From Egypt to Ireland

Not only are the Roman provinces gone, the whole subtle substructure of Roman political organization and Roman communication had vanished. In its place have grown the sturdy little principalities of the Middle Ages, Gothic illiterates ruling over Gothic illiterates, pagan or occasionally Arian – that is, following a debased, simpleminded form of Christianity in which Jesus was given a status similar to that of Mohammad in Islam.

The Irish did not especially mean to be deviant, but their world hardly abounded in models of Christian orthodoxy. After Patrick, they experienced an influx of anchorites and monks fleeing before the barbarian hordes, and these no doubt provided them with some finer points on eremitical and conventual life. “All the learned men on this side of the sea,” claims a note in a Leyden mansuscript of this time, “took flight for transmarine places like Ireland, bringing about a great increase of learning” – and, doubtlessly, a spectacular increase in the number of books – “to the inhabitants of those regions.” But not a few of these men were bone-thin ascetics from such Roman hinterlands as Armenia, Syria, and the Egyptian desert. The Ulster monastery of Bangor, for instance, claimed in its litany to be “ex Aegypto transducta” (“translated from Egypt”); and the convention of using red dots to adorn manuscript initials, a convention that soon became a mark of Irish manuscripts, had first been glimpsed by the Irish in books that the fleeing Copts brought with them.

How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 180

Photo by Nejc Soklič on Unsplash

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