First, Greek culture and the light of Hellenism began to falter, as their expanding society was split by internal wars. Early attempts at political democracy (while needing to maintain strong militias), especially the famed city state cultures of Athens and Sparta, strained the resources of the region. They made great strides, only to have their science and learning largely subsumed by the ascent of Roman civilization. From those warm Greek hillsides came Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and countless others who would become the foundation for Western political, scientific, philosophical thought.

Roman culture built quickly upon this inheritance, eager to elaborate its own values and beliefs. The fusion of sound reasoning with expedient politics led to the construction of a vibrant, complex and far-reaching urban society. At the height of its power it stretched from Constantinople in the East to Hadrian's Wall in the West, to Alexandria in the South. Roads, private and public mail systems, public libraries, a export book trade, codified laws, an inter-national imperial bureaucracy, and limited representative government were all present at the apex of the Roman Republic.

A sense of unprecedented stability, common destiny, scientific progress and open communication prevailed among the leaders and thinkers of the time; an almost universal hope of limitless potential, through knowledge and inter-connectedness. (...sound familiar?...)

And it was precisely at this point, amid a sense of eternal optimism and limitless possibility, that the fall began.

The Dark Ages:

The reasons behind the fall of Rome have occupied historians for millennia - from before the dissolution of the Roman state actually began, all the way down to our present day. Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, widely considered the greatest piece of historical scholarship of all time, runs eight volumes on the subject. Nomadic barbarian tribes from the Teutonic North and Middle East, economic recession, military expenditure, internal strife, civil disobedience, social decay, lead-lined aqueducts, the 'bread and circuses' policies, corrupt leadership: all have been presented as possibilities, in one combination or another. While the factors of the empire's collapse are still widely disputed, the results are not.

When the administration of Rome began to wither, most forms of regulated commerce, communication and societal coherence went with it. The only organization with any infrastructure left to fill the vacuum was the Church.

"...bishops were men with experience in administration, at least as likely as any other local nobles to be intellectually equipped to grapple with new problems. A semi-pagan population looked to them with superstitious awe and attributed with them near-magical powers. In many places they were the last embodiment of authority left as imperial armies receded and administrations crumbled. They were the lettered men among a new illiterate ruling class..." Roberts, J. M. History of the world. (London: Helicon, 1992)

Rise of Monasticism:

Christian monasticism was born from communities of hermits, which first appeared in the East around Egypt in the 3rd c. with St. Anthony. Slowly a communal aesthetic spread around the Mediterranean, with ideals of undistracted worship, rigid fasting and mortification of the flesh.

By the 5th c., as Roman civil order continued to weaken, this flight from the world grew increasingly attractive to men and women of intellect seeking refuge from the crumbling Empire. In 529, St. Benedict established a hermitage at Monte Cassino in southern Italy, where he complied a new Rule for the lives of his order, putting forward ideals of community, not extremity through study, work, prayer and meditation.

In 590, the Papacy under Gregory (former monk and Roman aristocrat) gathered together the remains of the Roman libraries and archives, then organized missionary campaigns into pagan England (St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived there 596 AD). By the 8th c. Benedict's Rule was to be found in practice in monasteries as far north as Scotland.

"The Church was in these centuries deploying powers which cannot have been distinguished clearly by the faithful from those of magic. It used them to drill a barbaric world into civilization...still after antiquity barter replaced money...spices disappeared from ordinary diets, wine became a costly luxury; people ate and drank bread and porridge, beer and water...subsistence was all there was." Roberts, J. M. History of the world. (London: Helicon, 1992)

The death of Literacy:

Literacy after the collapse of the Roman empire is widely acknowledged to have all but died in most of Europe, where often it had never been strong to begin with. Even Charlemagne, shaper of the Carolingian Dynasty and Renaissance (9th c. AD) never learned to read (though he did try):

"Charlemagne's concerns went beyond the court library to encompass the literary needs of the entire empire...not only providing books for individual collections, but...insuring that the hunting lands allotted to cloisters were providing sufficient leather for the necessary bindings." ~ Karl Christ, The Handbook of Medieval Library History (Metchuen: Scarecrow, 1984)
No small consideration given it is estimated it would take 180 animal skins to produce the parchment for a full text of the Bible. Still, though far and wide, the vast majority of the population might be born and die without ever even setting a finger on a book, let alone have the time or privilege to learn to read.

What does this mean for a society, when it can no longer make its own knowledge and experience permanent? What happens to its stories and history, its science and literature, its beliefs and values?

They become fragile. The first Visigoths who overran Germany, France and Italy in this period, have left behind but scanty evidence of their even having a written culture before their contact with the Christian West. Most of their early oral history is only codified in the mid-6th c. The pontiffs of Rome had to 'bestow' a script and system of writing upon them in order to facilitate governmental communication; "it is only in literature- in the book- that the cultural historical life of a people is securely anchored." (Schottenloher, Books and the western world: a cultural history, London: McFarland, 1989)


The leadership of the Church realized the threat of lost knowledge, having an institutional memory long enough to have witnessed to the disappearance of vast swaths of ancient material as libraries throughout Europe vanished. Meanwhile, the libraries of the East in Baghdad and Cairo, in Medina and Toledo, were whispered to be vast and growing. There were gas-lit streetlamps, running water and gold-spired mosques in the cities of Islam. Knowledge of paper production had hit Baghdad in the 8th c.; it would take three hundred years more to reach Spain, and five centuries to become at all common in Europe.

One of the prime movers in the attempt to revitalize Christian culture came in a monk named Cassiodorus (c.550), who realized the lights of his culture were very near to going out;

"Education implies schools, schools imply libraries, libraries imply books and, at that time, the copying of books. All of these were eventually to become associated with great monasteries...despite the fact they had little to do with the original religious aspirations which gave rise to monasticism...there was nothing in the Rule, for example, about the copying of books; it was Cassiodorus who appears to have initiated the process that was ultimately to make it an almost quintessential part of the monk's duty." (Oakley, F. The medieval experience. Toronto, 1995.)

By 600, there were 200 monasteries in Gaul (France) alone. By 1066, over 300 were established in the British Isles.

The Writing Life:

For the vast majority of the former imperial provinces, subsistence became the true focus and the Church, by controlling a remote network of monasteries, became the sole guardian of knowledge. For almost six centuries, there was bitter hardship as empire gave way to theocratic feudalism.

Yet in the midst of disease and war, drought and famine, 100s of monks in hunderds of monasteries reaching from the British Isles to Palestine, would toil over their task- of writing. The pace of this copying varied greatly; one Flemish scribe, living to be 60, is known to have scripted in his life 19 missals, 3 evangelaries, 2 lectionaries and 4 matins books, in addition to his other duties in the monastery.

Preservation of posterity was the divine motivation in the endless work undertaken by the various brotherhoods. This impetus to preserve was often in conflict with the Church's own doctrine, particularly if a work or author was deemed heretical or dangerous by decree only after some brother had toiled months, six hours a day on average, to meticulously copy out his notes.

This led to the not- infrequent practice or 'renaming' an author, or rendering a text anonymous, in order to comply with the new theological tide. Careless handling of a codex was a venal sin in most monasteries and could lead to a monk's exclusion from the community for three days.

During the 40 days of Lent, according to the 48th chapter of the Rule, each monk was to pore over a book assigned to him. Reading was conducted at all meals and monks, on the rare occassions when they did travel, were proscribed to have a book with them for reading at any point in the journey where he was forced to stop.

Often times the monk would be en route to another monastery, to deliver a book, retrieve one, or copy a manuscript while he was visiting the abbey. In the halls of the buildings themselves, silent reading soon became a rule in the 9th c., presumably in part as a way to maintain harmony as the volume of work in scriptoriums increased along with the need for concentration on maintaining the integrity of the copied text. Monks complained frequently in the margins of a text about their working conditions or supplies : this ink is runny, this parchment is hairy, praise God it will soon be dark, I need a drink, or "It is a painful task. It extinguishes light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body." Book curses, against theft, were also popular, "This books belongs to the Abbey of St. Mary in Arnstein, which, if anyone should take away, may he die surely, by being cooked in a pan, have the falling sickeness and fevers draw near him, may be hung up and twisted around. Amen."

Glossary of codicology terms:

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Thomas Brown, "The Transformation of the Roman Mediterranean, 400-900" and Edward James, "The Northern World of the Dark Ages" in Oxford Illustraded History of Medieval Europe, ed. G. Holmes (London: Oxford, 1988), pp. 1-62; R. Hodges, Dark Age Economics (London, 1982); Robert Delort, Life in the Middle Ages, trans. R. Allen (NY: Lausanne, 1973); David Diringer, The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental (NY: Dover, 1982); Leila Avrin, Scribes, script and books: the book arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago: ALA, 1991); Guila Bologna, Illustrated Manuscripts: The Book Before Gutenberg (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988); Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, 3rd ed. (NY: Fordham, 1995); L.D. Reynolds, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1974); Christopher DeHamel, History of the Illuminated Manuscript (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986); Montague Rhodes James, The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts (NY: MacMillan, 1919); Doris H. Banks, Medieval Manuscript Bookmaking (Scarecrow, 1989); Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, 2nd ed. (Toronto, 1971); Francis Oakley, The Medieval Experience (Toronto, 1993); Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (NY: Meridian, 1960).