Challenging perceptions on Columbanus and Jonas of Bobbio – an interview with Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood

Perceptions on the life of Columbanus, Jonas of Bobbio and hagiography itself are changing in the eyes of historians. We interviewed Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood, authors of the highly anticipated Jonas of Bobbio to find out more. Jonas of Bobbio

How long have you been working on Jonas of Bobbio? Have you encountered anything surprising in your research?

O’ HARA: What has amazed me is the interest and pride taken in these long-dead figures by the local communities such as in Bobbio and Luxeuil where it is very much living history and part of their civic identity. The slow work of translating Jonas’ Latin gave me a greater appreciation for his skill as a writer and for the subtlety of his approach. Unknown to me, Ian Wood had also been working on a translation and we started to collaborate on the volume in 2013 following a meeting at a conference in Bobbio and the collaboration has been very fruitful.

WOOD: I first started working on the Vita Columbani in 1974, and my first article which dealt with the text was published in 1982, although I had already published on sixth- and seventh-century monasticism in 1981.  Since then I have published over a dozen articles on the text, which was also the focus of one chapter of my book The Missionary Life (2001).

 Jonas of Bobbio is best known as the author of the Life of Columbanus and his Disciples, what is the importance of this work today?

WOOD: The Life of Columbanus is one of the great works of hagiography, and it dominates modern interpretations of the seventh century – although one can question whether those modern interpretations have made adequate allowance for Jonas’s own intentions.

O’HARA: As well as being one of our principal sources for Columbanus and the monastic movement he initiated in Francia and Lombard Italy, the work is important as a historical source for the history of Europe at this time. It tells us a lot about travel, monastic foundations, politics, and new forms of religious life during this key period of transition.

 What part does the genre of the text play?

WOOD: The genre of the text (i.e. the saint’s life, hagiography) determines the parameters of Jonas’s narrative, but at the same time there are novelties about his text, not least the creation of a second book, on Columbanus’s disciples.

O’HARA: In the case of Jonas we are fortunate that the work was composed only 25 years after Columbanus’ death so he had to remain faithful to the historical outlines while editing some more controversial aspects of the saint’s life. It is pretty easy to detect what is genuinely historically accurate from what is spurious thanks to having the corpus of Columbanus’ own writings and other historical sources which act as a kind of control to Jonas’s account.

The book may be described as a ‘travelogue’ through Western Europe, could you explain more about this?

O’HARA: One of the exciting things about the work is that it reads like a religious odyssey through Western Europe at the turn of the seventh century because it follows the travels of a holy man from Ireland through France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, to Italy where Columbanus died in 615. Jonas is a master storyteller who weaves monastic foundation narratives, adventure, drama, intrigue, and conflict into his narrative of this headstrong holy man.

Wood: I have an article in the latest Antiquité Tardive that looks at this question in detail, but, leaving aside the spiritual nature of the travelogue, which has been dealt with in a fascinating article by Bruno Judic, Jonas tells us more about travel in western Europe in the seventh century than any other text.

O’HARA: He knew the places he was writing about and he had met and talked with the men and women who had known Columbanus personally. One of the important aspects of this work is that it is the work of a near contemporary.

What is the importance of the monastic foundations of this period?

WOOD: By the end of the seventh century around one third of Western Europe was in the hands of the Church.  Although much of the property was obviously given to bishops and episcopal churches, the development of monasticism was a major factor in the ecclesiasticisation of Europe.

O’HARA: We see a radical transformation in the seventh century in the ways monastic groups and secular elites co-operate and the ways religious norms begin to influence court culture and the exercise of power.  The new Frankish elites became patrons of this new monasticism, endowing monasteries with vast amounts of land and wealth from their own resources. These new monastic centres were plugged into royal and aristocratic networks and functioned as places of intercessory prayer and cultural memory.

The book reveals that Jonas was heavily influential on perceptions of Columbanus. Why are we beginning to realise that this is the issue?

WOOD: In general, hagiography was regarded as rather unreliable evidence until the 1970s: there followed a period in which hagiography was considered much more seriously, but the importance of the input of the hagiographers themselves is, in general, a relatively recent historical observation – I think I am right in saying that my article of 1982 was one of the first historical pieces to put Jonas, rather than Columbanus, at the heart of an argument.

O’ HARA: My view is that Jonas mirrors many of the concerns and issues that were important to Columbanus. Jonas was of course influential in shaping the perception and image of Columbanus, but he relied on the Bobbio tradition and on eyewitness reports. If we read Columbanus’ writings and Jonas’ account together I think they are compatible in many respects. He could not make it all up because many of the people who knew Columbanus were still alive and he was writing in part for them. One of the key aims of Jonas was to revindicate the reputation of Columbanus in the face of attacks on his legacy from members of the Frankish communities. In many ways I see Jonas as a conservative reactionary to the crises that had erupted in the Frankish communities in the years following Columbanus’ death.

You can find
 Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Réomé, and Life of Vedaston along with other texts in our Translated Texts for Historians series on our website

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