Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Did the Saints Part over Medieval Politics?

By Kim Rendfeld

The official reason Saints Gall and Columbanus parted in the early seventh century is that Gall was too ill to accompany his longtime friend to Italy. But was that the real cause? Did they instead have a falling out over politics?

The pair went back decades. Gall and Columbanus got their education at Bangor, Ireland. Columbanus was born around 543. Gall was younger, born in Ireland in the latter half of the sixth century. His wealthy parents dedicated him to the Church as an infant, which probably means he was not their first child. At Bangor, Gall learned grammar, poetry, and Scripture, and was ordained a priest.

You might remember Columbanus as the young man who stepped over his weeping mother to leave home and pursue a life in the Church. He had forsaken all women, including her. That should be enough of a clue that he wasn’t the easiest guy to be around.

Still, he had followers. When Columbanus felt called to be a missionary to the Continent, Gall was one of his 12 companions. In early medieval times, travel was expensive, hazardous, and miserable, and the missionaries had no idea how the folk at their destination would receive them.

They landed in Gaul in 585, where they would have stood out. They spoke a different language, and even their tonsures varied from the Roman ones. Urged by the king of Austrasia to stay in his realm where he could protect them, Columbanus founded a monastery in castle ruins at Anegray.

The brothers lived an austere lifestyle. They mortified their flesh and practiced what a 7th-century monk called “extreme fasting,” eating only bark and herbs and the occasional food brought to them as charity. If we are to believe Columbanus’s hagiography, they received visitors seeking miraculous healing.

After a while, more monks joined the order, and Columbanus sought better place for his monastery. He chose Luxeuil, a site formerly sacred to pagans, a common practice. The abbey flourished for many years, but Columbanus got in trouble with Theoderic, the king of Burgundy, and Brunhilda, the monarch’s grandmother who ruled with him. Theoderic had sons born out of wedlock, and Columbanus refused Brunhilda’s request to bless them as heirs to the throne. He thought the king should get married and have children with a wife, but a queen meant less power for Brunhilda.

Theoderic was smart enough not to make Columbus a martyr, so he settled for the next best thing: exiling the troublesome missionary. Gall accompanied his leader on the heartbreaking journey in 610. They traveled along the Rhine to Lake Constance and settled in a wilderness near Bregenz.

And they began preaching again. They weren’t always popular. Apparently, people don’t take kindly to strangers breaking their sacred statues and throwing them in the lake. They also attracted the enmity of the governor, Gunzo.

Still, Gall adjusted to life in the area. He enjoyed fishing on the lake and knew the local language. Legend has Gall, like Columbanus, able to command bears. The stories for Gall vary. One has him rebuking the beast in the forest. Awestruck, the bear brought firewood for Gall and his companions, and everyone warmed themselves by the fire.

A year later, Columbanus left for Italy. Gall stayed behind, apparently too ill for a journey. But even when he got better, he did not follow Columbanus. As arduous as travel was, it seems like Gall could have found a way to join his friend. They had faced danger and hardship before.

Perhaps, they did have a falling out, and it had something to do with Gall’s assistance to Gunzo’s ailing daughter Fridiburga. Betrothed to Sigibert, one of Theoderic’s illegitimate sons, the young woman was believed to be sickened by a demon. Sigibert sent two bishops to Überlingen to heal her, to no avail. Gall succeeded where they had failed and cured her. As a reward, Sigibert gave the Irishman royal land near Arbon for him to pursue a religious life.

Was Columbanus angry Gall had helped the enemy? Was Gall tempted by the offer of land? Or was he moved by compassion, believing a young woman’s soul was at stake? After all, why had he ventured to the Continent if not to save souls?

Regardless of Gall’s motivation, the gift of land made him a leader. The monastery had humble beginnings. He built a small, windowless stone hut—a cell for prayer—and an oratory. Soon 12 monks joined him, and they, too, wanted cells.

Gall preached, continuing his missionary work, and kept to his simple life. Apparently, he didn’t want power. When the see of Constance became vacant, the clergy—impressed with his learning and piety—unanimously chose him. Gall refused, saying that electing a stranger to lead the bishopric went against Church law.

His decision was a sacrifice, considering that an early medieval bishop or abbot could live an aristocratic lifestyle, form alliances with the nobility, and wield influence. Perhaps, Gall wanted nothing to do with politics. Or maybe he feared that luxury would corrupt him and endanger his soul.

In 625, Columbanus’s successor at the abbey at Luxeuil died, and Gall was asked to be its abbot. He again had a chance to hold power and again rejected it. At that point he might have been in his 70s. Did old age deter him? Or did he prize his humble life above everything?

Gall would live on for a while. He died Oct. 16, 646, and left behind a legacy. The abbey that bears his name went on to become a center for scholarship in Europe.

Images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


"St. Gall" by Albert Poncelot, The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Lives of the Saints, Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume X: October

Who Was St Gall” St. Gall’s Church, Carnalea, in Bangor County Down in Northern Ireland

Columbanus: Poet, Preacher, Statesman, Saint by Carol Richards

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

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

"Silverware in Early Medieval Gift Exchange: Imitatio Imperii and Object of Memory," by Matthias Hardt, Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian Period: An Ethnographic Perspective edited by Ian Wood


Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in early medieval times and is working on a third.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes. Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website kimrendfeld.com, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

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