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.
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.
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).
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.