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The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part III

The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part III

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at how the Celtic Monks of Ireland saved civilization, with Part III.

Last time, we saw what a typical monastery might have looked like and what a Celtic monk might have done all day. The four words that describe his existence were: Pray. Fast. Study. Work.


Church and Tower at Glendalough Monastic Settlement, Ireland

Irish Monastic Discipline

One can see how, while living such an austere lifestyle, it might be easy, occasionally, to slip. The rules of Columbanus show us the penalties the monasteries imposed on those who strayed from the expected norm. For small infractions, the least penalty was the recitation of three psalms. After that, the penalties increased in severity, with six to a hundred lashes given on the hand using a leather strap. One could also be sentenced to long periods of fasting or silence. The worst offenses might require exile or banishment. The penalty for murder was ten years in exile, during which the offender might have to exist for a time on bread and water. Yet, despite the austere lifestyle and the penalties for straying, the monasteries grew.

The Celtic Monasteries Welcomed and Grew

Previously, we saw how the Irish monasteries grew in size and number. Some newcomers came from Ireland. Others were priests and scholars fleeing the chaos and disorder on the continent. Surprisingly, only a few individuals in a monastery were priests. Most were simple laymen. But because of the influx from all over, the monasteries grew and spread across the Emerald Isle. And when the continental refugees arrived, they brought with them the great works of Western civilization. Not just biblical works, but Plato, Socrates, Euclid, and Homer.


Page from the Book of Kells

The Celtic Monks Copied Books

One of the most important duties of a Celtic monk, for those with the aptitude, was the copying of manuscripts. And the Irish monks and their students copied everything they received—not only the Bible, but also Greek and Latin literature. They copied pagan works, mind you. The Celtic monks even recorded their own ancestral tales, such as The Tale of the Tain. Churchmen outside of Ireland disapproved of this welcoming view of non-Christian writings. But the Irish monks’ ready acceptance of all literature, no matter its religious worldview, helped to preserve the great works of western civilization.

But think what it meant to copy a book back then. Gutenberg and his printing press were hundreds of years away. Every document had to be painstakingly written by hand, dipping the quill in the ink pot several times to finish even one sentence. The copying took place one letter, one page, one book at a time. Such long, tedious work was perfect for the monk who wanted to sacrifice his life for Christ. But also good for saving literature that otherwise might be forgotten, burned by advancing barbarians, or hidden in a cache somewhere, never to be found again.

The monks copied Bibles, of course, and they did so on long-lasting vellum paper, usually made from calfskin. We note that it might have taken as many as 170 calves to provide enough vellum for one Bible. And we have qualms today about eating a single serving of veal parmigiana!

They Illuminated Books in Glorious Color

It was in Ireland where they began the custom of illuminating books with rich, colorful covers and illustrations depicting biblical events. The Book of Kells, housed in Trinity College Dublin, was created around AD 800 and includes all four Gospels in Latin. I’ve been there and seen it. It’s a remarkable work.

Thus we see how western civilization was saved. The monks began with a desire to cloister themselves from the world. They progressed to building communities of like-minded scholars. And they ended with an environment that welcomed the collection, copying, and preservation of the great works of the human mind.

Sources for this post were The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin and How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.