January 02, 2006

Shedding Light on the "Dark Ages"

The idea that the period of the Middle Ages, when Christendom reigned supreme, was an uncivilized and uncultured time filled with (as one commentator phrased it) "dung covered surfs and oppressed women" is ubiquitous. It is such a basic assumption of our cultural story that I had not largely doubted it until recently. When the accusation that there is some direct connection between this "dark" period and the church's dominance comes up I find myself reaching for defenses (like pointing out the thriving Christian east, i.e., the Byzantine Empire) rather than dispelling myths.

Based on the other myths from my school days that have been burst one by one, like Columbus being the first to think the world was round, I should find it no surprise that the true nature of the Middle Ages is quite different than I imagined, especially given that there is every reason for secular historians to choose to spin or filter the facts in this area.

Following are a few tidbits I've come across recently that encourage me to see the "Dark Ages" in a new light (pun intended).

From this World Magazine interview with professor Rodney Stark:
WORLD: But a lot of us learned that Europe fell into the "Dark Ages." How did that historical understanding originate, and what's wrong with it?

STARK: The Dark Ages have finally been recognized as a hoax perpetrated by anti-religious and bitterly anti-Catholic, 18th-century intellectuals who were determined to assert their cultural superiority and who boosted their claim by denigrating the Christian past—as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after Rome came the "triumph of barbarism and religion." In the past few years even encyclopedias and dictionaries have begun to acknowledge that it was all a lie, that the Dark Ages never were. This always should have been obvious since by the end of the so-called Dark Ages, European science and technology had far exceeded that of Rome and Greece, and all the rest of the world, for that matter.

WORLD: Could you be specific? What were some of the "Dark Ages" innovations that show the folly of considering Greek and Roman culture the apex of civilization until recent times?

STARK: How about the perfection and widespread use of waterwheels, windmills, and pumps, the invention of the compass, stirrups, the crossbow, canons, effective horse harnesses, eyeglasses, clocks, chimneys, violins, double-entry bookkeeping, and insurance? This list doesn't begin to do justice to this era that historians of science now refer to as an age of remarkable innovation and discovery.
Perhaps the most revealing instance involves the "story" that in order to gain backing for his great voyage west, Columbus had to struggle against ignorant and superstitious churchmen who were certain that the earth was flat. Truth was that all educated Europeans, including bishops and cardinals, knew the earth was round. What produced church opposition to the Columbus voyage was that Columbus believed the circumference of the earth was only about one-fifth of its actual distance. Thus, the church scholars who opposed him did so because they knew that he and his sailors were bound to perish at sea. And they would have done so had the Western Hemisphere not been there to replenish their food and water.
Renowned French historian Régine Pernoud wrote a book entitled, Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths.

Here is a excerpt from a thoughtful Amazon reviewer on this book:
Pernoud is not afraid to express her anger and frustration with the lack of accurate teaching about the Middle Ages. She causticially notes that the "Middle Ages is privileged material: one can say what one wants about it with the quasi-certitude of never being contradicted."
Pernoud's ability to right the record by turning stereotypes and fallacies upside down shines through. Her major concern is that what passes for an education in history within public schools is often little more than a string of stereotypes held together by the glue of gullibility: "The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or generalized underdevelopment, even if this was the only period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!"
The facts show again and again that the Middle Ages, far from being completely ignorant or dim-witted, produced scholars of astounding learning such as Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours and Hildegarde of Bingen. The latter, a woman, is not, as Pernoud demonstrates, an exception. Many women religious were accomplished scholars, theologians and even leaders. Just one example is Petronilla of Chemillé, an abbess who presided over convents of both women and men-at the ripe old age of twenty-two! Far from being a time when women were "oppressed" and "marginalized", the Middle Ages witnessed an amazing flowering of the feminine in the Church, society and home. It was no coincidence that the Middle Ages also witnessed a remarkable growth in devotion to the Virgin Mary and other female saints. It was in the seventeenth century that women began to lose privileges and authority, essentially reverting to the status of property under the revived Roman Law. A similar situation occurred with slavery, which had died out during the Middle Ages but emerged again with the "colonial expansion that characterized the classical period." As Pernoud takes pains to show, the feudal system was a far cry from slavery-despite modern misconceptions--and was a way of life built upon honor, specific rights and a deep commitment to the agrarian life.
And here is an excerpt from a book review that speaks of Pernoud's observations on surfs and slaves:
Actually, the waning of Roman oppression was a good thing. Pernoud sets the vilified concept of the medieval serf in a new light by pointing out that being a serf was a good deal better than being a slave. "The fact is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the one was a thing and the other a man. The meaning of the human person experienced a change between ancient and medieval times, a slow change, because slavery was deeply rooted in the customs of Roman society in particular, but an irreversible one" (p. 87). So while the lord/serf societal split was perhaps not optimal, it was much better than what humanity had been doing for centuries. It was not until the Renaissance had abandoned and maligned the medieval mentality that full-fledged slavery once again sprang up in our more "humane" modern times.
Here is an excerpt from an essay on the Middle Ages by G.K. Chesterton:
A little while before the Norman Conquest, countries such as [England] were a dust of yet feeble feudalism, continually scattered in eddies by barbarians, barbarians who had never ridden a horse. There was hardly a brick or stone house in England. There were scarcely any roads except beaten paths: there was practically no law except local customs. Those were the Dark Ages out of which the Middle Ages came. Take the Middle Ages two hundred years after the Norman Conquest and nearly as long before the beginnings of the Reformation. The great cities have arisen; the burghers are privileged and important; Labour has been organised into free and responsible Trade Unions; the Parliaments are powerful and disputing with the princes; slavery has almost disappeared; the great Universities are open and teaching with the scheme of education that Huxley so much admired; Republics as proud and civic as the Republics of the pagans stand like marble statues along the Mediterranean; and all over the North men have built such churches as men may never build again. And this, the essential part of which was done in one century rather than two, is what the critic calls "little social or political advance." There is scarcely an important modern institution under which he lives, from the college that trained him to the Parliament that rules him, that did not make its main advance in that time.
I think I will go back to the drawing board on this history lesson.


At 1/02/2006 1:22 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

It's a bit stunning how many historical falsehoods have been pulled over our eyes.


At 1/02/2006 3:44 PM, Blogger Paul said...

It is almost a certainty that on any historical topic where Christianity gets a black eye that further investigation will turn up some real suprises (for the skeptic). But to be honest, I must also point out that wherever we dig deeply into the lives of many of the saints of the church we can find that they were more human than we'd like to believe.

At 1/03/2006 4:37 PM, Blogger roman said...

Very interesting.
Whoever coined the phrase "Dark Ages" did a great disservice to historical accuracy and forever condemned this era to be falsely viewed as being at a standstill for progress.

At 3/22/2007 11:56 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I just noticed the following book excerpt (from Timeline) on Michael Crichton's website:

"He had a term for people like this: temporal provincials - people who were ignorant of the past, and proud of it.

"Temporal provincials were convinced that the present was the only time that mattered, and that anything that had occurred earlier could be safely ignored. The modern world was compelling and new, and the past had no bearing on it. Studying history was as pointless as learning Morse code, or how to drive a horse-drawn wagon. And the medieval period - all those knights in clanking armor and ladies in gowns and pointy hats - was so obviously irrelevant as to be beneath consideration.

"Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of the market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn't know that, then they didn't know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from.

"Professor Johnston often said that if you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree. "


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