Sunday, May 31, 2009

How The Irish Saved Civilization - Thomas Cahill

1995, 218 pages. Full Title : How The Irish Saved Civilization, The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. (Whew!) Genre : Non-Fiction; History. Dewey Decimal Number : 941.501 C119H. Overall Rating : B-.
I read about one non-fiction book a year; so this is my 2009 quota. Cahill's premise for the unlikely scenario of Ireland saving Western Civiization goes something like : After the fall of Rome, the barbarians took over all of Europe, plundering and pillaging and destroying libraries. People were more concerned with staying alive than reading Greek and Roman literature, and books were great for kindling a fire to keep warm. Except in far-flung Ireland, where newly converted monks went on a classic literature copying craze, at least until the Vikings showed up a couple hundred years later.
What's To Like...
Cahill builds his story nicely. He devotes a chapter to the fall of Rome; another to Saint Augustine of Hippo, another to Saint Patrick, another to the development of Irish monastic life, and the final one to those monks evanglizing all over (northern) Europe, all the while copying ancient manuscripts, and dueling to see who could paint the fanciest opening letter in a book.
If your history teacher was like mine, the Dark Ages got short shrift. Something like : "Rome fell in 476 AD. The Dark Ages hit. Charlemagne was crowned king of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. William the Conqueror defeated Harold the Saxon at Hastings in 1066 AD. "
600 years, covered in maybe one class period. Really, how much more from these 6 centuries do you remember? So HTISC cast prolonged and fresh light on a truly under-told period.
Unfortunately, Cahill never actually proves his hypothesis. The fact that the Irish monks traipsed all over barbarian-ruled Europe seems clear enough. But Cahill's assertion that they had gobs of books hanging from their belts and a passion to share them with the mainlanders requires a leap of faith.
Cahill's translations of early Irish manuscripts are fascinating. He paints them as wild and wacky folks, quite a contrast to the urbane and Romanized Augustine. OTOH, he gives four pages of Plato's philosophical mish-mosh, and they were sheer tedium.
A few notes on Thomas Cahill...
HTISC is one of a series that Cahill calls "Hinges of History", by which he means turning points that no one has ever considered before. Two other books in this series are : "The Gifts of the Jews - How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the way Everyone Thinks and Feels", and "Mysteries of the Middle Ages - The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the cults of Catholic Europe". So if you're looking for "Alternate History" in it's literal sense (not to be confused with the fiction genre with that name), Cahill's 'da man'.
I give How The Irish Saved Civilization a B-. This is good stuff if you're a History enthusiast (I am) or if you're Irish and/or Catholic (I'm not). But the book does drag in spots, and if you don't fall into any of those categories, you may want to give this a pass.


L said...

Feminism and science came from a cult? Noooooo.. His titles do seem to take alot of artistic license don't they. Even so, this book sounds fascinating.

Amanda said...

I'm not a history person, in the past I generally haven't liked stories out of Ireland for some reason, and I'm an ex-Catholic, so maybe I ought to pass. Especially because I'm not too huge a fan of nonfiction except in memoir form.

Christina said...

I know a genealogy buff who's husband is Irish and they are/were Catholics, but she says she couldn't get through this book. Monks toting around literature, makes it sound like they were the original bookmobiles. I had to swallow a lot through history, the historical need to know the dates/years of each event drove me crazy. I think if they had put in the mode of a story, I would've liked it better. I still twitch a little when I read or see something non-fictional "historical" and the corresponding dates.

hamilcar barca said...

this came recommended as an "easy read" and a "can't put it down" book. Cahill works hard to make it enjoyable, but in the end i found it "down-puttable". but maybe any history book is that way.

our local library has those other two books mentioned, and i'm tempted to see how he defines a "cult". he made an effort to present Augustine and Patrick evenly - so i'm guessing he's using the word cult as a reader-tease.

Unknown said...

Come on, give your teacher some credit. They probably also said 'And lots of people died, cause there was a big plague. Oh, and there was knights and stuff.' for the middle ages.