How The Catholic Church Saved Civilisation

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  • How The Catholic Church Saved Civilisation

    Today a lot of people knock the Catholic Church but don’t appreciate just how much we, as a civilization, owe to it. We hear the negatives, and there are some, but we don’t hear the positives.

    So this post aims to redress that in a small way with the help of a great book called Yours Is The Church…How Catholicism Shapes Our World by Mike Aquilina.

    When the Roman Empire collapsed in the west, that collapse was not just the swapping of one set of rulers for another but an economic, technological and cultural collapse. In England for example, when the Roman army left in 407AD, the country was invaded by Picts (from Scotland) and the Saxons (from Germany), followed by the Angles, the Jutes and later the Vikings. The country descended into what archeologists call the dark ages – so called because of the lack of archeological material left which meant little is known of the period. Proper writing vanished and a runic alphabet used. Houses were no longer made of stone or brick with tiled roofs but wooden posts and wattle & daub walls. Such things rotted away leaving only stains in the soil. Utensils were made of wood and so on. The situation on Continental Europe was similar.

    In 410 AD Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome itself. But the rot started well before. The peak of the Empire was in the 100s. After that one Emperor after another was assassinated. In the late 200s the average reign of an Emperor was 2 years. There were multiple claimants to the throne. Finally Constantine took over and re-united the Empire. But it was a shadow of what it had been and it had changed. Literature, which had been moribund, flourished in the Church with writers such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

    In the 400s the western empire collapsed, although for a while literature still flourished. Books were common and booksellers had large stocks. Sidonius Appolinaris describes country houses of the wealthy with books in abundance. Sidonius died in 489. Almost a century later St. Gregory of Tours was bemoaning the problems of the times said “no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters”. He writes “Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.”

    Mike Aquilina says that “Sidonius would have considered Gregory’s Latin appallingly illiterate” and yet Gregory “was the only bishop in Gaul literate enough to put pen to paper and write a book”. He continues “In one century society went from mass-market publishing to illiterate bishops”

    Cassiodorus Senator (Senator was his name not a title) lived through this steep decline from about 485 to 585. He spent time in Constantinople and when he returned to Rome after a couple of decades of fighting there he found a wreck of a country with the great country houses and their libraries abandoned. Then in 567 the Lombards invaded and began to destroy what was left.

    Cassiodorus, now very old, retired to his country estate and began a project which according to Mike Aquilina makes him one of the most important figures in the history of civilisation. He founded a monastery and built a great library and assembled all the books he could find. Then he made it one of the duties of the monks to copy the books to preserve them for the future. This library though was only of books in Latin since the knowledge of Greek was lost several centuries before.

    Aquilina writes: “It was a turning point in history. Other monasteries took up the idea, and soon copying books was one of the expected duties of a monk. Almost all we have of pagan antiquity comes to us because of the system of monastic copying that Cassiodorus invented. There would have been no Renaissance – no rebirth – if Cassiodorus had not seen the darkness falling and done what he could to keep the light burning.”

    “All through the Dark Ages, such little sparks of light flashed from monastery to monastery across the darkened face of Europe. Whenever there was any light at all in the darkness, we know it was carried there by the Church.”

    Then came Charlemagne and Alcuin of York.

    In 496 Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptised and slowly Frankish rule extended to all of what was once Gaul. In 752 Peppin became the first of the Carolingian kings of the Franks. His son was Charlemagne , who became king in 768. He wanted to rebuild the old Roman Empire, but also he wanted to revive Roman civilisation. He encouraged all his nobles to learn to read (that’s how bad things had become – reading was only for effete clerics) and he employed Alcuin of York to spread literacy. Alcuin set up a scriptorium – a writing factory, getting monks to copy all the books he could find and distribute them far and wide.

    At that time writing was in the Roman script which was all capital letters and laborious to write and difficult to decipher. According to Mike Aquilina, Alcuin developed a better script known as Carolingian miniscule. The style you are reading now developed from this and we could probably still read Carolingian miniscule. “Over and over we find that the oldest surviving manuscript of a well known classical work comes from the time of Charlemagne and is written in Carolingian miniscule.”

    I’ll finish with these final words from Mike Aquilina.
    “Alcuin could hardly have hoped to succeed as well as he did. His efforts brought classical civilisation back from the brink of extinction. And even though the world wasn’t quite ready for another great intellectual age, Alcuin gave future thinkers the materials they would build on for centuries. When that next great age of learning did come, it would owe everything to Alcuin and the monks that worked under him.”
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