Friday, July 6, 2012

The End of the Dark Ages

I read a wonderful book by Richter on the monastery at Bobbio, Lombardy, from the early Seventh to the late Eighth centuries. I present it below. But the conclusion which may be drawn is that with the wealth of documents in the Library and the growth of them one could readily deduce that the "Dark Ages" was an artifact of the Renaissance man. In fact the total lack of any comments by Gibbon in his diatribe against Catholics totally ignores this.

Bobbio, by Richter, is an exceptionally well written presentation of the history of the monastery founded by Columbanus in the early 7th century. Richter provides a history of the three hundred years, from early 600s through the late 800s and deals directly with the original sources in a smooth and accessible manner. His writing style is clear and fluid and he provides the history of Bobbio in the context of the surrounding historical settings. It is in many ways an academic tour de force. Richter takes a some what complex set of issues from the 7th through 9th centuries, using the original sources, and makes them flow and readable. As I will comment upon, having some solid secondary school Latin is always a help but not a necessity.

Bobbio was in Lombard territory when founded by Columbanus and at the time the Lombards were Arian Christians, simply they did not believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. Columbanus had been "expelled" from the Merovingian territories, most likely due to his battles with Queen Brunhilda, and having left Frankish lands he settled here. It is then the tale of this monastery from the time of Columbanus that Richter so admirably tells.

The book is concise, some 188 pages, and it is structured to basically follow the history. The first three chapters present the time of Columbanus and his immediate legacy. Richter interspersed his text with excerpts from the originals in 7th century Latin (it starts on p 19 with the writ of exemption). This is actually more useful than most would expect. I found that my Latin, French, and Italian were adequate to handle the inserts but at the same time reading them does provide a sense of how the language was halfway between Cicero and the Scholastics. One can see the mild local differences and the structure is evolving but the inclusion is quite helpful.

Richter does cover the key points concerning Bobbio, especially it exemption from control by the local bishop, which I assume in the 7th century was less of an issue than in the 9th. Furthermore the text, in the first three chapters, is focused on Bobbio and much less of Columbanus. There have been several recent works on Columbanus, none as scholarly as Richter, but it would possibly have been useful if Richter had provided a bit more background from his perspective on Columbanus.

Chapter 4 talks of the Scriptorium in the 7th century. This is a wonderful chapter and it details both the documents from that time and the ones from earlier upon which the documents were overwritten. The discussion on p 73 of the overwriting on Ulfila's Gothic translation of the Bible is intriguing. It would be interesting to hear more just of that discovery alone. The discussion here is quite complete and does set out the controversies and attempts to resolve them. What is interesting and a lingering question is that we see the strong and driving influence and competence of the Irish monks but one wonders just how they came by this. This was not a task of Richter but after reading the volume in toto is screams for an answer.

Chapter 5 speaks somewhat of the century where there were recorded abbots. The discussion on pp 92-93 is of interest in that it presents the potential lingering Irish influence. One of the questions that is not addressed to any significant degree was the openness of the abbey. The Frankish abbeys were allegedly open to lay people, and to some degree they were seen as institutions of learning, not just classic closed abbeys like those of the Benedictines. If this were the case, and given the extent of the Scriptorium in non-religious content, one may wonder.

Chapter 7 discusses the changes during the era of Charlemagne. Chapter 8 presents the economy of the monastery. There is exceptionally complete detail which is presented in a fresh and clear manner.

Chapter 9 was of most interest to me. It was the Library in detail in the 9th century. On pp 154-156 is a details presentation of the key contents and the mix of documents is intriguing. This Chapter by itself if of substantial value.

The remaining chapters provide additional detail and especially the details regarding the movement of the remains of Columbanus.

This book is superbly researched, is readable while being academically of the highest caliber. This provides a well done addition not only to the works regarding Columbanus but also to the early Middle Ages.

For anyone interested in this period, no matter where in Europe the interest may be, this is a highly recommended work.