In The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman examines the collapse of our contemporary culture. In Chapter Two, “The Monastic Option,” he reminds us of what the collapse of the western Roman Empire looked like (pp. 71-76). He then shares with us the creative response to this collapse made by monks and monasteries (77-87).
By AD 400, the western Roman Empire was experiencing irreversible societal and cultural collapse. It was marginal monks and monasteries, primarily outside the collapsing empire in what is now Ireland, that, strangely enough, started to collect and copy classical culture’s best manuscripts.
From there, knowledge of classical learning spread slowly to what is now Scotland and northern England. Columba (521-597) started monasteries at Derry (ca 540) and Iona (563). A monk named Aidan (ca 590-651) left Iona and started a new monastery and center of learning on the island of Lindisfarne in 635. An impressive library at a monastery in Jarrow, about 63 miles (100 km) south of Lindisfarne, allowed Bede, “the Venerable” (ca 672-735), to write an impressive Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731).
From Britannia, monasteries with their treasures of classical culture started returning to former Roman lands. In the 600s, for example, over two hundred new monasteries were started in Gallia. Thousands of young men were drawn by the meaning of these new centers of worship and learning and joined them.
At these monasteries, experiments were done with the design and publication of books. Monks devoted themselves to making copies of existing manuscripts for wider distribution and eventually libraries developed. Exquisitely illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (ca 700) and Book of Kells (ca 800), were created. The classical curriculum of trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) was taught. “‘Set like islands in a sea of ignorance and barbarism, [monasteries] saved learning from extinction in Western Europe at a time when no other forces moved toward that end’” (Charles Homer Haskins, 78).
This preservation of classical culture was not, however, the primary purpose of monasteries. To help us understand that purpose, Morris provides more details about the collapsing cultural context of these monasteries.
First, we might characterize the period between the fall of Roman Civilization after AD 400 and the rise of Latin Christian Civilization by 800 as a period of transition. As in all such transitions, some old Roman elements persisted even as new Latin Christian ones developed.
Second, the process of selection was random. Which old elements persisted and new ones developed was not based on reason or intention but chance. John Scotus Erigena (ca 815-ca 877), a brilliant scholar, rose from obscurity to be honored by Charles, king and grandson of Charlemagne, only to leave no disciples and return to obscurity after his death. Why did his works fail to gain enduring significance? Chance.
Third, while monks and monasteries did preserve texts expressing a classical point of view, they did not, in fact, share that point of view. The emerging Latin Christian type of society, culture, and personality differed distinctly from those which had preceded them. The new Latin Christian personality, for example, lacked as clear a perception of individuality. It lacked the critical-thinking skills that clearly-defined personalities might use to analyze an argument. Finally, it lacked a sense of individual purposefulness expressed through the selection and pursuit of individually unique goals.
This lack of subjective awareness expressed itself in different ways. Following a sin or injurious act, penance meant behaving in a way that put things right rather than searching one’s soul for the reason one acted injuriously. In ancient days, theologians like Tertullian (ca 155-ca 240) or Augustine (354-430) might write of their unique religious experiences, but Latin Christian personalities didn’t. Faith was intellectual affirmation of church dogma and participation in church rituals. Following a crime, a criminal was punished for their action without regard for their intention.
“As a result, [monasticism’s] contribution to the renaissance of the twelfth century and beyond, although real, is nevertheless murky” (79).
What we find between 500 and 1100, then, is a transition from the old Roman to the new Latin Christian Civilization, with old and new elements selected randomly, but with new elements definitely coalescing into a distinctly different type of society, culture, and personality.
The gradually dominant new culture of those centuries valued intellectual repetition over creation. It valued a listing of the key thoughts of the Church Fathers with an affirmation of them over any questioning of those thoughts or need to create new ones. In this way, what is referred to as the Carolingian renaissance (770-850) was in fact a “continuation of a patristic tradition (namely, that of the Church Fathers), not a truly original episode” (80).
Nonetheless, the old Roman texts were preserved. Because they were, the Benedictine abbot Guibert of Nogent (ca 1055-1124) could write his autobiography (1115). He could demonstrate an awareness of self that had remained unexpressed for centuries. He could even affirm that he stood with Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose autobiographical Confessions (ca 400) endures to this day.
Morris believes that the renaissance of classical culture in the 1100s began with the more classical appreciation of individual uniqueness exemplified by Guibert’s autobiography. From around 1050, for example, judges started to consider the subjective intention of a criminal as well as their objective behavior. Thinkers began to be labelled heretics because they questioned inherited dogmas. Troubadours started to celebrate romantic relationships between distinct individuals. Mirrors reappeared. Artists started to portray the unique features of individuals once again. Individuals started to examine their conscience, motivations, and goals. Personal voluntary commitment regained importance.
No one knows why this reaffirmation of the self occurred. Certain other developments, however, did happen at the same time. Cities reemerged with the development of inter-urban trade. A middle class and important new patrons of the arts reappeared for the first time in centuries. New demands for expertise in law and medicine—and in the Latin needed to understand them—led to the development of universities. It also fed the ambition of individuals seeking to master new knowledge, develop new skills, and enjoy new occupations and lifestyles.
This early renaissance of classical society, culture, and personality was not the intention of the monks in monasteries who so carefully preserved the literary gems of the classical age. Yet without that preservation, such a new beginning would have been impossible.
Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
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