“A String of Stereotypes held Together by the glue of Gullibility”

A couple of books out there are hopefully making some headway toward disabusing secularists of their cherished myth that Rome was the height of ancient civilization, while the period after was some dismal “dark” age of ignorance and cruelty. Of course, to add insult to this historiographical injury, the blame for this “darkness” is always laid at the foot of the Church.

The first book is Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter S. Wells, who is an archaeologist at the University of Minnesota. From a review of the book we read:

Revisionist argument that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire was not an epoch of barbarian savagery, war, chaos and cultural bleakness. On the contrary, it was “a time of brilliant cultural activity” in Europe, writes Wells…

The so-called “Dark Ages” (400 to 800 CE) gave rise to new ideas, urban centers and political structures, as well as major developments in the arts, architecture and learning.

The second book is Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths by Régine Pernoud, translated by Anne Englund Nash.

From Carl E. Olson’s review on Amazon we read:

Her [Pernoud] 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!”

Yet 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…

I have not read these books, so I cannot vouch for everything that might be written therein, but I most certainly am happy to agree with the general theme of each and the efforts to remove at least some of the fog of prejudice which seems to cloud the minds of so many on this subject.

A related theme in this area is the false linear historical line and simplistic labels many hold to that goes something like this, “Rome (good) and then ‘barbarians’ (bad) who are then made even worse by the Church (very bad) and then a reaction to all the badness, ‘Renaissance’ (good) which leads to the ‘Enlightenment’ (very good) and so forth and so on. Scholars have isolated those moments in both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (of course, even prior to) where moves were made philosophically/theologically that imagined a non-sacred space—something just “there,” a neutral surface, moves where we can discern the mostly negative turns birthing that which we have come to name ‘modernity.’ However, rather than a reaction to the Middle Ages, more accurately, it was the Christian narrative that helped give rise to both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (of course there were many ‘Enlightenments’).

Even references such as Wikipedia pick up on the connections:

The Renaissance was so called because it was a “rebirth” of certain classical ideas that had long been lost to Western Europe. It has been argued that the fuel for this rebirth was the rediscovery of ancient texts that had been forgotten by Western civilization, but were preserved in the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world, and some monastic libraries; and the translations of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin.

But notice, those classical ideas and texts had not been lost to Byzantium. And guess who introduced the Islamic world (and the West) to these “ancient” texts and classical ideas? Right, Byzantium. And guess who translated those Greek and Arabic texts into Latin? Right, Byzantine scholars. In fact, it was the Church in many places, not only the east (Ireland for instance), that preserved and copied the ancient texts of the classical world. Here is more from Wiki:

It should be emphasized that the new ideals of humanism, although more secular in some aspects, developed against an unquestioned Christian backdrop, especially in the Northern Renaissance. Indeed, much (if not most) of the new art was commissioned by or in dedication to the Church.

As to the Enlightenment, it is possible to interpret that time (although “which” time is more like it) as a heretical theological sensibility masquerading as something “scientific” or “rational” but really the culmination of theological moves that introduced the final imagination of a space called the “secular” that had heretofore been the designation of a ‘time’, like the dash on a tombstone between two dates. In this case the dates standing for, not birth and death, but rather the Ascension and the Parousia.

Those figures who articulated what we normally have come to think of as the Enlightenment could only have done so out of the world-view, language, and concepts bequeathed to them by the Church, regardless of where they took those concepts. What we have then, as noted in an earlier post, is the grandchildren living off the borrowed capital they never produced. Either way, both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment flowed from rivers fed by Christian springs, no matter how polluted they might have become once down stream.

However, the secularist should ponder this: If one wanted to designate a “Dark Age” he need look no further than the 20th Century. What if we were to measure an age, not by technological and scientific advancement, but by its violence and destruction of people. As alluded to in an earlier post, if we were to take the millions killed by the “scientific” materialism of Soviet Communism, Chinese communism, Pol-Pot in Cambodia, the millions killed by the Nazi State, the Holocaust, and the millions killed by western states in the pursuit of their goals (liberal democracy and free markets), the 20th Century could well be considered the darkest of all known ages.

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4 Responses to “A String of Stereotypes held Together by the glue of Gullibility”

  1. Burk Braun says:

    What a delightful post! I have read the Peter Wells book, and for all the blurbs and claims of academic revolution, it simply makes the case that many Europeans did quite well after the collapse of Rome in terms of domestic industries and basic trade relations, which is not entirely newsworthy. What they did not do is high culture, such as learning new facts, writing them down, and generating innovative art and technology. It took till the mini-renaissance of the 1100’s for that to happen, with Hildegard and most others you cite. The Bede was a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark continent, and clearly was not enough by himself or with his innovative monastery to perk things up. Why not? It was precisely because the leading lights of the age considered theology the highest calling, and devoted their lives to destroying heretics and defending whichever side of the Monophysitism debate they happened to be on. One example is Justinian, as related in the book Justinian’s flea, who spent much of his life in just such sterile, useless activities. He happened to get alot else done as well, but others would not have been so fortunate.On studying the end of Rome, one has to give primary place to economic issues driving the fall and subsequent decentralization. But the intellectual climate, complete with the burning of Alexandra in 391 was distinctly darkened by the new orthodoxy, from Constantine on.With regard to more recent times, the destruction of people is a major failing, but we live in an era with a population of 6 billion- how did we ever end up with so many? By magic? No- by harnessing a new intellectual tradition increasingly dissociated from the church, once it was possible to be dissociated without being hunted down and killed.You mention Parousia- do you believe, with Sarah Palin, that … “Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth in my lifetime.”? If so, then global warming is hardly an issue, is it?

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  2. Burk Braun says:

    correction- .. the burning of the library of Alexandria in 391 ..You might like Isaiah Berlin’s work on these questions…The crooked timber of humanity.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Most would be surprised to learn that “high culture” equals “innovative” art (whatever that means) and technology. Notice, ironically, in the instance where you do recognize “glimmers” they are the result of that same Christian source and faith. By the way, the last I checked, no one knows for sure who burned down the Alexandra library, so your prejudice (notice also your use of the words “dark” and “darkened” throughout) is getting in the way here. I have no idea what Sarah Palin believes. However with all orthodox Christians, I hold to the Nicene Creed and everything in the Creed and in the core teachings of the Church affirm the goodness of creation and our need to act as responsible stewards of that creation, which is a gift. Of course, that wasn’t the point of my post, however–the rest of your response was.

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  4. Burk Braun says:

    Here is a good link on the matter of the Library of Alexandria, and you are right that the evidence is quite thin and not terribly anti-Christian. The Romans seem to have done the bulk of destruction themselves during various earlier military events. At any rate, we know very little.http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htmDespite Gibbon and the inaccuracies I have been heir to here, the deeper theme remains … that the intellectual life of early Christianity was constricted and intolerant. Justinian explicitly closed the Platonic academy in Greece in 529, for example. “In that year there was a great persecution of Hellenes. Many had their property confiscated. Some of them died: Makedonios, Asklepiodotos, Phokas, the son of Krateros, and Thomas the quaestor. This caused great fear. The emperor decreed that those who held Hellenic beliefs should not hold any state office, while those who belonged to the other heresies were to disappear from the Roman state, after they had been given a period of three months to embrace the orthodox faith. This sacred decree was displayed in all provincial cities.”This is hardly news, was replicated throughout the early times, and continued as a theme down to recent centuries. In part they were just copying Roman practice before, but with the critical difference that Rome was only intolerant of the few religions that themselves were intolerant (Christianity), while allowing a kaleidoscope of others to exist, from mystery cults to eastern religions, etc. Christianity turned this around, and not only banished all non-christians, but then even had bitter disputes and heretic-hunting of its own sects, all quite parallel to the intolerance also exhibited by Islam at early times through to today, with brief interludes. The result of such intolerance is power, but not truth. The whole mode of arguing for the christian font of learning in the dark and middle ages starts with a fallacy, since the church had a monopoly at the time. There was no other game in town. Even up to Newton, to be not in the church was to not be allowed into any higher institutions. So the judgement that we need to make is not one of gratitude that some miniscule portion of classical learning made it through the eye of the dark ages at all (I am grateful for it all), but whether another cultural system might have done a better job preserving more learning from antiquity, such as, for instance, the school of Athens, or the plural system of tolerant religions and philosophies in general. Indeed, your own protestant tradition played a role in opening the window of pluralism onto the stultifying intellectual atmosphere of europe, taking a step on the way to the non-monoculture we enjoy today.

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