The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)   |   Issue Editors: Celia Chazelle & Deanna Forsman

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Miracle Stories and the Primary Purpose of Adomnán's Vita Columbae

Sara E. Ellis Nilsson  
Gothenburg University (Sweden)

©2007 by Sara E. Ellis Nilsson. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2007 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  Scholars argue about the purpose of Adomnán's Vita Columbae, viewing it as either political, didactic or an endorsement of Iona scholarship. Although the vita is based on hagiographical models, it is not merely a re-production. In addition to the evidence presented by the analysis of the miracle stories, it is maintained that Adomnán wrote his work for the monks on Iona; therefore, the argument for a didactic purpose is the strongest.

§1.  In Adomnán's Vita Columbae (VC) miracle stories play a prominent role. The entire life is, in fact, a succession of stories dealing with miracles of various types, such as prophecy. Varied reasons for writing the VC can be identified including the politics or political agenda of Adomnán, the promotion of the cult of Columba, the didactic purposes for the monks (and lay people), or the demonstration of the knowledge and learning of Columba and his monasteries through the use of literary devices. In this article, an analysis of the miracles in the VC will be used to illuminate the purpose of the vita and to demonstrate that this was primarily didactic—that is, morally instructive or educative—rather than political or scholarly.


§2.  Adomnán, the author of the VC, was Columba's ninth successor to the abbacy at Iona. 1 A great deal about his career, concerns and life can be found in contemporary literary evidence. Adomnán died in 704 and, according to the Irish annals, he was in his seventy-seventh year, which means he was born sometime in the year 627 or 628 in Ireland. His kinship ties with Columba and succeeding abbots are attested in the genealogies. Adomnán was descended from Colmán mac Sétna, a younger son of Columba's uncle, while the descendants of the eldest son, Ainmire, were kings of Cenél Conaill. An additional family connection was with another Northern Uí Néill lineage, the Cenél nÉnda. These family relationships must have aided his position later as an abbot and influenced his concerns (Sharpe 1995, 43-55).

§3.  Adomnán's early career is not clear. It is almost certain that he was a churchman from his youth and he certainly spent years in the study of Latin texts. Most likely becoming a monk in the Columba familia, he could have joined at Druim Tuamma or Derry. Adomnán's learning, evident in his surviving works, demonstrates that much of his life had been spent in scholarship and there is the possibility he was a teacher as well. During his career it is apparent that he travelled extensively throughout Ireland, Scotland and Northumbria. Adomnán also engaged in political activities during his lifetime, including a diplomatic mission to King Aldfrith of Northumbria in 685-6. One of his most important achievements was the "Law of the Innocents" (in Cáin Adomnáin), enacted by the Church but enforced over both church and laity, to protect churches, women and children from combat. Adomnán was also, according to Bede, deeply involved in the Easter controversy; however, it is apparent that he continued to work with people adhering to either side (Sharpe 1995, 43-53). Perhaps, Bede exaggerated the contention between the Irish churches over this issue. And, as will be shown later in this paper, Adomnán appears to encourage co-operation and fellowship among the monks through the example of Columba.

§4.  The VC was not Adomnán's only work. Another book, De Locis Sanctis (The Holy Places), has also survived. Both the VC and De Locis Sanctis (DLS) were written at Iona. The DLS, which describes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem (O'Reilly 1999, 162), was written after meeting Arculf, a Frankish bishop who had spent time in that region. Adomnán wrote the work for the benefit of other students of the Bible, sometimes comparing Arculf's account to the information he had read in books, including works of Jerome and the Latin version of Josephus (Sharpe 1995, 54). The DLS enjoyed a wide circulation; king Aldfrith encouraged its distribution in Northumbria and Bede quotes from it in his Historia Ecclesiastica. The VC was written several years later. Although the date is not clear, it was most likely written sometime between 697 and 700.2 For this work, Adomnán relied on eyewitness testimony and an earlier work (now lost) by the monk Cumméne, who had also been abbot of Iona. As will be seen, Adomnán also used classical texts and other saints' vitae, including Sulpicius Severus' Vita Martini (Life of St Martin) (Sharpe 1995, 53-65; O'Reilly 1999, 161). According to the surviving manuscript evidence, the circulation of the VC was evident in Ireland and also on the continent.3 Presumably, Adomnán's work was also known throughout the areas which were familiar with the legend of St Columba during the medieval period (Sharpe 1995, 5).

A Question of Structure

§5.  The VC is divided into three books with distinct categories of miracles: prophecies ("profecticis reuelationibus"), miracles of power ("uirtutum miraculis"), and heavenly visions ("angelicis uisionibus").4 The latter two books are further divided by Adomnán—Book II into what Adomnán terms 'vengeance upon enemies' ("aduersariorum terrificis ultionibus"), animals ("bestiis aliqua narrabimus pauca") and post-mortem miracles ("quaedam de his quae post eius de carne transitum"), and Book III into miracles of 'heavenly preparations' ("angelicas apparationes") and light ("quibusdam luminosis manifestationibus"). Further divisions can be identified within the framework of the VC, showing that the stories are purposefully grouped by subject in unlabelled, short sequences (Sharpe 1991, 11). For example, there are prophecies about battles (i. 7-8) and prophecies about kings (i. 9-15).

§6.  As mentioned previously, Adomnán borrowed extensively from Sulpicius Severus' Vita Martini (VM), which can be seen in the basic structure of the VC, as well as the borrowing of words and sentences. Adomnán's work contains two prefaces modelled on the VM and Evagrius' Vita Antonii (Life of Antony, VA). In addition, the prefaces serve the same function in the VC as in the VM—to forestall possible criticism and explain the arrangement of the work. It has been observed that Adomnán introduces new categories to the traditional layout (Picard 1985, 75-76). The fact that this saint's vita is divided into the three books mentioned previously symbolizes the evolution of the revelation of "divine power" in Columba (Picard 1985, 76). Each book represents a step in the exercise of this power, as is shown below.5

§7.  In Book I, Columba is shown to be an equal of Anthony, Martin, or Benedict as a contemplative saint with prophetical abilities. Adomnán borrows from Gregory the Great's account of the cosmic vision of St Benedict. Presenting Columba as living the contemplative life was important, as this lifestyle was considered a superior stage of sanctity by the Irish and Northumbrians (Picard 1985, 76). In Book II, Columba, taking a further step in the revelation of divine power, is shown to be emulating the Apostles and even Christ. He does not just speak prophetic words but also engages in thaumaturgical acts (Picard 1985, 76). There appear to be two functions in Book III; it confirms the divine origin and superiority of Columba's supernatural powers—the final step—as well as indicating that he is part of God's elect on earth (Picard 1985, 77). By grouping the episodes of Columba's life thematically, Adomnán employed the technique of "divisio" in a way similar to the divisions found in Suetonius' Vitae Caesarum (SVC) (Picard 1985, 77-78).

§8.  A difference between the VM and the VC is evidenced in the characters of Martin and Columba. Already having fully developed supernatural powers from the beginning of his career, Columba's character is static; however, Martin performs miracles only as a result of his development and spiritual growth—normal for most saints' vitae (Picard 1985, 78). This fact shows that Adomnán did not just reproduce known hagiographical patterns. He was conscious of his sources and adapted traditional structures to suit his aims and appeal to his audience (Picard 1985, 82). In addition, the stories of the VC are arranged by their miracle content, with little regard for the actual chronology of Columba's life.6 These stories reveal the nature of Columba, which parallels the character of the hero in Celtic mythology (Picard 1985, 79). However, the VC still preserves features of classical and early Christian biography, combined with characteristics of the native tradition. By analyzing the content of the miracles, one can attempt to understand Adomnán's concerns, the people important to him, and for which audience the work was intended.

The Purpose: A Political Agenda?

§9.  Previous analysis of the VC has led to different interpretations of the material. The majority of present research maintains that Adomnán wrote for political purposes, both dynastic and ecclesiastical (see, for example, Márkus 1999; Enright 1985; Picard 1982).

§10.  It is possible that the brethren of Iona, the most probable intended audience of the work, requested Adomnán to write the VC, as a publication of a life of Columba was needed by his "parochia" for claims to status and property rights (Picard 1982, 169-172). However, some researchers disagree and claim that neither the VC, nor its historical setting, provides evidence for this claim. For instance, it has been put forward that the VC differs markedly from the contemporary Vitae of Patrick and Brigit as Adomnán was not concerned with putting forward claims to status or property rights for the Iona familia. In fact, with the secure support of Cenél Conaill in the seventh-century, the familia did not at all feel obliged to participate in a power struggle (Herbert 1988, 146). The reality of the power of Iona is exemplified in 697 AD, when Adomnán and Loingsech (of the Uí Néill and king of Tara) co-operated in the enactment of the "Law of Adomnán" or the "Law of the Innocents" mentioned earlier (Herbert 1988, 146). Therefore, in the time of Adomnán, Iona's power did not seem to be in decline and the ultimate purpose of the VC was not to explain or argue for Iona's importance. However, the brethren of Iona could have been involved in the initiation of the writing of the vita in order to mark the centennial of Columba's death. The VC can be seen here as either serving a didactic purpose or a political one—an attempt by Adomnán to reassert his leadership over the Ionan monks after the Easter controversy by demonstrating his willingness to accommodate such a request, while reminding them of his political connections and scholarship. The Ionan community favoured the older, Irish dating of Easter, while Adomnán eventually sided with those who kept the Roman Easter (Sharpe 1995, 50-51). It is possible that in writing the VC Adomnán was attempting to convince the monks that he had their best interests at heart and that he, as Columba's relative and successor, was a man of authority—a person of learning and sound judgment to be respected.

§11.  Turning to the miracles of the VC, twenty-seven chapters have been identified that can be shown to serve a political purpose, i.e. mention of contemporary royal families or ideas of kingship (see the "Political Purpose" column in the Appendix). For example, there must be some significance in that many of the miracle stories contain prophecies about battles and kings (i.7-8, i.9-15 and i.49). It is possible that Columba's association with royal victory and defeat is the most important political issue in the VC (Enright 1985, 100 n. 71). One of the most notable miracle stories associated with this idea deals with the ordination of Áedán mac Gábrain as king and the prophecy about his family (iii.5). An angel was sent to bid Columba to ordain Áedán as king but Columba refused and was punished until he obeyed. "...And laying his hand upon Áedán's head he ordained and blessed him" ("...Inponensque manum super caput eius ordinans benedixit"). Columba also prophesied about Áedán and his descendants—"none of your opponents will be able to stand against you until first you practise deceit against me, and against my successors" ("nullus aduersariorum tuorum tibi poterit resistere, donec prius fraudulentiam agas in me et in posteros meos"). Since it is unlikely that in the sixth-century clerical consecration of kings would have occurred (Enright 1985, 86 ff.), this episode appears to be a piece of political propaganda by Adomnán to emphasize (but not argue for) Iona's importance and would have been appreciated by his monastic audience.

§12.  Adomnán also presents what is thought to be a new idea of kingship, at least to his audience, in several of the miracle stories (i.9, iii.5). The basis of this form of kingship is believed to lie in an Old Testament model and it provided support for Adomnán's view on the rights and powers of Ionan abbots regarding kings (Enright 1985, 84, 88). The story about the anointing of Eochu Buide (Áedán's son) (i.9) could have been Adomnán's invention rather than a historical description (Enright 1985, 87-88). It is unlikely that Columba, an outsider, would have risked his "prestige and prophetic reputation" by sponsoring a young child for kingship when older brothers were available (Enright 1985, 88). As at this time the mortality rate of children was quite high, it is unlikely that an advisor would take such a risk or a ruler tolerate such interference (Enright 1985, 88). In addition, this chapter (i.9) appears to be based on a biblical model: the anointing of David by Samuel (Vulgate I Kings 16:1-14) (Enright 1985, 88)—which fits into both the category of "political purpose" as well as "promotion of learning" and is thereby in itself not a strong argument for a merely political purpose (see Appendix). However, it is possible that Adomnán was writing propaganda for the current interests of his community, through models found in the Old Testament. Columba and his successors can be seen to have a role in influencing the assistance of God to kings—stated clearly at the beginning of the work (i.1). This aid is freely given to all kings who venerate Columba (Sharpe 1995, 62). The miracle stories contain, therefore, Adomnán's idea of kingship which promotes Church involvement in secular politics—and especially by his monastery.

§13.  In the first chapter of the VC, Adomnán reminds the Northumbrians of the debt they owe Columba (i.1). Through the saint's posthumous intercession, King Oswald was able to defeat the British king, Cadwalla (634 AD), and liberate his people from the rule of a foreigner (Picard 1982, 175). Again, it appears that Adomnán wishes to portray Columba as having power over kings and their battles. If the kings retain the favour of Columba, and his successors, they will be aided in their pursuits (Enright 1985, 100-101). In this particular episode, Adomnán appears to desire to correct inaccurate Northumbrian opinions about Columba (Picard 1982, 175). He shows that Columba is an important saint equal to the apostles for his miracles and holy life. The people of Northumbria are also shown to be converted from the point of Columba's intercession. Through this episode Adomnán reminds them of this fact—that they were converted by the very Irish whose standpoint they now criticize in the Easter controversy (Picard 1982, 175). Adomnán attempts to avoid conflict about this issue in his work by also referring to his fellowship with the present king, Aldfrith, and encouraging friendly relations between Northumbria and Iona, which would no doubt have strengthened Adomnán's position of authority.

§14.  Several of the miracle stories deal with ecclesiastical affairs in Ireland and mention important personages there. For instance, in Book I, the Bishop of Mumu (Munster) is featured (i.44). Columba gives due reverence to Crónán, who tried to hide the fact he was a bishop—"who humbly kept himself out of sight, as much as he could, so that none knew that he was a bishop" ("qui se in quantum potuit occultabat humiliter, ut nullus sciret quod esset episcopus"). Columba is presented as wise to recognize a person of importance in the Church, but he, in turn, is reverenced by the bishop for his holiness—"reverenced Christ in the saint" ("Christum in sancto ueneratus est"). It appears that Adomnán wished to stress for the benefit of his audience that the higher authorities in the Church respected Columba and that this should continue in the present day by honouring the authority of the abbots of Iona, his successors—among these, Adomnán.

§15.  From previous analysis and the above discussion it is apparent that Adomnán was most concerned with the Uí Néill, Cenél nGabráin, Cenél Loairn (Enright 1985, 97-98) and the Northumbrian royal house when discussing political affairs. In addition, it is important to note that the monks would have found political affairs interesting. Several times Adomnán mentions the families of monks and prophecies about the different areas with which they are familiar (for example, i.5, 8, 35; ii.24, 36; iii.3, 7). Even the stories about anointing kings would have appealed to the monks. As can be seen, much of the content of those miracle stories appears to be based on biblical models. Moreover, as has been mentioned, of the entire work (119 chapters) only twenty-seven chapters appear to fulfil a political purpose (see Appendix). Most of these overlap with a didactic purpose for Adomnán's monks or a demonstration of learning and are associated with prophetic revelations. Therefore, even if a political purpose can be identified within the VC, it appears that the miracle stories point towards the overall purpose being either didactic or a demonstration of learning, as well as directed at a monastic audience.

The Purpose: A Didactic Objective?

§16.  For the most part, the description in the VC seems to have its foundation in the monastic tradition at Iona (Herbert 1988, 14), which suggests that Adomnán had a didactic—meaning, as mentioned previously, morally instructive or educative—purpose for his monks in the writing of his work and that the intended primary audience was most likely the Ionan monks. In addition, as stated earlier, the monks could have initiated the writing of the VC by suggesting the writing of a vita to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of Columba's passing. Moreover, the majority of the VC has its setting on or around the island of Iona, and many stories deal with monks being sent away to serve the purposes of the monastery (for example, i.31). Elements of the monastic life also appear in the VC. The monks are frequently seen working or returning from work (i.37) and there is often mention of books and copying (i.23, 24, 25). Columba is constantly shown as a figure to emulate, he is in the habit of dispensing wisdom (i.50; ii.41), and he encourages obedience (ii.27; iii.16, 21). With regards to the miracle stories in the VC, 111 chapters have been identified as serving a didactic purpose—i.e. references to Iona, books and the Bible; Columba's advice; parallels between Columba and holy people; learning for lay people and monks; the example set by Columba (see the "Didactic Purpose" column in the Appendix).

§17.  It has been argued that the VC is an extended sermon to the monks of Iona and Northumbria, and it appears that this analysis of the stories reveals an urging for a new sense of perspective regarding the Easter controversy, which would serve a didactic purpose, supporting Herbert's argument (1988, 147). Adomnán had the task of guiding both sides in this debate over the date of Easter to a more harmonized view of the situation, and attempts to do this by focussing on the figure of Columba, who, by supernatural signs, had been affirmed a saint (Herbert 1988, 147-148). Throughout the work Adomnán portrays an ideal of harmony between the Irish churches—a harmony which he wished to achieve partly by means of encouraging everyone to follow his lead and agree to adopt the Roman Easter (Sharpe 1995, 51). This harmony is demonstrated by the fact that Columba does not seem to discriminate among the peoples he assists in the miracle stories. He aids Irish, Pictish and Northumbrian, peoples with whom both he and Adomnán would have had dealings. Through the miracle stories the power of Columba's intercession with God is revealed and would be revealed continually to his followers (for example, ii.45).

§18.  Adomnán links Columba's intervention in the past to his present interventions (in Adomnán's experience) and in all cases the assistance of the saint depends on prayer and devotion, for example in the VC, ii.1, 5, 26, 28, 34 (Herbert 1988, 143). These aspects of the VC provided an example for the monks to follow and stressed the importance of prayer, as did also their revered founder (for example, ii.13, iii.8). Moreover, the existence of these examples supports the idea that the resolution of contemporary disputes was to be found by emulating the life of Columba (see also, for example, i.17, 29). Furthermore, it appears that Adomnán was endeavouring to show the monks, through the example of Columba, that reading and studying scripture is a "quest for divine wisdom" and not just a matter of accumulating knowledge (O'Reilly 1999, 164-165)—strengthening the case for a didactic purpose. Through the examination of the VC, it is possible to conclude that Adomnán was writing a didactic work for the monks of Iona about their founder.

§19.  As discussed previously, it is also possible to regard the VC as Adomnán's answer to Northumbrian attacks on Columba (Picard 1982, 174-175). The VC was intended to show Columba as a major saint through the recording of his holy life and virtues. The miracle stories prove that Columba was a saint and so contribute to the promotion of his cult throughout the world of Adomnán and his monks on Iona; they serve an educative purpose.

§20.  With regards to the cult's promotion, it is also possible that the VC provides a link connecting the familia of Columba in the commemoration of their saint (Herbert 1988, 147). It expresses the union between the devotees of the saint in both Britain and Ireland. And it appears to encourage a sense of community between the monks of Iona and Ireland (i.5; ii.46; iii.3, 13, 17). There is no specific indication in the text that the work was produced solely for an Irish audience, although it is known that the cult of Columba in Ireland was well promoted (Herbert 1988, 147). The VC, therefore, could have been an official composition for the established cult of Columba throughout the Iona familia and Ireland.

§21.  From my analysis of the VC it is apparent that the majority of the miracle stories have a didactic purpose for Adomnán's monks. In the entire work, as stated previously, 111 miracle stories can be identified as having this purpose (see Appendix). Often the stories are concerned with day-to-day activities on Iona (for instance, i.23-26; ii.3) or, as mentioned, areas with which the monks were familiar. Other stories also encourage prayer, hospitality, and respect for the workings of the Church through the example of Columba (for example, i.4, 5, 14; ii.27, 41; iii.16, 19). From this analysis, the miracle stories seem to reveal that the primary purpose of the VC was didactic. Moreover, this category is intricately connected, but not identical, to the third possible purpose of the VC identified here—a demonstration or promotion of learning for its monastic audience.

The Purpose: A Demonstration of Learning?

§22.  A final possible purpose of the VC is related to the extensive scholarship demonstrated by Adomnán within the work. As discussed earlier in this essay, Adomnán often quoted and modelled the VC on other hagiographic works, especially that of the VM and VA as well as Gregory the Great's Dialogi.7 He also extensively referred to passages from the Bible. Adomnán wrote his work, from this viewpoint, to demonstrate learning and scholarship at Iona and connect this important aspect of the monastic life with Columba.

§23.  With regards to the miracle stories in the VC, thirty-eight chapters reveal a purpose related to a demonstration or promotion of learning—i.e. Biblical and other literature references within stories, as well as references to books and copying (see the "Promotion of Learning" column in the Appendix). Columba is often seen as instructing the monks on copying methods or as the copier of books himself. For example, Columba knows that there is only a vowel "i" missing from a monk's work (i.23) and this is confirmed once the work is checked as was customary, "And so, the whole psalter had been read through, exactly what the saint had foretold was found to be confirmed" ("et sic toto perlecto psalterio sicuti sanctus praedixerat repertum exploratum est"). However, Columba is also shown without books, especially at "heightened moments of illumination" and with a wisdom which surpasses books—a known hagiographic topos (O'Reilly 1999, 164-166) and contrary to a promotion of learning purpose. In these examples, it seems that showing the saint at scholarly pursuits is not as important as ensuring his place as a spiritual role model—fitting instead with a didactic purpose.

§24.  Adomnán tries to authenticate his stories throughout the work (Sharpe 1991, 11). In addition, there was apparently an effort at Iona to collect eyewitness testimony from the monks about Columba (Herbert 1988, 13-22)—a cooperative endeavour that again suggests the Ionan monks were most likely considered to be part of the primary audience. The stories set apart from Iona depict Columba in the role of folk-hero—for instance, by defeating the druids with more powerful magic and by the multiplication of the poor man's cows (ii.11, 34 and ii.20, 21). When away from Iona, Columba is portrayed as a conventional figure of literary sanctity, as the miracles attributed to him are based on biblical or hagiographical models (ii.1, 10, 19, 25 and iii.1, 2, 4) (Herbert 1988, 16-17). It appears that the stories not written directly about the monastery at Iona needed a familiar and accepted framework within which to be written, which would indicate that the work was written at Iona and for the edification of the monks as discussed earlier (Herbert 1988, 17). Thus, these stories reveal either a didactic purpose or demonstration of learning. It should be noted that this idea—the difference in geographical settings determining the use of sources—has been questioned (Sharpe 1991). However, it can also be observed that Adomnán sometimes cites informants by name even when borrowing from a literary source such as Gregory the Great (for example, i.43 and see also Sharpe 1991, 11). The authentication of the stories in the VC is Adomnán's attempt to forward the idea of the level of learning at Iona, the ability to apply it and to encourage deeper understandings of the text by his monks. This latter point could also fit with a didactic purpose as a deeper understanding of the text would lead to divine wisdom and inspiration.

§25.  As well as being a demonstration of learning, it is also possible that the biblical passages evoked by Adomnán within the VC serve a didactic purpose (O'Reilly 1997, 80; O'Reilly 1999, 163). These passages, in particular, functioned as an interpretation of the sacred scripture in the monastic tradition, demonstrating scholarship, and are not just authenticating models for the work. One of the most apparent uses of a biblical text is the story of the changing of water to wine (ii.1). In this chapter, wine is needed for the rite of the Eucharist. Columba calls on the Lord ("calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ;" "inuocato nomine domini Iesu Christi") to transform the water into wine; Adomnán also refers to the biblical story of when Jesus changed water to wine at the wedding in Cana ("qui in Cana Galileae aquam <in uinum> conuertit"), directly linking the two men, to create a parallel between them and emphasize Columba's holiness. The use of these biblical passages strengthen the argument for a didactic purpose, while a demonstration of learning can be seen as an extra benefit, but not the primary purpose.

§26.  In the entire VC, as mentioned above, thirty-eight chapters contain miracle stories that show a demonstration of learning by evoking scriptural or hagiographical sources (see Appendix). This number may not seem significant; however, combined with the fact that most of these stories also can be shown to serve a didactic purpose, their inclusion in the VC is important for its intended audience. For example, the death of Columba (iii.23) contains references to the Bible and Evagrius' VA, as well as being a didactic episode for the monks of Iona. The phrase, "because the calm and lovely sight of holy angels fills the hearts of the elect with joy and exultation" ("sanctorum angelorum amabilis et tranquillus aspectus gaudium et exultationem electorum pectoribus infundit"), is based on Evagrius' chapter eighteen (Anderson and Anderson 1991 219 n. 238). In addition, the banishment of snakes from Iona by Columba is a theme common in scripture (Luke 10.19; Mark 16.18; Acts 28. 3-6) and other saints' vitae—for example, VA (O'Reilly 1997, 95). Adomnán reminds the community of its duties and spiritual calling through the figure of Columba and by discussing the blessing that God has shown them in favouring their community. The passages can also be a demonstration to the outside world of the learning of the Iona community, their quest for divine wisdom and of the learning and wisdom of their illustrious founder in particular.

A Question of Audience

§27.  It is also important to briefly consider the audience of the VC when analyzing the miracle stories. During the deliberation of the purpose of the VC, it can be inferred to whom Adomnán was directing his work. It appears at first that the audience was diverse and included lay people. However, as has been seen, the monks of the Columban familia were most likely the intended audience. The work would also have reached the laity, especially kings, through the monks themselves. Adomnán seems to identify himself with the Ionan monks throughout his work by insisting that Columba is "their patron saint, their monastery, their common history"; therefore, Adomnán refers to Columba as "noster patronus, noster praesul, noster Columba" ("our patron, our protector, our Columba") and to Iona, as Columba himself would have, "nostra insula, nostrae insulae"—"our island, our islands" (Picard 1982, 166). In addition, Adomnán presents Columba as teaching monastic obedience (O'Reilly 1999, 210-211). The language Adomnán employs in the VC suggests an identification with the Columban communities, and especially of Iona of which he was the abbot. Furthermore, the content of the miracle stories is focussed on monastic tradition and activities—truly Adomnán intended the monks to be his audience.

The Primary Purpose

§28.  In the past, varied reasons for writing the VC have been found: a political agenda, didactic purpose, and illustration of the knowledge of Iona. Adomnán, a recognizably learned and politically active abbot and writer, structured his work based on previously written texts, but he did not just reproduce their patterns. Although a political intention can be shown to exist for the VC, it is apparent from this analysis that a didactic purpose and demonstration of learning are much more important to the writing of Adomnán's work. Based on the classification of each chapter alone, it is clearly demonstrated that the work mainly serves a didactic purpose (see Appendix). In addition, it is apparent that Adomnán wrote his work primarily for the monks of his community. However, it still remains certain that the work could and did serve multiple functions, which would meet the needs of the Iona community. The VC was intended to teach the monks about Columba, their founder, and, as suggested in the above discussion on the work's didactic purpose, to encourage co-operation among the monasteries during the period of debate surrounding the Easter controversy.

Appendix: Miracle Categorization of Adomnán's VC


Political Purpose Didactic Purpose Promotion of Learning
(Category Criteria) (mention of royal families or ideas of kingship) (references to Iona, books, the Bible; Columba's advice; parallels between Columba and holy people; learning for lay people and monks; example set by Columba) (Biblical and other literature references within stories, as well as references to books and copying)8
Book I—Prophetic Revelations (50 chapters) i.1, i.5, i.7, i.8, i.9, i.10, i.11, i.12, i.13, i.14, i.15, i.33?, i.36, i.43, i. 44, i.49 i.2, i.3, i.4, i.5, i.6, i.8, i.14*, i.16?, i.17*, i.18 , i.19, i.20, i.21, i.22*, i.23, i.24, i.25, i.26, i.27*, i.28*, i.29, i.30, i.31, i.32, i.33, i.34?, i.35, i.36*, i.37, i.38*, i.39*, i.40, i.41*, i.42?, i.43, i.44, i.45, i.46*, i.47, i.48, i.49?, i.50* i.1, i.3, i.9, i.23, i.24, i.25, i.30, i.32, i.35, i.37, i.43, i.44
subtotal-1: 16 chapters subtotal-1: 43 chapters subtotal-1: 12 chapters
Book II—Miracles of Power (46 chapters) ii.6, ii.22, ii.23, ii.25, ii.35, ii.45, ii.46 ii.1, ii.2?, ii.3*, ii.4*, ii.5, ii.6?, ii.7, ii.8, ii.9, ii.11, ii.12, ii.13, ii.14, ii.15, ii.16, ii.17, ii.18, ii.19, ii.20*, ii.21*, ii.22*, ii.23*, ii.24*, ii.25*, ii.26, ii.27, ii.28, ii.29, ii.30, ii.31, ii.32, ii.33*, ii.34*, ii.35*, ii.36, ii.37*, ii.38, ii.39*, ii.40*, ii.41*, ii.42, ii.43, ii.44, ii.45, ii.46 ii.1, ii.4, ii.5, ii.7, ii.8, ii.9, ii.10, ii.15, ii.19, ii.22, ii.25, ii.28, ii.32, ii.34, ii.38, ii.41, ii.43, ii.44
subtotal-2: 7 chapters subtotal-2: 45 chapters subtotal-2: 18 chapters
Book III—Angels and Visions (23 chapters) iii.3, iii.5, iii.17, iii.23 iii.1, iii.2, iii.3, iii.4, iii.5*, iii.6, iii.7, iii.8, iii.9, iii.10, iii.11, iii.12, iii.13, iii.14, iii.15, iii.16, iii.17, iii.18, iii.19, iii.20, iii.21, iii.22, iii.23 iii.1, iii.3, iii.8, iii.12, iii.19, iii.20, iii.22, iii.23
subtotal-3: 4 chapters subtotal-3: 23 chapters subtotal-3: 8 chapters
Totals: 27 chapters 111 chapters 38 chapters

*indicates didactic for both lay-people and monks

(NB. VC has 119 chapters)


1.   From 679 AD.  [Back]

2.   For a discussion of the dating see Picard 1982, 167-169.  [Back]

3.   See the introduction in the Andersons' edition (Anderson and Anderson 1991, liv-lx).  [Back]

4.   All references to the VC are based on the Andersons' 1991 edition.  [Back]

5.   The VC could also be seen as an "interior pilgrimage towards the heavenly Jerusalem", due to the use of Biblical allusions, including those which compare the monastery on Iona to an earthly paradise and to Jerusalem. See O'Reilly 1999, 163.  [Back]

6.   Bullough (1964, 115) points out that Adomnán gives no dates and few chronological indications; thus, the VC has no chronological basis.  [Back]

7.   Many authors identify these sources, including Picard (1982, 1985), Herbert (1988), Stancliffe (1992), and Sharpe (1991).  [Back]

8.   Literature references based on the 'Notes' in Sharpe's translation of the VC (Sharpe 1995, 235-379).  [Back]

Works Cited

Adomnán of Iona. 1995. Life of St Columba. Translated by R. Sharpe. London: Penguin.  [Back]

———. 1991. Adomnán's 'Life of Columba'. Edited by Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Ogilivie Anderson, eds. Second ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  [Back]

Bullough, Donald A. 1964. Columba, Adomnán and the achievement of Iona: Part I. The Scottish Historical Review 43:111-130.  [Back]

Enright, Michael J. 1985. Royal succession and abbatial prerogative in Adomnán's Vita Columbae. Peritia 4:83-103.  [Back]

Herbert, Maire. 1988. Iona, Kells and Derry: The history and aagiography of the monastic familia of Columba. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Márkus, Gilbert. 1999. Iona: monks, pastors and missionaries. In Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scots. Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland, edited by D. Broun and T. O. Clancy. Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd.  [Back]

O'Reilly, Jennifer. 1999. The wisdom of the scribe and the fear of the Lord in the Life of Columba. In Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scots. Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland, edited by D. Broun and T. O. Clancy. Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd.  [Back]

———. 1997. Reading the Scriptures in the Life of Columba. In Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba, edited by C. Bourke. Dublin: Four Courts Press.  [Back]

Picard, Jean-Michel. 1982. The purpose of Adomnán's Vita Columbae. Peritia 1:160-177.  [Back]

———. 1985. Structural patterns in early Hiberno-Latin hagiography. Peritia 4:67-82.  [Back]

Sharpe, Richard. 1991. Medieval Irish saints' lives: An introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Stancliffe, Clare. 1992. The miracle stories in seventh-century Irish saints' lives. In Le septième siècle. Changements et continuités (The seventh century. Change and continuity), edited by J. Fontaine and J. N. Hillgarth. London: Warburg Institute.  [Back]