Posts Tagged ‘middle ages’

New Year’s Day

January 1, 2017

I have often felt that our calendar begins the New Year at a very bad time. New Year’s Day is only a week after Christmas so there is something of an anti-climax. The year begins in the dead of winter when days are still short and it is often cloudy, so the year begins at the most depressing time of the year. I think it would be better if the new year began at the end of one season and the beginning of another, preferably at the first day of spring, March 21. Beginning the year in the middle of a month might be awkward, so I would settle for either March 1 or April 1.

We start the new year on January 1, because our calendar, the Gregorian Calendar is ultimately based on the calendar used by the ancient Romans. Under the old Roman calendar, the new year began when the two consuls began their terms. This was on May 1 before 222 BC, March 15 from 222 BC until 153 BC, and then January 1. When Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, he kept January 1 as the first day of the year and we have been stuck with it ever since. Actually, during the Middle Ages, some countries in Europe did begin the year in spring.For example, England began the year on March 25. When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced and adopted throughout Europe, this regional diversity came to an end and everyone acknowledged January 1 as New Year’s Day, unfortunately.

Maybe I could start some sort of campaign to change the date of New Year’s. I could put up petitions on the Internet, lobby Congress, request the change from President Trump as a way to make America great again, maybe even appeal to Pope Francis. It all seems like an awful amount of work, though. Maybe I’ll wait until spring.

I hope everyone has a wonderful 2017.

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The Christian Dark Ages II: The Early Middle Ages

June 28, 2014

In the previous post, I wrote against the all too widely held belief that the Middle Ages, that period of time between around AD 500-1500 was a Dark Age of ignorance, poverty, and religious fanaticism. No historian has held such a view for more than a century or longer, yet the idea of the Dark Ages still has many followers, mostly, it seems by anti-Christian polemicists eager to revive the outdated trope of an eternal war between science and religion. Since the Middle Ages were a very religious period of time, there could have been no scientific advances. Thus, there are quotes like the ones I copied from an atheist.

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).

And Ayn Rand.

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.

Along with this picture

darkages

In my previous post, I hope I showed that the High Middle Ages, from AD 1000-1350, were far from being a dark age. The High Middle Ages were, in fact, among the most dynamic and brilliant in human history. What of the period before the High Middle Ages, the Early Middle Ages from around 500-1000?

The Early Middle Ages could more justly be called the Dark Ages. This was a prolonged period relative economic and cultural stagnation. There were immense dislocations during the fifth century, when the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions and migrations of the Germans tribes and the Huns. Trade and urbanization declined as did education and literacy. It proved to be very difficult to maintain a high level of civilization in the face of incessant war. Still, when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and others settled down in the kingdoms they carved out of the Roman Empire, their kings invariably tried to restore Roman civilization with varying degrees of success. Then, when things began to get better, new waves of invaders, the Avars, Bulgars, Moors would disrupt things once more.

Europe, after the "fall" of the Roman Empire

Europe, after the “fall” of the Roman Empire

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. Their greatest king, Charlemagne, even tried, with partial success, to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He realized how far civilization had declined and set about trying to improve education and culture in his vast realm. This is the period known as the Carolingian Renaissance and it is thanks to efforts of Charlemagne’s scribes that many Latin texts survived from antiquity.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s empire broke up within a century of his death due to quarrels among his grandchildren and more invaders, this time the Viking, the Magyars and the Saracens.

In the East, the Roman Empire remained intact for two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were hard beset by the Arab invasions of the eighth century. For a century, the Roman or Byzantine Empire, as it is often called in its Medieval incarnation, fought for its life against the Arabs fired with enthusiasm for their new faith of Islam and during this century, even Byzantium suffered from a relatively dark age. The Byzantines withstood the attacks, and incidentally saved Western Civilization just as it was beginning and after their borders were secure, around 800, the Byzantine Empire quickly recovered to become the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

The history of the Dark Ages, then,was not the history of ignorant religious fanatics wantonly destroying knowledge and suppressing science. It was not a era of intelligence on strike. Rather, the Early Middle Ages were an era in which men worked valiantly in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties to maintain some level of civilization. Christianity, far from suppressing knowledge and science, played a key role in the preservation of culture. Christianity is a religion of the book and therefore requires, at least in theory, a literate clergy. To meet this need, the Church established cathedral and monastic schools, which kept literacy alive even through the darkest periods. The expansion of Christianity into northern and eastern Europe spread literacy to hitherto illiterate peoples. Western Catholic missionaries taught the Latin alphabet to the Irish, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and eventually the Northmen. Eastern Orthodox missionaries introduced the adapted Greek letters that we call the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs.

In western Europe, knowledge of the ancient Greek scholars was lost and few people could read any Greek.  In that sense the Early Middle Ages might be considered a dark age, yet there was a continuing Latin literary tradition. Contrary to what is still widely believed, there was no general decline in technology during the Early Middle Ages. In most respects there was a steady progress in technological innovation including some important inventions.  Such inventions included the moldboard plow, the horse collar, stirrups and horse shoes, the Carolingian miniscule, the three field crop rotation as well as increased use of legumes to replenish the soil. Better iron smelting techniques were developed and there was wider use of watermills. There was a decline in some areas, especially in architecture, mostly because the various successor states to the Roman Empire lacked the resources to erect large buildings or maintain extensive networks of roads.

To put the matter simply, there was no such thing as the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity did not cause a thousand-year dark age of ignorance and squalor. If it had not been for the advances made during the Middle Ages, it is likely that modern science would never have developed and it was not a coincidence that modern science developed in Christian Europe. Had it not been for the Christian Dark Ages, we would not be exploring the galaxy by now. Perhaps we would only be starting to explore the Earth.

The Christian Dark Ages I:The High Middle Ages

June 26, 2014

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

darkages

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.

 

 

 

Richard Dawkins is Right

August 15, 2013
English: Richard Dawkins giving a lecture base...

Right for once (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I never thought I would write that sentence. Well, I imagine that he is right about many things in his field of expertise, evolutionary biology. It is when he abandons his field to become a spokesman for atheism that I think he is often very wrong. Still, I have to give him credit for courage for his infamous tweet about Muslim scientific accomplishments, and of course, I think he is right. It is easy enough to bash Christians. Bashing Muslims could get you killed. Here is the story as told by the Guardian.

The outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins was involved in an online Twitter row on Thursday after tweeting: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

As users piled in to criticise him, the scientist continued: “Why mention Muslim Nobels rather than any other group? Because we so often hear boasts about (a) their total numbers and (b) their science.”

His other posts included: “You can attack someone for his opinion. But for simply stating an intriguing fact? Who would guess that a single Cambridge College” and “Muslims aren’t a race. What they have in common is a religion. Rather than Trinity, would you prefer the comparison with Jews? Google it.”

With the debate escalating, Dawkins, who has more than 777,000 followers, said: “Many are asking how many Nobels have been won by atheists. Needs research. I’d love to know. I suspect the proportion is v high, and growing.”

Owen Jones, the left-leaning commentator and author of Chavs, told Dawkins: “How dare you dress your bigotry up as atheism. You are now beyond an embarrassment.” Legal blogger Jack of Kent added: “Following @RichardDawkins tweet, Trinity Cambridge has presumably also produced more Soviet-supporting traitors to the UK than Islam.”

The row also drew in historian Tom Holland and Channel 4’s economics editor Faisal Islam who commented: “I thought scientists were meant to upbraid journalists for use of spurious data points to ‘prove’ existing prejudgements”.

@jptoc chipped in: “A similar (and infuriating for Dawkins) ‘fact’ is that Islam has more recipients of Nobel Prizes than Dawkins. It’s bad scientific method.”

But some users appeared more forgiving. @Chriss_m, said: “Dawkins spent the best part of 10 years attacking Christianity and not raising an eyebrow. He now turns that same eye on Islam and uproar.”

Trinity College, Cambridge, has 32 Nobel laureates, as against 10 Muslims listed in Wikipedia. When the Guardian contacted Dawkins by email to ask whether he was surprised by the uproar, he replied: “Prompted by exasperation at hearing boasts of (a) how numerous Muslims are in the world and (b) how great is their science.

“This prompted the thought that if they are all THAT numerous, shouldn’t they have more to show for it in terms of achievement? The comparison with Trinity Cambridge I judged less offensive to Muslims than the even more dramatic comparison with Jews (who have garnered an ASTOUNDINGLY large number of Nobel Prizes).”

He continued: “Am I surprised? Only at the number of people who seem to think Islam is a race, rather than a religion. I regard that view as racist. Anything you can convert to, or convert from, is NOT a race.

Dawkins has previously been involved in acrimonious Twitter exchanges over Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan, prompting Owen Jones to comment “If atheism means being bigoted about Muslims or wanting to drive people of faith from public life, then I am not an atheist.”

Dawkins is obviously thinking more clearly than his detractors. Of course Muslims do not constitute a race. These people are panicking and throwing whatever they can at Dawkins and hoping it sticks.

Actually, I am not sure whether I would give the Muslims, as such, much credit for any scientific accomplishments during the middle ages. When the armies of Islam burst forth from the Arabian peninsula, their first waves of conquest included most of what we now call the Middle East. This region includes Egypt and Mesopotamia, the sites of two of the oldest civilizations in the world and both prosperous and advanced regions. It should be no surprise that the momentum continued for several centuries. Also, many of the scholars and scientists of the Arab Empire were Christians, Jews, or heterodox Muslims, including the sect of the Mutazilites. As the people ruled by the Arabs converted more and more to Islam and the societies became more Islamized, scientific progress slowed and then stopped. These days, the Middle East is one of the poorest and most backward regions in the world. This is a testimony of the influence of 1300 years of Islamic rule.

The thing that bothers me about people like Dawkins, though, is that they are determined to erase the influence of Christianity in the West. You can’t fight something with nothing and thoroughly secularized societies, like Western Europe seem to be increasingly unable to defend themselves against their enemies. They don’t even seem to want to reproduce. If Dawkins is concerned about the growing influence of Islam in Britain and the West, perhaps he ought to encourage belief in Christianity, or something. As it is, I fear he is unwittingly helping the enemies of civilization.

 

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.

images

 

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.

 

 

The Genesis of Science

June 27, 2011

The popular idea of the Middle Ages in Europe is that it was a thousand year period of ignorance and barbarism between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a time of nearly complete intellectual stagnation. Everyone is supposed to have been illiterate with the exception of a few clergymen and the Catholic Church kept a tight rein on all learning,  burning any scholar who dared to have an independent thought or challenge the authority of Scripture.

Historians have recognized for some time that this stereotype is entirely false. The Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages” were, in fact, a time of extraordinary fertility and progress. Many of the concepts and institutions that came to distinguish Western Civilization were developed in this era, especially the beginnings of the intellectual enterprise we call science.

In his book “The Genesis of Science”, James Hannam traces the development of science, or natural philosophy as it was then known, through the Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the trial of Galileo. He begins in the very depths the Dark Age, the chaotic 5th to 7th centuries, where even then the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in practical technology with such useful tools as the moldboard plow and the horse collar, which revolutionized agriculture.

The discovery of ancient Latin and Greek manuscripts from the Arabs and Byzantines led to the rise of the Scholastic theologians of the 11th to 13 centuries. The Scholastics, under the influence of Aristotle, established reason as the method for learning about God and His creation. There was some controversy in the Catholic Church about pagan learning but the Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas showed that faith and reason could be reconciled and the Church accepted the ancient learning to the extent that it did not contradict Christian doctrine. With the acceptance of reason as an adjunct to faith, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were prepared to see the natural world around them as the rational creation of a rational God, forming the foundation for later scientific thinking.

The Scholastics did not slavishly follow Aristotle, however. They were capable of observing that he was wrong in some instances and were willing to move beyond him. In fact, some of their ideas about motion and forces were surprisingly modern. Some, especially Roger Bacon stressed the importance of careful observation of the natural world.

With the increased knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance of the 13th to 15 centuries, much of this learning was disregarded and forgotten. The Renaissance Humanists venerated the ancients and so were inclined to denigrate the achievements of their immediate predecessors. The authority of Aristotle and others was more respected than the thoughts of more recent philosophers. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, as the Protestants were not eager to give the Catholic Church any credit.

Still, progress continued and in the last section of his book, Hannam explores the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  He closes with an account of Galileo. Although Galileo was a brilliant scientist who practically invented physics, he owed far more to his medieval predecessors than he was ever willing to admit. As for his troubles with the Inquisition, they had less to do with any Catholic opposition to science and were more due to politics and the folly of implying that the Pope was a simpleton.

The Genesis of Science is worth five stars. The perhaps over long summary that I have given above is only the merest foretaste to this brilliant work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Byzantine Empire

April 22, 2011

I have just finished reading “The Byzantine Empire” by Charles Oman. I gave it five stars in my review at Amazon.com.

This relatively short book is an excellent introduction to the history of the Byzantine Empire. The author, Charles Oman, seems to have been among the first western historians to get away from Gibbon’s dismissals of the Byzantines a corrupt and cowardly and to present them in their true light, the defenders of the West from Islam for 800 years. There is a lot Oman skips over, that is unavoidable, but there is more than enough here to whet the appetite for more.

Obviously I liked it a lot.


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