I was reading an article today about the destruction of Yemen’s literary and artistic heritage. It is a sad story. The bombing of the country by Saudi Arabia, as well as years of neglect by its custodians, now mean that Yemen’s rich literary heritage—much of it contained in medieval manuscripts—is facing possible destruction. I remember hearing the same thing about the medieval manuscripts of Timbuktu in North Africa.
It was an opportunity to reflect on the transitory nature of all things, and of knowledge in particular.
Civilization and culture are perishable. We forget this too easily, assuming we ever knew it in the first place. So much of what we see around us—even the words you are reading on your glowing screen right now—is perishable. We do not know what will survive the centuries.
Are we only barbarians pretending to be civilized? Perhaps we are in the midst of a new Dark Age now, but are not really aware of it.
We are surrounded by information—a colossal amount of it—and yet perhaps our information is even more fragile and transitory than books and manuscripts of that existed 1500 years ago. Books in classical antiquity were written on papyrus, which is fragile and temporary. In the medieval period, the codex book came into use, with its pages of vellum or parchment.
Paper can last about a thousand years. But vellum, or parchment, can endure for 30,000 years. Clay tablets, used in the ancient Near East, are almost indestructible. And electronic “information” lasts hardly a few moments.
Who is living in the Dark Age? Who is more connected with his heritage? Us or them? It is not an easy question to answer.
About one million words of classical Latin (i.e. pre-Christian) survive. Almost all of this is worth reading in its own right. We have lost much, but what we do have is among the best that that civilization could offer. The names of about 772 classical Latin authors are known to us; but of these, nothing has been preserved of 276 of them. For 352 of the total 772, we have short fragments ranging from a few sentences to a few pages. For the remaining 144, we have at least a few of their works. Some of these are in mutilated or incomplete form.
Similar figures exist for the corpus of classical Greek literature. And the same could be said of the vast output of Arabic literature from the early centuries of Islam. We have much that has survived, but much also that has been lost. Some of the philosophical treatises of Averroes we know only in their Latin versions. The original Arabic texts were deliberately destroyed as supposedly being heretical.
So the statistics are sobering.
Even the Great Library at Alexandria in Egypt probably contained, at its height, no more than several hundred thousand scrolls. And nothing of this once great library remains; of the great library at Pergamum, we have not a stone upon a stone. Rich men had extensive collections. And these are all gone now.
Civilization is perishable.
In ancient times, manuscripts could only be reproduced by copying. This had to be done by hand. Labor was relatively cheap in the ancient world; nearly anyone could publish a book simply by hiring a scribe to make copies. But quantity matters, too. If the book decayed and no one copied it, then it was lost forever.
How were books lost? It could happen in one of two ways: neglect or destruction. Neglect happened when books fell apart before anyone could copy them. And destruction could happen through war or conquest. Cities in the ancient world were sacked and burned all the time. It happened all the time.
Not only this. When the Roman Empire in the West collapsed, general literacy declined. The upper classes, which had enjoyed a high degree of education and literacy, vanished. There were fewer and fewer people who could understand and appreciate the great works of the past. Educated Romans once had a general knowledge of Greek; this too began to vanish.
Things die when there is no one left to care for them. When culture loses its “maintenance men” or its “janitors,” then it begins to be lost.
Seeing things in this light, we can begin to understand why so much was lost.
But miracles can happen, too.
It’s incredible how much has survived from ancient Assyria and Babylonia. But this was an accident of history. Much of cuneiform writing in the ancient Near East was done on clay tablets. And these were nearly indestructible. Even if a city was fired, the tablets would be baked as if in a kiln, and would last forever. If they were buried, they did not decay as papyrus books did.
Sometimes I wonder. Our electronic “data” that everyone thinks is so precious vanishes even more rapidly than does papyrus. Our remote descendants may conclude that we accomplished nothing of value in our era: that we were living in a Dark Age. They may be correct.
All of the classical Latin works that we have today were preserved by copyists working during the medieval period. The court of Charlemagne, under the supervision of Alcuin, did a great deal. Monasteries and other religious institutions did even more.
But even then, the monks and friars copied what was of interest to them, and not everything. We have precious little of the scientific and engineering legacies of Greece and Rome, simply because these subjects were not of interest to religious orders. The precious treatises of the early Greek scientists (Thales of Miletus, Anaxagoras, etc.) are all lost, because no one cared enough to copy them. These writers were not relevant to their lives. Instead, what we do have is Pliny, and he is a monument to ignorance.
There were even situations where older manuscripts were wiped away, and new documents copied over them. These manuscripts—called palimpsests—have preserved a few classical authors here and there.
All in all, what has survived is only a small fraction of what once was. This is a sobering reality to ponder. Knowledge is perishable. If it is not cultivated and used, then it is lost.
I wonder just how much of our present civilization will survive. Everyone wants us to use electronic media for everything. It is here today, and even gone today, never mind tomorrow. We can barely even read emails written 20 years go. They are indecipherable. And what about television and movies from 50 years ago? Much of these programs are also ruined, destroyed, or otherwise unusable.
Things used to last a lot longer. We are buried in “information,” but it vanishes in the blink of an eye. Knowledge and culture are perishable. When its custodians lose hope, vanish, or are replaced, then it begins to die.
Compare the functional illiterates of today with educated people of one hundred years ago. The difference is stark, and disturbing. Look at textbooks published for college use one hundred years ago. Now compare them with today’s textbooks. You will have no doubt about who was more refined.
Perhaps going back to clay tablets and vellum would be a real act of literary rebellion.
Or at least one that would be remembered for millennia.
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