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Céli Dé or Culdees were originally members of ascetic Christian monastic and eremitical communities of Ireland, Scotland and England in the Middle Ages. The term is used of St. John the Apostle, of a missioner from abroad recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters at the year 806, and of Óengus Céile Dé, the well-known monk and author of Tallaght. "Culdee" is an anglicisation of Céli Dé (plural of Céile Dé, lit. "client/companion of God"). Boece's term is culdei. In Scottish Latin sources they are often called Kelidei.
The etymology of the term, the persons designated by it, their origin, their doctrines, the rule or rules under which they lived and the limits of their authority and privileges have all been matters of controversy. All admit, however, 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. Appearing first in Ireland and subsequently in Scotland, attached to cathedral or collegiate churches, they lived in monastic fashion though not taking monastic vows.
From the 12th century Scottish and Irish Christianity was regulated on the Roman pattern and in the process the Culdees also lost any distinctiveness they may formerly have had and were brought under canonical rule.
In the course of the 9th century we find mention of nine places in Ireland (including Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Clones, Devenish and Sligo) where communities of Culdees were established as a kind of annex to the regular monastic institutions. They seem especially to have had the care of the poor and the sick, and were interested in the musical part of worship. Óengus the Culdee lived in the last quarter of the 8th century and is best known as the author of the Félire Óengusso "the Martyrology of Óengus".
Maelruan (died 792), under whom Oengus lived, drew up a rule for the Culdees of Tallaght that prescribed their prayers, fasts, devotions, confession and penances, but we have no evidence that this rule was widely accepted even in the other Culdean establishments. 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. Secular priests assumed the name of Culdees, lived in community and subjected themselves to monastic discipline though not bound by monastic vows. At Clones, Devenish, and Scattery Island, "Culdee" and "canon" are interchangeable terms.
The Danish wars affected the Culdee houses. Clondalken and Clones disappeared altogether. At Clonmacnoise, as early as the eleventh century, the Culdees were laymen and married, while those at Monahincha and Scattery Island gave way to the regular canons. At Armagh regular canons were introduced into the cathedral church in the twelfth century and took precedence over the Culdees, six in number, a prior and five vicars. These still continued a corporate existence, charged with the celebration of the Divine offices and the care of the church building: they had separate lands and sometimes 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. The Culdees of Armagh endured until the dissolution in 1541 and enjoyed a fleeting resurrection in 1627, soon after which their ancient property passed to the vicars choral of the cathedral.
The Icelandic Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) mentions that the Norse found Irish priests with bells and crosiers in Iceland when they arrived. This is also hinted at in the works of Dicuil. The Norse called the priests papar, a name found as an element in many placenames of Orkney, Shetland, the Faroes and Iceland. The traditional accounts state that the papar left when the Norse arrived. It has been suggested that their influence may have helped Christianity spread in Iceland but it is by no means clear that the papar were Culdee monks.
In Scotland Culdees were more numerous than in Ireland: thirteen monastic establishments were peopled by them, eight in connection with cathedrals. The Ionan monks had been expelled by the Pictish king Nechtan son of Derile in 717. There is no mention of any Culdees at any Columban monastery, either in Ireland or in Scotland, until long after Columba's time: in 1164 that Culdees are mentioned as being in Iona but in a subordinate position. The Culdee of Loch Leven lived on St Serf's Inch, which had been given them by a Pictish prince, Brude, about 700. In 1093 they surrendered their island to the bishop of St Andrews in return for perpetual food and clothing but Robert, the bishop in 1144, handed over all their vestments, books, and other property, with the island, to the newly founded Canons Regular, in which the Culdees were likely incorporated.
The culdee chapel in St Andrews in Fife can be seen to the north-east of its ruined cathedral and city wall. It is dedicated to 'St Mary on the Rock' and is cruciform. It is used by the local St Andrews churches for their Easter morning service. In the early days there were several Culdee establishments in Fife, probably small rude structures accommodating 30 or 40 worshippers, and possibly such a structure stood at or near the present church. In 1075 AD the foundation charter of Dunfermline Church was granted by King Malcolm III, and amongst the possessions he bestowed on the church was the Shire of Kirkcaladinit, as Kirkcaldy was then known. Crínán of Dunkeld, the grandfather of Máel Coluim III, was a lay abbot, and tradition says that even the clerical members were married, though unlike the priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church, they lived apart from their wives during their term of sacerdotal service.
The pictures that we have of Culdee life in the 12th century vary considerably. The chief houses in Scotland were at St Andrews, Scone, Dunkeld, Lochleven, Monymusk in Aberdeenshire, Abernethy and Brechin. Each was an independent establishment controlled entirely by its own abbot and apparently divided into two sections, one priestly and the other lay and even married. At St Andrews about the year 1100 there were thirteen Culdees holding office by hereditary tenure and paying more regard to their own prosperity and aggrandizement than to the services of the church or the needs of the populace. At Loch Leven there is no trace of such partial independence.
A controversial reform was inaugurated by Queen Margaret and carried through by her sons Alexander I and David I. Gradually the whole position passed into the hands of Thurgot and his successors in the bishopric. Canons Regular were instituted and some of the Culdees joined the new order. Those who declined were allowed a life-rent of their revenues and lingered on as a separate but ever-dwindling body till the beginning of the 14th century, when, excluded from voting at the election of the bishop, they disappear from history. In the same fashion the Culdee of Monymusk, originally perhaps a colony from St Andrews, became Canons Regular of the Augustinian order early in the 13th century, and those of Abernethy in 1273. At Brechin, famous like Abernethy for its round tower, the Culdee prior and his monks helped to form the chapter of the diocese founded by David I in 1145, though the name persisted for a generation or two.
By the end of the thirteenth century most Scots Culdee houses had disappeared. Some, like Dunkeld and Abernethy, were superseded by regular canons: others, like Brechin and Dunblane, were extinguished with the introduction of cathedral chapters. One at least, Monifieth, 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.
Similar absorptions no doubt account for the disappearance of the Culdees of York, the only English establishment that uses the name, borne by the canons of St Peter’s about 925 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, helped by donations, continued to relieve the destitute. The date at which they finally disappeared is unknown. Nor do we know the fate of the Culdean house in Wales that existed at Snowdon and Bardsey Island in north Wales in the days of Giraldus Cambrensis, mentioned (c. 1190) in Speculum Ecclesiae and Itinerarium respectively. The former community was, he says, sorely oppressed by the covetous Cistercians. These seem to be the only cases where the term "Culdee" is found in England and Wales.
Hector Boece in his Latin history of Scotland (1516), makes the Culdees of the 9th to the 12th century the direct successors of the Irish and Ionan monasticism of the 6th to the 8th century. Some have suggested that these views were disproved by William Reeves (1815–1892), bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. James A. Wylie (1808–1890) makes a strong case that the Culdees (Keledei) of Scotland are related to the Celtic Christian spirituality of the monks of Iona. Over the course of several hundred years, the Culdees of Scotland were edged out of positions of authority and temporal support by outside church officials brought into the country to dispossess existing local officials and end the independence of the Celtic Christian tradition. Wylie presents numerous historical references for the persecution of the Kelede by the Roman church and the opposition of Queen Margaret and King David I, staunch supporters of the continental church who would have no reason to fear a sect professing continental practices. If and to what extent the rise of these communities should be explained in terms of a religious and social movement of reform is a matter of some debate.
Another theory suggests that the Rule of Chrodegang, archbishop of Metz (d. 766), was brought by Irish monks to their native land from the monasteries of north-eastern Gaul, and that Irish anchorites originally unfettered by the rules of the cloister bound themselves by it. Those who accept the orthodox Roman viewpoint generally believe that the features of their life in Scotland, which would be the most important epoch in the history of the order, seem to resemble closely those of the secular canons of England and the continent. From the outset they were more or less isolated, and, having no fixed forms or common head, tended to decay.
Protestant writers alleged that the Culdees had preserved Celtic Christianity, free from supposed Roman corruptions, in one remote corner of western Europe. This view was enshrined in Thomas Campbell’s Reullura:
For the older view, see J. Jamieson, Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees (1811).