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Joseph Mccabe Religious Controversy Chapter 20

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The Story Of Religious Controversy

Chapter XX

by Joseph McCabe

The Church and the School


The Moral Value of Education

“YOU have one argument that seriously troubles me,” said a distinguished and earnest Christian to me some years ago; “the fact that the world steadily improves while religion steadily decays.”

That fact must perplex every religious man or woman who looks out upon the world without tinted glasses. I claim and I can conclusively establish, that there was never before on this earth as fine a generation as this unbelieving generation of ours; that character is finest in the least religious countries, and especially in the cities where the men and women who worship God are in a minority; and that those generous impulses which make our age, with all its defects, the happiest and most refined that ever was, arise from humanitarian, not Christian, sentiment.

Even writers who are not Christian have been puzzled by this seeming paradox. Forty years ago a Positivist writer, Mr. J. Cotter Morison, wrote a fine and learned work (“The Service of Man”) in which he hailed the coming of “the kingdom of man” which he saw succeeding “the kingdom of God,” but he thought that the world would have to pay a price for the change. “Signs are not wanting,” he said, “that the prevalent anarchy in thought is leading to anarchy in morals.”

This sentence was much quoted by clerical writers, as a Rationalist admission of our degeneracy, but it is just one of those sentences which show the foolishness of making concessions to the religious apologist. Not only does Cotter Morison fail to point out these “signs,” but the whole of the contents of his valuable work support the opposite conclusion. The book is one long exposure of the moral futility of Christianity. It examines “morality in the ages of faith” (Chap. vii) very thoroughly and mercilessly, and to speak of us as immoral in comparison with those ages is simply amusing. Fifty pages after declaring that our skepticism is engendering some “anarchy in morals” our moralist, when he comes to face the facts, writes such sentences as these:

The Ages of Faith were emphatically ages of crime, of gross and scandalous wickedness, of cruelty, and, in a word, of immorality. And it is noteworthy that, in proportion as we recede backward from the present age, and return into the Ages of Faith, we find that the faith rises steadily as we penetrate into the past, almost with the regularity which marks the rise of the physical temperature of the air as we descend into a deep mine; but a neglect and defiance of morality are found to ascend into a corresponding ratio. … A progressive improvement has taken place in men’s conduct, both public and private; but it has coincided, not with an increase, but with a decay, of faith. This, beyond any question, is the most moral age which the world has seen (p. 53).

Every theorist about our degeneration thus breaks down when he confronts the facts, and it is misleading to quote the mere rhetoric of the Positivist writer without adding the exact historical statements which follow. The same thing is found in Lecky’s books; and the clergy, of course, quote the sentiments and ignore the facts.

Here I would point out that, if this most delicate of critics agrees with me that “this is the most moral age which the world has seen,” yet inconsistently talks of moral anarchy, which ought to mean the collapse of a better order, it shows that there is a wide- spread feeling that the decay of religion might be expected to entail such anarchy.

And an important part of the answer to this suspicion, or the solution of this dilemma, is the moral influence of education. The ages of faith were ages of gross ignorance: ours is the best educated age upon which the sun has ever shone. The sanest thinker that America has yet produced, Lester F. Ward, predicted long ago that general education would raise the race to a higher moral level, in every sound sense of the word “moral.” Today no man can question the truth of the principle he enunciated,

This at once casts upon the Christian Church a peculiar responsibility in regard to education. No one will question that very ignorant men and women may have high character, and that very cultured individuals may have a low standard of conduct. It has been my good fortune to meet every variety of character, of every color of skin, every degree of wealth or poverty, ignorance or learning; and I know as well as any what fineness of disposition and manliness of spirit may be found in a thousand-dollar cottage, what mean and sordid ways may go with complete education, Yet the general truth is inexorable. A nation that is grossly ignorant to the extent of ninety percent of its people is generally a gross nation. Reduce its illiteracy to ten percent, and its general standard of conduct rises.

Since this truth has been perceived, there is the usual eagerness to claim that the Christian Church long ago knew and acted upon it. Christianity gave the world schools, says H.G. Wells. Christianity is “the best friend that learning ever had,” Mr. William Jennings Bryan wrote in his last speech. From extreme right to extreme left of the religious world the claim is made. And just as I have shown the falseness of the Church’s claim to have emancipated woman and the slave, so I propose now to show that this claim also is the precise reverse of the truth. The facts of history prove that:


  1. The pagan power to which Christianity succeeded in Europe had already given the world a fine general system of education.
  2. Christianity contemplated the complete ruin of this school-system without a murmur, indeed applauded its disappearance, and made no effort to replace it.
  3. So little was done in the way of education during the thousand years of absolute Christian domination that more than ninety percent of the people in every Christian nation were illiterate and densely ignorant.
  4. The modern school-systems which have opened the eyes of the masses and enabled them to rise are due entirely to secular sentiment, and their development was in most cases opposed and retarded by the Churches.


I wish there were some recording angel who could lay at the august feet of the Pope and his cardinals a veracious chronicle of what women, workers, and children have suffered since the end of the fourth century. We saw how woman fell with the fabric of Roman law, and had to wait for modern skepticism to end her long degradation. We saw how the workers passed from slavery to serfdom and from serfdom to the degraded and degrading conditions in which the nineteenth century found them.

Who will tell what children have suffered since the golden eagles of Rome were thrown into the dust for priests to trample upon? “Children are the guests of humanity,” said the Rationalist Robert Owen, beautifully. But there was, you Protest, no need for Robert Owen to discover that, for every Christian in the world had the equally beautiful words of Christ … Yes, I know. Yet, somehow, what Robert Owen found, eighteen hundred years after Christ had spoken, was that most of the children of the Christian nation in which he lived suffered hell. There was a blanched look, the pallor of the slave, on the face of the nation’s childhood. At the age of six or seven such of them as had survived the ghastly perils and illnesses of the dreary, drainless home and the fetid street were sent to work; and when twelve hours work a day, in a suffocating atmosphere, were too much for their young frames, no one then stayed the hand that laid a leather strap or an iron bar upon their shoulders.

That was the factory system, you protest. It was recent. Had they, then, been in paradise before? From the fifth to the nineteenth century half of them died before they knew the strong joy of early manhood and womanhood. Four out of eight were laid in “God’s acre” — the cynicism of it! — before their hearts had known more than the scanty and trivial pleasures of a child in the world of serfdom.

Did you ever see Maurice Maeterlinck’s beautiful symbolic play “The Blue Bird”? How one would love to think that his pretty land of memory, where the dead children played in never-fading sunshine, were a real heaven somewhere for those countless millions of children who have been martyred during the last fifteen hundred years. But there is no heaven. Their little bones are dust. Their souls never grew to maturity.

If by some miracle those children of the past could peep into our world they would say that the paradise of children had come at last. Our life is dreary enough for the children of the poor. But there is a concern for the child, a care of the child, a protection of the child from cruelty, a provision of entertainment, a crusade against disease, a scattering of little pleasures, which were never known in the world before. Surely a dreadful age, this godless age of ours!

I said “never known in the world before,” and it must follow that paganism had not these things. We must admit it. This generation of ours has advanced beyond any earlier generation, especially in that most refined mark of unselfish character, the service to children.

In justice both to Christianity and to paganism we must remember that it is science that has done most to brighten the life of the child, and neither of them had science. We may justly ask how it was that the world had to wait fifteen centuries for the development of those germs of science which appeared in early Greece, but that is another question. Our world is not merely willing, but able, to do for the child what no previous civilization could have done, even if it had dreamed of the ideal. The wealth alone created by modern science is colossal. The United States has a little more than the population which the Roman Empire had in its best days: but it has hundreds of times the collective wealth of the Roman Empire. Education, as we have it, was not possible until our time.

Thus even what is called the materialistic triumph of our age has a most important relation to our general standard of character. It has enabled us to create an educational system which will, when its errors are eliminated, when it becomes entirely practical and is freed from pedantry and academic nonsense, lift the race to a still higher level. It has made possible philanthropic schemes which dwarf all the “charity” of previous ages. Yet when one has made every allowance for our greater resources it remains true that we have, since we began to discard Christianity, a finer and more generous feeling as well as a surplus of wealth. Christianity wrought woman actual evil; it did nothing for the mass of the workers; and what it pretends to have done for the child we find to have been as illusory as all its other social claims.


The Child Under Paganism

Any properly informed apologist will at this point take down his copy of Lecky’s “History of European Morals,” and he would like to make me blush by confronting me with the admissions of that learned Rationalist historian. George Eliot once maliciously said that Lecky’s fundamental principle was: “Two and two certainly make four, but it does not do to press these things too far.” Many people follow that amiable maxim, but the witticism is not quite just to Lecky. Nearer the truth is the remark which an American consul once made to me: that Lecky tried so hard to stand up straight that he occasionally fell backward. His compliments to the Christian Church are almost always undone by the facts he gives.

Lecky dwells on the three services of the new religion to the child which the more cultivated apologist would claim. In point of fact, I am not sure that there is any apologist sufficiently informed to abandon the common claim that Christianity gave the world education; although — I ask the reader who has access to a decent library to verify this, as it must seem impossible there is not one authoritative manual of the history of education (Kapps, Denk, Paroz, Letourneau, Compayri, Seeley, Boyd, etc.) which does not make that claim ridiculous. However, apart from education, the apologist will warmly plead that Christianity rendered to the child three mighty services by abolishing the practices of abortion, the exposure of children, and infanticide.

I shall not linger long over abortion. It is generally to be deprecated on the ground of health and risk. It may in a nation with a shrinking population (which no nation now has) have a social aspect. But it is not (except legally) a crime or a vice. The Fathers of the Church put it on a level with murder because they thought that the foetus had an immortal soul. We don’t. In our age it ought not to be practiced to any great extent because science has provided contraceptives. In the ancient world it was inevitable; and even in our world I should call any theologian who forbade an unfortunate unmarried girl to resort to it a moral pervert.

But I dismiss the point briefly because there is not the least positive evidence that the Church even reduced the practice. The Fathers condemned it, certainly. There was not much in connection with sex that they did not condemn. The Stoics also condemned it. Lecky himself — though he unfortunately leaves all his Stoic quotations in Latin, so that the clergy cannot read them — shows that Seneca, Juvenal and others condemned it. He quotes Favorinus saying that abortion deserves “public detestation and the hatred of all men.” One association of doctors in Rome compelled its members to swear that they would never give drugs for abortion. But neither Christian nor pagan ever succeeded in putting a stop to it. All through the ages it has continued, Even now, when preventives are known to everybody … I will give only one fact. In a very large American city, where a third of the population are Catholics (forbidden to use preventives), a man of exceptional information in such matters told me that two hundred physicians of the city practiced abortion and were sufficiently organized to disarm the curiosity of the police.

The exposure of children and infanticide were real evils of the pagan world. The old Roman law did not reach across the threshold of a man’s house. The father had power of life and death over his wife, his children, and his slaves. The new-born child was brought to him, and be decided whether he would “receive it into the family.” If he refused to take the baby-girl in his arms, she was taken out of the house and hid in a public place, where slave- dealers or baby-farmers found and reared it. Legally the father could have her stifled.

This was barbaric: a relic of the barbaric days of the Romans, which were not far away. But the preacher who imagines Roman fathers callously killing their baby-girls, or flinging them out into the street, until the Christian Church became powerful enough to intervene, simply does not know what he is talking about. Even scholars who ought to know better grossly exaggerate the situation. Dr. Fairbairn, for instance, shudderingly says of the pagan children: “The very sense of their rights was not yet born: the feeling of obligation toward them waited on the footsteps of Christ.” He impresses his religious readers by giving, a reference to Mommsen, the greatest authority on the Roman Republic. If they troubled to look up Mommsen (“Roman History,” i, 74), which they never do, they would find this: “The moral obligations of parents toward their children were fully and deeply felt by the Roman nation.” Any authority will tell you that. Dr. Emil Reich, the Protestant writer on Rome, says (“History of Civilization,” p. 371 “It would be the easiest thing in the world to accumulate examples of the most tender charity practiced by these immoral Romans.” Strange if they slew their baby-girls and then showed a most tender charity to other people’s children.

Let us take infanticide, which is far more serious than abortion. Most critics of pagan Rome would refer us to Lecky’s “History,” where it is described as “one of the deepest stains of the ancient civilization” and “a crying vice of the empire” (ii, 12). The apologist stops there. It is enough for pulpit purposes. But it is constructive lying to quote these phrases alone.

What Lecky says is that “pagan and Christian writers united in speaking of infanticide as a crying vice of the empire.” We pass the Christian writers. They called abortion infanticide. But who are the pagan authorities, and are they merely speaking rhetorically? Knowing how Lecky, who is always sound in his facts, has a weakness for saying things which religious readers like, we are not very much surprised to find that he does not give a single pagan authority for his strong statement; and it is his custom to give his authorities most liberally in footnotes.

He quotes two writers of fiction (the comedian Terence and the story-writer Apuleius) each of whom makes one of his characters direct his wife to kill a new-born baby girl; and in each occasion, even in fiction, the wife is too humane to do it! Then he quotes Seneca and certain Greek writers saying, with approval, that “portentous” or “weak and monstrous” new-born babes-monstrosities, in short, or defective babies — are and ought to be destroyed. There are plenty of very humane men and doctors who say the same today.

Lecky does not give any evidence that the theoretical right of the Roman father to kill was ever exercised to any extent. He says that “infanticide never appears to have been common in Rome till the corrupt and sensual days of the Empire.” He gives no evidence that it was common in those days, and he adds: “The legislators then absolutely condemned it.” In fact, on the very same page he writes this passage, which ought to be studied by every apologist:

The power of life and death, which in Rome was originally conceded to the father over his children, would appear to involve an unlimited permission of infanticide; but a very old law, popularly ascribed to Romulus, in this respect restricted the parental rights, enjoining the father to bring up all his male children, and at least his eldest female child, forbidding him to destroy any well-formed child till it had completed its third year, when the affection of the parent might be supposed to be developed, but permitting the exposition of deformed or maimed children with the consent of their five nearest relations.

Not so barbaric, after all! In fact, Lecky himself gives a case under Augustus — that is to say, “in the corrupt and sensual days of the empire” — of a father using his legal right to execute a delinquent son, and he says that the act provoked the indignation of Rome. The Emperor Hadrian banished a man who had killed his son for adultery with his step-mother; and the Stoic lawyer Marcianus praised the emperor, saying that “the power of a father should be displayed in affection, not atrocity.” In fine, we have this singular situation which Lecky notices without a smile, that one of the commonest ways of provoking a pagan mob against the Christians was to accuse them of infanticide! Strange, if infanticide was one of the “crying evils” of the pagans themselves, that the mere rumor of it infuriated them.

Apart, therefore, from maimed, deformed, or very feeble children, whom the Romans had no science to cure, we have no evidence of this alleged prevalence of infanticide. With the exposure of the new-born female babe it was different. But even here it is quite false to say that the pagan moralists did not condemn the practice, or that the Church caused it to be abandoned, or even materially reduced it.

The Stoic lawyers of the first and second centuries tried to prevent exposure by making it equivalent to infanticide. It was no Christian, but the great pagan lawyer Paulus, three centuries before the Church had any influence, who said (“Digest,” bk. xxv, title iii, line 4): “Death is inflicted not only by the man who smothers the new-born child, but by him also who casts it away, who denies it food, who exposes it in public places to receive a mercy which he himself does not possess.” It was the pagan Emperor Trajan who decreed that an exposed child could not be made a slave; and it was the Christian Emperor Constantine who reversed this law. It was the pagan Emperors Caracalla and Diocletian who attempted to check the traffic in children,


Education in the Roman Empire

By the second half of the fourth century, the period when Christianity took over the rule of the world, there was in the Roman Empire a general system of elementary schools for the children of the workers. The children of the wealthy were, of course, educated at home. generally by freedmen, but all the evidence goes to show that the children of the workers quite generally were, at the expense of the municipality, taught to read and write and cipher.

We have no statistics. How many schools there were even in Rome, how far there were schools in rural districts, what proportion of the population could read and write, are questions that we cannot answer. But we have ample evidence that a network of primary schools spread over the empire. St. Augustine, for instance, was born in 354 A.D. in the very small Roman town of Thogaste, in what is now Algeria. He, as a matter of course, found and attended a free elementary school in his native town, to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. When he had mastered these elementary accomplishments, he passed to the “grammar” (or high) school in the same small Africo-Roman town. His parents intended him for the bar, and he was, at the age of sixteen, sent to a still higher school, the school of rhetoric. Even for this he did not need to go to Carthage. After a few further years he was sent to the great school at Carthage, which might be likened to the modern university.

It is quite clear from Augustine’s own words that for this education as such nothing was paid; and we have the decrees of the emperors fixing the salaries which the municipality had to pay teachers. From this one experience, therefore, we may realize the general condition of the civilized parts of the Roman Empire. Small towns like Thogaste had a free grammar school as well as free elementary schools. Literacy must have been the general condition; and, in fact, ancient Pompeii, with its names cut in marble slabs at every street corner, shows that the people were generally literate.

The elementary school was so poor that we have no difficulty in believing that there was one wherever there were a few score children to each. Quite commonly it was held in the porch of a house, with sheets of canvas at each end, and the teacher received a miserable payment. He usually had some other means of livelihood in addition, yet he was proverbially a poor man. “Cabbage cooked a second time kills wretched schoolmasters,” says a famous line of Horace. Such schools could be multiplied all over the empire, and the imperial decrees give us an assurance that they were.

We may, therefore, assume that the great majority of the free citizens of the empire could read and write. In those paperless days writing would not be a matter of much consequence, but it was taught in the elementary school. Tablets coated with wax were used, and one wrote with a stylus, pointed at one end for writing, and broad and flat at the other end for erasing. Simple arithmetic also was taught, and literary men of the time have left us their grumbles at the noise made by the children as they sang their “twice two is four.” The Church, in short, came to power in a world where the middle class were gentlemen and the great mass of the workers had at least learned to read and write. In the year 400, when the triumph of Christianity was complete, the leaders of the Church found a complete government system of schools radiating from Rome over the entire empire. Paganism had created those schools. What was the attitude of the Church toward them?


What the Church Did

In the course of the fifth century this Roman system of schools was entirely destroyed. By the year 400, as I said, Christianity had become, by imperial decree, the sole religion of the empire, which means of the entire civilized world apart from India and China. By the year 500, there was not a single trace left of the pagan structure of schools. No writer on education can prove the existence of a single school in Europe at that date. To say, therefore, that Christianity gave the world schools, when its triumph was followed by the annihilation of the finest system of education the world ever had until the second half of the nineteenth century, is a constructive untruth of a monumental character; for there is not the least controversy anywhere about these two facts — that the pagan Romans of the fourth century had a fine system of general and higher education, and that the whole of it perished in the fifth century.

Although I was for several years a professor, and ultimately head of a college, in the Church of Rome, I then knew nothing whatever about these facts. We merely copied from earlier apologists, and repeated the traditional claim that “Christianity gave the world education.” These traditional claims we never dreamed of checking by modern authorities. The preacher who repeats them today is usually honest. They are given to him as part of his clerical education. They occur still, as brazenly as ever, in his apologetic literature. There is not one preacher in a thousand who goes further and inquires if the facts, as given in modern history, support the claims he makes.


Learning in the Middle Ages

How profound was the night that now enveloped Europe, and how fully the Church was responsible for it, may be gathered from a letter written by Pope Gregory “the Great” to a French bishop. Gregory ruled the Church from 590 to 604 A.D. The triumph of Christianity was now complete. Paganism was very dead; and civilization had almost expired with it. Rome had not been destroyed by the Goths, but it was suffered, decade by decade, to fall into ruin by the forty thousand miserable and grossly ignorant Christians who now moved, like lizards, amongst the moldering buildings that had once housed a million happy, open-eyed folk. Europe at large was correspondingly desolate.

Gregory, who ascended the chair of Peter in 590, was a monk. Ah, the Catholic will say, one of that glorious army of industrious scholars who preserved for all time the treasures of classic literature … We shall see. I would rather point out that Gregory, before be became a monk, had been a Roman patrician, a rich man of the standards of the time, even Prefect of Rome. He was by no means a peasant or an emancipated serf. But what a fall from the patricians of pagan days: refined and cultivated men who would spend hours polishing a short letter to a friend or preparing a public oration.

Gregory expected the end of the world. I tell elsewhere how he laid the foundation of the temporal power and wealth of the Papacy through this fortunate belief of his that the end of the world was really approaching at last. A man with possessions, the Bible said, had as much hope of getting through the eye of a needle as of getting through the narrow gate of heaven. So the men who had large estates in Italy passed them over to the Papacy and looked for the heavens to open. The Pope became a prince; and a few more forgeries, a century later, would make him a king. However, Gregory did believe that the last trumpet would soon sound in the ears of the mortals, and so nothing but virtue mattered. He heard that Bishop Desiderius, of Vienne in Gaul, was conducting a small school, and he wrote him a letter (Migne edition, bk. XI, ep. liv) of which I may translate a passage:

After that we heard a thing that cannot be repeated without a feeling of shame — namely, that you are teaching grammar to some. This troubled us so greatly, and filled us with so deep a disdain, that we fell from our former praise of you to mourning and sorrow, because the praise of Jove must never be heard from the mouth that praises Christ. Think how grave and horrible it is for a bishop to repeat what even a religious layman should not. And, though our beloved son the presbyter Candidus denied the affair, at our pressing inquiry, and tried to excuse you, ye have not lost the suspicion, because it is so execrable for this to be said of a priest that it must be strictly investigated.

Desiderius is, in fine, to give up “studying trifles and secular letters” if he is to return to the Pope’s favor.

The latest Catholic apologist for the atrocities of his Church, Dr. H.A. Mann, contends in his “Lives of Popes” — a marvelous piece of whitewashing — that Bishop Desiderius had been teaching the classics in church. I have translated the relevant passage of the letter in full so that the reader may see for himself that this is a quite unscrupulous defense. The bishop’s fault was, pure and simple, that he was teaching “profane letters.” This was “execrable,” “horrible,” etc. The age of education was over. Father Mann tries to support his theory by quoting some praise of secular learning from what he calls Gregory’s “Commentary on the First Book of Kings.” Even the Benedictine monks who edit Gregory’s works admit that this work is spurious. It was written by an admirer who in the main reproduces Gregory’s sermons, but — the art of shorthand had been lost, of course — mixes his own ideas with those of the Pope.

After Gregory’s death there was a tradition in the Church, reproduced in the “Polycraticus” (ii, 26) of John Salisbury, that the Pope had burned the old Roman libraries which still remained on the Capitoline and the Palatine Hills. I have little doubt that the tradition is correct. Civilization was to be killed, Somehow it meant love, joy, and beauty: things which any saint loathed. In any case, Gregory, the greatest Pope in many centuries, thundered out the orders of the Papacy: no schools. A very tame sort of “profane” culture had been provided by the grammarian Donatus, the teacher of St. Jerome, and it is probably this that the French bishop gave in his schools. In his most famous work, the “Magna Moralia,” the largest volume of sheer nonsense ever put together, Gregory pours scorn even on these innocent “rules of Donatus.”

Let the reader understand clearly what is meant. I am not speaking of the mass of the people. They remained universally in the densest ignorance. Of schools for them there was no question. A bishop of Laon (in France) of the eleventh century says: “There is more than one bishop who cannot name the letters of the alphabet on his fingers.” Ordinary priests had not the slightest understanding of the Latin they mumbled. Even the secretaries of the Papacy at Rome sent out their documents in the most atrocious Latin, full of common grammatical errors. Kings and nobles could not sign their names. Their signatures had to be cut for them in wood and stamped on documents. The illiteracy of Europe had increased to more than ninety-nine percent.

That there were schools for teaching clerics how to read the Bible and the Breviary may be taken for granted, but they were so obscure and paltry that pedagogists can hardly find the names of any of them. As to the monks — I imagine my Catholic reader waiting on tiptoe for me to come to these famous monks of the Middle Ages — their supposed literary activity is as priceless a legend as that of the early martyrs.

The French writer Montalembert is responsible for the myth. His discovery that “every monastery was a school” is still quoted everywhere, though every serious historian of education will tell you that not one monastery in one hundred educated even its own monks. He tells about the fervor for copying manuscripts, the great libraries, of the monks. Why, he says, we know that in one monastery (at Novaless) there were six thousand seven hundred hand- written books! Yes: and at the same time the Moors in Spain had seventy public libraries besides private collections, one of which contained six hundred thousand books. And in pagan days the library of Alexandria had contained seven hundred thousand books. The Julian library at Rome (which, with others, the Pope is said to have burned) contained one hundred and twenty thousand books.

The overwhelming majority of the monasteries of the Middle Ages were colonies of fat and gross sensualists, mainly hypocritical peasants, who could not write their own names. Impossible? In his “History of Pedagogy” Compayre shows that at the close of the thirteenth century, which is supposed to be the most intellectual and scholarly period of the Middle Ages, not one single monk in the largest and greatest monastery of France, St. Gall, could read or write! From the days of St. Augustine, who found himself compelled to write a book against monks (“Contra Monachos”) within a century of their appearance in Europe, until the Reformation serious Christian literature is full of stern indictments of the piggish idleness and the hypocrisy of the monks.

“Without these [monastic] copyists,” says the wonderful Montalembert, “we should possess nothing — absolutely nothing — of classic antiquity.” Catholic writers repeat this, and Catholics all over the world have a gloriously vague idea that we owe our Plato and Aristotle and all the Greek works we so justly treasure to the monks of the early Middle Ages. Whereas any expert on the subject will tell you that we owe not one single genuine piece of Greek literature to the monks, unless it be Aristotle’s “Dialectics,” which is disputed. Professor Heeren, who has made special research into this question (“Geschichte des Studiums der Klassischen Literatur”) says that until the time of Charlemagne (who made the monks work) there was not a monastery in Europe that “rendered any service whatever in connection with classical literature” (p.101).

Let the Catholic use his own common sense in the matter. Does he really imagine his pious monks spending the hours between their prayers in copying what he calls the obscenities of Apuleius, the amorous verse of Horace, the adventures of the gods and goddesses in Ovid? A moment’s reflection will tell him what really happened. Greek literature was preserved in the Greek Empire, and was conveyed to Europe by the Jews and Moors. As to Latin literature, genuinely religious monasteries regarded it, like Tertullian, as “inspired by the devil,” and would not look at it; and the great bulk of the monasteries were too gross and ignorant to do any copying. (Fortunately, in every age there was an abbot or a bishop here and there who loved a cup of wine and a maid as well as Horace did, and they preserved the treasure for us.) Copies even of the Latin classics were exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages, Heeren shows, although a parchment-book lasted practically forever.

Where the monks did spend any part of their time in “the writing room,” they were, naturally, copying the Fathers of the Church and later Christian literature. In a corner of the great British National Library at London there is a full collection (the Migne collection) of the works of the Fathers, Latin and Greek: five or six hundred large quarto volumes of closely printed … what shall I call it? No one seems to approach this gallery of literary fossils except myself. It is all waste paper from the modern point of view. And that is almost all we owe to the famous monks. Heeren insists that they destroyed more classical works than the barbarians did.


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