Tag Archives: medieval Europe

On the Virtues of Beards.

Villainy or Liberty?

Today a bearded man is often the villain, a malevolent force in a Disney movie, a Machiavellian character in a TV show, the man quietly asked to step aside for a detailed search in an airport. Facial hair has become a relative oddity in most professions outside of education, and has almost become synonymous with a hedonistic student life, extreme religious ideologies, or fringe cultures in society. Yet this was not always the way…

The Mark of a Man.

The Ancient Egyptian elite wove gold into their beards, the Mesopotamians and Persians admired well-groomed facial hair, for the Indians it was a sign of wisdom, and for the Greeks it was a sign of virility and was almost sacrosanct. Alexander the Great demanded that his soldiers cut their facial hair as their opponents frequently seized it to better kill them. And even though Aristotle adopted this new fashion, a bearded man was generally accepted as being a philosopher. The Romans really enjoyed shaving, having little or no hair on their body, except for a neat haircut. For them beards became either a symbol of achieving manhood, mourning, or squalor. The Romans may have seen the beard as barbaric, since they were the rulers of the ‘civilised’ world, and many of their enemies wore beards, and grew their hair long.

The Long-haired Kings.

The so-called ‘Barbarian’ kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire were often ruled by dynasties which embrace facial hair. The Ostrogoths and Visigoths, which dominated Italy and Spain respectively, enjoyed long hair and moustaches. The Frankish royal family, the Merovingians, were commonly refered to as ‘the long-haired kings’. They even had strict rules about how long a man could wear his hair and beard depending on his social status. Indeed if a rebellious lord was captured, he was not killed, but made to shave his face and scalp, and cast into a monastery. Often such rebels would reappear several years later at the head of a new army, but only once their hair had grown back. The Carolingians maintained this hairy fashion, but their successors, the Capetians, had abandoned facial hair by the 12th century, and, with only a few exceptions, beards and moustaches were no longer grown by the monarchs of France. The Holy Roman Emperors also abandoned beards in the 12th century, by they were revived briefly in the 16th, but again went out of fashion. The rulers of the various Spanish kingdoms often wore beards, almost as often as they didn’t. In England, the Anglo-Saxons had a proud tradition of hairiness, which became a symbol of defiance when the short-haired Normans conquered the country, as it did in Scotland and Ireland. Even during the English Civil War, the shaven were godly puritan Parliamentarians, know as the Roundheads for their short hair, though they soon began to grow their hair long in defiance of the rulings of the Church of England. Peter the Great of Russia even tried to force the men of his empire, who have had an ancient and flamboyant love affair with facial hair, to become clean-shaven as a mark of civilisation, though many maintained a beard or moustache in defiance.

Catholicism and the Beard.

Why, you might wonder, was there a hiatus of facial hair between the 12th and 16th centuries, possibly the most religious period of European history? It may have been due to the fact that the Church began to threaten their wearers of beards with excommunication. Anselm of Canterbury encouraged the preaching of clean-shaveness and short hair throughout England, even though the king was fond of long curly hair, and punished Canterbury after the death of Anselm by allowing the see to remain vacant for several years. When the bearded Richard the Lionheart returned from the Crusades, he found his kingdom clean-shaven due to the influence of the clergy, which had filled the void of authority due to his absence. This clerical disgust of the beard is made deeply ironic by the fact that Jesus and his apostles are more often than not portrayed as being long of hair and beard, and that many popes followed this tradition.

The Modern Beard.

The beard appears to be fashionable, but not in fashion, in this era. The Presidents of the USA often wore beards, though none have done so since 1913. The beard vanished after 1914 due to the popularity of the clean-cut military look, a style which dominated the media of the English-speaking world until the 1960’s and the rise of counter-culture. This disdain for militarism brought on by the Vietnam War encouraged rebellion and civil disobedience, one aspect of which was a revival of long hair and beards. This trend has been maintained by students, musician, actors, and such, but the beard has yet to make a popular return to the Western world, probably due to its association with explosive anti-Western extremism.

The wearing of facial hair has become correspondent to immorality, and the clean-shaven has become the paradigm of virtue. In the past, facial hair has been a symbol of impiety, wisdom, defiance, and liberty, and as such it is to be embraced.

One cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion – G.K. Chesterton.

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.

Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense.

There has been, in recent years, a growing trend in ‘Celtic’ themed products and beliefs in this nation perpetuated by streams of American tourists whose dollars we so desperately want. There are shops specialising in Celtic jewellery, candles and books, Celtic rituals, new-age Celtic pagans, books of Celtic names, and other such fanciful re-imaginings of fact to be found in every town, city, culture centre and airport in this little island. Most of this might be dismissed as harmless nonsense, a mildly irksome trend designed to capture tourist wealth, the source of a raised eyebrow, dismissive glance, or exasperated sigh by people who know better. There is, however, a particular undercurrent of ignorance and lies propagated by such popular ideologies. While I had been aware of such a thing, it had never angered me, until ‘Celtic Christianity’ received its fifteen minutes of fame early one morning on RTÉ Radio 1 on the Pat Kenny Show.[1] A certain individual[2] had written a new book arguing that Catholicism was essentially the first multinational corporate body. It wasn’t, simply because ‘nations’ did not exist until the 17th or 18th centuries, and corporate bodies were recognised in the pagan Roman Republic before Jesus was even born. Latin writers of Antiquity and the Middle Ages did often use the word natio to describe peoples and communities, but they did not mean ‘nation’ as we understand it today. He also stated that Ireland was home to a more pure and spiritual form of the faith called Celtic Christianity. The show received several texts and e-mails from people expressing surprise in this ‘fact’, and many were intrigued and appalled at the suppression of ‘our native faith’.

Let me be absolutely clear: Celtic Christianity never existed. It is an entirely modern invention. How can I be so sure? Well, firstly, and most importantly, the Celts, as they are commonly conceived, never existed, and they certainly never came to Ireland, therefore there could never have had a version of Christianity on these islands in any way associated with the Celts. Secondly, there was no exceptionally unique version of Christianity, such as that which the guest suggests, on these islands for any imaginary Celts to have.

‘Celtic’ is a linguistic term, like ‘Latin’ or ‘Germanic’. ‘Celtic’ refers to a family of languages which a certain group of people spoke. The remains of these languages are found in Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Manx. ‘Celtic’ was attached to this linguistic group by 18th century scholars. This does not mean that the Irish, Welsh, etc., were Celtic people in a racial sense, or even in a cultural sense, but only in a linguistic sense. The English speak a Germanic language, yet they are not called German. France, Spain, Italy, Romania, parts of Africa, and all of South America speak languages descended from Latin. This does not make them ‘Roman’ or ‘Latin’ peoples. There were La Tène and Halstatt cultures in Central Europe, which may have been comprised of Celtic-speaking peoples, but they too were not ‘Celts’. Someone who knows their Caesar might then cry out that he refers to the Celts of Gaul, and that even the Ancient Greeks wrote of contact with a Celtic people. These ancient authorities were not even remotely concerned with historical, factual accuracy when writing about peoples outside their ‘civilisations’. They would have met a community and then named whole peoples or regions, and their culture, after that one community. The whole island of Britannia is named after one tribe which inhabited the south of the island, simply because they were Rome’s first contacts with the native population. ‘Africa’ referred roughly the lands encompassing Tunisia to Libya, and was named after the Afri tribe. Now it is the name given to an entire continent and people.[3] Demonstrably, names are not always accurate descriptions of reality. There was probably a tribe who may have called themselves something close to ‘Celts’ somewhere in Central Europe (their word was rendered into Greek, then Latin, so we don’t know exactly what they called themselves), and their name was applied to a whole culture which spread across continental Europe, but there were certainly no ethnic Celts in Ireland. What were the Irish then, if not Celtic? They called themselves ‘Gael’, or ‘Féne’, while in Latin they were called the ‘Scotti’.[4] They did not call themselves, or think of themselves belonging to a race of people called, ‘the Celts’. The native inhabitants of Ireland absorbed a Celtic language, and elements of the material culture most closely resembling that of La Tène, which possibly derived from Celtic-speaking peoples, but none of whom were necessarily ‘Celts’ themselves.

It might be argued then that I am simply being pedantic. While there were no Celts in Ireland that does not mean that there was no ‘Celtic Church’. The term ‘Celtic’ might be applied to distinguish the native Church from that of Roman Catholicism. It is true that the Irish Church had developed some interesting innovations which distinguished it from the continental Church, and in this sense could be referred to as ‘Celtic’ in the same fashion as the ‘British’, ‘Merovingian’ or ‘Visigothic’ Churches, which all fell under the umbrella of Rome. The problem is that ‘Celtic’ has become a loaded term. Scholars will refer to an Insular Church, but not to a Celtic one simply because ‘Celtic’ is not an accurate term when discussing the history of Ireland, outside of literature. Even if we were to be kind an accept that the terms ‘Celtic’ and ‘Insular’ might be synonymous, the Celtic Christianity espoused by Pat Kenny’s guest on the nation’s airwaves is a complete and utter fallacy which obscures historical truth.

Here follows several samples of his misrepresentation of fact:

Pat Kenny: “Would they [Celtic monks or priests] have been married?”

Guest: “I think they would certainly have had partners. They practiced concubinage…”

The Insular Church condemned concubinage among the laity in the De concubines non habendis cum legtima uxore (“On not have concubines as well as a legitimate wife”), found in the Collectio canonum Hibernensis. Celibate bishops had the highest honour-price of all clerics in Irish law.[5] On the other hand British bishops often took wives.[6] This simply due to the fact that the vow of celibacy was only made a mandatory feature of clerical orders at the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century, and re-affirmed at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, long after the more curious habits of the Insular Church ceased to be practiced, some time in the ninth century. Irish monks tended to take vows of celibacy, but priests often did not. This was an aspect of religious life common to all of Western Europe, yet the author portrays this as being a unique feature of the ‘Celtic Church’, a blatant misrepresentation of historical fact.

Guest: “… the Irish developed a form of Christianity quite independently of Rome…”

The first bishop of the Irish was Palladius, personally appointed and dispatched by Pope Celestine in AD429.[7] This is the first reliable date connected to Ireland, and is accepted as being the beginning of the history of Ireland. The first date in Irish history is a direct contact to Rome. Around AD633 the Irish cleric Cummian convened a synod to discuss the Easter Question. The synod could not come to agreement, so a delegation was sent to Rome to ask for the judgement of the papacy. This Irish bishop was following canon law to the letter, and shows that the Irish Church did see Rome as its superior and the ultimate court of arbitration, and that it was in contact with the See of Peter. In fact there are several letters of communication back and forth, from Rome to Ireland, which survive from the pre-Norman period, illustrating that the Irish Church was in sustained and frequent contact with its patriarch on issues of doctrine and canon law. This is hardly evidence of the type of ‘independence’ which the guest suggests.

Guest: “… [the Irish form of Christianity was] what we now call, in terms of heresy, (in inverted commas) Pelagian.”

The guest also informs listeners, at a later point, that Palladius had been sent to Ireland to confront the Pelagian heresy, which is true. However, Palladius seems to have been successful as the Pelagian heresy was suppressed by the late 5th century, before the growth of the Insular monasticism in the 7th and 8th centuries, which is evidently what the guest claims to be the shining example of the ‘Celtic Church’. He may be referring to a 7th century letter from Pope-elect John IV in which Rome mistakenly confuses the Eater controversy in Ireland with Pelagianism. The Irish were not Pelagian, at least not after AD500, long before the Golden Age of Irish monasticism, which is obviously the period which inspired the guest.

Guest: “The God we believe in is one of our own creation… …spirituality is what the spirit within you that makes you free”

Is he a closet atheist? He also states at various points that he does not submit to the judgment of the Church but instead relies on his own. This is a laudable principle, yet he fuses it, somehow, with spirituality, and with what he believes to be the true form Christianity. The ‘spirit within’ that makes individuals free is Reason. The guest has freed himself from the institutions of faith, but remains bound to their ideologies. He has questioned his faith, but only to a point. He has realised that the Catholic Church is not the vessel of God’s truth, but he still clings to the same ultimate fantasy as they do. It is almost as if he has seen through the illusion, but has decided, rather than turn from it entirely, to refashion it to suit his own purposes.

Also, contrary to what the guest and Pat Kenny say, modern scholars hold that the Jews were not slaves in Egypt but were employed as highly skilled labourers and courtiers.

In fairness to the guest he is correct on many of his views concerning the expansion of the Church of Rome, and its partnership with the Roman Empire, and I agree with many of his more philosophical views of how faith evolved, its perverse view of sexuality, and that Jesus would be horribly disappointed in how his teachings have been corrupted by institutionalised faith. The Insular Church did disagree with Rome on several issues of practice but never doctrine. They held the exact same religious views as Rome, but granted greater powers of administration to abbots, cut their hair a different way, and had a different day for Easter. The guest makes specific reference to the last point, as if it were something special. The great Christian cities, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, all had slightly different ways of calculating Easter, and so often celebrated it at different times. So did the Irish, but it happened that the Merovingian Church was attempting to standardise Easter in its lands at the same time that it was receiving an influx of Irish missionaries who celebrated the movable feast on a different day, causing some upset. Vast swathes of Christendom, and many of its most important cities, were conquered by Islam leaving Rome in the west and Constantinople in the east as the patriarchs of the Church. Merovingian France was the most powerful kingdom in the west, so Rome agreed with it. This is not evidence of a different, more spiritual religion, only of widespread differing religious practices.

At the end of the program a contribution from a listener was read out. In brief, it is said that the illustrious Columbanus did not accept the primacy of Rome, and specific mention is made of a letter he sent to Rome telling them to ‘look after their own business,’ and leave him alone. This is not exactly what happened. Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory the Great, an educated reformer whom the Irish monk saw as a like-minded individual, hoping to convince him that the Insular method of calculating Easter was far superior to the Gaulish method, and that the Merovingian bishops were exploiting the laity through practicing such contemptible acts as simony.[8] What also comes across in Columbanus’ letters is his acceptance of papal authority in such controversial matters, but with a certain caveat. The popes were, for Columbanus, the leaders of the Church as the rightful heirs of Peter, but they could only enforce the laws of the organisation, not change them; such a power could only rest in the hands of the Church as a whole, as decided upon by synods.[9]

There was no Celtic Church as defined by Pat Kenny’s guest. While older scholars have referred to a ‘Celtic Church’ modern scholars have replaced it with the more accurate term ‘Insular Church’. Neither of these names, which refer to one organisation, agree with the Celtic Christianity as espoused by the guest. This Celtic faith is based on assumption, and a misleading interpretation of the evidence. He also projects modern terms and concepts back on the past, which is anachronistic, and academically and intellectually reprehensible, if not irresponsible. There are many examples of the popular history of Ireland to be found on the bookshelves which are worthwhile to read, but this work is absurd in its portrayal of religion in Medieval Ireland. It would be laughable had it not been conferred a worrying level of legitimacy by appearing on the programme of a respected broadcaster such as Pat Kenny. Due to this, many of the opinions stated, however true or false they may be, and which were dressed up as historic fact, have passed into the popular domain. Misinformation and obfuscation have been granted a seal of approval. Lies and half-truths have been planted in the minds of listeners.

I would welcome the disintegration of organised religion, as would Pat Kenny’s guest, but not if it were to be replaced by local “bioregional spiritualities that go beyond both monotheism and polytheism.”[10] This is pure nonsense. ‘Bioregional’ has nothing to do with faith, it is an ecological term invented in the 1980’s. ‘Spirituality’ is a vague tapestry of lies. The only thing that goes beyond mono- and polytheism is atheism. Pat Kenny’s guest is using vague and pseudo-scientific language to grant himself an air of authority, and perverting history to ‘prove’ his theses. This acceptance of abject deceit, whether intentional or inadvertent, which has become pervasive in today’s society, has been long recognised as a threat to Science. It is also a menace to other forms of investigation. An attack on real History,[11] and the acceptance of pseudo-history, allows fanciful notions of ersatz nationalism to take root, and for the recognition of quasi-historical works, such as the Bible, as unadulterated fact. This must not be tolerated.


[1] Today with Pat Kenny, 07-01-2010, available for download from the RTÉ website, 1:39:10. The website promoting the book in question can be found at http://www.aislingmagazine.com/index.html.

 

[2] I am not entirely aware of the legalities of naming private individuals in an essay such as this, but he is named in the radio programme, and his website http://www.daramolloy.com/.

[3] Think this is crazy? That this could only happen in ancient times and would never happen in the modern era? When explorers first arrived in what would be Canada they asked the Iroquois natives of a village what was the name of the place they were in. The Iroquois replied ‘Kanada’, and so the country was named. Later it was learned that ‘Kanada’ means ‘village’ in the Iroquois language.

[4] The Scots are descended from Irish populations which established themselves in the west of the county and intermarried with the native Picts. Both the inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland were recognised as having a common origin for most of the Middle Ages.

[5] Corpus iuris Hibernici, Miadsleachta.

[6] Gildas, De excidio Britanniae.

[7] Prosper of Aquitaine, Chronicle.

[8] Hughes, K., “The Celtic Church and the Papacy”, in Lawrence, C.H. (ed.), The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages, (Burns and Oates; London, 1965), p13. (Please note that ‘Celtic’ here refers to ‘Insular’; this article was written before the scholarly shift in terminology.)

[9] ibid¸ p16

[10] From his website http://www.aislingmagazine.com/globalisation/theses.html.

[11] Acceptable, and accessible, works on the history of Early and Medieval Ireland are available in bookstores, such as Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. There is also A New History of Ireland, Vol.1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, which contains various works by many eminent scholars in the field. This essay was written specifically with these works in mind (except for two explicit references to an article by Kathleen Hughes which will only be available to certain libraries) so that anyone who was curious could easily investigate my sources.

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.

Vive la Franks

Regime Change

A bunch of rowdy German football hooligans decided to move to Paris one day. Thus began the history of France. Previously it had been known as ‘Gaul’ and was ruled by the Romans, who never did anything for anyone except provide sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, public health, and peace. A bunch of people called the Salian Franks, who were jealous of all the things Rome hadn’t done for anyone, decided to move into Gaul and rename it Francia, and hope no-one noticed because, in fairness, it was the done thing at the time. The Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths were all having a go at ruling someone else’s empire, so the Franks thought it was only fair that they should too. At first, under a fella by the name of Childeric I (not that he called himself that, he couldn’t have known that another Childeric would come along two hundred years later) the Salian Franks were somewhat under the rule of Rome, and fought the Visigoths alongside Roman armies. But then Odoacer put an end to the Empire, so the Franks were basically free to do whatever they wanted. Which is exactly what Clovis did.

Clovis, King of Franks

What did Clovis do next? He kicked arse.Clovis The French have a long and proud history of kicking arse and not giving a damn, and it was probably Clovis who started this. Assuming the throne after his father died, he started fighting with pretty much everyone he could. Under Frankish law the king was only entitled to an equal share in the booty of conquest as his men were. Being king, Clovis thought he deserved more, and said as much at Soissons after a certain battle when he desired a ewer of singular craftsmanship. A soldier stood up and said every man should have a share, and smashed it to bits. Clovis did nothing at the time, but later, at a mustering of the men, singled out the offending soldier for inspection. He seized the man’s axe, and threw it to the ground, declaring it to be dirty. As the man knelt to retrieve the weapon Clovis drew his, and clove the man’s head in two. After that no-one dared debate the concept of ‘fair share’ with Clovis, even as he went about taking other people’s lands and kingdoms. He killed kings and their relatives, sometimes by his own hand, until he had conquered the majority of Gaul. He even killed much of his own family to avoid rebellion and claimants to the throne. Near the end of his life he held a great assembly, and cried out how terrible it was to be old, alone, and have no relatives, not because he wanted to welcome them in a warm embrace of familial affection, but introduce them to the cold embrace of death by axe. Having built himself a nice empire his family spent the next few hundred years tearing it apart, going insane and being far too young to run things. This allowed for many families to rise, and fall, rapidly in a short time, as was the case of the next great dynasty of what was now called Francia, or Frankland.

Rise of the Carolingians

Charlemagne was the crowning glory of a generation or more of one family’s attempts to become the rulers of Francia.Charlemagne This family, known as the Carolingians, were the Mayors of the Palace, essentially the Prime Ministers, of the Merovingian kings. Charles, the Hammer, Martel, one of France’s earliest recorded rappers, went about conquering people, and demanding tribute from them, under the authority of the king. His greatest victory was when he defeated an invading Muslim army at Tours, driving them back behind the Pyrenees, where they stayed until the Spanish decided they wanted to have Spain back. The Franks tended to prefer the idea of a warrior-king as opposed to a sit-at-home-and-send-others-to-die king. Though he ruled as king for a time he was never actually called a king, possibly because the Merovingian name still held a certain amount of power. His son, Pippin the Short, did not care for the fact that he had to answer to a man who had no real power, only prestige. He sent a letter to the Pope, and then called an election. Pippin was thus elected king, the first of the very successful Carolingian dynasty to rule Francia, not just in practice but in name. He finished driving the Saracens out of Gaul, annexed Aquitaine, made the Lombards do what the Pope told them to, and then died. He left two sons as heirs. One wasn’t king for long and didn’t really do much. This was Carloman I. The other was one of the most celebrated kings of the Middle Ages, if not all time, who ruled over most of Europe, and wielded a level of power unseen since the Roman emperors, inspired an explosion of learning and gave us the writing system we use today. This was the aptly named Imperatur Augustus Charles I The Great, Charlemagne.

Three Kings

Charlemagne had several sons, but only one was appointed to succeed him, Louis the Pious, which was handy. Louis had lots of sons and this created many problems for him later in life. Louis decided that his eldest son, Lothar, would become emperor and that his other two sons, Peppin and Louis (the German) would become kings of bits of France and Germany, under the overall rule of their brother. They would not be allowed to go to war or organise family picnics without the consent of Lothar. Then Louis (the Pious) went and had another son and made a mess of the whole deal. The lands and privileges of the first 3 sons were diminished in favour of Charles, the new young prince. Soon they were all at war. Louis was emperor, then Lothar, then Louis again. Then Louis died, so Lothar, the other Louis, and Charles divided the land between them, leaving Peppin to twiddle his thumbs. Lothar felt he should be in charge and attacked Charles, but lost, and then Louis attacked Charles, but lost. New lines were drawn, dividing the empire in three parts, which had repercussions which still affect the world today. The Empire was cut up permanently for the first time in four generations, since Charles Martel took power. This created the kingdoms of France, Germany and Italy. While there had been kingdoms of Italy before, ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ were totally new ideas which would be fought over for the next thousand years. It all began with three brothers who couldn’t agree where to draw the lines between their kingdoms.

Monks, Fonts, and Music

The Carolingians, while killing and conquering everything they could, and fighting amongst themselves, also stimulated intellectual culture in Europe. Latin was standardised so that people from all over the empire, while speaking different languages, could all understand one another. Writing was also standardised in Europe. Before then every monastery, school, palace, and town had their style of writing, with contractions and symbols that were often incomprehensible to anyone else. Not unlike text-speak written in Chinglish. Charles the Great decided he was sick of all that and made everyone write the same way; everyone made all the letters the same way (which was a strange concept at the time!), joined them the same way, had spaces between words, everything became neat and tidy. Carolingian minisculeAnd what did all this look like? This. You are reading it. Seriously. The way we write today, the shape of the letters, the spacing, punctuation, was all made up back then. It’s changed and developed since then, but basically, you write how the Carolingians did. They even invented musical notation, all those lines and dots that describe sounds. So, what did the Carolingians do? They created the way we write, the way we write music, deeply influenced Western Christian doctrine, invented France and Germany, and were one of the very few empires to rule and unite vast swathes of Europe for more than 20 minutes.