At a first glance, the answer to this question seems ridiculously easy. These masterpieces survived in written forms in books and on digital devices. Of course, the contemporary copies of books of distinguished thought leaders of ancient times are copies of the originals.
The durability of a book at that time was no longer than several dozen of years, and since ancient times two millennia have already passed. As scientific research shows, out of thousands of remarkable works, we only know around 10-20%, the most important ones. The rest got irretrievably lost and we will never find them.
Ancient books were made of papyrus. This material was and still is, by definition, prone to damage, not only because of frequent folding and unfolding causing mechanical overuse, but also due to bookworms, decay caused by humidity and through fire.
Libraries were burnt owing to many accidental causes, but were also intentionally (and unintentionally) set on fire by enemies and ideological people, who were not fond of the thoughts contained in some of the books. So to a certain extent, we owe the survival of some of the ancient masterpieces to luck.
Almost no original versions survived, except few miraculous finds which were discovered in a private library in one of the homes of Herculaneum, a city covered in volcanic mud from Vesuvius. The charred rolls of books which were found there were possible to be partially read only after years, when a new method of reading such books without unfolding them was discovered.
During ancient times, it was trendy to set up and use public libraries, but also to collect outstanding work in your private space at home. Both in ancient Greece and Rome, there were scribes who were rewriting books of popular writers for the rich, on a quite large scale.
The works that were created in ancient Rome were written in Latin, which, after the fall of Rome, despite being used by the Catholic Church, were becoming increasingly degraded and simplified.
After ancient times, there came the Middle Ages, when books were collected, read and rewritten mainly in monasteries – in places where people who knew how to read and write lived. Such skills were very rare those days. In fact, the ability to read and the love for collecting books were gradually diminishing when the Roman Empire was falling.
It only takes to look at the churches built at that time – rich in stained glass, altars, paintings, frescos and sculptures – to see that there was no other way (except spoken word) to communicate the important messages of the Church to simple people, and even to knights and emperors.
Why did monks rewrite old books?
It has been a rule for monasteries to rewrite books since the foundation of the first monasteries in Egypt and Asia Minor. Rewriting of books was a duty of the majority of monks, as much as praying and meditation. It was considered as a physical activity, which was meant to help monks forget about many pleasures of which they were deprived of.
Of course, monks had to rewrite the Bible and other theological books of Christianity, but surprisingly, they were also rewriting the works of ancient authors whose beliefs were often contradictory to those of Christians. It would seem weird, but it did take place.
Monks understood how non-durable papyrus was for keeping books usable. Papyrus, as a product, was hardly available in medieval Europe. At that time, Egypt, where papyrus comes from, was under the rule of Arabs. Therefore, monks were rewriting books on the skin of animals in form of papers and were binding them in wooden covers. This helped the books endure for longer, but not enough for them to survive until today, especially if they were created in the first century!
As these animal-made papers were rare commodities, scribes sometimes reused papers from old books, in which the text was erased and replaced with new words. However, they did not do it effectively enough to completely get rid of the previous content. This is how a lot of masterpieces of ancient times were preserved and where the saying „reading between the lines” comes from.
Why were monks rewriting old ancient books which were forbidden by the medieval Church or which were completely forgotten?
One could refer here to the human nature, in which curiosity was stronger than the orders of the Church’s superiors. Do you remember the film „The Name of the Rose” based on Umberto Eco’s novel, in which Sean Connery played the main role? This is where an abbot and monastic library’s supervisor prohibited monks from reading certain books and those who broke the rule were poisoned in mysterious ways…?
What is interesting is that the authorities of many monasteries could decide to destroy or stop replicating ancient books, but they did not do it. Maybe there were not enough Holy Bibles to copy in order to keep monks busy? Or maybe they thought it would be a shame to destroy such interesting, although controversial, literature…
It is also quite astounding how ancient literature was gradually becoming the centre of attention for the progressive part of European society, which was inhibited by the thoughts promoted by the Catholic Church during medieval times; for example, thoughts that life on Earth is only a preliminary stage towards achieving salvation in heaven or pain in hell.
At that time, it was believed that indulging in pleasures in this life did not make sense. This was contradictory to the conclusions of many philosophers and authors of ancient times, such as of Lucretius and Epicurus, who valued maximisation of pleasures on Earth, as 300 years before Christ, they believed that there is nothing after death. Not surprisingly, this is why not many of their copies survived in European monasteries, and their thoughts were completely forgotten or even erased from the consciousness of Europeans.
In the Middle Ages, there was a certain dichotomy when it came to the behaviour of the ordinary people, magnates, and even the Church’s authorities, including the popes. On the one hand, everyone wanted to reach salvation by leading a modest, virtuous life. On the other hand, human nature pushed them towards admiration for material goods and satisfying various pleasures of this life.
The Renaissance was not only born out of the mighty people’s conclusion that one should finally live their lives more freely instead of thinking about the not-so-sure salvation after death. This breakthrough was also hugely influenced by book seekers who were visiting monasteries to find ancient books, which demonstrated different points of view on life on Earth. Then, they were renting the books or copied them on-site in order to pass on their contents to their sponsors in large Italian cities, who only longed for a good justification as to why it’s worth to live at full speed without regrets and admire the beauty of pieces of art that were being created thanks to their support.
In a way, one could say that it was the conservative monasteries that were the cradle of progress that came afterwards, even if it was contrary to what they wanted to achieve. It is because by continuously rewriting the ancient literature, they protected it from fading into oblivion. Due to the discovery of forgotten books, humanity took a huge step forward. Many historians consider medieval times a step backwards for humans, compared to what they achieved during ancient Rome.
This is what can happen when lack of cultural appreciation wins with aspirations of higher level of human advancement. The admiration for cultural advances of ancient times had not been continual for over two millennia after the birth of Christ. Ancient heritage was forgotten for hundreds of years, only sometimes used in literature, architecture and art. Below, you can find two examples of influence of the Roman Empire on architecture in the consecutive centuries. The first one is a Romanesque style church from Lucca, Italy. The second one - a Baroque church from Vienna with Roman style columns and portico.
What is an example of how ancient heritage was destroyed is the fact that the marble used by ancient Romans was eagerly and with no hesitations reused by the Vatican for floor building and decorations of St. Peter’s Basilica.
On the territory of Forum Romanum, sheep were being grazed and big bushes were growing, until Mussolini exposed the ruins, wanting to show the power of the Roman Empire, which he wanted to continue. What was happening to ancient historical monuments was often similar to how ancient literature was treated by the successors of the ancient times.
Only when print was discovered by Gutenberg, did our civilisation have an opportunity to replicate ancient books on a mass scale. From the 13th century, paper started to be produced and replaced animal skin as the main resource. This is when the problem of continuous publishing of work of thought leaders such as Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, Epicurus, Homer, Lucretius and Virgil was technically solved for good.
There were still many people who were burning books for many reasons, but one couldn’t burn all the copies of a book in the whole world. This is what the Inquisition tried to do with The List of Prohibited Books and Hitler with the books „infused” with Jewish influences. Printing machines effectively prevented the destruction of inappropriate at that time thoughts from the public awareness.
Nowadays, it would be quite impossible to forget the work of ancient thinkers, which miraculously survived until our times. Unless there is a global disaster that causes all the books to burn and electrical devices to have erased memory. Until then, we can still learn a lot from them. Who would have thought that we owe their survival, after the fall of the Roman Empire, mainly to monks?
How could you use the story above to enrich your travelling experiences?
These are some of my suggestions, which can deepen your knowledge:
- Visit monasteries and their libraries to learn about their history.
- Dive deep in the history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by visiting museums and places from that period.
- See Herculaneum in Italy and learn the history of its library with ancient books.
I could help you organise a trip to any European country that would help you truly learn about the realities of medieval times, such as the ones described above.
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