Monday, November 27, 2006

The Anglo Saxon Library by Michael Lapidge

In our recent exchange, Charles Freeman suggested that Michael Lapidge's The Anglo Saxon Library showed that the church did not preserve Latin literature during the early Middle Ages. I have now had a chance to get a good look at this fascinating book and respond to Charles's comments.

The book is excellent and contains a wealth of information. For instance, the appendices detail all the classical works about which we have evidence that the Anglo-Saxons knew. This comes from citations and library catalogues. The list is not exhuastive but it is clear that not much classical Latin existed in England prior to 1000AD. This means that whereever the Latin manuscripts that fueled the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century came from, it wasn't England. Previously the facts that Alcuin was English and Germany was evangelised by Anglo-Saxon missionaries had suggested to historians that the manuscripts might have come from England too.

The book does not say (or even imply) that the Church in Europe did not preserve classical learning. Indeed, Lapidge begins with an introductory survey that covers the large libraries of the early Popes and continental monasteries. Nowhere does he suggest Christians destroyed classical manuscripts. He does suggest that the remnants of private libraries could have supplied some works for Charlemagne's scriptoriums although there is no solid evidence for this. What is clear, is that the Church's primary concern was Christian literature. Pagan writing was copied only occasionally and there was no deliberate policy of preservation until Charlemagne.

To show how much has been lost, Lapidge quotes an often-used statistic worth repeating here. We have the names of 772 classical Latin authors. Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them. We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors. Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them. We lost this literature because the entire Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire was invaded by illerate barbarians. What we have left is due to the Latin literate clergy.

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