On Hunting Words and Mice

The Gospel spreads where and when it does for reasons we cannot see at the time.

Christianity captured Ireland in the 5th Century. Warlike and barbarous, the Irish nevertheless possessed a keen wit and a love for good storytelling. Christ curbed their warfare, cultivated their love for words, and bent their wit to His uses.

When the western half of the Roman Empire fell, much of the classic literature of antiquity survived only in the monasteries of Ireland. Irish monks preserved Latin, Greek and even Hebrew works, copying everything, whether they loved or hated its contents. That men once put it in writing offered sufficient reason to preserve it for future generations.

Irish monks developed new and elaborate fonts for the great works they copied, blurring the lines between letters and art, creating some of the most visually arresting books ever produced. And although history knows their work, little about the monks themselves remains. Bits of poetry, original stories, and personal comments in the margins of books hint at men who enjoyed their labor.

One monk described his love for copying, comparing it to his cat’s love for hunting mice, and captured his thoughts in the following poem:

                                        I and Pangur Ban my cat, ‘tis a like task we are at:                                                     Hunting mice is his delight, hunting words I sit all night.

                                        ‘Tis a merry thing to see, at our tasks how glad are we,                                                 when at home we sit and find entertainment to our mind.

                                        ‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye, full and fierce and sharp and sly;                        ‘gainst the wall of knowledge I all my little wisdom try.

                                         So in peace our task we ply, Pangur Ban my cat and I;                                                in our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his.

As the Middle Ages progressed, Irish monks planted monasteries on the continent of Europe, contributed to the blossoming of western civilization, and helped to reeducate Europe.

Jesus saved the Irish. And the Irish, separated from the social, economic, and political upheaval that followed the demise of Rome, saved some of the intellectual seeds that sprouted during the Renaissance and Reformation.

You will never know their names. But you live in the intellectual world they helped to create.


To find this poem, and for further reading, see Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.

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