44 pages • 1 hour readThomas Cahill
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How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe is a popular history by Irish American author Thomas Cahill, published in 1995. The book argues that Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was instrumental in preserving the remnants of classical culture that survived in Western Europe after the Roman Empire’s demise. The book was on The New York Times Best Seller list for two years, and there are 1.3 million copies in print, according to the author's web site. Cahill earned degrees in classics and philosophy and studied Greek and Latin, which equipped him to work with historical primary sources (documents produced during the period under study).
The book received widespread praise from the popular media upon publication but was criticized by academics. For example, historian Lisa M. Bitel wrote in The Catholic Historical Review, “I cannot begin here to list all the misread texts, over-simplified historical constructs, and biases of this book, but can only kindly suggest that it is not meant to be history, but hagiography. It is, pure and simple, a traditional legend of saints" (Bitel, Lisa. Review. The Catholic Historical Review, 1997).
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This study guide refers to the 1995 edition published by Doubleday with ISBN 0-385-41848-5.
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Cahill argues that Irish monastic scribes “saved civilization” by copying and preserving the remnants of classical knowledge that survived in the West when the Roman Empire fell. The world would have lost many books were it not for their efforts. Thus, Irish Christianity played an integral role in the transition between the classical and medieval periods.
The reasons for Rome’s fall include internal political decay and external invasions by bands of Germanic speakers, including the Vandals, Suevi, Goths, and Alans. Their breach of Rome’s frontiers led to the destruction of Roman infrastructure, record-keeping, and learning. The early Christian theologian St. Augustine was one of the last persons of the classical era who produced influential work.
The Irish were not, however, destined to save classical learning. Cahill argues that the Romano-Briton (Celtic) Christian named Patricius (Patrick) “civilized” the warring and barbaric Irish while allowing their values of loyalty and courage to survive. Ireland was overwhelmingly rural prior to its Christianization. Patrick brought Roman-style urbanization to the island, but not in the traditional form. Patrick and his heirs, like Columba and Brigid of Kildare, established networks of monastic “city-states” throughout Ireland that served as centers of learning for religious men and women.
Patrick’s mission extended beyond Ireland under his successors. Columcille (latinized as Columba), for example, took Irish Christianity to Britain when he and his monks established an influential monastery on the island of Iona off the Scottish coast. Monks from Iona went on to found sister houses in the early medieval English kingdom of Northumbria. The most notable of these is Lindisfarne, where monks produced lavish manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels that synthesized Celtic, Saxon, and Mediterranean styles of manuscript illumination and decoration. The Irish mission extended to the continent under Columbanus and his monks, who established a network of religious houses that included Bobbio in Northern Italy.
The Irish and Roman churches competed and clashed in England, eventually resulting in the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE. This synod was a parliament of clerics called and overseen by the king of Northumbria. Officials from both parties argued their cases, but the Roman church triumphed when the king ruled in their favor. However, Irish monasticism’s long-term impact is substantial, for it gave rise to the Northumbrian Renaissance, a revival of classical culture that included Celtic influences and produced some of the most lavish and impressive codices of the Middle Ages. Viking raids eventually brought this era to an end as monasteries like Lindisfarne faced attacks, but many of the manuscripts that the monks copied survived the raids, “saving civilization.”
Cahill extends his analysis of Irish resilience to the modern world, observing that the Irish overcame the Normans, British colonialism, and the potato famine. He views 20th-century Irish writers like William Butler Yeats and James Joyce as embodying this determined spirit. Cahill argues that the modern Western world may fall as the Roman Empire did because of people at the southern border of the US pressing onward, much like the Germanic invaders did at Rome’s frontiers.
He concludes that the world is divided between wealthy and powerful “Romans,” those who focus on acquiring power and wealth, and “catholics, [...] universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family […]” (218). In his view, the survival of modern “civilization” depends on these universalists, or “saints,” not on the “Romans.”