July 10, 2006

Quomodo Hibernici Humanitatem Conservaverunt

I’d been wanting to read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization for some time. Although I’m a medievalist, I’m not a Celticist, so this was quite an interesting read for me. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I was of course quite aware of the important influence of Irish monasticism — Bede, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, admits so in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Cahill’s essential argument is that the Irish were instrumental in preserving and transmitting classical culture and learning (including Christianity) from the ancient world of Rome (and to some extent Greece) to the medieval world and thus the modern world. As he argues, ‘Civilization’ just manages to hang on on the very edge of the world which was overrun by barbarians. I did find that his opinion of late Roman culture was unfortunately low. He didn’t seem to think much of late Latin writers like Statius and the Gallo-Roman writers. But this is a common opinion, even if not entirely justified.

Much of the book is concerned with the story and importance of Saint Patrick, the details of which I was only partially aware of. As chance would have it, I was reading the book at a very oportune time as I started it just before Saint Patrick’s Day. As Cahill points out, the Irish don’t always receive the recognition they deserve in the course of Western history. As a medievalist, I was already aware of the importance of the Irish, but I do imagine that outside of such circles, their contribution is not so well known.

I find Cahill’s writing very captivating. His telling of the stories is quite moving, and his analysis, even if one doesn’t always agree, is very thought provoking. Just today I finished reading the second book in his Hinges of History series, The Gifts of the Jews, which I enjoyed maybe even more, perhaps because I knew less about the topic — I’ll write more about that one later. I would certainly recommend the series to anyone with an interest in history and culture. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend starting with How the Irish Saved Civilization or The Gifts of the Jews — I think both would work. All in all, a fascinating series of books about the foundation of Western culture.

Posted by Mark at July 10, 2006 09:46 PM | TrackBack

Hi Mark,
It’s Matt (Aven’s cousin Vivien’s fiancee). Aven sent me the link to your blog, since you talk about things of more immediate interest than knitting!

How the Irish Saved Civilization: that’s fascinating—were there many Irish Neoplatonists? It also reminds me of that episode of Family Guy where Peter traces the Griffin family history back to Ireland, and it shows that scene of Irish about to transform their entire population into pure energy; before the discovery of whiskey, that is. :)


Posted by: Matt Dinan at July 11, 2006 07:42 PM