Burn After Reading


Houses along the River Neckar, near the University of Tuebingen

Over the past few days,  I have been at the University of Tuebingen with a lovely group of scholars and students, part of an Anglo-German project on Memory and Power in late antiquity and the early middle ages. The idea behind the project is to try to understand the compromises made by the writers of our period as they attempted to make peace with a difficult past, or to idealise the past in a way that would guide, inspire, or sometimes deceive the audience for whom they were writing.  Often, medieval writers were not entirley reliable, and medieval librarians had very little information to go on as they tried to assess how reliable a writer actually was. We modern historians are not always much better off.

Irene and Carola

Historians Irene Van Renswoude and Carola Fuller

One of the guiding ideas behind the memory and power project is that the Christian writers of the period from 250-1150 AD often found themselves in a position where the very idea of an orderly society was one that needed to be kept alive despite circumstances that were chaotic at best. The Church played an important role in maintaining order, but also in maintaining the idea of order. This was often a kind of wishful thinking, but it was a wish that had value even when it wasn’t a reality.  Trying to understand when and why the historians of the ancient and early medieval world used this sort of wishful thinking is one of the most interesting tasks of historian.


A ninth-century canon law manuscript image of the books of the arch-heretic Arius being burned at the Council of Nicaea in 325, courtesy of Irene Van Renswoude, who argues that manuscript copyists in fact made great efforts to preserve the writings of authors whom they believed to be heretics.

Among the most interesting talks given during our seminar was one by the dutch historian Irene van Renswoude, with the disturbing title “Burn After Reading”. It is a well-known fact among historians that most of what we know about the ancient Mediterranean world has come down to us through the efforts of ninth-century librarians,  who were part of a renaissance of learning under the Carolingian dynasty. These librarians were mostly collecting books on behalf of monasteries. Often, monastic librarians were faced with moral dilemnas about whether to preserve writings which they susoected might be bad for the moral education of the monks.What to do about pagan writings, or writings which carried a suspicion of heresy?

To address this question, Irene gave us an expert tour of ninth-century manuscripts from France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, looking at how the people who copied different manuscripts solved the problem of whether or not the books could be dangerous, and how to warn their readers if so.

One of the surprises of the talk was that the libraries often made a real effort to preserve the work of writers whom they believed to be heretics or worse, even if only to educate the monks about the ideas they should try to avoid. In the popular imagination, the medieval Church is  thought of as trying to keep the faithful from being aware of dissident ideas. There is some truth to this stereotype, but there is also evidence of efforts to encourage open debate about ideas, at least for those deemed mature enough to get involved in such debates without losing their heads.

Tuebingen group

Hosts and guests musing on truth and illusion in front of a fake Roman Colosseum

There,  of course,  lies the rub. Only a small proportion of the population had access to literature of any kind in the early middle ages, and it was an even smaller proportion who had access to the libraries where more than one side of debates about theology and philosophy were preserved. In many ways,  it is remarkable how successful early medieval libraries were in preserving the variety of ancient literature, given how little they had to go on – Irene showed us one text, a manual on the Christian life, which had been copied in the belief that it was the work of Augustine, one of the great fathers of the Church, only for a later hand to add a warning that the real author was actually Pelagius, a notorious heretic.

In the end, one found oneself admiring the efforts of these librarians and scholars,  but by no means envying them. In our own day, the most pressing danger sometimes seems to be not ignorance but  information overload, and it is tempting to romanticize the information deficit of the ninth century. But it is not a feeling that lasts for very long.


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Changing Romans and commented:
    Over at kateantiquity today…

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