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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

WHATEVER were the real causes of the downfall of the ancient civilization, its immediate instrument was the fury of the barbarian invasions, directed again and again against the institutions in which it was embodied. First one came down upon the devoted Empire, and then another; and “that which the palmer worm left, the locust ate; and what the locust left, the mildew destroyed.” Nay, this succession of assaults did not merely carry on and finish the process of destruction, but rather undid the promise and actual prospect of recovery. In the interval between blow and blow, there was a direct tendency to a revival of what had been trodden down, and a restoration of what had been defaced; and that, not only from any such reaction as might take place in the afflicted population itself, when the crisis was over, but from the incipient domestication of the conqueror, and the introduction of a new and vigorous element into the party and cause of civilization. The fierce soldier was vanquished by the captive of his sword and bow. The beauty of the southern climate, the richness of its productions, the material splendour of its cities, the majesty of the imperial organization, the spontaneous precision of a routine administration, the influence of religion upon the imagination and the affections, antiquity, rule, name, prescription, and territory, presented to him in visible and recognized forms,—in a word, the conservative power proper to establishments,—awed, overcame, and won, the sensitive and noble savage. “Order is heaven’s first law,” and bears upon it the impress of divinity; and it has an especial power over those minds which have had least experience of it. The Goth not only took pay, and sought refuge, from the Empire, but, still more, when, instead of dependent, he was lord and master, he found himself absorbed into and assimilated with the civilization, upon which he had violently thrust himself. Had he been left in possession, great revolutions certainly, but not dissolution, would have been the destiny of the social framework; and the tradition of science and of the arts of life would have been unbroken.

Thus, in the midst of the awful events which were then in progress, there were intervals of respite and of hope. The day of wrath seemed to be passing away; things began to look up, and the sun was on the point of coming out again. Statesmen, who watched the signs of the times, perhaps began to say, that at last they did think that the worst was over, and that there were good grounds for looking hopefully at the state of affairs. Adolphus, the successor of Alaric, took on himself the obligations of a Roman general, assumed the Roman dress, accepted the Emperor’s sister in marriage, and opposed in arms the fiercer barbarians who had overrun Spain. The sons of Theodoric the Visigoth were taught Virgil and Roman Law in the schools of Gaul. Theodoric, the Ostrogoth, anxiously preserved the ancient monuments of Rome, and ornamented the cities of Italy with new edifices; he revived agriculture, promoted commerce, and patronized literature. But the Goth was not to retain the booty which the Roman had been obliged to relinquish; he had soon, in company with his former foe, to repel the Vandal, the Hun, or the Frank; or, weakened from within, to yield to the younger assailants who were to succeed him. Then the whole work of civilization had to begin again—if indeed there was to be a new begining; or rather there was not life enough left in its poor remains, to vivify the fresh mass of barbarism which fell heavily upon it, or even to save itself from a final extinction. As great Cæsar fell, not under one, but under twenty strokes; so it was only by many a cleaving, many a shattering blow, “scalpri frequentis ictibus et tunsione plurimâ,” that the existing fabric of the old world, to which Cæsar, more than any other, had given name and form, was battered down. It was the accumulation, the reiteration of calamities, in every quarter and through a long period, by “the rain falling, and the floods coming, and the winds blowing and breaking upon that house,” that it fell, “and great was the fall thereof.”

The judgments of God were upon the earth, and “the clouds returned after the rain;” and as a thunder cloud careers around the sky, and condenses suddenly here or there, and repeats its violence when it seems to have been spent, so was it with the descent of the North upon the South. There was scarcely a province of the great Empire, but twice or thrice had to sustain attack, invasion, or occupation, from the barbarian. Till the termination of the reign of the Antonines, for a hundred and fifty years, the long peace continued, which the Prince of Peace brought with Him; then a fitful century of cloud and sunshine, hope and fear, suspense and affliction; till at length, just at the middle of the third century of our era, the trumpet sounded, and the time of visitation began. The tremendous period opened in a great pestilence, and in an eruption of the barbarians both on the East and on the West. The pestilence lasted for fifteen years; and, though sooner brought to an end than that more awful pestilence in St. Gregory’s day with which the season of judgment closed, yet in that fifteen years it made its way into every region and city of the Empire. Many cities were emptied; Rome at one time lost 5,000 inhabitants daily, Alexandria lost half her population. As to the barbarians, the Franks on the West descended into Spain; and the Goths on the East into Asia Minor.

Asia Minor had had a long peace of three hundred years, a phenomenon almost solitary in the history of the world, and difficult for the imagination to realize. Its cities were unwalled; military duties had been abolished; the taxes were employed on the public buildings and the well-being and enjoyments of life; the face of the country was decorated and diversified by the long growth and development of vegetation, by the successive accumulations of art, and by the social memorials and reminiscences of nine peaceful generations. Its parks and groves, its palaces and temples, were removed further by a hundred years from the injuries of warfare, than England is now from the ravages of the Great Rebellion. Down came the Goths from Prussia, Poland, and the Crimea; they sailed along the Euxine, ravaged Pontus and Bithynia, sacked the wealthy Trebizond and Chalcedon, and burned the imperial Nicæa and Nicomedia, and other great cities of the country; then they fell upon Cyzicus and the cities on the coast, and finally demolished the famous temple of Diana at Ephesus, the wonder of the world. Then they passed over to the opposite continent, sacked Athens, and spread dismay and confusion, if not conflagration, through both upper Greece and the Peloponnese. At the same solemn era, the Franks fell upon Spain, and ran through the whole of it, destroying flourishing cities, whose ruins lay on the ground for centuries, nor stopped till they had crossed into Africa.

A second time, at a later date, was Spain laid waste by the Vandals and their confederates, with an utter desolation of its territory. Famine became so urgent, that human flesh was eaten; pestilence so rampant, that the wild beasts multiplied among the works of man. Passing on to Africa, these detestable savages cut down the very fruit-trees, as they went, in the wantonness of their fury; and the inhabitants of the plundered cities fled away with such property as they could save beyond sea. A new desolation of Africa took place two centuries later, when the Saracens passed in a contrary direction from Egypt into Spain.

Nor were the Greek and Asiatic provinces, more than the West, destined to be protected against successive invasions. Scarcely a hundred years had passed since the barbarian Goth had swept so fiercely each side of the Egean, when additional blows fell upon Europe and Asia from fresh enemies. In Asia the Huns poured down upon Cappadocia, Cilicia, and Syria, scaring the pagans of Antioch, and the monks and pilgrims of Palestine, silencing at once the melody of immodest song and of holy chant, till they came to the entrance of Egypt. In Europe it was the Goths again, who descended with fire and sword into Greece, desolated the rich lands of Phocis and Bœotia, destroyed Eleusis and its time-honoured superstitions, and passing into the Peloponnese, burned its cities and enslaved its population. About the same time the fertile and cultivated tract, stretching from the Euxine to the Adriatic, was devastated by the same reckless invaders, even to the destruction of the brute creation. Sixty years afterwards the same region was overrun by the still more terrible Huns, who sacked as many as seventy cities, and carried off their inhabitants. This double scourge, of which Alaric and Attila are the earlier and later representatives, travelled up the country northwards, and thence into Lombardy, pillaging, burning, exterminating, as it went along.

What Huns and Goths were to the South, such were Germans, Huns, and Franks to Gaul. That famous country, though in a less favoured climate, was as cultivated and happy as Asia Minor after its three centuries of peace. The banks of the Rhine are said to have been lined with villas and farms; the schools of Marseilles, Autun, and Bordeaux, vied with those of the East, and even with that of Athens; opulence had had its civilizing effect upon their manners, and familiarity with the Latin classics upon their native dialect. At the time that Alaric was carrying his ravages from Greece into Lombardy, the fierce Burgundians and other Germans, to the number of 200,000 fighting men, fell upon Gaul; and, to use the words of a well-known historian, “the scene of peace and plenty was suddenly changed into a desert, and the prospect of the smoking ruins could alone distinguish the solitude of nature from the work of man.” The barbarian torrent, sweeping away cities and inhabitants, spread from the banks of the Rhine to the Atlantic and the Pyrenees. Fifty years later a great portion of the same region was devastated with like excesses by the Huns; and in the intervals between the two visitations, destructive inroads, or rather permanent occupations, were effected by the Franks and Burgundians.

As to Italy, with Rome as a centre, its multiplied miseries are too familiarly known to require illustration. I need not enlarge upon the punishments inflicted on it by German, Goth, Vandal, Hun, and Byzantine, who in those same centuries overspread the country, or upon the destruction of cities, villas, monasteries, of every place where literature might be stored, or civilization transmitted to posterity. Barbarians occupied the broad lands of nobles and senators; mercenary bands infested its roads, and tyrannized in its towns and its farms; even the useful arts were gradually forgotten, and the ruins of its cities sufficed for the remnant of its citizens. Such was the state of things, when, after the gleam of prosperity and hope which accompanied the Gothic ascendency, at length the Lombards came down in the age of St. Gregory, a more fatal foe than any before, to complete the desolation of the garden of Europe.

Encompassed then by such calamities, present and hereditary, through such a succession of centuries and in such a multitude of countries, where should the Roman Pontiff look for a refuge of learning, sacred and profane, when the waters were out all over the earth? What place shall he prepare, what people shall he choose, with a view to a service, the more necessary in proportion as it was difficult? I know where it must be; doubtless in the old citadel of science, which hitherto had been safe from the spoiler,—in Alexandria. The city and country of the Ptolemies was inviolate as yet; the Huns had stopped on its eastern, the Vandals at its western boundary; and though Athens and Rhodes, Carthage and Madaura, Cordova and Lerida, Marseilles and Bordeaux, Rheims and Milan, had been overrun by the barbarian, yet the Museum, the greatest of all schools, and the Serapeum, the largest of all libraries, had recovered from the civil calamities which had pressed upon them in a past century, and were now far away from the Lombard, who was the terror of the age. It would have been a plausible representation in the age of St. Gregory and his immediate successors, if human wisdom had been their rule of judgment, that they must strengthen their alliance, since they could not with ambitious and schismatical Constantinople, at least with Alexandria. Yet to Alexandria they did not turn, and in fact, before another century had passed, Alexandria itself was taken, and her library burned by an enemy, more hostile to religion, if not to philosophy, even than the Lombard. The instinctive sagacity of Popes, when troubled about the prospective fortunes of the human race, did not look for a place of refuge to a city which had done great services to science and literature in its day, but was soon to fall for ever.

The weak and contemptible things of this world are destined to bring to nought and to confound the strong and noble. High up in the North, above the continent of Europe, lay two sister islands, ample in size, happy in soil and climate, and beautiful in the face of the country. Alas! that the passions of man should alienate from one another, those whom nature and religion had bound together! So far away were they from foreign foes, that one of them the barbarians had never reached, and though a solitary wave of their invasion has passed over the other, it was not destined to be followed by a second for some centuries. In those days the larger of the two was called Britannia, the lesser Hibernia. The latter was then the seat of a flourishing Church, abounding in the fruits of sanctity, learning, and zeal; the former, at least its southern half, had formed part of the Empire, had partaken both of its civilization and its Christianity, but had lately been occupied, with the extermination of its population, by the right wing of the great barbaric host which was overrunning Europe. I need but allude to a well-known history; we all recollect how some of those pagan invaders of Britain were brought for sale in the slave-market at Rome, and were taken as samples of their brethren by the great Saint so often mentioned in these pages, who succeeded at length in buying the whole race, not for any human master, but for Christ.

St. Gregory, who, amid his troubles at Rome, engaged in this sacred negotiation, was led by his charity towards a particular people, to do a deed which resulted in surpassing benefits on the whole of Christendom. Here lay the answer to the prayers and questionings of himself and other holy Popes, and the solution of the great problem which had so anxiously perplexed their minds. The old world was to pass away, and its wealth and wisdom with it; but these two islands were to be the storehouse of the past and the birthplace of the future. A divine purpose ruled his act of love towards the Anglo-Saxon race; or, if we ascribe it to the special prescience proper to Popes, then we may say that it was inspired by what he saw already realized in his own day, in the instance of the remarkable people planted from time immemorial on the sister island. For the Celt, it cannot be denied, preceded the Anglo-Saxon, not only in his Christianity, but in his cultivation and custody of learning, religious and secular, and again in his special zeal for its propagation; and St. Gregory, in evangelizing England, was but following the example of St. Celestine. Let us on this point hear the words of an historian, who has high claims on the respect and gratitude of this generation:—

“During the sixth and seventh centuries,” says Dr. Döllinger, “the Church of Ireland stood in the full beauty of its bloom, The spirit of the gospel operated amongst the people with a vigorous and vivifying power; troops of holy men, from the highest to the lowest ranks of society, obeyed the counsel of Christ, and forsook all things, that they might follow Him. There was not a country of the world, during this period, which could boast of pious foundations or of religious communities equal to those that adorned this far distant island. Among the Irish, the doctrines of the Christian Religion were preserved pure and entire; the names of heresy or of schism were not known, to them; and in the Bishop of Rome they acknowledged and venerated the Supreme Head of the Church on earth, and continued with him, and through him with the whole Church, in a never interrupted communion. The schools in the Irish cloisters were at this time the most celebrated in all the West; and in addition to those which have been already mentioned, there flourished the Schools of St. Finian of Clonard, founded in 530, and those of Cataldus, founded in 640. Whilst almost the whole of Europe was desolated by war, peaceful Ireland, free from the invasions of external foes, opened to the lovers of learning and piety a welcome asylum. The strangers, who visited the island, not only from the neighbouring shores of Britain, but also from the most remote nations of the Continent, received from the Irish people the most hospitable reception, a gratuitous entertainment, free instruction, and even the books that were necessary for their studies. Thus in the year 536, in the time of St. Senanus, there arrived at Cork, from the Continent, fifteen monks, who were led thither by their desire to perfect themselves in the practices of an ascetic life under Irish directors, and to study the Sacred Scriptures in the school established near that city. At a later period, after the year 650, the Anglo-Saxons in particular passed over to Ireland in great numbers for the same laudable purposes. On the other hand, many holy and learned Irishmen left their own country to proclaim the faith, to establish or to reform monasteries in distant lands, and thus to become the benefactors of almost every nation in Europe.”

Such was St. Columba, who is the Apostle of the Northern Picts in the sixth century; such St. Fridolin in the beginning of the same century, who, after long labours in France, established himself on the Rhine; such the far-famed Columbanus, who, at its end, was sent with twelve of his brethren to preach in France, Burgundy, Switzerland, and Lombardy, where he died. All these great acts and encouraging events had taken place, ere yet the Anglo-Saxon race was converted to the faith, or at least while it was still under education for its own part in extending it; and thus in the contemporary or previous labours of the Irish the Pope found an encouragement, as time went on, boldly to prosecute that conversion and education of the English, which was beginning with such good promise,—and not only in the labours of the Irish missionaries elsewhere, for in England itself, as the writer I have quoted intimates, they had already commenced their evangelical work.

“The foundation of many of the English sees,” he says, “is due to Irishmen; the Northumbrian diocese was for many years governed by them, and the abbey of Lindisfarne, which was peopled by Irish monks and their Saxon disciples, spread far around it its all-blessing influence. These holy men served God and not the world; they possessed neither gold nor silver, and all that they received from the rich, passed through their hands into the hands of the poor. Kings and nobles visited them from time to time, only to pray in their churches, or to listen to their sermons; and as long as they remained in the cloisters, they were content with the humble food of the brethren. Wherever one of these ecclesiastics or monks came, he was received by all with joy; and whenever he was seen journeying across the country, the people streamed around him to implore his benediction and to hearken to his words. The priests entered the villages only to preach or to administer the sacraments; and so free were they from avarice, that it was only when compelled by the rich and noble, that they would accept lands for the erection of monasteries. Thus has Bede described the Irish bishops, priests, and monks of Northumbria, although so displeased with their custom of celebrating Easter. Many Anglo-Saxons passed over to Ireland, where they received a most hospitable reception in the monasteries and schools. In crowds, numerous as bees, as Aldhelm writes, the English went to Ireland, or the Irish visited England, where the Archbishop Theodore was surrounded by Irish scholars. Of the most celebrated Anglo-Saxon scholars and saints, many had studied in Ireland; among these were St. Egbert, the author of the first Anglo-Saxon mission to the pagan continent, and the blessed Willebrod, the Apostle of the Frieslanders, who had resided twelve years in Ireland. From the same abode of virtue and of learning, came forth two English priests, both named Ewald, who in 690, went as messengers of the gospel to the German Saxons, and received from them the crown of martyrdom. An Irishman, Mailduf, founded, in the year 670, a school, which afterwards grew into the famed Abbey of Malmesbury; among his scholars was St. Aldhelm, afterwards Abbot of Malmesbury, and first bishop of Sherburne or Salisbury, and whom, after two centuries, Alfred pronounced to be the best of the Anglo-Saxon poets.”

The seventh and eighth centuries are the glory of the Anglo-Saxon Church, as are the sixth and seventh of the Irish. As the Irish missionaries travelled down through England, France, and Switzerland, to lower Italy, and attempted Germany at the peril of their lives, converting the barbarian, restoring the lapsed, encouraging the desolate, collecting the scattered, and founding churches, schools, and monasteries, as they went along; so, amid the deep pagan woods of Germany and round about, the English Benedictine plied his axe and drove his plough, planted his rude dwelling and raised his rustic altar upon the ruins of idolatry, and then settling down as a colonist upon the soil, began to sing his chants and to copy his old volumes, and thus to lay the slow but sure foundations of the new civilization. Distinct, nay antagonistic, in character and talent, the one nation and the other, Irish and English, the one more resembling the Greek, the other the Roman, open from the first perhaps to jealousies as well as rivalries, they consecrated their respective gifts to the Almighty Giver, and, labouring together for the same great end, they obliterated whatever there was of human infirmity in their mutual intercourse by the merit of their common achievements. Each by turn could claim preeminence in the contest of sanctity and of learning. In the schools of science England has no name to rival Erigena in originality, or St. Virgil in freedom of thought; nor among its canonized women any saintly virgin to compare with St. Bridget; nor, although it has 150 saints in its calendar, can it pretend to equal that Irish multitude which the Book of Life alone is large enough to contain. Nor can Ireland, on the other hand, boast of a doctor such as St. Bede, or of an Apostle equal to St. Boniface, or of a Martyr like St. Thomas,—or of so long a catalogue of royal devotees as that of the thirty male or female Saxons who in the course of two centuries resigned their crowns, or as the roll of twenty-three kings, and sixty queens and princes, who, between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, gained a place among the saints. Yet, after all, the Irish, whose brilliancy of genius has sometimes been considered, like the Greek, to augur fickleness and change, have managed to persevere to this day in the science of the saints, long after their ancient rivals have lost the gift of faith.

But I am not writing a history of the Church, nor of England or Ireland; but tracing the fortunes of literature. When Charlemagne arose upon the Continent, the special mission of the two islands was at an end; and accordingly Ragnor Lodbrog with his Danes then began his descents upon their coasts. Yet they were not superseded, till they had formally handed over the tradition of learning to the schools of France, and had written their immortal names on one and the same page of history. The Anglo-Saxon Alcuin was the first Rector, and the Irish Clement the second, of the Studium of Paris. In the same age the Irish John was sent to found the school of Pavia; and, when the heretical Claudius of Turin exulted over the ignorance of the devastated Churches of the Continent, and called the Synod of Bishops, who summoned him, “a congregation of asses,” it was no other than the Irish Dungall, a monk of St. Denis, who met and overthrew the presumptuous railer.

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