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The Medieval Monks as Preservers of Western Civilization
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-03-24 09:58:26
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The term “Dark Ages” was once erroneously applied to the entire millennium separating late antiquity from the Italian Renaissance (500-1500 AD). Today scholars know better. There is a widespread acknowledgment among them (see David Knowles’ The Evolution of Medieval Thought, London: Longman, 1988)) that the 14th century i.e., the century of Dante and Petrach’s Humanism, not only was not part of the Dark Ages but was the essential precursor of the Italian Renaissance. It was the century when ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts preserved in monasteries were discovered and read and discussed once again thus paving the way for the Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity which in synthesis with Christianity produces a unique civilization.

Scholars have also become aware that the High Middle Ages (the first three centuries of the second millennium) were far from dark and intellectually retrograde. Those were the centuries of the cathedrals which still stand there as monuments to an incredibly complex and enlightened civilization, despite the designation of “gothic” as a disparaging statement by Voltaire. As the founder of the European Union Robert Schuman used to quip: “I never feel as European as when I enter a cathedral.” That statement is quite a mouthful in itself and throws light on the fact that those centuries shaped the very identity of Modern Western European civilization. We ignore them at the risk of forever losing our cultural identity which, even for Americans, is rooted in Western Europe.

But there is more; scholars keep pushing further back the designation “Dark Ages” and have now excluded from it the eight, ninth and tenth centuries (the era of the so called Carolingian Renaissance, from 700 to 1000 AD). So the dubious distinction of Dark Ages properly speaking belongs to the sixth and seventh centuries (500 to 700 AD) which indeed were centuries of meager fruits in education, literary output and other cultural indicators. Those were the centuries of cultural retrogression, the centuries of the Barbarian invasions in Italy and elsewhere which effectively wrecked Roman civilization as we know it. Those invasions destroyed cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, institutions such as law, government you name. It was in fact the Church that stepped in the vacuum and maintained a modicum of order within a crumbling civilization. As Christopher Dawson aptly writes: “The Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the Gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honorable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice.”

How was this accomplished? By the establishment of Western monasticism by St. Benedict of Nursia at Montecassino Italy (some fifty miles south of Rome) in 529 AD. St. Benedict’s immediate intention was not to do great deeds for European civilization but that is what indeed happened. At its height the Benedictine order boasted 37,000 monasteries throughout Europe. No wonder St. Benedicts has been declared the patron saint of Europe and the present Pope assumed his name at its elevation to the Papacy.

Besides praying and working out their salvation and preaching the gospel, what else did monks pursue in those monasteries? The practical arts, agriculture being a significant one. They literally saved agriculture in Europe. They taught the folks how to cultivate the land, especially in Germany where they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country. Manual labor was intrinsic part of their rule which proclaimed “ora et labora” (pray and work). In England they owned one fifth of all its cultivable land. The monks would introduce crops, industries and production methods with which the people were not familiar: the rearing and breeding of cattle, horses, the brewing of beer, the raising of bees and fruits. The corn trade in Sweden was established by the monks, in Parma it was cheese making, in Ireland salmon fisheries, and in many places vineyards.

From the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin the monks redirected the waters of St. Gervais and Belleville to Paris. They taught people irrigation on the plains of Lombardy which has always been some of the richest and most productive in Europe. They constructed technologically sophisticated water-powered systems at monasteries which were hundred of miles away from each other. The monasteries themselves were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe. Water-power was used to crush wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth, and tanning. Not even the Roman world had adopted mechanization for industrial use to such an extent.

The monks were also known for their skills in metallurgy. They became the leading iron producers in the Champagne region of France in the 13th century. They quarried marble, did glass-work, forged metal plates, mined salt. They were skilful clock-makers. One such clock installed in Magdeburg around 996 AD is the first ever. One such sits in excellent condition in London’s science museum. They also made astronomical clocks. One such was at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Alban; it was designed by Abbot Richard of Wallingford. In short monastic know-how pervaded Europe and allowed it not to revert to complete barbarism.

But there was one occupation of the monks which, perhaps more than any other, helped in the preservation of Western Civilization: that of copying ancient manuscripts. I’d like to focus on it for the second part of this article. It begins in the sixth century when a retired Roman senator by the name of Cassiodorus established a monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and endowed it with a fine library wherein the copying of manuscripts took center stage. Thereafter most monasteries were endowed with so called scriptoria as part of their libraries: rooms where ancient literature was transcribed by monks as part of their manual labor.

The other place where the survival of manuscripts was a priority were the schools associated with the medieval cathedrals. It was those schools of medieval times which lay the groundwork for the first University established at Bologna Italy in the eleventh century. The Church had already made some outstanding original contributions in the field of philosophy and theology (the various Church fathers among whom Plautinus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Don Scotus) but she was also saving books and documents which resulted indispensable later on for preserving Western civilization.

The best know of those scholars of the Dark Ages was Alcuin, a polyglot theologian who worked closely with Charlemagne to restore study and scholarship in the whole of West-Central Europe. In describing the holdings of his library at York he mentions works by Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Pliny, Statius, Trogus Pompeius, Virgil. In his correspondence he mentions Horace, Ovid, Terence. And he was not alone. The abbot of Ferrieres (c. 805-862), Lupus, quotes Cicero, Horace, Martial, Seutonius, and Virgil. The abbot of Fleury (c. 950-1104) demonstrated familiarity with Horace, Sallust, Terence, Virgil.

The greatest of abbots after Benedict, Desiderius, who eventually became Pope Victor III in 1086 personally oversaw the transcription of Horace and Seneca, Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and Ovid’s Fasti. His friend Archbishop Alfano (also a former monk at Montecassino) was familiar with the works of ancient writers quoting from Apuleius, Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Varro, Virgil. He himself wrote poetry imitating Ovid and Horace. Saint Anselm, as abbot of Bec, commended Virgil and other classical writers to his students.

The other great scholar of the so called Dark Ages was Gerbert of Aurillac who later became Pope Sylvester II. He taught logic but also ancient literature: Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Persius, Terence, Statius, Virgil. Then there is St. Hildebert who practically knew Horace by heart. Thus it is a great fallacy to assert that the Church encouraged the destruction of ancient pagan culture. To the contrary she helped preserve that culture which would have otherwise been lost.

There were monasteries, moreover, which specialized in other fields of knowledge besides literature. There were lectures in medicine by the monks of St. Benignus at Dijon, in painting and engraving at Saint Gall, in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic in certain German monasteries. Some monks after learning all they could in their own monastery would then travel to other monastic schools established during the Carolingian Renaissance. For instance Abbot Fleury went on to study philosophy and astronomy at Paris and Rheims.

Montecassino, the mother monastery, underwent a revival in the eleventh century which scholars now consider “the most dramatic single event in the history of Latin scholarship in the 11th century” (see Scribes and Scholars by L. D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, 1991). Because of this revival manuscripts which would have been forever lost were preserved: The Annals and Histories of Tacitus, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The Dialogues of Seneca, Varro’s De Lingua Latina, Frontius De Aquis and thirty odd lines of Juvenal’s satire that are not found in any other manuscript in the world.

The devotion to books of those monks was so extraordinary that they would travel far and wide in search or rare manuscripts. St. Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth monastery in England, traveled widely on five sea voyages for that purpose. Lupus asked a fellow abbot permission to transcribe Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars and asked another friend to bring him Sallust’s accounts of the Catilinarian and Jugurthan Wars, the Verrines of Cicero and De Republica. He borrowed Cicero’s De Rhetorica and wrote to the Pope for a copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintillian’s Institutiones, and other texts. Gerbert assisted another abbot in completing incomplete copies of Cicero’s and the philosopher Demosthenes. A monk of Muri said it all: “Without study and without books, the life of a monk is nothing.” So, we would not be far off the mark in asserting unequivocally that Western civilization’s admiration for the written word and the classics of antiquity have come to us via the Catholic Church which preserved them through the barbarian invasions.

Although education was not universal, many of the nobility were sent to monastery schools to be educated. One such as Thomas Aquinas who was educated by the monks of Montecassino before joining the Dominican order. St. Benedict himself instructed the sons of Roman nobles. St. Boniface established a school in every monastery he founded in Germany; the same was done by St. Augustine and his monks in England and St. Patrick in Ireland. Irish monasteries developed as great centers of learning and transcription of manuscripts.

It was the monk’s commitment to reading, writing, and education which ensured the survival of Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the Barbarians. They laid the foundations for European universities and became the bridge between antiquity and modernity. Without them, we might still be running in the forests merely looking for survival. The above is a mere cursory survey of a vast subject but I hope that some readers may be inspired to pursue it further.

A final footnote may be appropriate here. Here it is for all it’s worth. The monastery of Montecassino was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The last time it was destroyed it was not by the barbarians but by super-civilized, super-enlightened modern man. It was raised to the ground by American bombers in 1944 under order of an English general. The strategic objective was to dislodge the Germans who were thought to have taken refuge in the monastery (but were not).

The result was that the Germans found the ruins of the monastery a more ideal place from which to continue to fight. When one reflects that few if any of those bombers had ever read Virgil or Seneca and were aware of the cultural wealth they were destroying, one begins to wonder if Vico’s saying about the “barbarism of the intellect,” which he considered more sinister than physical material barbarism (and which expresses itself as disparagement for books and culture in general) is an appropriate designation for such a sad event. Be that as it may, the monastery, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, is now rebuilt as a replica and it is there beckoning the busy traveler on the autostrada del sole to an oasis of peace and reason, beauty and truth. Check it out. It may surprise you.

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Sand2008-03-24 10:47:43
Another view can be found at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=41

AP2008-03-24 11:42:38
"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 (...) 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."

AP2008-03-24 11:46:23
Knowing the Catholic church as I do, and having asked for advice to the family's Historians, I think your vision is a bit too romantic, Mr. Paparella.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-24 12:53:27
Obvioulsy the facts mentioned in the article do not impress you, Ms. Pereira, and yet, the monastery of Montecassino is there with its cultural treasures of pagan antiquity awaiting your visit. Those treasures were saved once again by the Catholic Church in 1944, when the Germans agreed to a truce to have them transported to the Vatican before the fighting for the hill resumed and the modern barbarians utterly destroyed the monastery. As I said, check it out, it may surprise you and may even begin to make you suspect that your views on the role of the Catholic Churhc vis a vis antiquity may be slightly biased, for whatever reason. Suffice to say that there would have been no Renaissance had not been some preservation of Antiquity despite the barbarians' invasions and destructions.That would have made it much harder to convince the modern barbarians of the intellect to respect the earth and love thei neighbors in the concrete and not only in the abstract and universal.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-24 13:25:00
"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 (...) 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."

This whole passage is lifted, without naming the author, from Christopher Orlet's article titled "How the Humanists (not the Irish)saved Western Civilization" which happens to be the very same that Mr. Sand advised the readers to read. It would appear that birds of a feather flock together.

Be that as it may, the fallacy of the article whose bias is apparent from the first paragraph since Augustine, the most educated in the classics of the Church Fathers is made into a book burner of sort) is this: the Humanists would have saved absolutely nothing of Antiquity had they not found the copied books in the monasteries. There would have been no rise of Universities (the first one in Bologna in the 11th century) had there not been ancient culture preserved in monasteries; the University grew out of the Cathedral School where Abelard taught by the way. Of course to the modern barbarian of the intellect the word humanist conjures up atheism and therefore he prefers it to "monk." Funny, the vast majority of humanists were in fact Christians.

Sand2008-03-24 17:36:39

presents an interesting point of view

AP2008-03-24 20:00:13
But one doesn't need to be a Christian to be a humanist. That's my point. You run the risk of tapering things a bit if you emphasize just that so much.

Sand2008-03-24 20:37:26
The problem, I fear, is somewhat different. Paparella seems to feel that one is automatically a humanist if one is a Christian.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-25 10:36:46
The problem is actually a bit deeper and comes to the fore as one strolls in the Vatican museum whose treasures are at least 50% dedicated to antiquity and non-Christian works of art under the premise that Nothing human is foreign to a Church that belongs that God became human. The modern barbarian of the intellect may go to the Vatican museum and learn nothing from that premise since he has reduced his humanity to the level of a roach. Having degraded his humanity it is doubtful he will learn much even from a musuem of natural history or cosmology.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-25 10:39:06
Errata above: belongs = believes.

Sand2008-03-25 12:37:47
What could elevate a weak ego more than a snotty condescension to all other living creatures because of a psychotic assumption of an close relationship to an imaginary god?

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-25 18:23:16
Far from a snotty condenscension, St. Francis of Assisi revered animals as also God's creatures, even talked to them and on his feast the Church allows animals in church for a blessing but the cynical barbarian of the intellect will find some snotty retort even for that because in reality he considers nothing sacred. Just watch the knee-jerk reaction. It is more than predictable. Indeed, it is those who consider themselves the solution that are often enough integral part of the problem. The rationalistic Englightenment remains to enlighten itself.

Sand2008-03-25 19:00:17
Sorry, Paparella, I am not concerned about historical characters. I'm talking about you.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-25 22:23:24
As mentioned, quite predictable. Argumenti ad hominem seem to be your only intellectual instrument, as has become rather obvious in this forum. As Shaw put it: and the pig loves it...Pity!

Sand2008-03-26 05:10:03
When I merely require a direct and honest answer from you regarding your personal responsibility for your attitudes you are sure to accuse me of insulting you. This is obviously an indication of how scurrilous those attitudes are.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-26 10:10:42
Your Grand Inquisitor of the FSM Church's requirements are indeed grandstanding worthy of a Chaplin if not exactly a sign of somebody who has a firm grip on reality. What is scurrilious Mr. S. are not so much your egregious insults against me who is merely amused by them, but your congenital slanderous bashing and basic obsessive unfairness toward an institution of which you obviously know precious little about except the usual shabby and rather juvenile negative cliches. As I said, birds of a feather flock together. You must have been netting quite a few high fives and guffows lately.

Sand2008-03-26 13:40:26
Don't judge others by yourself, Paparella. I am not playing to an imaginary crowd. I am dealing merely with a poor confused individual who believes he can fend off requests for integrity and honesty by flinging irrelevant and unfounded insults based on imaginary non-existent happenings.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-26 18:16:23
I am intrigued: since you don't believe in any ultimate authority, on what authority do you make your insistent and obsessive requests for integrity and honesty. Ever heard of "projection," a phenomenon in psychoanalysis discovered by Jung? I am afraid it will not do any good in looking it up in your dictionary. It is stearing in your face but somehow it must be invisible to you.

Garrett Propes2021-06-29 01:11:09
Lovely Article. Thank You!

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