The perfect St. Patrick's Day gift, and a book in the best tradition of popular history -- the untold story of Ireland's role in maintaining Western culture while the Dark Ages settled on Europe. Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become "the isle of saints and scholars" -- and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians. 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. As Cahill delightfully illustrates, so much of the liveliness we associate with medieval culture has its roots in Ireland. When the seeds of culture were replanted on the European continent, it was from Ireland that they were germinated. In the tradition of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, How The Irish Saved Civilization reconstructs an era that few know about but which is central to understanding our past and our cultural heritage. But it conveys its knowledge with a winking wit that aptly captures the sensibility of the unsung Irish who relaunched civilization.
Too many pages of this rather short book are devoted to the fall of Rome, in which the author partly misinforms his readers. He largely follows the outdated Gibbonian Christian degeneration argument for the fall of Rome, using the prissy Saint Augustine as his key witness. This allows him to present the vibrant heathen Irish in the best of light (I have to learn more about the old Irish sagas) and turn Saint Patrick into a true hero. In an otherwise good account of the Irish saint's life, I wish he had included more information what made the Irish chieftain kings accept Christianity. The sudden spectacular conversion of most of the island remains a mystery to me.
The author also fails to develop the economic successes of the Irish monasteries. After the destruction of the Roman large estates, it was the autonomous Irish monasteries that established engines of economic growth in the wilderness. This model was developed in Ireland where civilization and trade were notable by their absence. A fortunate side effect was the creation of scriptoria that preserved many Latin texts.
The author's titular claim that the Irish saved civilization, however, is totally wrong. Firstly, can anybody today still limit the use of civilization to Western civilization? Secondly, there was the Rome that never fell, Constantinople as well as Alexandria. Many of the Latin authors also survived either via Greek or Arabian scribes. The Irish monks managed to re-establish pockets of civilization, often in remote spaces. It took others to recognize the value of what they had saved. Petrarca and the early humanists rediscovered the ancient manuscripts rotting away in the monastery libraries.
Overall, an enjoyable and highly readable account of early medieval Ireland that is somewhat flawed by the author's prejudices that flavor the text to the detriment of accuracy.
But the reason I ended up feeling the book was dubious was the actual content, starting with the title and the very premise: Irish monks saved civilization by preserving classical literature. Other reviewers have pointed out that the Western world isn't the whole of civilization. (Even as Cahill at one point conflates "the whole of the civilized world" with the Roman Empire. What about China, for instance?) And others preserved the old Latin learning. Not just in Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire remained in existence until 1453. Cahill though claims the Irish were more liberal in what they copied than those on the continent. And of the Eastern Romans, he claimed that the "literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium, but Latin literature would almost certainly surely have been lost without the Irish." I find that hard to credit. They didn't read Vergil at Constantinople?
I think part of why I also find it hard to swallow his encomium to Christianity as a preserver of classical Greek and Roman civilization is that it also did so much to destroy it. One poignant illustration of that is the fate of the works of Sappho. Cahill himself notes that among the treasures of antiquity lost were almost all her poetry. What he doesn't tell you is that her poems were preserved until nearly A.D 1000, at least according to A Book of Woman Poets, "when a wrathful church destroyed whatever it could find. In 1073 her writings were publicly burned in Rome and Constantinople by order of Pope Gregory VIII." So, I guess I wonder, why is it these "great gift-givers" of civilization didn't preserve her for us?
But Cahill doesn't give me a good answer for this, especially because so little of the book even focuses on that part of the story. We don't get to Ireland at all until Part III starting on page 71. The section that tells us how the Irish saved this learning doesn't begin until Part VI on page 145--in a book of 218 pages. Between that we get a biography of St Patrick, who Cahill claimed was "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery." And he'd be wrong by nearly a millennium--look up the "Cyrus Cylinder," called the "first charter of human rights" from the Persian king who ended the Jewish Babylonian exile--a biblical scholar such as Cahill should know better.
Other things irked me. Particularly the comparison of the barbarian "hordes" that destroyed Rome to "the Mexicans, Haitians, and other dispossessed peoples seeking illegal entry" to the United States. It's a point he repeats at the end, and seemed all the more ironic considering Cahill's condemnation of the prejudice their fellow Catholics, the Irish, experienced in America. It's not that there weren't interesting points in the book I'd like to read more about. Such as the case for Augustine's Confessions as the first real autobiography and "story of a soul" and the indomitable Brigid of Kildare, an abbess with the power of a bishop. Cahill might even be right in his take on history--but I didn't find the case presented in his book convincing.
That being said, I was sorely disappointed in the first book. To begin with, the first quarter of the text doesn't even mention the Irish except for brief allusions. Instead, he focuses on Roman history and culture. When he finally does begin to address the issues of Ireland and its people, and in particular St. Patrick (who technically wasn't even Irish), very little is devoted to the supposed subject of the book.
I was astonished to discover, by reading the chapter notes, that large portions of the book are virtually invented and are not based on scholarly research. He diverges from commonly held theories, offers very little evidence to support his own, and shows very poor scholarship. For a book that is portrayed as historical fact, these are very serious issues that the reader might not be aware of since they are buried in the notes, which aren't even referenced to in the main text.
Certainly, he brings up interesting subjects that deserve more attention. Unfortunately, they had to be culled from what can be seen as a seriously flawed book.
Experiments in Reading
My favorite part was the biography and discussion of Patrick and his assumption of and effects on Irishness.
This book tells the story of how Irish monks and scribes "saved civilization" by preserving Western literature during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman empire (5th century) and before the rise of Charlemagne in France (8th century). Cahill depicts a lively and detailed picture of the fall of Rome in the hands of the Barbarians and then proceeds to paint with loving, vivid colours the person who made it all possible: Patrick, the man who almost single-handedly "created" Ireland.
This is not an academic book. Cahill writes for the general public, keeping his books short, his verse flowing and interspersed with humour ("How these people would have loved the batmobile!") and avoiding footnotes and lengthy appendixes. This approach is a mixed blessing; Cahill's brevity makes for a fast-paced read and a good grasp of the main facts, but the cost is oversimplification of historical processes and proneness to exaggeration.
Cahill's argument on Rome's fall is quite short and a little disappointing since he brushes aside a lot of the existing scholarship that has gone into this question. He eventually settles on greed and loose morals and then poses that the values of early Christianity pulled the tatters together.
Cahill also makes an argument for early Irish peoples having a certain cultural attitude that lends itself to Christian enlightenment. Thus Ireland was a prime place for the remnants of book learned Christian monks to settle and keep the flame alive until they were strong enough to reseed England and the rest of Europe with the Greek/Roman/Christian heritage.
The big question left over is exactly what does Cahill mean by "civilization"? If he means a certain Roman Christianity version of Greek enlightenment, then yes, he might have a good argument here. But if he simply means "civilization" as in cities, with trade, philosophy, religion, agriculture, ect. then we have a bit of a problem. Were there any other places that were committed to retaining and preserving knowledge during this time? Why yes, there were. Byzantium was still going strong, as was Baghdad. In fact, the Islamic tradition was also doing basically the same thing as Cahill says the Irish monks were doing, copying and studying Greek and Roman classics. In fact, the Islamic scholars made many advancements in mathematics and medicine during this time. And if we want to extend "civilization" to include the east, then we can't forget China and South Asia too.
Overall, I think Cahill's writing style was engaging and he certianly gave me some food for thought. But as "hinge of history" he really should have called his book something like "How the Irish Helped Saved Western Civilization" instead of the sweeping generalization he posits on the book's cover.
Cahill does show how monastic culture (from Patrick through Columcille) preserved much if not the majority of literature, both secular and sacred). Apparently the Irish enjoyed copying everything! But even more than this, there was and is an attitude within the Celtic mindside that functionality through relationships is much more important and emphasized than orthodoxy through tradition.
Having not read any thing else by Thomas Cahill, I would look forward to sampling and reading his other works.