July 10, 2014

Who Turned Out the Lights and Who Turned Them Back On

 Monks Copying Books
An illustration from a medieval manuscript depicts monks copying books by hand in a monastery.

The Dark Ages: Who Turned Out the Lights?

Polemicists who comment on blogs often blame the Church for the Dark Ages. Actual historians know that the Dark Ages, insofar as they were dark, were darkened by the barbarian invasions that inundated the western Roman Empire, and that it was only in the Church (and in its monasteries in particular) that any light was preserved. It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest (as Thomas Cahill did in his book of similar name) that “the Irish (i.e. the Irish monks) saved civilization,” but it is certain that whatever vestiges of earlier Roman civilization managed to be saved were saved by the Church.

It was the pagan Gothic tribes sweeping down from the north and east that submerged classical Roman and Christian culture in a sea of barbarism. It was the Church that tried to preserve what learning it could, and which strove valiantly to convert them. After centuries of work it did a passable job, and it was only thanks to this that classic learning was preserved to become the foundation for later progress. On that foundation the west has built many things, including modern democracy, modern science, and the concept of human rights. But the foundation upon which they were built was a Christian one, one laid painfully and laboriously by the Church in the so-called Dark Ages. In short: it was the pagans who turned out the lights. It was the Church who kept a lamp burning, and eventually turned the lights back on again.
In all these debates about the Church and the Dark Ages, the real disagreement is not between the Church and the secularists, but between real scholars and ignoramuses.  . Real historical scholars know that the concept of “the Dark Ages” is an historical construct of fairly recent vintage, and that the Church of that period was the defender of learning and the arts.

Life and Work in Medieval Monasteries

Some of the most important work carried on during the Dark Ages was done by humble monks copying ancient manuscripts in cold, dark monasteries.

 Monk In Scriptorium

The printing press had not yet been invented and all documents were copied by hand on parchment. Scribes copied thousands of Bibles and classical works for circulation in the Christian areas of Europe. Theirs was the labor that would lift the western world out of the darkness of ignorance and illiteracy.

Fortress Protection From Viking Barbarian Attacks
Viking invasions were a major danger for the peaceful monastic communities in Europe. The scriptorium was the most important room in a monastery next to the chapel itself and for this reason, these writing rooms were often built at the top of an attack-proof fortress tower with curved walls resembling a tall cylinder. The towers were separate buildings enclosed within the walls of the compound. The monks climbed 15 to 20 feet up a ladder to the scriptorium and then pulled a ladder up after them. This made it almost impossible for the attacking warriors to reach them.

A Monastic Scribe’s Workday
After lauds, the morning prayer, each scribe entered the scriptorium and worked hunched over at a tiny table while seated on a backless stool. The desk was placed in front of a small window that provided the only available light in the room. No candles or fires for warmth were allowed because of the flammability of the parchment material. They worked in these conditions no matter how cold or wet the weather might be.

The threat of the Vikings and the perilous nature of life in the Dark Ages is brilliantly told in The Secret of the Kells, the most beautiful animated movie I've ever seen.  Variety called it "A Tour-de-Force!" and  "Absolutely luscious to behold!".    The LA Times movie critic Kenneth Turan said,  "Four Stars! Ravishing! Magical! Glorious!"  Now on dvd, it's a marvelous film for families and children. 

And then there is the engaging classic by Thomas Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

But the best is probably by Thomas Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.    You can download as a free ebook chapter 3 How the Monks Saved Civilization here.    You will learn how during a period of great turmoil as Roman rule collapsed all over Europe, Benedictine monasteries were "oases of order and peace".

"“Wherever they came,” adds still another, “they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country; they pursued the breeding of cattle and agriculture, labored with their own hands, drained morasses, and cleared away forests. By them Germany was rendered a fruitful country.” Another historian records that “every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located.
For the monks,  manual labor was a channel of grace.  "They chose the most secluded and inaccessible sites to reinforce the communal solitude of their life and partly because this was land that lay donors could more easily give the monks. Although they cleared forests that stood in the way of human habitation and use, they were also  careful to plant trees and conserve forests when possible.
They introduced new crops" "Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries—and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards."  They pioneered in the production of wine and one monk Dom Perignon is credited with the discovery of champagne.

Monks as Technical Advisors.  Cistercian monks were superb metallurgists. "In effect, whether it be the mining of salt, lead, iron, alum, or gypsum, or metallurgy, quarrying marble, running cutler’s shops and glassworks, or forging metal plates, also known as firebacks, there was no activity at all in which the monks did not display creativity and a fertile spirit of research. Utilizing their labor force, they instructed and trained it to perfection.  They explored aviation.  In the early 11th century,  a monk named Eilmer flew more than 600 feet with a glider.  Centuries later, a Jesuit priest , Father Francesco Lana-Terzi explored the subject of flight more systematically and earned the honor of being called the father of aviation.  They built the first clocks one of which from the 14th century still sits in excellent condition in the London Science Museum.

Their charitable works ranged from the monasteries themselves that served as gratuitous inns for foreign travelers, pilgrim and the poor
to the building of lighthouses, the establishment of libraries, the preservation of classic texts and the preservation of the Bible.
Above all, they built schools and were teachers  and laid the foundations for universities.  "They were the thinkers and philosophers of the day and shaped the political and religious thought. To them, both collectively and individually, was due the continuity of thought and civilization of the ancient world with the later Middle Ages."

"The monastic contribution to Western civilization, as we have seen, is immense. Among other things, the monks taught metallurgy, introduced new crops, copied ancient texts, preserved literacy, pioneered in technology, invented champagne, improved the European landscape, provided for wanderers of every stripe, and looked after the lost and shipwrecked. "

Posted by Jill Fallon at July 10, 2014 1:38 PM | Permalink