Before the Reformation, before the Roman Catholic tradition we know today, there was a vibrant, active church called the Cele De, or Culdees – the Clients of God.
When you think about St. Patrick’s Ireland and St. Columcille’s Scotland, this is the tradition you’re picturing. It’s also the tradition in which I placed my character Ealasaid in Daughters of Alba, Book 3: Daughter of Spirit.
Here are some things that made the Cele De unique.
They took their name from the same word for those who swore fealty to a king. This doesn’t mean “subjects” in the way we think of it – the Celts didn’t automatically become subjects when their king was crowned. Clients would offer a vow of fealty and promise a tribute of goods in exchange for the protection of the king. They often had a say in who would become king. While not a true democracy, there was voting involved.
Just as in the choosing of a king, the Cele De voted on church leadership. The monastic community voted for their abbot, rather than having one appointed long-distance from Rome. An abbot’s authority rested on the fact that his people wanted him there.
Women were given high stature. Far from being secondary to men, the women of the Cele De had authority and a role to play in the Church. For example, St. Brigid of Kildare was an Abbess of 5th century Ireland who founded many monasteries as well as a school of Art. Priests and nuns of the Cele De were permitted to marry. Although some still chose a life of celibacy, it was not forced on them.
The Cele De upheld scholastic and artistic excellence until the 12th century, with the advent of the new Saxon queen, Margaret. While her zeal for the Roman church tradition was laudable, it had the unfortunate side-effect of effectively wiping out the Celtic church.
I’ll be digging into the Cele De again as I begin to write the story of Ealasaid’s son Uilleam in Sons of Alba, Book 3: Son of Courage.