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If the monks were poor or perhaps simply venal, they could be offered some money to part with their books, but the very interest showed by a stranger would inevitably make the price soar. It was always possible to ask the abbot to allow a manuscript to be carried off, with a solemn promise that it would be shortly returned. But though exceptionally trusting or naive abbots existed, they were few and far between. There was no way to compel assent, and if the answer was no, the whole venture was a dead loss.

Between the fourth and the ninth centuries, it was cited fleetingly in lists of grammatical and lexicographical examples, that is, as a quarry of correct Latin usage. In the seventh century Isidore of Seville, compiling a vast encyclopedia, used it as an authority on meteorology. It surfaced again briefly, in the time of Charlemagne, when there was a crucial burst of interest in ancient books and a scholarly Irish monk named Dungal carefully corrected a copy. But, neither debated nor disseminated, after each of these fugitive appearances it seemed to sink again beneath the waves.

The answer must be that any question, however innocuous, could raise the prospect of a discussion, a discussion that would imply that religious doctrines were open to inquiry and argument. ” Those words were not to be questioned or contradicted, and indeed all contention was in principle to be suppressed. As the listing of punishments in the influential rule of the Irish monk Columbanus (born in the year Benedict died) makes clear, lively debate, intellectual or otherwise, was forbidden. ” The high walls that hedged about the mental life of the monks—the imposition of silence, the prohibition of questioning, the punishing of debate with slaps or blows of the whip—were all meant to affirm unambiguously that these pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome, places that had thrived upon the spirit of contradiction and cultivated a restless, wide-ranging curiosity.

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