A group of Celtic religious recluses found mainly in Ireland and Scotland throughout the Middle Ages. A collection of documents dating from c. 800 gives rules for such a group of religious, which it refers to as Céli Dé (hence the name Culdees). The life prescribed in these documents is one of extreme rigor, with the religious obviously living in community. The teaching and practices of several saints and holy men are cited, but the central figure throughout these documents is Máel-Ruain (d.792) of Tamlachta or tallaght (an abbey three miles southwest of Dublin), much of whose teaching is given in the form of answers to questions put by various persons, especially Máiel-Díthruib. In these documents—which did not emanate from Tallaght—superstitious practices are found side by side with high asceticism; and it may well be doubted if Máel-Díthruib could have elicited the information given, for according to the annals he was an anchorite of Tír-Da Glas or Terryglas (County Tipperary) who died in 840, forty-eight years after Máel-Ruain. On the other hand, Dub-Litter, Abbot of Finglas (north of Dublin), also appears but in a secondary role. He is described in the Annals of Ulster for 780 as being the chief (dux ) of the anchorites and scribes. As will be seen, this may be the equivalent of calling him chief of the Culdees. The explanation for Máel-Ruain's central role in these Culdee documents may well be that Máel-Ruain quickly became a legend; material showing the growth of this legend is not wanting. In any event, the Culdees—followers of Máel-Ruain or not—were to be found throughout much of Scotland and Ireland by the ninth century. The native annals seldom speak of the Culdees by name—and some of the few entries mentioning them derive obviously from legendary sources—but an examination of the annals shows a remarkable rise in the number of obits of anchorites and scribes at this period. Among those so styled are to be found the names of men elsewhere called Culdees. It would seem, then, that many, if not all, of the "anchorites" mentioned in the annals were in fact Culdees.
There is another noteworthy fact: in point of numbers of such anchorites, Armagh ranks highest, followed closely by clonmacnois and glendalough. By contrast, Tallaght and those monasteries closely associated with it in the Culdee documents have least of all. Hence the commonly held opinion that Máel-Ruain was the founder of the Culdees is not based on incontrovertible evidence. On the other hand, it is to be noted that the number of obits for anchorites and scribes is highest during the first half of the ninth century, suggesting that the anchoritic movement reached its peak during the lifetime of Máel-Ruain. The various reform laws introduced among the Culdees were nearly all promulgated at the beginning of the eighth century.
Apart from the literature on the monastic life, the Culdees produced two martyrologies (that of Tallaght and one of Oengus Céle Dé) and the Stowe Missal. Their extensive use of the vernacular in dealing with religious and ecclesiastical subjects is a noteworthy innovation in their work; but illiteracy on the part of some of their numbers does not seem to have been the chief reason for this practice. In this connection it is significant that personal lyrics in the vernacular make their appearance for the first time at this period, and nearly all are obviously of monastic or eremitic origin.
Yet it is not known exactly to what type of religious the Culdees belonged. Though called hermits, they were not such in the accepted meaning of the word, for in general they do not seem to have cut themselves off from the older foundations, of which they were a reform element, but rather to have maintained association with them, directed as they were by their own superior, who was subject to the abbot. Some Culdees (as at Armagh) seem to have lived within the old monastic enclosure; others occupied a separate, dependent site as at Monahincha, dependent on Roscrea. Tallaght, on the other hand, seems to have been composed entirely of Culdees. And it was Tallaght and Finglas that succeeded in escaping destruction by the Norse marauders, seemingly on account of the extreme poverty of their members. Complete renunciation of worldly goods and utter dependence on Providence seem to have been the guiding principles of Culdees, as is to be inferred from incidental references in anecdotes dealing with them. They survived in Ireland and Scotland till the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under King henry viii, but many centuries before that they had lost all contact with their original idealism, even abandoning celibacy.
Bibliography: Works of Culdee Provenance. d. a. binchy, Old-Irish Penitential (8th century), in The Irish Penitentials, ed. l. bieler (Dublin 1963) 258–277. d. a. binchy, The Old-Irish Table of Commutations (8th century), op. cit., 277–283. Customs of Tallaght (9th century), "The Monastery of Tallaght," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, eds., e. j. gwynn and w. j. purton, 29, Section C (1911) 113–179; cf. "The Rule of Tallaght," Hermathena, ed. e. j. gwynn, 44 (1927) suppl. 2:104–109; cf. p. grosjean, "Extraits de la règle de Tallaght," Études Celtiques, 2 (1937) 301–303. Rule of the Céli Dé (9th century), ed. and tr., e. j. gwynn, op. cit., 65–87, 97–103. Rule of Tallaght, later ed. of Customs, ed. e. j. gwynn, op. cit., 2–63. Rule of Fothad no Canóine or of Mo-Chutu (9th century), j. f. kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: v.1, Ecclesiastical (New York 1929) 1:473–474 for this rule treating of the duties of all believers; the section dealing with the Céli Dé (written in the first person plural) may be a later insertion into the other material (written in the second person singular). Early Irish Lyrics: Eighth to Twelfth Centuries, ed. g. murphy, (Oxford 1956) 2–71, for Culdee monastic poems. Literature. w. reeves, "On the Céli Dé, Commonly Called Culdees," in Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 24 (1873) 119–264, most detailed account, but with imperfections. l. gougaud, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, eds., f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 3.2:3186–90, with comments on the Stowe Missal. Early Sources of Scottish History, A.D. 500–1286, ed. and tr., a. o. anderson, 2 v. (Edinburgh 1922). j. f. kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: v.1, Ecclesiastical (New York 1929) 1:468–482. r. flower, "The Two Eyes of Ireland," in The Church of Ireland, A.D. 432–1932: The Report of the Church of Ireland Conference Held in Dublin, 11th–14th October, 1932, eds., w. bell and n. d. emerson (Dublin 1932). The Irish Tradition (Oxford 1947) 24–66. f. o. briain, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al., (Paris 1912–) 13:1099–1100. d. a. binchy, op. cit., 47–51.
The name is recorded from late Middle English, and comes from medieval Latin culdeus, alteration, influenced by Latin cultores Dei ‘worshippers of God’ of kelledei (plural, found in early Scottish records), from Old Irish céle dé, literally ‘companion of God’.