Were Celtic Monks Married?

                                                                                   By Monk Preston                                                      (Co-Founder & President, The Prayer Foundation )

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Image: portion of illuminated manuscript page from "The Book of Kells."Photo: Monk Preston finds some shells at a Bird Sanctuary on Washington's Pacific Coast.  Copyright 2003 S.G.P.  All Rights Reserved. Monk Preston visiting a Bird Refuge on Washington State's Pacific Coast.     

The Letter We Received:

Knights of Prayer ,                                                                                   In the Newsletter you mentioned that Irish monks were allowed to be married, and that the position of abbot passed from father to son.  In my studies on Celtic Christianity, I have not found resources that discuss this, save one mention of a monastery where monks were allowed to be married but were required to abstain from sexual relations after they had taken their monastic vows.  Realizing the great variation in the Irish tradition, I know that this is probably not the case everywhere.  Could you direct me toward some sources, particularly primary sources, where I can find such information?                                                                Thank you.                                                                                             Monk Brian (New Hampshire)                                                 


Monk Preston's Reply:

Celtic Monasteries

Each early Celtic Monastery was totally independent of the others. There is evidence that at least some monasteries in some periods allowed married Monks, and that some Abbots passed their abbacies down to their sons.  The "Culdees" (Celi De) were one of the Celtic Irish Monastic Orders that existed before the Synod of Cashel (1172 A.D.) when Ireland finally came under the authority of Rome.  

Pope Adrian IV had granted authority in a "Papal Bull" (Church document) to Henry II of England to effect the conquest of Ireland "for the enlarging of the bounds of the Church".  This Papal Bull was renewed 17 years later by Pope Alexander III.  When English conquest and occupation was accomplished, the Synod of Cashel was called, to institute Papal control of Ireland and the Celtic Christians.  

After the Synod of Cashel, indigenous and independent Celtic monasticism was no longer allowed, being replaced by continental Monastic Orders such as the Augustinians and Benedictines.  

We have posted below excerpts from two books, some references that illustrate the diversity of practice of the early Celtic Monks concerning their allowing of marriage for Monks (both books are works that we do not recommend for the average Christian reader).  If anyone reading this knows of any other Primary Sources on this subject (or even good secondary sources), email us at: monks@prayerfoundation.org

Concerning some Celtic monks being married, the best primary source that we ourselves have discovered (also posted below on this page) is The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics - Pages: 345, 346Bede wrote his history in 731 A.D.


  The Celtic Soul Friend  

by Edward C. Sellner

(P.163,164)  The Celi De movement originated in Ireland at the very time more lives and martyrologies were being written down.  It gave impetus to the growing devotion to the saints and the emphasis upon soul relationships.  This movement consisted of both lay people and ordained, many of whom were married, who wanted to recover the lost traditions of their spiritual ancestors, and thus bring new life into their own churches and monasteries. 27

(P.247) Notes: Chapter 5, Footnote 27: There are numerous references to the Celi De Clergy as married; see Reeves, The Culdees of the British Isles, p.42, who quotes a fifteenth century historian who states that "religious men, commonly called Kelledei...after the usage of the Eastern church, had wives....."

(P.239) Chapter 4, Footnote 51: Journal of Medieval History Vol. 12 1986, P.29: "Women's Monastic Enclosures in Early Ireland: A Study of Female Spirituality and Male Monastic Mentalities" by Lisa Bitel, says, "No evidence exists to show that mothers passed their functions as abbesses to their daughters, as fathers passed abbacies to sons." _____________________________________

Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community In Early Ireland 

by Lisa M. Bitel 

(Note: Lisa M. Bitel is Assistant Professor of Women's History at the University of Kansas)

(P.105) Kathleen Hughes and John Kelleher have shown that major monasteries such as Claine, Lusca, and Cluain Moccu Nois contained monastic families that were bound by blood as well as by consciously created family-style ties.  Abbots and officers openly supported wives, sons, and other kin.  They sent their relatives to become officers in nearby monasteries, or they kept sons, brothers, and nephews within their own communities to succeed to offices there.  Successive generations of the Maicc Cuinn na mBocht, for example, controlled major monastic offices at Cluain Moccu Nois for about three centuries.  Another family, the Ui Sinaich, battled for and won control of Ard Macha, remaining in power for generations. 90  

There is no reason to assume that other monks ignored the example of their abbots and officers. 91  

Kinship within the monastic communities allowed the religious elite to pass knowledge and responsibility, as well as property, to sons and other family members.  One tenth-century poem suggests that abbots, like craftsmen and secular rulers, could most efficiently be succeeded by their sons. 92

Footnote 90 John V. Kelleher, "The Tain and the Annals" Eriu 22 (1971), 107-29, esp. 125-27; Hughes, Church In Early Irish Society, 161-66; Tomas O Fiaich, "The Church of Armagh Under Lay Control," Seanchus Ard Mhacha 5 (1969), 82-100.  See also Donnchadh O Corrain, ed., Irish Antiquity (Cork, 1980), 314-17.

Footnote 91 See the genealogical chart in Kelleher, "Tain and the Annals."

Footnote 92 T. O'Donoghue, "Advice to a Prince" Eriu 9 (1921), 43-54, cited in HughesChurch In Early Irish Society, 163-64. ___________________________________________________

(Re: The Celtic Monks Allowing Married Monks

(The information below was contributed by Sr. Darlyn+ of the Anglican "Franciscan Order of Celi De"):

 1. This is referred to in Edward Sellner's book on Celtic Christianity.  It was also mentioned in Carmal McCaffery's book, In Search of Ancient
.  The Celtic Monastic Communities had married and celibate monastics and often the Abbot was married and handed down the monastery to his own kin.  They were very much self-supporting and self-contained communities.  The celibate monks were often the ones sent out to start the new monasteries.
                                                                                                                       2. Here is a quote from Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and
Christian Community in Early Ireland
by Lisa M. Bitel, p. 116.:

"The legal writers, especially post-eighth-century glossators and
commentators, had much to say about the class of farmer called a manach and about his contractual relations with the monastic elite. Manach derived from Latin monachus; in the saints' lives, manach generally meant a man with a tonsure, a member of the saints' familia. 

But according to legal usage, a manach comes from a different social group. Later medieval commentators on the Corus Bescnai (acute accents on the o and the e), an eighth-century tract that supplies more evidence about manaig (is this the plural of manach?) than any other single source, explained that monks were of the fine erluma, kin-group of the patron saint of a monastery, while manaig had a kin-group to themselves (fine manach).

The commentator did not necessarily mean this kin terminology literally, although Thomas Charles-Edwards has argued that the manaig of a church may originally have been a single kin-related tuath, or tribe (acute accent on the u) tribe. But just as the monks chose to use kinship as an organizational principle, so legal writers employed the familiar vocabulary of kin relations to express all sorts of social and economic ties, including clientage.  Corus Bescnai was a tract written by and for clerics, hence subject to their organizational concepts."

Lisa Bitel refers in a footnote to Kathleen Hughes,
The Church in Early Irish Society (London, 1966), pages 136-141 and several other books on page 116.  I would think that the Corus Bescnai might be a good possibility for the primary source.  Again, this has an acute accent on the o and the e, which my e-mail program won't support without losing what I've written...The manaig were definitely married, family people, as their contracts (or covenants) referred to their first-born sons' responsibility of carrying on the contract with the monastic communities.


A Primary Source Indicating Some Celtic Monks were Married.

Two Primary Sources that Support the View that Celtic Christians were Not a part of the Roman Catholic Church

1.) A Primary Source Indicating Some Celtic Monks were Married; and that the Celtic Christians were Not Roman Catholic - The Venerable Bede:

A primary source we have discovered since compiling the above would also be (The Venerable Bede).  He was himself a Roman Catholic Monk, and in writing a diatribe against the non-Roman Catholic Celtic monks, mentions several times that some of them were married.  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics - Pages: 345, 346The Venerable Bede wrote his history in 731 A.D.

This same reference may also be used as a primary source of the period (731 A.D.) to show that many Christians in England at this time were not Roman Catholics and that the Celtic Church was indeed quite separate from Rome (in the view of the Roman Catholics of the period, themselves).

2.) A Primary Source that the Celtic Christians were Not Roman Catholic - An Official Roman Catholic "Papal Bull" of Pope Adrian IV:

Pope Adrian IV granted authority in a "Papal Bull" (an official Church document) to Henry II, king of England, to effect the conquest of Ireland.  This Papal document states that the reason this authority had been granted was: "for the enlarging of the bounds of the Church".  This indicates that the Pope himself did not consider the Celtic Christians of Ireland or their unrecognized (by Roman Catholicism) Monastic Orders, to be a part of the Roman Catholic Church.  

The Synod of Cashel was held in 1172 A.D., soon after the military subjection of Ireland was achieved, and the indigenous Irish Celtic Christians were then also brought under the authority of Rome.  Shortly after, all of the historic Celtic monastic orders which had flourished in Ireland independently for over seven centuries, were declared dissolved.

-S. G. Preston (Monk Preston) (November, 2005)


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