Columbanus (Colmán, Columba) (c.540–615), missionary, is mainly associated with his monastic foundations at Luxeuil and Bobbio. Originally named Colmán, he was generally known to his contemporaries by the Latinised forms Columbanus or Columba. He has sometimes been confused with his earlier namesake Columba (Colum Cille (qv)) and with the later Columbanus of Saint-Trond near Liège (Belgium), who has been credited with some of the poems formerly ascribed to Columbanus. There is very little information concerning his ancestry, parentage, or place of birth. Nonetheless, he is a figure of the greatest significance in the propagation of Irish missionary enterprise on the Continent, and the first Irishman whose writings have survived in considerable quantity. He is thus a very important witness to the character of Irish monastic life and learning in the sixth century.
The sources for his life include his own letters, two of which were written to popes: Gregory the Great (epistula I) and Boniface IV (epistula V). The correspondence of Pope Gregory (590–604) includes two interesting references to Columbanus, which show that he had received letters from him and was well aware of his presence and activities in Gaul. The ‘Vita Columbani’ by Jonas (qv), an Italian monk who entered the monastery of Bobbio shortly after Columbanus's death, has few details of his early life in Ireland, but gives valuable information concerning his activities on the Continent. There are also two Carolingian Lives by Wettinus and Walafrid Strabo. In addition, he is mentioned in Bede's ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ (ii, 4), and in other sources of varying historical value.
According to Jonas, Columbanus was born into a Leinster family of high social status. As a young man he had a vocation to become a monk, but was distracted by his attraction to women. In desperation, he went to seek the advice of a woman hermit, who advised him to take himself to ‘a place of stronger pilgrimage’ abroad. His early monastic education was begun in his late twenties under a certain Senilis or Sinlán, who has been identified as Mo-Sinnu (qv) (d. 610), afterwards abbot of Bangor. He later became a disciple of Comgall (qv) at Bangor, where he stayed for many years till his departure for Gaul together with twelve companions (c.590).
Columbanus founded his first monastery in a disused Roman fort at Annegray, and later established houses at Luxeuil and Fontaines in the Vosges region on land given him by Childebert II of Austrasia. His monks lived according to his strict rule and disciplinary practice, and maintained the Irish dating of Easter. Although he soon attracted many followers, Columbanus incurred the censure of the Gaulish bishops, ostensibly on the question of the Easter dating but more immediately for his condemnation of their practice of simony and their political intrigues. Following the death of his patron Childebert in 595, the opposition became more intense. In a letter addressed to the Gaulish bishops at the council of Châlon-sur-Saône (603), he asked them to tolerate his foundations and their traditional practices. The following year he wrote to Pope Gregory, maintaining that the Irish were merely preserving ancient Christian traditions in relation to the dating of Easter and other matters. During his stay in Gaul he wrote a monastic rule and a penitential with sections for monks, clergy and laiety. He also introduced the Gaulish churches to the Irish practice of private and repeated confession, which later became the norm in western Christendom.
In 610 Columbanus was expelled by King Theuderic II, apparently for his refusal to bless his illegitimate sons, which had incurred the anger of the king's mother, Brunechildis, whose protection Columbanus had previously enjoyed. He and some of his monks were escorted under arms to the port of Nantes, but the boat was forced back and stranded by a storm. Columbanus then made his way to the court of Clothar II of Neustria and later to the court of King Theudebert at Metz in Austrasia, where he rejoined some of his former companions from Luxeuil. They sailed up the Rhine to Basel and later to Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance. Local opposition and the defeat of Theudebert by Theuderic at the battle of Tolbiac (612) induced them to move south into the duchy of Lombardy where they enjoyed the patronage of Duke Agilolf, whose court was still divided between catholics and Arians. The following three years may have been the most theologically productive years of Columbanus's life. He became involved in the so-called ‘Three chapters’ controversy, concerning which he wrote a letter to Pope Boniface, and from which his extant body of sermons may have originated. Meanwhile, he established a monastery at Bobbio in the Appenines, which later became one of the greatest centres of learning in the middle ages. Columbanus died there on 23 November 615. His name occurs in the Frankish martyrologies, but not in the Irish calendars.
Considerable controversy still surrounds the corpus of Columbanus's writings, many spurious works having been attributed to him. Those that certainly belong to him are the monastic rule and the penitential, though both are overlaid with later accretions. Letters I–V are generally agreed to be his. His most controverted works are a group of six metrical poems, which are important primarily because of their bearing on the standard of classical literature in the early Irish schools. The poems ‘In mulieres’ and ‘Monosticha’ are unlikely to be his, but the internal textual evidence of ‘De mundi transitu’ suggests that it is the work of Columbanus. Some of the reasons adduced for reattributing the others, in some instances to Columbanus of Saint-Trond, were refuted by Löwe, but in any case their authorship remains in doubt. Further research remains to be carried out on Columbanus's literary output. His writings reveal considerable familarity with the works of a range of classical and patristic authors. The language is somewhat archaic but suggests a high standard of proficiency in grammar and style, and shows no evidence of having being influenced by the contemporary Latin of late sixth-century Gaul. In any case, Columbanus's reputation does not rest on his literary output alone: his main significance arises from his role in initiating the vast missionary enterprise of the early Irish church, and the achievement of his monastic foundations in enhancing and preserving medieval culture.