Mar 21, 2011
Unfortunately, this book is full of holes. It’s wonderfully written and has some interesting details about life in early medieval Ireland, but its central thesis that Irish monks preserved civilization through the Dark Ages simply isn’t true.
First off, Cahill's’s concept of civilization is limited to Greek and Roman texts. Yes, Irish monks did preserve a large amount of Classical literature, poetry, drama, and political writings, but does that constitute "civilization"? They certainly didn’t save Roman technology! And what about all the other civilizations like, um, China?
Also, the Irish weren’t the only people preserving these texts. The Byzantine Empire, which was the eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived in an ever-shrinking form until 1453, also preserved Classical learning. Byzantium is often overlooked in European history classes, and Cahill overlooks it here. Then there were the Jewish and Muslim scholars in North Africa and the Middle East who translated Classical texts into Hebrew and Arabic and wrote commentaries on them, not to mention creating a lot of literature and science in their own right.
How the Irish Saved Civilization reminds me a bit of Black Athena, a book that claims all civilization came out of Africa. Both books take generally overlooked cultures and blow them out of proportion in order to please their readership. Yes, a lot more civilization came out of Africa than most Western historians give credit to, but not everything came out of Africa. The same goes for the hardworking Irish monks preserving Classical texts. Did they save civilization? No, but they sure helped.
Mar 6, 2011
One mistake that historical fiction and roleplaying games make in recreating the Middle Ages is how money was used. They seem to assume that money then was like money now, but it wasn’t.
The vast majority of people used an in-kind economy, meaning they exchanged goods or services rather than money. Taxes were usually paid in crops or animals. People did use money, especially in the towns and cities, and there were networks of banks and even checks in places like the Byzantine Empire. Of course only the very wealthy could write a check that would be honored in another city.
One big problem was small change. Most coins were of gold or silver and were worth a lot compared to the daily production of the average farmer or laborer. As one of my grad school professors said, “We simply don’t know how someone paid for a flagon of ale at a tavern.”
Some cultures did have small change. In what’s now the Czech Republic they used painted bits of cloth. The Ottomans had a tiny silver coin called a “para” that was about the size of a capital O. To avoid losing them, people carried them under their tongue! In mining towns small amounts of gold dust could be used. Prospectors also did this in Old West mining towns.
People also could build up credit and then pay it off once it got to the amount of a coin. This was no problem since most people lived in villages or small towns where everybody knew everybody else. A common way to keep accounts was the tally stick. These were sticks split down the middle. Buyer and seller each got one half and they were marked with slashed to show how much was owed. In some remote parts of Europe with high amounts of illiteracy this practice continued well into the twentieth century. This photo shows a selection of tally sticks from the 18th-20th century from Switzerland. Thanks to Sandstein from Wikipedia for the cool photo.