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Blaming the barbarians.

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. Cahill does, however, let fall a few hints regarding Christianity's war against learning, mentioning Pope Gregory's hostility toward non-Christian classics and St. Jerome's fear of damnation for having read Cicero. Ironically, the one concrete example Cahill gives of an actual book burning is by a pope: Honorius III's order in 1225 to torch all copies of a metaphysical work of some originality by Irish philosopher Johannes Eriugena.

By the end of the fifth century, with Christianity firmly in command as the state religion, the profession of copyist had disappeared, as had the reproduction of most secular writings. From that time until the late sixteenth century or so, the church hierarchy viewed unbridled literacy among the masses as a threat to clerical and secular order. From the seventeenth century onward, with the growing dissemination of the printed word, the guiding policy of both Catholic and Protestant churches was not to deny access to reading materials but to control what texts were read and how they were interpreted.

In sum, while depicted as the keeper of the written word, an oasis of learning amidst the brutish ignorance of the Dark Ages, the church actually was a major purveyor of that ignorance--a regressive influence in such fields as literature, art, medicine, anatomy, science, astronomy, engineering, and commerce.

The image of Rome being "sacked" by a horde of rampaging barbarians is equally misleading. In 410, the Visigoths, led by King Alaric, entered the city in an attempt to force the emperor to accept their demands for a homeland. Many Roman commoners--demoralized by the heavy taxes, corruption, and despotism of the late empire--were either indifferent to the invaders or actually welcomed them. Roman servants and slaves joined in the looting of wealthy residences and the killings that ensued. On orders from Alaric, the invaders did little damage to churches, public buildings, and the city in general. After six days, the Visigoths departed. In their short stay, they may have sacked Rome but they hardly brought down the Roman civilization.

One might even question whether the terms barbarian and civilization convey an accurate impression of the respective cultural levels of the contending sides. In the mind of the modern reader, barbarian conjures up an image of a hairy brute in animal skins. In fact, the Germanic peoples had a level of civil organization, folk culture, agriculture, and military technology that in many respects was not much less advanced than what existed to the south. Likewise, the term civilization probably suggests a higher degree of social and cultural development than was actually enjoyed by most people in the Roman empire during the fourth and fifth centuries.

Even with the subsequent takeover of Roman territory and the appearance of northern tribes along much of the Mediterranean shore, there was no major Germanic disruption of Roman civilization. As the noted historian Henri Pirenne observes, the northern peoples thought to settle themselves "in those happy regions where the mildness of the climate and the fertility of the soil were matched by the charms and the wealth of civilization." Their aim was not to disassemble the Roman Empire but to "occupy and enjoy it." What they preserved far exceeded what they destroyed or introduced anew. Nonetheless, the myth endures that it was the brutish barbarians who brought an end to a classical civilization they could not possibly appreciate.

To conclude, the Dark Ages were ushered in not by barbarians but by the fundamentalist ideologues and book burners of the church hierarchy who waged a systematic war of repression not only against the Roman classical religion and other faiths (including dissident Christian ones) but against most forms of secular learning and literacy itself.

It is not too much to say that updated versions of such fundamentalist mentality are still with us. Public criticisms of church and religion, even of events long past, are likely to invite heavy flack from the keepers of "the word." Far better, or easier, it is to blame the barbarians.

Michael Parenti's recent books are Against Empire, Dirty Truths, and Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, all published by City Lights Books.
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Title Annotation:preservation of culture after the Barbarian invasions of Rome
Author:Parenti, Michael
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1998
Previous Article:The run of whose life?
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