Slainte: Did the Irish Really Save Civilization?

One of my favorite history books, Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, is a slim volume that became a national bestseller in the mid-1990s. This is from the back cover copy:

In this entertaining and compelling narrative, Thomas Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization — copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost — they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task.

If you like audiobooks, try the abridged version with Liam Neeson reading. The way he rolls the names Cuchulainn, Derdriu, and Medb, and the characters and places from the Tain Bo Cuailnge (an early Irish prose epic) off of his native Irish tongue–truly yummy.

As with many popular historical narratives, bona fide historians have objected to Cahill’s scholarship and failure to prove his thesis. To be sure, his subject ranges over several centuries and tends to gloss over certain facts in order to make his point. But like the best storytellers, Cahill lays down the fall of Rome and the rise of Irish Christianity with all the verve of an Irish bard—with many a wink, wink at Irish culture—and, best of all, he invites the reader in to ponder the “what ifs” of history. What if the works of Virgil, Homer, Juvenal, Martial, Ausonius, Cicero, Ovid, and so many other pillars of western and Latinate literature had been lost to book-burning barbarian hordes pillaging Rome and popes uninterested in “classical” interpretations? What does Western Civilization owe to the 7th, 8th, and 9th century scriptoria of Landisfarne, Skellig Michael, Glendalough, Kildare, and Armagh? Fortunately for his argument, Cahill does not hold back in his estimation of the forces at work:

…Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of the Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought…
Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile [in continental Europe], they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.
And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Though he hammers home this larger impact of monkish diligence, it is through his portraits of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and the princely monk Columcille that Cahill humanizes the early Irish-Christian efforts to transfer the literature of the ancients to sheepskin books, for posterity. He also makes the case that the Irish were uniquely situated to take on this mission (for one thing, they have plenty of sheep in Ireland!). Finally, he makes short work of the idea of the “ignorant scribe” who unknowingly transcribed the works of the greats by rote:

Beneath a description of the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy, one scribe, completely absorbed in the words he is copying, has written most sincerely: “I am greatly grieved at the above-mentioned death.”

As are we, poor Hector. Thanks to the Irish.

Are there any “what ifs” of history you find particularly intriguing? The Codex (bound book) was considered an advance in technology over the scroll. Can you imagine entire books being copied by hand?

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