[Updated 12 hours after original posting]
I’d like to place here some balance or corrective to Tim O’Neill’s criticism of Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. James McGrath has lent his support to O’Neill’s attack on Nixey’s book by expressing disdain for both atheists and their “gullible” audiences:
When atheists misrepresent ancient Christians as typically having been intellectual terrorists who burned great works of literature and philosophy, are they not themselves doing the equivalent themselves, burning the actual history in the minds of those gullible enough to blindly accept their claims, in order to replace our accurate knowledge of the past with their own dishonest dogma and that alone?
Just this morning I see that another biblioblog has collated some “critical reactions” to Nixey’s book.
To begin, Catherine Nixey makes it clear in her Introduction that what readers are about to encounter is a one-sided polemic.
This is a book about the Christian destruction of the classical world. The Christian assault was not the only one – fire, flood, invasion and time itself all played their part – but this book focuses on Christianity’s assault in particular. This is not to say that the Church didn’t also preserve things: it did. But the story of Christianity’s good works in this period has been told again and again; such books proliferate in libraries and bookshops. The history and the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been. This book concentrates on them. (p. xxxv, my emphasis)
It seems to me a little awry to condemn an author’s work because it accomplishes what its author intended it to do. But it is more serious to give the impression that a book denies something that it clearly does not: Nixey clearly says that the Church did, also, “preserve things”. Are we to think that even in the twenty-first-century one cannot speak ill of Christian history without attracting an avalanche of hostility?
Nixey, I understand, is a journalist and is writing for a popular audience. Often she adds little imaginative (novelistic) flourishes to fill out a dramatic historical episode. The book is neither a textbook nor original research. Nixey relies heavily on secondary literature rather than original research. That said, much of her secondary sources are highly respected scholars in the field (e.g. Robert Wilken, Dirk Rohmann).
Where to begin? Let’s return to the passage quoted above. Note that Nixey does not speak of “Christians” or “Christianity” as if these terms are labels of a monolithic movement. Christians in late antiquity were divided. Yet some of the attacks (they are more attacks than fair criticisms) appear at times to speak erroneously of Christianity as a united voice with a single attitude towards pagan learning. O’Neill writes:
The idea that the loss of ancient works came as a result of active suppression by “Christian authorities” coupled with ignorant neglect is the persistent element in these laments. In her recent debut book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, British popular history writer Catherine Nixey harps on this theme. “Works by censured philosophers were forbidden,” she solemnly assures her readers, “and bonfires blazed across the empire as outlawed books went up in flames.” (p. xxxii) I imagine this kind of stuff sells popular books, but if we actually turn to the evidence and the relevant scholarship, we find very little to support these ideas.
It is a powerful image, this: Christianity as the inheritor and valiant protector of the classical tradition – and it is an image that persists. This is the Christianity of ancient monastic libraries, of the beauty of illuminated manuscripts, of the Venerable Bede. It is the Christianity that built august Oxford colleges, their names a litany of learnedness – Corpus Christi, Jesus, Magdalen. This is the Christianity that stocked medieval libraries, created the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre and the sumptuous gold illustrations of the Copenhagen Psalter. This is the religion that, inside the walls of the Vatican, even now keeps Latin going as a living language, translating such words as ‘computer’, ‘video game’ and ‘heavy metal’ into Latin, over a millennium after the language ought to have died a natural death.
And indeed all that is true. Christianity at its best did do all of that, and more. But there is another side to this Christian story, one that is worlds away from the bookish monks and careful copyists of legend. (– Nixey, Darkening Age, p. 140f, my bolding)
If we are still willing to read Nixey’s book after such a bald assertion about what to expect we will be taken aback to find that Tim O’Neill’s warning is very wide of the mark. We would not expect to read the following passage about the philosophical works and the attitude of “Christian clerics” more widely in Nixey’s work (again with my emphasis):
Even philosophers like Plato, whose writings fitted better with Christian thought – his single form of ‘the good’ could, with some contortions, be squeezed into a Christian framework – were still threatening. Perhaps even more so: Plato would continue to (sporadically) alarm the Church for centuries. In the eleventh century, a new clause was inserted into the Lenten liturgy censuring those who believed in Platonic forms. ‘Anathema on those,’ it declared, ‘who devote themselves to Greek studies and instead of merely making them a part of their education, adopt the foolish doctrines of the ancients and accept them as the truth.’38
For many hard-line Christian clerics, the entire edifice of academic learning was considered dubious. In some ways there was a noble egalitarianism in this: with Christianity, the humblest fisherman could touch the face of God without having his hand stayed by quibbling scholars. But there was a more aggressive and sinister side to it, too. St Paul had succinctly and influentially said that ‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God’.39 This was an attitude that persisted. Later Christians scorned those who tried to be too clever in their interpretation of the scriptures. One writer railed furiously at those who ‘put aside the sacred word of God, and devote themselves to geometry . . . Some of them give all their energies to the study of Euclidean geometry, and treat Aristotle . . . with reverent awe; to some of them Galen is almost an object of worship.’40
And so, in part from self-interest, in part from actual interest, Christianity started to absorb the literature of the ‘heathens’ into itself. Cicero soon sat alongside the psalters after all. Many of those who felt most awkward about their classical learning made best use of it. The Christian writer Tertullian might have disdained classical learning in asking what Athens had to do with Jerusalem – but he did so in high classical style with the metonymy of Athens’ standing in for ‘philosophy’ and that prodding rhetorical question. Cicero himself would have approved. Everywhere, Christian intellectuals struggled to fuse together the classical and the Christian. Bishop Ambrose dressed Cicero’s Stoic principles in Christian clothes; while Augustine adapted Roman oratory for Christian ends. The philosophical terms of the Greeks – the ‘logos’ of the Stoics – started to make their way into Christian philosophy.51
. . . . . .
Christianity was caught in an impossible situation. Greek and Roman literature was a sump of the sinful and the satanic and so it could not be embraced. But nor could it entirely be ignored either. It was painfully obvious to educated Christians that the intellectual achievements of the ‘insane’ pagans were vastly superior to their own. For all their declarations on the wickedness of pagan learning, few educated Christians could bring themselves to discard it completely. Augustine, despite disdaining those who cared about correct pronunciation, leaves us in no doubt that he himself knows how to pronounce everything perfectly. In countless passages, both implicitly and explicitly, his knowledge is displayed. He was a Christian, but a Christian with classical dash and he deployed his classical knowledge in the service of Christianity. The great biblical scholar Jerome, who described the style of sections of the Bible as ‘rude and repellent’,49 never freed himself from his love of classical literature and suffered from nightmares in which he was accused of being a ‘Ciceronian, not a Christian’.50
. . . . . .
Philosophers who wished their works and careers to survive in this Christian world had to curb their teachings. Philosophies that treated the old gods with too much reverence eventually became unacceptable. Any philosophies that dabbled in predicting the future were cracked down on. Any theories that stated that the world was eternal – for that contradicted the idea of Creation – were, as the academic Dirk Rohmann has pointed out, also suppressed. Philosophers who didn’t cut their cloth to the new shapes allowed by Christianity felt the consequences. In Athens, some decades after Hypatia’s death, a resolutely pagan philosopher found himself exiled for a year. (pp. 147-152)
Yet those paragraphs really are from Catherine Nixey’s own book and not from Tim O’Neill’s criticism of it. Even in focussing on “the other side” of the story Nixey still reminds readers that that narrative was neither all black nor all white.
I highlighted the reference in that last paragraph to “philosophies that dabbled in predicting the future” because another one of O’Neill’s criticisms is that
Apart from these variant Christian texts, the books that the Christian emperors were most keen on rooting out were works of divination, augury and prophecy, since all later Roman emperors, pagan and Christian, saw the private consulting of auspices or the consultation of prophecies about their rule as a potential act of sedition. Nixey tries to claim this was merely a “pretext” for the destruction of hated Classical learning, though does so with little evidence.
any “bonfires” of books in this period tended to be of the works of “heretics” from non-conformist variants of Christianity rather than works of pagan scholarship.
Unfortunately, O’Neill has not followed up Nixey’s source reference to the recent scholarship of Dirk Rohmann’s book, Christianity, book-burning and censorship in Late Antiquity: studies in text transmission (2016). I have only had time to skim sections of Rohmann’s work at this stage but it seems that the evidence points to many areas of classical philosophy being closely associated with magic, divination and Christian “heresies”. We need to approach our sources and insights into the ancient world with some nuance. It is a mistake to think of Christian heresies, pagan magic and augury etc as all belonging to genres distinct and separate from ancient works of philosophy.
The Migration of Faith project:
We are an international interdisciplinary research project investigating how the banishment of hundreds of Christian clerics to a myriad of places all around the Mediterranean during the religious controversies of late antiquity shaped the institution of the Christian Church in this period and beyond. Applying both quantitative and qualitative analysis to a wide range of sources – histories, hagiography, laws, letters, treatises, epigraphy and papyri – we are working on compiling a free online prosopographical database of banished late antique clerics and their socio-spatial networks, as well as on books, articles and further events. Our project is a collaboration between the Department of History at the University of Sheffield, the HRI Digital at the Humanities Research Institute, the Faculty of Theology at the University of Halle (together with the Patristische Arbeitsgemeinschaft at the Humboldt University of Berlin), the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University, the Abteilung Byzanzforschung at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the German Historical Institute in London, and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from August 2014 to October 2017.
Dirk Rohmann is a research associate of the University of Sheffield-based Migration of Faith project. I will try to select passages from Rohmann’s conclusions that point out the blurring between works of ancient philosophy and other ideas and practices Christians often sought to ban. Again, the emphases are mine.
Moreover, while there have been ancient precedents to suggest that certain philosophers were characterised as magicians, in Late Antiquity magic and heresy came to be linked more clearly to these philosophical traditions. In the case of heretics, it is particular clear that there was no exact definition, but it all depended on powerful parties arguing that someone else’s opinions, even if long since accepted, were not considered as viable any longer. Heretics were thus not only understood as non-conformist Christians, but occasionally those pagans whose opinions informed Christian-heretical discourse could also be dubbed as heretics in Late Antiquity, as opposed to the modern understanding of the term heresy that is limited to Christians. Along with imperial and ecclesiastical legislation that outlawed magical, heretical and astrological texts, I have argued that within Christian communities an unwillingness arose not only to preserve texts on these subjects but also texts that were related to these genres or were considered the basis for astrological or heretical world-views.
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 3092-3100). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
Thus pagan philosophy itself came to be seen as the mother of heresies.
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 4048-4049). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
While I do not intend to argue that by implication this means that writings containing ideas of materialist philosophy were specifically targeted in censorship legislation or that these books were regularly burnt along with heretical, magical or astrological books, my argument is that an unwillingness arose among Christian scribes to preserve any of the works that included these traditions for future generations unless for the explicit purpose of refutation.
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 4065-4068). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
. . . Libanius is criticising the educational policy of the Christian administration in a generalized and non-specific way, to avoid further conflict. . . . [T]his is significant: Libanius as a pagan scholar was witnessing the Greek cultural tradition being threatened by the suppression of paganism. Although its tone therefore acknowledges the forces ranged against him, he is clearly making a stand and this should be recognized. The epilogue to this episode is that in another speech probably given in 382 Libanius expresses his hope shortly after the accession of Theodosius that the new emperor would be more tolerant than Valens, a ruler who had persecuted philosophers. . . .
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 4320-4325). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
Libanius and Ammianus are two examples of pagan authors who complain that the current imperial policy is responsible for the decline of ancient literature as wordly or clerical careers no longer required education in the classics. As a consequence, it is occasionally attested that institutions which preserved these traditions were shut down. It has been argued by others that Ammianus blames the physical decline of books and libraries mainly on changing interests, but on the balance of probability I have provided evidence to suggest that he occasionally criticised the changing religious climate in a way similar as Libanius did [see insert box]. While in the case of Jerome it is clear that he felt to have the authority to exclude from long-term preservation certain works that he disapproved of, I have discussed evidence from other important Christian authors to suggest that their moral engagement with ancient literary traditions had a similar long-term influence on the preservation of literature. On the one hand, it is well known that there was a broad consensus shared by both ecclesiastical and lay authors to generally exempt classical works from demonisation, although the interest in classical authors increasingly declined in western Europe after the fourth century. Augustine, for example, frequently endorsed the works of Plato, and many Christian authors of Late Antiquity were based on Plato and other ancient philosophers, whose opinions they held in high regard as long as they did not contradict the Bible. Their strategy was to allege that these positive philosophical views were themselves influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. On the other hand, it has also become clear that texts that dealt specifically with pagan religion were considered as demonical as books on magic or divination. The most obvious example for this are the pertinent works by Varro, which are quoted and discussed by Augustine, but seem to have gone lost soon after. This chapter therefore illustrates the power that was attributed to books with different contents in Late Antiquity. Keeping in mind these specific powers of books in Late Antiquity, in the next chapter I shall discuss the evidence for the destruction of libraries either intentionally or accidentally in the wake of religious riots.
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 4860-4876). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
Responses to Catherine Nixey’s book would be more rounded and fair if they did not appear to bend over backwards to paint “Christianity” (as if it were a monolith) in an essentially unblemished light. Some Christians were indeed pleased to see classical learning reduced to dust and ashes:
Although there is no clear indication that books were destroyed deliberately during the sack of Rome in 410, it is interesting to note that some Christian authors described these destructions as justified and welcome from an apologetical standpoint. The need to justify the destruction and the arguments used by Christian authors illuminate the power that books had at that time as well as their link to the demonical past of the Roman Empire, a view that I have presented in the previous chapters.
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 5333-5337). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
Were books burned?
Yes. Not always. But at certain times and places. There was no grand Nazi-like empire-wide totalitarian conspiracy to hunt out and destroy all non-Christian works (as O’Neill misguidedly indicates is Nixey claim), but it did sometimes happen.
Particularly in the age of Justinian, book-burning was staged as a ritual act. Persecution of pagans under Justinian involved book-burning – book-burning was even enforced systematically during this time period and included an unspecific range of pagan books, if we can trust texts such as the anonymous Life of Simeon. At least, descriptions of religious inquisitions found there are confirmed in other source material. The general picture, then, is one of increased legislation and clamping down on certain avenues of thought, largely pre-Christian, but the evidence for legal enforcement is somewhat limited before the age of Justinian. Charges of magic and of paganism sometimes provided a convenient excuse for incriminating powerful individuals who would otherwise have been exempt from book-charges.
Rohmann, Dirk. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte) (Kindle Locations 2321-2327). De Gruyter. Kindle Edition.
So when O’Neill objects that
Nixey tries to claim this was merely a “pretext” for the destruction of hated Classical learning, though does so with little evidence.
he is overlooking Nixey’s source for this claim, the recent in-depth scholarly research of Dirk Rohmann that drew this conclusion.
But book burning was not the whole or even the main story, despite O’Neill’s misleading assertion:
The key point is that there was actually no blanket disapproval of “pagan” literature and scholarship, let alone the “outlawing” of it or the Nazistyle bonfires of Nixey’s fervid imagining.
O’Neill apparently failed to register much of the book, including regular summaries such as the following (after having described outright destructions by some monks and bowdlerizing edits by others):
A slow but devastating edit of classical literature was taking place. It is true that the appalling losses of knowledge that followed were not usually the result of dramatic, discrete actions – the burning of this library, the fury of that particular abbot – though these played their part. Instead, what ensured the near-total destruction of all Latin and Greek literature was a combination of ignorance, fear and idiocy. These weapons have less narrative heft, perhaps, but when left unchecked they can achieve a great deal.
Much was preserved. Much, much more was destroyed. It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era.35 For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.36 If this was ‘preservation’ – as it is often claimed to be – then it was astonishingly incompetent. If it was censorship, it was brilliantly effective.
The ebullient, argumentative classical world was, quite literally, being erased. (p. 166)
Tim O’Neill turns to “a key scholarly monograph on the transmission of Classical works” (Tim’s description) by Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature noting that while the authors do acknowledge that some works were indeed lost because of Christian neglect and dislike — just as does Nixey. O’Neill goes on to give a fair and accurate account of what Reynolds and Wilson do say about the two sides to the story. Presumably, the tone of Nixey’s work did not encourage him to be as fair and careful in her case.
Archaeology of Religious Hatred
To underscore the complexity of the times, to remind ourselves that Christians did not all speak with one voice and that there really was a dark side to the new religion, I quote the concluding paragraphs of The Archaeology of Religious Hatred by Eberhard Sauer. Again I highlight the most pertinent points for this discussion:
While we must not overlook the element or rhetorical exaggeration, e.g. in the number of churches and monasteries allegedly constructed, archaeology has proven that the sources are basically telling the truth, and archaeological evidence helps us to gain a visual idea of the events which unrolled themselves one-and-a-half millennia ago. Some modern scholars have set themselves the target of disproving such a dramatic end by pointing out that the number of pagan votive inscriptions, works of art and temple building projects declined prior to Christian victory in the AD 330s and continued to do so thereafter. Yet, they fail to notice that the same is true for most similar non-religious monuments, thus pointing to cultural, economic and psychological changes, sparked by the Third-Century Crisis, rather than being proof for people losing their pagan faith. Furthermore, once the avalanches of Christian image destruction had gathered momentum in the fourth century, it must have seemed increasingly pointless even for committed pagans to continue to erect stone monuments whose fate was predictable. Others believe they can disprove that violence against monuments played any major role in the total transformation of the religious landscape of the ancient world in the late Roman/early medieval transition by listing temples which have yielded no traces of violent damage. Of course, the phenomena of filling temples with debris, emptying them of the cult inventory, whether out of fear of profanation or for re-use and temple destruction, took place simultaneously. By arguing that one is in opposition to the other they are missing the point. There is undoubtedly a strong causal link between the disappearance of pagan monuments and the spread of Christianity, irrespective of how much disappeared as a result of direct destruction and how much as a result of indirect pressure.As stressed above, Christianity had much to offer, such as a clear sense of purpose in life, the promise of a blissful afterlife etc. Indeed, it had been a successful and expanding minority religion within the Roman Empire even while it was still persecuted. Christianity, in particular the Nestorian denomination, had spread widely in the Persian Empire, India, central Asia and even China by the early Middle Ages. Undoubtedly it would have established itself as a world religion without the use of force and violence, yet one religion beside others (as it was in much of Asia). However, it is equally noticeable that, as far as I am aware, nowhere in Asia, Europe or Africa did it become the majority, let alone the sole, religion by the early Middle Ages with the exception of the western and eastern Roman Empire, many of its neighbours and successor states and their zones of influence. Image destruction has to be seen in the context of other oppressive measures, such as outlawing temple visits in the early AD 390s. Those who argue that paganism by and large collapsed in on itself as people had lost interest in it and waited for something more fulfilling, ought to explain why it is that Christianity became the sole religion precisely in those states which imposed it from above and normally outlawed pagan worship and tolerated or encouraged image destruction, while in the first millennium it failed to do so anywhere else. (pp. 172-173)
That last sentence deserves to be re-read, registered and dwelt upon. Its message points to the need for more Nixeys to tell the other side of the story.
Oh the irony, the irony…..
Since writing the above post the following biblioblog (BibleX) article came to my notice: Check Your Primary Sources. It links to another post (as an example of how we get things wrong if we don’t check our sources carefully), a post by Roger Pearse that scoffs at the “illiterate nonsense” of Nixey’s book.
The author of the tweet was a certain Catherine Nixey, who is an arts journalist for the Times of London. She has a book out claiming that the Christians deliberately destroyed almost all ancient literature, or some illiterate nonsense like that.
Check your primary sources, indeed!
(The irony is that Roger Pearse obviously has not read the book and Charles Savelle merely assumes — without checking his sources himself — that RP has it wrong.)
One might almost think that some Christian scholars still have a bit to learn about scholarly approaches to criticisms of Church history after these past 1500 years.
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