Columbanus : biography

543 – 615

Columbanus is named in the Roman Martyrology on 23 November, which is his feast day in Ireland. His feast is observed by the Benedictines on 24 November. Columbanus is the patron saint of motorcyclists. In art, Columbanus is represented bearded bearing the monastic cowl, holding in his hand a book with an Irish satchel, and standing in the midst of wolves. Sometimes he is depicted in the attitude of taming a bear, or with sun-beams over his head.Husenheth, p. 33.


The life of Columbanus was written by Jonas, an Italian monk of the Columban community at Bobbio, c. 643. Jonas lived during the abbacy of Attala, Columbanus’ immediate successor, and his sources had been companions of the saint. In the second volume of his Acta Sanctorum O.S.B., Mabillon gives the life in full, together with an appendix on the miracles of the saint, written by an anonymous member of the Bobbio community.


Early life

Columbanus (the Latinised form of Columbán, meaning the white dove) was born in Leinster in the Kingdom of Meath in present-day Ireland in 543, the year Saint Benedict died at Monte Cassino.Smith 2012, p. 201. Prior to his birth, his mother was said to have had visions of bearing a child who, in the judgement of those interpreting the visions, would become a "remarkable genius".Jonas 643, p. 6. Columbanus was well-educated in the areas of grammar, rhetoric, geometry, and the Holy Scriptures.Jonas 643, p. 7.

Columbanus left home to study under Sinell, Abbot of Cluaninis in Lough Erne. Under Sinell’s instruction, Columbanus composed a commentary on the Psalms. He then moved to Bangor Abbey on the coast of Down, where Saint Comgall was serving as the abbot. He stayed at Bangor until his fortieth year, when he received Comgall’s permission to travel to the continent.Wallace 1995, p. 43.Jonas 643, p. 10.


Columbanus gathered twelve companions for his journey—St. Attala, Columbanus the Younger, Cummain, Domgal (Deicolus), Eogain, Eunan, St. Gall, Gurgano, Libran, Lua, Sigisbert, and Waldoleno—and together they set sail for the continent. After a brief stop in Britain, most likely on the Scottish coast, they crossed the channel and landed in Brittany in 585. At Saint-Malo in Brittany, there is a granite cross bearing the saint’s name to which people once came to pray for rain in times of drought. The nearby village of Saint-Coulomb commemorates him in name.

Columbanus and his companions were received with favor by King Gontram of Burgundy, and soon they made their way to Annegray, where they founded a monastery in an abandoned Roman fortress. Despite its remote location in the Vosges Mountains, the community became a popular pilgrimage site that attracted so many monastic vocations that two new monasteries had to be formed to accommodate them. In 590, Columbanus obtained from King Gontram the Gallo-Roman castle called Luxovium in present-day Luxeuil-les-Bains, some eight miles from Annegray.Jonas 643, p. 17. The castle, soon transformed into a monastery, was located in a wild region, thickly covered with pine forests and brushwood. Columbanus erected a third monastery called Ad-fontanas at present-day Fontaine-lès-Luxeuil, named for its numerous springs. These monastic communities remained under Columbanus’ authority, and their rules of life reflected the Irish tradition in which he had been formed. As these communities expanded and drew more pilgrims, Columbanus sought greater solitude, spending periods of time in a hermitage and communicating with the monks through an intermediary. Often he would withdraw to a cave seven miles away, with a single companion who acted as messenger between himself and his companions.

During his twenty years in France, Columbanus became involved in a dispute with the French bishops who may have feared his growing influence. During the first half of the sixth century, the councils of Gaul had given to bishops absolute authority over religious communities. As heirs to the Irish monastic tradition, Columbanus and his monks used a method of calculating the date of Easter distinct from the system used on the continent. The bishops objected to their traditional celebration of Celtic Easter, as well as their Irish monastic tonsure. In 602, the bishops assembled to judge Columbanus, but he did not appear before them as requested. Instead, he sent a letter to the prelates—a strange mixture of freedom, reverence, and charity—admonishing them to hold synods more frequently, and advising them to pay more attention to matters of equal important to that of the date of Easter. In defense of his following his traditional paschal cycle, he wrote: