14 February 2005

Forging a Continent

Today is not merely the day when the greeting cards industry compells us to obliquely celebrate the life of an early Christian martyr, whose feast day was itself piggybacked onto an old Roman fertility festival. No, it's also the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, co-patrons of Europe and apostles to the Slavs. Just thought you might like to know.

The incomparable Patrick Leigh Fermor, in that jewel among travel books, A Time of Gifts, tells of how one night in an inn in the Austrian town of Persenbeug, he shared three bottles of wine with a Danubian polymath who, armed with pencil and paper, sketched out the Fall of Rome for him in an incomparably exhiliarating broad-brush fashion:
'Yes,' he had said, 'things were more or less static for a while...' He illustrated this with a pencil-stub on the back of the Neue Freie Prese. A long sweep represented the Danube; a row of buns indicated the races that had settled along the banks; then he filled in the outlines of eastern Europe: '... and suddenly, at last,' he said, 'something happens!' An enormous arrow entered the picture on the right, and bore down on the riverside buns. 'The Huns arrive! Everything starts changing place at full speed!' His pencil leapt feverishly into action. The buns put forth their own arrows of migration and began coiling sinuously about the paper till Mitteleuropa and the Balkans were alive with demons' tails. 'Chaos! The Visigoths take shelter south of of the lower Danube, and defeat the emperor Valens at Adrianople, here!' - he twisted the lead on the paper - 'in 476. Then - in only a couple of decades' - a great loop of pencil swept round the tip of the Adriatic and descended a swiftly outlined Italy '- we get Alaric! Rome is captured! The Empire splits in two -' the pace of his delivery reminded me of a sports commentator '- and the West totters on for half a century or so. But the Visigoths are heading westwards,' and arrow curved to the left and looped into France, which rapidly too shape, followed by the Iberian peninsula. 'Go West, young Goth!' he murmured as his pencil threw off Visigothic kingdoms across France and Spain at a dizzying speed. 'There we are!' he said; then, as an afterthought, he absent-mindedly pencilled in an oval across northern Portugal and Galicia, and I asked him what it was. 'The Suevi, same as the Swabians, more or less: part of the whole movement. But now,' he went on, 'here go the Vandals!' A few vague lines from what looked like Slovakia and Hungary joined together and then swept west in a broad bar that mounted the Danube and advanced into Germany. 'Over the Rhine in 406: then clean across Gaul -' here the speed of his pencil tore a ragged furrow across the paper '-through the Pyrenees three years later - here they come! - then down into Andalusia - hence the name - and hop! - the pencil skipped the imaginary straits of Gibraltar and began rippling eastwards again '- along the north African coast to' he improvised the coast as he went, then stopped with a large black blob - 'Carthage! And all in thirty-three years from start to finish!' His pencil was busy again, so I asked him the meaning of all the dotted lines he had started sending out from Carthage into the Mediterranean. 'Those are Genseric's fleets, making a nuisance of themselves. Here he goes, sacking Rome in 455! There was lots of sea activity just about then.' Swooping to the top of the sheet, he drew a coast, a river's mouth and a peninsula: 'That's the Elbe, there's Jutland.' Then, right away in the left-hand cornerm an acute angle appeared, and above it, a curve like an ample rump; Kent and East Anglia, I was told. In a moment, from the Elbe's mouth, showers of dots were curving down on them: '- and there go your ancestors, the first Angles and Saxons, pouring into Britain only a couple of years before Genseric sacked Rome.' Close to the Saxon shore, he inserted two tadpole figures among the invading dots: what were they? 'Hengist and Horsa,' he said, and refilled the glasses.
And that, folks, is how Europe was born.* Messy, eh?

A Land of Saints and Scholars
Having plucked Thomas Cahill's fascinating, if rather simplistic, How the Irish Saved Civilization from the shelf when I was home, I've been musing over the last couple of days on how that era which most people persist - rather unfairly, really - in calling 'The Dark Ages' has always been known in Ireland as 'The Golden Age'.

The general thesis of the book, and it's broadly accurate, is that for a brief but crucial period after embracing Christianity, Ireland became the intellectual centre of Europe. This was quite a development, since during the Classical period, Ireland was seen as the world's westernmost limit, a barbaric land beyond the Roman Empire, supposedly populated by incestuous cannibals. The tables turned as Rome fell, with Ireland becoming almost the sole candle in the darkness of the West. According to Cahill,
Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, this stood in the position of becoming Europe's publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland. Columcille provided that step.
If Patrick, whose role in this book is somewhat overplayed, should be considered a serious contender for the title of 'Greatest ever Briton', then Columcille, founder of the monastery at Iona, must certainly be one of the brightest stars in the constellation of Ireland's greatest children. His monastery at Iona became a centre of missionary activity throughout what became Scotland and northern England, and inspired countless other missionaries to set out to reevangelise the apostates and Arians of the continent, returning not just their faith to them, but also the learning they had cherished and protected as the lights had gone out across what had been the Pax Romanum.

Having mentioned Patrick, who's the subject of an extraordinarily large chunk of Cahill's book, far larger than the title would suggest, I came across an article about him in the Sunday Independent the other day. The big story, apparently, is that historian Rob Vance has discovered that rivals of Saint Patrick accused him of taking bribes from women who, after conversion would leave jwellery on the altar for him. I'm not entirely sure why this is news, as we hear of converts offering gifts to Patrick - gifts that he refused! - in his Confession. In fact, quite a bit of the Confession, towards the end, is devoted to refuting such allegations, allegations that Cahill plausibly claims arose because his British counterparts couldn't understand what he was doing, couldn't grasp why he was administering to the savage Irish, and assumed he must have gone to Ireland to line his pockets.

Greater than Winnie C? Surely not...
It does strike me as bizarre how few people realise that Patrick was almost certainly British. Whether he was from southern Scotland, north-western England, northern Wales, or the Severn Estuary is impossible to tell, but it's a pretty safe bet that he was British. We have to say British, as the English hadn't yet arrived from Germany, the Scots hadn't yet arrived from Ireland, and the Welsh and the Cornish had yet to be crammed into the corners by the newcomers.

It's well worth reading his Confession and his Letter to Coroticus, which give fascinating insights into fifth century life in these islands. Even if you're not impressed by Patrick's achievement in establishing Christianity throughout the northern half of the country, you'll surely be taken by his pronounced opposition to slavery. It's going to far to claim that he was the first writer ever to advocate slavery's abolition, but reading those two documents his abhorrence for the slave trade, and slavery itself, is clear, and over a thousand years were to pass before anyone else would express in writing a hatred for slavery that rivalled that of Patrick.

I have English friends who get annoyed over why people in England commemmorate the Feast of Saint Patrick - though usually through drunkenness rather than prayer! - but fail to mark Saint George's Day. Maybe they could be consoled by the thought that there's a good chance that Patrick came from what would become England, whereas George seems to have been a Syrian.
*If you're interested, have a read of The Making of Europe by Christopher Dawson, or maybe pick up The Birth of Europe by Jacques Le Goff - I've not read it myself, but I really want to. It sounds excellent.

Oh, and by the way, yes, I know the battle of Adrianople was in 378, not 476. I guess the Polymath got it wrong. 476 saw the death of the last Roman emperor of the west.

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