St. Patrick's Monks: Celts Copying the Classics
How the Irish Saved Civilization
A few months ago a friend asked what I was currently reading. I told him "How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill." This crusty German-American burst into laughter before I got the author’s name out and countered with "You’ve got to be kidding." When I attempted a brief explanation, all he would say was "I never heard that before." So for all who "never heard that before," I’d like to add a bit of history they can mull over their mug of Guinness.
In 401 Patricius, a sixteen-year-old Briton, was kidnapped and became a shepherd-slave in northern Ireland for a small "king" named Miliucc. The same year that he escaped to the Continent, 407, vast hordes of barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine into the Roman empire. During the rest of the century waves of barbari (barbarians) of Germanic origin overwhelmed the Roman borders.
Once "literate" had been synonymous with "Roman," but the emerging class of landowners were more likely to burn books than read them. (It was all Greek to them!) The bishops were often the only men who had libraries and their scribes the only laymen still copying out the old classics.
The Influence of St. Patrick
After his ordination in 430 A.D., Patrick went to Ireland as a missionary. He founded monasteries in northern, central, and eastern Ireland. There were no cities in Ireland then and his monasteries became centers of trade as well as knowledge. A critical element in St. Patrick’s conversion of the combative inhabitants of Ireland was his insight that he could "reimage" their myths and legends by showing a parallel between them and Christian values and concepts. (In today’s parlance, he put a new "spin" on them.) Within a generation the monks mastered Latin and Greek, recorded the Irish language, devised an Irish grammar, and recorded their native legends and tales. (This was the first time a vernacular language appeared in print.)
The Role of Monastic Scribes
Monks and scholars, noblemen and commoners alike, fled the advancing hordes and many came to Patrick’s monasteries. Respect for differences was a rule of his monasteries and of Irish hospitality. Because the Irish did not censor the pagan influences within their culture or in books smuggled in from Continent, Irish scribes copied all that came their way.
The World's Most Beautiful Books
They devised two scripts, one of which became the common script of the Middle Ages (no minuscule accomplishment). They rendered the stately letters of Greek and Roman alphabets into beautiful initial letters and headings and added spirals and designs adapted from megalithic tomb carvings. The Celts copying the classics produced the most beautiful books the world had yet seen.
One of Patrick’s most energetic monks, a man named Columcille (Columba outside of Ireland) had founded forty-one monasteries by his forty-first birthday. Each included a scriptorium and library and a guest house for the stream of visitors and scholars. In 564 Columcille became a missionary from Ireland as he departed for Iona, an island off the Scottish coast. When he died at the end of the sixth century, sixty monastic communities had been founded in his name in Scotland and each one had a scriptorium.
Saving the Classics
Monks following Colmcille’s missionary example pushed their coracles off the Scottish coast into the cold Atlantic Ocean. Many entered Continental Europe, converting the barbarians and bringing the ancient texts back to their ancient homes. By the second half of the 7th century, the Irish missionary effort was at its height. The Celts were thus the yeast in the bread of the early middle ages. The codexes (books) they painstakingly printed on the hides of sheep saved the Latin and Roman classics for subsequent generations of scholars, headmasters, and small boys with wrinkled brows.
© 2001 Patricia Doherty Hinnebusch
Artwork by Andrew Karlsen. See more at Karlsen Fine Art.
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Celebrating St Patrick's Day in Ireland
St. Patrick's Day is an event known to be celebrated throughout the world. This holiday is held in honor of the patron saint St. Patrick, who is said to have died on March 17. If you're looking to visit Ireland, you may time it so that it coincides with this day's festivities. Here are tips for you if you are planning to celebrate St. Patrick's Day authentically in Ireland:
Green is the color of St. Patrick's Day, and you can make this a more fun event if you dress up in the event's color. Wear anything green--it could be a green hat, a green shirt, or even green make-up!
Prior to your trip, research on Irish culture and familiarize yourself with their customs and traditions. It would be enjoyable to learn some Irish dances, as well, so you can participate in the locals' parties.
Visit Ireland before the festival date, as St. Patrick's Day is usually a weeklong celebration. There will be concerts, carnival events, street parades, and numerous activities all in celebration of St. Patrick. Dublin is especially known for this.
Bring an Irish flag with you and join the parade in Dublin. Expect to see creative floats and colorful costumes of different shapes and sizes. On March 17 itself, there is usually a huge party there, with lots of locals and tourists celebrating.
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