Columbanus a missionary of the sixth century, was born in Leinster, Ireland, about A.D. 543, and descended from a noble family of that province. In early Life, from talents, position, and property, the world opened to him with unusual attractions, but he decided to enter the monastery of Banchor, in Ulster, then giving instruction to about one thousand students. Having formed a company of missionaries, Columbanus set out for France, and settled at the foot of the Vosges Mountains, among the wildest, poorest, and most uncivilized of all the Franks. Here he built huts. The daily routine of the fraternity was, in their cabins, reading, praying, and transcribing the Scriptures and other books; in the field, cultivating the ground for their sustenance and to give to the poor; and when abroad, visiting the people, and inviting them to hear the Gospel. Their establishment, although generally called a monastery, was far more like one of our modern missionary stations. After a few years another was commenced at Fontaines — "The Springs" — which soon became a place of general resort, and which greatly enlarged their sphere of usefulness. In these places they continued for about twenty years, exerting the most benign influence on all the surrounding country; and through the wives and daughters of the semi-barbarous chieftains, Christianizing its political institutions. "The common people had followed these missionaries gladly; but the keen rebukes of Columbanus had long chafed the most of the ruling classes. At a royal festival a glass of wine was presented to him, which he dashed on the floor because it had 'been polluted by the touch of an adulterer'" (Godwin's Ancient Gaul, p. 338). At another time four illegitimate children of Theuderik, or Thierry, the king, were placed before him to receive his blessing, which he refused, and pronounced them to be the offspring of sin. Upon this the famous Brunehilda vowed his destruction. When the soldiers came to disperse his establishment, he met them with intrepidity. But the monastery was broken up. The brotherhood now rallied around him, and were willing to die with him; but he advised them to go to Germany.
Columbanus went to Italy, where new troubles awaited him. Holding with the Irish Church in regard to the Three Chapters (q.v.) and the time of keeping Easter (q.v.), he learned that the Roman Church had condemned these views under severe penalties. He found, however, a protector in Theodolinda, the pious queen of the Lombards, who agreed with him about the Three Chapters. He had everywhere avowed his principles, and even addressed a letter to pope Boniface, in which he charged him and the General Council with departing from the faith of the apostles. He reminded him that in Rome and Italy there had been many disputes and dissensions, while in Ireland "there never had been a heretic or schismatic but that from the beginning they had held without wavering (inconcussa) the true catholic faith." Soon afterwards he retired to Bobbio, in the Apennines, where he founded his last monastery, and died prematurely about A.D. 615.
Columbanus was one of those men who cannot pass easily through this world. The subjects of his rebukes were generally shining marks — kings, queens, dukes, popes, and others in high places. By nature he was a poet; and the fragments of Irish poetry left by him are said by competent judges to have been imitated in Macpherson's Ossian. He has been almost overlooked in English literature, while the authors of the Literary History of France are even extravagant in his praise. He left a treatise on Penitence, from which it is evident that communion in both kinds was allowed in the Irish Church in his day. Of the works written by Columbanus are still extant: De octo vitiis principalibus, Poenitentiale, Instructiones de officis Christiani, and some letters and poems. They have been published by Fleming (Louvain, 1607), and in Gallandius, Bibl. veterum Patr. tom. 10. Columbanus's monastic rule has been published in Holsten-Brockie, Codex Regul. 1:166 sq. Biographies of Columbanus were written by his companion Jonas and by the monk Walafrid Strabo, both of which are given by Mabillon, Acta SS. Ord. S. Ben. i, sec. 2. — See Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lex. 2:700; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 2:789; Hefele, Gesch. der Einfuhr. des Christ. in Siddeutsch. p. 262-280; Knottenbelt, Disp. de Columbano (Leyd. 1859); Histoire Litt. de la France, 3. 279-505; Usher, 6:281; Lives of Illust. Men of Ireland, 1:125 (Dublin, 1838); Moore's Hist. of Ireland, p. 136 (Philadelphia); Neander, Light in Dark Places, p. 187.