ADAMNAN, or ADOMNAN (625?–704), is supposed to have been born, about 625, in the south-west of the part of Ulster now known as Donegal, with the principal septs of which his parents were allied. Few details which can be accepted as authentic have been preserved in relation to Adamnan's career. In 679 he was elected abbot of Iona, being the ninth in succession to his eminent kinsman Columba, by whom the monastic institution on that island had been founded. Through his personal application, in 686, to Aldfrid, king of Northumbria, Adamnan effected the liberation of some of the Irish who had been carried off by pirates and retained in captivity there. About this period he became an advocate for adopting the Roman regulations as to the tonsure, and in relation to the time for the celebration of Easter. The Latin life of St. Columba—‘Vita Columbæ’—who died in 597, is supposed to have been compiled by Adamnan in the interval between his visits to Ireland in 692 and 697. He is stated to have taken part in conventions and synods in Ireland, enactments ascribed to which were styled ‘Adamnan's Rule’ and ‘Canones Adomnani.’ The latter, consisting of eight sections, were published by Martene. Adamnan died at Iona in 704, on 23 Sept., on which day he was commemorated as a saint in old Irish and Scottish calendars. To the high character and learning of Adamnan strong testimony is to be found in the statements of his contemporaries, Bede and Ceolfrid. Alcuin, in the eighth century, classed Adamnan with St. Columbanus and other
Præclari fratres, morum vitæque magistri.
The claim of Adamnan to the biography of Columba was questioned in former times, but the work is now generally ascribed to him. The author mentions that he had conversed with persons acquainted with St. Columba, and in the third book he has incorporated a narrative attributed to Cummeneus or Cumine, abbot of Iona from 657 to 669. Pinkerton considered Adamnan's life of Columba to be ‘the most complete piece of such biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period, but throughout the whole middle ages.’ The erudite Alexander P. Forbes, late bishop of Brechin, observed that this biography ‘is the solitary record of a portion of the history of the church of Scotland, and, with the exception of Bede and the Pictish Chronicle, the chief trustworthy monument till we come to the Margaretan reformation.’ The Count de Montalembert characterised the ‘Vita Columbæ’ as ‘un des monuments les plus vivants, les plus attrayants et les plus authentiques de l'histoire chrétienne.’ To Adamnan we are indebted for a treatise entitled ‘De Locis Sanctis,’ an account of Palestine and other countries. This, Adamnan states, was written by him from the dictation of Arculfus, a Frankish bishop, who had visited Palestine. Arculfus had been shipwrecked on the British coast, and was hospitably received at Iona by Adamnan, to whom he recounted his adventures. The book was brought by Adamnan to Aldfrid, king of Northumbria, and by his liberality several transcripts were made of it. Bede also noticed it in his ‘History,’ and gave an abridgment of it. The treatise ‘De Locis Sanctis’ was one of the earliest detailed accounts of the Holy Land produced in Europe. It is divided into three books, treating of the holy places, Tyre, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Sicily. The narrative of Arculfus remained long in manuscript, and the publication of it in its integrity was to some extent the result of criticisms by Isaac Casaubon on the ‘Annales Ecclesiastici’ of Cardinal Baronius. Casaubon severely animadverted on the cardinal for having implicitly accepted statements by Arculfus. The laborious Jesuit, Jacob Gretser, however, undertook to vindicate Baronius, and published the entire treatise of Arculfus from an ancient codex at Ingolstadt in 1619, with the title ‘Adamnani Abbatis Hiiensis libri tres de locis sanctis ex relatione Arculfi, Episcopi Galli.’ Gretser, in his ‘Prolegomena,’ vigorously assailed Casaubon for having, on insufficient information, impugned the authenticity of the statements of Arculfus. Another edition was published at Paris in 1672 by d'Achery and Mabillon from manuscripts in the Vatican and at Corbie. Gretser's edition was reprinted in the fourth volume of his works, issued at Ratisbon in 1734.
A composition in old Irish language, styled ‘Adamnan's Vision,’ is extant in a manuscript transcribed early in the twelfth century entitled ‘Leabhar na h-Uidhri,’ preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. This production purports to give an account of ‘what was shown’ to Adamnan ‘when his soul went forth from his body, and when he was taken to Paradise and to Hell.’ There is no distinct evidence that this is the production of Adamnan. It may, however, be justly regarded as ‘one of the strangest of those mediæval visions which begin with that of the Irish saint Fursa, and culminate in that of the ‘Divina Commedia.’ Adamnan's ‘Vision,’ with an English version, was printed in 1870. A more diffuse Irish version of the composition is extant in a manuscript of the fourteenth century, styled ‘Leabhar Breac,’ also in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. From this copy extracts were given by John O'Donovan, LL.D., in his grammar of the Irish language, published in 1845.
An unsuccessful effort was made in Ireland, towards the commencement of the sixteenth century, by O'Donnell, lord of portion of the Ulster district of which Adamnan was believed to have been a native, to procure copies of his ‘Vita Columbæ.’ The object in view was the compilation of a history of that saint, and some of the results were embodied in a finely written manuscript, now extant in the Bodleian Library. Reproductions of portions of this volume, in which Adamnan is specially referred to, will be found in the third part of the ‘Facsimiles of National Manuscripts of Ireland,’ plates lxvi., lxvii. The first edition of the ‘Vita Columbæ’ appeared in the ‘Lectiones Antiquæ’ of Canisius in 1601. It was again, with other Lives of Saints, published by Surius in 1617, by Thomas Messingham in 1624, by John Colgan in 1647, by the Bollandists in 1698, by Basnage in 1725, and by Pinkerton in 1789. In 1845 an ancient copy of the ‘Life of Columba’ was found at the bottom of a book-chest in the library of Schaffhausen by Dr. Ferdinand Keller. From this codex, which is ascribed to the eighth century, and from six other manuscripts, a valuable edition of the work was produced in 1857 by the Rev. William Reeves, D.D., through the co-operation of the Bannatyne Club and the Irish Archæological Society. Another edition was published at Edinburgh in 1874.[Monumenta Historica Britannica, London, 1848; Acta Sanctorum Ordinis S. Benedicti, Paris, 1672; Thesaurus Novus studio Martene et Durandi, Paris, 1717; I. Casauboni Exercitationes, Frankfort, 1615; Martyrology of Donegal, 1864; Florilegium Insulæ Sanctorum, Paris, 1624; Fragments of Irish Annals, 1860; Kalendars of Scottish Saints, by A. P. Forbes, Edinburgh, 1872; Historians of Scotland, vol. vi., Edinburgh, 1874; Vitæ Antiquæ Sanctorum, London, 1789; Enquiry into History of Scotland, London, 1789; Montalembert, Les Moines d'Occident, Paris, 1866, tom. iii.; Fis Adamnain, Simla, 1870; Facsimiles of National MSS. of Ireland, London, 1879.]