Did the Celts Illumine the Dark Ages?
Updated: May 29
No one talks about the Dark Ages anymore. More accurately, most historians don’t use that term. It’s become controversial. Previously, they (historians and scholars as a general group) considered the Dark Ages (c. 476-800 AD) dark because, according to them, after the fall of the Roman Empire, barbarians took over the earth (well, Europe), and the light of literacy, culture, Christianity, and civilization disappeared. In recent years, due to the contributions of archaeology and an openness to less narrow thinking, most scholars have come to recognize that the barbarians (who were so named by the Romans) were not devoid of culture, and some—even many—had complex civilizations. Among these so-called barbarians were the Celts.
Ironically, Celts from Ireland have been credited with saving civilization—at least by Thomas Cahill in his wonderful book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Of course, he is using hyperbole, but they did help re-introduce light and literacy to Britain. Today’s post explores some misbeliefs about the Dark Ages, the Celts, particularly the Irish, and takes a brief look at the magnificent Early Medieval manuscript, the Book of Kells.
How Things Went Dark
As everyone knows (or should), the Roman Empire was the Big Cheese for centuries. At its height, it occupied territories across three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa). The Empire reached the height of its reach, power, and glory by the 1st century A.D. The Romans saw themselves as a civilizing force that improved the lives of those they conquered. The occupied and oppressed people living under Roman rule often didn’t agree. But some did. After all, the Romans brought lots of cool stuff with them like roads, plumbing, Pax Romana (the Roman troops protected your people from any other invading force), and a degree of freedom of religion. Unless you were Druids. The Romans really didn’t like the Druids. They weren’t crazy about Christians at first either.
By the fourth century A.D., however, the Roman Empire was disintegrating. There were several reasons for this including corruption, a series of poor emperors, economic issues, and the splintering of the empire into an eastern empire and a western one, each with its own emperor and culture. Throw into this mix increasing challenges and attacks from barbarians who recognized Rome’s decline and took advantage of it.
But just who were these barbarians? First, the word itself originated with the Greeks, who used it to describe all foreigners including—wait for it—the Romans. Adopting the word, the Romans used it similarly, but it also took on a pejorative connotation. To the Romans, the barbarians were uncivilized savages who needed either to be brought to heel under Roman occupation or exterminated. In truth, barbarians were an ongoing part of the history of the empire because the Romans were constantly either attacking other people to take their land or foreigners were attacking the Roman army, often as a pre-emptive strike. The groups that finally did in the Romans were primarily the Goths and the Visigoths.
That’s the very short (and simplified) version of the rise and fall of Rome. The key point is the Roman Empire had been a superpower across a significant portion of the world for centuries. When it collapsed, it caused upheaval, power struggles, and a period of unsettling adjustment.
But did culture and civilization collapse, resulting in darkness covering the world? No, it just became less centralized. And soon, there were new leaders and powers who stepped in to fill the void, among these were Charlemagne and (separately) the Christian church. Charlemagne, King of the Franks (reigned c. 748-814 AD), worked to increase literacy during his reign. He also established libraries and schools. He is said to have ushered in an age of culture and intellectual pursuits which historians refer to as the Carolingian Renaissance.
The Christian church, during the Dark Ages, moved towards establishing an administrative power base in Rome but it also built monasteries throughout Europe. These became centers of literacy and learning. Regionally, each also grew to have the influence, wealth, and dominance equivalent to a local lord. Two powerful and renowned monasteries in Ireland established in the Dark Ages are St Brigid’s dual monastery in Kildare, which housed both monks and nuns, and the Iona monastery founded by the Irish saint Columcille (aka Columba) just off the west coast of Scotland. It was from this last monastery that missionary monks were sent to save the Britons from the darkness they had been plunged into by the Angles, Saxons, and Vikings.
How the Irish Saved the Britons—or So the Legend Goes
The isle of Britannia went through its own dark age. The legend goes that, in 410 AD, Emperor Honorius was under attack from those nasty barbarians back in Rome, so he told the Britons to fend for themselves and called all the Roman legions home to defend the city. Historians now debate whether the legions all left Britain in one fell swoop or if it happened little by little. The reason(s) for Rome pulling out of Britain are also under discussion. Regardless of the why and the how, the bottom line is in the 5th century, the Romans left.
According to legend (previously known as history), the former Celtic Britons had become so used to Roman protection, they no longer knew how to fight or really do anything for themselves. In this vulnerable moment, Germanic tribes looking for land swooped in. The Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes invaded the island (the Vikings showed up not long after), beat up the Celtic Britons, and took over. Now, another legend says there was one shining moment (around 450) when King Arthur rose up and beat back the invaders. Nevertheless, the intruders ultimately gained control. Thus began the Anglo-Saxon period of English history and darkness descended on the people. Why? Because the Anglo-Saxons were pagan and illiterate. They undid all the good the Romans had done—no more Christianity, literacy, culture, or civility.
So, the Irish monks (and I suspect there were some Scots too) over in the monastery on Iona said, “We need to save these more miserable wretches.” Missionaries were dispatched to Britain, bringing Christianity, literacy, and learning. The Anglo-Saxons were converted, enlightened, and saved. Cue cheers and applause. Yes, I’m being tongue-in-cheek but not because this version of history is blatantly untrue. It’s not. It’s just simplistic and really narrow in its perspective.
The history of what happened when the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain and, eventually, established their rule (which was divided into several kingdoms for a while) is complex, as is how literacy and Christianity were once more established on the island. In truth, they’d never entirely left. As for the Irish missionaries, there is plenty of historical evidence that their influence in Britain was effective and beneficial, but they weren’t the sole saviors of the Britons, if indeed the Anglo-Saxons ever needed “saved.”
The Book of Kells
One of the shining legacies of the Dark Ages the monks of Iona have left the world is the Book of Kells. But before I discuss this Celtic jewel, I first want to address another common historically inaccurate belief. There is an ongoing misconception that the pre-Christian Celts were illiterate. I am not going to contend that all Celts could read and write. They couldn’t. Not all Roman citizens could either. But a rarely discussed fact is that the Irish Celts had a writing system: the Ogham. It consisted of 20 to 25 characters and was used primarily for signposts and inscriptions, not for recording great literature.
Celts believed in and respected the power of the spoken word, and they were, for the most part, an oral society. Still, it’s worth noting that they did have a writing system. They just chose to use it for mundane things. The Celts believed that important things—histories, genealogies, poetry—should be committed to memory and passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.
Once Christianity came to Ireland, however, that changed. To a degree. In the monasteries, monks were taught to read and write in Latin, and they painstakingly created handmade copies of the Gospels. Some monks even wrote poetry. Many of these manuscripts were illuminated—decorated with colorful illustrations. One such illuminated manuscript is the Book of Kells.
Believed to have been created somewhere around 800 AD, it is considered by many as one of the treasures of the Early Medieval Period (aka the Dark Ages). Probably made for ceremonial use, the manuscript is highly decorated with silver, gold, and other vibrant colors. Its illustrations are a combination of Christian symbols and Celtic designs (such as whirls, vines, and spirals). Historians say that the monks who created this copy of the Gospels also made all the materials they used: quills, ink, color pigments, and vellum (the calf’s skin on which it is written.
Made by monks at the Iona monastery, the Book of Kells is 680 pages in length and its artwork is considered “far superior and more sophisticated” than other early medieval manuscripts (book-of-kells-secondary-teachers-guide-07-09-20.pdf (tcd.ie) ). An indication that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark after all. The book is on display at Trinity College in Dublin. If you’re interested in finding out more about its history, symbolism, and construction, click here to obtain Trinity College’s secondary teacher’s guide to the Book of Kells. It’s packed with fascinating information.
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Slan go foil!