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In a very similar manner may an inscription, or merely the symbol of the Fish, have furnished material for the myth of the fish in the well that recurs in so many saintly legends.
But there was another source. In Irish mythology, and it was doubtless the same in the myths of other Celtic races, the Eo Feasa, or “ Salmon of Knowledge,” that lived in the “ Fountain of Connla," played a part. Over this well grew some hazel trees which dropped their nuts into the well, where they were consumed by the salmon, and the fish became endowed with all the wisdom and knowledge contained in the nuts. In a poem by Tadhig O'Kelly we have this passage :
“I am not able to describe their shields-
Aengus Finn, as late as 1400, employs the same expression and applies it to the Virgin Mary, “She is the Salmon of Knowledge, through whom God became Man.” 5 Consequently, in Celtic myth, the eating of the mystic fish signified the acquisition of superhuman knowledge.
It is also possible that in some poetical story of the life of the saint the fact of his daily communicating was put figuratively as of his daily partaking of the Fish from the Living Well, the Fish that never died, but was ever present to be partaken of by the faithful. This in process of time would be misunderstood, and give rise to the fable, which agreed singularly with the Celtic symbol.
It may be thought that we have dealt too liberally with the fables that are found in the Lives. But we hold that in a good many cases the fabulous matter is a parasitic growth disfiguring a genuine historic fact, and therefore we have been unwilling to reject them.
Probably, in Roman Britain, there were bishops in the principal towns, as London, Lincoln, York and Caerleon, and the Church was organized in the same manner as in Gaul, each bishop having his see, loosely delimited. The Christianity that entered Britain was almost certainly through the soldiery and the Romano-Gallic merchants and settlers in the towns. But it spread into the country, and the native British accepted the Gospel to some extent.
But when the Wall was abandoned, and there was a rush made south by the refugees to Wales, and when others came flying before the swords of the Saxons and Angles, the whole ecclesiastical frame
5 O'Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, 1873, ii, pp. 143-4; Rhøs, Hibbert Lectures, 1888, pp. 553-4.
work went to pieces. There were no more sees. Bishops were among those who escaped into Wales or crossed the seas to Armorica and Spanish Gallicia, but they had no longer any territorial jurisdiction. In the desolation and confusion of the times, this was inevitable.
As the Church in Wales began to recover from the shock, it gravitated about new centres, monastic institutions, of which the heads might or might not be bishops. It was so in Ireland after Patrick's time, where no such a thing as a territorial organization was attempted till centuries later, there monasteries were attached to tribes and ministered to their religious requirements. Bishops were retained by the abbots, but they had no jurisdiction, they were subject to abbot or abbess, and were retained for the purpose of conferring orders, and for that alone. It began in this way in Brittany, but there the proximity to and influence of the Gallo-French Church, and the insistence of the Frank kings, rapidly brought the Celtic Church there into the approved shape. Such a tribal organization was in conformity with Celtic ideas, and followed on that which existed in Pagan times. Then there had been the Secular Tribe with its chief at its head, and alongside of it what may be called the Ecclesiastical Tribe, composed of the Bards and Druids.
With the acceptance of Christianity, the saints simply occupied the shells left vacant by the Druids who had disappeared. Among the Celts all authority was gathered into the hands of hereditary chiefs. Of these there were two kinds, the military and the ecclesiastical chief, each occupying separate lands ; but the members of the ecclesiastical tribe were bound to render military service to the secular chief; and the ecclesiastical chief on his side was required to provide for the needs of the secular tribe by educating the young of both sexes, and by performing religious ceremonies. Every tenth child, tenth pig, calf, foal, went to the saint, and his tribe was thus recruited. Of S. Patrick we are told :
Fecit ergo totam insulam in funiculo distributionis divisam cum omnibus incolis utriusque sexus decimari omneque decimum caput tam in hominibus, quam in pecoribus in partem Domini jussit sequestrari. Omnes ergo mares monachos, fæminas sanctimoniales efficiens ; numerosa monasteria ædificavit, decimamque portionem terrarum, ac pecudum, eorum sustentationi assignavit. Infra brevi igitur temporis spatium nulla eremus, nullus pene terræ angulus aut locus in insula fuit tam remotus, qui perfectis monachis aut monialibus non repleretur.
In certain cases an even more liberal grant was made to the Church, as in Leinster, where, as the Colloquy of the Ancients informs us,
6 Vita S. Patricii, Acta SS. Boll. Mart., ii, c. 17.
“the province dedicated to the saint a third of their children, and a third of their wealth.” ?
There was an economic reason which compelled the Celts to establish great congregations of celibates. Neither in Ireland nor in Wales was the land sufficiently fertile, and the cultivatable land sufficiently extensive to maintain the growing population.
When no new lands were available for colonization, when the three field system was the sole method of agriculture known, then the land which would support at least three families now would then maintain but one. To keep the equipoise there were but migration, war, and compulsory celibacy as alternatives. And we must remember that multitudes of refugees were pressing into Wales from North and East, far more than that mountainous land could sustain.
A story is told in the preface to the Hymn of S. Colman that shows how serious the problem was even with the aid of the compulsory celibacy of the monasteries. In 657 the population in Ireland had so increased, that the arable land proved insufficient for the needs of the country; accordingly an assembly of clergy and laity was summoned by Diarmidh and Blaithmac, Kings of Ireland, to take counsel. It was decided that the amount of land held by any one person should be restricted from the usual allowance of nine ridges of plough land, nine of bog, nine of pasture, and nine of forest; and further the elders of the assembly directed that prayers should be offered to the Almighty to send a pestilence “ to reduce the number of the lower class, that the rest might live in comfort.” S. Fechin of Fore, on being consulted, approved of this extraordinary petition, and the prayer was answered by the sending of the Yellow Plague ; but the vengeance of God caused the force of the pestilence to fall on the nobles and clergy, of whom multitudes, including the kings and Fechin of Fore himself, were carried off. 8
On the Steppes of Tartary, where also the amount of land that can be placed under cultivation is limited, for the purpose of keeping down the population, great Buddhist monasteries have been established, and the children are set apart from infancy, by their parents, to become Lamas.
The duties of the saint were to instruct the young of the tribe, to provide for the religious services required, and to curse the enemies of the head of the Secular Tribe. The institution of schools for the young was certainly much older than Christianity in Britain and Ireland. We know from classic authorities, as
7 Silva Gadelica, Lond. 1892, ii, p. 218. 8 O'Donovan, Annals of the Four Masters, 1851, i, p. 131.
well as from the Irish writers of the heroic legends, that the Druids formed communities, that these were presided over by an Arch-Druid, that in them were educated the sons of the kings and nobles, and that the heads of these schools had lands for their support. By no other way can we explain the marvellous expansion of the educational establishments which took place after Ireland became Christian, than on the supposition that the saints entered in upon an institution already existing, and brought into it a new life.
S. Cyndeyrn at Llanelwy had in it 965 monks. At Bangor Iscoed, according to Bede, there were seven choirs, numbering 300 in each. S. Lasrian is said to have ruled over 1,500 disciples, S. Cuana had 1,746 scholars under him. At a later period, S. Gerald of Mayo had in his establishment 3,300.
Some of these great schools or monasteries contained females as well as males, and the double monasteries so prevalent among the Angles were formed on the Celtic model. S. Brigid at Kildare ruled such a double house of monks as well as nuns. As many of the pupils tarried on to prepare for the clerical life, and some of the damsels resolved on embracing the ecclesiastical profession also, these young people were thrown together a good deal, and the results were not always satisfactory. Accordingly, one or other of the saints induced a sister, or a mother, or some other approved matron, to establish a girls' school, subject to his supervision, yet at a distance from his college for youths, sufficient to prevent the recurrence of scandal.
The course of instruction in these schools consisted in the quadrivium, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Of S. Catwg it is said that his master Meuthi during twelve years instructed him in Donatus and Priscian, i.e., in grammatical learning. The psalter had to be acquired by heart. The Book of Ballymote contains a schedule of the studies in these great colleges during the twelve years that a pupil was supposed to spend in them. 10
That the saint was expected to minister in sacred things to those of the tribe stands to reason. If his first duty was to be the education of the young, his second was to conduct worship, and to bury the dead. To the monastery the people went, especially at Easter, to receive Communion and to bring their oblations. The churches were small, usually of wattle and dab, 11 and could not contain large
Ducange, Glossarium ad scriptores mediæ et infimæ Latinitatis, s.v. Quadrivium. The tradition of “the seven liberal arts ” of the trivium and quadrivium was current in Wales in at least the fifteenth century. Iolo MSS., p. 327.
10 O'Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, Lond. 1873, ii, pp. 171-3.
11 “ More Britonum ecclesiam, et cæteras officinas, de lignis levigatas ... congregations. But crosses were erected as stations in different localities occupied by the tribe, from whence the saint preached, and where probably he also ministered the sacrament. 12 There would seem to have been only one cemetery in each tribe that was consecrated, and to which the bodies of the members of the tribe were conveyed. This, however, is not so certain.
Something more will have to be said about the third obligation of the saint, that of cursing the enemies of his tribal chieftain.
We shall have to quote Irish sources to illustrate what was customary in Wales, as the religious systems were identical in both, and as authorities are more copious in Ireland than in Wales.
The Hy Many in the fifth century were becoming too populous for their district. Now, at that time the Firbolgs occupied Connaught. Maine Môr and his people coveted their land ; accordingly, they called on S. Grellan to curse the Firbolgs. He did so, and then the Hy Many defeated them and took possession of Connaught. Attributing their success to his imprecations, they bade him impose on them dues for ever; and this he did. “A scruple out of every townland, the first-born of every family, every firstling pig or firstling lamb, and the firstling foal. Let the Hy Many protect my Church and frequent it, refuse not their tribute, and my blessing shall be on the race. It shall never be subdued carrying my crozier—that shall be the battle-standard of the race.” 13
We may take a remarkable illustration from the Life of S. Findchua, of the manner in which the saints were called in, as Balaam was by Balak, to curse the enemies of the tribe to which they were attached.
Findchua had been baptized by S. Ailbe of Emly. He made a present to the son of the King of the Déisi of his place in heaven. So he had, he supposed, to earn for himself another place. To do this he had made for him seven iron sickles, on which he hung for seven years.
The men of Meath were attacked by pirates from the sea, coming yearly and committing great depredations, so Findchua was sent for to curse them. When the saint heard that ambassadors for this purpose were coming to him, he ordered for their entertainment “a vessel of ale sufficient to intoxicate fifty men,” and meat in proportion. Then he came down from his sickles and went with the dele
ædificare jam incohabant.” Vit. S. Kentigerni, Pinkerton, Lives of Scottish SS., od. Metcalfe, Paisley, 1889, ii, p. 51.
12 “ Venerabilis pater Kentegernus antistes habebat in consuetudinem ut in locis quibus prædicando populum adquisitionis nomini Christi subdiderat ... triumphale vexillum sanctæ crucis erigeret." Ibid. p. 86.
13 O'Donovan, Tribes and Customs of the Hy Many, Dublin, 1843.