It is commonly said that the Irish saved civilization, and this is in part truth. The idea has become especially popular with the book written 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. Cahill details the crucial point or hinge factor, where Irish monks protected and reproduced the written artifacts of Rome, managing to preserve many concepts of Roman civilization and actively continuing the spread of Christianity after the fall of Rome.
After the fall of Rome, the European world suffered onslaught after onslaught of invasions by Germanic tribes. These were primarily land invasions, so Ireland was one place that was relatively safe. Not everything could be saved in Central Europe, and written material was one of the things that frequently got lost, burned or left behind.
While this was occurring, St. Patrick’s efforts in Christianizing Ireland were being well repaid. He had set up many monasteries throughout Ireland, and the monks living there assiduously went to work copying all texts and writing some of the first illuminated manuscripts. Since these manuscripts preserved and captured the thinking of the Roman Empire, and in particular Roman Catholicism, they would later emerge to form important ways of thinking in medieval times and in the Renaissance. In this way, the Irish saved civilization, in the sense of preserving Roman Catholic civilization.
On top of preserving Roman thought, the Irish monks continued to actively work to Christianize areas that had not been reached. So not only had the Irish preserved civilization from a philosophical perspective, but they also continued to spread Christianity. Ireland became a stronghold of Christianity, though it can’t be said that Christianity had died completely in Central Europe.
Cahill’s book is an interesting one, detailing a point in history where much of philosophy was on the verge of being lost forever. An interesting point in Cahill’s book is that the early form of Irish Christianity was more humanitarian. Later, Irish Catholicism would become much more rigid, and women’s roles would be greatly diminished. Preoccupation with the sinful nature of women and their inherent corruptness largely occurred with the adoption of theories laid forth by Cornelius Jansenius Yprensis, who lived in the 16th century.
Later his theories would be considered heretical by the Catholic Church, and were called the Jansenist Heresy. But the idea of women as innately sinful and of little value took strong hold in Ireland — especially influenced by the writings of St. Augustine, which had been well preserved. Irish Catholicism became far more rigid by the 17th century, and remains one of the more rigid interpretations of Catholicism. Prior to that, Ireland’s Catholicism, and the way the Irish saved civilization arose mostly from the humanistic beliefs and principles espoused by St. Patrick.
The claim that the Irish saved civilization has to be qualified by saying they preserved especially Roman thought, which was later “rediscovered,” and influenced some of the greatest theories to emerge from the Renaissance. But civilization, with or without the Irish would have existed in some form if we had lost every Roman manuscript that ever existed. When the term civilization or the idea of civilized behavior applies only to one idea of civilization, it is a bit too exclusive. Civilization does not only imply the Roman world, but any large and coordinated group of people.