Posts Tagged ‘High Middle Ages’

The Christian Dark Ages I:The High Middle Ages

June 26, 2014

I have seen this graphic here and there on the Internet.


The atheist blog where I stole that particular image provides an explanation of the Christian Dark Ages.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

Ayn Rand described the Dark Ages by having John Galt, the protagonist of her book, “Atlas Shrugged” saying,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Is any of this true? Were the Middle Ages a period of Darkness in which religious fanatics ran amok,  science was a crime punishable by death, and men of intelligence went on strike? Well, no. The idea that there was a thousand-year period of poverty, ignorance and stagnation caused by fanatic Christians who were opposed to any sort of intellectual endeavor is the result of a dramatic oversimplification of Medieval history and anti-Christian bigotry. It is simply not the truth.

There are not many historians nowadays who would fell comfortable labeling any period of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages. This is not simply due to political correctness, but an acknowledgement that the period from around AD 500-1500 in European  history was too complex and diverse to be so simply labeled. There were indeed times and places in that period of history that were very dark, but there were also very bright times and places which attained a very highly developed civilization. Any two word phrase simply cannot do justice to the vast sweep of Medieval European History.

In general, historians divide the Middle Ages into the Early Middle Ages, from around 500-1000, the High Middle Ages, from around 1000-1350, and the Late Middle Ages, from around 1350-1500. I will ignore the Late Middle Ages since that period of time is usually referred to as the Renaissance, except to say that there was a sort of mini-dark age in the wake of the Black Death of 1349 and the general breakdown of Medieval institutions throughout the fourteenth fifteenth century.

Europe in 1190

Europe in 1190

I have already dealt with the Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages and the important role they played in paving the way for the development of modern science. The High Middle Ages were the period in which the university was developed. European scholars gained access to ancient texts in Greek, and Arabic.  The population throughout Europe increased dramatically. More lands were cleared for settlement. Long distance trade expanded and modern banking and capitalism began to develop. Politically, this was the age in which nationalism began to develop and European states began to be more centralized and more efficiently governed. This was also an age in which the city states of Italy and norther Europe could flourish. Culturally, new movements in art and architecture began and literature began to be written in vernacular languages. The High Middle Ages saw an increase in religious devotion, along with the intellectual ferment, which should put to rest the idea that Christian piety and science are forever at odds. The Dominican and Franciscan monastic orders were introduced and there was an increase in religious activity among the laity which foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. Among the new technologies either invented by Europeans or introduced to Europe were paper making, the magnetic compass, eyeglasses, the wind mill, the spinning wheel, the first mechanical clock, gunpowder and Arabic numerals, along with the re-introduction of the abacus.

Even the Crusades were a positive development.  As we will see, the Early Middle Ages was a period in which Europe was continually invaded from without. The Crusades were not just the result of mindless religious fanaticism, in which Christian barbarians slaughtered anyone who worshiped the wrong god. The Crusades were an attempt by the nations of Christendom to go on the offensive against enemies who had been threatening them for centuries. Transporting armies across a continent and defeating the Moslims on their own ground took a considerable amount of wealth and preparation. The fact that the Crusaders were victorious in the First Crusade is an early indication that the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in technology.

The High Middle Ages were not a Dark  Age by any means. Instead, the High Middle Ages must be counted among the most brilliant and dynamic in human history. We would not be where we are today if the High Middle Ages had really been the Christian Dark Ages.

I had intended to take up the subject of the Early Middle Ages which could more justly be called a Dark Age but this post is getting long so I think the Early Middle Ages will have to have a post of its own.





How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

March 17, 2014

This is a question that is supposed to have been hotly debated throughout the Middle Ages. The idea is that instead studying questions that might be of some use to people, the scholastic philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages debated abstruse questions that could not be decided by any evidence and made no difference to anyone living in the real world. This question has become a byword for any intellectual endeavor that is abstract and meaningless.

In fact, the Scholastics specialized in using logic and reason to discuss all sorts of philosophical issues and to reconcile contradictions in philosophy and theology. They were particularly concerned to resolve the differences between ancient Greek philosophy, especially the newly discovered teachings of Aristotle, and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Their method was usually to ask a question concerning some philosophical point. Arguments contrary to official dogma would first be given, then the official or generally accepted position would be stated, with arguments in its favor, and finally the opponents arguments would be rebutted. These arguments often took the form of citations from the Bible or writings of the Church fathers, but a rigorous system of logic was used to explain and expound on the citations and logic was used to reconcile or reject positions. The doctrines of the Catholic Church were not upheld by faith alone or the authority of the Church. Since the Scholastics held that reason and faith both pointed to the same Truth, reason could and should be used to defend the faith. Perhaps the best example of the Scholastic method would be Thomas Aquinas‘s Summa Theologica. In his masterpiece, he examines point after point of Catholic doctrine in the way I explained.

This Scholastic method could be used with other subjects, including the natural sciences. The work that the Scholastics did was not quite what we call science. They were more interested in abstract reasoning about observations than in performing experiments. While the Scholastics made many contributions to mathematics, including introducing Arabic numerals to the West, the extensive use of mathematics to describe and explain  the natural world generally had to wait until the time of Galileo.  Modern science is only possible if you believe that the universe is an orderly, reasonable place that can be studied using reason and observation. By emphasizing rather than rejecting the use of reason, the Scholastics laid the foundation for the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To get back to the subject, although medieval theologians were much concerned about angelology, including the question of whether angels take up physical space and whether an angel traveling from point A to point B travels through the points between, there is no evidence that the questions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin or the point of a needle was ever seriously debated. It is most likely that the question was made up by later critics of Scholastic philosophy to demonstrate the supposed stupidity and triviality of Medieval thinking. It might also have been a joke among the Scholastics or the type of riddle that students might ask to trip up their professors, perhaps something like the question, “what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object”.

So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I had always thought that the number must be infinite since angels   are not composed of mass or energy and do not take up any physical space. I may be wrong, however, since I have not taken quantum effects into account. Recent research in quantum angelology, a field of theological physics, indicates that the number is, in fact, finite. The Pauli exclusion principle prevents any two angels from occupying the same quantum states. Angels may not have any mass, but they do contain information and any individual angel cannot be smaller than the Planck length of 1.616 X 10 -34  meters. According to the  article I linked to, the maximum number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is 8.6766 X 10 49 angels.


8.6766X10 49 angels are dancing on this pin.



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Europe in the High Middle Ages

March 25, 2013

Europe in the High Middle Ages by William Chester Jordan is the third book in the series The Penguin History of Europe. The High Middle Ages is the name given to the period of medieval history from 1000 to 1350. During these years, European civilization reached heights not seen in the West since the fall of the Roman Empire. The political situation in Europe stabilized somewhat, trade increased, cities grew, universities were established and learning flourished. The nations of Europe ceased to be helpless victims of foreign invasion and, through the Crusades even began to project power outside the continent.



Although the nations of Europe began to take their modern shape during the high middle ages, political power was extremely decentralized, especially in France, more than in the period immediately before and afterwards. The Papacy became more prominent on the international stage and powerful Popes could even challenge kings and emperors for influence.  It all ended in the middle fourteenth century with a change in climate that caused a decade of famine. Then the horrors of the Black Death struck Europe in 1349. No institution in Europe survived unscathed, and the optimism and vitality of the High Middle Ages was gone. When Europe began to recover from these disasters, it was no longer the Middle Ages, but the Renaissance, and the West was moving in a new direction.


William Chester Jordan brings this fascinating period of history to life in his book. Like the other books in The Penguin History of Europe, The High Middle Ages focuses less on a detailed chronology of events and more on a general overview of cultural and historic developments, especially including the political development of the emerging nation states of Europe and their relationship with the Papacy. There is also a lot of information on the intellectual trends of the High Middle Ages as well as a good account of how it all seemed to fall apart in the fourteenth century. Unfortunately, the author breaks of the story in 1350, just as the Black Death is ravaging Europe, leading to a kind of cliffhanger effect. He also doesn’t give much space for the influences of Islamic culture on Europe’s development. Still, I can recommend Europe in the High Middle Ages for anyone who wants to learn more about that fascinating period of history.



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