Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Blaming the Barbarians

Here's a nice article that argues against the notion that the Church wasn't to blame for the supposedly less than Dark Ages experienced by Western Europe. Such apologias strike me as being textbook cases of misusing survivorship bias: it's absurd to say that the Church was a "protector" of classical learning simply because it held a large share of what little did survive to the modern era, seeing as the very same Church strove so tirelessly to ensure that nowhere else would any such learning survive! If the odd copy of Aristotle's work was preserved from the flames, that had nothing to do with the Church's respect for the learning of antiquity, and everything to do with a desire to preserve materials useful for narrow pedagogical purposes - all those priests had to learn what little Latin they did know from somewhere.

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.
It's worth noting that the Church's animosity towards giving the masses the means to read scripture for themselves persisted well into the modern era - older cases like those of William Tyndale aside, as recently as 1713, Pope Clement XI issued a bull called "Unigenitus", in which he made it known that allowing the laity to read the Bible in their own languages was strictly forbidden. If the Church had gotten its way, the illiterate masses would still be clinging on to every word of their semi-literate priests, taking it on gospel that the selling of indulgences was endorsed by Christ himself.

I don't want all of the above to be taken as singling out the Catholic Church for special condemnation - the Protestants were no better once they had their hands on the reins of power, as the murder of Michael Servetus by Calvinist "reformers" illustrates. The problem for the Catholic Church is that in its efforts to rid Western Europe of all competitors (aka "heretics") it proved too successful, so that when one speaks of early Christianity in the non-Byzantine part of Christendom, one necessarily speaks only of a single Church, of which the Catholic Church is the single, generally acknowledged linear descendant; what is more, the Catholic Church has not disclaimed its heritage, as indeed it cannot, for to do so would fly in the face of Papal infallibility, which is why its apologists find themselves doing all sorts of absurd rhetorical gymnastics to preserve the reputations of greedy, murderous, bigoted and lecherous Popes where Protestant factions can simply say by way of excuse "That's why we broke with Rome!"