Dark ages, Science and Christianity.

Here’s one of those little gems that i do occasionaly come across myself and sometimes in the Chat which i frequently visit, That Europe from the moment Rome collapsed (often interpreted as being around the year 500 AD although in my country the Romans left circa 410 AD) went into some “Dark age” an age that ended circa 1500. A further picture of this time is the notion that it was the religious element of this apparant “1000 yr dark age” that really stifled human progress. I take it many of you may have heard the joke going around that without this religious element to this apparant “1000yr dark age”, It would have ended so much sooner and Humanity would be freely colonizing the other planets by now. In picture form, it looks a little something like this


But what a false picture this is!

Firstly, a proper definition of what a “Dark age” is has nothing to do with morality, One may condem what a certain society did at a paticular time period but that does not alter the fact of how “In Dark” or “In Light” the society in question to acedemia is. The Ancient Greeks, and paticularly the Spartans for example, practiced what could be described as a primitive form of eugenics.

And you can Condem them for that if you please, however as already stated it does not alter how “Dark” the society supposedly was. This is made all the more so because ancient Greek eugenics occured in a period of “Light”. The period of Aristotle and Plato. This is important because there was an actual “Ancient greek dark age” which lasted approximately 1200BC -800 BC. However it is my belief that, as we discover more about that time perion, such a “Dark” description for it will dwindle away into acedemic obscurity, regardless of the perceptions of the popular mind.

This is because the correct definition of a Dark age is simply put a time period that contemporary acedemics know relatively little about. Perhaps out of a lack of investigation, but mostly because of a lack of primary sources from said time and place. Hence the idea that the events of a certain period would seem “dark” to us compared to how much “Light” acedemia has shed with both what came before, and what came after the relevant time period.

Now correctly definied can we apply the Dark ages definition to say, Europe in the 1100’s or the 1200’s or the 1300’s or later? I don’t think so! Do acedemics know relatively little about any time period after say the 1100’s? I think it would be a bit of a stretch to say that, that is indeed the case. Even Wikipedia will tell you many modern scholars who study the Middle Ages tend to avoid the term “Dark ages” altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.

A case study, Let’s take my home country for example. “Merrye olde England” as the nostalgics call it, because for a good while and even up until the middle part of the 20th century, there was an actual brief interlude in our chronology that actually was called “Dark”. This was Circa 450AD to about 550-600AD. Here’s a quote.

“For a better part of a century this darkness covers British history, lighted only at intervals by a momentary gleam from archaeology, … we are thus almost ignorant of every vital detail upon the very turning-point of our destiny, when Britain was conquered by the races which, if not making the majority of it’s population, have assuredly determined [our] language, structure of society, and national character. This darkness is felt the more, when we consider the evidence at our disposial [which the author goes on to describe as essentialy being “distant” from the time and place in question]” – Keith Feiling, “A History of England (1950)”, p21.

For Esmé Cecil Wingfield Stratford, this time period was “A Century and a half of almost complete darkness”, although he gives us an undated end to this so-called dark age. “The conversion to Christianity, that was the end of the dark age in Britain”. See his book, “The Foundations of British Patriotism (1939)” p27 and p31 for more details

But this time period was not “Dark” because there was a lack of investigation going on. On the contrary, scholars in the mid 20th century were studying what was going on back then, but they just couldn’t put certain dates onto certain events. As F.M Stenton in 1943 puts it…

“The Chronology of the period, has been studied intensively, but there remains an embarrasing number of incidents of which the the date has not yet been fixed” – preface from the Oxford History of England Vol II, “Anglo-Saxon England”, vi.

If that was the way things appeared back then in the middle of the 20th century, what about today? Well if Dan Snow’s 2009 BBC 4 documentary series “How the Celts Saved Britain (Unfortunately not available for you all on Youtube)” is anything to go by. Esmé Cecil Wingfield Stratford’s point would appear to still generaly hold true, perhaps minus some of the darkness. For you see our understanding of the relevant time period [like our understanding of other time periods in general], has grown much deeper over the last 60 odd years. And as to his point about Christianity, Snow claims something (can we say similar?) which is indeed quite interesting. That “bound up with the spread of Christianity from Ireland [to Britain] is the spread of modernity” [Quoted from the Daily Telegraph]

Ok so, that’s one side of my understanding, that the notion of a 1000yr long European Dark age is i consider essentialy to be a myth. Even the very [and proper] definition of what a Dark age is makes it so and it would appear that it was Christianity that saved the British isles from it’s 100 to 150 yr long “Dark age” if we can call it Dark in the 21st century. But what about Christianity in General, The religious element to Middle age society?

Well i am not really a fan of the Conflict thesis on it’s own, Sure one can cherrypick examples of “opposition”, as John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White did in the late 1800’s and make sweeping conclusions out of it, but to do so ignores a larger picture and one could say alot can come down to as much to political circumstance and location as much to anything else. I am aware that in the ottoman Empire there is a different story than to what happened in Europe, in that the Clergy there did contribute heavily there to snuff out Scientific development. If there is one thing that explains the decline of the islamic world relative to it’s European counterpart, it is that the scientific revolution did not really happen there at all, despite Istanbul being not too far away from Christian Europe, and despite the great traditions of Muslim Science from the days of the 10th century Abbasid Caliphate [So far as the Conflict thesis is concerned, Context is key]. There’s an interesting figure by the name of “Ibrahim müteferrika”, it was he that persuaded the Sultan to allow the printing press in 1729, think of how much later that was than in Europe. One of his first publications was titled “Rational basis for the politics of nations” wherby he argued that..

“The ottoman Empire’s failure to adopt European methods of Governence and Scientific exploration was the root of it’s inability to compete geo-politically” – Tim Jacoby and Michael Mann, “Social Power and the Turkish State”, p67.

In other words, at his time of Writing, the European states were governed by the principles of Reason and the Ottoman Empire was not. How did this come to be? Arguably the first Turkish politican to really get the idea that Science is key to progress was perhaps “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk”, a secularist in Turkish politics and the founder of modern Turkey.

As far as i understand, Reason’d politics in Europe first really came to be in a time period known as the renaissance, that great flowering of the Arts, Science and Political philosophy. But you cannot have a flowering without a bud, and that bud came out the scientific work after the time of Charlemagne, which was not so much concerned with original investigation as it was with the active study and investigation of ancient Roman scientific texts, and it was this investigation which paved the way for the later effort of Western scholars to recover and translate ancient Greek texts in philosophy and the sciences, and it was out of this that reason began to emerge. So in essence one could say Medieval Christianity created the conditions ripe for that “Explosion in Art and Science, and reason and political philosophies”. [There was also the case that “The spread of Christianity in the Carolingian era had a beneficial effect on medical knowledge and treatment. Several of the church fathers expressed interest in medicine. Some of them even knew something about it” – John P. Mckay, Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler, “A History of Western Society” p246.] But here’s an interesting question, perhaps one of you can help answer it. regarding the “revival of ancient learning” in the 12th and 13th centuries [again created by the conditions of the scientific work after Charlemagne], at the height of Medieval Christendom, what happenes to the idea that medieval Christianity was not “interested” in reviving all the Greco-Roman wonderfulness in the first place?

Nonetheless, To call the 12th and 13th Centuries a time of “superstiton, ignorance and Barbarism”, with the commonly used misnomer of “Dark ages [with all the negativity that alone entails] being applied to it is not a correct one.

“But this [image just described] is a caricature, the acceptance of which has proved an obstacle to an understanding of the Middle Ages as they really were. It is true that the early centuries of the Medieval period, LIKE [my emphasis] those of late antiquity, saw a great deal of political and social turmoil. It is true that literacy and learning, in this early period, were in a state of decline. But an account that fails to acknowledge differences among geographical regions and change over time cannot do justice to the complex medieval reality. An accurate account will reveal that learning grew from small beginnings in the early Middle Ages to become a thriving industry in the later Middle Ages; that important scientific achievements emerged during this period; and that the church and it’s theology maintained a relationship to the natural sciences far too complicated to be captured by simple black and white categories such as adversaries or allies. Unquestionably some portions of the classical tradition gave rise to suspicion, hostility, and even ecclesiastical condemnation. However such cases were exceptional; Far more commonly, critical reflection about the nature of the world was tolerated and even encouraged. In their quest to understand the world in which they lived, medieval scholars employed all of the resources at their disposial, including inherited scientific ideas, personal observation, rational influence and religious tradition. And they did so with as much integrity as one finds today in the average university professor and with far less interference from the church than the caricature [that many hold to] of the middle ages would suggest” – “David C. Lindberg, “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor”, in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, ed. “When Science & Christianity Meet”, p8.

Overall, i would say that the relationship between Science and Christianity was a fruitful one, certainly not a “Cozy” or “perfect” one, but they had a better relationship than the one that the conflict thesis suggests.

“While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late 20th century it went under a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. In the words of David Lindberg … “There was no warfare between Science and the Church. The story of Science and Christianity in the middle ages is not a story of suppression nor one of it’s polar opposite, [complete] support and encouragement. What we find is an interaction exhibiting all the variety and complexity, with which we are familliar in other realms of Human endeavour; Conflict, compromise, understanding, misunderstanding, accomadation, dialouge, alienation, the making of common cause, and the going of seperate ways” (pp70-71). What Lindberg writes of Europe can be said to describe much of Western History. Evidence that the relationship between Science and religion has exhibited a multiciplity of attitudes, reflecting local conditions and particular historical circumstance, has led John Brooke to speak of a ‘complexity thesis’ as a more accurate model than the ‘Conflict thesis’. But while Brooke’s view has gained widespread acceptance among professional Historians of Science, the traditional view remains strong elsewhere, not least in the popular mind.” – Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction”, p. ix – x.

And that sums it up for me. As to that graph in the beginning, well i think it’s rhetorical nonsense, and not an accurate picture of what really went on back then.

21 thoughts on “Dark ages, Science and Christianity.”

  1. Pingback: My Homepage
  2. Pingback: Homepage
  3. Pingback: Terrence
  4. Pingback: Freddie
  5. Pingback: Marcus
  6. Pingback: bradley
  7. Pingback: Carlos
  8. Pingback: mario
  9. Pingback: donnie
  10. Pingback: jeffery
  11. Pingback: mathew
  12. Pingback: Evan
  13. Pingback: felix
  14. Pingback: Duane
  15. Pingback: donnie
  16. Pingback: dave
  17. Pingback: Mathew
  18. Pingback: Marshall
  19. Pingback: doug

Leave a Reply