Blaming the Barbarians

Article excerpt

Occupying a perch on the best-seller list for the better part of two years was Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book that still enjoys brisk sales. Cahill argues that Irish monastic scholars rescued classical and folk literature (including Ireland's own rich contributions) from the Visigoths who sacked Rome in 410 and from other peoples who invaded Italy from the north. Thus he breathes new life into the old myth of the Christian church as a citadel of learning amidst the ignorant hordes.

(A moment's reflection should remind us that literature and learning were preserved not only in the Irish monasteries but also among the Moors and in various cities in the Eastern empire and elsewhere around the imperial periphery. But Cahill's book would have proved far less marketable had he more accurately entitled it How the Irish, Along with Others, Helped Preserve a Portion of What Might Be Called "Civilization.")

By Cahill's account, the clergy "saved" classical civilization from those whom he calls "unwashed barbarians," who "descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books." Here I wish to argue the contrary: if the Irish clergy "saved civilization," it was not from the barbarians but principally from their fellow preachers.

First, please note that Cahill offers not a morsel of evidence to support his repeated assertions that the barbarians burned books or waged--as the Christians themselves had been doing for decades--a Kulturkampf against classical learning and lay literacy. While the barbarians certainly looted, they seemed little interested one way or the other in written texts. The one actual instance Cahill offers of books being damaged by invaders occurred in Ireland hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, when "Viking terrorists" (as he calls them) looted some monasteries and "destroyed books by ripping off bejeweled covers for booty." Even in this episode, the marauders' interest was in the gems, not the destruction of books per se.

Furthermore, decades before the northern tribes descended upon Rome, the church itself had burned all the critiques of Christianity written by prominent non-Christian scholars, such as Porphyry and Celsus. By the late fourth century, church censorship had extended into just about every area of learning. In 391 Alexandria, the Christians, led by the patriarch Theophilus, destroyed the Serapeum, the annex or "daughter library" to the Museum, the main edifice that housed the great bibliotheca in antiquity. The Serapeum itself had contained a priceless trove of scrolls and codices. In the decades that followed, the Museum's collection was purged and transformed by the Christians so that, by the time the main library was destroyed by Islamic invaders in 641, it housed mostly patristic and other church writings.

In various countries, ancient academies were abolished and laypeople were forbidden to read even the Bible. Cahill offers not a word about the closing of academies, the destruction of libraries, the book burning, and the overall intellectual repression waged by the church well before the Visigothic assault on Rome and continuing long afterward. From about 320 to 395, the twenty-eight public libraries in Rome "like tombs, were closed forever," as Cahill quotes the lamenting Ammianus Marcellinus--whom he fails to identify as a non-Christian historian. Again, the impression left is that the barbarians were to blame, but the closings occurred during the time of Christian domination, years before the Visigoths set foot inside Rome.

Book burning seems to have started rather early as a Christian practice, during the apostolic age, among the very first generation of believers. In Acts 19:17-19, we learn that the Greeks and Jews in the city of Ephesus responded to Paul's preaching by destroying their books valued at fifty thousand pieces of silver--an act that, if not urged by Paul, certainly earned his approval. …