The Monks of Tiron - a missing link

The Brittany Connection Resurrected

At one time it seemed (in a condensed orthodox history) that the Cistercians built the “French” monasteries in Wales at Caldey, Pill and St.Dogmaels. More recently, it emerged that the builders were more likely to have been Tironensian monks from Brittany (Bretons), who prided themselves on doing the design and building work, while the Cistercians kept their habits clean by being the administrators. In modern parlance, it may well have been the Cistercians who were the customers, but they got the Tironensian contractors in to manage the project.

See also the Tironensian Abbey of St.Dogmael, close to Cardigan, coincidentally on the same line of longitude.
Ref : Monastic Wales

Who were these Tironensians?

The order, or congregation, of Tiron was founded in about 1106 by the Benedictine Bernard de Ponthieu, also known as Bernard d'Abbeville (1046-1117), born in a small village near Abbeville, Ponthieu. Tonsured at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Cyprien in Poitiers around the year 1070, Bernard left the order in 1101 when his nomination as abbot of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe was disapproved by Cluny and Pope Paschal II. From then on Bernard lived first as a hermit on the island of Chausey, between Jersey and Saint-Malo, then in the woods of Craon, near Angers, with two other rigorist monks: Robert d'Arbrissel, future founder of the controversial Abbey of Fontevraud, and Vitalis de Mortain, later the founder of the Congregation of Savigny in 1113.

These priests were not practicing “normal” Catholic Christianity. Of Robert d’Arbrissel, we are told he:

established a monastic community. Initially the men and women lived together in the same house, in an ancient ascetic practice called Syneisaktism.
Ref : Fontevraud Abbey

If you’ve never heard of “Syneisaktism” before, don’t worry, I’d never heard of it before either.

Syneisaktism is the practice of "spiritual marriage", which is where a man and a woman who have both taken vows of chastity live together in a chaste and non-legalized partnership. More often than not, the woman would move into the house of the man, and they would live as brother and sister, both committed to the continuation of their vows of chastity.
Ref : Syneisaktism

Again, this was not “normal” Christianity. So almost inevitably, Catholic Synods then got busy again, condemning the practice.

Then the Breton Tironians expanded across the English Channel. As the Bretons were Britons that had emigrated from Devon and Cornwall only a few hundred years early, would this not have been a homecoming?

Tiron was the first of the new religious orders to spread internationally. Within less than five years of its creation, the Order of Tiron owned 117 priories and abbeys in France, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The order's first house in Wales, St Dogmaels, Pembrokeshire, which was established on the site of a clas (early Celtic church), which dated back to at least 600 AD.

Why did they start in that part of Wales?

Firstly, according to Emily Pritchard, it seems an appropriate site for master builders: “The name Dogmael is equivalent to learned in works or metals, or, as we should say at the present day, a clever or master artificer“.

The phrasing should not be lost on brethren familiar with the first artificer in metals. Perhaps this was also not lost on Martin, one of the Norman knights involved in the Norman Conquest of England.

Martin had subdued part of Devonshire, where he first settled, and where one of his sons succeeded him after his death. He has left his name there in Combmartin. After living for some years in Devonshire, William granted to him, in addition, a portion of Pembrokeshire if he could subdue it. Martin of the Towers was so-called from the three towers blazoned on his shield and banner, and not because he came from Tours, in Touraine, or any other Tours in France, no town in France bearing crests anterior to 1200 A.D., the only place in France where one finds that he is known being Tiron, now called Thiron-Gardais, in Eure et Loir, on the south-east borders of Normandy. Martinus Tironensis, or Martin of Tiron, and also so frequently called him Martin of the Towers or Martin Towres. Many things point to his coming from Tiron, and his being described as from Tours, Touraine, is simply through "tours" being the French for towers. Through this also, in the Middle Ages, he was confounded with the noted Bishop of Tours (Touraine), afterwards canonized as St. Martin of Tours, who lived from 316 to 400 A.D.
Ref : The History of St. Dogmaels Abbey by Emily M. Pritchard (full text version)

Emily Pritchard also comments that :

“They now worked night and day building their cloisters; they wore a monk's habit; but it was different to that of other orders, being made of sheepskin, owing to their great poverty.”

If it was great poverty, it was a temporary one, as the Monks of Tiron soon accumulated great wealth. Rather, the choice of sheep's skin may have been a very practical one, as a sheepskin, or a leather apron, provides much more protection to a stone worker than an ordinary monk's habit would or could. The Cistercian monks, who did not trouble themselves with manual labour like this, would have no need of sheepskin habits. The leather apron later acquired a symbolism all of its own, as the Tironensians became the originators of operative and speculative freemasonry in Scotland.

I have consulted with an operative mason. He says:

It was I suspect a question of practicality. Having used a tool apron for many years, I chose a soft leather, easy to buckle and pliable although of a modern design, to fit power tools etc. It did the same job. You only have to try and kneel with a long robe or a thick leather apron. It just does not work. You want to carry your tools and have them ready even when you are in a stupid position. It just makes sense.

So, Emily Pritchard was quite right to note the distinction, she might just be unaware of its practical meaning for the Tironensians. The esoteric meaning came later. And earlier!

For one purpose or another, and in some form, the apron has been used for three or four thousand years. In at least one of the Ancient Mysteries, that of Mithras, the candidate was invested with a white apron. So also was the initiate of the Essenes, who received it during the first year of his membership in that order; and it is significant that many of the statues of Greek and Egyptian gods were so ornamented, as may still be seen. Chinese secret societies, in many cases, also used it, and the Persians, at one time, employed it as their national banner. Jewish prophets often wore aprons, as did the early Christian candidates for baptism, and as ecclesiastical dignitaries of the present day still do.
Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, [1923],p. 140
Ref : Symbolical Masonry

In Scotland, the Tironensians were the monks and master craftsmen who built and occupied (until the Reformation) the abbeys of Selkirk (later re-located to Kelso (1128), Arbroath (1178), and Kilwinning (1140+).

The abbey (Tiron in France) owned at least one ship that traded in Scotland and Northumberland.
Ref : Tironensian Order
The masons who built Kilwinning and many other great abbeys and churches in Scotland, Wales, France, Ireland and England were monks of a very special kind: they were reformed Benedictines of the “free church” of Brittany (Bretagne) and they practised the Celtic Rite. These monks were master craftsmen of all trades: architects, bridge-builders, painters, carpenters, woodcarvers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, stonemasons, etc. However they left no marks that could identify them as such because they worked in absolute humility and solely for the glorification of God. For this reason, their masterpieces were often attributed to other, more ‘visible’, craftsmen.
Francine Bernier, 2005

Kil part of Kilwinning, Kilmarnock, Kilbride etc. = cil = cell = Culdee.

For English-speaking academics, this sometimes causes confusion. Why? A speaker of Scottish Gaelic explained it to me thus:

'K' doesn't exist in Gaelic. But 'c' does and is usually pronounced 'k'. Gaelic has its own orthography and spelling conventions. So 'C' becomes 'K' in English.

You can see that in the town names.

Kilwinning (from Scottish Gaelic: Cill D’Fhinnein) is a town in North Ayrshire, Scotland. It is on the River Garnock, north of Irvine. Ref : Kilwinning.

And the same again in Dwelly, which even more of an expert on all things Gaelic:

cill -e, cilltean [& cillean] sf Cell, church. 2 Chapel. 3 Churchyard, burying ground. 4 Grave. 5** Ruddle. 6‡‡ Death. Thug am bàs an cuirp don chill, death has given their bodies to the cemetery. The locative case of Old Irish cell, a church, but in modern Gaelic, a churchyard.
Ref : Dwelly.

Were the Culdees the earliest Christians in Scotland?

Coincidentally, re Kilwinning - There is a tradition that, after the Templar fleet left La Rochelle, some of the Knights went to Scotland and placed themselves under the protection of Robert Bruce. There are an unusually high number of Templar gravestones in the Western Isles and Highlands.

In the western part of Scotland, in the heart of Argyll is a small village named Kilmartin. Within and immediately around the Kilmartin area there are “eight hundred historic monuments.” The parish church at Kilmartin has an adjacent graveyard that contains a collection of early Christian and medieval carved stones. In the graveyard, there are row after row, close to eighty, weathered flatstones or grave-slabs that are used for covering a gravesite. Some of these grave-slabs contain decorative motifs, clan devices, and Masonic symbols. The most telling of the grave-slabs are the ones that contain no markings or names except an incised imprint of a real, life size, straight sword. A plaque at the church indicates that the earliest flatstones or slabs at Kilmartin date to around 1300. It was a custom of the time to take the deceased man’s sword and lay it upon a flatstone and outline the sword and chisel the outline into the stone. The plaque also indicates that “most” of these grave-slabs were the work of sculptors from the 14th and early 15th centuries.
Ref : Kilmartin stones in Scotland .

The same tradition holds that these Templars appeared at the battle of Bannockburn (led there by Angus Og MacDonald) at a crucial moment in the battle and tipped it in the Scots favour. The battle took place on St. John the Baptist's day (June 24th, 1314), after which Robert Bruce instituted the Royal Order of Scotland, Royal Order of H.R.M. and Knights of the R.S.Y.C.S. and established the chief seat at Kilwinning.

It's important to note the significance of the “free church” of Brittany, allied to the Celtic Rite, and quite distinct from Roman Christianity.

Between the 9th and 11th century, and at the time Bernard de Tiron lived, there had been a long struggle to reestablish the ancient Breton dioceses – mainly Dol, Saint-Malo and Rennes - and free the Church of Brittany from the Roman Archdiocese of Tours.
Just a few years after their establishment at Tiron, the monks of Bernard, were invited by David I to settle in Scotland at Selkirk (Selecherche) in the Ettrick Forest, near the English border where, in 1113, the French Tironensians inaugurated their first abbey in ‘Scotia’. By 1115, having gained the respect of the nobility and royalty in France, England and Scotland, the monks of Tiron already owned 12 abbeys and 28 priories in 22 parishes. By the end of the 12th century they controlled a total of 117 priories and abbeys in France and the British Isles.

News must have spread fast, and they appear to have been very successful! From one location to 117, in just three years? That's a spectacular rate of growth for any business. Of course, the fastest way to expand a business (of any kind) is by acquisitions and mergers. But who they were merging with?

Known for their building skills and Celtic spirit, the Tironensian monks had quickly become the preferred monastic order of David I, most likely because they offered a suitable alternative to the old Culdee Church of Scotland, allowing for the bridging of the Romanish and Celtic rites. Besides, there were undeniable similarities - legal, ritual, artistic, and political – between the Irish, Scots, Welsh, and Bretons. ... it was the Tironensians of Arbroath Abbey, founded in 1178, who were eventually entrusted with the greatest share of the Culdee heritage and rights:

It seems like the older Culdee church willingly merged with the Tironensian monks as a welcome alternative to being Romanised.

John Yarker (1909) : "It is worthy of note that the Culdee system existed in Scotland for some centuries after the Norman Conquest, nor does it then seem to have been extinct in Ireland."
"the Culdees kept themselves together in Scotland until the beginning of the 14th century." Many of their customs were kept alive until the Reformation (1560) within the walls of several powerful abbeys, and Kilwinning was most likely one of them.

The Celtic Rite is still active.

God may be found, heard and experienced everywhere and in all things and that a true worship of God, therefore, can neither be contained within the four walls of a sacred building nor restricted to the boundaries of religious tradition. Every blade of grass, every sigh of the breeze, every splash of rain, every wave of the sea, every movement of the earth, every flutter of a bird's wing, every twinkle of a star, every ray of sun... and every breath of man contains the very life of God.
The Book of Creation: The Practice of Celtic Spirituality, By J. Philip Newell

work in progress

Next : Sacred Geometry

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