When most people think of Saint Patrick’s Day, they think of shamrocks, green beer, and parades. When I think of Saint Patrick, I think of monks, monasteries, and manuscripts.
You may be surprised to learn that, if not for Saint Patrick and the monks and missionaries that followed him, civilization as we know it may not exist.
To understand this, we need to look back 2,000 years to appreciate the impact of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire
Long before the birth of Saint Patrick, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world. At its peak, the empire reached from Britain into most of Europe and extended into the Middle East and North Africa.
While the Romans, like the Greeks before them, relied heavily on an oral tradition, they were also literate people. An empire the size of Greece or Rome needed written laws and codified business practices. Thus, the Greeks and Romans kept excellent written records. These were written on clay and wax tablets, and on papyrus. Here’s a section of Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians.
In addition to record keeping, the Romans were big on libraries. The first public library in Rome, established by Asinius Pollio in the Atrium Libertatis, was bilingual, containing both Greek and Latin texts. It also held portrait busts of authors and served as a museum for works of art in general. These libraries could be found throughout the empire.
In 2018, archaeologists unearthed what may be the oldest library in the Roman Empire’s northwest provinces. The library’s remains were discovered in the middle of Cologne, Germany. Researchers think the library dates to the middle of the second century, around the same time the Romans built the library at Ephesus.
Rome’s Public Libraries
A visitor to a Roman library would quite likely find a copy of Rome’s newspaper, the Acta Diurna, (translated Daily Acts) which contained public notices hand-written, on sheets of papyri.
Or a visitor may pick up be a copy of Assemblies of Aesopic Tales, stored within the niches of the library’s walls. With this book, they could entertain and educate their children with stories about The Grasshopper and the Ant, The Fox and the Grapes or The Tortoise and the Hare.
If a visitor was interested in philosophy, they might pick up a work by one of the most prolific writers of ancient Rome, the brilliant Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. It was Cicero who introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy. He wrote political essays as well as books on ancient philosophy. Here’s a 5th century bilingual, Latin and Greek, papyrus of a Ciscro speech.
The influence of the works of Aesop and Cicero, along with other Greek and Roman authors, on western civilization cannot be overemphasized. These ancient works were so important that, once Gutenberg perfected printing, they were some of the first books printed.
In 1480, Lorenzo de Medici, de facto ruler of the Republic of Florence, commissioned a special volume of Aesop’s Fables for his young son, Piero. This is one of the first known examples of the fables being printed specifically for a children’s audience.
n 1484 Englishman William Caxton published the first English-language copy of Aesop’s Fables, illustrated with woodcuts. Caxton translated the fables into English from a French translation of the works. You can see a page from Caxton’s book here.
The first extant book printed in Italy was Cicero’s De oratore. It was printed by two clerics, Konrad Sweynheym from Mainz and Arnold Pannartz from Cologne. The two traveled to the ancient Benedictine monastery at Subiaco, in the mountains east of Rome. There, in 1465, they produced the book and taught some of the monks at the monastery how to print. Some historians believe Sweynheym may have worked with Gutenberg from 1461-1464 while living in Eltville, Germany.
Cicero’s importance was again emphasized with Sweynheim and Pannartz’s publication of the 1468 edition of Cicero’s Epistulae ad Familiares. It was at this time that the two printers developed a unit of measurement for typography called a cicero. It’s just a little larger than a pica. Printers in Italy, France, and other continental European countries continued to use this measurement for many years.
You may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with Saint Patrick? Well, the patron saint of Ireland was a Roman citizen of Britain. And, living in the 5th century A.D., he witnessed first hand the slow fall of the western half of the Roman Empire.
When the Empire fell, barbarian tribes such as the Visigoths, Angles, Saxons, Franks, and others took turns ravaging the Empire and Europe entered the Dark or Early Middle Ages.
Things were different in Ireland, though. Through his missionary work, Saint Patrick instilled a sense of literacy and learning in the people. This created the conditions that allowed Ireland to become “the isle of saints and scholars.” According to Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Patrick’s impact on Ireland was impressive.
“As the Roman Empire fell…unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature — everything they could lay their hands on,” writes Cahill.
As one of the most successful Christian missionaries in history, Saint Patrick established Ireland’s first monasteries. In these monasteries were pious and self-disciplined monks who made it their mission to copy all forms of literature, sacred and secular.
The most famous example of the monks’ rich legacy is the 1,200-year-old Book of Kells. This spectacularly illuminated manuscript of the Gospels can be found today in Dublin’s Trinity College. Its decorations and calligraphy have earned it the reputation as the world’s most beautiful book.
So, as the barbarians ravaged most of Europe, patient scribes in Ireland labored for centuries in their scriptoriums, small rooms devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts. These monks, inspired by Saint Patrick, and others who followed including Saint Columba, copied Greek, Roman and Jewish classics as well as Christian texts. They preserved the works of Homer, Virgil, Demosthenes, Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle. Without these monks, all would have been utterly lost to posterity.
If not for the work of these Irish monks, there would have been no Aesop’s Fables for Caxton to print. Sweynheim and Pannartz would have none of Cicero’s works to publish. And civilization, as we know it may not exist.
So the next time you lift a pint of green beer to your lips, take pause and thank Saint Patrick and the monks of Ireland for preserving Western culture by safeguarding the texts of the ancient world.