“The Dark Ages” – Popery, Periodisation and Pejoratives

“The Dark Ages” – Popery, Periodisation and Pejoratives


 
“When the Pope ruled England, them was called the Dark Ages!”
(East London street orator, reported by Herbert Butterfield, 1931)


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:

“Eorðgrap hafað
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.”

(Earth-grip holds
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. 

51 thoughts on ““The Dark Ages” – Popery, Periodisation and Pejoratives

  1. I only recently added your blog to my newsreader. Very interesting material.

    In his scholarly work, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, C. S. Lewis quipped that "when we have a word we tend to imagine a thing". I am paraphrasing as I don't have my copy at hand. This was in the introductory section where he was discussing what the term 'Renaissance' might mean, if anything.




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  2. Idea: a kangaroo called "skeppy", who is adorable but in spite of having read very little history, is surprisingly opinionated.

    It's good to hear that you approve of Edward Grant. I've read his "A History of Natural Philosophy". I'd be very interested to read a post on who the interested layperson should read.




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  3. Excellent article! One additional thing to mention are the pioneer monastic movements that brought many labor-saving devices and allowed excess of food and wealth to accumulate that, in turn, funded the universities etc.




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  4. "It's good to hear that you approve of Edward Grant. I've read his "A History of Natural Philosophy". I'd be very interested to read a post on who the interested layperson should read".

    So would I Luke.
    I have read the late David C. Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science
    The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, Second Edition

    http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo5550077.html

    It is a very book book and well worth the money.




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  5. "Idea: a kangaroo called "skeppy", who is adorable but in spite of having read very little history, is surprisingly opinionated".

    Luke, please don't do that to our national animal.
    Skippy would turn in his grave.




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  6. I'm flattered that you took the time to respond to my post. But I think it's worth correcting some of the false impressions you may have created.

    Let's start with my mistake. Yes, I was looking at material you had written, and yes, what I saw is consistently supportive of theism and railing against atheists. But somehow I came across this other article, and didn't realize that it wasn't yours. That was a stupid mistake on my part. I fully admit it. When you pointed it out to me, I apologized to you, and I made a correction in my article, noting that it was a mistake. And rather than accepting my apology, I see that you've been brooding over this for the past couple of months. And I see that a similar level of graciousness is mirrored in many of the comments you make to others who disagree with you in this blog.

    About the "concept of the dark ages", there is obviously some disagreement, with Christian apologists trying to point a very rosy picture of history. There is little question that at least for the better part of that first millennium, much of the population was kept uneducated and enslaved while the church and the aristocracy shared the money and power. In that time, there was very little scientific advancement, and much was lost or forgotten. When the apologists try to gloss over those basic facts, and instead try to claim that the church was the very foundation of science and enlightenment, I don't "get very agitated", as you say, but I do take issue with those claims.

    The apologists love to trot out their list of "scientific achievements" in Europe during the 800 years following the Roman empire. My response is first, that there are precious few of them, and second, that the invention of the plow hardly qualifies as science. Then, they point to the astronomers of the time, and I note that this is probably the single biggest area of achievement, but it wasn't that the church was so interested in science. They wanted to be able to forecast the dates of their religious holidays.

    Then, people like you say "No science, huh? What about these?", and you rattle off a list of names from the late middle ages. So you have pivoted from what is commonly recognized as the dark ages to the late middle ages, and you cite scholastics and theistic natural philosophers who had little or no impact on the development of genuine science. You call them 'proto-scientists". I call them under the yoke of the church. Yes, there were a few gems there. But mostly, the church maintained authority over what they were allowed to investigate.

    It's worth noting at this point that there isn't so much disagreement about the facts of history as about the way we interpret those facts, and perhaps disagreement about what constitutes science. I'm no historian, but I can read. And I know a thing or two about science. I will address some of your specific remarks in my follow-on comment.




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  7. I'm flattered that you took the time to respond to my post.

    You shouldn't be. I only did so because it's indicative of the profound ignorance of history and crippling biases of people who still refer to the Middle Ages as "the dark ages"; something done regularly by clumsy New Atheists like you.

    That was a stupid mistake on my part.

    It was. And indicative of both your incompetence and your biases. You found something that seemed to confirm your prejudiced assumptions and so you stopped there rather than checking your facts. I highlighted it not only because your blunder was funny (though it was) but because it illustrates how biased assumptions and driving fanaticism leads directly to errors. And your whole discussion of periodisation is riddled with similar errors.

    And rather than accepting my apology, I see that you've been brooding over this for the past couple of months.

    Now that's flattering yourself. I haven't "brooded" over anything and I wrote this post over a number of weeks because I'm a busy guy and have many more important things to do. This blog is a minor hobby and you are nothing more than an illustration of what a combination of ignorance and bias produces.

    there is obviously some disagreement, with Christian apologists trying to point a very rosy picture of history.

    I have no interest in anything said on the subject by Christian apologists. The problem is that your silly, ignorant and erroneous non-"rosy" picture is countered by … every single actual historian on the period on the planet. It's amusing that you complain of the bias of Christian apologists and their "picture of history", but can't see your own bias or that your "picture of history" is every bit as much a distortion. I'm interested in correcting distortions of history. Elsewhere I correct distortions by Christians, by Holocaust deniers, by conservatives, by liberals and by many others. Here I correct distortions by New Atheists like you.
    (Cont. below)




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  8. (Cont. from above)

    "There is little question that at least for the better part of that first millennium, much of the population was kept uneducated and enslaved while the church and the aristocracy shared the money and power. "

    That is patent nonsense and no historian would agree with such a stupid and simplistic distortion of history. The idea that they were "kept" uneducated is garbage, the use of "enslaved" is ludicrous exaggeration and the idea of "the church and the aristocracy" happily sharing "the money and the power" would make any medieval historian snort with laughter. The fact that you can seriously present this caricature of history as something about which "there is little question" shows exactly how profoundly ignorant and hopelessly bigoted your cartoon-level grasp of the period is.

    "In that time, there was very little scientific advancement, and much was lost or forgotten."

    And in that time there was also a revival of scientific knowledge, the beginnings of profound scientific advancement and much that had been lost and forgotten was sought out found and revived. That's because "that time" spans 1000 years, from the decline and chaos that followed the collapse of the Western Empire through the renewal and revival of the central Middle Ages to the flowering of a remarkable new civilisation that formed the basis of the modern world. The problem with this "dark ages" crap is it puts all the emphasis on the early chaos and loss, downplays or ignores the revival and renewal and then tries to re-dub anything admirable from about 1100 onwards "the Renaissance" to maintain a bizarre fiction that the Middle Ages were "dark". Historians have rejected this silly pastiche of errors and bias for a century, but ignorant ranters like you cling to it like the ignorant fundamentalists you are.

    "When the apologists try to gloss over those basic facts, and instead try to claim that the church was the very foundation of science and enlightenment, I don't "get very agitated", as you say, but I do take issue with those claims.

    Except the people you are "taking issue with" are not "apoplogists", they are the leading historians in the field. And the "issue" you take with them is not based on a detailed understanding of the period, but on your grab-bag of outdated biased cliches above. Which is why people who do understand the period – e.g. me – mock little idiots like you.

    "the invention of the plow hardly qualifies as science"

    No-one has ever claimed that it's "science". But it is one of a number of the early medieval technological advances that was the basis for the economic recovery that led to the intellectual revival of the later Middle Ages. And those advances also counter the other myth about the period, the one about it being a period a technological stagnation, which is ludicrous given that it was far more technically innovative than the previous 1000 years.

    "Then, they point to the astronomers of the time, and I note that this is probably the single biggest area of achievement, but it wasn't that the church was so interested in science. They wanted to be able to forecast the dates of their religious holidays.
    "

    More utter nonsense. But if this was true, why didn't they just stop once they had enough astronomical knowledge to calculate their calendar? Why did they do much, much more? Like all fundamentalists, you people don't bother to think critically about your own stupid arguments.
    (Cont. below)




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  9. (Cont. from above)
    So you have pivoted from what is commonly recognized as the dark ages to the late middle ages,

    You can't have it both ways. You can't try to smear the whole Medieval Period as "a dark age" and then when confronted with medieval examples that counter this try to roll your "dark ages" definition back to the beginning of the period only.

    "and you cite scholastics and theistic natural philosophers who had little or no impact on the development of genuine science.

    "Little or no impact"? The first use of systematic dissection in anatomy? The foundational study of optics and dynamics? The establishment of the mean speed theorem? The use of logarithmic expression in physics? If they had "little or no impact", why does the work of early scientists like Galileo either refer back to medieval scholars or display clear knowledge of them? These guys laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution and it would not have happened without them. And if you think that's not true then feel free to argue with Edward Grant on the matter. But perhaps you should read his The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts first. Or is this Sarton Medal winning expert and former president of the History of Science Society just an "apologist" too, little ranter?

    "You call them 'proto-scientists". I call them under the yoke of the church."

    Did you even read my article above? As I showed, this "yoke" actually restricted pretty much nothing in the examination of the physical world. Just repeating stupid arguments I've already debunked in detail isn't going to help you here kiddo.

    I'm no historian, but I can read.

    You show no evidence of having read anything much about the Medieval period.

    "I will address some of your specific remarks in my follow-on comment."

    Will it be as bad as the crap above? We can't wait.




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  10. 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.
    – And you, in your own incompetence, failed to name the title of my post correctly. But I'm not trying to be a dick about it. I just want to point out that people make mistakes.

    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.
    – Now you are misrepresenting my words. I did NOT say that. I said I found no reason to think that you are anything other than a Christian. This is supported by the arrogant, anti-atheist attitude you express in your writing. Anyone who reads this blog without knowing anything about you would probably think the same thing.

    Strange, because I come across precisely this claim all the time. But if "Skep" doesn't believe me then perhaps he should consult … himself.
    – You do indeed make a straw man argument. It's you who use terms like "violently suppressed" and "burning" in connection with church suppression of science in the middle ages. And that's what I was responding to when I pointed out that those things came mostly after the middle ages.

    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.
    – It's not "precisely that" that I was talking about. You are taking my words out of context. My article was about church suppression of science, not about violent oppression of scientists, which is what your straw man claims. That suppression began in the roman empire, and continues to this day, with opposition of various kinds of research.

    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.
    In Bacon's own words: "My superiors and brothers … kept me under close guard and would not let anyone come to me, fearing that my writings would be divulged to others …". It may not have been an actual prison, but he was held in confinement by church authorities because of his proto-scientific work. Karen Kenyon wrote in Btitish Heritage:
    Bacons’ vision of a Science serving Christian Theology was not to be; even during his lifetime the two disciplines assumed opposing rather than supportive positions, one towards the other. Scholasticism of the later Middle Ages was dominated by the assertion that man could never understand God’s Creation. Rather than stimulating scientific thought, Aristotelian philosophy proved a stifling influence which was not cast off by European thinkers until the 16th Century.




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  11. "I just want to point out that people make mistakes."

    Again, I wasn't simply mocking your mistake, even if it was a far more ridiculous one than getting a couple of words in a title wrong. The point is not that you made an error, but why you did so. Like all fanatics, you start with your conclusion, based on your biases, then go searching for its substantiation. This is not what true skeptics do. So you found an article that – somehow – you decided was by me and because this seemed to confirm your biased a priori conclusion, you stopped there. A few seconds more checking (e.g. long enough to read the frigging by-line on the article, for fuck's stake) and you would have realised your error, but you didn't bother because you thought you had confirmed your prejudiced preconception. So while I won't pretend that pointing out your brainless bungle wasn't amusing, I was making a point about why you get many things wrong. You aren't a skeptic, you're a biased fanatic.

    I did NOT say that. I said I found no reason to think that you are anything other than a Christian.

    Which was more nonsense and more evidence that you are an uncritical fanatic who clings to a priori assumptions even the face of clear contrary evidence. "No reason to think [I am] anything other than a Christian"? You made that claim in response to a comment by me where I gave you plenty of rock solid reasons to think I am an atheist and skeptic. As I note in my article, 0.54 seconds on Google would bring up clear evidence against that stupid conclusion in its very first link. But like the unsceptical fanatic you are, you didn't bother to do any critical analysis or basic fact checking and just cling to your initial error.

    "This is supported by the arrogant, anti-atheist attitude you express in your writing."

    I don't have an "anti-atheist attitude" and it would be bizarre for me to have one, given that I'm an atheist. I have an "anti-history distorting bigot and fanatic" attitude though. And I'm an equal opportunity arsehole when it comes to that. I condemn Christians when they use their ideology to distort history. I do the same with Holocaust deniers, New Agers and conservatives and many others. And given that this blog is devoted to New Atheist bad history, I condemn some atheists here for the same thing. Are you really so incapable of critical thinking that you can't see "criticises some atheists" is not the same as "criticises atheists generally"? Or are you so emotional that you can't think clearly?

    " It's you who use terms like "violently suppressed" and "burning" in connection with church suppression of science in the middle ages. And that's what I was responding to when I pointed out that those things came mostly after the middle ages."

    No-one was burned for anything to do with science after the Middle Ages either, so this is still abject crap.

    "It's not "precisely that" that I was talking about. You are taking my words out of context. My article was about church suppression of science, not about violent oppression of scientists"

    Either way, it's crap. There was no Church suppression of science in the Middle Ages, as my article above makes clear.

    "That suppression began in the roman empire"

    There was no Church suppression of science in the Roman Empire either. You keep clinging to this fantasy pseudo history.
    (Cont. below)




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  12. (Cont. from above)

    "In Bacon's own words"

    Please cite the work where Bacon said these "own words". Details please.

    "Karen Kenyon wrote in Btitish Heritage"

    Er, yup. A freelance writer whose main work is a young adult biography of the Bronte sisters. Wow, such an authority on medieval science. Her "Scholasticism of the later Middle Ages was dominated by the assertion that man could never understand God’s Creation" is so totally wrong that it's laughable. Just because you found some other ignorant clown who shares both your biases and your lack of knowledge of the period proves nothing much. Try an actual historian of early science with specialist knowledge of the medieval period. Good luck with that.




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  13. This guy gets funnier by the minute …

    "You are aware, I presume that the study of anatomy was banned by the church under Tertullian. That ban lasted for over a millennium."

    Sorry, but I was not "aware" of this. Largely because this is total nonsense. Tertullian did not "ban" anatomy and Christians happily pursued anatomical study as much as they could throughout that millenium, with only the loss of key Greek works restricting them. There was no "ban" by Tertullian or anyone else.

    "Then it finally was revived in the late middle ages, and you pretend this was a new innovation in science, and there never was any suppression by the church."

    I don't have to pretend there was never any suppression by the Church because there wasn't. This, and some "ban" by Tertullian, is another one of your weird fantasies.

    Where do you people get this crap from?




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  14. It wasn't a "ban" at all. You think I haven't had this debate with incompetent Google-"experts" like you before? You're clumsily referring to Tertullian's condemnation of Herophilus in a comment in De Anima 10, where he called him a lanius (butcher/executioner) for dissecting or possibly vivisecting humans. In doing so he was merely expressing the distate of Greeks and Romans of his time for human dissection, since the ancients generally regarded that as taboo. Herophilus and Erasistratus were the exceptions to this rule and their work in Ptolemaic Egypt was regarded with distaste by almost all other ancient writers. It was only in the Middle Ages, when this taboo about dead bodies no longer held sway, that human dissection was revived and revolutionised anatomical studies. In fact, this was the beginning of actual modern medicine.

    But it's hilarious that you've cited hoary old nonsense from Andrew Dickson White's notorious 1896 A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White is, with John William Draper, the progenitor of the Draper-White Thesis or Conflict Thesis – long since debunked by moder historians of science. No-one takes his tendentious and error-laden crap seriously these days. His claim that Tertullian's comment was some kind of "ban" or had any retardant effect on the study of anatomy is simply garbage.

    But thanks for proving yet again that, like the fananic you are, you're incapable of carefully checking sources and just leap on anything that seems to confirm your biased, cartoonish caricature of history. Keep it up!




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  15. You are ignorant on a subject, you refuse to listen to the real experts and you think you know more than the real experts.
    – And the "real" experts are the ones who agree with you and Tim, not the ones who disagree. I get it.

    Sadly that ignorance can only be cured with humility and such ignorant people are rarely humble.
    – Right. And Tim is the epitome of humility. I get it.




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  16. His claim that Tertullian's comment was some kind of "ban" or had any retardant effect on the study of anatomy is simply garbage.
    – And yet there was none of this kind of research until, as you say, "The first use of systematic dissection in anatomy" over a thousand years later. You're talking out of both faces.




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  17. "And yet there was none of this kind of research until, as you say, "The first use of systematic dissection in anatomy" over a thousand years later. You're talking out of both faces"

    No, I just know what I'm talking about and am basing my position on a detailed understanding of the evidence and relevant modern scholarship. Whereas you are simply clinging dogmatically to an a priori assumed conclusion, while frantically Googling nineteenth century polemicists and online nobodies, and won't let go of it no matter what. Like a fundamentlist.

    Why was there little anatomical research in that period? Because in the Eastern Empire the attitude was that the research had all been done. Byzantine scholars had the works of Galen et al and didn't think there was anything to add to them. Scholars in western Europe didn't even have that much, since the Greek works of Galen and the Greek anatomists had been lost in the collapse of learning in the late Roman Empire and the subsequent chaos after the Empire's fall.

    But then they rediscovered Galen via Arabic translation and with his works a number of Arabic commentries and expansions of his work. And this injection of "new" anatomical knowledge stimulated a new curiosity about anatomy and the revival of dissection after centuries of neglect. Note that those centuries were because of a pagan religious taboo about cutting up dead bodies.

    Though if you want to claim that a passing remark about dissection by Tertullian acted as a "de facto ban", you need to actually make a detailed argument. If you think you can do this, please cite and quote the medieval writers who noted this comment and interpreted it this way. Where are they? Where are the admonishions against dissection referring to this comment by Tertullian? And then you'll need to explain why the retardant effect of this supposed "de fact ban" suddenly … disappeared. Why did the study of anatomy suddenly flourish in the twelfth century? Why did dissections begin again in the thirteenth century? Where are the Church's attempts to stop all this? Where are the urgent references to Tertullian by panicked Churchmen trying to ban anatomy in this period?

    They don't exist because there WAS no "ban", de facto or otherwise. The Church had no problem with anatomy or with dissection. Both thrived in the later Middle Ages for exactly the same reason all kinds of other prot-scientific study did – because there was an injection of lost knowledge into a society that was hungry for it and the Church didn't see it as any kind of threat.

    Have you thought of actually cracking open a book by an actual historian of science, Google Boy? Give that try before you embarass yourself further.




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  18. "And the "real" experts are the ones who agree with you and Tim, not the ones who disagree."

    There are specialists in the history of science who disagree with what I'm saying here? Really? Who? Name them. Cite their works.

    Or have you bungled yet again?

    "And Tim is the epitome of humility."

    Go to any blog by an evolutionary biologists where a Creationist kiddie thinks he can score points by Googling articles by the Institute for Creation Research. Look at the tone of the responses to that kiddie. Then see if you can work out why you aren't being treated with vast respect. You're a wilfully ignorant fanatic and are being treated as such.




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  19. Name those living experts who disagree with his assessment of science in the Medieval era. You are having to go back to the 19th century to support your views which would give you a hint just how bad they are if you were half the rationalist you think you are.

    He was humble enough to pursue a degree in history and have his writings evaluated by actual historians. More than you will ever do. He then decided he wanted to learn about science in the Medieval era and he decided to put decades in to reading actual experts. More than you will ever do. That is how scholars operate as oppose to dilettantes who have too much time on their hands.

    Seriously quit arguing and read a book on Medieval science if you are so curious. Tim can give you some good recommendations.




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  20. And I can go to a creationist website and listen the the "experts" there who who refuse to put up with anyone who claims to know about science, because they know the truth. They have a whole slew of fellow "experts" who back each other up. They laugh and scoff at people who try to tell them that life doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics. Just like you laugh and scoff at people who make a serious case for mythicism, which has never been the consensus, but it's gaining traction. Consensus can be wrong.

    At any rate, I don't buy your logic of treating those who disagree with disrespect. I argue with creationists, and I try not to treat them like that.

    Look, I know I'm outside my own area of expertise, and no doubt, I have some things wrong. I'm also aware that the church plays a major part in defining the narrative of its own role in history. Ask any Catholic whether the church collaborated with Nazis. The answer you'll get is the church narrative, not the truth. And they've been doing this for two millennia. So forgive me for not believing everything I hear from apologists.

    I think there really was a dark age where science languished. That's based on the evidence I see, not the denials of the apologists. Go ahead and convice me that I'm wrong. At least I'm willing to listen. But your diverting the argument to the emergence of science toward the end of the middle ages is not convincing to me. In fact, it only serves to reinforce the idea. Funny how that works, huh? And it doesn't help when you distort or misrepresent the things I say. Or when you make liberal use of the genetic fallacy and ad hominem. Enough of this.




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  21. "They have a whole slew of fellow "experts" who back each other up. "

    You're seriously trying to argue the people like David Lindberg, Ronald Numbers and Edward Grant are the equivalent to those people? You really don't have a clue. Do you even know who any of the scholars I just mentioned are? And where are the "real experts" who "disagree" with what I'm saying here? You were challenged to produce them but you seem to have failed. Why is that?

    "I don't buy your logic of treating those who disagree with disrespect. "

    I don't treat people who merely "disagree" with disrespect. People who dogmatically insist they are right, frantically Google for and post any scrap they can find that they think supports their a priori biases and try to pretend they aren't hopelessly out of their depth, on the other hand, get less and less respect the longer they keep that crap up for.

    Look, I know I'm outside my own area of expertise

    Gosh – you think?

    "m also aware that the church plays a major part in defining the narrative of its own role in history. "

    Go tell that to a Catholic. Stop trying to pretend anyone who disagrees with your nineteenth century cartoonish conception of history is some kind of "apologist" – that just makes you look even more ridiculous. What I'm saying is accepted by the historians who specialise in this field and has been for about a century.

    "I think there really was a dark age where science languished. "

    Yes. But it wasn't caused by Christianity, let alone by any "Church suppression" and it ended long before anything that could be called "the Renaissance". It was caused by a decline in education in the Roman west followed by the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the centuries of chaos that followed.

    "At least I'm willing to listen."

    You've demonstrated very little willingness to do anything other than cling to your ignorance and bias so far.

    "Go ahead and convice me that I'm wrong."

    Start here –
    Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
    by R.N. Numbers. It's a collection of articles by leading historians of science that debunk many of the myths you seem to have accepted uncritically. If you're "willing to listen", go educate yourself better. And next time you get challenged on a subject you know nothing about by someone who has studied it for 35 years, shut up and listen.




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  22. "Just like you laugh and scoff at people who make a serious case for mythicism, which has never been the consensus, but it's gaining traction."

    Would you care to substantiate that claim im-skeptical. Would you show some evidence of this gaining of traction in academia.




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  23. Thanks for the article Tim it was a great read. Though I do not always find myself in agreement with you on various issues and views on the past I always find you to be informed and well thought out. I am glad to see you are back on quora.

    Do you mind if I pick your brain again? Do you know of any good books that offer just a broad history of science in particular views that were once held in the past. I have noticed people tend to only remember the success of science and they tend to forget no longer held views. Basically I want to know how past scientists viewed and explained the world.

    Im-skeptical. You are clearly uninformed on this subject and you simply should quit arguing about it. You have just enough knowledge on this subject to arrive at the wrong conclusions. You are in a minor way an example of everything wrong with people who for lack of better words are simply "google learned". You only have read that which agrees with your prior conclusions and you never once had to engage in serious academic criticisms when it comes to the subjects you pontificate on online. Unfortunately other "skeptics" will use your website and come away just as ignorant as you are. I am an atheist myself but I heard an Islamic scholar tell a rather arrogant student who acted a lot like you that he suffers from the worst from of ignorance which is the triple ignorance. You are ignorant on a subject, you refuse to listen to the real experts and you think you know more than the real experts. Sadly that ignorance can only be cured with humility and such ignorant people are rarely humble.




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  24. I notice you keep harping on "The first use of systematic dissection in anatomy". You are aware, I presume that the study of anatomy was banned by the church under Tertullian. That ban lasted for over a millennium. Then it finally was revived in the late middle ages, and you pretend this was a new innovation in science, and there never was any suppression by the church.

    You say I'm biased, and you are probably correct about that. But I think you're biased. And you're too arrogant to recognize it.

    I'm not sure there is any benefit in continuing this.




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  25. historians of science that debunk many of the myths you seem to have accepted uncritically.

    But I don't promulgate those myths. Many of your comments about me have been about things that I didn't say. And that's one reason I find your them to be unconvincing.




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  26. "But I don't promulgate those myths."

    You don't? Yes, actually, you do. In the first essay in Numbers' collection David Lindberg debunks the myth that Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science (pp. 8-19). A myth you promulgate. Then Michael H. Shank debunks the myth that the Medieval Church suppressed the growth of science (pp. 19-28). A myth you promulgate. Katherine Park debunks the myth that the Church tried to prohibit human dissection (pp. 43-50). A myth you promulgate. What were you saying about how you don't promulgate the very myths that these leading experts in the field of the history debunk?

    Many of your comments about me have been about things that I didn't say.

    There's more than enough in what you did say to show that you don't have a clue about this subject and yet opine on it from the depths of your near total ignorance and your crippling ideological bias. You are exactly the kind of New Atheist hypocrite I began this blog to expose – an ignorant blowhard who clings to outdated myths and doesn't check his facts because the myths are comforting to him emotionally thanks to an set of unquestioned ideological beliefs, yet has the gall to condemn religious believers to doing the same thing and to even call himself a "skeptic". You are no skeptic – you're just a fundamentalist believer with a different set of myths to cling to.




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  27. " your continued use of ad hominem attacks makes you appear to be the ignorant one"

    Spare us your whining and weak "fallacy slinging". Sometimes ad hominems are justified and this is one of those times. Go and educate yourself.




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  28. So I read those articles. There wasn't much there that I wasn't already aware of. The first one, on The Medieval Church's Suppression of Science really doesn't touch on some of the issues that I raised. It focuses exclusively on the late middle ages, and ignores the rest of the church's history. Yes, I know that there was a growth of education, and the beginnings of scientific inquiry during this period. Yes, I know that people pursued mathematics, astronomy, and optics during this time with support from the church. I never said otherwise. But that's just a diversion from the issue. Yes, the church has been responsible for suppressing the development of science, particularly when it comes into conflict with religious dogma. This article does nothing to dispel that notion. It may refute a myth that someone else promulgates, but it doesn't contradict anything that I said.

    On That the Medieval Church prohibited Human Dissection, again, this was obviously written primarily as a rebuttal to White. It addresses mainly the practice of dissection in the late middle ages, beginning in the 13th century, which was the subject of the supposed myth promulgated by White. But that's not what I was talking about. I was referring to the millennium or so that preceded that. Park does say that there was no prohibition during the early middle ages, but the fact that it was not practiced "may have" been influenced by the disapproval of Augustine and other early Christian authorities. (Like Tertullian, as I said). Aside from quibbling over whether there was an actual ban as opposed to a de facto ban, this essay seems to be pretty consistent with what I had to say, and it doesn't really shed much new light on the issue that I raised.

    I know that there are differing opinions, and you are certainly entitled to yours. Nevertheless, it seems to me that you are on some kind if ideological bent. You don't even understand what I was saying (or you choose to ignore it), and you accuse me of making claims that I didn't make. You said I was promulgating myths that I wasn't promulgating, and then you set out to refute those, but that wasn't my argument in the first place. I think you are merely making a knee-jerk reaction to someone you perceive as a "New Atheist", and you'd rather try to pick a fight with them than to arrive at any kind of mutual understanding.

    As I said in my first comment, I don't think there is as much disagreement on the particular historical facts as you want to believe, but much of this comes down to the way we interpret those facts. This is naturally influenced by our ideologies. And there is no doubt in my mind that you have yours.




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  29. So there was a faint, glimmering hope that we weren't in fact dealing with a close-minded zealot and that our "Skep" was about to see that his assumptions were baseless and embark on a journey of discovery where he learns some real history. The we get … this:

    "So I read those articles. "

    It seems you read two of the three you were supposed to read. For some reason you didn't bother with David C. Lindberg's "That the Rise of Christianity was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science". More incompetence on your part or was that omission deliberate?

    "Yes, I know that there was a growth of education, and the beginnings of scientific inquiry during this period. Yes, I know that people pursued mathematics, astronomy, and optics during this time with support from the church. I never said otherwise. But that's just a diversion from the issue.

    So why was this the case, if the Church was so anti-science?

    Yes, the church has been responsible for suppressing the development of science, particularly when it comes into conflict with religious dogma. This article does nothing to dispel that notion.

    Garbage. It shows that this "notion" has no basis at all. It shows that the theological scope for inquiry into the natural world was so wide that there was nothing about it that ever came "into conflict with religious dogma". It shows that your persistent insistence that there was such conflict or potential for it and that the Church was suppressing those areas of science in this period is a bigoted fantasy of yours. As Shank concludes:

    "Between 1150 and 1500, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities. If the medieval church had intended to suppress inquiry into nature, it must have been completely powerless, for it utterly failed to reach its goal." (p. 27)

    And, of course, we know the medieval church was far from "completely powerless", so the obvious implication is that this supposed goal of suppressing science is a total myth. If you want to cling to it then you need to produce some frigging evidence. All you've done above and for comment after comment here is simply assumed your conclusion and then waved away all the evidence that you're wrong with a dismissive "yes, they didn't suppress that science, but they still suppressed science that came into conflict with religious dogma!" Okay – prove it. Provide some examples of this supposed suppression. Stop flapping your hands around and put up or shut up.

    " It addresses mainly the practice of dissection in the late middle ages, beginning in the 13th century, which was the subject of the supposed myth promulgated by White. But that's not what I was talking about. I was referring to the millennium or so that preceded that. "

    In the first part of "millennium before that" we see no dissection for the same reason we saw none in the preceding millennium since Herophilus – because of the purely pagan social taboo about cutting up dead bodies. Then we see no dissection in the east because they thought Galen was the last word in anatomy and saw no need. And in the west because there was an almost total loss of all works on anatomy until the twelfth century, so no-one was doing any work in the area at all (having one or two other things to occupy themselves, mainly successive waves of invasion by Vikings, Avars, Magyars and Moors and the collapse of civilisation and learning). Then, when Galen and his Arabic continuators appears in the west again, what do we see? The first revival of dissection since the early second century BC. And not the faintest hint of any ban by the Church.
    (Cont. below)




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  30. (Cont. from above)

    "Park does say that there was no prohibition during the early middle ages, but the fact that it was not practiced "may have" been influenced by the disapproval of Augustine and other early Christian authorities."

    Park is being highly cautious. The fact that no-one invoked Augustine once anatomy and then dissection re-emerged undercuts this "maybe".

    "Aside from quibbling over whether there was an actual ban as opposed to a de facto ban, this essay seems to be pretty consistent with what I had to say, and it doesn't really shed much new light on the issue that I raised. "

    So that is the extent of any indication of your imaginary "ban" – a cautious "maybe" – and thus you think you're vindicated, despite no actual evidence of a ban, despite clear reasons for no dissections without this supposed ban and despite the fact that dissections re-emerged without the faintest whisper of this alleged ban being invoked? Pathetic.

    "I know that there are differing opinions, and you are certainly entitled to yours."

    Mine just happen to co-incide with the leading historians of science. You've been challenged several times to produce any such historians who agree with you and you've failed to do so. So spare us this "oh, there are differing opinions and so I'll graciously grant that you can hold yours", as though this is some kind of moot point still being debated by the experts. It isn't. No-one amongst the experts backs your position. What does that tell you?

    "Nevertheless, it seems to me that you are on some kind if ideological bent. "

    Oh gods, the irony!

    " You don't even understand what I was saying (or you choose to ignore it), and you accuse me of making claims that I didn't make. "

    Garbage and garbage.

    "You said I was promulgating myths that I wasn't promulgating"

    More garbage. I isolated three myths that you did promulgate and you've failed to provide support to any of them. I've given you three essays by leading experts refuting your myths, you ignored one, read the other one while still steadfastly assuming your conclusion without any basis for doing so and clung to a "maybe" in the third while having to admit it debunks your position. Pathetic. But what we'd expect of a fundamentalist.

    "As I said in my first comment, I don't think there is as much disagreement on the particular historical facts as you want to believe, but much of this comes down to the way we interpret those facts."

    The problem remains that you insist on clinging to ideas that have no basis in "fact" at all. You dismiss all evidence of what we call science being happily practiced in the Middle Ages without restriction by the Church on the basis that other science somehow was being restricted because it was allegedly "in conflict with religious dogma". Yet you can never actually give any examples of this happening or cite any "dogmas" that medieval science would have ran afoul of. Like a typical fanatic, you assume your conclusion and look at everything through the distorting lens of your dogmatic assumption, despite the fact it's baseless.

    So, yes, you have an "opinion". It's just that it's a bigoted, ignorant, amateurish and baseless one contradicted by all the evidence and every expert in the field. So your "opinion" to be brutally blunt, is so much worthless shit.

    So either back this warping assertion of yours about the Church "suppressing the development of science … when it comes into conflict with religious dogma" with some actual EVIDENCE or admit that this is a dogmatic fantasy that you're clinging to with all the rigid determination of a fanatic. Put up or shut up time for you laddie.




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  31. So I found this other paper that says the practice of dissection was banned for religious reasons until that ban was lifted in the middle ages (obviously the 13th century). He says the ban was "based on an irrational religious taboo which held back scientific understanding of the human body for centuries." So obviously that writer agrees with my own position. I suppose you think he's equally ignorant. Who was that guy, anyway?

    https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Roman-law-forbid-the-dissection-of-human-cadavers




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  32. " He says the ban was "based on an irrational religious taboo which held back scientific understanding of the human body for centuries." So obviously that writer agrees with my own position."

    How stupid. It was an irrational PAGAN taboo. But good to see you're still desperately Googling trying to find any scrap to support your assumed conclusion.




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  33. In the first essay in Numbers' collection David Lindberg debunks the myth that Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science (pp. 8-19). A myth you promulgate.

    Sorry. I forgot to address this one. This is not something that I have ever claimed, and that's all I need to say about it. If you think I have, please quote me.




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  34. This is not something that I have ever claimed, and that's all I need to say about it.

    So how did ancient science come to an end and did your supposed "suppression of science when it came into into conflict with religious dogma" have nothing to do with it?

    And where is your evidence for the Church "suppressing the development of science … when it comes into conflict with religious dogma"? You have been challenged to finally put up or shut up on that and yet we get … nothing. Stop yapping around the edges and meet that challenge or admit you've got nothing.




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  35. How stupid. It was an irrational PAGAN taboo. But good to see you're still desperately Googling trying to find any scrap to support your assumed conclusion.

    A pagan ban that persisted until the 13th century. (And this is an article that that I found long ago.)




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  36. A pagan ban that persisted until the 13th century.

    No, you moron. The pagan ban lasted for as long as paganism did – until around the end of the fourth century. After that we see a stagnation in the study of anatomy in the Eastern Empire, since they said that there was nothing more to discover, and a decline in all learning in the west that turned into a total collapse when the Roman Empire fell. As soon as we see a revival of that learning we see a rise in interest in anatomy and then we see dissection revived for the first time in 2000 years. And no ban on it by the Church at any time.

    But it seems you have nothing to support your claim about he Church "suppressing the development of science … when it comes into conflict with religious dogma" and so are now reduced to brainless trolling. Unless you address that central claim on which your "opinion" depends, I won't be publishing any more of your troll comments.

    For the final time – put up or shut up. This is your last chance.




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  37. "Show your evidence that this ban was lifted when the Christians took over."

    I can't show evidence for the lifting of a "ban" that never existed. Tertullian made some standard expressions of distaste about Herophilus' dissections (or possible vivisections) that reflected the taboos of his time which had a pagan origin. He made no "ban" and no-one ever cites his comments against dissection or interprets them as a "ban". Augustine made some standard comments about how such inquiries were not important or relevant to salvation. He made no "ban" and no-one ever cites his comments against dissection or interprets them as a "ban". This "ban", like many things in this odd conversation, exists wholly in your imagination.

    And the claim you need to support is the one about the Church "suppressing the development of science … when it comes into conflict with religious dogma". When given multiple examples of the Church doing no such thing, you try to claim these are somehow exceptions. And when you are shown that there was no "dogma" medieval science could conflict with you simply fall silent. But if the Medieval Church did "suppress the development of science … when it came into conflict with religious dogma", you should have no problem providing examples. Yet for some reason … you can't.

    It's pretty obvious why. Further attempts at diversion and irrelevant comments will be ignored and not published. Back up your claim about the Medieval Church "suppressing the development of science … when it comes into conflict with religious dogma". This is your final chance.




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  38. Great stuff, Tim.

    Watching you swat this fundie has been great fun. There's no getting through to the Saganian/Tysonian/Gibbonians though. They've melted the myths into their identities; they'll use the most frightful waffle to avoid dealing with it. Cognitive Dissonance ensues. I'd hate to be them.

    I said this on a previous post of yours: my suspicion is that the gateway into atheism for many of these people was the Sagan / Alexandria / Hypatia nonsense. So given that this was their starting point into atheism, to challenge the nonsense is to challenge atheism (their version of atheism, that is).




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  39. Hi,

    would you mind enabling the blog-wide comment feed (as you have on AM)? It's useful there (new comments appear under years old articles) and it'd be nice here as well.




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  40. On AM in the left upper corner you have a "Subscribe To" box and there it is possible to subscribe to "All comments". Here there's no such a box. I don't know which setting enables this though.




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  41. I'm wondering why you refer often to relevant medieval efforts as "proto" science, rather than simply, flatly, science.

    I suppose it is because many of the naturalistic philosophers were also monks? And though their writings encouraged us to say, read the Book of Nature, they often insisted that any naturalistic observation always be subordinated to Christian theology. Such writings insisting, as in Paul's writings, that only a "foolish man" would look at nature, and not see it as primarily not the result entirely of natural forces. But as begun by a supernatural, non material, spiritual God.

    But that note, would be a perspective which thereby, insert the distinctive Christian, non natural theology into the vast majority of, thereby, only proto scientific observations.

    Hence you are correct to call Medieval naturalism "proto scientific," rather than fully scientific.




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  42. "I'm wondering why you refer often to relevant medieval efforts as "proto" science, rather than simply, flatly, science."

    Because strictly speaking it wasn't empirical science in the modern sense. Nor was the "science" of the Greeks and Romans. I sometimes make the point of making this distinction because some people like "Skep" try to dismiss the medieval natural philosophers I note by saying they weren't doing modern science, with repeatable experiments and measurement, so there was no science in the period at all. So to be sure I'm clear I refer to all pre-modern science (including Greek and Roman) as "proto-science", "natural philosophy" or "science in the Greco-Roman tradition" or something similar.

    "I suppose it is because many of the naturalistic philosophers were also monks"

    No. See above.




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  43. I don’t recollect that there were any dissections for purpose of anatomy in the classical world. The Egyptians cut up dead bodies as part of their funerary practices, but not to learn about the human body. Most of the others had a horror of touching dead human bodies. Galen’s anatomies were based on dissecting pigs iirc. The Romans employed a special college of priests for the sole purpose of touching a dead body so the undertakers could handle it without being polluted. (Just to be in the same room with a person when he died was polluting.) The only other society that did dissections at all was the Chinese — and these were done only for forensic purposes under the control of a judge, not a doctor. In fact, the medieval West may have been the first place anywhere where anatomical dissections were performed for instruction.




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    1. My understanding is that it’s agreed Herophilus and Erasistratus went against the usual taboos against the violation of corpses and, under the Ptolemies, undertook human dissections that yeilded genuine insights. But that later anatomists avoided dissection until it was revivied in Europe in the thirteenth century. Of course, Richard Carrier is convinced ancient dissection was commonplace and insists that Galen undertook human dissection, but he does so with his usual mix of wild self-assurance, suppositions and highly dubious evidence.




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  44. You’re right (as far as I can tell, not that I’m a linguist…) about the uniqueness of the term “dark ages” in the English language as opposed to e.g. “Mittelalter” (middle age(s)) in German. But just to point out (if I may) that it’s not uncommon in colloquial German to use the term “finsteres” or even “finsterstes Mittelalter” to make a particularly strong point about dismissing and rejecting an ignorant, unenlightened, “backwards” idea or opinion that should have been overcome by a more modern mind. More generally, German has the (somewhat equally poetic) term of “dunkles Zeitalter” (literally “dark age”) for any period of time that is (or might be in the future) marked by lack or loss of knowledge and the rise of ignorance along with a kind of collapse of order and society to some degree. But that too is not associated with an established concept of “Mittelalter” when talking history. And you’re right, German does not have this degree of equal footing of “dark ages” and “medieval times”, and any conceptual idea of “darkness” is pretty much limited in time to very few centuries in the wake of the collapse of the Western Empire. As soon as we’re talking “Mittelalter”, especially “Hochmittelalter”, things are a hell of a lot brighter in a German way of understanding than what could be “dark ages”.




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