St Columba’s (St Colmcille’s) Day June 9th

St Columba st margarets chapel by Graham van der Wielen  Edinburgh  Lead glass
St Columba Stained Glass window in St Margaret’s Chapel Edinburgh Castle by Graham van der Wielen Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

St Columba, or Colmcille is one of the most important saints for the early transmission of Christianity. He was born in 521 and said to be a descendent of the possibly legendary Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages. (The Hostages were a token of Niall’s power as they came from the five provinces of Ireland, which are Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Meath. The other four represented Scotland, the Saxons, the Britons, and the Franks). Columba was sent at an early age to be brought up as a Monk, and went on to set up Monasteries in Ireland at Derry and Durrow.

In 563, he left Ireland, possibly because he got involved in a dispute that had a deadly outcome. He went into exile to Scotland and set up the famous Monastery on the island of Iona, Inner Hebrides, off the coast of what would one day be called Scotland. At the time, it was under the control of the Kingdom of Dál Riata, which was nominally Christian and controlled parts of Ulster and Western Scotland.

From Iona, Columba led the conversion of the Picts to Christianity, which helped towards the unification of the Gaels, the Picts and the Britons, eventually into the Kingdom of Alba which became Scotland. Iona became the traditional burial place of early Scottish Kings such as Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaích). Kings who were crowned at Scone and buried in Iona.

Much of the events of this part of Columba’s life are recorded by St. Adamnan in The Life of Saint Columba written in the 7th Century, much of which is apocryphal. One notable story tells how he came across a group of Pagan Picts who were mourning a child killed by a monster in the River Ness. St Columba revived the child. He then sent one of the Brothers to swim across the Loch to fetch a boat. The “water beast” pursued the Monk and was about to attack him when St Columba told the monster to stop, and so it did, retreating to the depths of Loch Ness. Thus began the legend of the Loch Ness monster.

St Columba died in 597AD. Iona continued to prosper and in, 634AD sent St Aidan from Iona to found the Monastery at Lindisfarne, which is on the Eastern coast of Britain in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which was one of the most powerful at the time. Lindisfarne was instrumental in the conversion of the Kingdom of Northumbria. This tradition of evangelism took hold in the British Isles, and it was from here that much of the German-speaking world was converted to Christianity.

This is St Columba’s legacy.

There is a developing understanding among scholars that this Irish inspired form of Christianity took a leading role in ritual, art, scholarship in the Roman Catholic world at this time. Just stop and think about that sentence for a moment. The north-western extreme of the Islands off the coast of Europe took a leading role in the development of Western Christianity. This was highlighted in a recent exhibition of Anglo-Saxon art at the British Library.

British Library with Poster for Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms Exhibition, Photo K Flude
British Library with Poster for Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms Exhibition, Photo K Flude

A look at the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells showcases the amazing art of this period. For a real treat, look through this scrollable virtual copy of the Lindisfarne Gospel. (Currently this is unavailable, I suspect since the BL was hacked) The Book itself has been missing from the displays of the British Museum for a couple of years, and was on display in Northumberland in 2022. I’m not sure whether it is yet back on display at the British Museum. I hope so, but the scrollable version almost compensates for its absence. You can see the Book of Kells at Trinity College, Dublin or look at their online offering here: Not quite as joyous an experience as the online Lindisfarne but beautiful enough.

Carpet Page from the Lindisfarne Gospel
Carpet Page from the Lindisfarne Gospel Photo Wikiepedia Eadfrith –
Lindisfarne evangeliarium, tapijtbladzijde op f26v, Matteüsevangelie

Here is a virtual tour of Iona

Here is a 360-degree panoramic photo tour of Lindisfarne Abbey

December and Kalendar of Shepherds December 1st

French 15th Century ‘Kalendar of Shepherds’

December was originally the 10th Month of the unreformed Roman Calendar, now the 12th. For the Christian Church, it’s the period preparing for the arrival of the Messiah into the World. For the Anglo-Saxons it is the month of Yule, the midwinter festival. In Welsh, Rhafgyr, the month of preparation (for the shortest day). In Gaelic, An Mios (or Dudlach or an Dubhlachd) – the Darkness.

For a closer look at the month, I’m turning to the 15th Century Kalendar of Shepherds. Its illustration (see above) for December shows an indoor scene, and is full of warmth as the bakers bake pies and cakes for Christmas. Firewood has been collected, and the Goodwife is bringing something in from the Garden. The stars signs are Sagittarius and Capricorn.

The Venerable Bede has an interesting story (reported in ‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker) in which a Pagan, contemplating converting to Christianity, talks about a sparrow flying into a warm, convivial Great Hall, from the bitter cold winter landscape. The sparrow enjoys this warmth, but flies straight out, back into the cold Darkness. Human life is like this brief period in the light, warm hall, preceded and followed by cold, unknown darkness. If Christianity, can offer some certainty as to what happens in this darkness, then it’s worth considering.

This contrast between the warm inside and the cold exterior is mirrored in Neve’s Almanack of 1633 who sums up December thus:

This month, keep thy body and head from cold: let thy kitchen be thine Apothecary; warm clothing thy nurse; merry company thy keepers, and good hospitality, thine Exercise.

Quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightly

The Kaledar of Shepherds text below gives a vivid description of December weather and then elaborates on the last six years of a man’s life, with hair going white, body ‘crooked and feeble’. The conceit here is that there are twelve months of the year, and a man’s lot of ‘Six score years and ten’ is allocated six years to each month. So December is not just about the 12th Month of the Year but also the last six years of a person’s allotted span. The piece allows the option of living beyond 72, ‘and if he lives any more, it is by his good guiding and dieting in his youth.’ Good advice, as we now know. But living to 100 is open to but few.

Kalendar of Shepherds

The longer description of December (shown below) by Breton in 1626 gives a detailed look at the excesses of Christmas, who is on holiday, and who working particularly hard. But it concludes it is a costly month.

Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626 – December

About the Kalendar of Shepherds.

The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/f4824s6t

To see the full Kalendar, go here:

June 14th Moneywort

MONEYWORT
Moneywort. Photo by Kurt Stüber Wikipedia

Calm weather in June
Sets corn in tune.

When it is hottest in June, it will be coldest in the corresponding days in February.

(Weather Lore by Richard Inwards 1895)

Moneywort flowers in June/July. It is, also known as Creeping Jenny, Wandering Jenny, Creeping Joan, or Wandering Sailor. All names alluding to its rapid trailing over the Ground.

It’s also called Herb Tuppence or String of Sovereigns and variations. ‘Herbe 2 pence’ was the name given by William Turner in the earliest English scientific Herbal, 1551. He learnt his medicine in Italy in Ferrara and Bologna and went abroad again, in exile from Mary 1st’s religious intolerance.

frontispiece of William Turner's 'A newe herball' containing descriptions of 238 English plants, 1551
William Turner’s ‘A newe herball’ containing descriptions of 238 English plants,

Its Latin name is Lysimachia nummularis (from the Latin for money nummulus) Mrs Grieve suggests that the two pence idea comes from the leaves which ‘look like rows of pennies, and the golden flowers which give the name String of Sovereigns.’

There was said to be ‘not a better wound-herb’, and that wounded serpents would wrap themselves around it. Hence, yet another name is Serpentaria. Also, it was thought to be good for stomachs, and against whooping cough.

It can be used both fresh or dried, but if to be dried, collect in June. It prospers in damp conditions and self-spreads.