History of Ireland: Early Medieval Ireland, the Land of Saints and Scholars
Early Medieval Ireland (500-800 CE) was known as the Land of Saints and Scholars. This was because, once Christianity arrived in Ireland around 400 CE, it spread quickly. By the seventh century there were many monasteries and convents dotted across the island, These holy places were not only sites of prayer but also of learning and scholarship.
In the History of Ireland, this period is remembered as a time when the Irish helped to preserve Christianity and bring it back to the European continent after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Many important texts from ancient Europe were preserved in the monasteries of Ireland, even as Christianity had retreated from most of the continent in the face of pagan invaders from the north and east.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish scholarship was so renowned that students travelled from Britain and Europe to study in Ireland. The monks of the time also took care to record local knowledge and culture, and in this way, many great mythological tales from Ireland were preserved in writing for the first time.
Medieval Irish Monasteries
Monasteries in early Medieval Ireland took many different forms. Some, like the stone huts of Skellig Michael, were more like a hermit’s retreat. Many early Irish Christians believed that by leaving behind the distractions of the world, and going to as remote a place as possible, they could get closer to God.
Other monasteries, convents and abbeys were much more closely woven into the fabric of Irish social and economic life at the time. Some of the larger monasteries such as Trim and Lismore, attracted the growth of small towns around them. The monasteries were focal points not only for prayer, but also schooling and medicine. Whiskey was invented by early Irish monks, and was known as Uisce Beatha – the water of life.
By the eighth century, many Irish monasteries were associated with ruling Irish families. The families were often at war with each other, and monasteries were not above getting involved in the battles! Saint Columba first travelled to Scotland after he was banished by a local Irish king for his role in a battle. The early Irish monk seems to have mixed their Christianity with the earlier Gaelic culture which held warriors in high esteem.
A tour of the Medieval Monastery of Glendalough
Early Irish Saints
Saint Patrick is the most well-known Irish saint, but in fact Ireland from 500-800 AD gave rise to numerous saints. Aside from the famous Saint Patrick, Ireland has two other patron saints – Saint Brigid and Saint Columba (also known as Colmcille). Brigid refused her parents’ wishes for her to marry, became a nun and went on to rule a powerful convent in Kildare. Columba travelled to Scotland, bringing Christianity to the Picts and founding the island-monastery of Iona.
Early medieval Irish sources tell of many more saints and their miraculous deeds. Saint Brendan the navigator may even reached North America on his journeys. Saint Ita is credited with many healing miracles – she was even reputed to have healed a man who had been decapitated.
You can read more about the Irish saints of medieval times by clicking on the article title: Early Irish Saints
Early Medieval Irish Artwork
The greatest cultural legacy of Early Medieval Ireland is surely the contribution to insular artwork. 'Insular' refers to the unique form of art and aesthetics which developed in Ireland and Britain at the time, a style which was quite different from those of continental Europe. Early Irish monks, mixing Gaelic, Pictish and Anglo-Saxon styles, created illuminated manuscripts of the Christian gospels. These illustrated gospels are rich works of art in themselves. Celtic knot-work designs decorate the edges of the pages, while rich depictions of gospel themes mark the start of each chapter.
Probably the most famous example of these illuminated manuscripts is the Book of Kells which can be seen in Trinity College Dublin. The book consists of 340 leaves of high-quality calf vellum. Some of the materials required to make the colored inks the monks used had to travel from as far away as Asia. The book takes its name from the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, but many scholars believe the manuscript may have been partially or wholly created on the island of Iona at the monastery founded by Saint Columba.
There were few human figures in this early Irish art. Occasionally animals appeared. Most often however, the artwork consisted of extremely intricate designs. These designs were not limited to the written page, but also decorated jewelry of the time, and monuments such as the high crosses which often stood outside medieval Irish monasteries.
Learn more about the History of Ireland
This article is part of a series, giving an overview of all the main points in Irish history. Articles which have been written so far:
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