Abbess Hazecha.

The fame of Marianus and the news of his prosperity soon reached Ireland, and numbers of his countrymen hastened to join him. They were chiefly from the province of Ulster like Marianus himself. They became so numerous that it was found necessary, in 1090, to build another monastery to receive them. This was called the monastery of St. James, and it became in the course of years one of the richest establishments of the kind in Europe. Of Marianus the founder, little further is recorded except his great skill and industry as a scribe:

"Such [says his biographer] was the grace of writing which Providence bestowed on the blessed Marianus, that he wrote many lengthy volumes both in the upper and lower monasteries. For,  to tell the truth, without any colouring of language, among all the acts which divine Providence deigned to perform through this wonderful man, I deem this most worthy of praise and admiration,  that the holy man wrote from beginning to end with his own hand the Old and New Testament with explanatory comments on the books ; and that not once or twice, but over and over again, with a view to an eternal reward, all the while clad in sorry garb and living on slender diet. Besides, he also wrote many smaller books and manual psalters for distressed widows and poor clerics of the city, towards the health of his soul, without any prospect of earthly gain. Furthermore, through the mercy of God, many congregations of the monastic order which in faith and charity and imitation of the blessed Marianus, have come from the aforesaid Ireland, and inhabit Bavaria and Franconia, are sustained by the writings of the blessed Marianus."

In his glosses and commentaries on the sacred text he made use of the writings of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Cassiodorus, Arnobius, St. Gregory, Fulgentius, Cassius, Leo, and Alcuin. His death is recorded on the 9th of February 1038.

There are several manuscripts written by Marianus still extant: but the most important is the Codex in the Imperial Library of Vienna, which, as Dr. Reeves remarks, interests us not only on account of the beauty of his execution, but also as supplying the Irish name of the writer. The existence of this manuscript was revealed to the public only in 1679, when Lambecius published his famous catalogue of the Library of Vienna. It was from this catalogue that Cave, Harris, Lanigan, Oudin, and Zeuss obtained their information.

A more detailed account of the manuscript was given later on by the learned and laborious Father Denis, whom Dr. Reeves describes as "one of those highly cultivated and gifted men whom the dispersion of the old society of the Jesuits threw upon the world, and who in these circumstances was made chief librarian in Vienna in the latter part of the last century." The Codex contains all the epistles of St. Paul, according to the text of the Vulgate, and in the same order in which they are found in our Bibles, except that between the Epistle to the Colossians and those addressed to the Thessalonians, the apocryphal Epistle to the Laodicacians is introduced; not, however, without the marginal observation, "Laodicensium epistola ab alio, sub nomine Pauli, putatur edita." The last folio of the work concludes with the words which are all written in vermillion:


and between the two first lines, over " Marianus Scottus," in the same hand, is written the Irish name of the scribe.

But to return to the monastic foundations of Marianus, we have already seen that the first house established in connection with the Church of Weich St. Peter soon became too small to hold the numbers of Irishmen who flocked to join him in his pious retreat. They accordingly purchased from the Count of Frontenhausen, for the sum of thirty pounds, a piece of ground which was situated at the opposite town gate, now called the Stadt-am-Hof. The ancient chronicle, which was kept by an Irish monk of St. James's, gives an interesting account of the progress of the new foundation. It tells us that two Irishmen of noble birth, named Isaac and Gervase, were sent, with several other companions, by Domnus, abbot of St. Peter's, to collect funds in Ireland for the building of the new monastery. They were well received by Conchobhar O'Brien, King of Munster, and returned to Ratisbon loaded with rich presents. With the money thus brought from Ireland the site was purchased, and a good part of the new monastery erected. "Now, be it known," writes the chronicler, " that neither before nor since was there a monastery equal to this in the beauty of its towers, columns, and vaultings, erected and completed in so short a time, because the plenteousness of riches and of money bestowed by the king and princes of Ireland was almost unbounded."

Yet, notwithstanding their copiousness, the treasures sent from Ireland were soon exhausted, and Christian, abbot of St. James, a descendant of the great family of the MacCarthys, at the request of his brethren, undertook a journey to Ireland to seek the aid of Donnchadh O'Brien, the brother of Conchobhar, who was now dead. He was most successful in his mission, and was preparing to return with a large supply of gold and valuables when he fell sick and died, and was buried before St. Patrick's altar in the Cathedral of Cashel. His successor, Abbot Gregory, was consecrated in Rome by Pope Adrian IV., and afterwards proceeded to Ireland, where he received the money that had been collected by Christianus, with considerable additions. With this he repaired the church, roofed it with lead, renewed its floor, and added cloisters around it, devoting the greater portion, however, to investments, which were necessary in order to ensure the future.

Wattenbach reminds us how enterprising and successful the monks were in providing funds to carry out their building projects:

" Whilst the building of the monastery of St. James was in progress, one of the monks pursued his journey, accompanied only by a boy, till he reached Kiev, then the residence of the King of Russia. Here the King and his nobles made him rich presents, so that he loaded several waggons with valuable furs, to the amount of a hundred silver marks; and arrived at home in safety, accompanied by some merchants of Regensburg. For at that time Russia was not so isolated as she is now; and  Regensburg in particular kept up a very lively commercial intercourse with Kiev, a city whose splendour Thietmar, Bishop of Merseburg, described, in the beginning of the eleventh century, in vivid colours."

It was with such treasures, aided by the privileges and exemptions conferred upon the monastery by emperors and popes, that the foundations were laid of the princely estate with which the famous "Monasteriurn Scottorum" of Ratisbon was ever afterwards endowed. It soon became the parent house of many flourishing colonies, always retaining authority over them, and exercising it when the occasion required. Paritius, in a work from which both Wattenbach and Reeves have chiefly drawn their information, gives the fullest account which we possess to-day of its history and progress. We give below the list of abbots who ruled it, according to him, from 1070 to 1720.

[Marianus Scotus, the founder, 1070-1098; Dominions, discipulus Marianus, 1008-1121; Dermitius, 1121-1133; Christian, 1133-1164; Domninus, 1164-1172; Georgius, 1172-1204; Johannes, 1205-1212; Matthaeus, 1212-1214 ; Georgius II., 1214-1223; Jacobus, 1223-1266; Paulinus, 1266-1279; Macrobius, 1279-1290 ; Matthaeus II., 1290-1293 ; Mauritius, 1293-1295; Marianus, 1295-1301; Donatus, 1301-1310; Johannes, 1310-1326 ; Nicholas, 1326-1333 ; Johannes, 1333-1341 ; Gilbert, 1341-1348; Nicholaus, 1348-1354; Eugene, 1355-1370; Matthaeus, 1370-1382; Gelatins, 1382-1383; Matthaeus, 1383-1396; Philip I, 1396-1402; Philip II., 1402-1421; Donatus, 1431-1436; Alexander Bog, 1548-1555; Balthazar Dixon, 1555-1567 ; Thomas Anderson, 1557-1576; Ninian Winzet, 1576-1592; Alexander Bailie, Maurus Dixon, Placidus Fleming, 1672-1720; Maurus Stuart, and Bernard Baillie. Abbot Placidus Fleming completely renovated the church in 1678.]

The most important events of its history were the foundations of new monasteries, which took place from time to time. Before we proceed to deal with these seriatim, it may be as well to state briefly the vicissitudes through which St. James's passed.

During the course of its history it received many proofs of paternal solicitude from the Roman Pontiffs. In the year 1120 it received a letter of protection from Pope Callixtus II. Innocent II., Eugene III., and Adrian IV. issued Bulls to its abbots, commending and encouraging their work. Innocent III., on the occasion of the Fourth Council of Lateran, 1213, at the request of the abbot, George II., took the establishment, with all its branches, under the direct protection of the Holy See, and confirmed the Abbot of St. James of Ratisbon as general or president of the whole congregation or union of Irish monasteries. Nor was civil patronage less generous in its assistance to these exiled monks. Cut away from the strife and contention of political life, devoted wholly to the service of God, preaching His word and inculcating His precepts by lives of perfect sanctity, these strangers became universally popular. The fame of their simplicity and zeal reached the courts of the great, as well as the homes of the poor. For all they had the same welcome, the same remedies, the same helpful sympathy. Their charity was unbounded. Their presence was regarded as a blessing to the whole country. Hence donations and legacies came to them fast and abundantly. We get an idea of the extent to which their possessions had accumulated, from a charter of the Emperor Sigismund, granted in 1422, renewing and confirming a previous charter of Frederick II., dated 1212. This latter document mentions, as Bishop Reeves has computed them, "seventy denominations of land, seven mills, ten vineyards, three fisheries, four chapels, eight manses, besides woods, pasturages, and gardens, all belonging to St. James's monastery. The deed is attested by one archbishop, six bishops, one king, one landgrave, two dukes, one marquis, and two earls." The record of these various donations was carefully kept in the monastery, as we gather from the fragments that have remained to us. Thus Bertha, "the gentle and artless dove " (simplex sine felle columba), daughter of the pious Margrave Leopold, and wife of the Burgrave Henry of Ratisbon, makes over on the monastery two vineyards and seven acres of land in Austria, in return for which she is buried in the chapter-house and never forgotten in the prayers of the monks. Another pious lady, named Linchardis, is equally generous, and is buried near Bertha "in Capitulo nostro." Noblemen like Werner von Laaber, Berthold von Schwartzenburg, Otto von Riedenburg, are especially commemorated in the Necrologium for their, large donations. Nor should Count Albert de Mitterzil be forgotten, for he was amongst their earliest benefactors, giving them the ground alongside their church on which their monastery was almost entirely constructed. His name is recorded in the Necrologium on the 17th January. Other names equally generous abound on the register.

And yet the vastness of that great estate did not prevent the institution that possessed it from one day falling into decay, and, what is worse, into disrepute. It even possibly helped its downfall, and made its days of decline more unfortunate than they might otherwise have been. We do not refer here to the frequent fires that consumed the material buildings, and compelled the monks to start from the foundations and begin their work anew. The final overthrow of the monastery was due to influences not less destructive than fire, but more fatal and far-reaching in their effects. Chief amongst these, as Wattenbach observes, was the subjugation of Ireland by the English. The incessant troubles that overwhelmed the mother country ever since the Anglo-Normans landed on our shores, made themselves felt in the Irish religious establishments on the Continent. The firmer and more extensive English domination became in Ireland, the more baneful were its results abroad as well as at home. Few monks went out from Ireland from the fourteenth century onwards. Those that did go were chiefly such as their superiors wanted to get rid of, or who were discontented with the strict rules and severe discipline that prevailed at home. It was not the zeal of the missionary that urged them forward. They sought rather a life of luxury and ease. Hence the duties of religious life are gradually neglected. The new monks are not able to fulfil their task. They fail to become acquainted with the language of the people around them. They cannot preach nor hear confessions. Their conduct leaves much to be desired. The good people whose forefathers lavished riches and wealth on the monks of St. James in the early times, shake their heads in sorrow and almost in shame. The property of the establishment is frittered away and squandered. The buildings fall into ruin. Manuscripts that had been laboriously written out were burnt or cast away. Books were sold or pawned or neglected. Church ornaments and vestments were allowed to become squalid and unfit for use. The monks themselves dwindled in number till they were threatened with extinction. Then it was that the monastery and what remained of the property fell an easy prey to the Scotchmen or "Scoti" of Scotland. They asserted " that these foundations originally belonged to their nation; that the Irish had unjustly thrust themselves in, and for that very reason had brought about the decline of the colonies."

On the 31st of July, 1515, Pope Leo IV. did actually make over the monastery of St. James on the Scotch, and appointed John Thomson superior. Thomson had just then paid a visit to Rome, where he had been a daily guest of the Pope at his dinner-table. This abbot drove out the remnant of Irish monks who still remained, and introduced countrymen of his own from the Abbey of Dunfermline. He was warmly supported by King James of Scotland. In 1653 an Irish Benedictine monk made vigorous efforts to recover possession of the monastery for his countrymen. Several Austrian cardinals supported his claims; but Pope Innocent X. decided against him. The newcomers were, all the same, not much superior to the degenerate Irishmen whom they replaced. They squandered what remained of the property till, under Abbot Alexander Bog, from 1548 to 1556, there was not a single monk remaining at St. James's. In his time also the old parent monastery of Weyh-St.-Peter was lost, having been burned to the ground on the evening of the 25th of May, 1552, during the progress of the Smalcaldic war. An old Ratisbon chronicler, Leonhard Wildman, thus relates the occurrence:

" On Wednesday, in the week of the Holy Cross, they began to destroy the church of Weyh-St. -Peter. In the evening they set it on fire, and burned it to the ground. On the 28th of July I went out, for the first time, by the gate of Weyh-St. -Peter, to see how the dear little monastery had been broken to pieces ; and the scene which this ancient house of God presented made me full sore at heart. Verily, if our forefathers had not built so many chapels, there would not now have been stones enough for the bastions of Prebrunn, and for the Ostengate."

St. James's had a short return of prosperity under the pontificate of Gregory XIII., who appointed as its abbot Ninian Winzet, a zealous opponent of the movement towards Protestantism. He had been driven out of Scotland on account of his orthodoxy and firmness, and now gathered around him at Ratisbon all the Catholic fugitives from his own country. He immediately set about seizing on the other Scotic monasteries that had been subject to St. James, and was successful in the cases of Erzfürt and Würzburg. In the others he failed. He was assisted in his intrigues by a remarkable man, named John Leslie, Bishop of Boss, and formerly plenipotentiary of Queen Mary Stuart in London. This ecclesiastic was high in the favour of the Roman Court. He was the author of a work entitled, De Origine Scotorum. He was appointed Assistant Bishop and Vicar-General of Rouen, in 1579 ; and in 1593 he was nominated to the see of Constance. He was, therefore, in a favourable position to press the claims of his countrymen to the scattered monasteries of the "Scoti." He made particularly adroit attempts in reference to the old monasteries of Nuremburg and Vienna, but failed in both. Under the Abbot Placidus Fleming (1672-1720), St. James's again enjoyed comparative prosperity. In 1718 he established there a college for young men of the Scottish nobility. When Paritius wrote his account of it, in 1723, the Scottish monks then at the monastery were Joseph Falconer, Augustus Morrison, Marian Brochie, Boniface Leslie, Kilian Grant, Placidus Hamilton, Erhard, and Columban Grant. According, however, as religious persecution became less oppressive at home, the necessity for a foreign secular college gradually ceased. A few monks lingered on till 1862, when the old monastery was secularized, or rather when, by an understanding between the Holy See and the Bavarian Government, it was handed over to the Bishop of Ratisbon as partial endowment of the ecclesiastical seminary of the diocese.

In that part of the city of Ratisbon now called the "Stadt-am-Hof," on the western bank of the Danube, the old 'Schottenkirche," or Church of St. James, still stands. Notwithstanding the number of times it was burnt and restored, there are still many traces around it of its Irish origin. One of its doorways in particular exhibits the genuine characteristics of Celtic art, the interlaced ornamentation and serpentine shapes of crocodiles and monsters which represent the triumph of Christianity over heathenism; the mermaid that symbolizes the distant sea crossed by the missionaries, and the peculiar shape and features, as far as they can still be distinguished, of three monks, whose origin could never be mistaken by anyone acquainted with the ancient carved stonework of Ireland, and their prototypes in the illuminated manuscripts of a still earlier period.

Such was the great monastery of St. James. We have been able to give but a brief sketch of its rise, its decline, and its extinction. Something must still be heard of it, however, as we follow the history of its numerous branches.


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume 15 (1894), 1015-1020.

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Finola Finlay said...

This is fascinating. I’ve been to Regensberg and seen the Scotteskirche. There were also important links in the 1100s - see my post here: https://roaringwaterjournal.com/2017/10/15/cormacs-chapel-the-jewel-in-the-crown-part-1/

Marcella said...

Thanks Finola, I enjoyed your post and envy you your visit! I hope others will also follow the link and enjoy the wonderful photographs.