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Thread: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    The Irish Neoplatonist philosopher and theologian Johannes Scotus Eriugena (815-877 AD) is best known to modern scholarship as the definitive early commentator to the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an Eastern Roman Christian theologian of the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Born and educated in Ireland, Eriugena moved to Carolingian France where he headed the Palatine Academy under King Charles the Bald. That he was Irish is made clear not only by his name and reputation, but by the fact that notes in the glosses of his works are written in Old Irish.

    Contemporaneous with the Byzantine Empire, various Carolingian scholars were known to have a decent understanding of Greek. This was primarily due to its prestige in the ancient Roman world and because of the fact it was one of the first languages in which the New Testament had been written. However, Eriugena is said to have shown a command of the Greek language far excelling that of his peers in the Latin West. While others struggled to retain Greek with their word lists and glossaries of key terms, Eriugena was virtually as fluent as a native, could speak it without flaw, and compose his thoughts in it.

    A few centuries before Eriugena, the first Christian monasteries established in Ireland eventually gained a widespread reputation across Christendom as centers of learning and knowledge. Yet what gave Eriugena and plausibly other Irishmen/Scots an advantage in obtaining an education and instruction in Greek? This seems rather curious considering the sheer physical distance of Ireland from Greece and the fact this was still the Early Middle Ages. Is anyone well-versed enough in the era to provide a thorough explanation for this?

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    René Artois's Avatar Dux Limitis
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    Default Re: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    Maybe learned from missionaries making their way into the British Isles the same way Mediterranean pottery was being imported during much of the post-Roman period.

    Or rather, remember that the British Isles weren't as isolated in the Early Middle Ages as they are often portrayed to have been. It may have been useful to speak the language as part of links between Irish ecclesiastical establishment and those on the continent.
    Bitter is the wind tonight,
    it stirs up the white-waved sea.
    I do not fear the coursing of the Irish sea
    by the fierce warriors of Lothlind.

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Re: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    Right, by the time of Eriugena for instance the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England were fully developed and had already produced such learned men as Bede (673-735 AD), who wrote his histories and ecclesiastical works in Latin. What's remarkable about Eriugena is his level of mastery of the Greek language according to his peers even in Carolingian France, who weren't quite as adept as him. That might have been because of Mediterranean missionaries who came to the British Isles in his time...or perhaps the Irish monasteries had retained enough Greek-language source material that it was easier for them to preserve learning and instruction in that language?

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    Spear Dog's Avatar Primicerius
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    Default Re: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    I would suggest that Eriugena was something of a prodigy and that he encountered scholars from the Eastern Roman empire in the court of Charles the Bald. A rudimentary book taught understanding of greek could easily have been polished by a greek speaking theological scholar. A shared interest in early Christian texts would necessarily require an understanding of Greek. Also remember that the dates we're talking about encompass a time when the Eastern Roman Empire was the source and spiritual centre of Christianity. In a sense, at that time all Christians were 'orthodox' and the Patriarch of Constantinople was the spiritual head of Christians. Any Christian European King would have had emissaries from Constantinople in their Court, and those emissaries would have been accompanied by Orthodox priests as confirmation of their piety. Particularly when among the Carolingians who were frequently accused of heretical leanings.
    Last edited by Spear Dog; May 20, 2014 at 10:48 AM.






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    Default Re: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    True, although by this point the era of the so-called Byzantine Papacy (537 - 752 AD) had ended. In 741, Pope Zachary was the last pope to seek permission from the Byzantine Emperor for the approval of his election. Whereas the papacy in Rome then gained greater autonomy from the Byzantine Empire, the importance of the patriarch of Constantinople was greatly enhanced as many bishoprics in the Byzantine Empire suddenly fell under his jurisdiction, not that of the pope's. Despite growing theological differences, obviously a formal split didn't occur until 1054 with the East-West Schism.

    As for Eriugena, his complete mastery of the Greek language meant that he had more than just a book on rudimentary Greek vocabulary. It wouldn't surprise me if evidence surfaced showing Byzantine scholars traveling and living as far afield as Ireland, because that's where Eriugena obtained his education and elite status. He was already renowned for speaking Greek before he moved to Carolingian France to accept the prestigious offer of working for Charles the Bald.

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    Spear Dog's Avatar Primicerius
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    Default Re: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    Robert Graves is my 'go to' man for the Greek myths and such, and a renowned scholar of both ancient Greek and Latin, with several of the 'black Penguin' translations under his belt. Niggling at the back of my mind was the thought I had come across reference to the Greeks in Ireland and eventually I realised it could only have come from Grave's THE WHITE GODDESS. I check the index of my copy and there it was. Below is a quote from an online PDF.

    THE WHITE GODDESS. Robert Graves, 1948, p147-148.

    Quote
    Nor was Ireland's connection with the East confined to the inter- mediary of Gaul. Irish pilgrimages to Egypt continued until the end of the eighth century, and Dicuil records a topographical exploration of that country made by two Irishmen, Fidelis and his companion. Documentary evidence is yet extant, proving that even home-keeping Irishmen were not debarred from all acquaintance with the East. The Saltair na Rann contains an Irish version of the Book of Adam and Eve, a work written in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century, of which no mention outside of Ireland is known. Adamnain's work, De Locis Sanctis, contains an account of the monastery on Mount Tabor, which might stand for the description of an Irish monastic community of his day. Indeed, the whole system both of the anchoretic and coenobitic life in Ireland corresponds closely to that which prevailed in Egypt and Syria; the monastic communities, consisting of groups of detached huts or beehive cells, and of the other earliest examples of Irish ecclesiastical architecture, all suggest Syrian origin; and Dr. G. T. Stokes holds that 'the Irish schools were most probably modelled after the forms and rules of the Egyptian Lauras'.

    But it was not only Syrian and Egyptian influences to which Ireland was subjected by its intercourse with South Gaul. The civilization of that country was essentially Greek, and so remained for many centuries after the Christian era; and this circumstance no doubt contributed to the well-known survival of Greek learning in the Irish schools, long after it had almost perished in the rest of Western Europe. It is not to be supposed that this learning was characterized by accuracy of scholarship, or by a wide acquaintance with Classical literature; but neither was it always restricted to a mere smattering of the language or, to passages and quotations picked up at second-hand. Johannes Scotus Erigena translated the works of the pseudo-Areopagite; Dicuil and Firghil (Virgilius, Bishop of Salzburg), studied the Greek books of Science; Homer, Aristotle, and other Classical authors were known to some of the Irish writers; several of the Irish divines were acquainted with the Greek Fathers and other theological works. Nor were the Greeks in person unknown to Ireland. Many Greek clerics had taken refuge there during the Iconoclast persecution, and left traces which were recognizable in Archbishop Ussher's day; and the old poem on the Fair of Carman makes mention of the Greek merchants who resorted thither.

    It is thus apparent that the Irish writer possessed ample means of becoming acquainted with the traditions, both oral and written, of the Greek and Eastern Churches. The knowledge thus acquired extended to the Apocalyptic Visions, as is proved by internal evidence furnished by the Irish Visions, both by way of direct reference, and by the nature of their contents. It remains to see how far the predilection which the Irish writers manifested for this class of literature, and the special characteristics which it assumes in their hands, may have been determined by their familiarity with analogous ideas already existing in their national literature.

    At the period in question, the traditional literature of Ireland would appear to have entered into the national life to no less a degree than in Greece itself. Indeed, in certain respects, it was still more closely interwoven with the habits of the people and the framework of society than in Greece, for the literary profession was provided for by a public endowment, something like that of an established National Church, and its professors constituted a body organized by law, and occupying a recognized position in the State.


    It seems that for a while there, if you wanted access to Greek scholarship, Ireland was the place to be.

    http://72.52.202.216/~fenderse/The-White-Goddess.pdf
    Last edited by Spear Dog; May 22, 2014 at 08:18 PM. Reason: tidy up quote spacing.






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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Re: Johannes Scotus Eriugena and the Irish scholars learned in Greek during Carolingian times

    That's a fantastic quote. Cheers and +1 rep for sharing! I'll have to do some reading up on Graves after I'm done knocking my master's thesis out of the way.

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