The Preservation of Knowledge as Rome Fell


As the Roman Empire became Christianized, some conflicts between Greco-Roman culture and Christian values became apparent.  Examples of this were some instances of immoral behavior in the classical literature and some elements of the Aristotelian Cosmology. But in general, Christianity embraced and attempted to assimilate and harmonize this heritage with its fundamental principles. This effort, however, was disrupted by the chaos resulting from the barbarian invasions, as Rome fell first to the Visigoths (476) and then to the Ostrogoths (493). The Western empire was gradually dismembered among the waves of invaders.


Some degree of civilization was preserved in the center of the Western Empire, in the city of Rome and its environs. Some Roman officials contributed their services to the new barbarian rulers, helping to restore some order. Flavius Cassiodorus, born of an aristocratic Roman family, became praetorian prefect under Theoderic the Ostrogoth in 533.  After a career of public service, Cassiodorus retired in 550, and founded a monastery, Vivarium, on his estate in Southern Italy.  This monastery became an important center for copying manuscripts. Cassiodorus valued the classics of Latin Christian culture, because he felt that the skills of grammar and rhetorical analysis were necessary for the proper understanding of the Christian Scriptures.[1]  The Vivarium monastery did not survive long after the death of Cassiodorus (585), but some of the books from its library found their way to the Lateran library in Rome.


Another thread of culture survived through exile and refuge. A number of monks from the European continent escaping from the barbarians emigrated to the isolated haven of Ireland. Monasteries were central to the Christianity of rural Ireland, and the abbots had considerable power. The Irish monasteries became important study centers, and the copying of classical manuscripts was a well established practice at these centers.   This cultural flourishing at the Irish monasteries declined after the destructions by the Viking invaders in the eight century but their contributions were able to survive through the educational and missionary activities of the Irish monks, and they has a significant  influence on the English church. Aspiring Anglo-Saxon monks traveled to Ireland for their education until the end of the seventh century, attracted by the reputation of the Irish schools.[2]


Benedict Biscop (628-690) was a wealthy Anglo-Saxon who had spent his youth at the Northumbrian court of King Oswy as a knight. Like Cassiodrus, Benedict decided to join the monastic life.  He founded and built monasteries at Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow (682) in Northern England on land granted to him by the king of Northumbria. Benedict traveled to Italy several times, obtaining books for his monasteries.  Some of these books had originally been from the library at Vivarium.[3]  Bede (674-735), a monk at Jarrow, made significant contributions to Anglo-Saxon literature and history. Egbert, a pupil of Bede, became Archbishop of York, and through his efforts the school of York emerged as the leading educational center of England.  Aelbert succeeded Egbert as Archbishop of York, and he was the teacher of Alcuin, who in time became a central figure in the Carolingian Renaissance.


[1] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 136.

[2] Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West (Colunbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 373-374.

[3] Ibid., 378-379.


Note: For a more detailed version of this material see: Alfredo Romagosa, “The Carolingian Renaissance and Christian Humanism,Logos, Fall 2003, pp. 136-149.