The concept of “the Dark Ages” is central to several key elements in New Atheist Bad History. One of the primary myths most beloved by many New Atheists is the one whereby Christianity violently suppressed ancient Greco-Roman learning, destroyed an ancient intellectual culture based on pure reason and retarded a nascent scientific and technological revolution, thus plunging Europe into a one thousand year “dark age” which was only relieved by the glorious dawn of “the Renaissance”. Like most New Atheist Bad History, it’s a commonly held and popularly believed set of ideas that has its origin in polemicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which has been rejected by more recent historians. But its New Atheist adherents don’t like to hear that last part and get very agitated when they do.
“Skep” and his Bungles
So a few months ago the (apparently) anonymous blogger who writes The Skeptic Zone (“Speaking out against bullshit”, it declares with edgy bravery) was greatly displeased when he saw the Christian apologist Victor Reppert had noticed a review I wrote seven years ago of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009). As I note in that review, Hannam’s book does an excellent job of summarising modern scholarship’s assessment of science (or, rather, natural philosophical proto-science) in the medieval period and making this technical material accessible to a popular audience, debunking many common myths along the way. Nothing much in the book is very novel or even mildly surprising to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of early science, so it was well-received by experts in the field as a lively introduction to the subject for the general reader. No less a figure than Edward Grant was forthright in his praise:
“Hannam has written a splendid book and fully supported his claim that the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern science. He has admirably met another of his goals, namely that of acquainting a large non-academic audience about the way science and various aspects of natural philosophy functioned in medieval society and laid the foundation for modern science. Readers will also learn much about medicine, magic, alchemy, astrology, and especially technology. And they will learn about these important matters in the history of science against the broad background of the life and times of medieval and early modern societies.” (Metascience, September 2010)
Grant was far from alone in his esteem and the book was shortlisted for both the the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2010 and the British Society for the History of Science Dingle Prize in 2011- high accolades for any first time author.
So you would think that a book that simply popularises the agreed consensus of the leading scholars in the field written by an eminently qualified author (Hannam holds both a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in the history of science from Cambridge), endorsed by leading historians and recognised and praised as an excellent piece of research and writing would be totally uncontroversial. And, as it happens, it is. At least for those who don’t have a blunt ideological axe to grind, coupled with a profound ignorance of the subject in question.
Which brings us back to the author of The Skeptic Zone – let’s call call him “Skep”. He was not at all happy that the apologist Reppert posted a link to my review; without comment, but in a post entitled “Some Lies Never Die: The Myth of the Dark Ages”. But, by Jove, our “Skep” was having none of this:
“If you’re a Christian apologist, you’d rather believe that there was no such thing as the Dark Ages. You’d rather believe that intellectual endeavors flourished under the benevolent leadership of the church, and life for the average citizen was just peachy. There is no shortage of revisionist literature that supports this. In his customary manner, Victor has uncritically latched onto a review of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers that supports this notion.” (“The Lie That Never Dies: Christian Apologetics” – from The Skeptic Zone)
Of course, this simply assumes that the idea he so forcefully rejects actually is invalid, which makes his point about Reppert linking to my review “uncritically” somewhat ironic. And exactly what makes Reppert’s endorsement of my review and Hannam’s book so wicked becomes blurred, since the sentences above drift from something to do with “intellectual endeavors” into something or other about “life for the average citizen” not being “peachy”. Whatever it is that “Skep” is disagreeing with, it’s clear that the concept of a “dark age” is at the heart of it and denial of any aspect of this non-“peachy” era is, apparently, Christian apologism.
Which is where “Skep” turns both his great scorn and his mighty powers of investigation on me:
“This very favorable review comes from Tim O’Neill, who claims to be an atheist and skeptic, and that, I suppose, is the reason Victor chooses to call out this particular article as being worthy of notice. If an atheist agrees with what the apologists say, then there must be something to it, right?”
Well, actually, yes. At least potentially. After all, if it was only Christian apologists who somehow criticise this concept of an alleged “dark age” and people unencumbered by their bias do not, then we have strong potential grounds to dismiss their claims on the subject. If, however, they are supported on this point by people who are not Christians and are even atheists, no less, then these grounds to dismiss them fall away. So our “Skep” has a point. And, therefore, a distinct problem. Because I am, as it happens, an atheist and so not a Christian, let alone a “Christian apologist”. How does he deal with this? Well … rather badly:
” I did a little research on Tim O’Neill, and could find no reason to think that he is anything other than a Christian who claims to be an atheist. His articles are uniformly supportive of theists and their beliefs, and critical of atheists.”
Hmmm, “a little research”? Unfortunately for “Skep” his “little research” on me was rather too “little” for the task at hand and in his emotionally-charged eagerness to prove I was not an atheist he somehow managed to bungle things completely. He has since partially edited out his mistake, but in his original post he triumphantly produced an article by me called “Why Miracles Are Not Incompatible with Science”, which claims miracles do happen and presents the Christian apologist argument that they are merely suspensions of natural scientific laws, not violations of them. Now, anyone who knows me or is familiar with anything I’ve ever written or said over the last 35 years or so would immediately be greatly startled and wonder how on earth an atheist and sceptic like me would write such a strange thing. And the answer, gentle reader, is that … I didn’t.
Our “Skep”, in a remarkable display of utter incompetence, somehow managed to attribute an article by a Catholic apologist called Karlo Broussard to … ummm, well, me. Given that he kindly provided a link to that article and that it not only carried the clear by-line “by Karlo Broussard” at the top, but also a box entitled “Written by Karlo Broussard” at the bottom – complete with an author bio containing such helpful information as “Karlo works as a full time apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers giving lectures throughout the country on topics in Catholic apologetics, theology and philosophy” – exactly how our gormless “Skep” managed this bizarre bungle is a mystery. Not surprisingly, he’s now edited it out and with an awkward apology, which is nice of him I suppose.
“Straw Men” and More Bungles
But with a zeal that indicates more enthusiasm than sense, ol’ “Skep” didn’t let that flat-footed bumble slow him down and he went on to continue to insist that I am a Christian apologist after all. Despite recent comments on his blog by me where I point out that I have an online record as an atheist which goes all the way back to posts on alt.atheism as early as 1992, that I have been a state president of the Australian Skeptics and that I have also been a paid up, subscribing member of the Australian Atheist Foundation for many years, he’s still trying to argue I’m not really an atheist. Given that anyone capable of typing “Tim O’Neill Australian Skeptics” into Google will bring up a PDF copy of The Skeptic, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1992 as its very first hit, which conclusively proves one of my claims on page 11, it’s pretty clear that “Skep” doesn’t have a leg to stand on here. Poor “Skep”.
But he pushes on regardless. He quotes from my review of Hannam, where I note that, despite the myth about the Church persecuting scientists, not one natural philosopher was ever “burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages”. He responds:
“This is a straw man, of course. Nobody makes the claim that scientists in the Middle ages were repressed by the church.”
They don’t? Strange, because I come across precisely this claim all the time. But if “Skep” doesn’t believe me then perhaps he should consult … himself. In a post on his own blog from just a year ago he got himself into quite a lather over the medieval Church supposedly repressing the medieval proto-scientist Roger Bacon, allegedly over the University of Paris’ 1210-1277 attempts at restricting discussion of Aristotle’s works:
“While there is disagreement over just how much effect [the 1210-1277 Condemnations] had on the advancement of knowledge, there is no denying that the church stood in opposition to anything that opposed its own dogma. The Franciscan monk (sic) Roger Bacon, often credited with advancing natural science and scientific method in the 13th century, was imprisoned for running afoul of the condemnations.” (“Religious Interference with Scientific Progress“, 1 Nov. 2015)
Perhaps not surprisingly the hapless “Skep” has bungled things once again: it’s unclear if Bacon was ever actually imprisoned in the first place and there is nothing at all to indicate that any imprisonment, if it did happen, had anything to do with his natural philosophy, rather than the theological disputes over spiritual poverty raging in the Franciscan Order at the time. But if my reference to the popular belief about the Church suppressing proto-scientists is “a straw man”, poor ol’ “Skep” needs to explain why he was fulminating about an imagined case of them doing precisely that in his November 2015 post. He seems highly confused about a great many things.
But the usual way that those who are forced to admit that there were, in fact, many medieval natural philosophers studying all kinds of proto-scientific ideas, and doing so in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans and their Islamic successors, deal with this awkward fact is to claim that these poor scholars were cowed by the terrible restrictions of the Church and tightly constrained in what they could explore. Which, right on cue, “Skep” proceeds to do:
“The fact is there weren’t a lot of scientists around for the church to oppress during the middle ages, and those who did study things like optics or astronomy in those days didn’t dare defy the teachings of the church. The burning, persecution, and oppression came later, when real science began to flourish and the dogmas of the church were challenged.”
Except the fact is that there were few such restrictions and the medieval scope for inquiry was actually extremely wide. The Condemnations of 1210-1277 that he refers to in his mangled reference to Roger Bacon above actually illustrate this point quite neatly. If, as “Skep” claims, the medieval Church stifled proto-scientific inquiry so completely we should have no trouble finding this reflected in clear statements by the Church delineating what was off limits for inquiry. After all, it’s not like the medieval Church was shy about making its position on what could or could not be believed or questioned clear. And it seems “Skep” thinks the Condemnations of 1210-1277 represent just such statements.
But do they? To begin with, if they do we would expect these statements to be made in some kind of proclamation that applied to the whole of Christendom: in, say, a canon of an ecumenical council or at least a Papal bull. But no such statements exist. The 1210-1277 Condemnations, on the contrary, are very specific and highly local in their application: they apply only to the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris and nowhere else. This is hardly surprising, since they arose out of an academic squabble between that university’s Faculty of Theology and the upstarts in the Faculty of Arts, who the theologians thought were intruding on their hallowed turf. Not only did they not apply to anyone outside of the Arts Faculty or the University of Paris, there is little evidence of them having much impact on anyone or any other institution at all. On the contrary, in 1210 rival universities seized on them gleefully and tried to use them to lure students away from Paris, with the University of Toulouse advertising itself as a place to “hear the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris”. When it comes to student recruitment to universities, not much has changed.
But not only did these condemnations apply only to Paris’ Arts Faculty and have no effect at all elsewhere, but they were also very specifically aimed at ideas found in the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle that were brought back to Catholic Europe from Islamic Spain and Sicily in the preceding century. The 1210 Condemnation was broad in its restriction, but still specific to particular works by Aristotle:
“Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication.”
To be fair, in 1210 those “new” works by Aristotle and the mainly Muslim commentaries on them did represent a substantial portion of all “natural philosophy”. Which could explain why the 1210 Condemnation was … almost completely ignored. By 1255 all of Aristotle’s works then available plus a range of commentaries and expansions of his ideas were not only widely read in Paris but were prescribed texts in the Arts Faculty. So much for the terrible restrictive power of the medieval Church. With the total failure of the 1210 Condemnation in restricting those naughty Arts professors, in 1270 the Paris Faculty of Theology tried again.
This time the attempted proscription was more focused, aiming squarely for the radical Aristotelianism or “Averroism” of Siger of Brabant and his followers. The Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, laid out 13 propositions that the theologians said members of the Parisian Arts Faculty could not hold. These were largely philosophical ideas seen as limitations on God’s omnipotence (e.g. “That God does not know singulars”) or the nature of souls (e.g. “That the soul … cannot be destroyed by bodily fire”). It is very hard to see how these restrictions can be said to have hampered science. The only two of the 1270 Condemnations that could be even remotely related to anything to do with natural philosophy are the one forbidding the teaching that the universe is eternal and the one stating that there was a first human being. The former is a metaphysical rather than a scientific idea, since early cosmological science was well beyond anything other than pure speculation in 1270 and would remain so for several centuries to come. And the latter is not incompatible with any materialist ideas of the origin of human life (such as that proposed, without censure, by William of Conches a century earlier), given that it is still a theological teaching of the modern Catholic Church, which also fully accepts evolutionary biology.
The 1270 Condemnations were followed by a longer list of attempted proscriptions in 1277, but again these mainly targeted a grab bag of “Averroist” metaphysical ideas. Rather than restricting natural philosophy, Pierre Duhem went so far as to argue that the criticism of Aristotle in these proscriptions shattered the conception that “the Philosopher” was somehow omnicompetent and opened his work up to greater sceptical scrutiny and constructive criticism. Modern historians of science agree that this goes too far, noting that Aristotle had not yet achieved that level of unquestioned reverence at that stage, but agree that later critical analysis of and adjustment of several of Aristotle’s claims about the natural world do owe something to these checks on his full acceptance in the thirteenth century.
But the key point here is not so much what these attempted restrictions did try to proscribe, but rather what they did not. The condemnations were restricted to metaphysical ideas and philosophical speculations. Nowhere in these examples or in any others from the whole of the Middle Ages was there any tendency toward restricting rational analysis of the physical and natural world. On the contrary, the natural cosmos was seen as the rational product of a rational God and so not only could but should be apprehended and understood rationally. Medieval thinkers liked to refer to “the Book of Nature” that should be read and analysed for understanding of the physical world as a compliment to “the Book of God” (the Bible) which should be read to understand the theological:
“For this whole visible world is a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine power …. But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book looks at the figures but does not recognise the letters: just so the foolish natural man who does not perceive the things of God outwardly in these visible creatures the appearances but does not inwardly understand the reason. But he who is spiritual and can judge all things, while he considers outwardly the beauty of the work inwardly conceives how marvellous is the wisdom of the Creator.” (Hugh of St Victor, De Tribus Diebus, 4)
So the claim by this “Skep” that some fear of defying “the teachings of the Church” somehow stifled medieval proto-science is pseudo historical nonsense, largely because those teachings left analysis of the natural world wide open – the “Book of Nature” was there for the reading.
Cartoon History and Reality
It’s not surprising therefore that there was no shortage of medieval scholars who took advantage of the previously lost works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, Archimedes and their many Muslim and Jewish commentators and successors and used them to read “the Book of Nature”. Or that they did so without anyone batting an eyelid. Thus we find new works not just on “optics or astronomy” being produced in western Europe from the eleventh century onwards, but also on mathematics, anatomy, medicine, physics, dynamics, biology and even the beginnings of chemistry. So it was fairly easy for me to list just a sample of the many proto-scientific writers who flourished in this period and laid the foundations of the later Scientific Revolution, including “Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa”.
Our “Skep” can’t deny that these people existed, that they did genuine proto-scientific work in the Greek tradition and that they were unmolested by the Church. So how does he deal with these awkward historical realities? With characteristic incompetence, bias and ignorance:
“Again, there is no question that Aristotelian natural philosophy and scholasticism arose (or re-emerged) in the latter part of the middle ages. The people listed here that O’Neill calls scientists are all from the 13th, and 14th, and 15th centuries, at the end of the middle ages. They were clergy members or sponsored by the the church, and they didn’t question church dogma. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that science began to break free from the yoke of the church and for the first time call religious beliefs and dogma into question. In my opinion, that’s when the Dark Ages ended.”
This is a strange cluster of claims. Firstly, why the fact that this all happened at the end of the Middle Ages is significant is unclear. We will see why that was in a moment, but it’s not like the Church was less powerful in these later medieval centuries: on the contrary, this was the very apogee of ecclesiastical power. But the claim that because “they were clergy members or sponsored by the church” they were somehow under some “yoke of the church” and so unwilling or unable to “question church dogma” is bizarre. What “church dogma” could they “question” by studying anatomy? Or physics? Or dynamics? Or … well, anything about the natural world? As detailed above, the scope for analysis of “the Book of Nature” was wide and the few metaphysical restrictions the theologians did place on natural philosophers were on things well beyond any pre-modern scientist anyway. So the restrictive hand of “church dogma” that “Skep” imagines so feverishly simply was not there.
But his reference to “Renaissance” scholars beginning to “break free from the yoke of the church and for the first time call religious beliefs and dogma into question” seems to be to the cartoonish, popular conception of the Galileo Affair, which sees that dispute as one with science questioning dogma on one side and religion clinging to irrational superstition on the other. Unfortunately for “Skep” it was nothing like that. The Church had always accepted that the Bible could be interpreted in a non-literal manner and that it should be if Biblical exegesis and rational analysis of the world conflicted. That’s why all those Biblical references that talk about a flat earth had long since been regarded as poetic rather than literal. So in 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine made it clear in his letter to Paolo Foscarini that the same could potentially happen with passages that were traditionally interpreted as saying the earth was fixed and unmoving:
“[I]f there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown to me . . . . and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.”
The problem was that Bellarmine was correct: in 1615 there was no such demonstration and the overwhelming scientific consensus was that Galileo and the handful of other heliocentrists were wrong. That consensus did not begin to change for another 90 years. So it was not a case of scientists challenging dogma and theologians ignoring science. It was a case of one or two scientists championing a fringe theory that was still full of holes and using it to reinterpret the Bible and the Church pointing to the scientific consensus of the day and saying they could not do this. The Church had science on its side.
The only other example that people who see medieval science as under the heel of massive theological restriction and “Renaissance” science freeing itself from this oppression is … Giordano Bruno. But as I’ve detailed elsewhere, his condemnation had nothing to do with science. The idea that medieval natural philosophy was constrained by theology and that later science was not is a fantasy, based on ignorance of the subject and patent ideological bias.
The Middle Ages and the “Dark Ages” – History and Historiography
But our “Skep” does not want to let go of his fond idea of “the Dark Ages”:
“This raises the question of we mean by the term Dark Ages. It has been defined in various ways. One common definition (and the one that O’Neill disputes) is that it coincides with the entire medieval period, beginning at the fall of the Roman empire around 476CE and ending at the start of the renaissance around 1500CE (in western Europe). Another commonly used definition has it ending in 1000CE. Even O’Neill agrees that this was a dark period in history. Some may equate the start of the dark ages with the decline of the Roman empire that coincides with the adoption of Christianity during the rule of Constantine. Some may equate the end of the dark ages with the rise of universities and scholastic philosophy in the 12th century. It wasn’t until the 14th century that anyone began to question the natural philosophy of Aristotle. Regardless of how you define the term, it is clear that scientific and cultural progression was at a virtual standstill at least during the earlier centuries of the middle ages.”
Wow. Let’s unpack this tangle of claims. The term “the Dark Ages” has its own varied history and it begins with Petrarch. Prior to his time, medieval scholars had something of an inferiority complex. Western culture had been looking back on earlier “golden ages” for centuries and as early as the late sixth century BC Hesiod laid out the idea that he lived in a debased and corrupted period and spoke of a χρύσεον γένος – an “Age of Gold”- as an ancient, idyllic era when “men lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief”. Christianity inherited this idea that things were in a long decline and coupled it with its own eschatology that talked of a period of debasement and chaos before the End Times and the Apocalypse.
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, these ideas were supplemented by the very real fact that early medieval western European lived surrounded by reminders of a past that was grander and greater than the present. Sometime in perhaps the eighth century an Anglo-Saxon monk wrote an elegy contemplating a Roman ruin:
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.”
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed. Often this wall outlasted,
hoary with lichen, red-stained, withstanding the storm,
one reign after another; the high arch has now fallen.
The Ruin, ll. 6-11)
The same monk was probably also acutely aware of literary references to ancient works that he could never read: Greek and Roman works that were now lost in the collapse of the Empire. Even when western learning began to revive and many of those lost works came back to western Europe via Arabic and Hebrew translations from Sicily and Spain, western scholars still saw themselves as inferior to the ancients. In 1159 John of Salisbury wrote:
“Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” (Metalogicon)
But by the early fourteenth century this inferior attitude began to change. After several centuries of the revival of Greek and Roman texts on logic, philosophy and proto-science, a new breed of scholar was turning their attention to ancient literary works. Petrarch was one of the earliest who not only devoted himself to Greek and Latin poetry and histories, but set out to imitate it in his own works and to reject the living Latin of his own day in an attempt at restoring the language to what he saw as its earlier purity.
For Petrarch and the Classical revivalist Humanists who followed him, he was not a dwarf compared to the ancient giants, he was their peer and equal. It was the lesser scholars of the period since the fall of Rome who were the midgets and that period between the end of the Empire and his own time that was an unfortunate interregnum. He saw himself as at the beginning of a new, better age that would parallel that of the ancients and dispel “the darkness”:
“[F]or you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”(Africa, IX, 451-7)
Later Humanists continued this idea and the “dark” period in the middle – between the “radiance” of Greece and Rome and its new revival – came to be called first the media tempestas (” the middle times”) and later the medium aevum (“the middle ages”). “Medieval” was the English term derived from the latter and while it did not appear until the nineteenth century, the concepts of this period as “the Middle Ages” and its connections with ideas of it as a period of “darkness” were well and truly entrenched by then.
The terms “Middle Ages” and “Medieval” have cognates across Europe; the period is the Mittelalter to German speakers and the Moyen Âge to the French. But while these terms have all had some historiographical associations with “darkness”, the term “the Dark Ages” is uniquely English in its usage, if not its origin. The term was first used not as a way of denigrating the “middle times”, but actually in a work that went some way to defending them. Between 1588 and 1607 Cardinal Caesar Baronius published his multi-volume Church history, the Annales Ecclesiastici; which was in part a response to the Protestant version of history found in the Magdeburg Centuries (1559-74) produced by a group of Lutheran scholars.
Baronius found that the period between the end of the Carolingian dynasty in 888 and the church reforms of Pope Gregory VII was difficult to research because of a lack of source material:
“The new age which was beginning, for its harshness and barrenness of good could well be called iron, for its baseness and abounding evil leaden, and moreover for its lack of writers, dark.” ( Annales Ecclesiastici, Vol. X. Roma, p. 647)
This concept of a period that lacked written sources as a saeculum obscurum – “a Dark Age” – struck other historians as useful and it began to be applied by them first to the specific 160 years identified by Baronius and then to other periods for which source material was scanty. But it was in seventeenth century Protestant England that its English form began to be applied to the medieval period generally and to be given its pejorative overtones rather than its original technical meaning.
By the nineteenth century the terms “Dark Ages” and “Middle Ages” had become synonymous in English usage and the clearly Protestant, post-Enlightenment and decidedly Whiggish historiography of English language history writing in that period did not have a problem with its pejorative implications. Edward Gibbon, writing for a Protestant audience in the tradition of Voltaire and the French philosophes, had no qualms about scorning the “rubbish of the Dark Ages” and most popular history writing in this period usually maintained that scorn in both Britain and the U.S.
But the true academic study of the Medieval Period really only began in the twentieth century and by then the moralising, value judgements and biased sectarian polemic of eighteenth and nineteenth century historiography had been replaced by the far more objective, neutral and careful traditions that began with Leopold von Ranke and were developed by Marc Bloch and his successors. Value-laden terms like “the Dark Ages” began to fall from favour and modern historians now tend to avoid them, even though they linger in common parlance.
This was partly due to their obvious negative bias, but also due to the fact that, as twentieth century study of the Medieval Period proceeded, many of the assumptions about it were shown to be false. Far from being a period of technical stagnation, even the very early medieval period saw agrarian and technological innovation that transformed western and northern Europe economically and culturally. Rather than being a period of total Popish theocracy, the near constant tension and regular open conflict between Church and State meant the Church actually spent most of the period trying to extract itself from secular domination. It also became increasingly clear that the rise of universities, of communal republics and parliaments and of complex systems of law and governance meant that many institutions that are central to the modern world have their origins in the Medieval world rather than the more remote and rather alien Classical period.
And one of the key nineteenth century myths that the new medieval history specialists debunked was the idea that the Church suppressed or restricted inquiry into the natural and physical cosmos, stifling proto-science until the “yoke of the church” was thrown off in the “Renaissance”. Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) and Lynn Thorndike (1882-1965) both came to the conclusion that the idea of the Medieval Period as one of scientific stagnation until the “Renaissance” and the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was nonsense and that the revival of natural philosophy not only began as far back as the eleventh century, but the later medieval proto-scientific tradition laid the essential foundations of the later true revolution. This is now totally accepted by all modern historians of science.
So while all this is not well known to the average person today (and actively resisted as “revisionism” by biased ideologues like our “Skep”), it’s all standard, accepted stuff for anyone with even the slightest undergraduate grasp of medieval history. As a result, the term “the Dark Ages” as applied to the whole Medieval Period is simply not used by modern historians at all. Where the term is applied at all, it is to a very specific period of British history: the 200 or so years from the withdrawal of Roman troops in the fifth century to the end of the north-west Germanic invasions and settlements in Britain in the late seventh century. This is a “dark age” in the technical sense of Baronius, because it is not well served by written sources (even though it continues to be increasingly illuminated by archaeology).
Periods,Terms and Value Judgements
New Atheists like “Skep” are not only keen on the outdated idea of calling the whole of the Middle Ages a “dark age” but they are also very fond of the idea of “the Renaissance”. Unfortunately this is another nineteenth century concept that, as a period of history, really does not work at all.
The word was first used in English in 1830, though it has its origin in Vasari’s use of “rinascita” in his 1550 Lives of the Artists to describe the revival of Classical styles of art and the rejection of the “gothic” or “barbaric” art of the Middle Ages. The idea of “the Renaissance” as a glorious reawakening and the end of a “dark age” was first fully articulated by French historian Jules Michelet in 1855, characterising it as more than an art movement, but as a revival of the celebration of the individual, the rise of democratic values and the rejection of the “bizarre and monstrous” Middle Ages.
Of course, all of this simply assumed everything nineteenth century intellectuals thought about the Middle Ages as a “dark age” was correct. Modern historians now see the elements that nineteenth century scholars like Michelet and Burkhardt thought of as some kind of clean break from the Middle Ages as beginning long before “the Renaissance”. Also contrary to the nineteenth century conception, modern historians have pointed out that many of the things that their predecessors held to be characteristic of the medieval “dark ages” – large scale warfare, political despotism, religious persecution and witchhunts – were actually far worse or more characteristic of the supposed “Renaissance” period.
“The Renaissance” is, in fact, such an ill-defined and rubbery concept that it does not work as periodisation term at all. Elements of it – a move to Classical art styles, individualism and humanism – can be found at least in some places (mainly Italy) as early as the late thirteenth century. But we don’t see many of these elements taking hold in northern Europe until much later – thus the art history term “the Northern Renaissance”, where we see the artistic and literary elements at least flourishing in the sixteenth century. Then again, we don’t see them appearing in more far off places, like Russia, until much later still. For a term applied to a period of history, this ill-definition not only of what this thing was but when is a major problem.
Some New Atheists have tried to use this to their advantage. The inevitable Richard Carrier, for example, uses it as a kind of sleight of hand to help him dismiss the claim that the Medieval Period was a not a “dark age” by taking various elements from the later Middle Ages that belie the “dark age” myth and declaring them to part of the Renaissance instead. Et voilà! – with a wave of his semantic magic wand, the revival of Greek philosophy, the beginnings of anatomy based on dissection, the invention of clocks and eye-glasses and the revolution of printing are all transformed from medieval achievements into something from a period invented by Carrier called “the early Renaissance”. Of course, this leads to a curious situation where these (good) things belong to the “early Renaissance” but many other things from the same time somehow manage to stay “medieval”. So complex fourteenth century astronomical clocks are somehow “Renaissance”, but the Black Death in the same period is “medieval”. Eye glasses are “Renaissance”, but the One Hundred Years War is “medieval”. The Twelfth Century Revival is “Renaissance”, but the Flagellant Movement is “medieval”. C.S. Lewis is said to have once quipped that “the Renaissance” is simply “the parts of the later Middle Ages that modern people happen to like”.
It should be clear by now that value-laden terms like “dark ages” and “Renaissance” belong to a period of dusty historiography that modern scholarship has long since outgrown. The very early medieval centuries certainly did see fragmentation, technology loss and the break down of long distance trade and an acceleration of the ongoing collapse of learning in western Europe. But to characterise the entire medieval period as a “dark age” because of this is clearly absurd. And while the nineteenth century idolisation of Classical art meant that they were inevitably going to see the art and architecture movement we call “the Renaissance” as “superior” to more stylised and native medieval forms, for anyone post-Picasso or Le Corbusier to do so is fairly philistinic. Anyone with even a passing grasp of history now understands that the Medieval Period was a long and diverse one thousand year span of remarkable change and development, in which Europe went from being a backwater that suffered most from the collapse of the Western Empire, to an economic, technical and military powerhouse that was on the brink of a global expansion.
Of course “anyone with even a passing grasp of history” is a category that excludes our “Skep” and his ilk, mired as they are in a intellectually deadening and tone deaf combination of ideological bias and near total historical ignorance.