Seventh-Century Ireland as a Study Abroad Destination

Seventh-Century Ireland as a Study Abroad Destination

By Colin Ireland

Frontiers : The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. 5 (1999)


Introduction: As a modern-day International Educator you might easily believe that you are involved in a pioneering endeavor. Would it surprise you to learn that you had predecessors in Ireland thirteen hundred years ago? Did you know that the Emerald Isle attracted swarms of eager foreign students, principally from England, to its monastic schools as early as the seventh century? Monastic schools were the universities of medieval Europe. In this article I will portray—from the scanty records that survive—scenes from the life of these “study abroad students” in Ireland’s early medieval centers of learning.

Trying to reconstruct the society of the early Middle Ages from surviving records is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when 90% of the pieces are missing. Everyone stands around and argues about how the remaining 10% of the pieces fit, or even if they belong to the particular puzzle at all.

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In order to reconstruct the life of “study abroad students” in seventh-century Ireland I rely primarily on three sources. The first two sources are the English churchmen Aldhelm and Bede. Aldhelm (d.709), abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne, was the first Anglo-Saxon man of letters. Fortunately, at least two letters by him to AngloSaxon students who studied in Ireland survive. Bede (d.735), a priest at Wearmouth-Jarrow, was the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon men of letters. He wrote a history of the Anglo-Saxon Church (Historia Ecclesiastica [HE]), cited frequently in this article, which often notes the relationships between the English and the Irish in the seventh century. As English clerical scholars, Aldhelm and Bede are eager to promote the Church of Rome and Anglo-Saxon England’s role in its growth. Nevertheless, they frequently acknowledge the Irish contribution to English Church history and Anglo-Saxon learned culture. Bede tells us, for example, that Irish schools provided English students with free books and free instruction. My third major source is the Hisperica Famina “Western Sayings,” a cryptic Latin text written in Ireland by, or about, foreign students sometime probably between c.650 and c.665. The Hisperica Famina are secular in tone and give us our most intimate glimpse into the life of “study abroad students” in early Ireland.

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