Columbanus : biography

543 – 615


Columbanus arrived in Milan in 612 and was warmly greeted by King Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda of the Lombards. He immediately began refuting the teachings of Arianism, which had enjoyed a degree of acceptance in Italy. He wrote a treatise against Arianism, which has since been lost. Queen Theodelinda, the devout daughter of Duke Garibald I of Bavaria, played an important role in restoring Nicene Christianity to a position of primacy against Arianism, and was largely responsible for the king’s conversion to Christianity.

At the king’s request, Columbanus wrote a letter to Pope Boniface IV on the controversy over the Three Chapters—writings by Non-Chalcedonian Christians in Syria and Egypt considered to favour Nestorianism, which was condemned in the fifth century as heresy. Pope Gregory I had tolerated in Lombardy those persons who defended the Three Letters, among them King Agilulf. Columbanus agreed to take up the issue on behalf of the king. The letter begins with an apology that a "foolish Scot" woul be writing for a Lombard king. After acquainting the pope with the imputations brought against him, he entreats the pontiff to prove his orthodoxy and assemble a council. He writes that his freedom of speech is consistent with the custom of his country. Some of the language used in the letter might now be regarded as disrespectful, but in that time, faith and austerity could be more indulgent.Montalembert 1861, p. 440. At the same time, the letter expresses the most affectionate and impassioned devotion to the Holy See.

If Columbanus’ zeal for orthodoxy caused him to overstep the limits of discretion, his real attitude towards Rome is sufficiently clear, calling the pope "his Lord and Father in Christ", the "Chosen Watchman", and the "First Pastor, set higher than all mortals".Allnatt 2007, p. 105.

King Agilulf gave Columbanus a track of land called Bobbio between Milan and Genoa near the Trebbia river, situated in a defile of the Apennine Mountains, to be used as a base for the conversion of the Lombard people. The area contained a ruined church and wastlands known as Ebovium, which had formed part of the lands of the papacy prior to the Lombard invasion. Columbanus wanted this secluded place, for while enthusiastic in the instruction of the Lombards he preferred solitude for his monks and himself. Next to the little church, which was dedicated to Saint Peter, Columbanus erected a monastery in 614. Bobbio Abbey at its foundation followed the Rule of St. Columbanus, based on the monastic practices of Celtic Christianity. For centuries it remained the stronghold of orthodoxy in northern Italy.


Stone bridge over the Tebbia river leading to [[Bobbio Abbey in northern Italy]] During the last year of his life, Columbanus received messenges from King Chlothar II, inviting the saint to return to Burgundy, now that his enemies were dead. Columbanus did not return, but requested that the king always protect his monks at Luxeuil Abbey. He prepared for death by retiring to his cave on the mountainside overlooking the Trebbia river, where, according to a tradition, he had dedicated an oratory to Our Lady.Montalembert 1861, p. 444. Columbanus died at Bobbio on 21 November 615.


The following are the principal miracles attributed to his intercession:

  1. Procuring food for a sick monk and curing the wife of his benefactor
  2. Escaping injury while surrounded by wolves
  3. Causing a bear to evacuate a cave at his biddings
  4. Producing a spring of water near his cave
  5. Replenishing the Luxeuil granary
  6. Multiplying bread and beer for his community
  7. Curing sick monks, who rose from their beds at his request to reap the harvest
  8. Giving sight to a blind man at Orleans
  9. Taming a bear and yoking it to a plough

Jonas relates the occurrence of a miracle during Columbanus’ time in Bregenz, when that region was experiencing a period of severe famine.