Christian Virgins and their Churches in the Sixth Century The View from the Seventh

Somehow between Patrick's era and c.6oo there came into existence places where consecrated women could live in community under an abbess. At the turn of the seventh century, many doubtless still lived in their home environments, as they had in Patrick's day, but many did not. In the course of the fifth and sixth centuries hundreds of churches and monasteries were established, so that by c.6oo there existed across Ireland small women's 'churches' and a handful of flourishing nunneries. This...

Types Of Holy Women In The Fifth And Sixth Centuries

In Confessio, chapter 42, after relating the tribulations of virgins, Patrick adds nihilominus plus augetur numerus . . . praeter viduas et continentes. Women at various stages of life, he informs us, were undertaking religious professions of virginity, widowhood, and continence within marriage. By expressing it in this way, Patrick was betraying his familiarity with a standard late antique schema of human classification called the 'threefold scale of perfection'. The 'scale of 52 Whereas in...

Women In The Monastic Vocation In The Fifth And Sixth Centuries

Patrick's texts leave hints about how the monastic profession generally developed in Ireland, the interpretation ofwhich have been debated for decades.28 It is a matter relevant to the study of women in the earliest Church, because women are traditionally classed as being part of the monastic movement. In the passage quoted above, Patrick recounts helping a woman become a virgin dedicated to God. Preceding that passage he had written 'sons and daughters of Irish under-kings are seen to be monks...

The Pagan World

Sometime in the latter half of the fifth century, a British missionary living in pagan Ireland wrote in a letter which survives to this day, 'The sons and daughters of the Irish kings are giving themselves to be monks and virgins of Christ I cannot count their numbers.' The author was Patrick, latterly the patron saint of Ireland. To this missionary, this fact was important enough to him to be repeated twice in his memoirs. It is with these two writings, the Epistola and the Confessio, that the...

The Written Sources

If the usable material remains are scanty, so too are the written ones. The saints' Lives of this century are the only substantial, possibly useful, textual source for the foundation of female houses. They pose problems, of course. A hagiog-rapher, even when writing during the lifetime of a saint, did not aim to write history but rather to demonstrate God's power. Moreover, storytelling devices were employed to enhance the plot, and entire episodes were sometimes copied wholesale from extant...

Popular Perceptions And Nonspecialist Historiography

When one mentions the phrase 'early Irish holy women' to the non-academic enthusiast of things Celtic, it conjures up exciting images of pagan priestesses, amazonian warriors, powerful goddesses, and Christian saints it prompts phrases 'Celtic matriarchy', 'Culdee Christians', and above all 'Celtic Christianity'. The general reader is presented with a veritable industry of Celtic spirituality which has literary, religious, and ethnic dimensions. Popular writing, so scorned by scholars, has...

The Earliest Christians

It was into Irish pagan society, so scarcely perceptible, that Christianity first took root. The earliest settlements, by all reasoning, must have been on Ireland's Eastern coast. When this took place is not certain, but it probably occurred shortly after the Roman Empire, deeply established in southern and central Britain, converted to Christianity in the earlier fourth century. At that time there was some contact of various sorts between western Romanized Britain and eastern Ireland. There...

Modern Celtic Christians

The modern Celtic Christianity movement is not an organized one, but rather consists of groups within established churches across various denominations. It speaks to those for whom none of the available contemporary versions of Christianity offer full satisfaction in their current form. A prime example in the British Isles is the Celtic Christian retreat centre on Iona, founded in 1938 by the Revd George Macleod, which has its own liturgical forms, worship groups, and literature. In the south...

The Sources For Female Religious In The Fifth And Sixth Centuries

Mercifully for the historian, Patrick's Confessio includes discussions of the conversion of women and the conduct of female converts, so it is possible to speak of women converts to Christianity as early as the fifth century There are two other relevant sources as well, 'The First Synod of St Patrick' most commonly and henceforth abbreviated Pai , and the Penitential of Finnian. All three have many concerns other than women religious, and the relevant parts are frustrat-ingly brief. Pai is a...

Peripatetic Foundation

The first thing to say is that the Lives consistently claim churches and monasteries were founded by peripatetic missionary leaders they are also consistent in saying that these leaders tended to found numerous places rather than just one. They tend to report that places were established on lands donated for the purpose, normally by local magnates and on lands of their kindred. In Muirchu s Life for example, Patrick travelled extensively requesting land for churches.18 In Tirechan s memoirs, he...

Sources And Problems

A few words about the sources and their problems may be helpful. The main point to make is that those relevant to early Irish religious women are wideranging in type and form. For the earliest church, covering the fifth and sixth centuries, there are the two texts of St Patrick, the Confessio and the Epistola, and the early penitentials, which are priests guides to the penances to be set for a wide variety of sins committed by the faithful. For the seventh to ninth centuries useful material is...