Friday, February 04, 2005

Adumnan of Iona's Life of St. Columba

As one of the myriad introductions to Adumnan (over a hundred pages of them, most of which I skipped) pointed out, this book is less a biography than a list of miracles. Adumnan himself put Columba’s biographical information into an introduction and then got on with the serious business of recording miracles. Some of them are just funny. Despite a certain amount of sympathy with the medieval mindset, I have difficulty believing all the stories actually happened.

Some stories showed, to me, less about the miraculous than about the writer’s presuppositions. In one, Columba saw a clumsy guest coming and told his assistant to keep an eye on him because he would upset the inkwell. The guest arrived, the assistant got distracted, and sure enough, over went the inkwell. This struck me as Columba merely being an observant human, but in went the story along with the miracles.

A lot of the miracles were very specific prophecies. This boy will grow old and see his grandchildren; this boy will die next Friday. And so it came to pass. Today you should sail around the long way because a whale[1] will attack you if you go straight across, and a whale did attack. I see why they believed in prophecy. I believe in it myself. But some of those particular prophecies are definitely suspect. A hallmark of Biblical prophecy is that it was “not made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The prophets told what God thought the people should hear, quite apart from whether the people wanted to hear it or not. Columba was more like a fortune-teller at a fair. People would come ask about their son’s fate, or whatever, and Columba would give them what they asked for. That right there gives me pause.

Overall, I was disappointed in what I read of the Life. In most biographies, the subject can be either a Good Example or an Awful Warning, but Columba is so supernatural he cannot function as either to normal mortals like me. I dare say it is just a medieval thing, but it is still a disappointment.

[1] “Whale” was the translator’s choice of word. Personally, I think that as unlikely a translation as “hippopotamus” for “behemoth” in Job, as whales do not generally attack boats. If there was a sea monster, why not call him a sea monster? It is not as though Sharpe can be trying to preserve for modern audiences the realism of an otherwise entirely plausible book. That would at least have been a comprehensible motive.

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