It was in Italy that the fight against the loss of the classical heritage was waged most vigorously and most successfully. Under Theodoric (r. 493-526), two distinguished intellectuals combated the general decline: Boethius and Cassiodorus.
Boethius (c. 480-524), unlike most of his contemporaries, knew both Greek and Latin. Learned and versatile, he advised Theodoric on many points. A recognized authority on music, he selected the best available harpist to play at the court of Clovis, king of the Franks. He thwarted an effort of Theodoric’s military paymaster to cheat the troops by showing that the paymaster had “sweated” the silver from the coins. He held the posts of consul and of Master of the Offices, something very much like a prime minister.
Boethius planned a Latin translation of the works of Plato and Aristotle, and in the small portion that he completed he took care to make his translation as literal as possible. He also made the first efforts to apply to Christian theological writings the logical methods of Aristotle. These were to inspire scholars and thinkers who lived six hundred and more years after his death.
Had Boethius survived to carry out his plans for rendering the greatest Greek philosophers into Latin, western Europe perhaps would not have been denied these materials for another five hundred years. But only two years after making him Master of the Offices, Theodoric imprisoned Boethius on a charge of treason. After a year in jail, Boethius was executed, perhaps because he was sharply opposed to the Arian Christianity practiced by Theodoric and the Ostrogoths.
In jail he wrote his most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy, a dialogue between himself and the female personification of Philosophy. Written in excellent Latin, the Consolation is a moving and noble book in which the prisoner seeks answers not only to why he is suffering injustice but also to the larger questions of human life and death and the relationship between humans and God. The book dwells on the prevalence of suffering, the fickleness of fortune, and the transitoriness of worldly triumphs. Everything we gain here on earth, even fame, will vanish. The Consolation of Philosophy became one of the most popular schoolbooks of the Middle Ages.
Cassiodorus (c. 480-575) managed to stay in Theodoric’s good graces and, like Boethius, became consul and Master of the Offices. He collected Theodoric’s official correspondence. But his great ambition was to found a new Christian seminary in Rome, where a revival of learning and scholarship might take place. The terrible disorders that accompanied Justinian’s reconquest of Italy from the Goths between 535 and 554 made this impossible.
Instead, Cassiodorus founded a monastery in southern Italy where he tried to keep learning alive in its Christian form. The monks copied by hand not only the Bible but the best pagan Latin authors. Cassiodorus himself wrote books on spelling, on the Psalms, and on the soul. Some of his monks translated Greek works into Latin, helping turn the monasteries into centers of rote learning.
Far more typical of the period, however, were the views of Pope Gregory the Great. Practical in every way, Gregory was ready to abandon the classical past if he could bring more order into the barbarian and Christian present. “The same lips,” he wrote one of his bishops, “cannot sound the praises of Jupiter and the praises of Christ,” and he enjoined him to stop holding conferences where ancient literature was read.
In Gregory’s own writings, the same practical tendency appears; his Dialogues deal in four volumes with the lives and miracles of the Italian church fathers, providing edifying anecdotes to attract Christian readers away from pagan authors. But perhaps the most important of Gregory’s writings is his surviving correspondence, more than a thousand letters dating. Sent to all corners of the Christian world and dealing with every sort of problem in the management of the church and its relations with secular rulers, these letters reflect Gregory’s humanity, commanding nature, and, at times, unexpected humor.
In Gaul, a highly Romanized province, there remained even during the invasions a cultivated group of Gallo-Roman aristocratic landowners and churchmen who still found it natural to communicate with each other in Latin. Perhaps the most distinguished writer of all was chiefly a prose stylist, Sidonius Apollinaris (fl. 455–c. 475). Born of a family long prominent in imperial affairs and educated at the school of Lyon, Sidonius became bishop of Auvergne in south-central France during the invasions of Visigoths and Burgundians. Yet in 147 letters, written with an eye to preservation and future publication, Sidonius writes almost as if nothing very alarming were happening in the outside world. With gentlemanly distaste, he refers to the Germanic invaders as underbred and coarse. He had no apprehension that they were bringing with them the doom of Sidonius and all his friends.
By the time of the Frankish triumph, the Gallo- Roman culture that Sidonius so proudly represented had virtually died. There was now very little literary activity. We have some moving sixth-century Latin hymns and descriptive poems by a writer known as Fortunatus, who deeply influenced Radegund of Poitiers, one of the first Frankish women to found and rule over a nunnery in France. We have the history in which Gregory, bishop of Tours, chronicles the unedifying behavior of the Merovingian rulers. Gregory’s Latin prose would have shocked Sidonius, but there is a vigorous if primitive quality about him, a mixture of credulity. native goodness, and calm acceptance of atrocities that gives the reader deep insight into the Merovingian age.
In Spain, too, there was a good deal of writing in Latin, at least into the seventh century, which saw the Etymologies of Isidore (c. 570-636), archbishop of Seville, a sort of encyclopedia. Isidore became perhaps the most influential and certainly the most representative literary figure of his time. His work was known in Ireland by the middle of the seventh century, and his listing of the cleric’s duties became so well established that it was accorded semiofficial status by the middle of the twelfth century.
Besides works that can be attributed with reasonable accuracy to a specific writer, there were many accounts of the lives of the saints, known as hagiographies. Many people read or learned about the saints through these anonymous works. Homely tales about the virtues of the saints as well as rousing exhortations to bravery in the manner of the early Christians created what may be the most influential literary sources of the period.
For a different spirit, destined eventually to restore Roman culture to the Continent, one turns to Britain. Christianity came to Britain in three waves: one with the Roman troops, which virtually died out; one from Ireland, where it was of Gallic origin; and the third from Rome, at the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh. In England Christianity produced the first original writing in Latin. The combined influence of the Celtic and the Roman traditions brought such fruitful results that by the end of the eighth century missionaries from Britain stimulated a revival on the Continent.
Of several cultivated writers, the greatest was Bede (c. 673-735), called the Venerable for his learning. Abbot of his monastery, he could read Hebrew and Greek, knew the Latin writings of the church fathers intimately, and wrote the famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the story of the spread of Christianity in England from the arrival in 597 of the missions sent by Gregory down to 731, almost to the moment of Bede’s death. Written in Latin of astonishing vigor and purity, it tells almost everything we know of the progress of the new religion among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, about the church’s relationship with the Anglo-Saxon kings, and about the foundation of the many monastic houses, where monks found a shelter for themselves and their books.
Churchmen from Britain helped make possible the great flowering of Latin letters that took place under Charlemagne. Alcuin of York (735–c. 804), went to Charlemagne’s court in 781 and helped to transform the palace school there into a serious and practical educational institution where men studied the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic (the art of argument), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Alcuin wrote much prose and verse and took the lead in reviving biblical scholarship and in teaching such practical subjects as legible handwriting to the scribes, who now began to copy manuscripts in monasteries. We owe the survival of much of Latin literature to the efforts of these Carolingian scribes.
The foundations laid by scholars such as Alcuin permitted their successors in the next two generations, after Charlemagne’s empire had disintegrated, to write history, poetry, saints’ lives, works on theology and ethics, and vast numbers of personal letters in Latin. In new monastic centers the literary work made possible by the British immigrants who had been responsible for the -Carolingian Renaissance” went on, and the continuity of knowledge in Western civilization was assured.