Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, has an op-ed in the New York Times about how the Irish saved civilization and shit generally and Greek and Roman classics specifically. For centuries after St. Patrick converted the savage Irish to Christianity, Irish scribes sat around copying and recopying the gospels along with the works of Greek and Roman philosophers. This was mind-numbing work and it eventually drove the Irish drink heavily and doodle marginally. Cahill:
But they did more than this: they managed to infuse the emerging medieval world with a playfulness previously unknown. In the margins of the books they copied, the Irish scribes drew little pictures, thickets of plants, flowers, birds and animals.... The scribes also contributed jokes, poems and commentary to the works they replicated, saving for us a world of fresh insights. One scribe, tortured by the difficult Greek he was copying, wrote: “There’s an end to that—and seven curses with it!” Another complained of a previous scribe’s sloppiness: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here.” A third, at the bottom of a tear-stained page, tells us how upset he was by the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy. In these comments, sharp and sweet by turns, we come in contact with the sources of Irish literary humor and hear uncanny echoes of Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett. One scribe leaves us a charming poem about his cat, who hunts mice through the night while the scribe hunts words. Another, presumably a female scribe, describes a young man in four brief lines:
He’s a heart,
He’s an acorn from an oak tree,
Um... presumably a female? Why would one presume that? There may have been a lady scribes scribbling away in Irish monasteries and castles in Ye Olde Dark Ages. But it seems much likelier that a male scribe wrote that poem—and kissed that boy.