In Defence of the Middle Ages.

Atheists and secularists frequently use the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ as evidence of Christianity’s oppressive power,Knights that the ‘darkness’ of the age was due to the stifling effect of organised religion. They argue that from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance all scientific endeavour ground to a halt, that Europe (the region to which the followers of the carpenter were largely confined) existed in an appalling state of intellectual squalor, and that the cause of this was the oppressive teachings of men in pointy hats. Some atheists proclaim that Islam is in the midst of its own ‘Dark Age’ today, but, since it has the incomparable benefit of living next door to civilised people, it should shake off its shackles and join the modern world. My views on faith are no secret, summed up neatly by Émile Zola: “Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone, from the last church, falls on the last priest.” I tolerate the faith of others (barely) only out of friendship and the belief that Reason will eventually win. Yet I do not agree with this attack on the Medieval Church, or the labelling of the Middle Ages as ‘Dark’. Sometimes atheists are similar to theists – they hear a truth they are comfortable with and they stop; no further investigation is necessary. The Catholic Church is guilty of innumerable crimes against humanity, and I wish it dissolved, preferably from acid derived from derisory glances distilled in scorn and mockery, but for the right reasons, not for misconceptions and propaganda of equal virulence to that espoused by the faithful. Here I write in defence of the Middle Ages, in defence of the Catholic Church, in defence of Skepticism.

The commonly held idea of the Middle Ages is vague at best, mostly cobbled together from random bits of information, popular conceptions, and bad movies. Images of knights in armour, extreme and random violence, endemic plague and pestilence, squalor and filth, and the ever-present hand of the Church haunt the ‘Dark Ages’. It is compared to that which came before, mighty Rome, with its great architecture, civilisation, and indoor plumbing, and that which came after, the Renaissance, the birth of age of Reason, with its art, culture, industry, and smog. The idea of a ‘Dark Age’ was invented during the Renaissance because the scholars and educated folk of the time believed that they were reinventing and rediscovering the glory that was Rome, hence ‘Renaissance’, a rebirth of the Classical era. This idea has endured to the modern-day, but is a blatant anachronism, the unfair definition of a past society by modern standards. The anti-theist voices of our age look back and see that pagan Rome and the quasi-secular Renaissance had one major feature in common, the lack of a domineering and oppressive organised faith, which was the presumed reality of the ‘Dark Age’.  Again, we face anachronism, fused with anti-clericalism and secularist propaganda.

Let’s begin with Rome. It was beautiful and brutal; they built aqueducts and fed Christians to lions, but they had a dark side too. Their entire society was built on conquest and slavery, their culture was largely borrowed from others, and their abuse of the dative case in vulgar Latin is unforgivable. The Empire did not collapse, as I have heard people pontificate several times, due to the influence of Christianity. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire survived for centuries, and was far more deeply Christianised at the time of the Western Empire’s collapse. It was more likely due to a combination of factors, including devaluation of currency, increasing levels of local loyalty over imperial, increasing burdens of bureaucracy, limited understanding of macro-economics, and the lack of an export market or affluent middle-class to purchase goods. And the fact that tens of thousands of Germans invaded, smashed the Roman army to bits, were inadequately assimilated, and eventually occupied every position in the Imperial Army leading to military dictatorship and the re-establishment of a kingdom in Italy.

All the endeavours of the Empire might have been lost in the West; all the literature, philosophy, mythology, and strange cookbooks might have gone the way of toilet paper were it not for the one organisation that revelled in arduous tasks. The Catholic Church preserved all the learning of Rome when all public institutions lost their funding; for the next thousand years generations of monks would diligently copy the speeches of Cicero, the philosophies of Plato, the Histories of Herodotus. Many of the great works of Ancient Greece and Rome survive today only in manuscripts from the 14th Century which were inscribed by monks. This alone is an astounding feat. But the monks, their abbots, and many bishops didn’t stop there; they desired to understand what these works were about, and that required education, a detailed understanding of the complexities of Latin, philosophy, and literature, the creation of vast libraries and the manufacture of books. One hundred years or so after the fall of Rome, Charles the Great built himself an empire with the aid of the Church, and provided the impetus for a veritable explosion of learning. Great monasteries produced scientific works to calculate the cycles of the moon decades, and sometimes centuries, in advance. Charles instituted a standardised script which was based on a combination of the Roman uncial and Irish monastic scripts, propagated by the monastic networks. Hundreds of years later when the learned men of the Renaissance examined ancient documents and marvelled at the clarity of the writing, the breadth of understanding, they assumed that what they read was written by Roman hands. They modelled their writing on what they found, which is the way we write today. But they were wrong, what they had presumed to be from the Classical Period was actually from the ‘Dark Ages’. Not only can we trace they way we write to the Carolingian renovatio (renewal), but also Western music, and it provided the groundwork for Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture.

The notion of the Middle Ages as being dominated by the Church is also a fallacy. Heresy was rife, superstitions and local cults were more popular than what was proclaimed from the pulpit, and kings frequently ignored popes. Sometimes, if a king or emperor were powerful enough they would appoint their own pope; from time to time Germany would have one pope, Italy another, and France, feeling left out, would also decide to have one. Papal power reached its dizzying heights of infallibility only in the late 19th Century, and some of its most infamous crimes against science occurred during the Renaissance, not the ‘Dark Ages’. The Catholic Church was far too weak to do much in the Middle Ages, and had to rely on foreign kings and mercenaries to defend it; the Pope was even run out of Rome more than once! The reality of the oppressive features of the Catholic Church has been transposed from the modern era, since we are all so learned and know better, to an earlier, more ‘primitive’ time, when people were actually less faithful and far more superstitious than the Church would have preferred. Even one of the Church’s most evil crimes, the unbelievable defence of paedophiles in its ranks, is a relatively recent occurrence; in the Middle Ages a cleric accused of such a deed would be confined to a cell and made to live on bread and water, and if found guilty was often excommunicated and banished, which was a serious threat in those days. More witches were burned by popular and civic authorities than the Church during the Inquisition, the Crusades were as much a secular military conquest as a theological exercise, and the Papacy even defended Jews from attack by Christians, under pain of excommunication, from the Middle Ages until the Renaissance.

Even Islam in the Middle Ages was not remotely as oppressive as we are often led to believe. The Muslims of Al-Andalus (Andalusia, Spain) built a kingdom which promoted philosophy, science, and religious tolerance, as did Baghdad at the other end of the Muslim world, often surpassing any endeavour of a similar kind in Christian Europe. Where the Christian faith preserved the legacy of Plato and Rome, Islam did the same for Aristotle and Persia. The Christian World learned of Aristotle through the medium of Islam, and they conquered architectural and engineering problems Rome never could because of the innovations of Arabic mathematics. In the Middle Ages these were not faiths of ignorance, but of learning. They became dogmatists of ignorance in the modern era when threatened with a better explanatory paradigm, science. Indeed the foundation of science, and many of its principles, can be found in either texts that the Church preserved and studied, or policies that it actively encouraged. Early scientists were often members of the clergy, such as the great astronomer Copernicus (who provided the first accurate description of the heliocentric theory), or believed that their advances only proved the majesty of God’s Creation, like another great astronomer Kepler (who developed the laws of planetary motion).

We cannot judge the past by the standards of today; we don’t look at Italians and Germans and think “once a fascist, always a fascist”; we don’t think that the founders of the U.S. were obese rednecks who loved guns and god, and we don’t deride ancient Jews for the settlement policies of modern Israel. I wish to be clear though; the Catholic Church and all organised religion should be abolished. My argument against anachronism is twofold; placing the standards of the present on the past is just wrong and intellectually deceitful, but equally, demanding that the present conform to the past is just outright stupidity. The Middle Ages were not ‘Dark’, and the Christian faith was the accepted paradigm of the time, but faith itself is now an anachronism, a failed paradigm since the beginning of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century. We must be skeptical about populist claims and propagandising public figures, even when they come from those who proclaim the virtues of science over faith, of atheism over theism. It is necessary to question those who lay claim to history to prove their point, it is in fact essential that we dispute all received wisdom until proven, lest we become slavering dogmatists ourselves. We must dissent, and we must be skeptical.

As a final note, this picture, while being rather popular on various atheist dark ageswebsite (search for “dark ages graph” or variations thereof), has been invented by an intellectual cretin. Firstly, there is no statistical data of any kind about the scientific advances of any era until the early modern, so everything before the ‘Enlightenment’ part of the graph is at best a lie. Secondly, they are extrapolating an idyllic future based on unsubstantiated data. Thirdly, this is borderline racist as it neglects the amazingly advanced culture and science found in China and Persia during “Christian Dark Ages”, the ancient Phoenicians (who taught the Greeks to write), and the Hindus of India who saw Europe as an intellectual backwater in the 14th Century, among others. Fourthly, “Just think… We could have been exploring the galaxy by now”? Seriously? Just think, the Romans with nuclear weapons, the Mongols with Predator Drones, Vikings with submarines, obese Incans… We could be dead by now. This kind of asinine fairytale delusion of what the future “may have been” serves no purpose in a serious argument. It posits the notion that somehow someone could have seen and understood all the intricacies of human society and conspired to oppress it over hundreds of years. In this respect the graph is a theist argument for the hand of god influencing human affairs. This is as stupid as creationism. History unfolded with no great design, no guiding hand. It happened. Deal with it. Live in the real world.

25 responses to “In Defence of the Middle Ages.

  1. We need to make clear that by ‘Christian Dark Ages’ we are referring to Western Christians and not Easter (ie. Orthodox) Christians.

    • What really needs to be clear is that the ‘Dark Ages’ are a misconception, and never really happened as is popularly understood. The ‘Dark Ages’ are blamed on Christianity, but, as you rightly point out, it had little effect in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The collapse in the West was more likely due to economic factors, corruption, and the sudden arrival of large bodies of Germanic peoples. There was of course a dip in standards, but learning and education continued, and many western kingdoms sought legitimacy from the emperor at Constantinople. With the Carolingian renivatio however, things started to really turn around in western Europe. The term ‘Dark Ages’ is a misnomer; it may have been a bit grey and cloudy, but it was never dark.

  2. I must say that while I disagree with a lot of what you say, I must commend you on this, as its something I’ve been saying for quiet some Time. Not only as a Christian who argued in the past with Atheists who use this myth, but with others, like other Christians who bought it for their own purposes, or political discussions in which its brought up. The Dark Ages is, rest assured, as much an attempt at validating the Republican movement of the 18th Century as it is the goal of ending Christianity, but it is still Propaganda.

    Though I do dislike how Atheists these days spell god with a lower case G. This is not because as a “Believer” I am offended that my god is not shown reverence, but because it is improper. The word, as used here the way you do, is a name, irrespective of if it is the actual name of the being discussed, So it should be capitalised.

    I also have to question your statements about Science being a better Paradigm that came along and Replaced Religion and is superior to it. This is nothing but a repetition of the Draper-White Conflict Thesis, which in turn rests upon the same bas History you are refuting here. EG, that in the Middle Ages the Church reigned supreme and our advancement came to a Halt, or even went backwards, or that men believed that the Earth as Flat.

    If the image of the Dark Ages is wrong, would not the Conflict Thesis itself be wrong as it is entirely supported by this Historical Narrative?

    Not that I expect to be listened to but, I don’t even think Atheists are non-religious. Why should I? And why should I see Science and Religion as two fundamentally opposed Paradigms?

    Science itself isn’t’ even a Paradigm is it? It is a Method for Inquiry Religion is simply a Philosophical system used to understand the Fundamental Nature of our existence Religion is not another word for Theism, and one need not believe in a god to be Religious. I would argue that even today’s Atheistic beliefs you see on this site and that are common elsewhere are themselves just as much a Religion as Christianity or Hinduism. The Scarlet A is no different from a Cross, a Religious Symbol that stands for a complex Social and Cultural Identity based on several concepts and ideas that frame the way the world is understood.

    I would also argue that the idea that one cannot be both Religious and Scientific is discredited by the number of people who are, even if we do exclude Atheists. While Dawkins may have provided a retort that those people are just Compartmentalising, I see no evidence for this either.

    But all of this is made even worse by a reflection of the History If Christianity did not hold Civilisation back or destroy the Roman Empire, and if in fact the Renaissance Thinkers were by and large still Christian themselves, then on what basis does it stand to reason that Christianity is itself opposed to being Rational or thinking for oneself or a Hindrance to social Liberty or Freedom?

    This of course doesn’t argue that it is right, but then neither would Christianity prove to be wrong if the Mythic version of the Dark Ages were True.

    But then, I know I can’t discuss these questions. The Rhetoric is part of an identity that runs too deep. Its like when I challenge America’s Foundational Myth and say King George was not a Tyrant. Its simply ignored. So for that I should be grateful that the Middle Ages is at least defended.

    • Thank you for you comment.

      Firstly, the ‘God’ spelling; I have to admit I do wander in my capitalisation of it, sometimes it gets it, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on my mood, how tired I am, and whether or not I press the shift-key hard enough. I agree with what you say, that is the title of the character; sometimes I toy with using YWHW just to absolutely clear about what it is that I am talking about, but I imagine that would simply lead to some confusion. If I were talking of the high-god of the Greeks I would use a capital, so it’s only fair to use a capital for the Christian one since it’s the same name. The PIE *deiwos became zeus in Greek and deus in Latin, zeus being borrowed later again as theos in words like theology. In lowercase these originally meant ‘god’, Zeus of course being special, and possibly one of the first hints at monotheism. Hellenised Jews didn’t use the term as far as I know, I suppose they were happy with Yahweh, but Roman Christians, the vast majority being Latin-speaking and without any knowledge of Hebrew, simply adapted the terminology that they had to suit their new belief system. By the way ‘God’ isn’t a name, it’s a title, the name of the Judeo-Christian god is never revealed; I think the closest thing to a name is “I am that I am”.

      Secondly, though I strongly disagree with most of what you have written, I do not want this to devolve into a tedious argument, a stance I think you may share in light of your final paragraph. I suppose we could just accept that we have radically different world perspectives and leave it at that. I’m sure we could both argue at length and in great detail, but to what end? I am adamant, just as I imagine you are, so let’s leave with your final sentiment, which I agree with; a concurrence that, whatever else we may differ on, the popular understanding of the Medieval period needs rehabilitation.

  3. Oh and a few errors showed up. it seems the spell check removed a few periods. This is regretable as it makes the passages I wrote rather harder to read.

    Also some of the errors in spelling have persited. I am dyslexic and thus wholly dependant upon editors, you see.

    Still, with apologies.

    • No apology necessary, dyslexia is a disability, not a personal fault. And spell-check is a curse which frequently demands I use ‘z’ instead of ‘s’, and becomes deeply puzzled by enigmatic words like ‘metre’.

  4. Statements like “Even Islam in the Middle Ages was not remotely as oppressive…” reveal the ideological ignorance of the writer, who takes western and Christian superiority as a given:Christian Europe was a cultural backwater, and if early christianity was supposed to be based on poverty, mercy and high morality, one is hard put to find any of it in the cruelty that underlies the legal dehumanization, massacres and eventual expulsion of Jews from much of Europe, the religious glorification of warfare (knighthood), the murderous crusades, including their mass murder of fellow christians and the infamous “children crusades”, the association of the papacy with one king or another, the very adherence of the church to a feudal structure, and its exploitation of their subject… the list is long and ugly.

    • I’m quite confused by this comment. Many people believe that Islam has been in a state of scientific stagnation since its inception, yet my intention was to illustrate that at one time it was in advance of Christianity. Did you read the rest of the paragraph? The very next sentence is “The Muslims of Al-Andalus (Andalusia, Spain) built a kingdom which promoted philosophy, science, and religious tolerance, as did Baghdad at the other end of the Muslim world, often surpassing any endeavour of a similar kind in Christian Europe.” At no point do I take ‘western and Christian superiority as a given’, I was simply hoping to point out that the Middle Ages were not as ‘dark’ as people seem to believe, and indeed the achievements of Islam was part of the argument. Attacking Christian religious glorification of warfare? Such glorification is not uncommon, many pagan beliefs were based on warrior cults, the Vikings being the most obvious, and, since your focal point is Islam, we might also include the Assassins. I never denied the brutality of the era, I simply wished to point out that the manner by which we judge it is unfair. There seems to be some strange consent to glorify Rome and its achievements, happily ignoring its abuses (slavery, persecution of minorities, including Jews, genocide, etc.), while damning its successor states for the very same crimes without acknowledging their accomplishments. No culture is innocent, the West and the East today happily exploit the Third World, so we are all culpable in some fashion for the atrocities which occur there in the name of cheap consumer products. The European Empires raped and pillaged large parts of Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia for their own gain, but we don’t denounce the Industrial or Agricultural Revolutions, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the rise of European democracy, the abolition of slavery, and the rise of the working- and middle-classes. No, we examine them all in context (though many cherry-pick); why can we not afford the Middle Ages the same benefit?

      The list of crimes you roll out is interesting. I’m not quite sure what makes the Children’s Crusade so infamous; recent research has argued that it consisted of not ‘children’ but ‘young men’ (a mistranslation of the Latin), and that they mostly poor people who wandered around Europe, led by people who ‘heard voices’ (always a credible reason to go for a long walk), before settling down wherever they found themselves, or going home. Some died of starvation, which was tragic. You may be referring to the popular myth that a whole slew of children ended up as slaves in Tunisia or somewhere (which shows that Muslims were also guilty of the same crime of ‘legal dehumanization’ as Christians), but that has been discredited to the best of my knowledge, though I have to admit it has been several years since I studied the Crusades. The murdering of Christians by Christians, papal involvement in regal affairs, religious glorification of warfare, well, Islam was guilty of these crimes too. The support of one sultan over another, of one caliph over another, led to a great deal of in-fighting and religious warfare, and is one of the reasons why there are two main branches of Islam today. There really wasn’t much difference between these two peoples; it was a brutal era where violence was accepted as the answer to most problems. I’m not saying that this was a good thing, or that one side is more or less guilty than the other, but that we must understand them within their own context and not judge them by our standards; we have a millennium of accumulated knowledge and understanding to draw from that they simple did not have. We cannot look back and sneer at these people for being uneducated, partly because education was not widely available, but primarily as the vast majority of them had the same basic needs and desires as we do. Most wanted to live and die in peace, raise and provide for families. Religion was the cornerstone of how they viewed their entire existence. When threatened, they reacted. We may now see their reactions as brutal and cruel, but we must try to understand them in their own context. Of course there were evil men, malicious organisations, vile motives, but the same is true of today. Bohemond of Antioch may well have been a sociopath, but Raymond of Toulouse was a far more reasonable man; Exxon is a malevolent force in the world, but Statoil has vastly improved the living conditions of Norway.

      Finally, ‘Christian Europe was a cultural backwater’? Okay, that’s an opinion, but in that case it was a ‘cultural backwater’ which systematised the very way we write, preserved the learning of Rome and Greece, produced astonishing works of art (I mean, seriously, the Book of Kells is awesome), all of which laid the foundation for the Renaissance. So, in the end, I’m not entirely sure how my extolling the virtues of Medieval Europe and Islam ‘reveal the ideological ignorance of the writer’.

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  6. Belated thanks for posting this. Context is everything. The church didn’t invent people, people invented the church, and it was no more oppressive and bloodthirsty than society in general. In some cases, perhaps less so. I was reading about medieval slavery in England and some of the horrible things people did to their slaves – one source said the scourging to death of slaves was not uncommon. Slaves had no rights, they could be tortured for minor infractions. If you murdered your own slave, there would likely be no legal consequences, but you could be excommunicated. Slaves who ran away from cruel masters had nowhere to turn unless they took sanctuary in the church, and clergy sometimes bought slaves for the purpose of freeing them. Christianity was a good influence in some ways. Not only that, but I think a lot of atheists who were raised as Christians don’t realize the extent to which they’ve internalized certain Christian principles. It’s not just their intellects but their essentially Christian sensibilities that are offended by the cruelty, hypocrisy, sanctimony etc. of the crappier Christians. Not that Christianity itself is perfect, obviously, but Jaysus, there’s a baby in there with the bathwater.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      Context is key, and everything must be taken in the correct context. While the Church, as you rightly point out, is an invention of men, and as such is “no more oppressive and bloodthirsty than society in general”, it has, and does, offer license to commit crimes moral people would baulk at. The enslavement of Christians was relatively rare in post-Roman Christian Europe, and it was often for economic reasons and limited in term (people became slaves to pay off debts, and were free once it was fulfilled), but non-Christians could be held indefinitely without punishment. This was, in fairness to Christianity, a positive force; under the Roman Empire something like a quarter of the population were enslaved, and a large portion of those were used for sex or ‘amusement’ in the arenas. Slave represented in the region of 10% of the population of the Carolingian Empire, and the same can be said of Anglo-Saxon Britain, I believe.

      I have some reservations concerning the notion of atheists internalising ‘certain Christian principles’; good moral conduct is not the exclusive reserve of Christianity (I have had the pleasure of meeting very moral people of various faiths, and non-faiths), and, as I have noted above, religion often offers a certain degree of latitude concerning morality. Which is to say, religions, while they may have adherents who are themselves moral, are often bastions of immorality. Slavery is condoned by the Judeo-Christian god in the Bible (for one example, the Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians 6:5-9). But, of course, this must all be taken in context…

      You are indisputably correct to say that the baby should not be flung out with the bathwater, but the filthy water must assuredly be ejected for the health of the child…

      • rosekelleher

        A principle can be important or central to Christianity – i.e. a “Christian principle” – without being exclusive to it. Is there some other way of saying “Christian principles” that makes that extra clear for the benefit of prickly non-Christians? (I’m pretty much an atheist myself, incidentally.) It’s like when you call certain behavior “un-Christian” – some people jump at the opportunity to be offended by that because, they assume, it implies that everyone else thinks said behavior is just fine. But an act can be un-Christian and also un-Hindu, un-Buddhist, not kosher, or just generally unethical.

        In the Bible, Christ is reported to have said to a group of people who were getting ready to stone a woman to death for adultery, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I think it’s safe to say it expresses a Christian principle, since it’s a direct quote from Christ. That doesn’t mean that other religions don’t have similar parables or principles. Unfortunately, people who profess a religion don’t necessarily understand it or adhere to it. They twist it around until it’s unrecognizable and you end up with Christians throwing stones in the name of Jesus. These days, however, that happens mostly on a metaphorical level, whereas literal stonings still take place in some Muslim countries. I think it’s become sort of PC and trendy to bash Christianity while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are committed in the name of Islam. You’ll probably say they both suck, what’s the difference, but as a woman I take the difference between metaphorical and literal stoning rather seriously. Anyway, I’ll shut up and leave you alone now. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

      • The pervasiveness of religious words in many languages, and how to work around them, is an interesting debate. That said, a religious ‘principle’ is not necessarily an ethical one; many religions condemn, for example, homosexuality based on ‘Christian principles’. There are, admittedly, some broadly positive principles contained within the Christian faith (and others), but each religion is a subset of the faith, and chooses their own interpretation of these principles. These principles are not fundamental truths, but rather an agreed set of laws, a rule-book of a given religion, which contain, and maintain, the bias of such an organisation. Ethics, as a philosophical discipline, attempts to cut to the heart of the matter, rather than operate from a pre-defined set of rules. Part of the problem is that religions have connived to dovetail their religious agendas with ethics, muddying the water. Take, for example, the idea of Christian science: there is no such thing. There is science, which can be interpreted by Christians in a Christian fashion, but that does not make the science Christian. Equally there are ethical principles which can be expounded, or obscured, by Christians, but that does not make an ethical principle Christian (I use Christian here only as an example, others do this too).

        There is, I concur, a difference between the metaphorical and physical act of stoning women, but they both stem from a common religious principle: the subjugation of women. You are right in saying that Jesus was reported to have defended a woman from stoning, and he does appear to have held women in high regard, a somewhat unusual position for his time. Indeed many of the early Christian sects seem to have been led by women (Paul often addresses his letters to women). That said, once the cult of Christ became a centralised, Romanised religion the suppression of women returned, and has survived in many (indeed most) of the shards.

        I take your point that it appears to be ‘trendy’ to bash Christianity; trawling atheist forums will leave one with a sense of despair, ignorance can be found in abundance on our side of the argument also. The trend in Christianity-bashing may be due, however, to the simple fact that it is, arguably, the single most influential religion in the world. Most of the major economies, and military forces, belong to nations which are avowedly Christian, or a large percentage of their population are. Indeed, the greatest military force the world has ever seen is under the command of a nation in which it appears that a politician must repeatedly declare their unwavering faith in their chosen manifestation of the Christian god to have any chance of being elected. The Roman Catholic Church possesses vast amounts of property, controls education and healthcare, and wields inordinate levels of political influence in many nations. It may simply be that Christianity is bashed because it is a dominating force in Western society which brooks no rivals, even though it is a redundant paradigm.

        No need to ‘shut up’, this is an interesting and enjoyable discussion! Thanks!

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  8. Dear author,You should study the miracles , that only occurs in Catholic Church,The incorrupt bodies,the Tilma of Guadalupe ,in México!
    I believe in your serious work!!

    • Thank you for your comment.

      Strangely enough, I do actually study miracles, mostly from 5th-9th century Europe, but primarily for their political implications.

      I feel that I should point out that not only Catholics believe in miracles; most Christian denominations, and indeed most adherents of the Abrahamic faiths believe in such fantastic stories, as do Buddhists (I think). The suspension of reason and logic is an all too common attribute of humanity.

      Incorrupt bodies are fascinating, I have wondered, from time to time, how it is done. I once saw the hand of St. Francis of Assisi; relics are such odd things. It’s one thing to visit a tomb, but to cut the body up and put the bits in different places? That’s a little creepy.

      The Tilma of Guadalupe is a curious tale indeed, it reminded me somewhat of the Shroud of Turin, though I believe that scientific examination of the former has been refused. You will have to forgive me for remaining a skeptic.

      Thanks again for your comment, I am delighted to see that, somehow, I have reached such an international audience (I also choose to take your final sentence as a marvelous pun!).

  9. Reblogged this on Bostproductions and commented:
    I have always thought that the Dark Ages were dark because of the economic system of the time, the inevitable result of might making right.

    • Thanks for the reblog, and the comment!

      The ‘Dark Ages’ were considered dark in a very literal sense by Renaissance scholars, who saw themselves as presiding over the rebirth of Classical civilisation. Of course, many others thought the same, one need only look at the Carolingian Renevatio. In another sense, certain portions of the middle ages are ‘dark’ due to a simple paucity of evidence. The medieval economy was a mixed bag; there was a decline in ‘international’ trade after the fall of Rome, and the regional economy became the vital focus. This did lead to a certain local vibrancy: for example, there were massive schemes to reclaim wetlands in Britain, and, in France, the monasteries turned marginal lands into productive farmland. Even so, ‘international’ trade continued, luxury items were always in demand by the nobility.

      On the point of ‘might making right’, well, if that was considered to be the defining feature of a dark age, we still live in one; one need only glance at the news to see examples of more powerful nations, companies, even individuals, dominating those which are not. In a less trite sense, ‘might makes right’ was how the Roman Empire operated, indeed it is how every empire operated. If we accept that ‘the Dark Ages’ lay between the Roman Era and the Renaissance, ascribing ‘might makes right’ to the ‘Dark Ages’ alone makes no sense; some of the greatest benefactors of the Renaissance were (arguably) despots and tyrants, and even then, when we move into the early modern period might was often considered to be ‘right’.

      While it is a rather complex issue, especially when we discuss economics, to call the medieval period a ‘Dark Age’ is inaccurate; some periods in the history of certain regions of people may be ‘dark’ because we have little written evidence, but that’s where archaeologists and literature scholars can offer some insight (not that they don’t when we do have documentary evidence).

  10. It seems that some of the later, better documented (than what we have available from the “dark ages”) cases show that the church was not particularly keen on allowing freedom of inquiry and speech (e.g. Galileo, Bruno). How many others, for whom we lack documentation, were prosecuted for such “heresy” regarding questions about biology, astronomy, physics, and chemistry that were not filtered through Christian “truth” (i.e. omission/modification of anything that wasn’t part of church doctrine) for the thousand years following the death of Hypatia?

    A poor economy, limited societal value for education, and frequent invasions could all play a role in grinding scientific advancement to a crawl. These factors arguably also allow religious sorts, brimming with promises but bereft of payouts, to sieze power. But it seems more accurate to say a number of factors, *including* the church, were to blame for the limited scientific progress, rather than exonerating the church. Even if the church doesn’t bear all of the blame, I don’t see how anyone can argue that the catholic church was conducive to free thought and inquiry-I don’t think you’re arguing this, but an apologist could take your contentions and spin them that way. Also, I don’t pardon Protestants; they did act as a counter-balance to complete Catholic church rule over peoples’ thoughts and deeds, but once in power and left to their own devices their demands for purity and homogeneity of thought was just as bad.

    I think the important lessons from the Dark Ages should be:
    Don’t allow any to rule who would limit freedom of expression and inquiry.
    Society as a whole should value education, and in turn, the educated should value the mutualistic relationship they have with the workers, as a devastated economy can spell the doom of both classes.

    And some minor quibbles with the overall article-you point out pagan invasions as being detrimental to progress, but many of the Germanic invaders during this period were Christian. Unless there was a discernable difference between the pagan and Christian invasions, it seems meaningless to point to the “pagan” nature of the invaders as being responsible for stagnation/degradation of the period. Also, the invasions were arguably beneficial in certain cases, as they motivated (by necessity) advancements, such as were undertaken by the Saxon king Alfred the Great.

    • Thank you for your comment! I must apologise for the delayed response, it’s been a busy month.

      It’s always a tenuous place to begin an argument, “we don’t know what happened, but this could have happened, so it must have happened”. Perhaps the very fact that there is no documentation of such persecution in the Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries) may simply due to the fact that it didn’t happen? You might think that I am being flippant here, but one must consider the historical context of the persecutions of Bruno and Galileo (both of whom belong to the late 16th, early 17th centuries): the once monolithic Catholic Church was in the midst of the Reformation (began around 1517), resulting in extreme social upheaval, and even war. At the same time, mechanistic views of the universe were coming to the fore, removing the singular place of Man and God in the cosmos. The Catholic Church took on a siege mentality, became somewhat radicalised, and stuck out at any dissenters, whether religious or scientific. Now consider the Middle Ages: the Catholic Church was basically a federation of Churches with varying degrees of autonomy from the Papacy, but they all basically agreed on matters of faith, and science was a religious pursuit. Roger Bacon was forging early empiricism, and Thomas Aquinas was discussing Aristotle, in the 13th century, building on the ‘Renaissance’ of the 12th century, a period in which many of the earliest universities were founded, and medicine as a scientific discipline traces its roots to this era (in Europe at least, the Islamic world was more than a little ahead in that area). There was also the renevatio of the 9th century, but that had more to do with Latin, philosophy, art, music, and architecture than science (depending, of course, on how one defines ‘science’, a word which come from the Latin scio ‘to know, understand’). That said, the Middle Ages lasted about a thousand years, and the Church did have a fondness for persecution, so chances are that some people were persecuted for their scientific efforts. On the other hand, many religious orders saw the sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy as merely reflections of the majesty of God, and that ‘knowing’ was what separated Man from beast, such that the more that was known, the better God could be understood. It’s no accident that Bacon and Bruno were monks, Copernicus was a canon, Albertus Magnus and Robert Grosseteste were bishops; there was even a pope, Sylvester II, who was a proponent of Arabic-Graeco-Roman scientific learning, and he died in 1003! In short, the violent reaction of the Catholic Church to science is less a phenomenon of the Middle Ages, but rather of the Early Modern period, a reaction to the (perceived) threat of its own dissolution.

      As for the cruel fate of Hypatia, as I understand it, she was killed by a Christian mob, not acting on orders of the Church. Mobs are, by definition, uncontrollable, violent, and usually acting on less than rational impulses. And, while this was a vile act, it seems to have been a consequence of her role in a dispute between the bishop of Alexandria and the governor, not the fact that she was an intellectual, though early Christians would have really disliked the idea of a female intellectual. Early Christianity was highly radicalised, as new religions often are, and it tended to appeal to the middle- to lower-classes, which consisted mainly of the uneducated. A pagan female intellectual is close to being the ultimate Christian scapegoat/hate-figure. In any case, her death did not signal the demise of Classical learning in late antiquity, that kept going until at least the 5th/6th centuries.

      I am glad that you recognise that I am not arguing that the Christian Church encouraged free thought, or even freedom of inquiry; such things were allowed, but only within the parameters of faith. The fact that “an apologist could take [my] contentions and spin them that way” should not impede the discussion. I cannot control how people use information, but that does not mean that I should cease being informative. Only by the weight and clarity of rational though and argument will we achieve any success. By writing as I do, I hope that I provide a useful, perhaps even provoking, discussion of certain aspects and themes. The overriding goal, if I dare to have one, is to illustrate that everything must be carefully placed within its own context: the Old Testament was drawn together by kings, judges, and prophets who each had their own agendas, as did the authors of the New Testament, and the Koran, and every religious text. That is not to say that these works offer us no insight, I find it remarkable how little humanity has changed in the last three millennia, while at the same time having changed itself radically. These works clearly speak to people, and we should attempt to understand them, but in the correct context; some of the views held by these works are abysmally primitive and outdated.

      The Protestant Reformation is an interesting topic indeed, and one that puzzles me. It’s like half a good idea: ‘we will throw off the shackles of a huge and corrupt organisation because we believe that people should have a personal relationship with the divine… but only within the parameters we set forth in our slightly smaller organisations (which may be equally corrupted)’. Oh, that may be a tad too trite…

      Now let us turn to:

      I think the important lessons from the Dark Ages should be:
      Don’t allow any to rule who would limit freedom of expression and inquiry.
      Society as a whole should value education, and in turn, the educated should value the mutualistic relationship they have with the workers, as a devastated economy can spell the doom of both classes.

      This is a puzzling statement. You appear to presume that people in the Middle Ages had a choice, as if they were offered religious freedom and democracy, and spurned it. Freedom of expression and inquiry simply didn’t exist. ‘Oh!’, one might retort, ‘what about the Greeks?’; they were an extreme minority of extremely wealthy folk. The economy was largely agrarian, requiring massive amounts of manpower, education was limited to the absolute elite, and the Church, and society was rigidly structured. That was simply the way that the world was, and the world seemed to reinforce this. It took an awful long time for the peasantry to dare to challenge authority, and they were often mercilessly crushed. But, to get back to your point, that isn’t the lesson of the ‘Dark Ages’, that is the lesson of History, it is a lesson that we seem to have failed to learn. Organisations and ruling authorities limiting freedoms, education, or rights is not a circumstance limited to the 5th-15th centuries, it’s happening today, whether it be censorship of the Internet, the increasing impediments to attaining higher education, the obfuscation of rights due to the war on an abstract noun, among many other limitations of liberties.

      As for your ‘minor quibbles’, yes you are absolutely correct in saying that many of the ‘invaders’ were in fact Christian. It was interesting that, for a time, the Catholic version of Christianity was not dominant in the West, but Arianism was; luckily for the papacy, the Franks (who were Catholic) were very aggressive and good at killing. Many of my earlier pieces, I must admit, were written at a time when I didn’t think anyone would actually read them, and had a decidedly flippant tone to them. I’ve thought of revisiting some of the topics with a mind to being more precise (perhaps when I find the time!).

      However, I will quibble with part of your quibble: are you saying that Alfred’s response to the pagan Viking invasion was beneficial? A plausible assertion, but it is worth recalling that his ancestors were also pagan invaders who were eventually converted to Christianity, as indeed were the Vikings. Arguing that invasion is beneficial is easy in retrospect, I’m not sure that the Britons (or many, many other peoples) would agree. The Hundred Years War benefited France as it did wonders for the French identity and the authority of the king, but was it of benefit to England? What could have been done at home with all the wasted treasure and men? Oh sure, they developed an great tax system, but at what cost of life? I’m not so sure that the benefits of invasion are clear-cut. But this highlights a different point: the invasions of the Vikings were a jarring and shocking series of events, whereas previous ‘invasions’ by pagans (such as the Franks, or even the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) seem to have been invitations… that went horribly wrong, but invitations nonetheless.

      I hope this serves as some clarification, and isn’t overly long. As I said, I might revisit some of these points in a future post, so keep an eye out. Thanks again for the comment!

  11. I like sharing your posts since they… enlighten people and chase away mythical fogs.

    However, I was always puzzled by one strange fact. There were no real, accurate astronomical measurements in the West for 1000 years, until Tycho Brahe. Not in the 12th century, not in the 13th. Yes, classical works were commented, copied etc. but somehow spirit of measurement and experimentation was lost. Or maybe I’m wrong, it was just that (primitive) chemistry was seen as the right thing and measurement of positions of planets something exceptionally boring?

    What do you think?

    • Hey Daniel, apologies for the extremely late replay… life got in the way. Thanks for commenting and sharing!

      Hmmm. Observation of astronomical phenomena definitely took a hit in the West, it seems that the Persians and Arabs were the only ones who looked up for a long long time until their works stared filtering into Europe. It may have been sociological and economic factors that most impacted on this, but sometimes I can’t help but think Western scholars were just not interested, astronomy served no useful function for them. In the Near East, it was always tied to astrology, heavily funded by kings and nobles, but you would find few educated clerics engaging in that in the West. They were concerned with other things, things which seemed very important at the time which may seem trivial to us, but we have the benefit of hindsight.

  12. First, I must confess that English is not my native language, so there must be some irregularities.

    Let’s begin with Rome. It was beautiful and brutal; they built aqueducts and fed Christians to lions, but they had a dark side too. Their entire society was built on conquest and slavery, their culture was largely borrowed from others, and their abuse of the dative case in vulgar Latin is unforgivable.

    really? You say that slavery is unforgivable, but servitude is not extremely different. you are being conniving with Christianity, servitude is as bad as slavery, the difference is that one makes people believe they are in that position by the divine will.

    The Empire did not collapse, as I have heard people pontificate several times, due to the influence of Christianity. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire survived for centuries, and was far more deeply Christianised at the time of the Western Empire’s collapse. It was more likely due to a combination of factors

    i agree that the empire’s fall is a conbination of factors. Once more, you are being conivent with Christianity. The Christianity couldn’t be one of those factors? lack of labor really was a difficulty in the maintenance of the empire, there was no concept of well-defined servitude. You want to talk about the Byzantine Empire? I remember, we had a big serve that region, led by Christians. I wonder as a religion that preaches peace and love, has so violent followers. It was no longer hypocrites that institution, we can not deny. But anyway, the sack of Constantinople made room for the Turks. Christianity down Christianity, perhaps?


    All the endeavours of the Empire might have been lost in the West; all the literature, philosophy, mythology, and strange cookbooks might have gone the way of toilet paper were it not for the one organisation that revelled in arduous tasks. The Catholic Church preserved all the learning of Rome when all public institutions lost their funding; for the next thousand years generations of monks would diligently copy the speeches of Cicero, the philosophies of Plato, the Histories of Herodotus. Many of the great works of Ancient Greece and Rome survive today only in manuscripts from the 14th Century which were inscribed by monks. This alone is an astounding feat.

    must be why we have almost no historical account of Jesus Christ without being biblical. They probably burned any information which showed an alternative vision of Christ, which contradicted them. Wait … i’m remembering! burn books help science to advance hundreds of years! why you did not put this information in your text? you are conniving with Christianity in almost all of its text, “hiding” vital information.

  13. ianbrettcooper

    The graph is certainly inaccurate. I’d say the graph should show a slight downtick at 400CE and then the line should be stagnant until 1600CE. Though the graph does exaggerate the reality, it is nevertheless true that between 400CE, when the Christian mob burned the Great Library at Alexandria, and 1600CE, when Galileo was confined for heresy, Christianity strove to stifle any scientific discoveries that contradicted church doctrine. Christianity may have been just one factor, but it was a big one, and it didn’t help.

  14. I strive for the truth but what is the truth, when the truth is mixed with the other “truths?” History like religion is open for interpretation and reinterpretation, and like religion it requires a faith that the truth is being told.
    I think we need to accept that people invent, distort or bias a story for their own self interest. I further think we need to accept that history as we know it would be much more different today if Germany had won WWII. Unfortunately, there seems to be an effort write history to fit certain narratives and dismiss anything that does not fit that narrative. I worry that this form of self censorship limits our understanding and is both harmful and dangerous.

    Mr. Wolf’s article gives me some hope in academia. He understands that we should not easily judge those that came before us based on our current culture. Further he seems to understand that people throughout history experienced a whole range of feelings about the time in which they lived – some struggled and some flourished and many wavered between the two. We may think that we are superior to our elders, but it humbles me to think of my lazy undisciplined life compared to that of a monk who lived during the middle ages.
    While Mr. Wolf may advocate for the destruction of religion, I think he must be honest with himself and recognize that people still need to believe in something. People still need to know right from wrong, but the problem with the new religion of Science is that what is wrong today can easily be turned into a right tomorrow depending on who is in charge. This possibility scares me a hell of lot more than believing in the story of Jesus.

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