Culdees, a word so frequently met with in histories of the medieval Churches of Ireland and Scotland, and so variously understood and applied, that a well-informed writer (Reeves) describes it as the best-abused word in Scotic church-history. The etymology of the term, the persons designated by it, their origin, their doctrines, the rule or rules under which they lived, the limits of their authority and privileges have all been matters of controversy; and on these questions much learning and ability has been shown, and not a little partizan zeal. In the Irish language the word was written Ceile-De, meaning companion, or even spouse, of God, with the Latin equivalent in the plural, Colidei, anglicized into Culdees; ‘ in Scotland it was often written Kclidei. All admit that, in the beginning at all events, the Culdees were separated from the mass of the faithful, that their lives were devoted to religion, and that they lived in community. But the Scotch writers, unwilling to trace the name to an Irish source, prefer to derive it from “cultores Dei”, worshippers of God, or from cuil, a shelter, or from kil, a church. The Irish derivation, however, is the easiest and the most natural, and the one now generally accepted. From Ceile-De the transition is easy to Colideus and Culdee; and in the Irish annals the epithet Ceile-De is appropriately given to St. John, one of the twelve Apostles, to a missioner from abroad whose coming to Ireland is recorded in the Four Masters at the year 806, and to Aengus (q.v.), the well-known monk and author of Tallaght, whose penances and mortifications, whose humility, piety, and religious zeal, would specially mark him out as the companion of God.
Taking him as an example of the class to which he belonged, probably the highest example which could be given, when we remember the character of his life, we find that the Culdees were holy men who loved solitude and lived by the labor of their hands. Gradually they came together in community, still occupying separate cells, still much alone and in communion with God, but meeting in the refectory and in the church, and giving obedience to a common superior. St. Maelruan, under whom Aengus lived, and who died as early as 792, drew up a rule for the Culdees of Tallaght which prescribed the time and manner of their prayers, fasts, and devotions, the frequency with which they ought to go to confession, the penances to be imposed for faults committed. But we have no evidence that this rule was widely accepted even in the other Culdean establishments. Nor could the Culdees at any time be said to have attained to the position of a religious order, composed of many houses, scattered over many lands, bound by a common rule, revering the memory and imitating the virtues of their founder, and looking to the parent house from which they sprang, as the children of Columbanus looked to Luxeuil or Bobbio, or the Columban monks looked to Iona. After the death of Maelruan Tallaght is forgotten, and the name Ceile-De disappears from the Irish annals until 919, when the Four Masters record that Armagh was plundered by the Danes, but that the houses of prayer, “with the people of God, that is Ceile-De”, were spared. Subsequent entries in the annals show that there were Culdees at Clonmacnoise, Clondalken, and Clones, at Monahincha in Tipperary, and at Scattery Island.
To those of the eighth century, such as were represented by Aengus, were soon added secular priests who assumed the name of Culdees, lived in community, subjected themselves to monastic discipline, but were not bound by monastic vows. Such an order of priests had, in the middle of the eighth century, been founded at Metz. As they lived according to rules and canons of councils, they came to be called secular canons and were usually attached to collegiate or cathedral churches. They became popular and quickly extended even to Ireland, and it is significant that in the accounts given of the Culdee establishments at Clones, Devenish, and Scattery Island, Culdee and canon are taken as convertible terms. The Danish wars, which brought ruin on so many proud monastic establishments, easily effected the destruction of the Culdee houses with their feebler resisting powers. Some, such as Clondalken and Clones, disappeared altogether, or dragged out a miserable existence which differed little from death. At Clonmacnoise, as early as the eleventh century, the Culdees were laymen and married, while those at Monahincha and Scattery Island, being utterly corrupt and unable, or unwilling, to reform, gave way to the regular canons, with their purer morals and stricter discipline.
Those at Armagh were more tenacious of existence. Like their brethren throughout Ireland, they had felt the corrupting influence of the Danish wars; and while lay abbots ruled at Armagh the Culdees had so far departed from their primitive piety that in the twelfth century regular canons were introduced into the cathedral church and henceforth took precedence of the Culdees. But the latter, six in number, a prior and five vicars, still continued a corporate existence at Armagh. They were specially charged with the celebration of the Divine offices and the care of the church building, had separate lands, and sometimes had charge of parishes. When a chapter was formed, about 1160, the prior usually filled the office of precentor, his brethren being vicars choral, and himself ranking in the chapter next to the chancellor. He was elected by his brother Culdees and confirmed by the primate, and had a voice in the election of the archbishop by virtue of his position in the chapter. As Ulster was the last of the Irish provinces to be brought effectually under English rule, the Armagh Culdees long outlived their brethren throughout Ireland. By the end of Elizabeth‘s reign, however, they had died out, and in 1628 a new body was incorporated by Charles I—the “Prior and Vicars Choral” of the cathedral church of Armagh—to which were transferred the lands formerly held by the Culdees. Five years later, the Catholic primate, O’Reilly, announced to Rome that he had been elected “Prior of the College of the Culdees”, and he wanted to know if in assuming the title he had acted in accordance with canon law. We do not know what was the nature of the answer he received, but this is the last mention made of the Irish Culdees.
At York was their only English establishment, where they performed in the tenth century the double duty of officiating in the cathedral church and of relieving the sick and poor. When a new cathedral arose under a Norman archbishop, they ceased their connection with the cathedral, but, with resources augmented by many donations, they continued to relieve the destitute. The date at which they finally disappeared is unknown. Nor do we know the fate of the single Culdean house in Wales, which existed at Bardsey in the days of Giraldus Cambrensis. In Scotland they were more numerous even than in Ireland. No less than thirteen monastic establishments were peopled by them, eight of which were in connection with cathedral churches. National pride induced some of the Scotch writers to assert that the Culdees were Scotch and not Irish. But the influence of Ireland on the primitive Christian Church of Scotland was so overwhelming, and facts to show this are so many, that the ablest among the Scotch historians, such as Pinkerton, Innes, and Hill-Burton, are compelled to admit that the first Culdees were Irish, and that from Ireland they spread to Scotland. They were not, however, Columban monks, for there is no mention of any Culdees at any Columban monastery, either in Ireland or in Scotland, until long after Columba was in his grave; nor was it till 1164 that Culdees are mentioned as being in Iona, and then only in a subordinate position. Appearing, then, first in Ireland, they subsequently appeared in Scotland, and in both countries their history and fate are almost identical. Attached to cathedral or collegiate churches, living in monastic fashion, though not taking monastic vows, the Scotch, like the Irish Culdees, were originally men of piety and zeal. The turbulence of the times and the acquisition of wealth sowed the seeds of decay, zeal gave way to indolence and neglect, a celibate community to married men, church property was squandered or alienated, even the altar offerings, grasped by avarice, were diverted to personal uses, and by the end of the thirteenth century the Scotch Culdee houses had in almost every case disappeared. Some, like Dunkeld and Abernethy, were superseded by regular canons; others, like Brechin and Dunblane, were extinguished with the introduction of cathedral chapters; and one at least, Monifieth, had passed into the hands of laymen. At St. Andrews they lived on, side by side with the regular canons, and still clung to their ancient privilege of electing the archbishop. But their claim was disallowed at Rome, and in 1273 they were debarred even from voting. Before the Reformation they had finally disappeared, and in 1616 the lands they once held were annexed to the See of St. Andrews.
E. A. D’ALTON