How the Irish Saved Civilization

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* Book: How the Irish Saved Civilization. The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. by Thomas Cahill. Bantam-Doubleday-Dell, 1995



by Bobby Matherne:

"as the barbarians were burning Rome along with its books, the Irish monks were burning the midnight oil copying the great works of Western literature. To these hard-working monks we owe much of our knowledge of ancient literature.

For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature — everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one — a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.

Cahill makes an important observation about transitions in history — these are often neglected or overlooked for the very reason that historians are often experts in only one period of history. He cites Kenneth Clark as an exceptional historian who gives the Irish credit for the transition from the classical to the medieval period of history.

[page 5] Many historians fail to mention it entirely, and few advert to the breathtaking drama of this cultural cliffhanger. This is probably because it is easier to describe stasis (classical, then medieval) than movement (classical to medieval). It is also true that historians are generally expert in one period or the other, so that analysis of the transition falls outside their — and everyone's? — competence. At all events, I know of no single book now in print that is devoted to the subject of the transition, nor even one in which this subject plays a substantial part."