"Christianity caused the Dark Ages: Discuss"
The question of what caused what is one of the most compelling and yet hardest to answer in the study of history. Did the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand cause the First World War to break out? Did the wreck of the White Ship cause a 12th century civil war in England – or even the English Reformation? What caused the Roman Republic to fail? The mere laying out of the facts does not always reveal the ineluctable thread of fate that made things be as they are.
Yet in the case of the Dark Ages, this vapour of uncertainty condenses into a drop of clarity. It is quite clear that the Dark Ages were brought into being by Christianity. On the other hand, what this means in terms of how history had evolved up to that point is trivial. Its relevance for subsequent history is, however, less clear.
The Dark Ages is a conveniently flexible time period that dates, everyone agrees, from some time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What this actually means is, however, uncertain. Did the Empire effectively fall in the third century, as Goldsworthy (in In the name of Rome) would have it? Or the sack of Rome in 410? Can we take the famous date in 476 as its start, when the last Emperor was deposed? Or the fall of the Kingdom of Soissons in 486? Or 610,when Heraclius de-latinised the East? Was it even the period of time after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in 888 (rounded to 900), as Baronius wrote in 1602? And if its start date is doubtful, what of its even more extensible end? The coronation of Charlegmane in 800? The long series of Church reforms beginning in 1046 with Clement II? The awakening of the Renaissance at the end of the fourteenth century? The fall of Constantinople, the invention of the printing press, the death of England’s Richard III or the nailing of Luther’s Theses? Such confusion – it is possible, after all, to choose a start date after an end date from the above morass – simply signposts the difficulties surrounding the periodization of history. Which is why professional historians tend not to, of course.
The above confusion suggests conceptual confusion too, and indeed this is just what we find. Petrarch seems to have been one of the first to talk of an age of “darkness”, in which he regarded himself as still living. Here he longs for the coming radiant age when the present (1343) darkness will have been dispersed:
…Michi degere uitam
Impositum uaria rerum turbante procella.
At tibi fortassis, si - quod mens sperat et optat -
Es post me uictura diu, meliora supersunt
Secula: non omnes ueniet Letheus in annos
Iste sopor! Poterunt discussis forte tenebris
Ad purum priscumque iubar remeare nepotes.
(Africa IX, 451-7).
And yet Baronius, who wrote of the “Dark Age” itself (“saeculum obscurum”) as late as 1602, placed it in the 10th century.
Such as it is, the “Dark Ages” emerged with these two Christian ecclesiastics, and it is in this sense alone that Christianity caused them to come into being. With such different datings, it is clear they are talking about different things. For Petrarch, a romantic (one can for once use the word in a literal sense) longing for the cultural achievements of the classical era made him think of the long epoch of impoverished latin as indeed an age of darkness. And for Baronius, he is bemoaning not the quality, but the quantity, of writing. In this latter sense, there are really two Dark Ages; the period of time from around the middle of the fifth century to around 800, and during the tenth century (or a single one punctuated by the Carolingian achievements). Yet these distinct (and yet, note, both literary) conceptions were to be conflated and heaved over into the religious realm – a move that both Baronius and Petrarch would have strenuously resisted. Indeed, it seems that Baronius wrote specifically to refute them – the Lutheran Magdeburg Centuries had painted the centuries from the 5th onwards as an inexorably accumulating heap of ecclesiastical corruptions.
Of course, there are many ironies here. The 19th century Romantic movement, disillusioned with its own age of progress, as Petrarch was with his, was to look back to his time as one free from care and the oppression of industrialization. And Baronius termed the “Dark Age” in a work responding to and refuting the calumnies heaped on the ages by his Protestant counterparts.
Let us be clear. The fall of the Roman empire was a long and drawn out death agony, revolving around economics and the rise of the German influence in the army; the attacks of the Persian Sassanids in the east, and a thousand other factors (or at least 210, in any case). After its second century peak, the Western Empire slipped jerkily into ruin, during which time Christianity had limited influence. Despite Gibbon’s concerns of the weakening of the martial spirit by the lily-livered Christians, no such case can be made sensibly today, and as we all know, the Eastern Empire lasted for another millennium. This is not to say, of course, that without Christianity things would have turned out “the same”. Of course the religion of the empire was a factor in the events, just like the make-up of the army, the spread of the Justinian plague, or any other of the features of the age. But when one asks the counter-factual question “if the empire had not been Christian, would it have survived?” one immediately sees that the answer to this question is extremely unlikely to be “yes” The Christianity of the empire was one factor among many other much more important features, of which, to be Marxist for a moment, the economic ones were probably at least as important as any others.
What, then, of subsequent events? Weren’t the “Dark Ages” a black nightmare for nightmare that took centuries to emerge from? Of clerical power and domination, cruel social and religious oppression, backwardness in thought and science and technology? Of ignorance and superstition, torture and witch hunts and burnings? And yet, influenced still by nineteenth century romanticism, don’t we paradoxically picture this medieval period as the ideal society, to which all fantasy novels tend, in some sense?
It is fair, I think, to see the early medieval period in the west as a post-collapse society; where survival became paramount over poetry. But as soon as the show was on the road again, ie when the Carolingians took over from the fratricidal Merovingians, a great burst of enthusiasm took hold. “If only there were many who would follow the illustrious desire of your intent," Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne, "perchance a new, nay, a more excellent Athens might be founded in Frankland ; for our Athens, being en-nobled with the mastership of Christ the Lord, would surpass all the wisdom of the studies of the Academy.” Under Charlemagne, the Europeans looked to the ancients for inspiration, but hoped to surpass them. Such hopes of a young culture recalls America or even modern day China, with its bustling forward-looking determination. These particular hopes were not to last, but they laid the ground for the high middle ages of 1100-1300, one of the most remarkable periods in European history. The fact that 9th century grammar was not up to Ciceronian standards is perhaps forgivable under the circumstances.
What is striking in these patterns of waxing and waning in European culture is how the fortunes of the papacy swing up and down exactly in rhythm. Papal temporal power began to grow significantly in the 8th century with the founding of the papal states, and the cooperation between the Carolingians and the papacy to oust the Lombards from Italy, and this relationship was famously cemented when Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800. But this relationship was not to last, as Charlegmagne’s empire crumbled after his death; and not even the most robust defender of the Papacy can claim the 10th century as the height of its moral or temporal influence. But the papacy had (more or less) recovered its poise by the time of the election of Gregory VII in 1073 (albeit under rather dubious circumstances). As a vigorous Europe swung into a period of unprecedented expansion on all fronts, so too were the central authority and administrative effectiveness of the church expanding, culminating in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the pontificate of Innocent III. And as Europe slipped out of the High middle ages into the crises of the 14th and 15th centuries – the familiar series of plagues, famines and wars – so too the papacy declined again, into the Babylonian captivity and the Great Schism.
From a structural point of view, then, the fortunes of the church, at least as measured at Rome, moved in step with the rest of Europe, and not in opposition to it. One should not make too much of this pattern – it says much about the relatively limited power of the Papacy even at its height that it was still prey to the same broad trends that affected the rest of European society, and it is hard to make the case that this co-evolution implies some dependency of society as a whole on the fortunes of Rome.
If one may judge that the fortunes of Rome are of less importance in the provinces than other religious features, one might consider the spread of monasticism in this era. Starting from the late tenth-century Cluniac reforms, which led to the foundation of the Cistercians in the late 11th century; and throughout the high middle ages, western monasticism flourished and differentiated in a remarkable fashion, spreading land reform and technology as it did so. Nor was the medieval church a bystander to the endemic feudal violence of the time: the peace and truce of God movements espoused by the Cluniacs and others were at least a partial attempt at non-violent resolution of conflicts.
What then, of ”progress” during this progress? In his 2006 Faraday Lecture, Ronald Numbers writes ” Largely I was bemoaning the fact that after years, decades, of research by historians in the history of science and religion, the same old myths that we have corrected time and time again continue to have a life of their own and to be widely known among the public. One of the biggest obstacles, I think, to improving the public understanding of science and religion in the present is to clear up the myths that still linger from the past.”
It is indeed extraordinary that the idea of the medieval church suppressing science is so entrenched that that it apparently does not need any evidence to support it; and naturally enough, the non-medieval Galileo is the only example seriously proposed.
This is not to say, of course, that science would not have eventually emerged without the presence of Christianity in the western world – one can apply counterfactuals here too. And perhaps it might be argued that certain features of the western mindset in the middle ages – their strong adherence to respect for past authors (which was not, however, as slavish as is popularly made out) , for example – were not entirely conducive to the development of an aggressive empirical method. But against this can be set the reasonable idea that the idea of ”free thought” is a convenient mirage that ignores the strong influence of both ideology and fads in practice in modern scientific practice.
Nor is it reasonable to draw a circle around a perhaps rather small group of natural philosophers – Abelard of Bath, Albert Magnus, Grosseteste etc etc, and claim that their ”enlightened” views necessarily typified that of the church as a whole, in the same way that one cannot take Caccini’s attack on Galileo from the pulpit in 1614 as representative either.
In the grand scheme of things, medieval natural philosophy undoubtedly played a smaller part in society than modern science does today – as the present climate change debate witnesses. But to condemn the middle ages for this lack is about as sensible to condemn them for their lack of knowledge of nuclear energy or oscilloscopes. No societies before the industrial revolution managed the knack of combining rapid economic growth and stability with rising populations and rising living standards, a set of circumstances that gave rise to the technological breakthroughs of today, which in their scope utterly dwarf the achievements of medieval societies (one thinks of the impact of electricity, or penicillin, for example). Yet even during this period of relatively glacial progress, medieval society in its way had some remarkable technical achievements, which perhaps can be summed up best by reference to the gothic cathedral; solar observatories as well as aesthetic and architectural triumphs.
The medieval world was not just an innovative one, it was a profoundly practical one – taking up other technologies as diverse as wheelbarrows and watermills that were known to the ancients, and lustily exploiting them to their full. Just as the requirements of modern day warfare have spawned many new technologies, so the requirements of due religious observance (from the right dates to the right buildings) gave rise to similar satellite achievements. What has also become increasingly obvious is that the roots of the scientific revolution – another dubious periodization of history – can clearly be traced well back into the preceding centuries. Galileo may have been the greatest scientist of his age; but his achievements in mechanics and the mathematical treatment of nature were clearly anticipated by medeivals such as Oresme and the Oxford Calculators; achievements that were known and taught all the way through to the 17th century. And so the argument that it was uniquely Christianity that suppressed the growth of science, even though modern science uniquely emerged within a christian society is again to present a profound and powerful counterfactual case: and one that is very hard to answer. If Christianity stopped science, why did modern science develop in Christendom?
Let me conclude. The whole idea of a dark age – with its implied anthesis of an age of light – is ambiguous, as it can refer to a lack of knowledge of, as well as within, a society. No-one can doubt that the period of time from about 500 to at least 800 was a period of turmoil and loss in Europe. But as christian society slowly re-established itself, drawing on the resources that had almost always been preserved by the monasteries, it made strenuous efforts not only to recover the past – the essentially backward-looking stance of all romantic movements – but also to surpass it. Perhaps Dorothy L. Sayers was not after all exaggerating when she wrote of ”That new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown rose of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth". If any age can claim to lay claim to being the Age of Reason, the core of the middle ages, when church and society in the west were at their strongest, is surely it.