Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Myth of the "Dark Ages"

Tricks the Dead Have Played Upon the Living

Rodney Stark has written extensively on the myth of a Dark Ages in Europe. Whilst his explosion of the myth should be of interest to all historians of the West, it is of particular interest to Christians because of the widespread hypothesis that the Dark Ages existed due to the influence of Christianity in Europe, which  ignorance and superstition throughout the Continent. The sub-thesis is that since Christianity is a religion of superstition and ignorance were it to become culturally dominant again, a new Dark Ages would descend upon the land.

This hypothesis and its sub-theses were advanced successfully by the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Voltaire, of course, had observed that "history is a trick the living play upon the dead"; he was in no doubt that "meaningful" history existed only as a useful tool to illustrate selectively his preferred narrative of the times. In his day, the preferred narrative was to assert that human reason was sovereign over superstition, and that the Christian religion was primarily a superstition that held the unenlightened in thrall. Thus, Enlightenment propagandists glorified the ages of Greece and Rome and denigrated the age of Christian ascendency in the West.
Voltaire (1694-1778) claimed that after Rome fell, "barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world." According to Rousseau (1712-1778), "Europe had relapsed into the barbarism of the earliest ages. The people in this part of the world . . . lived some centuries ago in a condition worse than ignorance." Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) also pronounced this era as the "triumph of barbarism and religion".
Rodney Stark, God's Battalions, p.65

For three centuries this has been the received wisdom of the matter in the West. Most twentieth century historians simply accepted this narrative, or "trick played upon the dead" as true. Like the narrative of evolutionism, one had to espouse it in order to be respected in the academy. Here, for example, is Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, writing in 1983, claiming that the Dark Ages began before the fall of Rome--sometime around the emergence of the Christian gospel. As it grew and expanded, so did a pervasive ignorance.
"Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe. Then we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300." This occurred because "the leaders of orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge." And in the words of the distinguished historian William Manchester (1922-2004), this was an era "of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness . . . . The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension." Ibid, p.66

Now the myth of the Dark Ages has been exploded in the mind of the academy--at least for the present.
This has become so well known that rejection of the "Dark Ages" as an unfounded myth is now reported in the respected dictionaries and encyclopedias that only a few years previously had accepted and promulgated the same myth. Thus, while earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had identified the five or six centuries after the fall of Rome as the "Dark Ages", the fifteenth edition, published in 1981, dismissed that as an "unacceptable" term because it incorrectly claims this to have been "a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity." Ibid, p. 66

To be sure, ignorance and barbarity existed and captured centres of influence and power at times--even as it does in our own age. (We believe that subsequent ages will look back at our own in horror at the ignorance and barbarity, for example, represented in glorifying the murder of children as a woman's human right. That is about as ignorant and barbaric as one can get.) But always in Medieval Europe the conflict between a Christian-based reasonableness versus ignorance and superstition was going on. Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose is a classic presentation of this conflict and struggle in the later Middle Ages.

Stark summarises some of the magnificent technological and scientific advances during this period:

-The invention of the collar and harness for horses and oxen that enabled the drawing of very heavy wagons, with substantial increases in speed.

-The invention (eighth century) of iron horseshoes that protected the feet of horses but greatly improved their traction in difficult conditions.

-The development of a harness that allowed horses and oxen to be harnessed in seried pairs, rather than abreast (tenth century). In the ninth century the swivel axel was developed that made large transport carts much more manoeuvrable. These transportation advances all served to make Roman roads ineffective, inadequate and obsolete: they had to be picked apart and new roads laid. (The Enlightenment narrative interpreted this breaking down of Roman roads to be an evidence of Dark Age barbarism!)  

-Food production rose dramatically due to the invention of the horse drawn furrow plough, with adjustable cutting and plowing depths, complete with retractable wheels facilitating easy transportation. This enabled a farming revolution in the heavy soils of mid and northern Europe.

-The exploitation of hydraulic energy. Someone in the Middle Ages invented water powered mills; the technology spread rapidly all over Europe. The Domesday Book (1086) reported that there were at least 5,624 water powered mills operating in England--about one for every 54 families. In the thirteenth century it was recorded that along the Seine, in one section about a mile long, there were 78 mills operating--an average of one mill for every seventy feet of river. In the same century, hydraulic powered sawmills were operating--often being driven by water chutes cascading down from purpose built dams. But not just sawmills: hydraulic power was used for turning lathes, griding knives and swords, fulling (pounding) cloth, hammering metal and drawing wire, and pulping rags to make paper.

And on the subject of paper,
Jean Gimpel noted that paper, "which was manufactured by hand and foot for a thousand years or so following its invention by the Chinese and adoption by the Arabs, was manufactured mechanically as soon as it reached medieval Europe in the thirteenth century. . . . Paper had travelled around the world, but no culture or civilization on its route had tried to mechanize its manufacture" until medieval Europeans did so. Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, p.39.

-Wind energy was quickly exploited as well. Windpower was harnessed to mill, grind, and to pump water. Large areas of what are now Belgium and the Netherlands were under sea during Roman times. Advanced medieval technology pumped the water off and began to farm the land.
By late in the twelfth century, Europe was becoming so crowded with windmills that owners began to file lawsuits against one another for blocking their wind. Ibid, p.40.
-One of the most spectacular technological inventions which hugely increased human knowledge and productivity was the eyeglass. They were invented around 1284 in northern Italy and had a dramatic effect upon productivity--something we take for granted today.
Without glasses, large numbers of medieval craft workers were washed up at forty. With glasses, not only could most of these people continue but because of their experience, their most productive years still lay ahead. Not only that but many tasks are greatly facilitated by use of magnifiers, even by persons with fine eyesight. These tasks were often beyond ancient craftspeople. No wonder glasses spread with amazing speed. Within a century after their invention, the mass production of eyeglasses occupied plants in both Florence and Venice, turning out tens of thousands of eyeglasses a year. Ibid, p.44.
-Finally, we could not fail to mention the dependable, mechanical clock--another thirteenth century invention.
Sometime during the thirteenth century, someone somewhere in Europe invented a dependable mechanical clock. Soon, Europe was the only society where people really knew what time it was. As Lewis Mumford remarked, "the clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the industrial age," because it made possible precise scheduling and coordination of activities. . . . Like eyeglasses, for centuries mechanical clocks existed only in the West. Ibid, p. 44.
Dark Ages, anyone? Not in medieval Christendom, that's for sure. Yet, to this day, the myth is taught as beyond dispute in most classrooms and pop-history programmes in the West. Voltaire was only half right. History can be not just a trick the living play upon the dead; it can also be a trick the dead play upon the living. Why have the generations descending from the Enlightenment been so gullible in this regard? We believe it has been due to the emergent animus against the Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.

As they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.


bethyada said...

It would seem that in the 21st century:

To believe in the Dark (ignorant) Ages requires a Dark (ignorant) Mind.

John Tertullian and Contra Celsum said...

Stark appears to believe that the academic battle has been won and that the "Dark Ages" have been exposed as mythical--and that the narrative has changed for ever. Whilst he and others have exploded the myth, the cynic (or realist) in me thinks that the concept of the Dark Ages fits far too neatly into Unbelief's paradigm, which still dominates our culture.
Methinks it will make a comeback, in the same way that evolutionism remains in control, despite its repeated revisions and back-tracks.
But, you are right. The "Dark Ages" was a theory requiring ignorance to promulgate it in the first place, and ignorance to maintain it.