Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saint Columbanus Forsakes All Women – Even His Mom

By Kim Rendfeld

Saint Columbanus (543-615) had tremendous following during his missionary work on the Continent, but a story from his youth indicates he, like several saints, might not have been an easy guy to be around.

Details of his childhood in West Leinster, Ireland, are hazy. If we are to believe his hagiographer, Columbanus’s mother while pregnant with him had a dream of the sun rising from her bosom and shedding a resplendent light. She took that to mean the baby she was carrying was going to be a genius who would aid in her and her neighbors’ salvation. Little did she know the price she would pay.

Photo by Andreas Praefcke
(released to public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)
One clue to Columbanus’s youth is that he was educated and lived at home, which implies that he might have come from a noble family who hired a tutor. Peasants commonly needed their children to help with the farm or the household rather than allow their children to devote time to lessons. We don’t know what Columbanus’s parents intended for him. Perhaps, they saw him as a member of the clergy, a common reason to teach a child grammar and science.

As a young man, he was good-looking and, his hagiographer says, “aroused against him the lust of lascivious maidens.” (Yep, medieval people knew the women enjoyed intimacy. In fact, conjugal relations were a wife’s right, too.)

He enjoyed the attention and feared it would destroy what he had worked for thus far. Eventually, he found a holy woman who has removed herself from the world for 12 years. She said she would have crossed the sea to live among strangers if not for the weakness of her sex. (For some reason that wasn’t a problem for Saint Ursula and her fellow martyrs maybe a century or two earlier, and almost 200 years later, nuns from Wimborne heeded Saint Boniface’s call to become missionaries on the Continent.)

The holy woman reminded him of how other men – Adam, Samson, David, and Solomon – had fallen because they succumbed to feminine charms and warned that he would do no better. She exhorted him to, “Flee from corruption, into which, as you know, many have fallen. Forsake the path which leads to the gates of hell."

For a frightened Columbanus, the flight was literal – he was going to leave home. He justified his departure with a verse from the Bible, Matthew 10:37, one that I struggle with: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (King James version).

That was no consolation to his mother. In fact, the weeping woman laid herself across the threshold to block his way. Columbanus simply leapt over her. His hagiographer says that “he asked his mother not to give way to her grief; she would never see him again in this life, but wherever the way of salvation led him, there he would go.”

Salvation led him to a holy man then a monastery in Bangor, about 130 miles away – quite a distance when an army could go about 15 miles a day – and then across the Channel to Gaul.

To a medieval audience, this story, whether truth or legend, illustrates his piety – how his love for God was stronger than his love for his family. But I think even medieval mothers would be furious.


"St. Columbanus" by Columba Edmonds, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Medieval Sourcebook: “The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Fascinating article. One can only imagine his mother's reaction.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. How ungrateful. This kind of Medieval Christian thinking is hardly saintly, but just shows you the mind set of the church at the time. Goodness. In Islam, mother's are highly revered. I think Matthew definitely got it wrong

    1. Mary, mother of Jesus, is highly revered. Columbanus's story is a test of faith: Do you love God so much you would sacrifice what you love most? It's the central question of the ancient Abraham and Isaac story, one that I struggle with as a believer. So we could look at the story as what Columbanus was willing to give up for the sake of salvation.

  3. Hmmm, I'm sure he did good things, but he's got respect his mom;) I often think that when certain religious figures have issues with "lustful maidens" it says more about the minds of these men than the women themselves.

    1. Or more about the minds of the hagiographers searching for a good story years after the saint's death.

  4. Great post! I'm sure the 12 apostles left ticked off family , plus St. Francis's family wasn't too thrilled either... it seems part of the being a saint deal!

  5. If you wanted to write more on Columbanus and women perhaps write on his relationship with Brunhild, but also figure into the work that Jonas is unreliable as a source due to his agenda (as you have implied here with the 'if we are to believe his hagiographer'. Or that Columbanus was responsible for the consecration of Burgundofara and indirectly (his disciples) of Sadalberga (implying that Columbanian teachings weren't exactly anti-female). Just a few thoughts on Columbanus and his relationship with women. I think we need to think more broadly in terms of Columbanus's opinions on monasticism, it wasn't so much that he 'forsakes' all women but that he didn't really have much room in his life for women outside of his religious life (as was the life of the early medieval Celtic saint). Columbanus was pretty hardcore in terms of religious beliefs and expected penance for thoughts, never mind actions and thus never wanted to have any close relationships with women for fear of being 'tempted'.


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