#18 – Pedicabo Et Irrumabo
June 8, 2018
#20 – The Ostrogothic Kingdom
June 28, 2018

#19 – Burn Them in the Fire

  • When the Greek author Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, sat down to write the first history he declared that his aim was to make ‘inquiries’ – historias, in Greek – into the relations between the Greeks and the Persians.
  • He was so even-handed with the way he treated both sides, that he was accused by the Greeks of being a ‘barbarian lover’.
  • Christian historians took a different view.
  • Our old friend Eusebius – the ‘father of Church history’ – wrote that the job of the historian was NOT to record everything but instead only those things that would do a Christian good to read.
  • In his History on the persecutions of Diocletian, he says he doesn’t want to talk about the people who escaped the persecutions by renouncing their faith.
  • ‘I shall include in my overall account only those things by which first we ourselves, then later generations, may benefit.’
  • Herodotus had seen history as an enquiry.
  • But The father of Church history saw it as a parable.
  • Which, by the way, is how I think we should read the Gospels.
  • They were written as parables, not as history.
  • But I digress.
  • Of course, we know that most ancient writers of history didn’t think about it in the same academic way we do today.
  • They often wrote propaganda even when they claimed to be writing history.
  • But I think it’s interesting that Eusebius was so open about it.
  • He only thinks he should talk about things that are edifying to Christianity.
  • And later Christians adopted this motto.
  • If someone wrote something that was hostile to Christianity or even if a Christian wrote something that had ideas which were later discarded – these books weren’t recopied or passed on, or they were actively suppressed.
  • For example.
  • In Alexandria, towards the end of the fifth century, a Christian writer named Zachariah of Mytilene says he entered the house of a man and found that he was ‘sweating and depressed’.
  • Zachariah says he instantly knew what was wrong: this man was struggling with demons.
  • Either that – or he’d had a really bad acid trip.
  • Zachariah knew where these demons were coming from – the man had some scrolls containing pagan spells in his house.
  • ‘If you want to get rid of the anxiety,’ he told the man ‘burn these papers.’
  • And so he did.
  • He took his scrolls and, in front of Zachariah, set them on fire.
  • The story finishes with a homily being read to the man who had now been cleansed of his ‘demons’ – not to mention of part of his library.
  • As Zachariah makes very clear – he didn’t consider that he has harmed this man by forcing him to burn his papers.
  • He had not bullied him, or acted cruelly towards him.
  • Quite the reverse: he had saved him.
  • By forcing him to burn heretical books, he’d saved his soul.
  • This is another attitude that was widespread.
  • Remember how Constantine ordered the works of the heretic Arius to be burned and had condemned to death all who hid the heretic’s books?
  • That didn’t work – half of the empire is still Arian 200 years later, but you can’t blame him for not trying,.
  • We know that book burning was common.
  • The fifth-century Syrian bishop Rabbula said  ‘Search out the books of the heretics . . . in every place, and wherever you can, either bring them to us or burn them in the fire.’
  • A thousand years later, the Italian preacher Savonarola wanted the works of the Latin love poets Catullus – Pedicabo et Irrumabo –  and Ovid to be banned
  • another preacher said that all of these ‘shameful books’ should be let go, ‘because if you are Christians you are obliged to burn them’.
  • Of course Christian book burning goes back to the Bible.
  • Acts 19 has Paul doing magic tricks and casting out evil demons.
  • Then an evil demon beats up a bunch of guys.
  • “And it says: Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done.  A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.”
  • In 367 CE, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria… issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writings, except for those he specifically listed as ‘acceptable’ even ‘canonical’—a list that constitutes the present ‘New Testament’.
  • We also have the examples of Cyril of Alexandria burning almost all the writings of Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, shortly after 435 CE, when he’d been declared a heretic.
  • In the late 6th century Recared, King of the Visigoths and first Catholic king of Spain, converted to Catholicism, and ordered that all Arian books should be collected and burned.
  • Christians obviously weren’t the first people to burn books – Augustus did it, Diocletian did it – but when Christians did it, it was on a much larger scale.
  • Augusuts had prophetic scrolls destroyed.
  • Diocletian had the books of the Manicheans burned.
  • It was targeted desctruction.
  • It seems the Christians just wanted to wipe out all writings that weren’t Christian and or that weren’t the approved form of Christian writings.
  • Before there had been competing philosophical schools, all equally valid, all equally arguable.
  • Now, for the first time, there was a single right – and everything else was wrong.
  • Now, there was what the Bible said – and there was everything else.
  • And from now on any belief that was ‘wrong’ could, in the right circumstances, put you in grave danger.
  • One of the most infamous assaults on books and thinkers took place in Antioch.
  • Here, at the end of the fourth century, an accusation of treasonous divination led to a full-scale purge that targeted the city’s intellectuals.
  • Ammianus Marcellinus, the non-Christian historian, happened to be in the city.
  • He says: ‘the racks were set up, and leaden weights, cords, and scourges put in readiness. The air was filled with the appalling yells of savage voices mixed with the clanking of chains, as the torturers in the execution of their grim task shouted: “Hold, bind, tighten, more yet.”’
  • A member of the nobility that he says had ‘remarkable literary attainments’ was one of the first to be arrested and tortured.
  • He was followed by a group of philosophers who were tortured, burned alive and beheaded.
  • In that order.
  • Because it would be evil to do it the other way around.
  • You’d be depriving that person of the glory of being tortured and burned alive.
  • I guess technically you can’t be burned alive if you’ve been beheaded.
  • And, once again, there was the burning of books as bonfires of volumes were used as post-hoc justification for the slaughter.
  • Ammianus Marcellinus writes that ‘innumerable books and whole heaps of documents, which had been routed out from various houses, were piled up and burnt under the eyes of the judges. They were treated as forbidden texts to allay the indignation caused by the executions, though most of them were treatises on various liberal arts and on jurisprudence.’
  • So a lot of intellectuals started to pre-empt the persecutors and set light to their own books.
  • The destruction was extensive and ‘throughout the eastern provinces whole libraries were burnt by their owners for fear of a similar fate; such was the terror which seized all hearts’.
  • Ammianus wasn’t the only intellectual to be scared in these decades.
  • The pagan orator Libanius burned a huge number of his own works.
  • He’s been a friend of the emperor Julian the Apostate and was the rhetoric teacher of John Chrysostom, even though Libanius wasn’t a Christian.
  • The Alexandrian poet Palladas, the writer who had described himself and other ‘pagans’ as being reduced to ashes, burned what he called his ‘worrisome book-scrolls’.
  • Speaking of John Chrysostom – he tells a story about one night when he happened to be walking through Antioch near the river with a friend.
  • Suddenly, his friend noticed something floating in the water.
  • ‘He thought it was a piece of cloth, but on coming closer he saw it was a book and went down to fish it out .
  • He opened it and saw magic signs.
  • At the same time a soldier came by.
  • My friend put the book in his cloak and moved away, petrified with fear.
  • For who would believe that we had found that book in the river and pulled it out, when everybody was being arrested, even the least suspicious? We did not dare throw it away for fear of being seen, and were equally afraid to tear it up.’
  • This is John Chrysostom, a man who would go on to become one of the most important of all figures in the early Church, and a saint.
  • Yet, at that moment, merely being near such a book petrified him.
  • He got away –  and later wrote that ‘God’ had delivered him.
  • But you can tell from this how much fear people had about being seen with a book.
  • At some point in the fifteenth century, a note was left in a mutilated manuscript in Vienna: ‘At this point in the book,’ it records, ‘there were thirteen leaves containing works by the apostate Julian; the abbot of the monastery . . . read them and realised that they were dangerous, so he threw them into the sea.’
  • Some of the classical literature was preserved by Christians.
  • But the majority was not.
  • To survive, manuscripts needed to be cared for, recopied.
  • Medieval monks, at a time when parchment was expensive and classical learning held cheap, simply took pumice stones and scrubbed the last copies of classical works from the page.
  • There is even evidence to suggest that in some cases ‘whole groups of classical works were deliberately selected to be deleted and overwritten in around 700 CE.
  • Pliny, Plautus, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Livy and many, many more: all were scrubbed away by the hands of believers.
  • The evidence from surviving manuscripts is clear: at some point, a hundred or so years after Christianity comes to power, the transcription of the classical texts collapses.
  • From 550 to 750 the numbers copied plummeted.
  • This is not, to be clear, an absolute collapse in copying: monasteries are still producing reams and reams of religious books.
  • Bible after Bible; copy after copy of Augustine is made.
  • And these works are vast.
  • This was not about an absolute shortage of parchment; it was about a lack of interest for the old books.
  • From the entirety of the sixth century only ‘scraps’ of two manuscripts by the satirical Roman poet Juvenal survive and mere ‘remnants’ of two others, one by the Elder and one by the Younger Pliny.
  • From the next century there survives nothing save a single fragment of the poet Lucan.
  • From the start of the next century: nothing at all.
  • Far from mourning the loss, Christians delighted in it.
  • As John Chrysostom wrote, the writings ‘of the Greeks have all perished and are obliterated’.
  • ‘Where is Plato? Nowhere! Where Paul? In the mouths of all!’
  • The fifth-century bishop of Cyrrhus, Theodoret, an influential theologian of his time, wrote about the decline of Greek literature:
  • ‘Those elaborately decorated fables have been utterly banned. Who is today’s head of the Stoic heresy? Who is safeguarding the teachings of the Peripatetics?’
  • No one, apparently – Theodoret concludes his sermon with the observation that ‘the whole earth under the sun has been filled with sermons’.
  • Augustine contentedly observed the rapid decline of the atomist philosophy in the first century of Christian rule.
  • By his time, he said Epicurean and Stoic philosophy had been ‘suppressed’ – the word is his.
  • The opinions of such philosophers ‘have been so completely eradicated and suppressed that if any school of error now emerged against the truth, that is, against the Church of Christ, it would not dare to step forth for battle if it were not covered under the Christian name’.
  • It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era.
  • For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.
  • If this was ‘preservation’ – as it is often claimed to be – then it was astonishingly incompetent.
  • If it was censorship, it was brilliantly effective.

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