Giles de Laval

Everyone who has beheld them realises that the manuscripts of the Dark and Middle Ages are magnificent works of art, imbued with mystical reverence and greatly treasured by their owners. Yet few people realise just how much they were treasured – even to the point of going to war over.

In 561 AD, the abbot Columcille (whose name was later Anglicised to Columba), paid a visit to Finian, abbot of the monastery at Moville. Unbeknownst to the abbot, Columcille remained wakeful for many nights, secretly copying a manuscript Finian had brought from Whithorn monastery in Scotland. Some historians claim that Columcille copied the Bible, others believe it was the Gospel of St Martin. Whichever it was, Finian discovered the deceit of his guest and demanded that Columcille hand over the copy he had made. He refused, and fled into the night before Finian’s monks could seize the unauthorised copy.

Finian appealed to Diarmuit Ui Neill, high king of Ireland and kinsman to Columcille. After considering what may have been the world’s first copyright case, the high king rendered his judgement: “to every cow belongs its calf, and to every book its copy”. He ordered Columcille to turn the copy over to Finian, and that should have been that.

However, even though Columcille was a member of the Ui Neill clan and kinsman to the high king, he identified with his mother’s family the clan o Donnell, according to Celtic custom. The o Donnells did not recognise the right of the upstart Ui Neills to hold the high kingship of Ireland, so Columcille felt justified in defying Diarmuit’s order, declaring “the wrong decision of the judge is a raven’s call to battle!”

This sparked the Cul Dreimne, the Battle of the Books. (The copy Columcille made became known as the cathac, or battler.) On one side ranged the high king and his formidable clan and allies, fighting to enforce his royal edict; on the other was Columcille and his clan and allies, fighting (ostensibly) for their perceived right to disregard the law of the land when it conflicted with their spiritual mission. The opportunity to humble the Ui Neil forces and possibly restore the o Donnells to their royal status was also something of a bonus. Although religious issues were at the heart of the dispute, the battling sides were formed along family lines and political connections, the two armies were composed of mixed pagan and Christian troops, their religious differences momentarily set aside by political concerns. Monks and druids fought on both sides, adding missiles of prayer and curse to the swords and spears of their allies. When the fighting was over, the blood of the Christians soaked the ground as much as that of the pagans.

Columcille won the day at Cul Dreimne, but did not get to enjoy his victory. According to the Beatha Colaim Chille (Life of Columba), written by an o Donnell in 1532 AD, Columcille felt deep remorse when he saw the slaughter caused by his pride. He vowed to leave Ireland, to become a White Martyr and live out his days in foreign lands. Far more likely, however, is that he was forced into exile by the Synod of Teltown, a meeting of loyal Ui Neill clergy summoned by the high king. Columcille was almost excommunicated for his theft by copy of Finian’s book: it was only the eloquent arguments of his friend Brendan of Birr that convinced the Synod to impose banishment as an alternative punishment.

Whichever the reason, Columcille gathered twelve disciples to him to form the nucleus of a new monastery, and in 565 AD embarked in coracles on the Irish Sea. In the manner of a druid, he abandoned himself to the elements, letting the winds and ocean currents dictate his course. Finally the frail hide boats reached the island of Iona off the coast of northwest Scotland, and Columcille and his monks established a monastery and scriptorium there. It was there, more than two hundred years later, that the most famous of all insular manuscripts, the Book of Kells, is thought to have been written, before the monastery had to be abandoned in 807 AD in the face of increasing Viking raids on the British isles.


Celtic Sexuality, Peter Cherici, Duckworth 1994
Exploring the World of the Celts, Simon James, Thames and Hudson 1993
The Northem World, David M Wilson ed, Harry N Abrams 1980