Hearts And Minds Aflame For Christ: Irish Monks—A Model For Making All Things New in the 21st Century

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St. Gall and the Abbey
When Columban was driven away from Luxeuil, Gall, his lifelong friend and disciple who had left Bangor with him, accompanied him. In A.D. 610 they stopped at Lake Constance in what is today Switzerland where Gall established a monastery. He was in his early 50’s.

Gall was a man of intense piety who lived an austere, disciplined life. The abbey he established eventually became a center for education, beginning with a few individuals who gathered informally to be his pupils. Over the years, more Irish monks came to Gall’s abbey, among them, many scholars and teachers. The Abbey of St. Gall became one of the great educational centers of Europe for more than a thousand years. By the mid-800’s, according to Zimmer, St. Gall “was the most celebrated monastery in Germany at that time and for more than three hundred years it was looked upon as the chief nursery of learning of the whole kingdom. It owes its reputation greatly to its connections with Ireland and the work of learned Irish monks in its university.”33

With its growing reputation and educational quality, the abbey became the beneficiary of several generous bequests and a growing circle of wealthy individuals supported the work. This freed the more scholarly monks to devote themselves to study, writing and teaching. Gall gathered the greatest library in Europe.34

One of the most noted Irish teachers in Gall’s history was Moengal (or Marcellus) who arrived at Gall in 850. According to Zimmer, he “seems to have made a powerful impression upon the monks by his great learning, both in theology and the secular sciences.”35 An early history by Ekkehard, a Gall monk from the next century, notes that Moengal was “most learned in both divine and human matters.”36 He specialized in theology but also taught music.

According to Zimmer, “Moengal’s residence at St. Gall produced an unwonted impetus to composition among the inmates of the monastery….In my opinion there were very few men who, in the middle of the ninth century exerted such a beneficent influence upon the German mind in the cultivation of the higher arts and sciences as Moengal and his followers.”37 But Moengal was not only an outstanding academic; he also lived an exemplary life of devotion to God. Heiric, a contemporary of Moengal, writes that he was “the only philosopher of our time who is a man of perfect holiness.”38 He was an example of a scholar with high standards in both academic work and personal holiness.

Moengal was an excellent educator and demonstrated a commitment to the importance of a broad education. Moengal provided an education in what were the classic seven liberal arts of that day: the trivium—grammar, dialectic and rhetoric—and the quadrivium—arithmetic, music, grammar, and astronomy. A description by Notker, one of Moengal’s students who himself later taught at Gall, indicates that during the first three years of education, the student focused on Christian doctrine and memorized Scriptures and some of the creeds. They memorized the entire book of Psalms. Then they studied reading, writing and arithmetic, along with music and Latin grammar. Later they studied such books as Aesop’s fables and the classical writers, such as Virgil, Homer, Ambrose and others. Since there were few books, the teacher mostly read to the students while they copied the text on wax tablets and then memorized it. Students were also taught in free composition.39

The abbey itself provided education across the entire age spectrum, from primary to “university” level. Clark describes the plethora of academic and cultural activities at St. Gall around the middle of the ninth century:

Books were written, copied, and illuminated in the scriptorium. Musical works were composed, and the theory of music was taught. The monks observed the sun and stars to calculate the dates of church festivals. All the sciences known in that day were diligently studied, nor were the more practical arts and handicrafts neglected: painting, architecture, sculpture in wood, stone, metal and ivory, weaving, spinning, and agriculture were all the object of assiduous attention. Among the monks of St. Gall there were historians, theologians, artists, poets, and musicians.40

Clark also reflects on the unique combination of asceticism, self-sacrifice and scholarship which the monks at the Abbey of St. Gall possessed:

The calm of the cloisters was conducive to study, and many men whose natural aptitudes led them to love learning found a congenial home in conventual surroundings. Such men…united in their persons the piety of a monk and the accomplishments of a scholar….The scriptoria of the Benedictines are therefore the channel through which the intellectual treasures of classical antiquity passed into our modern world….The community was essentially aristocratic in its nature; the abbots were invariably nobles. This aristocracy of birth became in the ninth century an aristocracy of intellect. The monastery became an academy of scholars, poets, artists, and musicians. Not content with copying the works of antiquity, they studied them diligently and amassed a very respectable store of erudition.41

From its inauspicious beginnings, the Abbey of St. Gall had become “the intellectual center of the German world.”42 For another hundred years after Moengal, Irish scholars continued to influence education at Gall. Gall scholars in turn went out to found and to lead other monastic centers across Europe.

By 800 devoted Irish monks had scattered all over Europe. But Columba, Columban, Gall and scores of other monks were only the first wave of Irish academic missionaries to Europe.