After the fall of the Roman Empire, the conquerors had no interest in ancient learning or in perpetuating it, which led to a serious decline in learning in sixth-century Europe. Gregory of Tours noted,
“…in the cities of Gaul there could be found no scholar trained in ordered composition who can present a picture in prose or verse of the things that have befallen.”
In other words, the French could no longer read or write! There were only two places in Western Europe you could learn reading and writing. One was among the caliphates of southern Europe, where Islamic rule brought beautiful designs, intricate science, and math. The other place was Ireland.
The leader of this learning movement in Ireland was a Bishop named Columbanus, the Dove of the Church. Columbanus established one of the largest libraries in the medieval world. He was a master of both the Scriptures and the Latin classics, as is evident from his writings. One of the chief occupations of his Monks was copying manuscripts.
The educated monks under Columbanus made their way from Ireland to Gaul to teach. Columbanus urged them to avoid worldly temptations and church power; to fear women and their leaders. This brave man rebuked both political and ecclesiastical tyrants. Women, he said, were to be revered! Columbanus, like his predecessor, St. Patrick, was ahead of his time. Columbanus’ influence spread beyond the Irish monastery walls to all Europe. Modern Italian villages and communities are named after him.
Do not, however, let the title “Dove” fool you. Even though his name means dove, Columbanus fearlessly and relentlessly condemned the abuse of power. When it came to reforming, he didn’t spare anyone. Columbanus went after clergy, princes, and even the Pope himself! Columbanus hated elitism. Thomas Cahill, in his “How The Irish Saved Civilization,” notes that Columbanus could have been a High King, but he chose to become a missionary monk instead. That is proof enough that his hatred of elitism wasn’t hypocritical.
Columbanus described himself as a dissenter when dissent was called for, but not a revolutionary. He had a vision of a united Europe under a united Catholic faith. The foundation of his vision was the concept of the free man. Columbanus said that to take away a person’s freedom is to take away everything. In St Peter’s Basilica there is a mosaic dedicated to St Columbanus bearing the inscription:
“If you take away freedom you take away dignity.”
“The phrase (ie: ‘If you take away freedom you take away dignity’) is taken from one of the letters of Columbanus. Indeed it is something that could have been written, not only by a seventh century missionary, but also by a citizen of today’s world, where so many people live in terrible conditions of slavery, fear and oppression…In addition to the ancient forms of oppression such as war, poverty, loneliness, violence and exile, the modern world has new forms of slavery such as drug and alcohol addiction, which are particularly destructive of human dignity…The glory of God is the human person – fully alive. Columbanus succeeded in uniting faith with human dignity and freedom.” (Cardinal Brady, on the 1400th Anniversary of the Death of Columbanus).
Columbanus “retained his individuality, that independence of spirit which had hurled anathemas at kings and queens and requested a pope not to allow ‘the head of the church to be turned into its tail…FOR IN IRELAND IT IS NOT A MAN’S POSITION BUT HIS PRINCIPLES THAT COUNT.”