Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.

—Thomas Cahill,
How the Irish Saved Civilization

These days I find myself turning more and more toward non-fiction to satisfy my fantasy yearnings. After all, what is more fantastic than real events like the rise of the Roman empire, its conquest of great swathes of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and its decline and eventual overthrow at the hands of teeming barbarian hordes? At times it’s hard to believe that these events and the subsequent Dark Ages actually occurred, but of course they did, and I find their reality every bit as unearthly as most of the fantasy fiction I’ve read. Thinking about the enormity of these great events can take your breath away.

After reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization I again experienced a sense of awe regarding history itself. I marveled that the great movers and shakers of that era—Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, among others—actually lived and breathed.

How the Irish Saved Civilization seeks to give the Irish their due in early medieval history. Cahill says that many historians have overlooked the Irish contribution, largely because the Irish helped transition two periods of history—the classical and medieval—without serving as a cultural force in either period. “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,” he writes.

Cahill’s book directly addresses the country’s role during this critical shift. He argues that a group of Irish monks, newly converted to Christianity, copied and preserved much of the ancient Greek, Roman, and other early Latin literature, saving it from loss and destruction in barbarian-overrun Europe and allowing future generations to learn from these priceless texts (sidenote: I've been to Trinity College in Dublin to see the Book of Kells, and it is pretty impressive). These same monks in the sixth through the ninth centuries emigrated to Dark Ages Europe and helped sew the seeds of learning and Christianity, founding monasteries that would in time become great European cities. Writes Cahill:

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, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.

And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Cahill sets the stage for the Irish contribution by reminding us of the glory that was Rome, summarizing in the first chapter much of the existing theories on how it fell. He deftly sums up the state of learning that existed at the time, religion and philosophy and political thought developed by the Greeks and incorporated and expanded upon by the Romans. Much of this knowledge was in danger of eradication after 476 A.D., the year in which Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, was deposed by the barbarians. It’s also the date after which the western Roman empire generally ceased to exist.

The Irish monks—and thus, much of classical writing—would not have existed were it not for St. Patrick, Cahill argues. Originally a Roman citizen, St. Patrick helped convert Ireland from a warlike, pagan country that still practiced human sacrifice to a more peaceful Christian society, one that fostered learning and the transmission of knowledge. Cahill admits that much of what he has written concerning St. Patrick is conjecture, but the light evidence he does provide of St. Patrick’s pivotal role is convincing.

Unfortunately, How the Irish Saved Civilization overlooks the contributions of other countries and cultures during this era, including the fact that Byzantium in the east housed a great deal of classic literature and was at least as, if not more important, in preserving the Greek and Roman traditions. The book is also rather light (218 pages, plus some footnotes and a pronunciation guide), and feels a bit like an essay or term paper padded out with background, conjecture, and opinion. Many reviewers more history-savvy than I savaged some of its omissions and conclusions over on Amazon.com.

Still, its faults aside, How the Irish Saved Civilization is an engaging introduction to a fascinating (and literally) dark period of history. Cahill is a good writer with a strong, playful voice, and How the Irish Saved Civilization is such an easy read that even those who believe that history and non-fiction are dull subjects will likely enjoy it. In the end, I think it accomplishes what primers in general are supposed to do—get you interested in reading more, and more deeply, on the subject at hand.


crazyred said...

I feel your passion! BTW, I'm enjoying working my way through your blog; great stuff!

David J. West said...

Great post, I have "How the Irish Saved Civilization", guess I need to crack it open and read it.

That and I think I know exactly how you feel about scratching that fantasy itch with ancient history.
I'm reading the Gallic War Commentaries by Julius Caesar right now and it has got some great stuff.

Brian Murphy said...

Crazyred: Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by.

David: It is worth a look--I thought it was a fun, easy read, though apparently some of its conclusions are flawed.

In one of his letters, Robert E. Howard mentioned that he wanted to write more historic fiction, but it required too much research and time (which he didn't have, due to his need to sell stories and make a living). I can't remember the exact quote, but he said that a single paragraph of history contains dozens of stories, waiting to be told, or something to that effect.

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