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§ 138. Prevailing Ignorance in the Western Church.


The ancient Roman civilization began to decline soon after the reign of the Antonines, and was overthrown at last by the Northern barbarians. The treasures of literature and art were buried, and a dark night settled over Europe. The few scholars felt isolated and sad. Gregory, of Tours (540–594) complains, in the Preface to his Church History of the Franks, that the study of letters had nearly perished from Gaul, and that no man could be found who was able to commit to writing the events of the times.795795    In Migne’s ed., Tom. LXXIX. 159.

“Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” have become synonymous terms. The tenth century is emphatically called the iron age, or the saeculum obscurum.796796    According to the terminology of Cave and others, the 7th century is called Saeculum Monotheleticum; the eighth, S. Eiconoclasticum; the ninth, S. Photianum; the eleventh, S. Hildebrandinum; the twelfth, S. Waldenses; the thirteenth, S. Scholasticum; the fourteenth, S. Wicklevianum; the fifteenth, S. Synodale; the sixteenth, S. Reformationis. All one-sided or wrong except the last. Historical periods do not run parallel with centuries. The seventh and eighth were no better.797797    Hallam (Lit. of Europe, etc., ch. 1, § 10) puts the seventh and eighth centuries far beneath the tenth as to illumination in France, and quotes Meiners who makes the same assertion in regard to Germany. Guizot dates French civilization from the tenth century; but it began rather with Charlemagne in the eighth. Corruption of morals went hand in hand with ignorance. It is re-ported that when the papacy had sunk to the lowest depth of degradation, there was scarcely a person in Rome who knew the first elements of letters. We hear complaints of priests who did not know even the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. If we judge by the number of works, the seventh, eighth and tenth centuries were the least productive; the ninth was the most productive; there was a slight increase of productiveness in the eleventh over the tenth, a much greater one in the twelfth, but again a decline in the thirteenth century.798798    In Migne’s Patrologia Latina the number of volumes which contain the works of Latin writers, is as follows:
   Writers of the seventh century, Tom. 80—88           8 vols.

        “     ”  “  eighth        “         “    89—96           7  ”

        “     ”  “  ninth          “         “    97—130         33 ”

        “     ”  “  tenth          “         “    131-138         7  ”

        “     ”  “  eleventh     “         “    139-151        12 ”

        “     ”  “  twelfth       “         “    152-191         39 ”

        “     ”  “  thirteenth   “         “    192-217         25 ”

   None of these centuries comes up to the Nicene and post-Nicene ages. Migne gives to Augustine alone 12, and to Jerome 11 volumes, and both of these were no compilers, but original writers. The contrast between the literary poverty of the middle ages and the exuberant riches of the sixteenth or nineteenth century is still greater; but of course the invention of the art of printing and all the modern facilities of education must be taken into account.

But we must not be misled by isolated facts into sweeping generalities. For England and Germany the tenth century was in advance of the ninth. In France the eighth and ninth centuries produced the seeds of a new culture which were indeed covered by winter frosts, but not destroyed, and which bore abundant fruit in the eleventh and twelfth.

Secular and sacred learning was confined to the clergy and the monks. The great mass of the laity, including the nobility, could neither read nor write, and most contracts were signed with the mark of the cross. Even the Emperor Charlemagne wrote only with difficulty. The people depended for their limited knowledge on the teaching of a poorly educated priesthood. But several emperors and kings, especially Charlemagne and Alfred, were liberal patrons of learning and even contributors to literature.


Scarcity of Libraries.


One of the chief causes of the prevailing ignorance was the scarcity of books. The old libraries were destroyed by ruthless barbarians and the ravages of war. After the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens, the cultivation and exportation of Egyptian papyrus ceased, and parchment or vellum, which took its place, was so expensive that complete copies of the Bible cost as much as a palace or a farm. King Alfred paid eight acres of land for one volume of a cosmography. Hence the custom of chaining valuable books, which continued even to the sixteenth century. Hence also the custom of erasing the original text of manuscripts of classical works, to give place to worthless monkish legends and ascetic homilies. Even the Bible was sometimes submitted to this process, and thus “the word of God was made void by the traditions of men.”799799    One of the most important uncial manuscripts of the Scriptures, the Codex Ephraem (C), is a palimpsest (codex rescriptus), but the original text can with difficulty be deciphered, and has been published by Tischendorf (Lipsiae, 1843). See Schaff’s Companion to the Greek Testament, p. 120 sq., and Gregory’s Prolegomena to Tischendorf’s eighth critical ed. of the Gr. Test. (Leipzig, 1884), I. 366 sq.

The libraries of conventual and cathedral schools were often limited to half a dozen or a dozen volumes, such as a Latin Bible or portions of it, the liturgical books, some works of St. Augustin and St. Gregory, Cassiodorus and Boëthius, the grammars of Donatus and Priscianus, the poems of Virgil and Horace. Most of the books had to be imported from Italy, especially from Rome.

The introduction of cotton paper in the tenth or eleventh century, and of linen paper in the twelfth, facilitated the multiplication of books.800800    The oldest manuscript on cotton paper in the British Museum is dated 1049; the oldest in the National Library of Paris, 1050. The oldest dated specimen of linen paper is said to be a treaty of peace between the kings of Aragon and Castile of 1177.



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