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There was one occupation of the monks which, perhaps more than any other, helped in the preservation of Western Civilization: that of the copying of ancient manuscripts. It begins in the sixth century when a retired Roman senator by the name of Cassiodorus established a monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and endowed it with a fine library wherein the copying of manuscripts took center stage. Thereafter most monasteries were endowed with so called scriptoria as part of their libraries: those were rooms where ancient literature was transcribed by monks as part of their manual labor.
The other place where the survival of manuscripts had priority were the schools associated with the medieval cathedrals. It was those schools of medieval times which lay the groundwork for the first University established at Bologna Italy in the eleventh century. The Church had already made some outstanding original contributions in the field of philosophy and theology,but she was also saving books and documents which resulted indispensable later on for the preserving of Western civilization.
The other great scholar of the so called Dark Ages was Gerbert of Aurillac who later became Pope Sylvester II. He taught logic but also ancient literature: Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Persius, Terence, Statius, Virgil. Then there is St. Hildebert who practically knew Horace by heart. Thus it is a great fallacy to assert that the Church encouraged the destruction of ancient pagan culture. To the contrary she helped preserve that culture which would have otherwise been lost.
There were monasteries, moreover, which specialized in other fields of knowledge besides literature. There were lectures in medicine by the monks of St. Benignus at Dijon, in painting and engraving at Saint Gall, in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic in certain German monasteries. Some monks after learning all they could in their own monastery would then travel to other monastic schools established during the Carolingian Renaissance.
The devotion to books of those monks was so extraordinary that they would travel far and wide in search or rare manuscripts. St. Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth monastery in England, traveled widely on five sea voyages for that purpose.
It was the monk’s commitment to reading, writing, and education which ensured the survival of Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the Barbarians. They laid the foundations for European universities and became the bridge between antiquity and modernity.