COPTIC INFLUENCES IN THE BRITISH ISLES
In the early Middle Ages, the fifth to the ninth century, Ireland and England were open to monastic influences from Coptic Egypt; the Irish, and to a lesser extent the Anglo-Saxons, responded favorably. There is no proof that any individual Copt ever came into contact with any individual Anglo-Saxon or Irishman, nor is there any evidence that anyone in Ireland and England could read Coptic— only a few could even read Greek—so the influences were all secondhand. Yet the societal structures in the British Isles during that period guaranteed that Coptic influences would have more effect there than in Western areas with direct contacts in Egypt.
Western Continental Monasticism
Knowledge of the Coptic monks of Egypt and their ways reached the West through Greek churchmen, who usually favored the more structured discipline of the Western church. Even writers and church dignitaries such as the patriarch ATHANASIUS I preferred monks to be obedient to hierarchical authority; and when they praised the eremitic (solitary) life, they did so in an idealizing way, as something wonderful in the days of the primitive church. Other Greeks, such as Saint BASIL THE GREAT, strongly criticized the hermits and emphasized episcopal authority over the monks.
The conservative ecclesiastics of the West shared the Greek view. They were skeptical of hermits and fearful of wandering holy men who gained popular adulation. Gregory of Tours in the sixth century tells of a Gaul who wished to be a stylite but was talked off his pillar by the local clergy, who reminded him that he was in Gaul, not Syria, and that he would freeze in winter. Less amusing but more revealing is Sulpicius Severus’ fifth-century Life of Martin of Tours, which tells how Saint Martin’s eremitic life endeared him to the people but offended the hierarchy, who used his ascetic manners and appearance to discourage his elevation to the episcopate, although they did not succeed.
In the Western church, monasticism increased, but usually it was of the cenobitic (communal) rather than the eremitic type and had close connections with bishops. Bishops were frequently chosen from the ranks of monks. In the fifth century, for example, the island monastery of Lérins off the coast of southern France was virtually a seminary for Gallic bishops. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, patronized a monastic community outside the city walls and Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote a rule for monks. P. Rousseau demonstrated in 1971 that the hagiographers of the Western bishops depended upon monastic models.
In the sixth century the greatest of Western monks, Saint Benedict, fit into this pattern. A true Roman, he favored an orderly monastic environment with a set of offices that demanded respect— regardless of what one might think of the officeholder—and cooperation between the monks and the local bishop, who had authority over them. Although he acknowledged the existence of good hermits, Benedict really had no place for them in his system. He preferred monks to be under the control of an abbot, and he stressed the Roman virtue of stabilitas, envisioning that a monk would spend his life in one monastery. He had no use for the wandering monks who figure in the most primitive Egyptian accounts.
Monasticism in Ireland and England
This preference for a disciplined, organized monasticism reflected the society of the Western empire with its large urban communities and strong, often politically minded bishops. But when Christianity reached Ireland in the fifth century, it encountered a completely different society, one in which the typical Western Christian culture had little relevance. A religion that grew up in a warm, Mediterranean, urban, classical, literate environment was now entering a chilly, Atlantic, rural, barbarian, nonliterate environment. When the Anglo-Saxons conquered most of southern Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, they created a similar world on that island. These conditions were made for monasticism, and they revivified the primitive Egyptian forms.
The Irish had no cities, and while some Anglo-Saxons took over Romano-British cities, most lived in rural areas. The episcopacy was an urban institution, but monasticism, which had begun as a flight from the cities, was rural and fitted well in England and Ireland.
As barbarians (that is, nonclassical peoples), the Irish and English lived in heroic societies that valued a man’s individual qualities more than the office he held. Their heroes, such as Cuchulainn and Beowulf, were men who faced the enemy alone. The hermit, who by himself fought the world, the flesh, and the devil, fitted the image of the northern hero; bishops and cenobitic monks generally did not.
Finally, the Irish and English were converts with all the zeal of converts. The centuries-old Christian religion was as new to them in the early Middle Ages as it had been to the Jews and Romans in the apostolic age. This zeal found its outlet not in the lives of members of the settled establishment but in the lives of those who gave all for their faith, the monks.
These factors combined to make the Irish and English receptive to Egyptian monasticism, particularly that of the desert’s heroic age. Eventually the romanization of both the Irish and English churches eliminated this influence, but for some years it was a potent and creative force. In Ireland, Athanasius’ Life of Antony was known in Latin translation, as was Jerome’s probably fictitious life of Paul, another Egyptian hermit. The Sayings of the [Desert] Fathers was translated from Greek into Latin by the Spaniard Martin of Braga in the sixth century. Contacts between Spain and Ireland were strong in the early Middle Ages, and the Irish were familiar with the Sayings.
The great Irish monastic saints were, like Saint ANTONY, originally hermits who were forced by popular pressure to accept disciples, for example, Saint Kevin of Glendalough. Like Antony, but unlike Benedict, they were fond of wandering, and there arose in Ireland a form of spirituality called the peregrinatio pro Christo, a “wandering for Christ.” The Irish thought that next to martyrdom, voluntary exile was the greatest sacrifice one could make. Abraham had left Ur of the Chaldees at God’s call, so the practice had a biblical foundation. Both Saint Columba and Saint Columbanus went into exile in the sixth and seventh centuries. When Saint Adamnan wrote the Life of Columba in the seventh century, he not only presented the saint in Antony’s mold but also included verbatim, though unacknowledged, citations from a Latin version of Antony’s Life.
The Coptic monks lived in the desert. The Irish had no desert, but they did have the Atlantic Ocean. Like the Egyptian desert, it was vast and even waterless, since one cannot drink seawater. To the Irish, the wild, empty ocean appeared as lonely and forbidding as the desert had to the Egyptians. The connection was more than psychological; Irish texts, for example, spoke of the ocean as a desertum. The most widely read Irish book of this period was the Voyage of Saint Brendan. It tells the story of the abbot Brendan’s departure from his homeland and his voyage on the ocean in search of the Blessed Isles, an obvious reenactment of the Egyptians’ withdrawal to the desert in search of a heavenly life. Brendan wanders, meets fabulous creatures, wins contests with demons, and reaches his destination. To stress the Egyptian parallels, the anonymous author even has Brendan meet Paul the Hermit.
The flight to the desert is a symbolic return to the natural world of the Garden of Eden from the world of human beings. This is a prominent theme in Irish hagiography, in which the Irish hermits live with nature, and many of their miracles involve the animals with which they live in peace.
These literary motifs extend beyond the hagiography. Recent scholarship has established that many biblical apocrypha were known in Coptic circles—some were known only in these circles— and manuscripts of these texts date to the fourth and fifth centuries, when the hierarchical church was condemning their use. Martin McNamara has demonstrated that the Irish knew and used a great many apocrypha, including some known only from Egypt. It is virtually impossible that the Irish had direct access to Coptic works, but it is certain that they did know and appreciate those works far more than other Western peoples. Visionary and apocalyptic books were especially popular with them.
Artistic devices and motifs also demonstrate the contacts of the Irish with Coptic influence. The circled Irish cross may derive from the ancient Egyptian tau symbol, which had been turned into a cross in Egypt at least by the fifth century, as a Coptic manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York shows (G.67, p. 215). The famous “Virgin and Child with Angels” illustration on folio 7v of the illuminated Irish manuscript the Book of Kells has been shown by F. Henry (1963) to be related to a Coptic manuscript. Henry also points out that the use of red dots surrounding a figure in order to illuminate it, a practice used in several Irish manuscripts, is of Coptic origin. Portraits of Christ in some Irish manuscripts and on Irish stone crosses bear strong resemblance to portraits of Osiris. Irish church music also shows Coptic influence. The Irish used hand bells, as did the Copts in the sixth century, but the rest of the Eastern church did not do so until the ninth.
The Coptic influence was less strong in England because the Anglo-Saxons moved into what had been a Roman province, and there was a Roman mission to England before 600. The eighth- century historian Bede tells the story in his Historia ecclesiastica. As the Romans evangelized southern England, they eventually came into contact and friction with the Irish, who had been evangelizing Northumbria. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the Northumbrian king Oswy decided for the Roman party and guaranteed that the Anglo-Saxon church would be the ordered, stable entity so familiar in the West. Indeed, Bede himself was a Benedictine.
But the “official” triumph of Roman views was not a triumph of the heart, and old ways persisted for a while longer. One of Bede’s heroes was Saint Cuthbert, a cenobitic monk of the seventh century who left his community to become a hermit. He lived on a deserted island, built a wall around himself so high that he could see only the sky, battled with demons, and performed miracles with wild animals. Only late in life was he imposed upon to accept a bishopric, an office he had previously refused (Historia ecclesiastica 4.27-29).
Guthlac was a monk at Repton in the seventh century but left to become a hermit on a marshy island, where he practiced strict asceticism. His biographer, Felix, in his Life of Guthlac (chap. 30), says that demons tried to tempt him by offering to teach him the way of life of “those renowned monks who dwelt in Egypt.” On another occasion Guthlac routed some demons by reciting Psalm 67:2 to them, the same verse Saint Antony of Egypt had used (chap. 34).
The famous Ruthwell Cross, a large stone cross that contains verses from the poem “The Dream of the Rood,” has representations of Antony and Paul engraved upon it.
The particulars relate to surface evidence, but the Coptic spirit lived on past the Synod of Whitby. Bede was a romanized Benedictine but also an Anglo-Saxon from a heroic society. His tribute to the English hermit Drycthelm exemplifies the heroism and individuality that also characterized the desert fathers (Historia ecclesiastica 5.12):
This man was given a more secluded dwelling in the monastery, so that he could devote himself more freely to the service of his Maker in unbroken prayer. And since this place stands on the bank of a river, he often used to enter it for severe bodily penance, and plunge repeatedly beneath the water while he recited psalms and prayers for as long as he could endure it, standing motionless with the water up to his loins and sometimes to his neck. When he returned to shore, he never removed his dripping, chilly garments, but let them warm and dry on his body. And in winter, when the half-broken cakes of ice were swirling around him which he had broken to make a place to stand and dip himself in the water, those who saw him used to say: “Brother Drycthelm . . . , it is wonderful how you can manage to bear such bitter cold.” To which he, being a man of simple disposition and self-restraint, would reply simply: “I have known it colder.”
- Henry, F. L’Art irlandais, Vol. 1. Paris, 1963.
- Kelly, J. F. T. “The Desert Fathers as Models for the Monks of the West.” In God and Charity, ed. F. D. Costa, pp. 55-74. Brookline, Mass., 1979.
- . “The Gallic Resistance to Eastern Asceticism.” Studia Patristica 18 (1982):506-510.
- McNamara, M. The Apocrypha in the Irish Church. Dublin, 1975. Ritner, R. “Egyptians in Ireland: A Question of Coptic
- Peregrinations.” Rice University Studies 62, no. 2 (1975):65-87. Rousseau, P. “The Spiritual Authority of the “Monk-Bishops’:
- Eastern Elements in Some Western Hagiography of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries.” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s., 22 (1971):380-419.
- Stevenson, J. “Ascent Through the Heavens, from Egypt to Ireland.”
- Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (1983):21-35.
J. F. T. KELLY