Tag Archives: Byzantine Empire

The Shadow Line. Part 2 – Still Annoyed at That Damn Graph.

Meanwhile, in Rome…

Following from the previous post, there is an exception to the relative lack of any major cultural and scientific force in the Antique West: Rome. While Gaul, Britain, and Spain were comparative backwaters, Italy was, however, another matter. There we could find major cities, such as Ravenna, Milan, and, of course, Rome itself, which did suffer a massive decline in the Medieval period. This was mostly due the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Byzantines coming in and pretty much ruining the place. For hundreds of years the Italian peninsula was ravaged by competing would-be conquerors seeking to hold on to the last embers of Roman glory. Their desire to grasp what remained of Rome is what killed it in the end, and for the next few hundred years, whenever anything important happened, it didn’t happen in Rome, or by Rome’s will. Notice how this was not the fault of the Church. The Papacy did hold on to some power, but by and large the barely ‘civilised’ ‘barbarian’ kings rarely did what the pope told them to do, or cared that he even existed. In the early middle ages, the Church in the West was not as powerful as a unified organisation as many people (including the creator of the graph) seem to think it was. It was actually far more decentralised, with archbishops and bishops largely left to do as they wish, sometime in flagrant opposition to the papacy. This changed later in the ‘high’ middle ages, as the papacy sought greater control over its own constituents and independence from monarchs, and this is when the dogmatism of the Church became an entrenched feature, which would become a full-blown panic attack when an alternative world-perspective arose in the fourteenth century.

It’s a matter of priority.

In a certain fashion, this graph also assumes some level of predictability, that history is progressive unless some external force acts upon it, a notion which may be plausible in theory, but not in practice. In the first place, scientific advancement requires a certain level of stability and organisation; essentially there needs to be enough time to do the science, and the will and the money to do it. The Greeks became wealthy through trade and could afford to pursue more philosophical endeavours, and the Romans jumped on their coat-tails. While the Empire was stable everything was hunky-dory, but then if you introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, everything becomes chaos, as the scarred philosopher once said. The priorities of the Germanic kings was not to learn, but to conquer, not to admire great works of art, but to accumulate power. They judged a man on his sword-arm, which the Romans also did, but they also expected a man to appreciate and recite complex poetry (and trust me, all poetry in Classical Latin is complex). The latter outlook survived in the Eastern Empire in a secular sense, and in the West it fell on the shoulders of the Church, the priority of which had never been education in a Classical sense, but of revelation.

No great centres of learning were established in the West by the Roman state to compete with those of the East. The great monastic schools preserved as much as they could, especially in Visigothic Spain and pre-Norman Ireland, but their priorities were different to that of the Roman state. They were not educating a class of civil-servants to administrate an Empire, but rather trying to develop a stratum of society with a deeper appreciation of their God so as to better teach the masses. It is not the fault of the Church or of early Christians that they did not appreciate the industry or science of bygone empires, it was simply not the point of their organisation. The Western Church was a religious organisation which took over the role of administration, healthcare, and education with the collapsed of the Empire.  This was not what the Church had been designed for, the world perspective that it extolled was not conducive to perpetuating the ideals of the collapsing Empire. But they did pretty well, in retrospect.

A viable alternative.

We also must be at pains to remember that a scientific world perspective didn’t really exist, and, in many cases, religion answered the same questions just as convincingly (to the the people of the time). They had no notion of microbes, so a plague could easily be interpreted as a curse from God. There was no Theory of Relativity, or of Gravity, no Evolution, no understanding of the formation of galaxies, of the vastness of time, nothing electronic to help do the difficult sums. While Greek philosophers may have pondered the atom, ‘God did it’ was, at that time, a viable answer, because there was no other paradigm. You might think that these people were stupid for thinking this way, and after a certain fashion, they were; education was the privilege of an extreme minority, as it has been, and remains to be, throughout history. While the upper ranks may have scoffed at the religious notions of the lower orders, religion was still a powerful force in the pre-Christian world, and it remained so when Christians rebranded the game. Of course the Western Church did cause a certain level of what we would call intellectual stagnation, largely because they spent a great deal of time wondering about myths and fantasies, but then again, what religion doesn’t?

An illuminated manuscript from the ‘Dark Ages’ – I am sure there is a pun to made from that juxtaposition (via Wikipedia)

They also spent a good deal of time trying to rebuild the Empire, copying and discussing ancient works. Had the Church not stepped in to the void left by the decline of the Empire in the West the Renaissance may never have happened, or at least it would have been greatly delayed. Had the Merovingians and Carolingians not recognised the value of a Classical or ecclesiastical education they might not have been so keen to let highly educated Irish and Anatolian monks wander around their territories,  monks who brought different world-views, and, most especially, Greek knowledge with them. The Carolingian Renevatio was born in Irish- and Near Eastern-influenced monasteries (the former, though neither native Latin- nor Greek-speaking, were enthralled by those languages and learned them to an impressively high standard, and for the latter, Greek was the language of education), a movement which laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.

It does not mean what you think it means.

A product of the ‘Dark Ages’; the very way we write today – 10th century Vulgate (via Wikipedia)

The greatest factor in the decline of science in the West was the fact that most works on the subject were written in Greek, a language few in the West ever bothered to learn, even in Roman times. Indeed, not only was science almost literally a Greek subject, but so was philosophy and the Bible. The Church in the West did its best with what little Latin resources it had, preserving  what may have been little more than snippets and quotations from Greek texts, or brief accounts of such documents found in Latin translation. The ‘Christian Dark Age’ did not happen; the stagnation of the West was due to the traditional priority of Latin over Greek in the western half of the Empire, and because the region was never (outside of Rome itself) home to great centres of learning like Alexandria, Antioch, or Athens. The West was a bit of a cultural backwater, in comparison to the East, during the Empire, and, yes, things did become worse with its decline, but it was not the fault of Christianity, and it did not lead to a universal dark age.  Indeed science was undertaken throughout the Middles Ages; an early text survives from Ireland which describes the motions of tides and what might cause them, the whole Church was obsessed with the calculation of time. Mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy remained important subjects of study, as did law and engineering, giving rise to what were known as cathedral and palace schools, the well from which universities sprang.

Technically speaking, there are ‘dark ages’, periods of paucity of sources, such as during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain or the collapse of Bronze Age civilisation, but there were not a ‘Dark Age’, not even one which can be blamed on Christianity (unless the religious right in the US continue on their draconian crusade against women, minorities, and education). We might more accurately describe the ‘gap’ the graph suggests as “the inevitable result of a mass invasion by pagans into a region which received very little investment into its educational infrastructure, while other regions, while they did suffer some incursions from the aforementioned pagans, remained educationally vibrant, though this graph has curiously chosen to omit these cultures”. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but at the very least, the ‘Dark Age’ of Western Europe, if you still want to believe in such a myth, was not the fault of Christians, they just happened to be living there at the time.

The Shadow Line. Part 1 – That Damn Graph.

Seek and Ye Shall Find…

The most popular search-term which appears to draw net-trawlers to this corner of the virtual ocean is ‘Saint Patrick’ (and variations thereof), closely followed by ‘Clovis’, and ‘God’. I think this is an interesting situation in itself, but understandable considering the nature of the Endeavour. Indeed most of the search-terms WordPress informs me of appear to be reasonable, before we inevitably reach the realms of utter nonsense, but one query does stick out: ‘dark ages graph’ (and variations thereof). I have discussed, and dismissed, this graph before, but only in brief. Clearly the People (and variations thereof) demand more, though to what end I do not know. I hope the case is that they have seen the graph somewhere, recognised it as nonsense, but yet wish to seek out further detail. I fear, however, that the searchers seek it out to confirm their heartfelt belief in the inadequacy of religion, accepting this graph as some kind of ‘proof’ that the Catholic Church stymied science, and by extension mankind, for the best part of a millennium. This is the scenario you will find in most skeptic/atheist boards and sites, this tedious graph rolled out as ‘evidence’. Hopefully I will be able to aid those of you who are suspicious of the graph, and illuminate those of you who accept it.

First, Some History.

'The Dark Ages'

Taken from the original article (link just over there, to the left).

After some research, I believe I have traced the origin of this pestilential image to an article entitled “The Myth of Christianity Founding Modern Science and Medicine (And the Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages*)“, which was originally posted on the 22nd of May 2007, with some (unspecified) additions and corrections on the 20th of January 2010. Spreading to forums, by 2008 it was an anti-religious demotivational poster. The article itself is an interesting piece of work which hopes to rebut the claims of Christians who would suggest that Science owes its birth, in some fashion, to religion. In theory, I agree with the writer, though not with his evidence, conclusions, or the manner in which he arrives at them.

The Graph is the Thing…

Leaving aside the article itself for the moment (since the graph appears to have taken on a life of its own), my first question is from where did the writer get the data points from which to plot the graph? How does one judge scientific advancement, or indeed its decline? Did the writer simply take the cumulative amount of inventions created by each of the early empires he mentions? Did he apply some value system to the inventive process? Is it based on the material power of each empire? What is the basic criteria by which we judge ‘scientific advancement’? Scientific advancement appears to be, in this graph, a quantifiable property, a thing we can measure, which, in the modern world it may well be, since we have things like patent offices, but in ancient times, things get murky. Following from that, how does one deduce the reversal of such advancement? Nowadays it would be relatively easy; civilisation as we currently know it would collapse without oil, in fact I know a few people who consider their broadband speeds dipping below 3mbps as the beginning of a dark age. The strange thing is that for most people in the Middle Ages, nothing had changed from Roman times, or even Greek ones. The graph presumes a bizarre level of universality which is untenable, while also seemingly arguing that all history is necessarily progressive unless some outside force hinders it.

Empires and the Fall of Rome.

Contrary to popular belief, Rome did not fall because of Christianity. It fell because of the massive invasions of Germanic peoples, pagans mostly, who tramped around the Western Empire, generally making a mess of things. There were also issues of currency devaluation, the inherent difficulties in governing a massive empire with primitive communication networks, and the fact that the war with Persia was a massive drain on the economy (Americans, learn from history). The West was not where the clever people lived, it was not where the money was made; the East was where the Empire made its fortunes and where the great scholars lived. Gaul, Spain, Britain, these were rustic provinces which provided men and material, the most valuable provinces being Egypt, Greece, Africa, and Asia Minor, home to great urban centres, and lucrative trade. With the decline of the Empire in the West, the provinces of Rome were divided up amongst a variety of competing kingdoms, more keen on spending money on weapons than on books. The only folks who were still keen on the whole book-learning gig were the Church, specifically the great monasteries who carefully copied many works from Antiquity, works that would otherwise have been lost. And even then, while the city of Rome may have fallen to barbarians, the Roman Empire still hung around, except that we call it the Byzantine Empire (they considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be the Roman Empire), clinging on to the wealthier parts of the Mediterranean. In a modern sense we might call this Imperial down-sizing for the sake of efficiency, out-sourcing the governance of the less profitable western provinces to new entrepreneurial kingdoms.

It’s a Numbers Game.

For a moment, let’s wander back to the question of how we judge ‘scientific advancement’, placing it with a historical context. We might suggest that the number of inventions a society creates, or breakthroughs in medicine, or fun scientific discoveries would be a good indicator. The Romans had a very clever way of making concrete, the Greeks invented the natural sciences, etc., etc., with the presumption that the ‘Dark Ages’ offered little. Well, just because things were thought of, or invented doesn’t mean that they were used. A Greek also invented the steam-engine about 2,000 years ago, but nobody cared because slave-labour was cheap. Greek philosophers, while being very clever and all that, had no evidence of their theories (they would have to wait for 20th Century science to prove them right, but sadly they had died in the meantime), and so didn’t really offer a tangible and useful alternative to traditional thought. What I am trying to get at is that the importance of an invention or theory is dependent on its usefulness. Newton’s theory of gravity explained the world pretty well for a long time, so nobody bothered to change it, until scientists began to look at the very very big, and the very very small, and saw that it no longer held up. In walks Einstein and his clever theory about relatives, giving us the modern world. Julius Caesar could have thought up the notion of a guided missile to replace catapults and archers, and we would think him very clever, but that wouldn’t mean the Romans were more technologically advanced than the Gauls; all he would have had was the notion of a guided missile, not the micro-electronics needed to guide it. On a more realistic level, we might wonder why the Romans or the Greeks didn’t invent printing, but preferred to write on papyrus and such, even though they were astonishingly literate civilisations by the standards of the day. It was simply because there was no demand for mass-produced volumes, only a tiny minority of people could read and write, which was true up until surprising recently.

Hark, a Vagrant.

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...

Giant arrows are the real impediment to scientific advancement (Image via Wikipedia)

The greatest cause for the decline of Western Europe in the post-Roman world was the sudden appearance of a lot of Germans who wanted indoor plumbing. They didn’t want to destroy Rome, we must be at pains to remember, they wanted to be Rome. The problem was that there was too many of them. Where there had been one (half of an) empire there were now multiple competing kingdoms, all of which dreamed of being as powerful as Rome, and tried to imitate it as best they could. Unluckily for these new kings, most of the clever people had run away, though nobody’s really sure why, it’s not like a bunch of thugs showed up and began pillaging and burning and plundering and… oh, wait… In any case, the Church took over the apparatus of the Roman state in the West, opening schools and (admittedly primitive) hospitals, enforcing laws, and maintaining order, largely because no one else did. Of course there was a certain godly bias to the way they did things, but if the Church hadn’t stepped in and done its best to preserve Roman ways a true dark age would have fallen on the West. Renaissance scholars relied on manuscripts preserved and copied by monks, and indeed based the way that they wrote on Carolingian scripts (of course they thought the script was Roman, because nothing good happened in the Dark Ages).

Continental Divide.

If the Church was such a detrimental force, why was it that the Eastern Empire lasted admirably for quite a few more centuries? It didn’t become scientifically backwards, its construction programmes remained ambitious, and its wealth remained ridiculous, even with the rising power of Christianity. The great Islamic empires, which stretched across the Mediterranean world and into the Middle East, were not unduly impeded by faith, at first anyway. Graeco-Roman culture and learning survived in many respects thanks to early Islam. This mythical ‘Dark Age’ only happened in the remnants of the Western Empire, which reveals a certain bias. Since Britain, France, Spain, and Italy were all part of the glorious Roman Empire, and because they in many respects created and defined the modern world, it is assumed that they were equally as important in ancient times as they are (or were) in recent history. The reality is that most of the great cultural achievements of ancient world happened in the Near East, not Western Europe. Aside from the city of Rome itself, all the great libraries of the ancient world are found in the Near East. Rome was a cultural and scientific backwater when the Greeks found it, it just happened that the Romans were really really good at conquering people who were cleverer than them. The coastal regions of Spain and France were ‘civilised’ by the Romans, but the few cities found in the hinterlands of these regions didn’t even come close to the size and complexity of the cities found in Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, or the Levant.  The ‘Dark Ages’, if such a thing existed, was a minor blip on the radar, the rest of the world got on just fine without Western Europe.

If we imagine, for a moment, the United States of America as Rome, the issue may become more clear. The great cultural centres of America are, not unlike Rome, its major cities, which are mostly found on the coasts. Much of the materials needed to sustain these cities come from the central states, which may also have large cities, but nothing which compares to the vast metropolises of the north-east or south-west. The central states may benefit from the advances and the wealth of the ocean-facing states, but they are not major economic powerhouses, or home to great academic institutions, or large-scale scientific endeavours (I admit that I am generalising, but you get my drift). If these central states suddenly became a variety of competing nations, or become occupied by migrant Canadians, they may lose the benefits of having belonged to one integrated state, but the coastal regions would still continue to do what they do, probably complaining that the price of corn has gone up.  Western Europe was a part of the great Graeco-Roman civilisation, but it was not really a contributor to it, so, in a sense, nothing really change ‘on the ground’ when the Barbarians took over. And it was the Church which preserved what little Romanitas remained, and which taught the new overlords the value of an education.

Part 2

Issues of Investment

Who’s the Boss?

The Investiture Controversy, which had its roots in the 8th century and was unresolved until the 12th, was basically a fight between the Pope and various kings and emperors over who was more important. The Catholic Church reckoned, since the Pope was God’s representative on Earth, and they held the keys to salvation, that they were clearly more important than all the kings in the world put together. The kings, however, disagreed, as they had all the money, the power, and the women.

Who’s the vassal now?

The king of the Franks was king in name only; the kingdom was ruled by a man called Pippin, whose father had ruled the kingdom before him, but was also not a king. Pippin didn’t like having the responsibilities of a king without all the cool stuff that went with it, the robes, the crown, the authority to kill anyone, and so he asked the Pope if he could be king. The papacy feared the growing power of the Lombards in Italy, and the possibility that annihilation might be on the cards, so basically Pope Zachary switched teams. Previously, Rome had been a subject of the Byzantine Empire, but they weren’t doing a very good job of protecting the Eternal City from rampaging barbarians, so Pope Zack reckoned he owed no loyalty to Constantinople. The emerging power that was the united Frankish kingdom of Pippin-not-yet-a-king seemed like a better bet. Zack agreed that Pippin could be king if he came and beat the crap out of the Lombards. Zack died in 752, but the papacy was saved by the bell two years later, as Pippin, once he was anointed king, gave the Lombards a good thumping, and granted the papacy authority of a swathe of land from Ravenna to Rome. Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, confirmed the donation of land to the papacy, and the Pope made him an emperor to rival the one that sat in Constantinople. Here we find the cause of the controversy; had the Carolingians given the land to the papacy in trade to gain legitimacy, making the Pope and independent and sovereign ruler? Or had they seen it as investing a vassal with property, like they had done, and would continue to do, with the rulers of Brittany, Aquitaine, or, to a certain degree, Croatia? Or had the Pope appointed the Carolingians as his protector, an employee of his state, a bodyguard, without relinquishing his own authority? Who was in charge of whom?

King’s pawn to bishop…

The other part of the problem was the issue of the appointment of bishops. The new ‘barbarian’ kings of Europe frequently granted bishoprics and other important ecclesiastical lands and titles to members of their family, or loyal entourage, allowing them access to the vast wealth and manpower at the command of their local churches. The papacy wanted to maintain that power as its own, and assure its freedom to appoint whatever bishops it chose. The papacy could not advance too much in the pursuit of this cause as could not risk annoying the Holy Roman Emperor too much, since his army was much bigger than the Pope’s. Luckily for the papacy, the Emperor died, and a new one took his place, but being only six years old, the new Emperor Henry had very little authority. The papacy launched its programme of reform, appointing bishops as it thought it should. When the young Emperor Henry grew up, he also appointed his own bishops, as did the king of England, another king that the Pope thought of as a vassal. The Emperor renounced his support of the Pope, and the Pope excommunicated him. What followed was essentially a civil war; many of the lords and bishops of the Holy Roman Empire picked a side, and fought intermittently for 50 years. The rebel lords appointed their own king, and the Emperor created an Anti-pope in the first recorded particle accelerator. The Emperor lost the war in the end, as his son chose to rebel against him and support the papacy.

The road to secularism.

After fifty years of war over who had the right to invest whom, the kings of Europe were less keen on employing religious folk as ministers, attendants, legates, and courtiers, as they had done in the past. They turned instead to men educated outside the clerical system, a process which led eventually to the secular bureaucratic system which we have now. In the short-term it looked as if the papacy had won, but men seeking advancement realised that they could find employment without giving up sex, drugs, and troubadours, turned away from the priestly orders and made themselves servants of the state, not the Church. Ultimately this bit the papacy in the arse when in 1870 an Italian nationalist army succeeded in seizing what remained of the Papal States, and integrating them into the recently united state Italy.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

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.

Il Papa di Tutti i Papi.

The Rock

The  apostle Peter went to Rome, died and was buried there. Or not, depending on whom you talk to. In any event, the people who went on to invent the Papacy thought that Peter did die in Rome, so that’s what is most relevant at the moment. He was known the ‘Rock’ of the Church, the earliest known reference to professional wrestling in Western Europe. Rome was the centre of the Roman Empire and therefore probably the best place to try to convince the Romans to stop killing your mates because they believed in one god, not one for every day of the week, every event and every place; that’s what saints are for. But the Church in Jerusalem probably held precedence over Rome because of its connection to the person they thought to be most important, Jesus, not the Emperors, of which they may have been more than one depending on the whims of the army. Over time Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople all rose in importance, the last one particularly as the seat of the Empire moved there under Constantine, but there was no real organised Church until the second century. These five Churches held councils, organised picnics, and chastised heretics and scolded schismatics. Clearly this disunity and lack of organisation would not appeal to a people fond of building roads with no bends, rivers with no bends and empires with no bends. They were not a bendy people. They probably never had a law that said it was okay to steal food for a pregnant woman because she craved it, which the early Irish did because they were more enlightened about women’s issues. A woman could even divorce her husband under Irish law if he was too fat or old to have sex. Anyway, the Emperor Constantine decided he didn’t like the idea of a myriad different doctrines and discussions and arguments and bibles and such. Council of NicaeaSo he gathered all the bishops together in the city so good he named it after himself (actually he called it Nova Roma, but everyone else thought Constantinople was catchier) and told them to come up with one Church or else he’d introduce them to some pointy bits of steel, or maybe some playful felines.

Musical Chairs

What with Nova Roma being the new seat of the Empire old Rome was suddenly not the place to be on Friday nights. So the bishops of Nova Roma thought that they should be the primary Church in the land, but so did Rome since they held the seat of the Empire first and for far longer and sure they were ‘old’ but that doesn’t mean they still couldn’t be a useful participant in society and shouldn’t be ignored just because they are kind of forgetful and leave the lights on from time to time…. For the sake of convenience the Empire was divided in twain and a short while later a bunch of Germans decided to move in to the Western half. You’d imagine all the new barbarian kingdoms would bow to Rome and the East would follow Constantinople, but they were barbarians and didn’t know that’s how things worked and so made a mess of the very neat and unbendy empire. The men who would be Pope had to contend with the very independent Visigoths, Franks and Germans who generally didn’t like being to what to do at the best of times. The best example of that is of course when a Roman guard said ‘No, you can’t come in, sure aren’t ye fine where ye are?’ The Churches of North Africa and Spain considered Rome to be an intellectual backwater and so largely ignored it for a long time but then the Umayyad came to show them how wrong they were. On their way to Spain they also cut off Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem from the rest of Christendom until some men encased in steel decided they wanted it back. This left Constantinople and Rome as top dogs of the Christian world, or so they liked to believe at an any rate. Rome made a concentrated effort to become dominant in the West, often in collusion with powerful kings, like Charlemagne. Conveniently named people like Gregory the Great instilled strange notions like morality on the clergy at large because the reality was in the Middle Ages that a substantial amount of clerical appointments were due to politics and money and who you knew rather than how pious you were. Monks, abbots and bishops were often expected to not only pray for but fight in the king’s army, which one would imagine ran contrary to the whole Christian experiment. For a time the Popes lived in France under the control of the king, but eventually they moved back to Rome, because let’s face it Rome is a wicked cool city, where they ruled the Papal States as a secular prince, expanding their domains through conquest and diplomacy, which might seem strange to modern eyes but was the done thing in those days. There were Popes and Anti-Popes, a special type of Pope made in a particle accelerator at CERN, and splits and schisms and then a man nailed a note to a door which caused more wars. And now the priest faces the congregation and doesn’t speak in Latin anymore, which is useful because neither does anyone else.

Reality Check:

The evolution of the papacy from being one of the many leaders of Christianity to being the dominant voice in Western Christendom is a long a complex history involving the interplay between religion and politics, personal gain and true piety. This is over one thousand years of history in less than one thousand words so clearly the reality is far more intricate with many nuances.