Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Johannes Scottus Eriugena

Interior of Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen
Scholars think that the whole concept of the Dark Ages in Europe is overrated, that things weren’t as bad as they are sometimes portrayed. But it seems fair enough to say that between the years of around 450-1000 AD that original thought and culture in Western Europe suffered. In the Roman Empire the language of learning had been Greek but after the Empire had split and the Western Empire had collapsed, libraries were destroyed, travel became difficult and these factors combined with indifference meant that by around 700 AD there was almost no one in Western Europe who could speak Greek, meaning that there was no one who could act as an ambassador between the western states and the surviving Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Worse still, it meant that the surviving manuscripts of ancient learning were unable to be read or replaced once the original manuscripts degenerated.

Image from illustrated Bible of Charles the Bald
After the Western Empire collapsed the migrating tribes set up a bewildering mixture of states. By around 800 AD these states had largely been united into a new empire of sorts by Charlemagne and his descendants with a power base based upon their Frankish tribe, centred roughly around northern France. Charlemagne was illiterate but understood the importance of culture and tried to foster a revival of Roman culture and learning. Among other projects he founded a new school at his court where the best thinkers of Europe could teach under the auspices of the emperor.

This cultural project was hampered by politics. Unfortunately in the Frankish kingdom inheritance was divided between heirs and personal loyalty was a far higher consideration than loyalty to a state, meaning the Frankish Empire was split up and reunited based upon how many princes there happened to be at the time. One of these descendants of Charlemagne, a king by the unfortunate name of Charles the Bald, required a new teacher for the school, preferably anyone who could speak Greek so that Charles could establish better diplomatic relations with the Byzantines.

Charles asked Johannes Scotus Eriugena to lead his school. I should explain his name first. In the early Middle Ages Irish people were sometimes referred to as Scots. Due to the high number of migrants from Ireland to what is now Scotland, Ireland was referred to as Scotia Majora and the word Scotland derives from the Latin term Scotia Minora (little Scotland). Eventually Scotia Majora was no longer used but the Scotus in the Eriugena’s name merely means “Irish” or possibly “Gael”. Similarly, “Eriu” was a name of Ireland so Eriugena is simply a way of saying from Ireland. Names at that time had a certain bluntness about them, so we can say that around the year 845 AD “Charles the Bald” asked “Irish John from Ireland” to be head of his school.

Gold coin of Michael III, Byzantine Emperor of the time
Eriugena could speak Greek; in fact he was fluent in it. Because Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire and was fairly isolated on the edge of Europe it had escaped much of the chaos that followed the fall of the Western Empire. The newly Christianised island had a number of monasteries that preserved learning and the texts preserved there presumably allowed Eriugena to learn the language.

Eriugena was a somewhat colourful character in subtle ways. He was a friend of Charles the Bald and the two often dined. Now even back in the Dark Ages the Irish had a reputation for being somewhat over fond of alcohol. The king asked (in Latin, but the rhyme is the same) what separated a Scot (an Irishman) from a sot (a drunkard). Eriugena, sitting opposite the king at dinner, heard the joke and turned it back on the king (who was noted for his own alcohol consumption) with the wry quote “Mensa tantum” meaning “Only a table”.

Coin of Alfred the Great. The word "Aelfredre" is visible
The table joke is not particularly well attested, coming from a much later source that may well be unreliable. But the confidence of Eriugena can be definitely seen in the title of his major work, the “Periphyseon”. This may not sound all that defiant or confident but one has to remember that Eriugena was writing his book for the educated classes of the Frankish Empire, who could speak Latin but who could not speak Greek. “Periphyseon” is a Greek title and a reminder of his own superiority compared to the scholars of the realm.

Eriugena’s work was heavily influenced by Plato, whose works he could read in the original Greek. He was very concerned with the nature of existence and tried to draw up a logical scheme to divide the entire universe into objects with different attributes based upon some simple first principles. It was an elegant theory and one that attracted a lot of positive attention at the time but after Eriugena’s death his ideas were condemned at Church councils and his writings were banned. However it says a fair bit about the lazy medieval tolerant intolerance that we know his works still circulated. It is proven that figures as orthodox as St Thomas Aquinas (whose philosophy is still the official philosophy of the Catholic Church) read and quoted Eriugena (omitting only the name) while writing their own ideas.

The ruins of the much later abbey at Malmesbury
Apart from his own original work Eriugena also restarted the tradition of translation. The last great translator had been Boethius in the early 500’s. Eriugena translated and wrote commentaries on an important philosophical work at the request of the Byzantine emperor and in doing so, helped to revive the idea of translation and prove its utility. The translation and textual preservation efforts of the Europeans and the Islamic world have preserved the vast majority of ancient texts available to us today.

Eriugena commemorated on an Irish five pound note
Sources are scarce for the final sections of Eriugena’s life but there is some evidence to suggest that he was asked to come to the newly united England by Alfred the Great and teach at the abbey of Malmesbury. The story goes that he was stabbed to death in Malmesbury by some disgruntled students with their sharpened pens. This story sounds a little too metaphorical to be true and some scholars allow that there may have been such a bizarre murder but that it happened to another John from Ireland (there was probably more than one). Be that as it may, we know that around 877 AD this innovative thinker in a staunchly traditionalist age passed away. Philosophy has changed and we now no longer see the ability to speak Greek as something almost impossible but we can still admire the abilities and audacity of this diplomat, translator, courtier, teacher and philosopher.


  1. History has always interested me, especially philosophy

  2. Always liked it since I was a kid. There's always something new to learn. Which philosophers would you find interesting by the way? It's an understudied discipline sadly.