Question...

...Did the Christians burn/destroy all the classical literature?


(Updated 8/2/96)
I got an interesting question a while back that took a LOT of research, but which was also very instructive...the questioner wrote:

Interesting page. I was recently researching Josh McDowell's "Evidence That Demands A Verdict", and in Chapter 5, he provides evidence of the Bible's survivability throughout time.

He points out that The Bible has survived longer, and has been copied so many more times than other works.

Isn't that a bit of a half-truth? I understand that the early church used to throw away non-Christian literature, or edit it (as in the Josephus testimony, where a Christian scribe added in the section about Jesus). The Dark ages were caused, in part, by the burning of many non-Christian writings on science, literature, engineering, and Mathematics, because many Christian scribes who copied books for a living, felt that it was the right thing to do.

The Islamic world, on the other hand, did not suffer the kind of dark ages that the Christian world did, and they actually preserved many of the works that Christians destroyed. By the time of the crusades, many Europeans were rediscovering books that they thought were long since destroyed.

Is my history correct? I forget where i got my info from. I am sure I read it in a history book, but I'm not sure where or when, or what title.

My personal opinion of McDowell is that he uses many common logical fallacies to present his case, but provides real facts to back them up, giving a novice the impression of his correctness.

The question-writer is apparently referring to the chart by Geisler and Nix, cited by McDowell, that compares the number of age of manuscripts of the New Testament with those of selected classical authors (e.g. Homer, Tacitus). The chart is used often in Christian writings and illustrates that the number of manuscripts for the NT is an order of magnitude or two(!) greater than that for comparative ancient literature.

The questioner is admitting this to be the case, but wondering whether the numbers are 'distorted'. In other words, if the Church destroyed all the 'competitive' mss, then the comparison isn't really fair.

This is a good and thoughtful question. And, as with many questions (still!), I was at first slightly 'afraid' of what my research might uncover. I am generally concerned about trying to defend the acts of the post-Constantine institutional church, and this sorta fell into that arena. I was frankly surprised to find out that the church--both East and West-- actually was the main preserver of classical literature during these difficult times in world history.

Let me summarize my findings first, before I drag you through the excruciating detail(!):

  1. The pre-Constantine church did NOT do 'burnings' or destruction of classical works and/or libraries.

  2. The early church leaders widely and favorably used classical works in their writings, maintained them in their personal libraries, and made attempts to preserve them.

  3. The pre-Constantine church was the victim of a thorough-going Christian book burning campaign by the Roman Emperors.

  4. A few post-Constantine Christian Emperors 'traded' censorship initiatives with a few Non-Christian Roman Emperors, but the overall effect on classical texts were minimal.

  5. The post-Constantine church was NOT responsible for the burning of the famous main library at Alexandria.

  6. The destruction of the classical works and libraries of the ancient world was the result of accidental fires, neglect, the barbarian invasions, de-urbanization, and the destruction of the educational system/public records systems by those invasions.

  7. The Western institutional church--although considerably uneven in its estimates of the value of various classical authors--nevertheless had a number of individuals and institutions that almost single-handedly preserved the classical works that we enjoy today.

  8. The Eastern institutional church preserved the major mass of Greek mss. that was used to 'fuel' the Renaissance in Western Europe.

  9. The vast majority of the censorship/book burnings of the later church were insubstantial--either symbolic directed at non-classical works.


Let's look at each of these in detail now...

  1. The pre-Constantine church did NOT do 'burnings' or destruction of classical works and/or libraries.

    The pre-Constantine situation generally precluded any such 'censorship' by the persecuted church. The church of the 1st and 2nd centuries had no such 'power' and was busy expanding its own literature and presence. We have no data whatsoever about major library destructions--much less those perpetrated by Christians. (The case of the famous library of Alexandria we will discuss below.)

  2. The early church leaders widely and favorably used classical works in their writings, maintained them in their personal libraries, and made attempts to preserve them.

    One has only to look at the works cited and the library holdings of some of the early writers to see how some of the intelligentsia of the early church embraced the classics.

    First let's note some general observations/summaries by scholars:

    By the second century, however, the most vocal among this minority were writing in defense of Christianity and addressing themselves to educated pagans. To do this, they needed at least the forms and styles of classical literature. As church doctrine was expanded, Christian writers came to rely on the discipline and vocabulary of ancient philosophy, and then to recognize that many of the ideas had considerable value." [ME:44]
    From the time of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, the Christian programme had been to accept and uphold the positive value of the best Greek philosophy" (CTEC:153)
    Christian writers from the middle to the end of the second century--Justin, Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, to name only major figures--knew and used a great many texts, scriptural and nonscriptural, Christian and non-Christian...(BREC:152)
    "During the 4th century the most creative and talented people in the empire were drawn to Christianity, and educated upper-class Romans began entering the church in large numbers. These were people who were not ready, or even able, to forsake Athens because they had come to Jerusalem." [ME:44]
    Among those scholars and teachers who converted to Christianity--men like Justin in the second century, Cyprian in the third, and Augustine in the fourth--pagan literature would have constituted the original stock of their libraries, to which Christian literature was added. (BREC:176)
    Now, for a few church leaders:

    • in the 200's, there was a Christian library at Caesarea, based upon the libraries of Origen and Pamphilus, which is known to have contained many pagan philosophical and classical texts, and which was used extensively by Eusebius. (BREC:155)

    • between 212 and 250ad, Pope Alexander founded a similar library in Jerusalem, which contained classical works as well (e.g. The Odyssey). (BREC:15)

    • before 215ad, Clement of Alexandria had cited from 248 different authors, many of whom were classical (HLWW:61).

    • between 222 and 235, Emperor Severus built a large public library in the precincts of the Pantheon in Rome. He entrusted the design and setup to the outstanding Christian scholar Sextus Julius Africanus. (BREC:184)

    • in the early 300's, St. Paula--scholar and dear friend of Jerome--maintained a convent in Palestine, in which scholarship was emphasized. (HLWW:95-96)

    • between 320 and 325, Pachomius founded the first cenobitic ("communal" as opposed to "hermit") monastery in Upper Egypt. His order was known to have used/copied classical works. Some of the archeological remains of these monasteries have revealed works like The Sentences of Sextus and Plato's Republic.

    • between 339 and 397, the outstanding biblical scholar Jerome studied and wrote, utilizing many works of history and philosophy from his own library [HLWW:61]. Jerome was deeply devoted to classical literature. "Jerome's use of his classical scholarship in the service of Christianity summaries the resolution of the conflict and the medieval synthesis in the large framework. The study of classical literature was continued and the intellectual discipline involved valued so long as these could serve the Christian purpose--and without endangering the new Christian Society." [ME:45-46]

    • before 397, Ambrose did his work, and was famous as a well-educated scholar (ME:50)

    • in 361, Gregory, Bishop of Alexandria, was murdered by an anti-Christian mob. The emperor Julian took his library--replete with classical texts--and put them into the library at Antioch (which was LATER burned by the emperor Jovian!). The bishop used/had many pagan works. (HLWW:61; BREC:175).

    • between 354-430, Augustine of Hippo worked in North Africa. He had studied the classics, preparing for a career in rhetoric, and had and used large numbers of classical texts. (BREC:165, ME:47).

    • in 420, the woman Melania, founded a convent around Carthage. She had a background in transcription of mss., and her convent was noted for the beauty of its books. (HLWW:61; BREC:175).

    • between 461-468, Hillary of Rome built a library in Rome, with both Greek and Latin works. The building itself was in two parts--one Greek and one Latin--in the style of the classical libraries. (BREC:164).

    • around 485, Nestorian Christians were driven from Syria by Emperor Zeno. They fled to Persia, where at Nisibis they built up a strong center of Greek culture, complete with libraries of the classics. They attracted scholars from Greece, including some of the faculty of the school of Athens that was closed by Justinian in 529. (These mss. were taken by the Moslems and translated into Arabic by 750!).

    • in the early 500's, the scholar Boethius(d.524) was active. He wrote commentaries on Greek and Latin philosophers--and was the link between the wisdom of Antiquity and the Middle Ages [HPW:117-118] He translated two of Aristotle's treatises on logic into Latin, and was the resident scholar in the Ostrogoth kingdom. [MMA:181,188]

    • c.535, Pope Agapetus of Rome, tried to found an advanced education center in Rome, with the help of Cassiodorus. It was to teach theology and the classics. (HLWW:95-6).

    • in the late 500's, Cassiodorus (d.583), served in the Ostrogoth court. He organized a monastic order which was required to study and copy pagan literature (c.537). He imported mss. from Africa at great expense. (HPW:118-122)

    • in the 600's, St. Benedict of Nursia (d.543) founded his monastic order (the Benedictine)--which was the major transmitter of learning til the 12th century [MMA:185]. He was born (480-583ad) into a wealthy Italian family and was sent to Rome to study. [ME:89] (Under the monastic rule of St. Benedict) every monk was to devote long hours to individual reading. The Rule established by St. Benedict specified that in summer three hours of the day must be reserved for reading and in winter two, that every monk had to read one volume 'in extensio' during Lent, and that monks must carry a small book with them when they traveled and open it during halts." [HPW:121] After Benedict's death..."The conception of the monks' roles as copyists, preservers, and finally, as transmitters of divine and secular learning was grafted onto the Benedictine systems. The influences which produced this important function came from outside, from such diverse places as Cassiodorus' monastery at Vivarium and--as we shall see--from monasteries in Ireland and England. Monastic scholarship was also a response which came in time from the recognition of the need to maintain what might be irretrievably lost." [ME:91]

    • in the 600's, Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelle, built in Belgium a famous library. (HLWW:95-96)

    • in the 600's, Isidore of Seville (d.636) was a Visigothic bishop before the Muslim inundation, who wrote the gigantic work Etymologiae. [MMA:193] He had access to excellent texts: "After King Reccard (of Spain) converted to Catholicism (587) and after the Third Council of Toledo, the Germanic aristocracy turned to classical culture and the sovereigns protected letters. This was the climate in which Isidore of Seville lived. Granted easy access to the great classical texts in a land with a long-standing and lively Latin tradition, Isidore compiled with passion whatever came his way." [HPW:119]

    • in the late 600's, The Venerable Bede(d.735) labored. He had entered the monastery of Jarrow in 685 at the age of 13 [HPW:123],and saw the larger monasteries in England teach Greek with Greek books. [MMA:194]

    • in the early 700's, Alcuin worked. Educated at York (good library of mss), he became director of the school and made several trips to Rome for more mss. [ME:129] Alcuin's educational program was a modified version of the Roman educational system and was based on the study of certain classical texts. [ME:130] For example, the study of grammar began with the reading of classical authors such as Vergil, the poets Juvenal, Horace, and Ovid, and the playwrite Terence. For rhetoric, the basic texts were Cicero's work On the Orator, and a book written at the end of the first century ad by an orator-teacher Quintilian. [ME:130]

    • in the 800's, the greatest figure in scholarship was the Irishman John Scotus Erigena (d.877), probably driven out of Ireland by the Viking raids, to the court of Charles the Bald in France. He translated works sent to French rulers from Byzantium ! [MMA:196-197]

    • in the 900's, St. Hroswitha ran a convent in Germany. She maintained a famous library of literature (and the convent even wrote/published original poetry.) [HLWW:955-96].

This list alone should de-bunk the myth of a harshly anti-intellectual and anti-classical church. Of course, there were those that opposed the classics and intellectualism, but the reality is that classical culture survived largely due to the church leadership and institutions. (We will see WHAT it had to 'survive from' below.)

  • The pre-Constantine church was the victim of a thorough-going Christian book burning campaign by the Roman Emperors.

    • "The writings of Christians were suppressed by most of the emperors before Constantine" [HLWW:66); list of persecutions below from ACH:87]

      1. Nero (54-68)
      2. Domitian (81-96)
      3. Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
      4. Septimius Severus (193-211; up to a point)
      5. Maximinius I Thrax (235-8; up to a point)
      6. Trajanus Decius (249-251)
      7. Valerian (253-260)
      8. The "Great Persecution" under Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximinus II Daia (303-313)

      Those under Severus (FRC:293), Decius (FRC:318), and Valerian (FRC:325) involved massive confiscation of property, and reinstatement of the Roman office of "Censor"!

    • COMFORT:13: "An edict issued at Nicomedia on February 23, 303, enjoined the demolition of churches and the burning of Christian books. This was the first Roman persecution that was designed not only to destroy Christians but to eradicate their sacred text, the New Testament." (notice his choice of the word 'first'--Emp. Julian will later try it also.).

    • The Diocletion persecution was specifically aimed at Christian literature. "The persecution began with a series of edicts against Christians, the first of which, issued in 303, ordered Christian books to be confiscated and burned by imperial agents." [BREC:145]. This action against Christian books and scriptures "sharply reduced their availability." [BREC:132]

    • Aland describes it thus: "The result was a widespread scarcity of New Testament manuscripts..." [ATNT:65].

    What this means to our study here is that in some 'alleged competitive race' between Christian and Secular mss., the Secular side had a SERIOUS "head start"!

  • A few post-Constantine Christian Emperors 'traded' censorship initiatives with a few Non-Christian Roman Emperors, but the overall effect on classical texts were minimal.

    Once we get to past Constantine, we see imperial censorship efforts on the part of BOTH "Christian" Emperors and "Non-Christian" Emperors--in an almost retaliatory way. However, the information indicates that neither side was very successful in tipping the balance relative to literature (as opposed to the VERY successful Diocletian campaign). The main thrusts were against practices. Let's look at some of the efforts.

    • Diocletian (284-305ad): major destruction of Christian literature. Highly focused; highly effective. (see references above)

    • The Christian emperor Constantine (312-337ad): He was generally tolerant, although "towards the last years of Constantine's reign, there was some discouragement of pagan cult to the extent that a few temples were destroyed in the Greek East..." No specific targets at pagan/classical literature. (CTEC:153) He DID burn some of Arius' theological writings (HPW:173). Constantine also began building the important classical libraries in the East: "Of all the libraries of antiquity, those in Constantinople came nearest to surviving intact through the Middle Ages. In particular, the Imperial Library, founded by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, varied in size and importance with the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire, but in one form or another it survived until the capture of the city in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks." (HLWW:71).

    • Constantine's sons: "Under Constantine's sons there was a more decisive move against paganism. Sacrifices were forbidden, and a number of important temples destroyed. In general it was mainly the Oriental mystery religions which directly suffered." No specific targets at literature. (CTEC:153)

    • Julian (360-363): Attempted to revive paganism. Specific target at literature: "The emperor Julian also tried to destroy Christian texts" (HLWW:66). Amazingly, Julian had to STOP the Christians from teaching and perpetuating classical culture(!): "Feeling it to be insufferable that Christians should teach the pagan classics without believing in the myths of the gods, he issued a formal edict excluding Christians from the teaching profession, a decision which was regarded as folly by pagans like Ammianus the historian and was resented by cultivated Christians like Gregory of Nazianzus who understood and loved the classical literary tradition as fully as well as Julian" (CTEC:156f; TK:92).

    • Valentinian I (364-375): He was a Western emp. and a Christian. His policy was one of "toleration strictly enforced." He did not impede official pagan ceremonies at Rome or elsewhere. (CTEC:160).

    • Theodosius (379-395). Here we have an overt attempt by a Christian emp. to suppress paganism. He instituted increasing persecution on the leftover pagan aristocracy of Rome. Although one writer asserted that he set out to 'destroy heathen libraries' (HLWW:66), the edicts themselves (CAP:45-49) and general historical assessments (e.g. TK:93, CTEC:171; FRC:639f) indicate that his regime--although definitely repressive (the bishop Ambrose had to excommunicate him from the church for an act of barbarism in 390!)--was focused on the worship and NOT on pagan/classical literature. Indeed, Theodosius entrusted the education of his son Arcadius to the pagan scholar Themistius (CTEC:171) and gave special rulings to not destroy temples containing 'artistic masterpieces' (CTEC:168). There WERE numerous temples destroyed under his reign, including the one in Alexander (below).

      [We will discuss the relationship of temples to libraries in just a moment.]

    • At this point, the kingdom splits between Theodosius' sons, and most attention diverts to the barbarian invasion issues. That classical culture is not dead at this point is obvious from the quotations that show up in both the Christian writers (above list of leaders, esp. Boethius and Cassiodorus) and in the non-Christian literature of the day (e.g. Proclus, Procopius, Dionysius the Areopagite) [cf. FRC:701-2], and from the fact that the issue of "Greek culture" will STILL BE AN ISSUE 150 years later, under Justinian.

    • Justinian (527-565) launches his Renewal. He re-conquers much of the western part of the empire, and attempts to rebuild the uniformity of the 'state religion'. He re-codified much of Roman law, and enacted a series of edicts against 'heretics'--mostly "Christian" sects. He is "famous" for his act of closing the Academy in Athens (529ad) [HLWW:66]. We know, however, that this action was because of the aggressively ANTI-Christian stance of the school [CTEC172: "At Athens the Neoplatonic school survived until 529 when Justinian closed it because of its tenacious adherence to paganism under pupils of the anti-Christian Proclus (whose works were to contribute much to the mystical theology of 'Dionysius the Areopagite')."] and was NOT a general 'censorship' of classical culture. For example, the pagan Tribonian remained in the emperor's service (FRC:861n25) and Frend notes:
      This step [closing of the Academy], however, did not mean what it would have meant in the West--the denial of all pagan cultural values. Far from it! Homer, Plato, and Aristotle would retain their place in Byzantine education, and the latter two would, with Eusebius of Caesarea, significantly influence Byzantine political theory. [FRC:831]
    Chadwick summarizes (CTEC:173): "In general there was no prohibition on the expression of pagan thought and no restriction imposed on the diffusion of pagan literature...Throughout the fifth century poetry and secular historical writing tended to remain in pagan hands."

    Pushback: "But Glenn...you said several times that the Christians destroyed temples. But weren't all the libraries HOUSED WITHIN the temples?! That would mean that the Christians DID destroy the mss., in the process of destroying the temples.

    Response:Actually, most of the literature WE are discussing would have been scattered across ALL of the many different types of libraries in Greece and Rome.

    In Greece, some temples had libraries, but most secondary schools and colleges (called "museions" and "gymnasia") had them as well. There were public libraries by the govt, libraries of specialty schools (e.g. philosophy, medicine), private libraries by the wealthy, and specialized collections (e.g. official archives). In the case of the temple-associated libraries, they were typically not in the temple itself ("special rooms off colonnaded approaches to the temple itself"--HLWW:50)--so damage to the temple might not affect the book collection at all. The larger and more "erudite" of these temples were probably not attacked at all, judging by the restrictions in the Theodosian code. "Public libraries became common not only in the larger towns and cities, but also in the smaller ones and in the inland area."(HLWW:49). [HLWW: 37-51; BREC:176-183]

    Rome used the basic Greek design, but added some additional elements. Private libraries were common by 50 bc, and the public already had access to temple and government archives. The first private library in Rome was composed of the captured library of Aristotle!--BREC:183. Roman emperors built public libraries aggressively--some attached to temples and many more not. In addition to the various sites the Greeks used for libraries, the Romans also located libraries in their baths (where there was also a theatre and lecture room often.) According to Seneca, by 65 ad., almost all the upper-class homes in Rome had private libraries. [HLWW:55-68; BREC:183-189]

    There was, accordingly, no major textual dependence on the preservation of a few critical temples. Most of the classical/education-oriented literature (as opposed to pagan religious literature--e.g. mystery religions) was stored in school-related and private collections, and even the 'fancier' temples with collections were probably 'spared' by the special instructions of the Theodosian Code.

    We have no indication that Christian Emperors took any sanctions against the classical schools/libraries (often taught by Christian classical scholars), so there is no reason to suspect that the infrequent temple-attacks under Justinian and Theodosius I made any serious 'dent' in the number of classical manuscripts.

  • The post-Constantine church was NOT responsible for the burning of the famous main library at Alexandria.

    Every now and then I run across a statement like this (p.46, The Dark Side of Christian History, Helen Ellerbe):

    The Church burned enormous amounts of literature. In 391 Christians burned down one of the world's greatest libraries in Alexandria, said to have housed 700,000 rolls.
    The problem with this is that it is ABYSMALLY inaccurate. If one compares the statements of Ellerbe with the works of ACTUAL academic scholars in the field (e.g. BREC, HLWW), one can see how wrong this statement is.

    The actual history of the famous Museum library of Alex (which is said to have housed 500,000 rolls) goes like this:

    • Ptolemy Soter (Ptolemy I, 367-282bc) built a shine to the Muses (a Museion) and brought outstanding scholars to live there (BREC:177; HPW:55)

    • it was a communal society of men of science and letters , and was located in the royal precinct(BREC:178).

    • later, a smaller library (for overflow) was built OUTSIDE the palace area--called the "daughter" library. It contained less than 8% of the total holdings of the combined' libraries, and was connected to a pagan shrine (the Serapeum). [BREC:179-180]

    • The major library (Museion) was without peer in the 3rd century BCE (BREC:180), and probably had most extant classical works (HPW:55; HLWW:45).

    • Then--trouble begins: "Then, around 145 bce, the persecution of Alexandrian scholars and their disciples by [Ptolemy VII Physcon] Euergetes II resulted in an emigration of academic talent from the Museion and a loss of distinction in its librarians." (BREC:180)

    • "Ptolemy VIII [Lathyros, Soter II] (Cacergetes) came to the throne. Having been forced to leave Alexandria by his enemies, he returned in the course of a civil war (89-88bc) and burned much of the city. The students and fellows of the Museum were at least temporarily scattered...Though never reaching their former greatness, the Museum and its library were reconstituted and survived for several hundred years longer." (HLWW:46). Note: most of the damage to the library occurred before the birth of Christ!

    • Then, in 47 bc, when Julius Caesar was conquering Egypt, the Library was partially destroyed (HLWW:46; BREC:180)

    • In the first century AD, some of the volumes in the library were moved to Rome to replenish libraries there (HLWW:46)

    • Finally, the main Museum and library was destroyed in 273ad, when the Roman Emperor Aurelian burned much of Alexandria--including most of the Palace area. [HLWW:46-47; HPW:56; BREC:180].

    • It is possible that the Museum (already a shadow of the glory of the first one) was rebuilt "on a smaller scale." (HLWW:47).

    • But "A few years later, the city was completely sacked by Diocletian. The Museum, which had enjoyed long periods of renewed splendor during Imperial times and which had recently been restored once more to its old glory thanks to the notable efforts of the mathematician Diophantus, must have suffered terrible damage." (VL:87)

    • The small, daughter library--the Serapeum--was thought to have survived and WAS destroyed by the Patriarch Theophilis in 391, under the directives of Emperor Theodosius in 391. Note--this is NOT the famous library at all...it was a very small temple library.

    The net of this is: Christians were NOT responsible for the destruction of the world's greatest library of antiquity! It was a victim of civil and national wars of Greece and Rome. The library of the small temple of Serapis WAS destroyed in the events of 391, but even this library was only a shadow of a shadow of a minor library.

  • The destruction of the classical works and libraries of the ancient world was the result of accidental fires, neglect, the barbarian invasions, de-urbanization, and the destruction of the educational system/public records systems by those invasions.

    If the Christians didn't destroy all the classical literature, then how DID it seem to disappear?

    First of all, we need to point out that they did NOT disappear--"Thus it can be seen that the great writings of the classical era, particularly those of Greece, were never completely lost to the western world. They were always available to the Byzantines, and to those western peoples in cultural and diplomatic contact with the Eastern Empire. However, during most of the Middle Ages these contacts were few and tenuous, and, for all practical purposes, scarcely significant." (HLWW:75). ( It should be noted that the Byzantine empire was a "Christian" empire, that treasured and preserved classical literature.)

    The main destructive forces in the West in this arena were NOT the church, but the vast amount of "barbarian" invasions of Western Europe.

    • The 1st Germanic kingdom within the Empire was founded by the Visigoths, who sacked Rome in 410ad [ME:37]

    • The 2nd Germanic kingdom was established by the Vandals in N. Africa in 429. They marched/destroyed through Gaul and Spain on the way to N. Africa [ME:38]

    • The disruption of order: Muslims (invaded Sicily in 827 from N. Africa), Vikings (invaded Eng 787, Franks 840-911), Magyars (related to the Huns, east Frankish devastation, end of 9th century) [ME:139-141;MMA:199-200]

    • Although there were important gains during the Carolingian Renaissance (c800-814ad), the NEXT WAVE of invasions did some serious damage:
      ...in the 9th and 10th centuries the empire was challenged and eventually devastated by constant attacks by Norsemen, Huns, and Saracens, and once again learning in most of northern and western Europe broke down. The Danish and Viking invasions, which had begun in the late 8th century and continued for some 200 years, destroyed many monasteries and libraries...In 867, the Danes overran much of northern England, and York was ransacked. Its books were scattered and its priests and scholars killed or driven away....All over western Europe the story was much the same, and where monasteries were not destroyed they often suffered from stagnation and neglect." [HLWW:94-95].
    These invasions created most of the following forces that account for the disappearance of masses of mss. in the West.

    • The materials were very fragile and perished quickly.: "Because papyrus paper was an extremely fragile material, Latin manuscripts--rare exceptions aside--have been lost. There are even fewer Latin manuscripts than Greek manuscripts...This continued to be true up until...the fourth and especially the fifth centuries." (HPW:61) [Note--this is BEFORE any Christian Emperor tries to suppress paganism!]

    • The destruction of the educational system, due largely to de-urbanization resulting from the barbarian invasions, eliminated the main means of transmitting culture.

      1. The major means of transmission was the educational system: In Hellenic society, free boys and girls went to school. This practice was adopted by the Romans after they came in contact with the Greeks. The school kids studied Homer and Euripides. [HPW:69] "The transmission of Greek and Latin culture was primarily an urban and upper-class phenomenon." [ME:7] Upper-class Roman education included Greek also (ME:4).

      2. This educational system was a casualty of the invasions: "Under the combined pressure of this declining economy and the German invasions, the cities of northern Gaul, Spain, and North Africa began to shrink in size and purpose. One of the sadder consequences of this was the attrition of a fine system of education in the northern cities of Gaul....There were some Western cities which survived into the Middle Ages. This is especially true of the Italian cities and port cities such as Marseilles, but their ability to recuperate form the invasions was severely limited and therefore slow." [ME:41]

      3. Some of it DID remain: Even after the first round of German migrations, the school system still functioned and aristocrats still could do advanced education in grammar and rhetoric. [HPW:117]

    • The invasions themselves destroyed public records and urban libraries. Roman legal archives were burned by the Gauls in 390bc (but probably reconstructed). [HPW:85]

    • The West soon lost the ability to work in Latin and Greek, and thus the preservation of the culture and literature based on those languages was at risk.: "The period after St. Augustine is marked not only by the almost universal disappearance of a knowledge of Greek, and a steady change in the type of Latin used, but also by a great decline in intellectual culture." [MMA:183-184] By 800 Latin had ceased to be a spoken language except among the clergy. [MMA:183]

    • Writing itself, in view of the above destructions, was almost lost: "We will see a series of centuries in which writing survived only with the aid of religion, in which the Carolingian 'renaissance' provided a sustained underlying note, and in which new invasions brought writing close to the zero point" [HPW:116]

    What this means is: the main force in the West that virtually destroyed the transmission of classical culture/literature was NOT the church, but the steady stream of "barbarian" invasions of Western Europe.

  • The Western institutional church--although considerably uneven in its estimates of the value of various classical authors--nevertheless had a number of individuals and institutions that almost single-handedly preserved the classical works that we enjoy today.

    We have seen the significant number of individuals above who were actively engaged in preserving and using classical literature during this period. Here I would like to point out three INSTITUTIONS of the church that 'kept the flame' alive during the dark centuries surrounding the Invasions: monasteries, cathedral schools, and the missionary movements..

    These three were, of course, inseparably linked: "This was the beginning of the long association of the monastic and missionary movements with the papacy, but the missionary role assumed by the monks also had another function--that of spreading Latin civilization. The language, culture, and traditions of the Roman Empire, to the extent that they were preserved and transmitted, were passed to those outside that tradition by the church." [ME:95]

    • The rise of monasteries and orders that preserved classical culture.

      • "Even before the end of the old order there was the beginning of the new, or at least of the institution that was to preserve a part of ancient culture through the Dark Ages. That institution was the medieval monastery. Monasteries were already being established in Egypt, in Palestine, and possible in neighboring areas by the 3rd century A.D., and the idea of a monastery library already existed in those areas." (HLWW:89)

      • The monastic order founded by Pachomius (290-346ad) in Upper Egypt had major emphasis on literacy, books, libraries. Remains of some of these libraries show classical texts (e.g. Plato, Sentences of Sextus, Homer, Menander, Cicero). [BREC:170-1]

      • Monasticism was introduced to the West in the mid-fourth century from the East, and was encouraged by Jerome and Augustine. [ME:56]

      • St. Benedict of Nursia (d.543)--his monastic order was the major transmitter of learning til the 12th century [MMA:185]. He was born (480-583ad) into a wealthy Italian family and was sent to Rome to study. [ME:89]

      • (Under the monastic rule of St. Benedict) every monk was to devote long hours to individual reading. The Rule established by St. Benedict specified that in summer three hours of the day must be reserved for reading and in winter two, that every monk had to read one volume 'in extensio' during Lent, and that monks must carry a small book with them when they traveled and open it during halts." [HPW:121]

      • After Benedict's death..."The conception of the monks' roles as copyists, preservers, and finally, as transmitters of divine and secular learning was grafted onto the Benedictine systems. The influences which produced this important function came from outside, from such diverse places as Cassiodorus' monastery at Vivarium and--as we shall see--from monasteries in Ireland and England. Monastic scholarship was also a response which came in time from the recognition of the need to maintain what might be irretrievably lost." [ME:91]

      • Cassiodorus organized a monastic order in 537, requiring the monks to study 'pagan' authors and to actually copy their works. He had manuscripts brought from Africa at great expense. [HPW:122]

      • Bede (d.735) saw larger monasteries in England teach Greek with Greek books. [MMA:194]

      • Much of the Frankish clergy was functionally illiterate, but the reforms of Charlemagne breathed new life into them: "Of all Charlemagne's efforts, the most durable and significant was his attempt to raise the level of learning among Frankish clergy, not many of whom were even literate....even those entrusted with the copying of manuscripts could barely read them. The Merovigian manuscripts which we have are difficult to translate because the words all run together, there are many errors in the texts, and the handwriting is poor. Despite this generally low level of learning, there were some educated bishops and abbots, and in the monasteries founded by the Anglo-Saxon missionaries there were literate monks and the beginnings of some great libraries--at St. Gall, at Fulda, and at Reichenau, for example." [ME:125f]

      • Charlemagne ordered every monastery and cathedral to run a school, and he imported scholars from Eng and Italy to Gaul. [MMA:195] In the last decade of the 8th century Charlemagne sent a directive to the abbot of the monastery at Fulda, which initiated the revival of learning in northern Europe: "Be it known...that we...have deemed it expedient that the bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by Christ's favor to our government, in addition to the observance of monastic discipline and the practice of the religious life, should vouchsafe instruction also in the exercise of letters to those who with God's help are able to learn, each according to his capacity..." [ME:128]

      • Education was basically kept alive by the Church--from the Carol.Era. until the rise of universities in the 12th century, instruction was given at two kinds of schools. One was the cathedral school for the education of the priesthood, directed by a bishop or a schoolmaster called a 'scholarius'. The second was a monastic school, usually directed by an abbot and devoted principally to the education of monks. [ME:131]

      • These factors insured a channel for the preservation of classical culture: "Charlemagne's reforms furthermore established that education was once again a public matter, and Carolingian education ensured that the classical Roman tradition would survive in northern Europe. That the church would actively preserve that tradition now became certain, with the result that some schools managed to survive the darkest days of the ninth century, and when more settled conditions arrived, those monastic and cathedral institutions were ready to implement a larger and better educational system for a new age." [ME:133]

      • These European monasteries became the center for mss. production: "Many monasteries now (Car.E) now instituted 'scriptoria', or writing rooms, where manuscripts were copied; and from the early ninth century onward, the number and variety of manuscripts steadily increased in Europe." [ME:131-132]

      • The Eastern church had preserved most of Greek Culture; Latin culture was 'preserved' by the Carolingian support for monastic expansion: "Thanks to the Carolingian Renaissance, many of the Latin classics survived; over ninety per cent of the writings of ancient Rome that have come down to us exist in their oldest form in a Carolingian copy. Though political and social anarchy returned, learning never again sank so low as it had been in the preceding age." [MMA:198]

      • The monasteries exchanged books as well: "The oldest type of intellectual center was the monastery; for centuries the monasteries stood like scattered islands in a sea of ignorance. Even in the most confused of the earlier mediaeval centuries they were centers where old books were copied and new ones were written. The monasteries exchanged books among themselves, and the later orders, the Cluniacs, the Cistercians, and the Carthusians, with their more centralized types of organization, made intellectual interchange easier." [MMA:229]

      • The first Benedictine monastery was at Monte Cassino in Southern Italy, "where many important Latin classics, notably the works of Tacitus, Seneca and Varro, were copied and probably saved from extinction." (HLWW:97).--Note: Instead of burning the 'competitor' Tacitus, the church was preserving it!.

        So, the various monastic orders preserved both learning and the classics, during the aftermath of the invasions.

        The once magnificent Roman Empire, with its well planned cities, its educational institutions and its many libraries, collapsed into what historians now know as the Middle Ages. The ravages of conquest and the advent of a barbaric age placed all learning in the West in real jeopardy. With increasing rapidity those concerned with the life of the mind were fleeing the strife-torn cities, and books and learning passed over to the church...The remarkable thing is not that so much of classical learning was lost, but that so much was preserved in the most trying of circumstances." (HLWW:89)
    • The Cathedral School: "Alongside the monastery as a center of culture was the cathedral school, run by the local bishop. Some cathedral schools went back into the period before 1000; from the eleventh century on, a number of them became great educational centers. To them was brought most of the science and philosophy recovered by the West from the Byzantines and Saracens. The bishops collected libraries, patronized scholars, poets, artists, and musicians, and made their cathedral centers the cultural lighthouses of western Europe." [MMA:229]

    • Missionary movements that 'moved classical literature from a 'source land' to a 'target land' "right before" invasions destroyed the 'source land'!

      The missionary activities of the Church were always accompanied by literature and education. As the various northern territories were evangelized, classical culture was transmitted. Look at this timeline:

      • Rome had conquered Britain but had to abandon it as troops were needed inland for the Germanic wars. Ireland invaded Britain (early 400's), captured St. Patrick (a Roman Brit). He escapes to a monastery in southern Gaul, and returns to evangelize the Irish. [ME:96]

      • Classical education came to the Celts (i.e. Ireland) through gallo-roman scholars and teachers who fled to Ireland under the German invasion of Gaul in the 5th century. [ME:97] They produced beautiful mss.!

      • The Celts were very receptive to Roman lit and learning; they had an educational tradition of their own (ME:97)

      • "The newly founded abbeys and monasteries (6th century) could never have become the centers for study and copying that they did if they had not initially received the materials they needed form elsewhere and then kept up exchanges with the outside. In the fifth century the Irish encouraged the importation of books from the Continent, and they welcomed pupils from other lands. " [HPW:123]

      • "Since the Irish embraced classical learning at a time before literature declined on the continent, they were able to copy, preserve, and study the ancient authors. These works, too, along with an educational system to teach them, were transmitted by the Irish wherever they went. [ME:99]

      • They turn right around and start evangelizing Europe and Britain from the mid-6th century through the end of the 7th.(ME:97)

      • In 563, Ireland evangelizes Britain with Celtic Christianity and transmits classical culture/education to them! (ME:99f).

      • In 597, Roman Pope Gregory the Great sends St. Augustine to Britain to found a Benedictine monastery and library. (HLWW:92; ME:95)

      • In 664, the pope sent Theodore of Tarsus to Canterbury. T of T came from the eastern medit., and had studied in the secular schools in the Byz Emp. His education was grounded in the study of Greek classical lit. [ME:128-129] This influx of scholars to the British Isles produced good schools: Canterbury, York, Jarrow. Jarrow had a good library of manuscripts, and Bede (673-735)/Alcuin studied at York. [ME:129] He also became director of the school and made several trips to Rome for more mss. [ME:129]

      • Ireland and Britain now turn right around and start evangelizing EUROPE, carrying with them major components of classical culture. In 680, Britain evangelizes Germany.

      • During this time, Ireland created centers of learning as well:
        "Since the Irish embraced classical learning at a time before literature declined on the continent, they were able to copy, preserve, and study the ancient authors. These works, too, along with an educational system to teach them, were transmitted by the Irish wherever they went. The most prominent Irish monasteries founded on the continent--at Bobbio in northern Italy and St. Gall in Switzerland--became centers of learning with truly great libraries which housed the illuminated manuscripts the Irish had brought with them. These libraries and manuscripts endured throughout the Middle Ages." [ME:99]
      • Ireland/Britain was the single most important source of learning for Europe during this time, providing both scholars and mss.: "Despite this generally low level of learning, there were some educated bishops and abbots, and in the monasteries founded by the Anglo-Saxon missionaries there were literate monks and the beginnings of some great libraries--at St. Gall, at Fulda, and at Reichenau, for example." [ME:125f] These libraries are known to have housed secular/classical works [HLWW:92].

      • Charlemagne ... imported scholars from England and Italy to Gaul., including Alcuin (d.804) from York, and most of the books copied during the C.R. came from York, other English centers, and from Italy. [MMA:195-196]

      • "The picture of Frankish society is dismal, but not unrelieved. At the upper level of society, particularly among the higher clergy and the monks, there were educated individuals with a sophisticated sense of what Christianity was about, and some understanding of the Roman heritage. Much of the leaven that worked to bring about change in Frankish society came from elsewhere, from Ireland and England, and form Italy where a higher lever of Christianity and culture had been maintained than existed north of the Alps." [ME:114-115]

      • Then, once learning/literature had been transferred to Europe from the British Isles, the British Isles were decimated by Invasions! "In 867, the Danes overran much of northern England, and York was ransacked. Its books were scattered and its priests and scholars killed or driven away" and "The early Irish culture that gave rise to the missionaries Columba and Columban was ended in two centuries of Viking raids and conquests from about 850-1050" (HLWW:95).

      So, "The channel through which learning flowed back into northern Europe is easy to trace. From the monastic schools and libraries in Celtic Ireland, it flowed to Anglo-Saxon England, and from there to Gaul." [ME:128], but "When Charlemagne died, the great centers of learning were no longer in the British isles, but in Gaul..."[MMA:196].

    • The system of patronage, protecting classical scholars and texts also played a role in this.

      There were several situations where the Christian leaders (above) were funded and protected by royalty (esp. the 'barbarian' royalty).

      • Theorodic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, reigned over north of Italy and gathered to his court Latin men of letters, including Boethius. [HPW:117-118]

      • Cassiodorus, spent part of his life in an Ostrogoth court. [HPW:118]

      • "After King Reccard (of Spain) converted to Catholicism (587) and after the Third Council of Toledo, the Germanic aristocracy turned to classical culture and the sovereigns protected letters. This was the climate in which Isidore of Seville lived. Granted easy access to the great classical texts in a land with a long-standing and lively Latin tradition, Isidore compiled with passion whatever came his way." [HPW:119]

      • Isidore (d.636) had been a Visigothic bishop before the Muslim inundation. [MMA:193]

      • Three of the barbarian kings established Roman breviaries of law--for continuity (Alaric, Gundobad, Theodoric). [HPW:118]

      • Greatest figure in CR was the Irishman John Scotus Erigena (d.877), probably driven out of Ireland by the Viking raids, to the court of Charles the Bald in France. He translated works sent from Byz. to French rulers! [MMA:196-197]


      The pattern here seems fortuitous: Classical culture flees Europe to Ireland, who passes it on to Britain. Italy (still preserving a stronghold of classical culture) transfers much of classical culture to the British Isles. The Invasions decimate Europe--destroying classical culture there. And, then the British Isles transfer it all back in again, and are IMMEDIATLY destroyed by more invasions! Its almost like a "hold this for me for a second, will ya?" kinda situation.


  • The Eastern institutional church preserved the major mass of Greek mss. that was used to 'fuel' the Renaissance in Western Europe.

    The Eastern empire preserved the Greek classics, and passed those classics back to Western Europe and over to Islam (who also passed them to W.E.).

    • The Eastern empire began with outstanding libraries: Constantine's, the University, and the Church Patriarch (HLWW:72-73), and maintained most of that culture until the 15-16th centuries (HLWW:71).

    • Throughout its history, the East fed mss. back to the West. Examples include:

      1. The Irishman John Scotus Erigena (d.877) translated works sent from Byz. to French rulers! [MMA:196-197]

      2. Pope Gregory (590-604) borrowed works from Constantinople (HLWW:97)

      3. "Charlemagne, for example, obtained copies of books from the Imperial Library at Constantinople for his palace library at Aachen." (HLWW:75).

    • The eastern church and empire was the source of the Islamic literary riches: "The Moslems, close neighbors and frequent enemies of Constantinople for 800 years before its fall, borrowed not only literature but art, education, political science, and philosophy from the Byzantines." (HLWW:75).

      The East kept the classic treasures safe (esp. the Greek ones) and passed it to the west.

      The significance of Constantinople in western civilization is great...because it preserved so much of classical literature through the Middle Ages when it was virtually lost in the West. Of the Greek classics known today, at least seventy-five percent are known through Byz. copies. The flow of manuscripts from East to West had begun before 1200, but it reached its high point in the 14th and 15th centuries." (HLWW:77)

    What we end up with is the seemingly odd pattern that the classical works were 'moved' just at the right time to be 'preserved'; and that church-based institutions arose just at the right time to allow access to the basic contours of classical culture throughout this period. The Christian church, then, was THE major factor in the preservation of classical culture--and NOT the "enemy thereof".

  • The vast majority of the censorship/book burnings of the later church were insubstantial--either symbolic or directed at non-classical works.

    In spite of the popular images of a repressive church burning vast amounts of anti-Christian (and even classical) literature, official censorship measures were surprisingly absent of anti-classical intent. Consider:


    • "This began a long series of book burnings. The most famous and the most massive during the Middle Ages were the pyres lit by the Parisian subjects of the saintly King Louis IX to burn Jewish books after the pope had anathematized the Talmud because it portrayed Jesus as a common criminal. Such operations remained the exception, however. Normally censorship took other paths." [HPW:173]

    • The general rule was to list the 'problems' and 'heretical' passages--NOT abandon the manuscript. [HPW:174]

    • "Thus, as long as books circulated among the learned, the church held back its attacks or only made a symbolic gesture. When heresy threatened to crystallize, however, it attacked men." [HPW:175]

    • Church and State cooperatively tried to regulate avid re-prints (of translations and some classics) in late 1400's--but no destruction of copies. [HPW:267]

    • Even the famous INDEX of the forbidden books (Dominici gregis) 24 March 1564, said that the reading of classical Greek and Latin authors was tolerated because of the elegance and purity of their language. [HPW:269]

    • "In the years around 1500 the Spanish Inquisition burned immense amounts of Jewish and Arabic books" [HPW:270]--Notice--these were NOT classical literature.

    • "Judgments of the Inquisition have varied: some have denounced its rigor, particularly toward widely circulated religious books, but others have noted its tolerance toward philosophical and scholarly publications and toward comic authors." [HPW:271]

    The bottom line here is that the church DID destroy some collections of texts, but that (1) they were NOT directed again 'classics'; and (2) these gestures were NOT 'wholesale' and were only exceptional. Manuscript counts should not have been radically affected by these. Note--this is NOT meant to 'excuse' the Church for such outrageously stupid, reprehensible, and even malicious repression, but to focus on the question at hand--that of classical literature.]

  • (A couple of comments on the person's question about Islam.)

    • As noted above, Islam was dependent on the Byzantine empire and on the Nestorian Christians for their access to the classics (see above, and also HLWW:78: "(In addition to the mss. from the Nestorian Christians at Nisibus)...Moslems also obtained Greek works from Constantinople through regular trade channels and captured others in their various wars with the Eastern Empire").

    • When they conquered Constantinople, they did as much book-damage as any Christian raid ever did (HLWW:76).

    • The Islamic empire flourished for about 300 years, and was a book-looking society. They built immense libraries, rivaling even those of Constant. (HLWW:80-82).

    • But their story is similar to that of the West:
      Unfortunately, the story of Islamic libraries is all too similar to that of their predecessors in the classical era; they, too, ended in wholesale destruction. Many Moslem libraries suffered in civil wars and in the decline of interest in learning under various rulers at different times. Religious dissension often resulted in conquests that brought on destruction of books relating to the history and beliefs of particular Moslem sects. When Saladin, a Sunnite Moslem, conquered Egypt in 1175, a country where the Shi'ite Moslems had been in power, he is reported to have destroyed whole libraries and distributed the finer works to his victorious followers. After 1100, reactionaries gained control in most of the eastern Moslem world, and the fortunes of Moslem libraries declined sharply." (HLWW:84)
    • The greatest destruction to Moslem libraries resulted from the raids of the Mongols in the 13th century. The hordes of Genghis Kahn and Halagu Khan destroyed the major population centers of Islam--including Baghdad (HLWW:84-85), destroying libraries and killing scholars/students.

    • "But what was the effect of that Moslem civilization on the western world and particularly on the libraries of the western world? Since much of their literature was lost, the effect was not as great as if the libraries had been preserved. However, the Islamic libraries, almost as much as those of Constantinople, were a connecting link between the learning of classical Greece and the cultural development of western Europe." (HLWW:85).

    The point is that Islam preserved works that Christians had already preserved (in Constantinople and Nisibis). They did play a part in filtering some of that back into the Western world (largely via Spain), before they suffered their 'dim ages' at the hands of Invaders.

    Summary: The relative numerical 'advantage' of New Testament manuscripts over their classical 'rivals' turns out to NOT be due to Christian destruction of libraries or book collections. Rather, it was largely through the efforts of commited Christians that the classical traditions survived to this day.

    glenn miller, 8/2/96


    The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)