How the Humanists (Not the Irish) Saved Western Civilization

It is a story worthy of a great Romantic pen, how a few Celtic monks, cloistered on remote, wind-blown islands with only their prayer beads and a few nervous sheep for company saved Western Civilization. It was nothing less than a miracle that as the darkness descended upon Europe, Greek and Latin manuscripts were being first introduced to the Emerald Isle where generations of monks would dedicate their lives to copying and preserving the ancient texts. Later, descendents of these selfsame clerics would carry their precious cargo to European monasteries where the Italian, the German and the Frenchman waited to be enlightened.

A pretty idea, as I say, but about as genuine as the jackalope. A truer picture would show our medieval monks to be rather superstitious fellows, highly suspicious of anything that did not explicitly smack of the spiritual. “In [the monks’] view, knowledge crafted by human means, by unaided reason…was more likely to lead to the devil,” writes the eminent historian Dr. Stanley Chodorow. There is good reason the “Age of Faith” and the “Dark Ages” are interchangeable terms. The leading ecclesiastical figures of the day Pope Gregory the Great (called the “Stalin of the early church” by Trevor-Roper), and Augustine of Hippo condemned outright the study of pagan or profane literature. For Saint Augustine, the monk who sought knowledge in the Greek or Latin authors was no better than the Israelite who plundered Egyptian treasures in order to build the tabernacle of God.

The sad truth is that monks and scholars were more likely to be persecuted than rewarded for preserving pagan literature and traditions, holding progressive views, or espousing ideas not specifically stamped by Rome. Such was the fate of Peter Abelard, one of the most brilliant of medieval men, forced to burn his books and imprisoned at the insistence of the good monks of St. Denis. No less a personage than Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, according to my copy of the Catholic Encyclopedia, found “Abelard’s influence dangerous, and in 1140, prevailed upon Pope Innocent II, to condemn Abelard for his skeptical and rationalistic writings and teaching. The monks opposed Abelard and convinced the Church to condemn him—twice—and the papacy periodically fulminated against the rationalist discourse carried out in [his university] classrooms.”

Well into the time of Aquinas, the first of the sanctified to adopt Aristotle, Greek and Roman literature was taboo. While ample evidence exists that Irish monks copied many ancient manuscripts, there is less reason to think that they read, understood, or learned anything from them. Often these monks sanitized the texts by littering the pages with generous amounts of Biblical allusions. Because few monks could read Greek, less Greek literature survives. One estimate suggests a third of all Latin literature survived compared to only ten percent of the ancient Greek. But even in the Irish monasteries the ancient texts were far from safe. “As parchment became very rare and costly during the Middle Ages,” says the Encyclopedia, “it became the custom in some monasteries to scratch or wash out the old text in order to replace it with new writing.”

Down the Dark and Middle Ages there continued a constant struggle by enlightened men to use their minds without losing their heads. Europe’s universities were more often than not governed by Rome’s inquisitors, men of dubious intellect of the likes of Jacob Sprenger, co-author of the infamous Witch’s Hammer, the original handbook for witch hunters. When he wasn’t roasting heretics, Dean Sprenger oversaw the University of Cologne, where he carried on a culture war against the northern humanists. The few, true renaissance men were not to be bullied by Rome and are to be celebrated, men like King Francois I, who, in 1532, agreed to subsidize chairs of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic. But this too had to be done outside the grounds of the University of Paris, which was controlled by the Church.

Ironically it was to the very seat of the papacy that humanist scholars flocked to study Latin and Greek amidst the general revival of ancient literature and art based largely on the newly discovered Greek texts, while holy men, like the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, found Italy not a seat of learning, but den of sin, corruption and perversion. The humanists alone understood the importance of rescuing the rotting Greek and Latin manuscripts from the damp monasteries and getting them into the hands of printers and scholars. And by far the majority of that unearthing was done, not in Ireland, but in Constantinople, Greece, and nearby Muslim countries.

Chief among those treasure hunters was the poet Petrarch (1304-74), who went doggedly from monastery to monastery, convent to convent searching for lost treasure, and the printer Aldo Manuzio, whose Venetian press published the first inexpensive editions of Aristophanes, Thucydides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Xenophon, Euripides, Demosthenes, Plato, and Pindar. Aldus’s house was soon a gathering-place for Greek and Latin scholars, and included Erasmus’ whose Proverbs Manuzio published in 1508. It was Manuzio who reestablished Plato’s Academy in Venice nearly a thousand years after the Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian shut it down claiming it was a pagan establishment.

In The Renaissance, historian Paul Johnson writes that:

Constantinople was known in the West to contain great depositories of ancient Greek literature and a few scholars familiar with it. In 1397, the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras was invited to lecture in Florence, and it was from this point that classical Greek began to be studied seriously and widely in the West. Guarino de Verona went to Constantinople and returned to Italy not only fluent in Greek, but with an important library of 54 Greek manuscripts, including some of the works of Plato, hitherto unknown in the West. The rest of Plato was brought from Constantinople in 1420s by Giovanni Aurispa. This was the first great transmission of Classical Greek literature.

For half a millennium Irish monks warehoused rare classical texts, but the great wealth of knowledge they contained was largely wasted on them. It was left to a handful of fifteenth century poets and humanists to free the texts from the dark monastic libraries. Only then would Western Civilization’s Renaissance truly commence.

Christopher Orlet’s home page is

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