It is hard to wrap our minds around how rapid and thorough was the loss of literate culture throughout Europe after the collapse of the Roman political and economic order. As of 400 A.D, the Pax Romana held throughout the whole Mediterranean world, and up through what is now France (“Gaul”) and England. The immense depth and breadth of classical knowledge comes through, for instance, in the works of Augustine. Writing just as the barbarian wave was starting to overrun the empire, Augustine casually alludes to a wide range of Greek and Roman philosophers, historical events, skilled medical procedures and a long list of metals and precious stones, knowing that his contemporary readers would be familiar with all these things.
All this changed after 406. On the last day of that year, the Rhine River, which formed the border between the Roman empire and the Germanic tribes to the north and east, froze solid. A vast horde of barbarians began to surge across the border, overwhelming the thin force of Roman frontier guards. Every German man was a warrior, and their armed women followed closely behind. The invaders quickly spread south through Gaul and into Italy, Spain, and North Africa, looting and doing the generally disruptive sorts of things that invading barbarians do. Rome itself was sacked in 410.
In an orderly, diverse pre-industrial economy, there are enough slaves and peasants toiling away at the bottom of the pyramid to support a reasonable number of merchants, priests and aristocrats who can carry on higher culture. But with societal collapse in the fifth century, and new class of overlords who knew and cared little about literacy, centuries of Greek and Roman learning were nearly lost to most of Europe. In this bare survival situation, nobody had the leisure or drive to learn to read and appreciate literature, and to do the physical copy of manually copying manuscripts which was necessary before the printing press.
The big, bright, exception, which is the subject of Thomas Cahill’s book, was the newly minted set of monasteries in Ireland. The Irish had been thoroughly pagan (think human sacrifice) and thoroughly illiterate until Patrick brought Christianity to them in the middle of the fifth century. Cahill describes the Irish mindset in detail, and how Patrick appealed to its best elements.
(Patrick’s story is very dramatic and monumental in its impact, but I won’t try to summarize it here in the interests of space. Just one quote: “The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again until the 17th century”).
The few monasteries on the European continent saw little value in the ancient non-Christian Greek and Roman writers, so those works were not reproduced. The Irish had a more eclectic attitude, and happily copied whatever texts came their way, including “pagan” authors like Plato.
The final step in this cultural saga is that starting around 600 many of these Irish monks, along with their precious manuscripts, made their way back to Gaul and northern Italy. They established their monasteries, which served as outposts of literacy, and they started to educate the local kings and warlords and their children. And that is how “the Irish saved civilization”.
Anyone with an inquiring mind should enjoy this book. It manages to be deeply erudite and deeply engaging, giving depth portraits of representative personages in the late Roman empire, the Irish before and after Patrick, and key leaders in the succeeding centuries. One thing the author points out is that life in the later Roman empire was not typically much fun unless you were in the oppressive, narcissistic upper upper crust. Although we may rightfully mourn the loss of classical learning, for the vast majority of its inhabitants, the demise of the empire and its tax collectors was maybe not such a tragedy.
Cahill further makes the case that the fusion of Patrick’s Christianity with Irish sensibilities gave rise to a richer, healthier spirituality than could be found in Roman-type Catholicism:
Patrick could put himself – imaginatively – in the position of the Irish. To him, no less than to them, the world is full of magic. One can invoke the elements – the lights of Heaven, the waves of the sea, the birds and the animals – and these will come to one’s aid, as in the incantation of [Patrick’s famous prayer] the “Breastplate”. The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind‘s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.
Patrick… could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile.
… Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen.
…This sense of the world as holy, as a Book of God – as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages – could never have risen out of Greco- Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy and the world as devoid of meaning.