All we know we owe to the Irish

Part three of paradigm shifts in mass communication

Last week, I stopped talking about the development and control of mass  with a cryptic reference to Ireland.  To explain that, I need to back up a bit and talk about the Fall of the Roman Empire.

By the time the Roman expansion had reached the British Isles, Christianity had not yet become the state religion but was pretty much the norm.  Christian priests accompanied  the Roman legions to the farthest reaches of the Empire and were busily converting pagan natives.  While Rome did not get as far as Ireland, Irish pirates made regular raids of Roman settlements and one of those raids to the Strathclyde area resulted in the capture of a young boy from a priest's family who had just begun his education in his family's religion.  That boy escaped from Irish slavery about a dozen years later and went home to complete his education ... and immediately went back to Ireland to begin converting the natives.  We know him today as St. Patrick.

This is noteworthy for several reasons.  One reason is that Patrick was very successful in his mission in spite of the fact that he did it without military support or physical coersion.  Irish monks and priests began a tradition of copying every piece of literature and information they couid get their hands on, including the Bible, the combined works of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, theological treatises, history, Greek and Roman mythologies -- just about everything ever created and housed by Western Civilization

Christianity swept through Ireland so fast that before Patrick died, the Irish church was sending out missionaries to pagan Scotland.  By then, however, the Roman Empires was under assault from Northern European pagan tribes and Legions in the far reaches, like Britain were being recalled to fight what was to be a lost war.  Eventually, the Germanic tribes invaded Rome itself and burned everything they didn't find of value.  That included the Roman libraries.  Combined with the loss of the library at Alexandria, that meant that most of the written knowledge of the Western world was nothing but ashes.  Roman culture went into steep decline and the church found itself under siege.

But in Ireland, the church kept growing and copying books like crazy.  This went on for several centuries and Christian communities in Ireland became healthy, peaceful and well fed.  Perfect targets for Vikings.

Viking raids became the norm.  They needed food and it was plentiful in Ireland.  So was lumber for ships (Ireland used to be heavily forested.)  The southern Ireland port city of Waterford was founded by Vikings and became a boat building center.  Under King John's Castle in Limerick is an archeological dig of a major Viking settlement.  

The Viking's did not really care for Christianity so they made it tough for the priests and monks who eventually hopped in their coracles (skin boats with sails) and headed off for parts unknown.  The ones that didn't go west to find the North American continent (about 200 years before the first Vikings arrived on the west coast of Europe and started heading east... bring copies of all the literature they had been copying over centuries with them.  The kept heading toward Rome, but several stopped along the way to found communities that became well known cities in Europe today (like Lyon, France) and rebuilding the libraries that had been destroyed.

Before the Roman collapse, media was a partnership of the government and the church.  The priestly class had provided the labor, but the government housed and protected it.  With the return of what was lost, both in the content and the ability to create it, the control and stewardship of media was now completely under control of the church.  That's where it remained for several centuries until a german inventor realized that there was a way to do it without pen and ink.  

That's a story for next week.