After a catastrophic collapse, not all societies re-emerge as a new civilization. The indigenous North American cultures and the Mayan civilizations, for example, virtually disappeared. A dark age, more often than not, spells death for a civilization. In this context, Europe’s history is particularly relevant because the roots of our modern world are found in efforts to preserve, reintroduce and even build upon the knowledge of a previous civilizations.
In this, Ireland lies at the heart of this story. Or as Kenneth Clark noted, “Looking back from the great civilizations of twelfth-century France or seventeenth-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time – almost a hundred years – western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish c0oast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.”
To understand how this came about, we first must turn to traditions that made the island different from much of the rest of Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. And possibly to a pagan sect known today as the Druids.
Much of what what is known about the ancient Druids comes from the writings of their enemies, the Romans, or from early Irish literature written many years after their apparent demise. The Druids themselves apparently didn’t write down any of their practices or history. As a result, according to Julius Caesar and others, the training of a Druid took many years of arduous memorization of oral teachings passed on generation to generation.
In early Irish literature the Druids were portrayed as teachers, healers, herbalists, poets, prophets, diviners, and astrologers. They also wielded political power and they exercised great authority as judges.
Caesar noted that “the Druids usually hold aloof from war, and do not pay taxes with the rest; they are excused from military service and exempt from all liabilities.” It is they who decide in almost all disputes, public and private; and if any crime has been committed, or murder done, or there is any disposes about succession or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties.”
The Druids appear to have been a distinct group of people who only procreated among themselves and lived in separate communities outside normal Celtic society where men and women Druid priest raised their children—in essence, a separate caste. Druid women were also considered equal to men in many respects, unusual for an ancient community. They could take part in wars and even divorce their husbands.
Druid religious beliefs may even have differed significantly from those held by the general Celtic population in that they believed in reincarnation, the soul living more than one life time. They must have even claimed a detailed knowledge of the workings of reincarnation, for one writer said that they allowed debts incurred in one lifetime to be repaid in the next.
According to accepted history, Christianity was brought to Ireland by St. Patrick in 432, and in the decades that followed, part of his success had to do with his integration of pagan beliefs and celebrations into Christian practice. It was because of this that many of today’s Christian trappings and celebrations have their roots in pagan practices.
The New Christianity
This helps to explain why the kind of Christianity that flourished in Ireland during the fifth and sixth centuries was very different from that practised by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. “Generally referred to as the Celtic Church,” notes historical author Graham Phillips, “its monasteries were not the cloistered, single-sex institutions favored elsewhere, but mixed-gender settlements consisting of families living in a kind of Christian commune: less like traditional monastic institutions, more like modern Amish communities. This was a matter of contention when missionaries from the Celtic Church crossed the Irish Sea and began to found their style of monasteries in Britain during the sixth century CE.”
Such monasteries, we are told, consisted wholly of priests, nuns, and monks who didn’t take oaths of celibacy. Men and women lived together in the same buildings, along with their children, and, perhaps most distasteful of all from the Roman perspective, women were even elevated to the position of abbess in charge of the entire establishment.
From what we gather from early Irish literature, the Druids had previously lived a very similar lifestyle to the people who dwelt in these Celtic Church communities.
Druids were far more than moral and religious leaders. They appear to have had a high degree of practical education. The Romans, themselves expert physicians for the time, were impressed by the medicinal skills of the Druids. Julius Caesar, for example, was amazed by how they could cure even “those smitten with the most grievous maladies.”
Discoveries of what were clearly surgical instruments found in tombs that seem to have been reserved for Druids show an astonishing degree of medical knowledge. Phillips notes, “There were saws for amputations, scalpels for surgery, various types of forceps for removing foreign objects from the body and to aid in childbirth, pliers for tooth extractions, slender needles for stitching wounds, and many more items.”
Additionally, scientific analysis of the residual contents of pots and other ceramic vessels found in such burial plots also indicate a sophisticated use of herbs. “If the kind of noxious substances found in their graves were, as seems likely, administered as remedies to be ingested or applied to wounds or abrasions, those who prepared them must have been highly skilled herbalists; otherwise they would have been little more than poisoners,” wrote Phillips. “Many of the plant extracts found in these box tombs are highly toxic, and for them to perform their curative functions, they not only needed to be prepared according to a precise and careful formula, but also required being harvested at a very specific time and from specific parts of plants, such as the seeds, roots, leaves, stems, flowers, or buds.”
It’s no wonder that the education of a young Druid took up to twenty years of oral instruction and memorization. The clear reverence for secular learning which dominated the sect appears to have been continued as a tradition in Celtic Christianity.
The missionary movement, which would take Christianity back to Europe, sprang from the monastery schools scattered across Ireland. Distinctively, these monks, educated in Ireland, were not content with theological scholarship. They wanted to translate their education into blessings for others by teaching them. They wanted to teach others.
More over, the first monasteries in Ireland were islands of modernity and technological development. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the world’s oldest recorded tidal mill to grind corn, built in CE 617 by a monastery on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, that illustrates just how radically the monks were transforming life in Ireland with technological innovation.
But as well, if it was for the monks in Ireland, writing and past culture would have been eradicated completely from Western Europe. And central to that learning were manuscripts. Soon, every monestray in Ireland had its own scriptorium where newly train scribes copied everything from scripture to the old classics.
William Marnell wrote, “Never in human history has another nation as small as Ireland done so much missionary work in so many lands over so many decades as did the Irish in what, save for them, would indeed have been the unrelieved Dark Ages.
As well as Scripture, these monks also taught the arts, languages, literature, history, the sciences and the classic writers. H. Zimmer says they “were instructors in every known branch of science and learning of the time, possessors and bearers of a higher culture than was at that period to be found anywhere on the Continent, and can surely claim to have been the pioneers—to have laid the corner-stone of Western culture on the Continent.”
And as this new brand of Christianity flourished, the seeds of a new civilization were not only planted, but found fertile ground to grow. New monasteries sprang up across Europe and they continued their efforts to improve the society around them. “One can scarcely find a significant endeavor in the advancement of civilization during the early Middle Ages in which the monks did not play a major role,” notes Thomas E. Woods, Jr. in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.
He adds that as one study described it, these monks gave “the whole of Europe… a network of modern factories, centers for breeding livestock, centers of scholarship, spiritual fevor, the art of living… readiness for social action – in a word… advanced civilization that emerged from the chaotic waves surrounding barbarity. Without any doubt, Saint Benbedict [the most important architect of Western monasticism] was the Father of Europe. And the Benedictines, his children, were the Fathers of European civilization.”
Generally, the role that the monks played in what might be called the practical arts isn’t generally appreciated. This is especially true of things like agriculture. Early in the twentieth century, Henry Goodell, president of what was then the Massachusetts Agricultural College, pointed to “the work of these grand old monks during a period of fifteen hundred years. They saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practised it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it.”
As another historian noted that “every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located.”
Woods expands even further on the role of these early monks. “Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries – and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards. Monks stored up water from springs in order to distribute them in time of drought… In Lombardy, the peasants learned irrigation from the monks, which contributed mightily to making that area so well known throughout Europe for its fertility and riches. The monks were also the first to work toward improving cattle breeds, rather than leaving the process to chanced.”
The monks pioneered the production of wine and even discovered champagne. And they were the purveyors of other medieval technology. The Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order established at Citeaux in 1098, were especially known for their technological sophistication, notes Woods. And thanks to the great network of communication that existed between the various monasteries, technological information was able to spread rapidly. For example, one finds very similar water-powered systems at monasteries that were great distances from each other.
The Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux in France put together a twelfth-century report on its use of waterpower which, says Woods, reveals the surprising extent to which machinery had become central to European life. The Cistercian monastic community ran its own factory, using waterpower for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth, and tanning.
And almost identical level of technological sophistication could be found in any of the other 742 Cistercian monasteries.
The Cistercians were also known for their skill in metallurgy. From the mid-thirteenth century through the seventeenth century, the Cistercians were the leading iron producers in the Champagne region of France, for example.
As historian Jean Gimpel points out, “The Middle Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known.”
And as yet another study noted, “In effect, whether it be the mining of salt, lead, iron, alum or gypsum, or metallurgy, quarrying marble, running cutler’s shops, glassworks, or forging metal plates, also known as firebacks, there was no activity at all in which the m0onks did not display creativity and a fertile spirit of research. Utilizing their labor force, they instructed and trained it to perfection. Monastic know-how spread throughout Europe.”
Indeed, the monks’ accomplishments ranged far beyond what most of us know. In the early eleventh century, for instance, a monk named Eilmer flew more than 600 feet with a glider, explains Woods. Centuries later, Father Francesco Lana-Terzi, not a monk but a Jesuit priest, earned the honor of being called the father of aviation after publishing a book in 1670 describing the geometry and physics of a flying machine.
Monks also had skilful clock-makers among their ranks. The first clock of which there is any record was built by the future Pope Sylvester II for the German town of Magdeburg in around the year 996. More sophisticated clocks were build by later monks.
Modern research into the extent of monastic technological advancement has found indications that in the 1530s, Rievaula Abbey in North Yorkshire, England was on the verge of developing dedicated furnaces for the large-scale production of cast iron—arguably the key ingredient that ushered in the industrial age. This development was thwarted when Henry VIII broke up the monasteries in England. So ushering in the industrial era had to wait for another two and a half centuries.