Review: Celtic Saints by Laurence Wareing

Celtic Cross. I cannot display cover art for this book because I don’t have permission to do so.

I read this book as part of my research into a flash piece on medieval monks following the Celtic tradition. Celtic Christianity has always fascinated me and you, Dear Reader, will recall that a few weeks ago I reviewed the novel, Cuthbert of Farne, by Katherine Tiernan. Celtic Christians were found mostly in Ireland, the parts of Scotland which were Christian, western Wales and northern England. The Celtic message, by and large, made the journey from Ireland and from there established firm footings in monasteries in Iona and on Lindisfarne. However, in the seventh century, adherents of the Roman persuasion, championed by Wilfrid, Abbot of Whitby, progressed northwards and set themselves up in opposition to the Celts. The main differences concerned methods for calculating the date of Easter, which saints were venerated and in what manner. Celtic monasteries were very plain and austere whereas those of the Roman tradition were elaborate and ornamental. At the Council of Whitby, in 664, the Romans won the day and brought the Brits ‘into line’… until the Reformation a millennium later.

Wareing’s book is non-fiction, 26 short chapters about the lives of 26 Celtic saints, necessarily brief because so little is known about men and women who lived a millennium and a half ago. Some of the chapters finished abruptly – more to be said, no more known about him/her. Why waffle? I always supposed the saints to be holy and virtuous, but, until I read this book, I didn’t realise the extent of it. The Celtic saints sought ‘a white martyrdom’ in which they cultivated extreme hardship and poverty, often living alone as hermits in inaccessible, cold, windy and wet places. They used stones for pillows when they slept and ate a limited diet. St David ate just bread and bitter herbs. Sickness was regarded as sin in the body and Columbanus made monks ill with flu ‘go and thresh wheat until the physical work opened their pores and expelled the fever.’ Columbanus also decreed that brothers should pray ‘until tears come’ and punished perceived vice with beating. Yet, in spite of all this, Celtic abbots and leaders, like St Aidan and St Cuthbert inspired great love and loyalty.

The Celtic saints were frequently caught up in politics between local warlords. Most of them were born into royal or noble families, although Wareing also makes the point that many of the saints were conceived through rape. Poor Saint TenuI was raped by the Welsh prince, Owain, and her father, on discovering she was pregnant, tried to kill her by throwing her off Traprain Law (a local hill fort). She gave birth to Saint Kentigern (also known as ‘Mungo’ (beloved)). The saints experienced the full harshness of life in the dark ages, being taken into slavery (St Patrick) or dodging kidnap attempts (St Columbanus).

Has this book helped me with my flash piece? Yes, it has given me background. I think I shall make my protagonist born through rape and deposited in a monastery as a child (oblatus) by an embarrassed mother. I read over and over again that writers should not attempt to incorporate too much of their research into their fiction. In flash you can’t. You don’t have the sort of word count that allows you to.

To buy, from Aslan Books.

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