By the early sixth century, Western Europe had become largely
illiterate, its teachers dead, its students on the run, its libraries
turned into kindling. Ireland, however, had just settled down, thanks to
a tough old bird named Patrick, a Roman citizen raised in the province
of Britain who had been grabbed by Irish slavers when he was a teenager.
It was after his escape that Patrick resolved to seek priestly
ordination and return to Ireland to preach the Gospel.
The glories of Christianity — particularly its books — fascinated the
Irish. They came to love the Roman alphabet that Patrick and his
successors taught them, as well the precious illuminated manuscripts
that he presented to them. There was indeed nothing in their
intellectual heritage to block their receptivity to the Christian faith.
There was also nothing in their heritage to draw them to master the
intricacies of the Greco-Roman tradition. This turned out to be a stroke
of luck, for the ancient Irish never embraced classical cynicism or the
gloomy Greco-Roman sense of fatedness.
Instead, they remained in many ways remarkably unjaded, full of
wonder at the unexpectedness of human life. “Well, the heart’s a
wonder,” says Pegeen Mike in John Millington Synge’s comedy “The Playboy
of the Western World.” It was a sentiment first articulated by
Patrick’s converts, who put down their weapons and took up their pens.
They copied out the great Greco-Roman books, many of which they didn’t
really understand, thus saving in its purest form most of the classical
The Irish fanned out across Europe, salvaging books wherever they
could, making copies, reassembling libraries and teaching the newly
settled barbarians of the continent to read and write.
But they did more than this: they managed to infuse the emerging
medieval world with a playfulness previously unknown. In the margins of
the books they copied, the Irish scribes drew little pictures, thickets
of plants, flowers, birds and animals. Human faces occasionally peek
through the tangle, faces of childlike delight and awe. If you were a
scribe copying out some especially ponderous philosophical Greek, the
margin in which you could reflect on your own world served as a source
of “refreshment, light and peace,” to quote the ancient Latin liturgy. —Thomas Cahill, NYTimes