Saturday, July 09, 2016


Dark Ages

Denys L. Page (1908-1978), introduction to Euripides, Medea. The Text Edited with Introduction and Commentary (1938; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. xlii:
The lamp of learning burned fitfully and low, but was never quite extinguished. Even the darkest age of ignorance and confusion produced a Stobaeus. Neither the hostility of the Church nor the indifference of the State could utterly subdue the scholar's enthusiasm. Early in the sixth century there sat on the thrones of the Western and Eastern empires a king and an emperor who could neither read nor write. The rise of Goths and Tartars throughout the Roman world from the gutter to the throne, the destruction of libraries by choleric and fanatical popes and emperors, were unfavourable to the progress but not entirely fatal to the preservation of literary studies. The sensitive Roman must have blushed to ponder that while Justinian was closing the schools of Athens, Nushirvan was diligently translating the most celebrated writers of Greece into what Agathias impudently called 'savage and unmusical Persian'; and that while a Saracen caliph of Baghdad was making Arabian versions of Greek science and medicine, three Roman emperors within one hundred years were receiving and deserving the nicknames Rhinotmetus, Copronymus, and Infelix.
A nice purple patch, worthy of Gibbon.

From Neil O'Sullivan:
Consider the phrase:
the destruction of libraries by choleric and fanatical popes
Let's ignore the adjectives, but is there any evidence for the destruction of any library by any pope? We expect them to burn individual works by heretics, and to ignore unhelpful pagan books, but what evidence is there that they destroyed whole libraries of pagan literature - or even a single pagan work - which is what Page means here? Sensible discussion of similar myths in the eminently learned and useful Scribes & Scholars, by L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson (OUP, now in its 4th ed. 2013), chap.2.ii 'The Christian Church and classical studies'.

B.L. Ullman, Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 2nd ed. (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1973), p. 60:
Another mediaeval story was that the missing books of Livy had been destroyed by Pope Gregory the Great. The motive attributed to him was that Livy's style was so alluring that it kept the reader from becoming acquainted with the severer charms of sacred literature. Sicco Polenton acutely disposes of this canard by asking why Gregory should have destroyed books which contained no attack on the Christian religion and not the entire work while he was at it.10

10 In his Scriptorum illustrium Latinae linguae libri, p. 182.
There is thin evidence of destruction of pagan books by a bishop, if not a pope. See Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry, Bishop of Gaza, 71 (tr. G.F. Hill):
And after this, search was made in the houses also (for there were many idols in most of the courts), and of those which were found some were given to the fire and others were cast into the jakes. And there were found also books filled with witchcraft, which they called sacred, out of which they of the idol-madness performed their mysteries and other unlawful things. And unto these was done even as unto their gods.
But this refers to magical handbooks, not works of classical literature. Thomas Werner, Den Irrtum liquidieren: Bücherverbrennungen im Mittelalter (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), is unavailable to me.

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