Oh, FFS!

Jason Rosenhouse is a mathematician and science blogger who has been very actively engaged in the American dispute between scientists and creationists for a number of years. Unlike many of his fellow warriors for science Jason has displayed a remarkable openness and tolerance for the thoughts and beliefs of the creationists. He attended creationist’s lectures and meetings over a number of years listening to what they have to say, engaging in non-provocative discussions with other attendees and generally trying to understand the creationist mind-set. He turned his experiences into a critically acclaimed book, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line. Unfortunately Jason does not display the same level of tolerance and understanding for the work of historians and in particular historians of science when it comes to the historical relationship between religion and science. In his most recent blog post he talks about the aftermath of the much-trumpeted public debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. In the middle of his post Jason delivers up the following gem of a paragraph full of historical ignorance and prejudice:

I do think I have some basis for thinking that teaching Ham’s view, that science is the servant of religion and must submit its conclusions to the religious authorities for approval, has a deleterious effect on society. After all, that was the dominant view in Christiandom [sic] for quite some time, and there’s a reason that period in our history is known as the Dark Ages. The issue wasn’t simply rare cases like Galileo, where the Church actually came down on someone. It was the chilling effect of the Church’s constant policing of acceptable and unacceptable thought. That was precisely the attitude that needed to be weakened before the scientific revolution could occur.

Far from reflecting the latest considerations of the historical experts on the subject this paragraph could have been written by an enthusiastic fan of the nineteenth century Draper-White conflict between religion and science hypothesis writing in the nineteen fifties.

For a start historians have long since dropped the term Dark Ages preferring to refer to the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the rebirth of urban culture in Europe as the Early Middle Ages.  As with all historical periodization’s it is difficult to give an exact beginning or end to this period but it can be considered to start somewhere between four and five hundred CE and to be over by one thousand CE. Of course Jason use of the derogatory term Dark Ages is deliberate as he wishes to place the blame for their existence in Western history on the rise of Christianity. This thesis, the rise of Christianity equals the collapse of western science, is unfortunately highly popular amongst those of the Gnu Model Army who prefer to follow their own prejudices rather than to study history. Science in Antiquity already began to collapse in the middle of the second century CE with a general decline in intellectual activity within an increasingly turbulent and unstable Roman Empire i.e. before Christianity as a religion even existed. Rome didn’t fall in a day, to coin a phrase, but declined over a period of a couple of hundred years and science declined with it. Science wasn’t dead but it was already smelling funny when Christianity first began to be a social and political force in the fourth century. The situation was exacerbated as the fall of Rome was followed by what my German neighbours call the Völkerwanderung and is known in English as the Migration Period.  During the period between four and eight hundred CE successive waves of migrants flowed into Europe from the east displacing the inhabitants and generally causing chaos. Remember all those Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, Franks, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, and Alans that you learnt and then forgot about in those boring school history lessons? It should be pointed out none of them even remotely Christian. Science flourishes in stable urban cultures, which quite simple did not exist in the Early Middle Ages in Europe. In fact science and learning in general almost completely disappeared, almost but not completely. Where were the remnants of learning conserved during these extremely turbulent times in Europe? Within the Christian monasteries that’s where!

When did this decline in learning begin to be reversed and why? The reversal started in the eighth century as Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne for the English) conquered and united a very large part of Europe and had himself crowed Emperor. Karl was an semi-illiterate barbarian but he introduced the first European Renaissance, the Carolingian Renaissance. Why? Because he was a Christian and his Christian advisors, foremost Alcuin of York, taught him the importance of learning, education and what could best be described as proto-science. Christianity did not kill off science in the Early Middle Ages but it was responsible for reviving it. (This paragraph was modified 28.02.2014 in response to justified criticism from my wise readers. See comments!)

By about one thousand CE urban civilisation began to be re-established in Europe and with it the demand for knowledge grew. Over the next two hundred years Christian scholars created the European universities and travelled to the boundaries of Europe with the Islamic Empire where with the help of Arabic and Jewish scholars they translated the scientific works of the Greeks and the Arabs into Latin creating the so-called first scientific Renaissance. All of the European translators where Christian clerics of one sort or another. Far from blocking science or scientific discourse they reintroduced science into European culture. During the High Middle Ages, roughly twelve hundred to fifteen hundred CE, groups of scholars such as the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists absorbed, developed and expanded the scientific knowledge that the translators had made available to them. All of these scholars were Christian clerics of one sort or another.

The turn of the century between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the next Renaissance with a new influx of Greek and Roman knowledge from the original sources rather than through the multiple translations of the Arabic sources creating another push in the development of the sciences within Europe. Once again all of the scholars had received the education necessary for their work from church run Christian universities.

Jason’s next statement causes me to invoke, for the first time since I coined it, Christie’s Law: In any Internet history of science discussion on the relationship between religion and science the first person to invoke the Galileo Affair has lost. I’m not going to explain here all of the very complex motive that led a highly paranoid Pope to degrade his own favourite natural philosopher but I will repeat, not for the first time, that of all the causes for the Galileo affair a dispute between science and religion was the very least of them. A man with the ego the size of St Peter’s Basilica who had used his scientific discoveries to worm his way up the greasy pole of Northern Italian absolutist court politics in order to become a court favourite. Suffered the fate of many such a court favourite when he thought that his position gave him the freedom to take the piss out of and insult his liege lord. Actually by the standards of the time he got off very lightly, ask Essex!

Jason’s next statement, “It was the chilling effect of the Church’s constant policing of acceptable and unacceptable thought” is put quite simply historical bollocks and attributes to the Church far more control than they ever had. Removal of this non-existent control is certainly not the reason for the scientific revolution or even a condition for its taking place. The reasons for the acceleration in the acquisition of new scientific knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are multitudinous and highly complex and any changes in the attitude of the Churches, don’t forget the Reformation, played at best a minimal role in the process. I suggest that Jason goes away and does some serious research on the subject before he again decides to pontificate about the causes and conditions of the so-called scientific revolution. I could give him a reading list on the subject if he’s interested.

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45 Comments

Filed under Myths of Science

45 responses to “Oh, FFS!

  1. According to his biographer, Charlemagne had trouble with reading and writing; but it’s news to me that he had to be converted to Christianity. Hadn’t the Frankish kings been Christian since Clotilde nagged Clovis into getting baptized in 496?

  2. If only you had mentioned that towering genius Nicholas of Cusa and the Brotherhood of the Common Life…

  3. For a start historians have long since dropped the term Dark Ages…

    Yes, historians do tend to be a bit (hyper)sensitive about that. The great Chris Wickham “euphemistically calls [it] ‘a radical material simplification’ ” (Freedman, Open Yale Course on the Early Middle Ages). Freedman goes on to say:

    Between 450 and 550, a catastrophe happened. A civilization was wiped out. And really, if not literally a Dark Ages, a more primitive, more war-like, more illiterate, and more rural period was ushered in.

    Personally I like the upfront attitude of Donald Kagan, one of the foremost experts on Ancient Greek History. He unapologetically refers to the period following the Mycenaean period as the (Greek) Dark Ages.

    I guess it does depend on your viewpoint. Again from Freedman’s lectures:

    Somebody may decide in a few hundred years that the Dark Ages began in about 1950. … Now I don’t actually believe that. There are some people who do. There’s a philosopher at Notre Dame named Alasdair MacIntyre who really believes that the Dark Ages began a long time ago, and … [w]e simply refuse to recognize this.

  4. [Galileo]…who had used his scientific discoveries to worm his way up the greasy pole of Northern Italian absolutist court politics in order to become a court favourite.

    That’s one way to phrase it. I might have said “ambitious and upwardly mobile”, but to each his own.

  5. theofloinn

    An age is dark if it is too dim to see very well, and that means “not much surviving documentation.” As fast as the early medievals could write things down, the saracens, vikings, and magyars would burn things up. Burgundy, in the center of the West, was ravaged by all three at one time or another. So the question is: a thousand years from now who will be able to read our discs, what platforms will be running Windows, what media will be undegraded? Our age may leave as little documentation behind as the Volkerwanderung of the West.

    • @theofloinn: Yes, that’s one of the meanings of “Dark”, and one that applies imperfectly to the period 450-550 CE; Kagan emphasized that this meaning is quite apposite for post-Mycaean Greece, and so the term is (he claims) more justified for that period than the post-Roman Empire period. (It applies with even more force for the “Dark Ages” of cosmology.)

      Of course, we also have the value-laden sense, “Boy, it really sucked to live then!”

      So the question is: a thousand years from now who will be able to read our discs, what platforms will be running Windows, what media will be undegraded? Our age may leave as little documentation behind as the Volkerwanderung of the West.

      I’ve heard this conceit before, and it has a nice paradoxical frisson. Personally, though, I think it’s nonsense, unless the future undergoes a “radical material simplification” for whatever reason. Modern archivists save not only the media but the equipment (with OS’s, etc.). They also continually convert to keep formats current. No doubt some documentation will be lost, but the really important stuff (like Justin Bieber’s tweets :-) will be preserved.

      • theofloinn

        I’m not as sanguine. The migration may be kept up for a time, until budget cuts come along. It took a while to darken the West before. I’m sure the civilizing Franks archived what they thought was important, too. It just was not what we today think ought to have been important; though every now and then some intriguing bit of documentation is uncovered suggesting a bit less darkness than previously supposed. I once said that an age is dark only in the light of other days — or in delight of other days. The middle ages were called dark by their Renaissance epigones because the latter could not imagine that a civilization could be other than an attempt to imitate Periclean Athens forever. They delighted in the Corinthian column and saw the Gothic arch as ugly.

  6. If it’s any consolation, Rosenhouse’s use of more recent history is as myth-ladenly misguided. In his brief appearance on the HBO “Questioning Darwin” documentary, he managed to squeeze in conflict-tinged histori-faux-graphy about both the Scopes trial and Sputnik in the space of a minute.

  7. Jeb

    “An age is dark if it is too dim to see very well, and that means “not much surviving documentation.”

    I am guessing that is why Prof. Freedman included “if not literally a Dark Ages” (although it is a guess, he is not as clear as he should be given the confusion over the use of this term).

    The term was dropped when I studied the period as an undergrad. The early medieval historians who objected to the term (at least in my specific subject area) did so as they understood the term to mean historically dark and wanted to emphasize that is not the case.

  8. Tim ONeill

    As you know, this is a favourite topic/rant if mine as well, but a couple of comments:

    (i) “Remember all those Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, Franks, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, and Alans that you learnt and then forgot about in those boring school history lessons? It should be pointed out none of them even remotely Christian”

    Well, the Goths, Lombards and Sueves certainly *were* Christian, of the Arian variety. But they had other things on their mind rather than reviving Greek proto-science.

    (ii) I think it would be news to most people that Charlemagne was a “heathen”. You may be confusing him with Clovis, who converted from paganism back in the fifth century. By Charlemagne’s time the Franks hadn’t been heathens for over 300 years.

    Otherwise, good article. I will be invoking Christie’s Law in my future encounters with the Gnus.

    • This reply is also addressed to the esteemed Mr Harrison.
      One of the advantages of having blog readers who are more intelligent, better read, better informed and better educated than I is that they swoop down like a horde of hungry vultures when, carried away by enthusiasm in my stream of consciousness scribblings, I fuck up and write something stupid. Thus giving me the chance to correct my errors and appear to those who come to read at a later date more erudite than in reality I am. You are of course both right on Karl’s religious affiliations and I shall amend my text to reflect the correct historical facts.

      Tim: You are of course correct in stating that various of the peoples who wandered into Europe did in time convert to various forms of Christianity but I think I am right in thinking that they were not yet Christians when they initially entered European space. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      To all involved in the Dark Ages terminology debate:

      The term Dark Ages when originally coined in the Renaissance was a value judgement and was intended to be highly derogatory and it is for this reason that historians no longer use it.

      • “but I think I am right in thinking that they were not yet Christians when they initially entered European space.”

        Depends what you mean by “European space”. Wulfilas (or “Little Wolf” in Gothic) was a Goth or half Goth who seems to have converted to (Arian) Christianity while in captivity in the Empire and who then returned to his homeland as a missionary in the 340s AD. Oppression by the pagan Goths, probably by the chieftain of the Tervingian Goths Athanaric, led him to lead his converted Goths into Roman protection in Moesia in 348, but he stayed in contact with his Gothic flock north of the Danube. He created an alphabet for his native language and translated the Bible into Gothic (though legend has it he left out the books of Kings on the grounds his people were warlike enough already). He died in 383 though long before Christianity had spread through his tribe and other East Germanic peoples. This was before the irruption of the Huns into the eastern Ukraine in c. 370 and the subsequent fleeing of the mostly Christian Tervingian Goths over the Danube in 376.

        Wulfila’s Arian Christianity spread through many of the Germanic peoples beyond the frontier and the Tervingians (later called “Visigoths”). the Greuthungians (later the Ostrogoths), the Skirians, the Turclingians, the Gepids, the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Lombards and many others of the eastern Germanic tribes were substantially Christian long before they entered the Empire.

        As a result, the wild armies of the pagan Attila was actually made up substantially of Arian Christian Goths, Gepids and Skirians. With the establishment of Ostrogothic, Visigothic, and Burgundian kingdoms in the west, we see Arian Christianity become the dominant faith in western Europe for two centuries, with manuscripts of the Bible in Gothic raised to a high art and Gothic used as the language of liturgy in churches throughout Spain, Italy and western Gaul. It’s a quirk of history that we didn’t end up with Gothic as the main literary language in the west over Latin.

        So, not Christian? No, very Christian. Just not Catholic or Latin.

      • The term Dark Ages when originally coined in the Renaissance was a value judgement and was intended to be highly derogatory and it is for this reason that historians no longer use it.

        Yes, exactly. Which is why they end up employing euphemisms like “radical material simplification” instead.

      • Yes, exactly. Which is why they end up employing euphemisms like “radical material simplification” instead.

        Not this historian mate. I wouldn’t use a phrase like that to wipe my arse on.

      • Not this historian mate. I wouldn’t use a phrase like that to wipe my arse on.

        That’s one of the things I love about your blog.

      • Jeb

        “wipe my arse on.”

        The term used in environmental archeology for that one (moss was used for such activities in the early medieval period) is a ‘small scale domestic purpose’ (its my favorite ‘lets make it look scientific’ phrase) .

        The language you dislike reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the subject I would suggest. Linguistics, anthropology archeology. So debate on linguistics for example may focus on elite emulation model etc.

        I was wondering who ‘they’ were exactly. I get the impression ‘they’ are clearly an object of contempt whoever they may be.
        Gay Mafia? The political correct? The French? The semi detached? I have no idea having not read the thesis on this one.

      • Jeb

        “The term Dark Ages when originally coined in the Renaissance was a value judgement and was intended to be highly derogatory and it is for this reason that historians no longer use it. ”

        That’s half the reason. Wiki is good here see modern academic usage section. The emphasis by professionals in the subject who taught me was on this aspect. You’re answer does not compute with personal experience of learning the subject.

        Renaissance historians and early medieval historian may inflect differently.

        “Second, the explosion of new knowledge and insight into the history and culture of the Early Middle Ages, which 20th-century scholarship has achieved, means that these centuries are no longer dark even in the sense of “unknown to us”. To avoid the value judgment implied by the expression, many historians avoid it altogether.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages_%28historiography%29

      • Jeb wrote:

        I was wondering who ‘they’ were exactly.

        In this case (“radical material simplification”), they = Chris Wickham, Chichele Professor at All Souls, Oxford, in The Inheritance of Rome. But the disdain for the term “Dark Ages” is, as I understand it, pretty universal across modern medieval historians. (Prof. Freedman belongs to this consensus, as the other quote shows.) The one exception I’ve run across is Donald Kagan, but about a different period: the post-Mycenaean period, or so-called Greek Dark Ages.

        I get the impression ‘they’ are clearly an object of contempt whoever they may be.

        Not at all. But a certain degree of bemusement. The issue closely tracks the debate over anti-whiggism, which has been hashed out pretty thoroughly elsewhere — in several articles by Nick Jardine, and on the Double Refraction blog (see, for example, http://doublerfraction.blogspot.com/2012/11/different-kinds-of-whig-history-are.html).

      • Jeb

        Sorry for my tone Micheal. I am thinking of abandoning research or tailoring it radically as I find H.O.S a problematic subject culturally. Seems to be turning me into angry troll.

        “But the disdain for the term “Dark Ages” is, as I understand it, pretty universal across modern medieval historians.”

        I don’t know as my subject area involved a tiny amount of people, very few jobs. Experts I knew certainly found calls for language change excessive.

        Pointless debates over all sorts of words, Tribal was another one. Everyone had grown up with the term dark age sort of use to it and never viewed it as problematic. But sort of grown use to the modern term and look at how its being used popularly it seems less than helpful.

        The term has also been subject to considerable confusion by historians. The head of my former department and seriously good early modern historian thought the term was dropped because it was racist. Blow his top if it was used in class for this reason.

        I think the way the debate went and the attitude of historians may be slightly different than you think. More messy less clear cut.

        “But a certain degree of bemusement.”

        I don’t want to make any further incoherent comments but looking at the subject in the period with some context to place it in I don’t find the debate surprising. Subject had a range of reasons for attempting to re-invent itself. As much a social and cultural issue I would speculate.

      • Just a quick note on the “dark ages” business: there has long been a tension in thinking about the fall of Rome because most of the historians who wrote about it were educated to idealize classical civilization yet belonged to nations that derive from the barbarians. So who do you root for? The decision always has political implications, and the reasons why you take one side or the other depend on contemporary preoccupations. The Humanists of the Renaissance called ‘em the dark ages as part of their campaign against bad Latin while the philosophes and 19th Century anticlerical republicans in France used the same language to fight the church of their own times. These days, the people who object to talking about the dark ages are often multiculturalists who are fighting a proxy war for the dignity of the subalterns everywhere by insisting that the barbarian kingdoms weren’t just the flotsam and jetsam of a great shipwreck but were civilizations worth studying on their own terms. There are also folks like Ward-Perkins on the other side of the aisle who, whether they propose to bring back the term “dark ages” or not, have their own reasons for insisting that, whatever else happened at the end of the Western Empire, the shit definitely hit the fan, i.e., there was a long period of radical material simplification. (Standard disclaimer: recognizing that history is always refracted through contemporary concerns doesn’t imply that it is impossible to understand the past. It just reflects the unremarkable but consequential fact that where ever you are, you’re someplace and one lens of the telescope has to be right next to your eye.)

      • These days, the people who object to talking about the dark ages are often multiculturalists who are fighting a proxy war for the dignity of the subalterns everywhere by insisting that the barbarian kingdoms weren’t just the flotsam and jetsam of a great shipwreck but were civilizations worth studying on their own terms.

        Jim
        if we take a Tonybee-esque cyclical approach to world history and view things on a wider time scale it would be perfectly plausible to regard the historical occurrences in Europe around the fifth century as the replacement of a tired, degenerate, declining culture (the Roman Empire) by a young healthy strident developing one, Germanic culture. (I know, shades of Edward Gibbon)

        I used the German term Völkerwanderung in my original post with some deliberation as the Germans, amongst whom I have now lived for more than half my life, teach this period as a positive one in their cultural history. It is when they emerged in Europe. This Germanic culture grew and prospered and eventually by the time of Karl effectively established modern Europe. In Europe one of the most prestigious political prizes, not far below the level of the Nobels, is the Karlspreis for services to European unity, which has been awarded annually in Aachen, Karl’s capitol, since 1950. Viewed objectively the Germanic culture that replaced the Roman one in the fifth century (and that includes nearly all of Northern Europe and not just Germany) went on to conquer the world creating the scientific revolution along the way, and is the one in which we still live.

        This fact alone should justify historians taking an unbiased look at the changes that took place during and following the fall of the Roman Empire.

      • Thony,
        It’s kind of a thing of mine to think about the ways that historical debates cast light on the present. This can be a complicated endeavor because so many issues get struggled with in historical thinking and also because the disagreements aren’t just between people. They’re also inside individuals. You bring up the German take on the Völkerwanderung—I was going to mention how German humanists upheld the dignity of their nation in the Renaissance by citing Tacitus’ Germania. For that matter, if you go back to Christmas day 800, you find the Germanic leader who had reassembled a grand empire chose to define it as Roman.

        You know hugely more about Germany than I do, but as I understand the history of the nation, the tension between Romanitas and Germanitas has been a recurrent theme, not just culturally but politically—my outsider’s impression is that the Holy Roman Empire mattered a very great deal. It wasn’t a joke. I remember being surprised how seriously Goethe spoke about it in the early parts of his autobiography.

        By the way, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m very much in favor of recent efforts to understand the period after the Fall of Rome and the related work on the Late Empire. Peter Brown is currently my favorite historian. I do give critics of this revisionism this much, though. Western Europe definitely got much poorer in the years in question. There really was a crash in the 5th and 6th Centuries.

      • Western Europe definitely got much poorer in the years in question. There really was a crash in the 5th and 6th Centuries.

        I wouldn’t argue with that but the fortunes of countries, continents etc go up and down like yo-yos over the centuries.

  9. Jeb

    Micheal used him in his argument. I have no idea who he is. At a guess I would suspect he specializes in a later period of medieval history but is writing a general course for first year students.

    http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/1190/hist-210

    • Prof. Freedman’s areas of specialization can be garnered from his faculty webpage: http://history.yale.edu/people/paul-freedman. They certainly include the Early Middle Ages.

      The issue he discusses in the quoted lecture is not mainly about documentation (or lack thereof), but of living standards and economics. My quote lacked a little too much context — Freedman contrasts the “catastrophist” and “continuist” viewpoints on the transition from the Late Roman to the Early Middle Age period. The quote is a paraphrase of the catastrophist viewpoint. Here’s a bit more:

      does this transformation mark a gradual shift to another civilization, or is it the cataclysmic end of the prevailing form of civilization, ushering in a prolonged period of what used to be called The Dark Ages? The Dark Ages … [t]his is a term we don’t like to use. It implies a value judgment that is not only not necessarily accurate, but also expresses a certain kind of point of view of what are good periods in history and what are bad periods in history. …

      …My own position, but I don’t hold to it dogmatically, is that of a moderate catastrophist. …

      What’s not in dispute is the decline of economic activity, political integration, literacy, etc. etc., primarily for the reasons Thony outlines in his post.

      Now about those value judgements: yes, avoiding them is part of the code of modern historians. (Selectively. No one’s going to rake you over the coals if you write a book on Nazi’s or American slavery and express your disapproval explicitly.) I’m aware of the dangers of whiggism/presentistism, but it just seems to get a little silly at times.

  10. Jeb

    “it just seems to get a little silly at times.”

    Put a group of educated people in a room arguments always will be at times.

    I find the prof’s language too dramatic, the term is messy and open to particular flights of fancy in modern audiences. History is a difficult business. I like Mark Bloch on this one.

    “This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian”

    Get that part right I think you can sit back and watch Rome burn without issue.

  11. Jeb

    “Now about those value judgements: yes, avoiding them is part of the code of modern historians. ”

    Confronting and understanding them is what early medieval history teaches I think. Down to the nature of source material. You may be looking at a document with a 6th century core that is re-worked in the 8th century then 9th, 10th, major overhaul 12th, 16th century with the scribal copy you are using finally written in the 17th century.

    You need to understand each context fully, how the material was re-worked in each period and then slowly strip and work back. You learn to deal with multiple context and the seriously retrospective nature of the material.

    What Jason is doing in the 21st century is simply one more layer, one more additional story. Its perfectly natural and understandable I think why groups (its a collective processes) do this.

  12. Jeb

    “These days, the people who object to talking about the dark ages are often multiculturalism who are fighting a proxy war for the dignity of the subalterns everywhere by insisting that the barbarian kingdoms weren’t just the flotsam and jetsam of a great shipwreck but were civilizations worth studying on their own terms.”

    “How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe”

    Multiculturalism Hmmmmm, I always had the great civilization flag wavers in a slightly different camp

    • Jeb

      P.S That section aside the rest worked rather well.

      Found some of the response here really odd. Regardless of who did the pushing it was universally dropped by all the academics I am familiar with working in the period and consensus is a rare commodity as they come in a range of strips, colors, and flavors.

      The thought is more important than the terminology. I don’t really care if a historian writes like a Dalek, sounds like he has swallowed a social science dictionary or has a romantic taste for the term dark age.

      Its not the important part. What I expect to read is decent and thought provoking history. Arguments over terms have never struck me as doing that.

      That aside New Atheist history does seem to have gone down the road of imaginatively using a term Dark Age and mistaking it for thought.

      I suspect they are not alone here its just rather naked in comparison to more professional historical mud fighters.

  13. guthrie

    I think you simplify the place of science in Christianity in the 12/13/14th centuries somewhat. There was something of a backlash against this new Aristotelian learning, which encouraged you to think about and discuss things that weren’t in the bible or didn’t agree with official church policy. Roughly speaking, a truce was agreed whereby the natural philosophers would treat things as thought experiments, not real things, and then nobody would complain about their suggesting things which contradicted mainstream teaching. Nevertheless things changed and altered.

    Next, writing that:
    “All of the European translators where Christian clerics of one sort or another. Far from blocking science or scientific discourse they reintroduced science into European culture. During the High Middle Ages, roughly twelve hundred to fifteen hundred CE, groups of scholars such as the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists absorbed, developed and expanded the scientific knowledge that the translators had made available to them. All of these scholars were Christian clerics of one sort or another.”

    doesn’t mean that Christianity was directly responsible for their work; the only religion allowed was Christianity, the vast majority of educated people were clerics trained in various schools and you simply couldn’t do anything proto-scientific without being Christian and agreeing with the dominant paradigm. Nowadays, with secular schools, we turn out many more educated, capable people to drive things forwards, but few people say it is the secular approach which encourages them to do science. Many scientists have been Christian, and not let it affect their judgment, but the modern creationist movement (some of whom I debated with online etc a few years ago when their odious lies were being promulgated in the UK) puts their religion first and science last.

    The point being that Christianity managed not to succumb to anti-science fundamentalism at a critical juncture, for various reasons, but Christianity itself didn’t make proto-science, rather it didn’t manage to stand in the way when investigations began again. On this sort of thing I am basically going by Edward Grant’s book “The foundations of modern Science in the middle ages”, although I am always a bit afraid that I have misremembered and poorly summarised or put my own spin on things.

    • guthrie

      One of Grant’s points, which Rosenhouse does need to learn, was that medieval Christianity, althought prescribing certain beliefs, didn’t reach into every last bit of society and the world, thus many discussions could be had on a variety of topics without actually running foul of the religious authorities. By contrast, I have read that you can interpret a lot of Islamic stuff so as to create an entire world of thought that intrudes into everything, leaving you nowhere to examine without butting up against religious ideas and injunctions, thus preventing investigation.

    • Whilst it is clear that the promotion of science (an anachronistic use of the word but it saves long descriptions) was not part of the doctrine of the Medieval Church I think they were considerably more pro-active respective the dissemination of science than your comment would allow.

      The Church believed in and supported education establishing schools and universities, which provided the means of learning not only for future clerics. The universities included the science appropriated from the Arabic sources into their curriculum and disseminated it to a wider public. Yes there were occasional conflicts between content of curriculum and Church doctrine but as you correctly point out in the case of the most famous, the Paris Condemnation of 1277, this actually led to an improved form of scientific methodology, hypothetical thought. The universities brought many scientific topics into the curriculum that had nothing to do with theology or any other clerical concern, such as optics. The works of Grosseteste, Bacon, Peckham and Witelo on optics were taught extensively throughout Europe during the whole of the Middle Ages and contributed substantially to the development of scientific methodology in the period. Regiomontanus’
      first course of lectures in Vienna as a freshly cured Magister in 1457 was on optics.
      The Church was also teaching the use of the Hindu-Arabic place value number system, for use in calendar computation, long before this number system emerged in the secular context.

      The work of the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists was an important step on the way to the development of modern dynamics.

      These are just three examples there are more but they should serve to show that the universities, a Church institution, played an active role in the evolution and dissemination of science in the medieval period.

      I’m not sure where you have your information on Islam and science but it is a historical fact that Islam was very pro-active in its support of the development of the science it had appropriated from the Greeks and others from the eight to at least the seventeenth century.

      • I’m probably just remembering arguments had with creationists and the like who seemed to think that without Christianity, no science and that therefore they had a say on what was and wasn’t science; indeed that science is great, therefore Christianity is great.
        I presume you would agree that proto-science would arise wherever you had a good enough economy etc to support their activities? I.e. irregardless of the actual religion of the culture.

      • I presume you would agree that proto-science would arise wherever you had a good enough economy etc to support their activities? I.e. irregardless of the actual religion of the culture.

        Not only would it, it did several times in history, Babylon, Greece, Egypt, China, Islamic Empire…

      • So, Thony, I take that you no longer agree with this thing that you wrote:

        http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2008/09/06/rodney-starks-idiotic-history/

        ” The Church, which was essentially a political organisation realised, like all dictatorships, the importance of controlling the organs of education and took upon itself the right to legitimise and to licence the ?universitas? of scholars and professors that had arisen spontaneously, at the same time imposing restrictions on what could be taught. The European universities where not created by the Church but rather hijacked and gagged by it. Following various disputes in the early stages concerning which parts of the ‘heathen’ sciences could or could not be safely taught the Church settled on a diet of modified Aristotle; this meant that other scientific stream from ancient Greece or from Islam were off limits. Just to give one example, Stoic cosmology dominant in the late Romano-Hellenistic period and which would play a highly significant role in the evolution of the new astronomy in the 15th and 16th centuries was not discussed in the Thomist scholastic university. The mediaeval university discussed and furthered science but did so in a highly restrictive manner.”

        I would like some clarification. I love your site, by the way.

  14. @guthrie:

    Andrew Cunningham and Edward Grant had quite a kerfuffle, in the early 1990s, over the role of religion in natural philosophy in the Late Middle Ages. See for example Cunningham’s “How the Principia got its name; or, taking natural philosophy seriously”, Grant’s response “God, Science, and Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages”, and the subsequent ping-ponging between them.

  15. if we take a Tonybee-esque [sic] cyclical approach to world history…

    What’s next, Spengler?

    If we’re going to revive Toynbee, why not Merton’s Thesis? –hardly moribund (especially after Kuhn’s fine-tuning), and which actually supports Rosenhouse’s position to an extent.

  16. Pingback: Beneath The Skin: Of Memory and the Hearts Blood | Byssus

  17. Jeb

    I wondered if their were any papers that explored scio economic factors in regard to development of science long term?

    Its what makes me think the term dark ages is less than useful. The local economic factors in Early Medieval Europe are not uniform. The circumstances in Frankish Gaul are not those of Anglo Saxon England. It makes for significant difference. The notion that you can split historians into progressives emphasizing continuity with late Empire or catastrophists emphasizing fire and sword :seriously depends on the local context you are looking and the local socio economic structure.

    I think that’s what leads to differences of inflection here as you generalize out from a local base of knowledge into a wider historical debate filled with folk, generalizing from working in very different local contexts, in which they have developed different interests and areas of expertise.

    But with the development of science I would have thought the scio economic factors would be as vital, but its not something I have studied: just run with the general rule its a factor unwise to ignore with most significant changes or indeed continuity with the past.

  18. Hello there. Excellent post. I had one question regarding a small detail. I believe I read in Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Europe (some time ago) that one of the major tribes (Visigoths? Vandals?) were in fact Aryan Christians. Was there such a tribe?

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