Thomas Cahill: Civilizations Then and Now
Fifteen years ago in March 1995, historian and author Thomas Cahill published How The Irish Saved Civilization, the first of his seven-volume Hinges of History series. Kara Rota spoke to Cahill about his book's legacy.
I love the section in How The Irish Saved Civilization on scribes adding their own footnotes and commentary as they copy manuscripts —
Part of it was that although they did know the alphabet and they could read and write, they weren’t sophisticated people. You and I might find it rather boring to copy texts in languages that we didn’t understand very well, like Greek, or, even if we did understand the language, the thoughts were so different from anything that would have been spoken by Irishmen in that period. The scribes were copying very difficult texts, and they entertained themselves by making little pictures in the margins and putting in little comments on the texts or on other scribes’ work. At times they put in these beautiful little poems and that’s how we have what we have left of early Irish poetry. It all started off as oral poetry, but it was written down by the monks and that’s why we still have it. Maybe while they were copying out some particularly ponderous section of Plato, they would put in a little four-line poem about finding a girl in the medieval forest.
It’s almost like there’s a conversation going on between the authors and the scribes. I’m tempted to link this idea of intertexuality to Web media, open-source projects and the blogosphere where media is an ongoing conversation. Is that a link that you see?
I do, and one of the great pioneers of this intertextuality was James Joyce; Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are reflections of that. In Ulysses he is in some ways in a dialogue with Homer. And Finnegans Wake is a dialogue with everything [laughs]; he tries to get everything in there one way or another. Whether it’s from an opera or prose from the past that [Joyce] particularly admires; all of that is thrown into Finnegans Wake. So this is long before the Internet, but in some ways he really embodies that.
There are some solid female characters in How the Irish – particularly Medb and Brigid, but I’m hesitant to idealize what women’s experiences were. Did they really have rights that were significantly different than women in other cultures at the time?
We can’t make them into modern feminists or anything like that; it is a very different culture. At the same time, I think all of Celtic culture was much more egalitarian – not democratic, but much more egalitarian, sexually, than the Greco-Roman world ever had been. There were many more important female figures in the Irish past than there were ever in ancient Rome. Medb is the perfect example of that, but she’s not the only one. The famous Celtic queen Boudica who fought the Romans and really fought them to a standstill – neither one of those figures, one of them literary, Medb, and the other one historical, no one could ever imagine a female figure among the Greeks or Romans with that kind of importance and centrality to the culture. So it was different and remained different for a long time. The medieval Irish retained a lot of that, which is why you can have – there’s no female figure on the continent that has as much importance as Brigid. They finally become a part of the larger European world, and then women become less important.
For me the whole point of the book is about literacy and the power that literacy gives people, and specifically that the Irish saw no value in censorship.
What the Irish understood – they did understand the value of literacy, that’s probably the main reason why it had become such a big deal to them so early. But what they also understood was the value of pleasure in reading. They became the great anthologists of the early Middle Ages because they were willing to look at anything. They were not censorious. They did not think that there were things that had to be left out. Certainly many of the church fathers felt and many non-Irish felt that censorship, school censorship and state censorship, was very important. And [the Irish] actually never bought that – of course, they did in the 20th century, unfortunately, but that’s after many terrible things had happened to them and their own essential culture had been so demolished and debased. They’d become the tools of an extremely regressive and life-denying form of Christianity.
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