Tag Archives: Latin

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.

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Speaking in Tongues.

A Long, Long Time Ago, In a Place Far, Far Away…

There are lots of languages floating around the world today, fewer then there used to be because of the internet and tea and coffee, but a lot more than there was a long long time ago. Back when there were so few people walking the Earth that they probably knew each other to see the folk who would become the Europeans hung out a lot with the dudes who would become the Indians (of Asia, not America. Those guys hung out with the Chinese mostly). They are thus known as the Indo-Europeans, but they probably called themselves something else because India and Europe didn’t exist yet. Though it would have been interesting if they had thought of that in advance and trademarked the names, they’d have made a fortune. Anyway. So this group split up for some reason. Maybe one person became more popular and wanted his own career and the others were jealous or one of them got married to a guy who wasn’t really good for her but she went off with him anyway because she was young and foolish and in love. Or maybe they just liked wandering around since most of the world hadn’t been discovered by them yet. In any event, there was a big split.

Poe-Tay-Toe, Poe-Tah-Toe

Imagine there are no schools, no internet, tv, radio, newspapers. Basically, imagine that you are in Leitrim. Imagine your family, which shouldn’t be hard as you’ve known them all your life, and all the things they say and how they say them. Without schools and such most of your language and how to use it would be learned from your family and your neighbours and such. To understand each other you’d all say things the same way and in the same accent. The people down the road in the next village over might have a slightly different accent and way of using language. Imagine now due to some crisis, oh like a .com bubble, a housing bubble, a South-Sea bubble, a bubble bath, you have to immigrate so you head off to America. Your accent will change and so will your language and the way you use it. You’ll start calling biscuits cookies, you’ll think that ‘King Of Queens’ and ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’ are funny, and you will start spelling autumn with an ‘f’.

Things Get Complicated Now, Sorry

Now imagine you live somewhere between the Black and Caspian Seas 6000 years ago, which is roughly around the time Creation began according to Bishop Ussher. You, for the purposes of this scenario, are called E(uropean), and your have a sibling called I(ndo). Let’s call your parents Proto-I-E since they came before you. You, your sibling and a few of your mates decide to leave home and family and friends. You go west and your sibling goes east. (This is called the Kurgan Hypothesis, possibly because there can be only one and the McLeod was busy that day). You both take the language you learned with you, but somewhere along to way you happen to start saying things a little different. Maybe you need new words to explain the new things you see, maybe you don’t like calling ‘Marathons’ ‘Snickers’, maybe you need new insults for the people you found already living in the place you will call Europe. So, you have new words. But the old words also change in ways you might not notice. You start saying, for example, ‘c’ like ‘s’, while your sibling says it like a ‘k’. But you are isolated from one another so you never notice a change. Then you have kids and they wander off and see new things and become isolated, and they have new kids etc., etc., and they all start saying things funny. By now it’s roughly 4000 years ago, the time of Noah’s Ark if a Creationist you be, the Bronze Age for everyone else. Your language has continued to change as the small alterations are reinforced over time. Your grandchildren haven’t a clue what you are saying and you don’t know what they are talking about because you’ve never seen an ocean or a ‘Gaul’ or met a ‘Greek’. The divisions in your family are so deep no-one can understand anyone at Christmas dinner. Which might be a good thing because it means you are less likely to insult your mother-in-law. Just smile politely and nod.

1000 B(efore anyone) C(ared to make a dating system that made any sens)E to Now-ish

By about 3000 years ago the some of your descendents are speaking Greek and Celtic and Germanic and Italic and such, but none of these are one coherent language. People from Kerry, New Delhi and Harlem might all speak English but they wouldn’t necessarily all speak it the same way, use the same accent or slang. There might be hundreds of variations. But then the Romans come and build roads everywhere and civilise people whether they like it or not and encourage everyone to learn Latin. But then Germans start wandering around, moving into all the nicest houses, taking all the best jobs, not building roads and really messing up the whole ‘Rome is the awesomest place ever because we have baths and toilets and engineering and all you have is an interesting smell’ theme that Europe had been going for. The Celtic languages are pushed to the very edge of Europe, languages so ancient that they have more in common with Sanskrit of India then they do with other European tongues, Sanskrit being one of your long-lost sibling’s great-grandchildren. Latin, which had taken over, is shattered by some overly friendly Germans. Spain and Italy stay very Latin-ish but French goes off and does its own thing because, well, it’s French. And its ruling class is mostly German, so the languages mix a bit, and lots of other complicated sound changes happen. And then about 500 years ago some very smart people start figuring out that all these languages are related somehow and realise they are all descended from Proto-Indo-European. Funnily enough the Germans call it Indo-German… It’s like they think Europe belongs to them or something…

Reality Check:

This is an extreme simplification of a process that began roughly five and a half thousand years ago based on theories and hypotheses. Even the connection between La Tene culture and the Celts is debated and that is several thousand years closer in time to us. The development of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European into the languages spoken today involved countless individuals over a vast period of time living on two continents and has only been studied for two centuries by a handful of scholars.