[Warning: non-historian arguing about history, which is always dangerous and sometimes awful. I will say in my defense that I’m drawing off the work of plenty of good historians like Bryan Ward-Perkins and Angus Maddison whom I interpret as agreeing with me. And that the people I am disagreeing with are not historians themselves, but other non-historians trying to interpret historians’ work in a popular way that I interpret as wrong. And that as far as I know no historian believes non-historians should never be allowed to talk about history if they try to be careful and cite their sources. Read at your own risk anyway.]
Cracked offers Five Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About The Dark Ages; number one is “The Dark Ages Were A Real Thing”:
The Dark Ages were never a thing. The entire concept is complete and utter horseshit cobbled together by a deluded writer. The term “Dark Ages” was first used in the 14th century by Petrarch, an Italian poet with a penchant for Roman nostalgia. Petrarch used it to describe, well, every single thing that had happened since the fall of Rome. He didn’t rain dark judgment over hundreds of years of human achievement because of historical evidence of any kind, by the way; his entire argument was based on the general feeling that life sucked absolute weasel scrotum ever since Rome went belly-up.
Likewise There Were No European Dark Ages, The Myth Of The Dark Ages, The Myth Of The “Dark Ages”, Medieval Europe: The Myth Of The Dark Ages, Busting The “Dark Ages” Myth, and of course smug Tumblr posts.
This isn’t coming out of nowhere. Many people’s idea of medieval times is exaggerated. Not every scientist was burned at the stake, not everyone thought the world was flat and surrounded by space dragons, and the High Middle Ages were notable for impressive levels of material progress which in some cases outpaced the Classical World and which set the stage for the upcoming Renaissance (the continuity thesis). Granted.
But I worry that as usual, this corrective to an overblown narrative of darkness has itself been overblown. People are now talking about how you’re a gullible rube if you still believe in a so-called “Dark Age”, and how all the real intellectuals know that this was a time of flourishing civilization every bit as good as the Romans or the Renaissance.
Bulls**t. The period from about 500 to about 1000 in Christian Western Europe was marked by profound economic and intellectual decline and stagnation relative to the periods that came before and after it. This is incompatible with the “no such thing as the Dark Ages” claim except by a bunch of tortured logic, isolated demands for rigor, and historical ignorance.
To go through the arguments one by one:
1. The “Dark Ages” were only dark in Europe. And not even all of Europe – not in the Eastern Roman Empire, not in al-Andalus…
I wonder if these people interrupt anyone who talks about the Warring States period with “actually, there were only warring states in China. Many other areas during this period had no warring states at all! Guess you fell victim to the Myth Of The Warring States Period.”
What about the Bronze Age? There wasn’t any bronze in Australia. The Hellenistic period? Huge swathes of the Earth’s land area remained un-Hellenized. The Time of Troubles? Actually, outside of Russia there were no more troubles than usual. The Era of Good Feelings? Maybe there were a bunch of bad feelings not in the US.
Every other historical age name is instantly understood by everyone to refer to both a time and a place. The only time anyone ever gives anybody else grief over this is when they talk about the Dark Ages. This is an isolated demand for rigor. And if this is really your true objection, let’s just agree to call it the Western European Dark Ages, as long as we can also agree it existed and was bad.
2. What about all the great stuff in the Dark Ages? Thomas Aquinas! Gothic cathedrals! Dante! Troubadours! The Song of Roland! Roger Bacon! Musical notation! Surely no period that produced all that can be called ‘dark’!
All of those are from after the period 500 – 1000 AD.
Suppose someone tells you that the middle of America contains the Great Plains, a very flat region. But you know that actually there are lots of tall mountains, like the Rockies. Have you debunked the so-called Great Plains narrative and proven that its believers are credulous morons? Or have you just missed that there’s a natural and well-delineated area suitable to be called “Great Plains” that doesn’t include your supposed counterexamples?
The period after 1000 AD did indeed have lots of great accomplishments. That’s because Europe at that time had 500 years to recover from the civilizational collapse that demolished its economic and intellectual capacity – a collapse whose immediate aftermath we call “the Dark Ages”. I agree there are some concepts of the Dark Ages that mistakenly include some of the time after the recovery, and that Petrarch’s original version commits this error. But I think that there’s also a five hundred year period – more than long enough to count as a real historical age – that absolutely fits the bill.
3. The term “Dark Ages” was invented by Petrarch – who wasn’t even a real historian – based only on his personal opinion.
The term “World War I” was invented by Ernst Haeckel, who was not a historian, based on his personal opinion that it seemed to be a war, and involve the whole world, and be the first one to do so.
The term “Cold War” was invented by George Orwell, who was not a historian, based only on his personal opinion that it seemed conflict-y but without much actual fighting.
Very few of the historical terms we use were invented by professional historians, and they are all necessarily based on that person’s opinion that it correctly describes the thing being described. I await people admitting that there was no Cold War, because who is George Orwell to think he can just name an era based on what he feels it was like?
This is another isolated demand for rigor. Historical periods get their names from random individuals reflecting on them; the names catch on if people agree that they fit.
4. The term “Dark Ages” was originally just supposed to mean that there aren’t many sources describing it, not that the era was bad
Nope, wrong. Some people have used it this way, but this is neither how the term’s original inventors intended it, nor how a majority of modern people (historian or otherwise) think of it.
As mentioned above, the idea of a Dark Age was first developed by the late medieval/early Renaissance thinker Petrarch. As per Wikipedia:
The idea of a Dark Age originated with the Tuscan scholar Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of the past, he said: “Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom”. Christian writers, including Petrarch himself, had long used traditional metaphors of ‘light versus darkness’ to describe ‘good versus evil’. Petrarch was the first to give the metaphor secular meaning by reversing its application. He now saw Classical Antiquity, so long considered a ‘dark’ age for its lack of Christianity, in the ‘light’ of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch’s own time, allegedly lacking such cultural achievements, was seen as the age of darkness. […]
Petrarch wrote that history had two periods: the classic period of Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness in which he saw himself living. In around 1343, in the conclusion of his epic Africa, he wrote: “My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”
Petrarch can’t just be referring to an absence of good historical sources – he’s talking about his own era!
Part of the evidence for the “absence of sources” claim is that the first use of the exact term “Dark Age” may come from by the 16th-century writer Caesar Baronius, who had a more specific time in mind, 888 – 1046. He wrote:
The new age (saeculum) which was beginning, for its harshness and barrenness of good could well be called iron, for its baseness and abounding evil leaden, and moreover for its lack of writers dark.
But Baronius was writing well after Petrarch, his “Dark Age” was very different from the one we know today (only used to refer to a 150-year period in the Church), and in the same sentence that he mentioned dark = few writers, he also calls it “harsh”, “barren of good”, “base”, and full of “abounding evil”. This is not exactly a resounding victory for people claiming that the Dark Age had nothing wrong with it except slightly fewer records.
5a. It’s historical malpractice to call something “The Dark Ages”. The job of historians is to record, not to judge.
So I assume you also raise a fuss whenever someone talks about Alexander the Great? The Golden Age of Athens? The Five Good Emperors? The Enlightenment? Ivan the Terrible? The Belle Époque? I S O L A T E D . D E M A N D . F O R . R I G O R.
I agree there’s some level on which all of these are a sort of boundary-crossing in the ethics of historiography. And I agree that maybe very responsible historians want to avoid this and come up with more neutral names for very official work – I’ve seen some people talk about “Alexander III of Macedon”. Well, okay. The “Periclean Age Of Athens”. Fine. The “Time There Were Five Whole Emperors In A Row, None Of Whom Were Sadistic, Perverted, Or Insane, Which As Responsible Historians We Cannot Officially Call “Good”, But Which By The Standards Of Ancient Rome Is Seriously Super Impressive”. Whatever.
But if you only challenge the term “Dark Ages”, I feel like you’re doing the opposite of this suspension-of-judgment. If you say “The Dark Ages weren’t really dark!” you’re putting yourself in a position to judge historical eras, saying that maybe some of them were dark and others weren’t, but this particular one wasn’t. In this case you’re not responsibly abdicating historical judgment. You’re making a historical judgment, and getting it wrong.
5b. The Dark Ages were only “dark” if you like big centralized states with powerful economies. There were lots of ways they might have been good. For example, ancient Rome had slavery, and most Dark Age societies didn’t. That seems pretty light-side to me!
And Alexander the Great was only “great” if you like killing a lot of people and conquering their lands.
Look, a lot of history sucked, and moral judgments are hard. Jared Diamond thinks hunter-gatherers were freer and happier than anyone since. Maybe the real Golden Age of Athens was in 40,000 BC, when Neanderthals on the rocky plain that would one day become Athens hunted mammoths in carefree abandon, loving life and being at one with nature and the changing seasons. Maybe the title “Alexander the Great” should really go to Alexander IV of Macedon, who was killed at age 14 and so never conquered, murdered, or oppressed anyone – truly an outstanding achievement matched by approximately zero other kings of the era.
In order to avoid this kind of speculation, I think of history as being along at least two axes: goodness and impressiveness. Alexander may or may not have been a good person, but he was certainly an impressive one. Periclean Athens might not have been the most virtuous city, but it was certainly one with lasting accomplishments. Since it is so hard to judge the goodness or badness of historical figures, most of our claims of greatness are claims about impressiveness. And compared to the periods before or after, Dark Ages Europe was unimpressive.
I’m probably an overly literal person, but whenever I think about dark ages, I think of the modern (and anachronistic for the period in question) association between light, population density, and economic activity:
The Dark Ages in Europe were a time when things would have been more towards the North Korean end of that picture. In fact, you probably could have taken a similar picture at the time, with an east/west instead of north/south axis. From The Muslims of Andalusia:
[In medieval times], Europe was darkened at sunset, Al-Andalus shone with public lamps; Europe was dirty, Al-Andalus built a thousand baths; Europe lay in mud, Al-Andalus’ streets were paved.
I get that this is just a pun I’m taking too seriously. If you don’t like the term Dark Ages, I am happy to use the term “Unimpressive Ages”, “Disappointing Ages”, or “Pathetic Ages”. My point is that there is some axis, not the same as morality but involving economic and intellectual activity, in which the period 500 – 1000 AD was uniquely sucky.
6. Okay, forget disputes about the meanings of words or how to do history. On the object level, using normal meanings of the word “bad”, the Dark Ages were not that bad.
It’s hard to prove this is wrong, because there weren’t great statistics back then to compare Classical, Dark Age, and High Medieval societies on. As far as I know only two groups have dared try to estimate Western European GDP for these eras. Again from Wikipedia:
Both groups find that GDP declined from 1 AD (classical era) to 1000 AD (late Dark Age / medieval era). 1 was not the height of Rome, and 1000 was well into recovery from the Dark Ages, so we expect the difference between the Roman peak and the Dark Age nadir to be even more profound than this. But even these attenuated numbers tell the story of an entire millennium when human economic progress across an entire continent went backwards.
Although these numbers are inherently sketchy, the few real pieces of evidence we have seem to back them up. Arctic ice cores preserve a record of how much lead pollution was in the air, probably linked to human lead-mining activities. This allows us a pretty good look at how much lead-mining various European civilizations were doing:
And granted, the Romans were a little more obsessed with lead than could possibly have been healthy. But these data are supported by reconstructions of silver mining, copper mining, and iron mining. All of these are easily quantifiable activities that reinforce Maddison, Lo Cascio, and Malanima’s picture of economic decline between the fall of Rome and 1000.
We see a similar decline in population. The Atlas of World Population History thinks that continental Europe had a population of 36 million people at its peak in 200 AD, falling to 26 million at a nadir in 600 AD, and gradually recovering back to 36 million or so around 1000 AD. Various other estimates for the population of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe broadly support this picture (though remember that the Roman Empire didn’t occupy the same space as medieval Europe and so comparisons have to be more complicated than just comparing two sets of numbers). If this is true, the Classical to Dark Age transition caused a population decrease of about 10 million, or 30% of the population (though some of this happened in Late Antiquity). These are the sorts of numbers usually only associated with the worst plagues and genocides.
Classical Rome had a population of between 500,000 and a million. Even classical Athens had a population of over 100,000. By mid Dark Ages, there was no city in Christian Western Europe larger than about 50,000 people. The infrastructure for maintaining large urban populations had fallen apart.
And true, a lot of this is sparse and reconstructed. My usual go-to for economic history questions, Tumblr user xhxhxhx, was able to get me a bunch of excellent graphs comparing classical Rome to the High Middle Ages, classical Rome to the Golden Age of Islam, High Middle Ages to the Golden Age of Islam, etc. When I complained that none of them compared anything to the Dark Ages which was the whole point of my question, he answered that the data were worse quality, because “civilization collapsed, so fewer people were tracking wages and prices”.
So yes, I agree that there’s only a limited amount of data proving that the Dark Ages sucked. That’s because civilization collapsed, so people weren’t keeping great records. I don’t think this is a strong argument against the Dark Ages being bad.
7. But aside from the economy, there was still lots of great culture and intellectual advancements
If I ask Google for a list of the hundred greatest philosophers of all time, it brings up http://www.listal.com/list/100-greatest-philosophers. It doesn’t seem especially professional or official, but it’s a decent-looking list and because it’s the top Google result I can prove I wasn’t biased by selecting it.
Here’s a graph of number of European philosophers on the list per 500 year period:
The giant pit from 500 to 1000 where there was not a single European philosopher worthy of inclusion on the list corresponds to the traditional concept of a Dark Age without very impressive intellectual output.
Harold Bloom has a list of great books in ‘the Western Canon’. Once again separating them into 500 year intervals and graphing:
Again, we see a giant pit from 500 to 1000 AD (though this time it is not completely empty – Beowulf is the sole qualifying work).
Here’s a map (admittedly a later reproduction, since the originals are lost) by the greatest classical geographer Ptolemy:
And here’s an 8th-century map by Beatus of Liebana:
I’m not cheating here by taking the worst-quality Dark Age map (that would be one of these). If you can find a better Christian Western European map from 500 – 1000, tell me and I’ll replace this one with it. But as far as I can tell, this really was state-of-the-art.
The decreased quality of intellectual output seems to have been matched by a decline in quantity. I can’t find any great sources quantifying the number of books written in the classical world, but there are a few semi-reliable numbers about library size. The Ulpian Library of Emperor Trajan seemed to have tens of thousands of scrolls, and it was only one of as many as 28 libraries in Rome. Estimates of the number of volumes in the Library of Alexandria range from 40,000 to 400,000. Archaeologists studying the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a private residence in a medium sized town, have found a private library of almost 2,000 scrolls.
Medieval libraries seem to be much smaller. From Oxford Bibliographies:
It follows from this that the wealth and fame of any institution that required books would inevitably affect the size of its library, and, given the fact that books were always expensive, medieval libraries were, from a modern point of view, not large. The largest Anglo-Saxon libraries may have contained about two hundred books. In 1331 the collection at Christ Church, Canterbury, numbered 1,850, which may well have been the biggest collection in England and Wales. In 1289 the library of the university of Paris contained 1,017 volumes which, by 1338, had increased to 1,722—an increase of about 70 percent.
This might not be entirely fair – Roman scrolls were smaller than medieval books, so a work that took up one medieval book might have occupied several Roman scrolls, inflating the size of Roman libraries. But there still seems to be a pretty big gap between the tens to hundreds of thousands of volumes in classical libraries and the few hundred to few thousand in libraries all the way up until the High Middle Ages.
[EDIT: This might not be true – see here]
In a lot of cases, the people of the Dark Ages (and the High Middle Ages afterwards) themselves acknowledged this. The Roman author Vitruvius was the gold standard for architecture up to the Renaissance, and Brunelleschi became famous for creating a dome that surpassed the Roman domes made 1300 years earlier. Roman doctors like Galen and Celsus were semi-worshipped by medieval doctors; when the 16th century (!) doctor Theophrastus von Hohenheim became known as “Paracelsus” (meaning “equal to or better than Celsus”), it was taken as an outrageous boast of ability despite his having the benefit of 1500 extra years of medical science.
8. The Dark Ages weren’t all bad. There were still a few important accomplishments. Therefore, they cannot truly be called “dark”.
The night includes several bright things, such as the moon, the stars, and streetlights. But it’s still fair to call the night “dark”. You don’t have to prove that 100% of something fits a description at 100% of times to use the description.
One of the links from the top of the post says:
If the “dark ages” were so unproductive and backwards, how does one explain the proliferation of inventions and developments during this time period. A simple listing of inventions, discoveries and developments demonstrates the the Middle Ages were anything but dark.
…then goes on to give various inventions, the only ones of which from 500 AD – 1000 AD are “collar and harness for horses and oxen”, “iron horseshoes”, and “the swivel axle”.
Look. I am sure that horseshoes were a revolutionary advance in equine footwear. But the ancient Greeks gave us geometry, history, cartography, the screw, the water wheel, gears, cranes, lighthouses, and fricking analog computers. If you want to stake your claim to be more than a miserable failure as a historical age, you are going to have to do better than horseshoes.
(also, maybe the Romans invented iron horseshoes first anyway?)
9. I still think the term “Dark Ages” could possibly lead to misconceptions.
I like this debate because it’s so pointless, but also reveals some of the basic structure of these kinds of arguments. Like most language questions, we act like we’re debating facts, when in fact we’re debating fuzzy category boundaries that are underdetermined by facts. See previous work on is Pluto a planet?, is obesity a disease?, are transgender people their chosen gender?, etc.
There’s no strict criteria for what makes something a Dark Age or whether the term should be used at all. We’re left to wonder whether using it conveys more useful information than it does misinformation.
There are many interpretations of “The Dark Ages happened” that might be wrong, like:
1. There was darkness everywhere, not just in Europe
2. There was darkness in Europe all the way until the Renaissance, and the High Middle Ages sucked
3. Every single person in this era was an illiterate superstitious peasant covered in filth, and not one good thing ever happened
4. Greco-Roman civilization was better in every way than the period that followed it, including morally
On the other hand, there are many interpretations of “the Dark Ages didn’t happen” that might also be wrong, like:
1. The fall of Rome was not associated with a decline in wealth and population.
2. The fall of Rome was not associated with a loss of capacity for things like urban living or large-scale infrastructure
3. The intellectual output of the period was exactly as high in quality and quantity as the intellectual outputs of other periods
4. Civilization always proceeds in a nice Whig History straight upward line with no risk of catastrophic collapses
Surely people can get caught in different bravery debates here. If they live in a bubble where everyone falls prey to the first set of misconceptions, it can be tempting to try to rectify that by saying the Dark Ages never happened. If they (like me) live in a bubble where everyone seems to fall prey to the second, it’s tempting to…well, write a post like this one.
And then there are political implications that will work for the benefit of one group or another. If there was a Dark Age:
1. …maybe it casts Catholicism or Christianity in a bad light, since this was also the age when they rose to be a major power
2. …maybe it points to a broader conflict between science and religion, since this was a very religious age in ways
3. …maybe it suggests that civilization is more fragile than we think, and since it collapsed once it can collapse again
4. …maybe it makes Greece and Rome look extra good, since they were again of the curve in terms of civilizational greatness
Pictured: one way to politicize this discussion; not recommended
And finally, there are signaling aspects. Since everybody hears a vague Monty-Python-And-The-Holy-Grail-esque conception of the Dark Ages (“He must be a king…he doesn’t have shit all over him”), but only people who take a history class in college hear about the Continuity Thesis, loudly proclaiming that there was never a Dark Age is one way to signal education and intellectualism (I dare you to tell me that isn’t what’s going on in this Tumblr post). On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who rails against “postmodernism” and “cultural relativity” and wants a reputation for “calling a spade a spade”, it might be gratifying to get to say that actually, that one historical era that seems kind of sucky (but fancy college professors keep insisting otherwise) does, in fact, suck.
I think I know why this question bothers me so much, and it’s because I hate when faux-intellectuals give stupid black-and-white narratives that are the tiniest sliver more sophisticated than the stupid black-and-white narratives that the general population believes, then demand to be celebrated for their genius and have everyone who disagrees with them shunned as gullible science-denying fools.
(I know a lot of people accuse me and this blog of doing exactly this, and I’m sorry. All I can say is that I’m at the odd-numbered levels of some signaling game you’re at the even-numbered levels of, and it sucks for all of us.)
For other people, maybe it’s something different. Maybe a Chinese historian doesn’t like the term “Dark Ages” because she sees too many people think Europe-specific terms apply to the whole world, and for her the tiny number of people who do this are so annoying that it overwhelms any possible advantage the idea might have. Maybe a Muslim likes it because it helps contrast the poverty of Christendom with the glory of al-Andalus, and shake the myth that Europe has always been on top. I don’t know.
10. So you’re saying both positions are true and everyone is equally right?
No. Although I sympathize with the feelings behind both positions, I say the Dark Ages happened. I think the best evidence we have suggests the fall of Rome (and the period just before) was associated with several centuries of economic and demographic decline, only reaching back to their classical level around 1000 AD. I think it was also associated with a broader intellectual and infrastructure decline, which in some specific ways and some specific fields didn’t reach back up to its Roman level until the Renaissance. I think that common sense – the sense you get when you treat the question of the Dark Age the same as any other question, and try to avoid isolated demands for rigor – says that qualifies for the phrase “Dark Age”.
[see also: Highlights From The Comments On Dark Ages]
You’ve left out arguably the most important European country during the putative “Dark Ages”, namely Ireland.
Ireland was not overrun by Germanics and instead developed a high literary culture during the Middle Ages. Though never part of the Roman Empire, she acquired Latin through trade with Europe. Later Ireland would house and protect the sole copies of the writings of Caesar (eg “De Bello Gallic”), Cicero and many others.
Then Ireland sprung forth on Europe and converted the Germanics to Christianity, and re-introduced Roman and Greek literature, built the monasteries who would go on to become Europe’s first universities.
These actions won Ireland the accolade of, “The Island of Saints and Scholars”, and indeed students arrived from all over Western Europe to study there.
Ireland is cool, and I have a fondness for its people and history.
But Ireland wasn’t “the most important country” during that time. It was barely a “country” at all at the time.
And Europe goes all the way to the Bosphorus. While Irish monks were converting Germanics, St. Cyril and St. Methodius were converting Slavs. While Ireland was known as “the island of saints and scholars” (this is the first I’ve heard of this, but I believe you), Constantinople was famously and widely called “The Queen of Cities” and “City of Worlds Desire”
This is really the thrust behind what people mean when they bring up objection #1. Even talking about “the fall of Rome” is a little ridiculous with the “Byzantine” (read: totally Roman) empire sitting RIGHT THERE. There were really quite not that bad things happening at that time, my native Bulgaria was doing quite well for example. But anglosphere history pretends Europe ends at the Elbe, unless we’re talking about how wicked the communists were. Scott addresses this, but later in the post slips up and drops the “western” from “Western Europe”, or uses phrases like “catholic or Christian Europe”, two different things where one of those is mostly accurate and the other throws the mostly-pretty-swell-until-1204 orthodox half of Europe under the bus.
I’m talking about 450 AD onwards, in Western Europe, you’re referencing 500+ years later in SE Europe.
The Irish are responsible for the Carlovingian Renaissance, which restored high culture and learning to Western Europe – leading to the greatness of the Holy Roman Empire.
People who are ignorant of these facts, look to Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain), which was actually irrelevant to the Carlovingian Renaissance.
Quibbles: St Cyril and Methodius weren’t 500+ years later, and Constantinople has been “the place to be” in Europe pretty much since it’s founding in the 300s up to the 4th crusade.
if those are your parameters, then sure. But that’s a far cry from “most important European country from 500-1000”
The big divide here is between the Western and Eastern Empires, which does kind of undercut Scott’s point about “naming periods and it’s an isolated demand for rigour to say that it was just the Western European Dark Ages”.
Byzantium and the East did hold on to a lot of progress, but they also remained at a particular level (the local politics they were forced to engage in saw to that). What we get is a swathe of barbarians dividing the two halves of the Empire in the middle of Europe, and the collapse of the West. The East didn’t help much with that, having its own fish to fry.
And the point about Ireland is that it was never part of the Empire, so never had access at first hand to the Glory That Was Rome. And yet – remnants out of the wreck were saved, cherished, and re-transmitted back to the West. I’d disagree a bit with Lillian about the Carolingians being a false dawn because the very fact that they wanted and were trying to reconstruct Rome, or what they believed it to be, is a big deal. They kept things afloat, and without them, would Petrarch even be able to sit in Avignon and complain?
As for himself – “Petrarch can’t just be referring to an absence of good historical sources – he’s talking about his own era!”
Yes, and what he’s talking about is culture, not science, technology, waterways, decline in population of urban centres or anything of that nature. He’s humblebragging: oh, we have no great poets and thinkers as of old, woe is us, only we few precious souls who are learned enough to be able to read the old writings – like you and me dear reader – know the treasures that have been lost! All we can do is keep the flame alive and hope for better days to come (when scholars like us get our rightful recognition and rank in society). Petrarch has an idealised notion of a Roman (and Greek) Golden Age that is all dignified philosophers and poets in togas sitting around discussing High Ideals, and of course every modern era falls short when compared to the Golden Age.
But while Petrarch is bemoaning the state of the 14th century, there’s a Middle Irish (10th-12th century) translation of part of the Pharsalia of Lucan (1st century AD poem based on the Roman Civil War) being copied and re-copied down to the 15th century (and translated into an Irish idiom, which is hilarious when you read the tropes of Irish heroic epic such as the arming of heroes applied to Roman characters) because damn, skippy, this poem is da bomb!
So Petrarch can go and pen a sonnet for himself 🙂
The Carolingian Renaissance kind of fizzled out with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire after the death of Luis the Pious though. High culture and learning did not take for good until the Renaissance of the 12th century. Hell the Holy Roman Empire was really founded by the Ottonian Dynasty, who were crowned Emperors over a century after the Carolingian realm started collapsing under its own weight.
Certainly the Carolingian Renaissance laid the groundwork for what came later, but in all it was a false dawn.
The context is important here, I’m not talking about the restoration of high culture and learning. That’s what the Irish are famous for.
Google “Schottenklöster”, these were the monasteries founded by Irish scholars in German lands. In that era Schott=Irish, just as Scot=Irish, Scottus=Irish also.
Google “Johannes Scotus Erigena” (meaning John the Irishman from Ireland)
A veritable who’s who of Medieval thought.
The Byzantines also experienced a ruralization, demographic and economic decline, and cultural ossification in the aftermath of Late Antiquity, actually, just not as severe as that in western Europe. The area encompassed by Middle Romania started from a higher point and did not fall as far, but it certainly fell. It also recovered in a similar way, with Constantinople in 1150 probably being more populous than it was in 450.
Well Rhomania also had its own decline, it just lagged behind Western Europe’s, and it continued with only temporary pauses until the Ottomans took over. When the Plague of Justinian hit in the 6th century Constantinople had around half a million people. The plague took out about 40% of the population, but the city did recover substantially, albeit with a lower ceiling due to the loss of Egypt to the Caliphate. It started to decline again after the reign of the Bulgar Slayer in the 11th century. People often cite Manzikert as the turning point, but the reason Manzikert even happened was due massive political instability that had been building for decades. This, by the way, is why it’s so important to sire appropriate male heirs, or at least ensure that your overbearing eldest niece gets a quality husband.
By the time the Fourth Crusade arrived in early in the 13th, the city is unlikely to have had more than a quarter million inhabitants, and it may have been as low as 150 000. Still huge by European standards, but at the same time we’re talking about a city that looked like Detroit from all the parts of it that had been simply abandoned. Like there’s accounts of wheat being grown downtown by the Hippodrome. On the other hand, there’s no adequate modern comparison for what Rome looked like in the same period with only 1/30th its Principate era population surrounded by the piled up ruins of Antiquity. It must have been something else.
@People often cite Manzikert as the turning point, but that’s because of social and political instabilities that had been building for decades-
People often cite Manzikert as the turning point because after Manzikert the Turks conquered Asia Minor. Fleeing refugees had a low opinion of the traitor dynasty founded by the guys who betrayed Asia Minor so they could seize Constantinople. Venona transcript media has a high opinion of that dynasty, fellow sophisticates above mere loyalty. The Crusaders took a low view of that dynasty, partly from refugees, partly from frictions between Crusader warlords and dynasty warlords, partly because Constantinople was wealthy and booty calls.
Yeah, but if the Bulgar Slayer (Basill II, nevet get tired of calling him that) had arranged a better line of succession it’s unlikely there would have been a betrayal at Manzikert. The Empire lost Asia Minor to the Turks more because if its own weakness than the Turk’s strength. Hence my blaming the Empire’s instability for Manzikert rather than Manzikert for the Empire’s instability. Though certainly the battle made things much worse.
Also you’re talking about the Komneni, who are as far as i can tell very highly regarded, since they put an end to the chaos that had overtaken Rhomania after Manzikert and even restored strength and vitality to the Empire. The Emperor Manuel in particular was oft called the Great by his subjects for long after his death.
The betrayers at Manzikert were the Doukas family, and while they were related to and closely allies to the Komneni, they are not the same.
Manzikert wasn’t that big a battle, altogether. And afterwards the Seljuks just entered Asia Minor without any resistance from the Byzantines. Had the Eastern Roman Empire been unified or stronger, it wouldn’t have lost nearly the entirety of the landmass after one not that disastrous battles.
I think this is mostly a good explanation of prior problems: https://bloodyshovel.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/constantinoples-suicide/ .
Weren’t your some-kind-of-Slav ancestors the sword between the Bulgar hammer and the East Roman anvil at that time?
Unrelated historical quibble: Ireland totally was overrun by germanics. Several of Ireland’s largest modern cities were founded by very germanic Vikings, and they weren’t exactly invited to settle peacefully.
They weren’t “Totally Overrun”, the largest Viking Town was Dublin and they paid taxes to the King of Leinster.
I’m sure that Dublin paid taxes to the king of Leinster at some point, much like it pays taxes to the Republic of Ireland now. But at the time of establishment I’m pretty sure the taxes went to the Kingdom of Dublin
Yes, the Vikings turned up as unexpected guests even in my own part of the nation 🙂
It gets complicated, though, because apart from the slaughtering and plundering they also settle down to trade, farm, and intermarry with the natives.
So you have the kingdom of Dublin which is kinda Viking and kinda Irish and looks mainly to Britain and the other Viking cities there, but also has alliances with the local Leinster tribes, and gets a king (Sitric Silkbeard) who is the son of Gormflaith, ex-wife of Brian Boru.
So when the whole Battle of Clontarf kicks off, you have a Viking(ish) king of a Viking(ish) city and his Irish relatives and allies and Viking allies from Britain and elsewhere versus an Irish king and his Waterford Viking(ish) allies and various other folk 🙂
Exactly, the Vikings in Ireland – or as the are more aptly named, the Hiberno-Norse – were speaking Irish Gaelic by this time and in manners and customs were very similar to the Irish, except they were mostly traders. Irish Y-DNA lineages were spread with the Hiberno-Norse, meaning that not only were they taking wives from the Irish host population, but that Irish lads were becoming Vikings also.
Not “totally”. I don’t know how to say “The Gaeltacht has not yet perished” in Irish.
What you’re saying seems wholly consonant with the idea of the Dark Ages being a real thing: when do you need brave monks in monasteries on a relatively remote island copying manuscripts and hiding them from the barbarian hordes to ensure the glories of antiquity are not lost? In an age of darkness.
Of course, this is one of the things that bugs me about the “Christian Dark Ages” label (usually used by the smugger brand of internet atheist to blame religion for delaying progress for 1000 years).
Yes, the Dark Ages occurred in the largely Christian part of the world. But…
1) It’s not like the collapse was really because of Christianity
2) Without the “brave monks in monasteries”, nobody would have preserved the glories of antiquity and Petrarch would have had nothing to read
3) The places in the world that weren’t dark were not atheist (nor was Rome before the fall).
Nitpick: The preserved antique writings also (mostly, I think) came via the Islamic world. As far as I recall, Ireland is more famous for exporting actual living, breathing philosophers than for books.
“The preserved antique writings also (mostly, I think) came via the Islamic world”
Epistemic status: contested. The Byzantine Empire may well have had more to do with it, there the ancient Greek-language tradition was uninterrupted and needed no translation. I am no expert, however.
I’ve read that a majority of the works that we have today from the classical world were available in the Carolingian Empire. What came to Western Europe from the Islamic world was very important however: notably Aristotle together with development of his philosophy.
As for the Irish, they definitely exported books. There are copies of Late Antique texts and Irish texts in Britain and on the continent written by Irish hands. Of course, the story is muddied somewhat by the number of Irish IN Britain and on the continent. The oldest surviving copy of Lucretius (9th century), for example, contains corrections in an insular Irish hand (probably of the Irish monk Dungal.) There’s not really any evidence, however, that the books the Irish brought were the only surviving copies of those books.
A very long academic read on this: Books from Ireland, Fifth to Ninth Centuries
There were East Romans and dhimmis to preserve the books. Christianity was a *symptom* of Roman decline – and helped pick up the pieces.
The term “Dark Ages” is only relevant for the historiography of Latin Christendom.
I’m not sure about the whole 500-1000 window, but Latin Christendom from Romulus Augustulus until Charlemagne was in pretty rough shape–no less a dark age than the preclassical Greek dark age.
Although the period between the two Western emperors was a dark age for Latin Christendom as a whole, it was (along with the Carolingian period) the golden age of indigenous Irish art, literature, philosophy, and spirituality. My hunch is that this was in part because Irish society was never Roman, so it wasn’t especially traumatized by the fall of Rome, and because, being new to Christian/Greco-Roman culture, it was stimulated to greater creativity by that culture than regions where that inheritance wasn’t novel anymore. But while I don’t deny that this efflorescence happened and was impressive, Ireland has always been a very small country. So even though these centuries were a golden age for Ireland, Ireland is too small to move the average for Latin Christendom as a whole: for Latin Christendom as a whole, it was a dark age.
I’m tempted to Dark Ages contrarianism myself out of annoyance at how Whig history’s black legend against Catholicism conflates the Dark and High Middle Ages. But there’s no need to sink to their level by denying the actual Dark Ages in the centuries just after the fall of Rome.
Ireland was a small country with the highest literacy rate in the world in the Golden Age, when it was known as the “Island of Saints and Scholars”. It’s been estimated that the literacy rate was above 40% at the time. So Ireland had enough scholars to kickstart a Renaissance all by itself.
This is no anomaly of course, Ireland still has one of the highest PISA scores in the world for Reading – despite getting a recent monstrous influx of non-Native speakers, which would drive down their scores.
Although I like the post as a whole, I’m a lot less happy about that one line. Largely because of the word ‘progress’. We have created Modern Civilization, with the scientific method and religious tolerance and factories and everything, exactly once. I feel strongly that anything that delays that creation is a bad thing.
Societies that look like the Roman empire – forced-labor economy, enormous amounts of territory, fights bloody civil wars a lot – did not only fail to create Modern Civilization, but they proved highly resilient to converting to it. (China, Russia, Ottoman Empire). We have one example of the society that created Modern Civilization – northwest Europe, 1650-1850 (or so), and it seems very unlikely that we could have had Modern Civilization (in anywhere near the same time period) if the Roman Empire never fell. I think the Dark Ages may be a price required to create the society that created the world where huge numbers of people live about three dollars a day.
Now, I admit this is kind of pedantic, and possibly a Fully General Argument against all historical events. I do think it was a bad thing that the Thirty Years’ War happened, even though you can say that it was only through that that we got religious tolerance in Europe*, and I think my argument kind of applies to that. And if you believe in the butterfly effect theory of history you could make the argument to almost anything. But… I still think that it’s worth thinking about.
(*: You could, I wouldn’t; there were enough other bloody civil wars over religion that I think you probably would’ve had religious tolerance accepted in England and the Netherlands if the Thirty Years’ War hadn’t happened, and from there people copy what works.)
I think there may be a tendency to underestimate positive counterfactuals when considering the butterfly effect- they’re harder to picture concretely, and some of the most significant ones may be literally unimaginable to us now.
Generally, random change is bad because we’ve optimized the world to line up with our preferences, which themselves occupy a fairly narrow region of possibility space. It’s less clear that this applies to history. (at least at the civilizational level- tinkering with the detritus of the big bang would presumably be a bad idea.)
I agree Rome doesn’t seem like the sort of civilization to develop into an industrial power, but neither did Norman England.
If some terrible catastrophe had destroyed Norman England, we might have said good – it would never industrialize anyway. But in fact it did. This should make us wary of saying that about Rome.
Industrialization was pretty much a done deal in Western Europe by the time it happened. Anglo-Norman England just got there first. Barring some continent wide catastrophe, the Netherlands, Western Germany, and Northen Italy were all going to get there eventually. Hell i’m pretty sure Spain and France were on track as well, but Spain got reamed pretty hard by the Penninsular and Carlist Wars, and it’s hard to disentangle French industrialization from it being on the crossroads between all the others. On the other hand we have no evidence of Roman-like civilizations industrializing, all of our closest examples resisted modernity pretty hard.
My main beef is that okay, maybe a popular notion of “There wuz no Dark Ages” is popping up (though I haven’t seen this around myself) but that is a corrective to the previous popular notion – and a notion that was not impartial history but pretty hard pushing of an agenda for political and religious propaganda ends – that “Everything was literal shit and mud between Rome, Glorious Rome and Us, Glorious Us the Heirs of Rome”.
Petrarch was not merely saying “Alas, the fall of Rome, this is why we don’t have steam engines”, he was saying “Alas, the culture of the great past, it is only now we clever and learned brainy enlightened types recognise all that has been lost unlike our dumb grandparents”. 14th century was the beginnings of the Renaissance and it was flattery of rich patrons and the circle of scholars as much as it was anything to describe the recent past as the Dark Ages, look back to a remote Golden Age and then intimate that now was the beginning of a new Golden Age, what with m’lord this and his grace that being so generous to scholarship.
The Dark Ages was the total collapse of civilisation in continental Western Europe, so I think the Middle Ages are to be pretty damn well congratulated for coming out of it, on top of their own plagues and wars and the rest of it, and establishing enough breathing space, stability, and wealth for the Renaissance to re-discover poetry and sculpture (I really don’t think it was so big on science, as an unfortunate side-effect of the re-discovery of Classical attitudes was the Classical attitude to the technical arts as inferior to pure theory; luckily, enough of the robust Mediaeval attitude remained that the use of geometry and mathematics to build structures was not looked down on).
I think the Dark Ages are important as a lesson for the modern day; there is nothing that guarantees our current civilisation is going to continue on, saecula saeculorum, with no end in sight. Estimations of “oh goodness AI will be a threat” – well, yes, entirely possible. But “oh goodness, once we’ve cracked AI, we will continue onwards with amazing civilisation”? Look at Rome, look back at today.
Deiseach, I think you are being a bit unfair to Petrarch. Look at his Italia Mia, which is talking about the horrible state of Italy. It has nothing to do with literature, or patronage. Very roughly: “Italy is being torn apart by wars, the lords who are supposed to be looking after things are bringing in foreign mercenaries and tearing things apart even worse, Lord God have mercy and make things better!” What I find sad about it is that it was an unanswered prayer: Verdelot did a beautiful musical setting of the first part of that poem (you can find it on UTube) two centuries later–and all the stuff Petrarch was grieving over was still true.
I expect Petrarch did have an unrealistically bright idea of the Roman empire as a time when Italians weren’t killing each other, but I think it was that more than the togas and the philosophy that he was looking for.
Perhaps development into an industrial power is too specific, and what we’re looking for is a more general room for civilisational growth. I think you can look at Norman England and get the sense that this is a civilisation trending upwards in a way that you can’t for Imperial Rome. Rome is too big, its autocracy too entrenched, and the classical world has just done so much at this point it’s looking pretty tired. Norman England, even factoring in the family holdings in France and the hegemony over the Atlantic Isles, is comparatively compact. Slavery has been sort-of abolished, the norms of chivalry are being introduced, the organs of government are growing more sophisticated, a remarkably non-terrible balance is being struck between autocracy and centralisation, and there’s generally everything to play for. Norman England is the sort of civilisation to have a bright future, Imperial Rome the civilisation to have a bright past.
A couple things:
1.) I think you overestimate the centralization of the Roman State. Until Diocletian, the Imperial Bureaucracy was just the slaves and freedmen in the Emperor’s personal household. By and large, the Empire just had local elites ruling their own cities and sending taxes to Metropole. The empire was more bound together by trade than it was by the legions.
2.) Slavery was already on the way out in Rome after the adoption of Christianity (though I guess this contradicts my previous point about lack of centralization pre-Diocletian)
3.) I’m not sure chivalry made a difference. It always seemed like something honored more in the breach.
1. My point isn’t so much about centralisation as autocracy, ie, from the crisis of the republic on there was no way for Rome to be governed but by a military strong-man. Even if his direct control didn’t extend that far, it was still a thoroughly unpromising political system.
2. This sounds off to me, but I’m in no position to challenge. My point is that is bodes well when a regime that starts off by abolishing slavery, as the Normans did in England.
3. See here for the virtues of chivalry: http://deremilitari.org/2014/07/killing-or-clemency-ransom-chivalry-and-changing-attitudes-to-defeated-opponents-in-britain-and-northern-france-7-12th-centuries/ Further, the norms of war are quite generally observed in the breach. What we still regard as the core norms of war (take captives and treat them well, don’t harm civilians) first gain traction (at least in Europe) within the culture of chivalry.
Compared to its heyday in the late Republic/early Empire slavery certainly was less widespread, but there are plenty of references to both slaves and large-scale manumissions during the late Imperial period (one fourth-century noblewomen freed 8,000 slaves in her will, for example, which apparently only represented a fraction of the total she owned).
I’ve read enough SF to know that if Rome hadn’t fallen we’d all be flying in sky chariots with SPQR written on them.
Or if Rome does fall and we have a civlization with time travel, we get a civilization derived from the Ostrogoths, with time machines.
If Rome hadn’t fallen, we’d all be living in simulated universes created by hyperadvanced post-Roman philosophers asking, “what would the world be like if Rome had fallen?”
Which actually was the plot of an SF novel I read a few years ago.
I think it very likely that the world required a period of centuries in which mulitple states and free cities exist and no one can crush ideas globally. And this is incomaptible with a unified Roman (or Hellenistic) empire. But that doesn’t mean require devastating
barbarian invasions or a great collapse of civilsation. Empires can fission in all sorts of ways.
And as Scott notes, we don’t really know what the Romans (or the Ottomans or the Chinese) might do if we could rewind history. Though my money is on the Indonesian archipeligo, in either its Muslim or Buddhist incarnations.
Much of what is culturally impressive about the Dark Ages tend to be mythological works, Beowulf or the poems from the Poetic Edda, for example. But mythology seems to be one area of culture where you don’t actually need much high civilization to create a good one. The mythologies of many forager societies are quite impressive. Even the Greek mythology used by later poets like Homer was largely created during the Greek Dark Ages, after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization.
Part of it is that Scandinavia is largely excluded from what people think of as “Europe” when they talk about this time period. The “Dark Ages” viewpoint only applies to England and France and maybe half of Italy minus all the islands. From that perspective, the Norse are scary horn-helmed invaders that helped make the dark ages so dark. To see them as anything more (Say, as explorers who discovered a whole continent) would require a wider perspective than England-and-France-and-maybe-half-of-Italy-minus-the-islands-Europe, and then you no longer have a “Dark Ages”
Horn-helmed only from a modern perspective, not from the perspective of people who actually saw them.
David, (and Scott),
The Vikings didn’t have “Horned Helmets”, that was the Celts.
I’m pretty sure that’s exactly David’s point. Our image of Vikings includes horned helmets not because the historical Vikings had them (they didn’t), but because actresses playing Brunhilde in 19th-century operas did.
I’m certain you’re wrong! Americans don’t learn European history by default, and when they do, they just learn a few facts and stereotypes.
Where do you think the stereotype comes from?
Yes of course. I don’t mean to imply that the people who actually saw them saw literal horns on their helmets. But they were definitely seen as strange outsider barbaric heathen invaders, probably sent by the devil and definitely not part of “Europe”
> and then you no longer have a “Dark Ages”
Hold it. You still do… just not one spanning everywhere you’re thinking about.
@Nornagest ‘Our image of Vikings includes horned helmets not because the historical Vikings had them (they didn’t), but because actresses playing Brunhilde in 19th-century operas did’
FYI, this is actually a meta-myth. Traditionally, the Ring principals, Brunhilde included, wore winged helmets, not horned ones. The stereotype of the horn helmeted Brunhilde only arose because the stereotype of the horn helmeted viking had independent currency.
Any idea where it came from?
Roman era Celts and Germans did have horned helmets for ceremonial purposes, but they had long fallen out of use by the Viking period. Since Der Ring des Nibelungen is set in Migration era Germany, Emil Doepler, Wagner’s costume designer, used this ancient ceremonial dress as inspiration for the Valkyrie costumes in the first production of the Ring Cycle at the Beyreuth Festival in 1876. While the story is set in Germany and its characters are German, the opera highlights the connections between Germanic and Norse heritages by drawing from elements of Norse mythology. So people went Valkyries -> Norse -> Vikings, and the image stuck.
God damn, JohnofSalisbury is completely right. Originally i dismissed his comment out of hand because even proper historians cite Carl Emil Doepler’s costumes for the Ring Cycle. It was bugging me though, and my intuition told me that i should look into into it more. So i did and i found copies of Doepler’s actual signed costume design drawings. It’s winged helmets for Wotan and the Valkyries, nobody wears horns. Now that is a deep rooted myth right there.
The most likely origin is still some kind conflation of Roman era Celtic and Germanic helmets with those of the Vikings era Norse. Archeology of the former in the 19th century was much more developed than archeology of the latter. But now i have idea who first did it first.
Huh, I learned something today.
…man i keep going off half cocked today and it’s super embarrassing. Found the complete set of Doepler’s drawings. Hunding and a number of background characters have horns, in the latter case quite prominent ones.
So we’re back to blaming Wagner and Doppler, but not directly because of Wotan and the Valkyries. They depicted Migration era Germans wearing horns, and the public transposed that into the Vikings.
I’d expect Viking leaders to have some sort of tacticool goop on their helmets. So your troops know who to follow, and not kill. Horns, feathers, wings were readily available. At D-Day the US officers had a white streak of paint on the back of their helmets, same reason.
Feathers, sure. Wings, well, perhaps. But horns? No. There’s a reason helmets tend to be “helmet shaped” – they are designed to deflect blows as much as possible. Having two rigid blade-catchers sticking out the side of them kind of defeats that purpose. I’ve seen someone go into re-enactment combat wearing a horned helmet for a joke. After having his head and neck wrenched painfully from blows to the horns about five times in rapid succession, he quickly came off the field and took the stupid thing off.
Decorations and crests on actual field helmets tended to be made of things like horse-hair, dyed feathers or cloth ribbons for a reason – they didn’t catch the edges or points of weapons.
The “horned helmets” of the early Germanics were ceremonial hats or headresses and the Celtic examples were most likely the same. The famous bronze “Thames Helmet” or “Waterloo Helmet” is made of bronze so thin that it could never have been worn in actual combat and should also be seen as ceremonial or “parade” headwear, not a helmet proper.
A second reason not to have horns on your helmet is that they get in the way of your hand or sword when swinging the latter.
The Dark Ages were a religious age in some ways, but it is important to note that large parts of Europe, especially Northern Europe, were not Christian at this time.
I strongly agree and fear that something similar or worse will happen again soon.
Currently humanity is de facto pushing its brightest members out of reproduction for whatever reason. Those who are creative and brilliant are likely to have a very low fertility rate. However efforts to drastically increase such fertility rates some people propose is intellectually very harmful and curbs prosperity, reason, freedom and science.
Are we humans doomed to degenerate into a population of woo-believing and irrational people again? Is history necessarily cyclical? Are a lot of intellectualism and social stability necessarily incompatible? Does reason necessarily lead to increased antisocial behaviors? Do we have to have shared lies and nonsense to have a stable society? I hope the answers to these questions are “No!”, with or without transhumanism.
Before I start getting concerned about society pushing its brightest members out of the gene pool, I think I’d like to see some actual numbers on the average IQ (yes, yes, but it’s the best we’ve got) of the childless vs. the child-having. It’s damnably easy to come to strong conclusions on this type of thing based on reasoning that eventually all falls down when it turns out that you and everyone you know are a lot weirder than you thought.
We have this one. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25131282
However Kanazawa may be a woo-pusher and as a non-IQ researcher I can not tell woo from legit research.
I don’t trust anyone who tend to push any dogma on the issue of IQ such as Lynn, Kanazawa and Rushton from the unmentionable side and liberal dogmatic people from the other side.
I’ve seen some estimates from people I consider reliable, and selection for lower IQ is somewhere between ‘quite weak’ and ‘non-existent’, at least in the US – though of course statistically you actually want positive selection in order to compensate for the genetic load.
Weak enough that increased assortative mating will probably lead to an increase in the number of high-IQ individuals even if the overall population average declines slightly. With various kinds of embryo selection or genetic engineering technologies just around the corner, I don’t think dysgenic IQ trends are a major worry as a great civilization-ending threat.
Now if the worry is just the creation of a growing low-IQ underclass, yeah … that’s a problem. But it’s not an apocalyptic one.
Once birth control is free for everyone, and the most effective, hands-off kinds are widely used, I doubt there will be much if any association.
One way that might not work out: what if the costs of having lots of kids/having kids early are higher for smarter people than dumber people. Women on the partner/tenure/residency track (or more generally, any really demanding career) probably pay a higher price (in terms of opportunity cost) for having a couple kids than women who are working factory/retail/secretarial jobs. Probably the women on the more demanding career tracks are smarter and probably they tend to marry smarter men.
Along the same lines, women who pursue more education will generally face higher costs to having kids while they’re young than women who stop with a high school diploma. Almost certainly, smarter women are more likely to pursue more education (college, grad school, professional programs like law or medicine). That means delaying kids.
If that’s all true (I think it is, at least roughly), then you can get a noticeable dysgenic effect even when there’s free perfect foolproof birth control available. And the effect comes partly from smaller families, but also from longer generations–if Alice has her two kids at 18 and 20, and Barbara waits to have her two kids at 38 and 40, Alice is going to end up with more descendants down the line, and Alices are going to seriously outbreed Barbaras.
Quite a few women who end up without children seem to actually want children, so another mechanism may be stronger:
The traditional gender role for men was that they had to be financially secure, mature, etc before thinking of starting a family. Well-educated women seem to often adopt the same standard for themselves and very harshly too, not trying to find a suitable father and/or get pregnant until their fertility starts to decrease.
At that point, there is a substantial risk of not being able to find a partner or having their current partner be unwilling to become a dad, especially since women probably have a tendency to misjudge the quality of man that they can attract with an offer of starting a family. Even if they do find a man who wants to be a father to their child, the declining fertility makes the chance of failure a lot higher than if they started trying to get pregnant earlier. Furthermore, starting a family late means that there is less opportunity to have more children.
In contrast, women with less education seem to prioritize differently, probably in no small part because the high standards that many of the well-educated women adopt are completely and obviously unfeasible. So you get large differences between mothers based on education:
More illustrative than the difference in the median age when mothers got their first child is the graph showing the distribution of ages, where you can see that a huge number of well-educated mothers got their child in the fertility danger zone, compared to very few less-educated mothers.
Now, these figures are only for women who managed to get a child, but they logically point to many more well-educated women failing to get pregnant due to fertility issues than less-educated women.
“Now if the worry is just the creation of a growing low-IQ underclass, yeah … that’s a problem. But it’s not an apocalyptic one.”
If you chuck democracy it isn’t. Since I’d like to keep it, I’m more worried.
With no endorsement, due to being unqualified to judge: http://www.unz.com/akarlin/cicerone-on-dysgenic-decline/ .
Banned for violating warning
Was intelligence decline the cause of fall of Rome? What evidence is there that 5th century Romans were, on average, less rational and dumber than 1st century Romans?
I think the assumption there is “lead in the water” due to the use of lead in plumbing by the Romans and how this meant they were widely exposed over centuries to it. So the idea there is “It must have had a bad effect on them, and if Rome was a superpower in the 1st century and collapsed in the 5th, surely that’s down to them taking the IQ hit?”
Bit of a reach, I think: there’s enough other reasons the Empire got top-heavy and collapsed.
Afaik the Roman lead-poisoning argument is now less about lead pipes than the fact that common food sweeteners in Rome included sapa (a syrup made from boiling down grape juice in vessels that were often made of lead) and actual lead acetate!
As I understand it, historians believe calcium deposits would have made lead plumbing relatively harmless. That does sound more plausible. (Lead continued to be used as a sweetener for quite a while; it wasn’t uncommon for rum to be sweetened with it, for example)
There seem to be a correlation between European civilization and European climate patterns:
The Roman civilization largely overlaps with the Roman Warm Period, which started about 250 BC, peaked around AD 150 and ended about AD 400. For reference, the first Punic War, which established Rome as the dominant power of the West Mediterranean Basin, was fought between 264-241 BC, the maximum territorial extend of the Roman Empire was reached in AD 117, and the dethronement of the last Western Roman Emperor, the customary end of Clasical antiquity, occurred in AD 476.
This was followed by the Dark Ages of the Early Middle Ages, when civilization unraveled as detailed by Scott’s post, followed by the recovery and progress of the High Middle Ages, which approximately coincides with the Medieval Warm Period ~ AD 950 – 1250, followed by the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, which coincindes with the beginning of the Little Ice Age.
After the discovery of the Americas the pattern breaks: Europe quickly recovered and flourished, while the Little Ice Age continued until the mid 19th century, possibly until being reversed by anthropogenic global warming.
I would have to disagree with this. For purposes of future demographics, the only thing that really matters is the 1% of the population which (1) believes it’s a great idea to have lots of children; and (2) believes it’s a great idea to teach this idea to their children. I’m talking about groups like the Amish, ultra-Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Mormons, etc.
Among those people, are smart people falling behind? Even without a formal study, it seems unlikely to me. Who will be more reproductively successful – a smart couple which wants a lot of children or a dumb couple?
At the moment, about 99% of the population is woo-believing and irrational . . . could things get worse?
From my perspective, believing that the world was literally created in 6 days is about as rational as believing that men and women are equal in inherent math ability.
Most reproduction is done by the 99% who are not in those groups. It’s true that the fraction of the population in those groups will increase over time, but it will be quite a while before they are numerous enough to dominate any eugenic or dysgenic effect of differing birth rates by intelligence.
The doubling time for the Amish is about twenty years. Assuming it’s the same for the other groups and starting with your 1%, which is probably high, a century from now such groups will only be about a third of the population. It’s unlikely that society a century from now will look much like society now, which makes it hard to guess what groups will be reproducing then or how reproduction will related to intelligence. And that’s true even without technological progress that would give parents much more control over the characteristics of their children.
And 20 years after that, they will be a solid majority. And 20 years after that?
To an extent I agree, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict that intelligent people will be more effective at accomplishing their goals than unintelligent people.
Perhaps more importantly, your objection applies with equal strength to the “marching morons” argument I was responding to. There’s a huge problem in the West with smart women not reproducing much. And in fact it would be pretty funny if the main legacy of feminism was a race humans where the men were far more intelligent than the women. But that would take a lot longer than 100 years to occur.
So perhaps I should put my argument a different way: The dysgenic effects of smart people, especially smart women, underbreeding is pissing in the ocean compared to the genetic consequences of ultra-religious types out-reproducing everyone else.
Except that it isn’t clear what the genetic effects of what you describe are. I have no idea what the average IQ of Amish is. Orthodox Jews are probably Ashkenazi, so higher than average IQ. No idea for the Mormons either.
Don’t know the IQ of the Amish, either.
As you’d expect, Jews are much higher than average. Mormons are pretty typical American white average IQ, except their floor is lower, i.e. a smaller number at the bottom end of the scale, putting them overall on the smarter-than-average side of the scale. Catholics are pretty much average Americans, which makes sense because of their large numbers in the population.
If we assume that’s true, it doesn’t really affect my main argument. Which is that the long term effects of dampening the fertility of smart people in the West is pretty minor compared to the looming tidal wave of the ultra-religious.
That said, it’s reasonable to expect that within high fertility groups, smart people are out-reproducing stupid people. And even ignoring that, one can make predictions based on current characteristics of these groups, which are mainly of European descent.
I don’t know about IQ, but my experiences with Mennonites and with Mormons is that they score much higher on whatever it is that “the marshmallow test” is measuring.
@Standing in the Shadows
I’ve been banging the drum for a while now that religion is an artificial intelligence booster, shifting people from the bad time preference to the good one. I think that with some digging, we could probably even quantify how many points it is worth, based on life outcomes.
Keep in mind that religious people who have a lot of kids very often lose at least half these kids to other worldviews. I was raised conservative Catholic in a family of six, and I don’t believe any of that stuff anymore. Beliefs are somewhat heritable, but the more awful, the less heritable, generally. (If they’re extremely culty they may be able to resist this somewhat, depending on how much they are allowed to withdraw from stuff like schools and other contact with the outside.) It’s widely known among religious people that retention isn’t that great.
Basically, you let the woo-believers have kids, and then once they’re 20-30 years old, you convert them. This is a completely valid strategy. (Of course some more reasonable people have large families as well. I have four kids and am raising them to be curious and question everything. Whatever they wind up being, it won’t be Young Earth Creationists.)
Also keep in mind that, while this is true in the West for the last few generations, this was not true for most of history.
I would be curious to know how you dressed; what types of schools you attended; who you associated with and so on.
Because a lot of these ultra-religious groups act, dress, eat, and live in such a way that they are isolated from the rest of society. I expect that makes leaving the community a good deal less common.
There are sometimes other factors.
For the Amish, the usual estimate is that they lose ten to twenty percent of each generation. That still gives them a population doubling time of about twenty years.
Wow, that’s pretty high. So it seems we are selecting for religious faith and the ability to sit through long, boring religious services.
As a Leftist: there was a time when the Left was growing because it converted more people from the Right than the reverse *while* also reproducing biologically. I don’t predict further growth from its current sterility. This goes double for weirder LW-adjacent positions.
Note that none of the groups you mentioned are closed to any significant extent. They constantly bleed people (in particular males) into the larger societies they are embedded into. These people and their children are no longer consider part of the group.
Since the people who remain in the group tend to be more fertile than average, this creates the impression of an unusually high evolutionary fitness, while in reality the genes that cause lower-than-average fertility don’t actually disappear, they get absorbed by the broader society.
Of course, this mechanism can work only as long as these groups are very small minorities. As soon as they start to become a sizeable minority, their outflow of low quality genes, mostly carried by unsuccessful men, will upset the broader society, lowering its capacity to absorb more.
Belief in 6 days creation, the Noachian flood, etc., does not have very large policy implication that can cause broad societal disfunction. It may lower the quality of scientific education, and thus harm biological research, but does not directly affect the day-to-day family and professional life of most people.
Believing falsehoods about gender, on the other hand, has far-reaching policy implications, such as massive intrusion in the workplace to correct a non-existing bias, which lowers economic efficiency and causes resentment between men and women (men think that women are stealing their jobs, women think that the Pathriarchy is holding them down).
Pushing women to pursue competitive careers causes them to delay or forgo marriage (“Where have all the good men gone?” – women seek long-term partners of equal or higher education and income), delay or forgo having children, and ultimately often decrease their overall life satisfaction.
Men, facing the incresed competition between themselves and now with the career women to prove their worth, and with resentment of being constantly told about what horrible sexist monster they are, increasingly check out of the rat race and become incels/NEETs/herbivore men/MGTOWs.
Looks like the perfect receipe for society collapse, as evidenced by current demographic trends.
Religious beliefs exist to signal allegiance and enforce social norms. The beliefs of traditional religions are “supernatural”. This is a feature, not a bug: If you are going to hold a factually false belief for purposes of social cohesion, it’d better be a belief that is minimally intrusive into your daily life, the less it is related to the physical world, the better.
I think that major traditional religions went thorugh a process of memetic evolution that pruned the intrusive beliefs that could cause major disruption to people’s lives, which culminated with the invention, by Medieval theologians, of the category of the “supernatural”: things that you ostensibly belive to exist, but that are supposed to reside in a separate and, for all practical pruposes, inaccessible plane of existence, safely removed from your mundane concerns.
Creationism is technically not completely supernatural: it can be indeed tested and falsified (but who would have tought that this could become possible when they first came up with these stories?), but in practice, unless you are a biologist, a geologist, or an astronomer, whether you believe in it has minimal impact on your daily life. It is a minimally intrusive belief.
Modern secular religions lack this sophistication. Turn your beliefs about how to do agricolture and run a government into religious dogma and tens million people will die. Turn your beliefs about gender into religious dogma, and well, we will see.
They are closed enough to make their internal growth rates extremely high.
I don’t know much about a lot of these groups except that I work in New York City so I have some experience with orthodox Jews. All of the ex-orthodox Jews I have met were female. I would guess this is because the gain in personal freedom for women by leaving the community is a good deal bigger than that for men.
In any event, my impression is that it’s pretty unusual for orthodox Jews to leave the community, not enough to have a big impact on their population growth.
I’m not sure I understand what you are referring to. Can you give me 2 or 3 examples?
If we assess the rationality of a belief by looking at the policy implications, then I would agree with you. But when I assert that a belief is irrational, my point is not really about policy implications. I think that was pretty clear from the context but if not, please be more charitable.
That’s a reasonable hypothesis. The downfall of Shakerism would seem to support it. Another possibility is that traditional wisdom developed at a time when societies were poorer and lived more on the edge. So they lacked the resources for some of the follies our modern age can support.
It sounds like you think that failing to forcibly exclude women from the professions is functionally equivalent to Mao starving tens of millions of peasants. If that’s the case, the modern world must be very scary for you indeed.
Although this comment is not addressed to me, I think it’s worth responding. In terms of demographic impact, I would say it’s pretty clear that encouraging women to spend the majority of their fertile years pursuing education, careers, and short term sexual gratification has had a massive demographic impact on the West, far more than the effect of starving tens of millions of peasants.
Human suffering is more difficult assess, but it’s pretty clear that a staggering amount of resources has been devoted to feminist fantasies and folly. If those resources had instead been put into scientific and technological research, probably medicine would be a good deal more advanced than it is now, alleviating quite a bit of human suffering.
Ok. I was thinking of polygynous groups, and the Haredi Jews aren’t. Anyway, I think they still have lots of attrition, but not enough to offset their high fertility. I suppose that any woman who doesn’t like the idea of having six children leaves the community, so those who stay have six children each and fuel the growth.
I mean, in order to consider evolutionary fitness of a population you have to count all the descendants of some ancestral group.
If you look only to the descendants that are still considered part of the group according to some arbitrary social criterion and this criterion happens to correlate with high fitness, you will get an overestimate of the actual fitness of the population.
But what is more irrational, a belief in the Flood or in the Patriarchy?
From an epistemic point of view, the Flood is arguably more irrational (certainly it is more bizarre), but from an instrumental point of view the Patriarchy is more irrational. Instrumental rationality is what matters for social viability.
I can’t think of anything to put here that’s not unpleasantly snarky. Just imagine me gesturing to the first phrase, then to the other, repeatedly.
Fertility is about urbanization and, to a certain extent, wealth. Barring a very kinky memeplex, this is true just about everywhere. You’re not pointing at the real reason, here. Liberalism comes from the cities; unless you want us to all go back to being farmers, you’re not going to defeat liberalism.
And on top of that, you’re really going to have to show your work when you say that it’s worth cutting your talent pool in half because women’s “short term sexual gratification” disgusts you.
In any case, if you’re truly upset that women put off childrearing in order to focus on their careers, you should be cursing Richard Nixon, who, by standing athwart accessible childcare, contributed to the primary driver of abortions in the United States, and, I would expect, the primary driver of contraceptive use.
You’d probably have a much easier time getting a universal-childcare entitlement enacted (or a generalized UBI) than you would reversing urbanization and therefore getting women back into the kitchen en masse. Women would still have education, careers and short-term sexual gratification–kinda like men have been getting all these years, those scamps!–but then again, if you really care more about the demographic thing than about women having more options, that’s probably a better tack to take.
It’s kinda funny that between me writing that and you telling me it was a strawman, fortaleza84 stopped by to defend it, isn’t it? A little funny?
Very possibly true.
I don’t know what resources you are referring to. If more women had followed the traditional pattern of marrying, producing and rearing children and running a household, what extra resources would have been available for research?
The most dangerous resource of all: man.
The ultimate resource, as Julian Simon put it.
But humans consume as well as produce. It isn’t clear if the net effect of one more person on resources available for science is positive or negative, and probably depends on the details. I tried to answer the more general question in a piece I wrote forty-five years ago, and concluded that I could not sign the sum of positive and negative effects.
I find it more funny that you seem unable to understand that “failing to forcibly exclude women from the professions” is not equivalent to “encouraging women to spend the majority of their fertile years pursuing education, careers, and short term sexual gratification”.
It’s not just the absolute size of the population, but it’s composition.
If smart people reproduce less, then they free up resources for the dumb people to reproduce more. In fact, when smart people pay their extra taxes into the welfare system (compared to what their net contribution would be if they had children), or donate to help-the-poor charities, they actively fund dumb people to breed.
Intuitively this should have a dysgenic effect. Maybe it will take several generations to become apparent, but in the medium-long term it can become a major issue.
How much resources do dumb people need to reproduce? A bedroom, a bottle of cheap wine, and a society that doesn’t let children literally starve to death would seem to about do it, and the bedroom is optional.
If the argument is that we are doomed, DOOMED!, to demographic catastrophe unless we let the children of poor people literally starve to death, I’d really like to spend a little more time considering alternatives before resigning myself to that one.
I’m skeptical of this claim, to the extent that you are (apparently) denying that education, job opportunities, and/or short-term sexual relationships for women all diminish fertility. My claim is based on common sense: When women go to college and grad school, they are generally NOT marrying and having children. The same thing goes for short-term sexual relationships.
How would you back up your claim?
That’s a fascinating straw man, but what’s interesting is the assumption is that failing to encourage women to get educated and pursue careers is the same thing as “cutting your talent pool in half.”
In reality the vast majority of talented people are male, especially in science and technology. Failing to encourage women to pursue these areas, or even actively discouraging them, would not only not reduce the talent pool, it would free up spots for more men. Not only that, if the smarter women had more children, and did so at a younger age, it would increase the number of talented men to innovate and create and increase the number of women to make more innovative men.
I think the problem here is that for you and a lot of other people, it’s literally unthinkable that men are more intelligent than women when it comes to STEM fields. That the vast majority of people who are capable of important achievements in these areas are male. That when you put your thumb on the scales to get more women into these fields, you are necessarily undermining the average competence.
Probably on your college campus, anyone who dared make such a suggestion would get shouted down at best and punished at worst. Which is pretty much my original point. If we are going to recognize that religious people have irrational beliefs, e.g. that the world was literally created in 6 day, we need to also recognize that Leftists have irrational beliefs, e.g. that women are just as good as men at math and any discrepancies in achievement are due to evil spirits or the patriarchy or whatever.
For one thing, spots at top research universities for men. All the way from undergraduate level to professors.
But there’s a good deal more than that. I’m not a libertarian, but I think libertarians are correct that when you distort any kind of market, there is a big danger of lost efficiency. Any time the government thumb is put on the scales to put more women in important positions, it’s very likely to result in a loss of resources.
Again, using the example of education, it’s well known and documented that female physicians work far fewer hours over the course of their careers than male physicians. So every time a medical school slot is given to a woman over a man, resources are being lost. Society is getting far less return from the substantial investment in training that doctor.
Repeating this pattern many times over, throughout the economy, is sure to have a big effect.
I’m hardly the only one here failing to make a clean and obvious distinction here. (Perhaps because the distinction is more of a continuum.)
Please try and be quantitative when you can. As I pointed out below, this doesn’t seem to be the case. (If you’d like to do the data for non-white Americans, please feel free.)
Those things all correlate, and I don’t doubt that at least some of them (mainly education) are causative. But they’re proximate, not ultimate causes–effects of urbanization and wealth. Greater urbanization means greater job opportunities and liberal culture; greater wealth means less subsistence farming and need for children to till the soil. “We wrestle not with flesh and blood”, etc., as linked to above.
I think I can imagine your model: there are a hundred spots open for, say, biologists. You have a pool of a million men and a million women. There’s a cutoff which includes only a hundred men and ten women, due to greater variance at the tails. Now you have to degrade your standards because you have to leave fifty of those men out in the cold and hire forty women who don’t pass the bar. (Literally unthinkable? Please.)
Granting your model, most extraordinary people are men, but most men aren’t extraordinary. Most people aren’t extraordinary, and most jobs aren’t filled by extraordinary people, so that’s not even a common situation. Scott linked to a chart here; the average engineer’s IQ is 110.
Let’s use this as a reference for differences. If I’m calculating this right (one-tailed Z scores), in the first case, 26% of women and 32% of men are qualified to be the median engineer; in the second, 20% of women and 31% of men.
(Note also that the average engineer’s IQ is essentially the same as that of a worker in ‘creative occs’, which makes the focus on our STEM overlords seem a bit silly.)
I submit to you that even granting all of your assumptions, ‘women are roughly as likely to qualify as engineers as men’ (and, concordantly, ‘excluding women gets rid of roughly half of your talent pool’) is way closer to the truth than ‘it’s a pointless waste of resources to encourage women to be engineers’, even if it doesn’t give you a delicious shiver of edginess at discovering a dank truth.
As mentioned above, re childcare. If women didn’t have to take time off from their careers to raise kids, they’d be more productive in their careers and they’d have more children. I wonder why the people so concerned about dysgenics aren’t cursing the name of Nixon at every turn.
To which the response was:
With a link to some evidence on fertility by a proxy for IQ.
The evidence linked to is quite unclear, but it looks as though fertility is eugenic for men and dysgenic for women. The claim you are responding to isn’t that IQ’s are going down, it is that they are going down relative to what they would be if our society didn’t encourage smart women to have careers. That’s consistent with the evidence offered, with the female fertility pattern tending to pull IQ down, the male pattern tending to pull it up.
On the other hand, the tables showing results over time suggest that this is not a new pattern, which is evidence against the claim that it’s the modern encouragement of female careers that’s responsible.
Assuming that’s true, so what? Actually, I agree that greater wealth has made it easier to ignore some of the destructive aspects of feminist flights of fancy.
But it doesn’t change the fact that encouraging women to spend the majority of their most fertile years doing things other than reproducing has had a big impact on demographics in the West, much more than starving 10 million peasants.
All you are saying is that such policies are inevitable. Which may very well be the case given the rampant gynocentrism in the West, but it doesn’t contradict anything I have said.
This has to be the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time. I am aware of the “wider distribution” argument, and to be sure it probably has a significant impact at the extremes. But that misses the point that men are also just more intelligent than women, certainly when it comes to STEM. This fact is so obvious that it doesn’t even require a study, it’s clear just from simple observation. But it really does seem that for you, it is literally unthinkable.
Lol. Men are better than women at math.
Yes, because of the Patriarchy. Or Evil Spirits. Or Institutional Racism. Or some other mysterious, vague force.
Face it, your arguments are fundamentally no different from those of the biggest bible-thumping Jesus freak.
So what? So you’re trying to push back the sea. It’s not just the Decadent West, as I’ve been trying to point out. These trends are universal across cultures, across races. It doesn’t matter what your politics, or anyone’s, are.
I’ll try to be polite about this: appealing to “this fact is so obvious” and “clear just from simple observation” is not a reliable way of knowing things. There was a whole scientific revolution and everything.
What? You’re the one who said that women are less productive as doctors because they work fewer hours in their careers. Women generally take time off from work to raise children, which impacts their productivity. Childcare is *really expensive*, so much so that there’s a significant economic incentive for women to leave their careers. (I can dig up some cites if you don’t believe me; it’s part of why the wage gap has closed for young single women, for example.)
(If you want women to be incented to leave their careers, you can’t complain at the same time that they leave their careers. I mean, you can, but you sound kinda silly.)
Now more fathers (men) are leaving the work force (instead of women) to raise their children. I have actually met four househusbands (or stay-at-home dads) in the past year.
I believe that the data show more men at both the top and the bottom of the IQ distribution.
That aside, I can’t say that my simple observation is consistent with your claim. When I wrote my Price Theory text, I told people my ideal student knew no economics and had an infinite IQ. She showed up in the honors intro course I was teaching at UCLA–I think sixteen, and one of the brightest students I’ve ever had. I’ve known a number of other women who struck me as smarter than most men I’ve known.
The evidence suggests that very smart women are probably less common than very smart men, but the difference is not nearly as great as you apparently imagine.
So my point is correct. That’s what. Encouraging women in the West to spend the majority of their most fertile years pursuing education, jobs, and short-term sexual relationships has a big impact on demographics, more than starving 10 million peasants.
You don’t even deny this, you just claim it’s an inevitable consequence of other factors. That’s a different question. You are simply trying to change the subject.
So let me ask you this: Do you agree or disagree with my claim:
Encouraging women in the West to spend the majority of their most fertile years pursuing education, jobs, and short-term sexual relationships has a big impact on demographics, more than starving 10 million peasants.
A simple yes or no will do.
I would have to disagree. For example, I know that men are taller than women even though I have never seen a scientific study confirming this. Are you claiming that my knowledge of this point is unreliable?
What is the cost of childcare versus the typical earnings of a full time physician?
“That aside, I can’t say that my simple observation is consistent with your claim.”
So you are saying that in your experience and on average, the math ability of the men you meet and interact with is about the same as that of the women?
That’s a little too strong, in part because what I am observing is less precise than math ability. What I am saying is that, in my experience, highly intelligent women are not strikingly less common than highly intelligent men. Given my interests, “highly intelligent” is closer to math ability than, say, artistic ability.
On your point about observing height … . You can easily observe the height of vast numbers of strangers, so can have at least rough information on population averages. You directly observe the intelligence only of people you interact with pretty closely–closely enough to have an extended argument with, or discuss the solution to some technical problem with, or something similar. The people you interact with are a very non-random collection, so your information on population averages is much worse.
Going back to the case of math, I’m willing to concede that the ratio of women to men at the very high end of the distribution, Harvard math professors and the like, may well be low. But you get that result with equal means and a slightly greater standard deviation for men, which is my guess at the actual situation.
Lol, the sky won’t fall if you admit what is obviously true to anyone with open eyes, common sense, and the ability to think critically.
By the way, I would agree that it’s not obvious just from simple observation that men are in general more intelligent than women although I believe this to be the case as well.
You keep trying to dodge the uncomfortable truth by changing the subject of discussion from math ability to general intelligence.
But that’s hardly a surprise to me, most people in the West are reluctant to violate the unspoken taboos of liberalism.
You are of course correct that it’s more easy to make reliable generalizations about height based on simple observation than about mathematical ability. But I was responding to the claim that simple observation is inherently unreliable. And the example of height is a relatively uncontroversial way of showing that this claim is false.
fortaleza are you perchance allergic to nuance? You have people agreeing that at the tails of the intelligence distribution you will find more men that women, and yet you feel compelled to insist on men being smarter than women as some kind of absolutionist position.
Fact is inteligence differences between men and women are not like height differences. Heights have differing means which are far enough apart there is very little overlap between the two distributions. Intelligence on the other hand ia different distribution widths centered on the same mean. Therefore whereas you would expect none of the tallest humans to be female, you would expect some of the smartest humans to be so.
Moreover i am intensely skeptical of the socioeconomic policy you seem to be advocating. Given that it would require Soviet levels of command and repression to implement, it seems unlikely that it would be superior to that yielded by self-sorting in the pseudo-free market of modernity. Frankly your implication that modern society is inefficient and if only we implemented this other superior schema things would be better reminds me of 1930s Communists crowing about how collectivized agriculture will blow away inefficient private farming. Because it’s obvious that rational top down planning is better than chaotic ad-hoc self-organization. Just like it’s obvious that women are more valuable maximising birth rates than working in the professions.
That’s all bollocks. No good has ever come from the pompous declarations of those who think they know better than the market, and i’m not inclined to believe that you are so wise as to be an exception.
Probably; I’m not certain.
Ten million is a lot of peasants, but of course urbanization and prosperity are going to change things. I think that morally, comparing people getting wealthy and moving from dirt-encrusted shacks into spiffy apartments to millions of peasants starving is kinda silly, and if you evaluate everything solely in terms of its demographic impact, your reasoning process is at best incomplete.
First off, the distributions for male and female height are far more separate, like, almost 2 SDs between means. (As opposed to a third of an SD, if they even are different at the means, for intelligence.)
But even so, let’s work an example. Say you want to hire people over five foot seven. (Roughly the average human height in the United States.) About two thirds of men and one third of women will pass this bar. (SD about three inches, means five-five and five-ten.) It’s not like all men are tall and all women are short, and it’s even less like all men are STEMy and all women are not.
The sixth virtue is empiricism. The tenth virtue is precision. Welcome to the rationalist diaspora, where “it seems obvious to me” may be a starting-off point, but it’s not a conclusion. If it seems odd to you that people try to test their prejudices and expectations against the real world like this… I’d suggest trying to do it yourself; it’s remarkably helpful.
Especially being such a fan of STEM, you should be all about the empiricism… it’s just occurred to me that maybe you’re not comfortable with statistics and distributions. Well, if that’s the case, there’s no shame in it; Khan Academy has some good starter material, and I’m sure people here would be happy to help you out–feel free to ask questions!
(I’m trying not to be mean, but if this is the case, it’s a little funny that you’re talking about how much better men are at math when there are plenty of women who can do more stats-related math than you can. Unless you’re a woman, that is, but I’m guessing you’re not a woman.)
Lillian, I appreciate your perspective. I shudder to think of the central planning done by someone so certain that they have it right that they don’t even bother to do the math with made-up numbers, let alone real ones.
I gather you haven’t followed my writing, here or elsewhere, very closely.
I responded to that, writing (among other things)
You quoted that, and responded:
You will note that your claim was not about math ability but about intelligence in general and STEM in particular. Hence I was not saying what you claimed I was saying.
And, in part of my comment that you didn’t quote, I concluded with
Hence not only was I not talking about math ability, I wasn’t saying that the ability I was talking about was about the same between men and women.
I then wrote, in response to your math ability question:
You then had the gall to write:
As this sequence shows, I was not the one who kept trying to change the subject of discussion. Your original claim was about intelligence in general and STEM ability in particular, not math ability—you then pretended it had been about math ability. My claim was that the difference probably existed but was not as great as you supposed. You then pretended that I was saying that the two were about the same.
I think you’re looking at this from the wrong end. It’s not just that women are choosing careers instead of childcare; historically women have _usually_ worked, after all, if often in different roles than men. It’s that childcare has gotten ridiculously expensive for all but the underclass. Law and custom requires that anyone (other than their own parents) who comes near a child be trained and vetted and investigated six ways from Sunday, children must be closely supervised at all times, if anything happens to a child an investigation must be done to find the culprit and new regulations instituted to stop it from ever happening again. All this is high cost. Add to that the insistence that if the kids don’t get into the most superior schools and activities from pre-K on they’ll never succeed in life, and no wonder childcare requires one parent to sacrifice everything else.
Absolutely not, are you allergic to reality? I ask you this because you seem to be trying to change the subject.
Actually I have been focusing on a narrower claim — that men are better than women at math. And yet people feel compelled to try to shift the discussion to intelligence in general; or to policy prescriptions.
I’m pretty skeptical of this claim. Especially when it comes to math ability. Unfortunately, studying the question in a rigorous way is a bit like studying evolutionary science in a hypothetical theocracy where there is a taboo against questioning religious dogma.
But let’s do this: Are you able to show compelling evidence that average math ability is the same between men and women? Keep in mind that any research study which focuses on children would have to look at people above the age of 13 or 14 since boys and girls mature at different rates.
Exactly what socioeconomic policy do I seem to be advocating? Please quote me. Because I think you are just making stuff up in an attempt to shift the grounds of discussion.
I take it you would be comfortable dismantling all government policies and funding aimed at increasing female representation in higher education, job markets, scientific research, and so forth?
As David Friedman has already demonstrated, you’re the one who keeps changing the subject fortaleza. To quote from you comment that started this argument:
In reality the facts suggest that women going into the professions in general and STEM in oarticular is due to market forces. Iran, no bastion of feminism, can only stem the tide through authoritarian policies like enforced gender segregation, college quotas, and flat out forbidding women from some fields. While they justify the latter two policies by pointing to low rates of employment among female graduates, that is itself partly a result of the first policy. Given more liberal laws it seems evident they would eventually have plenty of female engineers even absent feminist folly.
But fine since you want to talk about math let’s talk about math. Thankfully Scott has made things easy for us by already covering the subject. He determined that among students taking the GRE exams, the portion qualified to be graduate students in mathematics is 29% female. Coincidentially, that’s also the portion of math grad students who are female. Looks like efficient resource allocation to me!
And yes, i do in fact oppose government affirmative action policies.There appears to be little evidence they help with anything, and some evidence they’re actively harmful.
Ok, so you concede that my point is correct.
Lol, you are the one who made the comparison in the first place. Which you now (apparently) admit is silly. And I would have to agree.
Umm, again you are trying to change the subject. The example of height shows that you are wrong in your claim that knowledge based on simple observation is generally unreliable.
By the way, since you now concede that I am probably right about the demographic impact of encouraging women to pursue higher education etc., I am willing to address the side-issue you raised: Whether it is possible to reverse this trend, or if it is like turning back the ocean.
And in fact, I think that “turning back the ocean” is a good analogy. It is very difficult to turn back a tidal wave, but if you wait, it will recede on its own. So too with feminism. Any anti-natalist ideology is unlikely to last absent some radical change in technology. And you see the seeds of feminism’s self-destruction already: There are various subcultures in which women are encourage to spend their fertile years reproducing, and (surprise surprise) those subcultures are growing at a very fast rate.
If you look at the last paragraph of the comment I originally responded to, you’ll see vV_Vv linking to the Great Chinese Famine. Hence my incredulity at the analogy. (Are you not following links? Please at least mouse over them; they’re here for your edification.)
A little less of the Dank Truths schtick, please. There’s a wealth of publicly-accessible data out there; not bothering to look for it doesn’t make you a brave iconoclast; it’s just lazy.
How about SAT scores? Here’s a graph; the stable difference in means is 30-40 points on the math portion. SD is 100 points on the SAT (per component), which means that the difference in mean on the math portion only is… a third of a standard deviation, the same as what we started with. (I’m skeptical of using SATs as a proxy, as the effect size seems to cross zero in meta-analyses, but I’m really trying to steelman your argument here.)
Isn’t it more fun to actually find things out than to darkly hint that invisible forces beyond your control are keeping the truth from you? I hope you’ll update your beliefs accordingly, both in terms of the relative abilities of men and women, and in terms of how good The Man is at keeping things hidden.
That’s not what I said, and that’s not what ‘unreliable’ means. Being precise matters. Your prejudices may be somewhat correlated, unevenly, with reality. But empiricism is better correlated. I recommend some foundational reading in probability and empiricism; I think you have an intuitive way of looking at things which could benefit greatly from some of the advances made since the sixteenth century. (And, I would venture to add, a firm grounding in basic statistics and probability.)
And by next month, you’ll have four dozen husbands! See below, re China, Ireland, Brazil and Iran. If you’re truly concerned about there being too many people of a sort you don’t like, you should be all in favor of bringing universal culture to them, as hard and as fast as you can.
If you are not trying to change the subject, then you should have no problem laying out the socioeconomic policy I am supposedly advocating and quoting me where I do so.
Please do so. Failing that, please just admit that you made something up in an attempt to change the subject and apologize. The sky won’t fall if you do so.
Sure, I invited you to supply compelling evidence that average math ability is the same between men and women. I take it that you are unable to do so?
Jesus Fucking Christ, your willful blindness and obtuseness is infuriating.
You said, and i quoted you, that what you consider to be feminist folly has cost civilization in technological advancement. This implies that we would be better off if it had been stopped or at least not happened. So i pointed out the real costs of forcibly stopping it, and that women going into the professions is a market driven effect. Taken together this suggests that your hypothesis is incorrect. If markets are efficient, and markets are driving women into the professions, then having female scientists and engineers is in fact efficient and is not holding us back.
Also nobody, and i mean nobody, in this thread has claimed equal math ability between men and women. We are claiming the difference is smaller than you think, we have provided evidence to the effect. You have provided nothing beyond your assertions. Debate cannot and will not continue until you defend your position. We have defended ours.
If by “willful blindness and obtuseness” you mean “calling on you to back up your claims,” then yeah, I imagine it must be pretty infuriating.
The fact is I didn’t lay out any policy prescriptions. But if you want to assume that I was, the most charitable assumption would be that I was advocating for taking the government and societal thumb off the scales, i.e. stop encouraging women to pursue higher education and high status careers and let the chips fall where they may.
But of course you didn’t do that. You conjured up some kind of policy (which you still refuse to lay out) which would require “Soviet levels of command and repression” whatever that means.
In short, you attacked a strawman and you refuse to own up to it.
I also note that you have declined to offer even a shred of evidence — let alone compelling evidence — for the position that, on average, men and women are equally good at math.
Not that it really matters since I don’t engage with people who misrepresent my position. This exchange is over.
You demand that i provide evidence in support of a claim that i have explicitly not advanced, and have in fact provided evidence agianst, yet i’m the strawmanning liar.
Sure thing buddy, whatever you say.
I missed the part where he compares it to “spiffy apartments.” Can you quote that section please? Failing that, please admit that the “analogy” is simply a strawman that you concocted.
So you dispute that political correctness has a large impact on whether certain taboo subjects are the subject of scientific studies?
I have no idea what your point is here. I asked if there is compelling evidence that average math ability is the same between men and women and you link to an article about a math test where male test-takers consistently perform significantly better than female test-takers.
Do you not understand that this is actually evidence that my position is correct?
Among other things, you said this:
You clearly implied that knowledge based on simple observation is generally unreliable. If you are now admitting that this was wrong, fine, but please don’t pretend you didn’t make the claim. Please don’t weasel.
Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I assume that by “prejudice” you mean “knowledge gained from simple observation” and you were just throwing in a gratuitous jab. So interpreted, your claim may very well be correct. But that’s not what you said before. More importantly, your new position doesn’t contradict mine.
Please stop weaseling and just admit that what you said earlier was wrong. As opposed to pretending you didn’t say it.
I’m not sure what your point is here. There do exist subcultures, for example Amish and Orthodox Jews, where (1) women are encouraged to spend their most fertile years reproducing; and (2) the population has been rapidly increasing for some time. Are you saying it’s unreasonable to expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future?
Not exactly, I expressed certainty when it came to one (and by implication) uncertainty as to the other.
You responded with a general statement, a personal anecdote, and concluded with this:
Nothing here about math ability.
Then when I tried to refocus the discussion on math, you said this:
i.e. you tried to change the subject back again.
It’s not a matter of pretending, in my mind these things are essentially the same and I did not realize until now that you were drawing a distinction.
So let’s try again.
So you are saying that in your experience and on average, the STEM ability of the men you meet and interact with is about the same as that of the women?
The negative correlation between IQ and fertility stopped or significantly dropped around the time of the sexual revolution. There’s also the Flynn effect.
In a broader sense, Robert Goddard, Abe Lincoln and Henry Ford all came from long lines of dirt farmers, the trailer-park inhabitants of their day. Norman Borlaug was born on a farm. Stephen Fry was a small-time crook and credit-card fraudster as a teenager. Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs were both illegitimate children given up for adoption.
Before you bemoan the fall of civilization, you should be really sure you’re on the right page.
Among White Americans.
Now please remind me which is the continent with the largest fertility rate in the world.
“His biological father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali (Arabic: عبد الفتاح الجندلي) (b. March 15, 1931), grew up in Homs, Syria and was born into an Arab Muslim household. Jandali is the son of a self-made millionaire who did not go to college and a mother who was a traditional housewife. While an undergraduate at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, he was a student activist and spent time in jail for his political activities. Although Jandali initially wanted to study law, he eventually decided to study economics and political science. He pursued a PhD in the latter subject at the University of Wisconsin […]”
Totally nothing to do with genes…
The least urbanized and poorest continent, exactly as one would predict given the relationship between fertility, poverty and urbanization everywhere else. (The relationship holds within Africa, as well.)
Totally nothing to do with class and legitimacy. I’m pointing out that if you’re frightened of a tide of trailer-park residents and illegitimate kids, well, they don’t all appear to have terrible genes.
So why is Africa less urbanized and poorer than everywhere else? Do wet streets cause rain?
Nobody said that. You might want to work on engaging people’s arguments rather than strawmanning them.
That’s a great question, and one I am utterly unqualified to answer. But if you’re concerned that Africa seems oddly fertile, just remember that your forebears were likewise concerned about the Chinese, the Brazilians, the Irish, the Iranians, and so on, all of which had a TFR over three (in some cases over six!) in 1970, and all of which have, as of last year, a TFR under two. Across various cultures, geographies and ethnicities, prosperity and urbanization reliably did the same thing.
Maybe sub-Saharan Africa is somehow special; perhaps their fertility rates are due to black people simply being that much prettier than white people or something. But I have my doubts that things are really so different there than everywhere else in the world. And if you’re worried that it will always stay poor, well, it really does seem to be improving. Maybe it won’t be as wealthy as the West, but it’s very unlikely to be stuck in an eternal 1950s-style mire of autocracy and famine.
On the graph you are citing, 36 million is the population in 200 A.D. The fall of the Western Empire is commonly dated to about 450 A.D. By 400 A.D., on the same graph, population is down to 31 million–say 30 million by 450.
So a more accurate statement would be “The late Roman Empire caused a population decrease of about six million. Population continued to fall for another hundred and fifty years before it started back up. It passed its Roman high in about 1000 A.D. and continued growing for the next three hundred years.”
My rule of thumb for very poor societies is that the growth rate of population is a proxy for the average standard of living. That growth rate, the slope of the line on Figure 1.2 of the Atlas of World Population History, starts up in about 450 A.D. and continues increasing until about 1300.
The population figures we are citing are very uncertain. So are the GDP figures. As you may have noticed, your two sources differ, in the early period, by about a factor of two.
A few other points. You mention the horse collar. In classical antiquity, horses were harnessed with a strap running around the neck, and a team of horses had to be in line abreast–consider a chariot race. The invention of the horse collar substantially increased–I think the estimate is doubled–the amount of work a horse could do, and increased by much more than that the maximum pull, since you could now have your horses in line ahead, with all of the force going forward instead of much of it to the side. Admittedly, this was only relevant to horses and mules–oxen were yoked–but it was still a big increase in available power.
You don’t mention the moldboard plow, now estimated to have been invented in the 10th century.
If I could find my copy of Lynn White I might be able to offer a few other inventions. I will leave you with one of my favorite examples of the high level of arts in the early Middle Ages.
The inefficiency or Roman horse harness, compared to medieval one, seems to be greatly exagerrated.
By the bye, horseshoes are a big deal. Protection for hooves means horses can travel on rougher terrain and for longer without injury, which means you can use them in ways and places you couldn’t before.
So a small technical advance in the later, degenerate age after The Glory Of Rome makes a huge difference in prosperity and commerce 🙂
What’s the difference between “the fall of the Roman Empire” and “the late Roman Empire”?
About two and a half centuries.
The population peak on the graph Scott and I are referencing is in 200 A.D. The traditional date for the fall of the Roman empire is 476 A.D. when Odoacer took the title “King of Italy.” A little longer than from the American revolution to the present.
What’s the difference between “the death” and “the cancer”?
The former may be the most startling and most instantly devastating event, but in the context of the latter it doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere.
If those numbers on metal production (and other metrics of economic success; IIRC analysis of shipwrecks also shows a similar peak in marine transport around 1AD and decline thereafter) are correct, then the fall of the Roman Empire might have been somehow inherent in the transition from Republic to Empire, and all the conquest and plunder in between might merely have bought them time.
On the “good vs impressive” axes, it’s tempting to say say that the Republic was good and impressive, but the Empire dropped “good” and tried to compensate with “really impressive” instead. The ancient equivalent of Soviets putting up Sputniks while simultaneously putting down starving Hungarians.
I find the fact that roman maritime shipping peaked in 1ad highly dubious, do you have a source for that?
and I don’t think the Republic was that great either, sure you had a small group of noble families rather than a single military strongman in charge, but the republic had plenty of issues that the empire didn’t -incentive structures that rewarded noble generals going out and starting their own wars, governorship that were just an opportunity for said noble generals to fund said wars and their election campaigns back home, private tax collectors givenfree reign to plunder the provinces to the greatest extent possible, etc.
“I find the fact that roman maritime shipping peaked in 1ad highly dubious, do you have a source for that?”
That’s in the Ward-Perkins book referred to in the OP.
“and I don’t think the Republic was that great either”
Very much this. It was a lot like rivalry among Mafia families with entire armies and fleets under their control.
The original source of the claim about shipwrecks is Parker.* Here and here are histograms based on his data.
* A.J. Parker. Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces (1992).
The Republic was reasonably good in its town terms — i.e. as the union of its citizens. But that’s misleadingly narrow. It also still an empire (by our modern meaning of the term), one which subjugated foreign lands and extracted resources out of them for the benefit of Romans. And this put power into the hands of the generals who lead that work, this in turn lead to civil wars that were (temporarily) quelled by Augustus and his Empire.
So the Republic was in fact doomed by its own imperialistic sins. And those sins (i.e a political economy based on resource extraction by a military elite) were pretty much the same sins that brought down the empire.
N.B: Above is the tale of one coincedence. Causality is more complicated, it took centuries for the Empire to fall, and many other empires have lasted a long time. But I think an honest survey of the history of the Roman, Chinese, the Ottomans, the Russians etc. would show that show ancient/medeival empires did in fact cause a lot of chaos for their own core consituencies. The picture is more complicated for the colonial empires of Europe.
Also worth pointing out that an unknowable but possibly significant proportion of the seeming fall is probably due to the use of more perishable materials (e.g., building buildings out of wood rather than stone) which are less likely to survive for modern archaeologists to find. When we get good records again, in the Carolingian period, recorded population levels are often higher than we’d expect based on the archaeological record alone, so it’s quite possible that the population of the years after the fall of Rome was higher than we think as well.
It is precisely because the Early Middle Ages were in fact a Dark Age, that i have long contended that the real Renaissance is the Renaissance of the 12th century. Sure the Italian Renaissance ushered in the Early Modern Period and paved the way to the Enlightenment, it was genuinely a big deal, but it was also in many ways a continuation of an already existing trend. A trend that started with the final defeat of the Saracen threat to Europe in the late 10th century, and came to full bloom over the course of the 12th (the Crusades provably played a role in this). The Italian Renaissance brought back the classics of Antiquity, but the Renaissance of the 12th century marked the end of the Dark Ages. It was by far the bigger deal.
I wish it was easier to find sources on the social changes between the European 4th and 11th centuries or so. It’s perfectly obvious that there was a lot of change over that time, but I’ve found it quite difficult to uncover details.
It’s hard to know because there was a great decline in the quantity of written material produced in that time. There is, however, this book:
The British History Podcast covers this topic in quite a lot of detail.
The trend of recovery from the Dark Ages probably started with the Arab invasions of Spain and Sicily and subsequent knowledge transmission (including of works of classical antiquity, but more importantly of advanced agricultural techniques, new technologies, economic/governmental institutions etc) northwards, not with their defeat.
While the Arab world did indeed have unique discoveries and advances of their own, they also were not sui generis; they too were the heirs of the Ancient World and got as much from (say) Classical Alexandria, the Middle Eastern provinces, and Rome-and-Greece-via-Byzantium.
There was a lot of cultural exchange and bringing it all back home all over Europe and the Near East.
Visited Constantinople recently?
Perhaps my use is non-standard, but Turks are not Saracens in my estimation. The term refers mainly to Muslim Arabs and Moors. Though i will admit i was playing it a bit fast and loose with the timeline there. While the tide turned in the late 10th with the clearing of the Alpine passes, the threat wasn’t truly over until the Norman conquest of Sicily in the late 11th.
The Almoravids pushed the Christian Spanish kingdoms back north in the late 11th century and their successors, the Almohads, were not defeated in Iberia until the early 13th century. It’s only with hindsight that we can now see that al-Andalus was on its slow way down.
That is a fair point and i accept it. The struggle for Iberia hung in the balance for over a century after Italia was secured. In fact the Second Crusade had a very large component that was in fact fought in along both the Western and Eastern Iberian coasts. That the Pope felt inclined to count those actions as part of the Crusade is telling of how important it was thought to be for the security of Christendom.
In fact it was the most successful part of the Crusade. With the aid of Danish Crusaders the Portuguese secured Lisbon. While the Catalans, aided by the Genoese fleet, captured Tortosa.
I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to when you say “the Saracen threat to Europe”. If we’re using the term “Saracen” correctly as a synonym for the people’s living in in modern day Israel, Lebanon, Jordon, and Sinai, I don’t know that they were a threat to anyone, much less Europe (Especially the parts of Europe that actually had an actual dark age)
If we’re using the term “Saracen” incorrectly as just another word for Muslim, then I’m left equally puzzled. The late 10th century is before the battle of Manzikart, which is arguably the most threatening Muslims have been to Europe since their initial expansion in 6th century. That threat never really ended, and ultimately culminated in the actual for-realsies fall of Rome in 1453, which is coincidently when all the Byzantine refugees show up in Italian cities, bringing all their Classical Greek works with them.
The only thing I can remotely think that fits the bill of a
MuslimSaracen threat to Europe is as-Andalus, but they hadn’t even tried to cross the Pyrenees since the mid 700s, and as noted in the post was one of the places where “the dark ages” doesn’t apply.
But even further, I’m not sure why the “final defeat of the
MuslimSaracen threat (such as it was) to Europe (or at least catholic Europe because the east is icky and doesn’t count)” would be a Renaissance? What exactly is being reborn? You say “it was by far the bigger deal” but aside from racism reasons I can’t see why that would possibly be the case.
The term Saracen in this context means Arab and Moorish Muslims. They were seriously raiding the Italian mainland and blocking the passes across the Alps through the 10th century. Like Genoa was flat out destroyed and possibly lefy briefly uninhabited by a Saracen raid in 934 or 935. The clearing of the passes by the Provencals and the Swabians, the efforts of Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi in securing the sea lanes, as well as the the conquest of Sicily by the Normans, finally put an end to the threat. This allowed commerce to once again flourish across the Alps and throughout the penninsula and the southern coast of France. While Saracen pirates would continue to be a problem until the mid-19th century, they would never again come ashore in Italy to seize major trade routes and sack whole cities.
So the issue is not that Muslims are icky, the issue is you try rebuilding civilization while all your trade routes are being interdicted. The defeat of the Saracens was necessary to re-establish reliable commercial links throughout Italy, which in turn played a key role in building up the wealth and prosperity in Western Europe that brought forth the Renaissance of the 12th century.
It wasn’t the only thing though. There was the establishment of what would become the Holy Roman Empire by the Ottonians. Also the Crusades, since the foundation of the Crusader Kingdoms expanded commerce between East and West. Additionally the Peace and Truce of God movement laid the groundwork for the ideals of chivalry, producing a lower nobilty that was more than just heavily armed brigands with airs. More peace, more commerce, more wealth, more learning, more culture. That’s the rebirth, defeating the Saracens was just an important factor in making it possible.
Since it sounds to me like you’ve never heard of the 12th century Renaissance, the Wikipedia article seems as good a starting point as any other: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_of_the_12th_century
aside from racism reasons I can’t see why that would possibly be the case
True dat: disapproving of the Sack of Baltimore is motivated by nothing more than racism. It’s only because they were Muslim that we didn’t like Algerian slavers raiding the town! (Even though there were Dutch members of the raiding party and there are theories about local collusion and help in planning the raid).
Can we please avoid the kneejerk excesses of Evergreen State College ‘debate’ here and avoid flinging around DAT’S RACISS! accusations?
For me, the problem is more that Lillian is characterizing the Muslims as some monolithic impediment/ threat to Western Civilization. I mean sure, the Ummayyads took most of Spain, but as pointed out before, al-Andalus was arguably more ‘civilized’ than the rest of Western Europe. Yes, Seljuk Turks invaded Anatolia in the 12th century, but by the 8th or 9th centuries the Arab Muslims were mostly just keeping to themselves and fighting each other. The Fatimids were rather decrepit militarily. The Abbassids were more focused on the east. Sure there were still raid from North African and Sicilian raiders, but how much did those raids add to the overall shittiness when the entire continent was a patchwork of petty kingdoms, duchies, and counties constantly in a state of low level war with each other? Were the Sicilian and North African raids worse than the Norse raids? I hadn’t known that Muslim pirate sacked Genoa (though I don’t know how important that city was before the 11th century), but I do know that the vikings sacked Paris.
You are misreading what i’m saying. The point is that the end of the Saracen threat marks when the France-Italy-Germany part of Europe got its shit together enough to turn back the raiders and allow high culture to return for good. Otherwise the 12th century Renaissance could not have happened. The slightly later end of the Viking threat would be just as good a marker, but i like Southern European history more than Northern European, so i used the Saracens.
Also they didn’t just burn Genoa. For a century they occupied the passes across the Western Alps, completely disrupting trade between Italy and both Germany and France. This had severe economic consequences for all of them. Clearing the passes, diminishing the pirate threat (Saracen and Viking), the Ottonian dynasty, the success of the Peace and Truce of God movement, the Crusades, they all had large positive economic impacts for Europe. Commerce flourished, the populatiom boomed, there was greater prosperity and higher standards of living. With that came art, science, culture, a Renaissance if you will.
It’s kind of difficult to do most cultural activities when your country is continually being invaded and pillaged.
It’s not like Muslim piracy in the Mediterranean stopped in the 12th century.
It did not, but there’s a difference between dealing with Muslim pirates, and dealing with Muslim raiders coming ashore, building fortresses on you overland trade routes, and burning your cities.
Norse piracy in the North Sea also persisted long after the Viking Age, yet the two are clearly not the same in gravity of threat. England was not in danger of being conquered by the Fataljebrødrene.
It’s not like invasions and pillaging stopped after the saracen threat ‘ended’
Pretty sure East Roman intellectuals fled to North Italy a lot before 1453 – some likely even fled the Catalans! Also, Moorish Spain shared in the general Muslim reactionary decline.
No, it wasn’t. It was a regression, a dark age.
Yeah i don’t strongly disagree with that article, but i do think it comes down too hard on the Late Medieval Renaissance. That said the author does seem to be in perfect agreement with my thesis that the 12 century is the real Renaissance.
FWIW, my impression of bad Dark Ages discourse is that people who aren’t knowledgeable about the area mostly forget that the High Middle Ages were a thing. That is, the view that everything was terrible from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance is very widespread, and people who know that the period from 1000-1500 was productive and wealthy are the exception.
And yes, this is related to the Catholic church, since this is often tied up with the narrative that medieval Catholicism was the font of all poverty and ignorance, while paganism and humanism respectively were the saviors of humanity. To combat this absurd notion it’s important to note that Europe was about half pagan during the actual Dark Ages, and that the high tide of Catholicism in the period 1000-1500 was actually an era of civilizational progress
Good points both. Thanks!
It occurs to me that “Medieval” is another term that fudges between 500-1000 and 1000-1500 in order to fit those eras neatly into the narrative.
Yeah, I think a big part of this is that when people think of the “Dark Ages” they are usually thinking about the time when Aquinas was active, which is why people often point to Aquinas as refutation. Everything between Rome and when Columbus proved the world was round is pretty fuzzy in the public mind.
I can’t tell if that’s intended to be serious or as a description of the public mind.
The nice thing about online conversation is that it’s much easier to maintain deadpan without cracking.
Another fair one is “everything between Rome and when the Catholic Church burned Galileo at the stake” 😀
Alfred the Great’s preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis was really striking to me as an example of the intellectual decline, as of the late 9th century:
That’s really sad, but also a little cheering, because hey, they bounced back! They went from that to being at the forefront of huge paradigm-shifting advances in modern technology, and got to play global bigshots for a good century plus. Take heart, even when wisdom seems to have been lost there’s still hope.
Alfred the Great is not talking about the fall of Rome, he’s talking about the ravages of the Viking Age. In particular the collapse of the Saxon kingdoms in the face of a full blown Danish invasion. To illustrate how bad it got, consider that Alfred was his father’s fifth son, and that at one point Alfred’s kingdom, the only one still resisting the Danes, consisted only of his personal retainers and a swamp. His coming back from such lows to establish the Kingdom of England is why they call him the Great.
And why my son’s middle name is Alfred… 🙂
I once blogged about this, specifically about the question of who wrote when. I got some specific push-back in the comments, too.
Some of the debate (the part I was especially interested in) has to do with the distinction between ‘religion’ & other cultural forms, especially philosophy; but a lot of it also orbits around geography and/or civilization (the Roman Catholic west vs the Orthodox or the Islamic east, or the Jewish minority in either sphere.) But my own point was mainly that in any given century you can find specific people who made genuine contributions.
Oh good, someone remembers Boethius! Admittedly he doesn’t push back the 500 date by much, and the scholarly consensus seems to be that he belongs to the classical world and not the “Dark Ages”. But it shows that interesting intellectual things were still happening a half-century after the sack of Rome, and I remember his Consolation of Philosophy being a breath of fresh air in the “Great Books” class I took. Not sure why that missed the Bloom list.
Boethius was on the philosophers list, but since I did it by birth date of the philosopher involved (I know this is dumb, but it was easier to find than “date he published his most famous work”, he made it into the “1 – 500 AD” bin by a hair – which I think is probably most accurate, since he was the dying gasp of the Roman tradition rather than the beginning of a new one.
I’m not sure I agree with this. If you look at the events and circumstances of Boethius’s life (he was a Christian, he worked for and was executed by the barbarian king Theoderic), his time seems much more similar to the “Dark Ages” than the classical world, and so I think he probably should have been included as a philosopher of that era. But your point about the relative lack of important philosophers from that time is still valid.
The Romans had been Christians for a long time. Indeed at that time, Christianity was a marker of Romanness.
I am not sure how him getting killed by a germanic warlord helps your argument. If you like to date ages by neat, artificial, but poignant events, then you could even define the dark age to begin at his death.
Mentioned this on twitter today, but very odd that Alcuin and Eriugena don’t make the cut towards the end of the period. (This is where History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps restarts European philosophy after ending Late Antiquity with Boethius.)
(Once you get below the moderately big names, of course, there’s other thinkers and writers. For every Alcuin there’s a Bede, for every Eriugena a Columbanus.)
At the other end of the Dark Ages, Isidore was not a philosopher, but deserves kudos for trying to preserve as much classical knowledge as possible in 6th century Spain.
Regarding the list of philosophers as a guide, don’t you find it very strange that it has a grand total of 5 for 500BC to 1AD out of 100 philosophers? Is Benjamin or Lacan or Zizek *really* more important than Heraclitus, founders of atomism Leucippus & Democritus, founder of Stoicism Zeno of Citium, founder of Cynicism Antisthenes, Sceptic Pyrrho of Elis? The list seems heavily biased towards the present.
Lists like this are always dubious (I wanted to facepalm when I saw Scott link to it). Much of the problem is that we aren’t clear what metric we are even using; that list is the reduction of this to absurdity, providing no rationale whatsoever, just the adjective “greatest.” Do we mean most important, as you assume? What does that even mean? How about most fertile for other thinkers? How about for the quality of their analysis? Or the one we all think but don’t want to say—how much did they get right or wrong?
I think the best list of philosopher’s is Peter Adamson’s podcast HOPWAG timeline, and even there 500-1000 has 10 philosophers while 1000 – 1150 has 11.
It’s worth keeping in mind that most of what was written from 300 – 753 in the British Isles was destroyed. Philosophy is certainly not where the good action is happening in 500-1000.
Christian religious culture and some simple but important inventions spread their seeds all around Europe. It was a hard time and it wasn’t pretty, but it led to Slatestarcodex.com.
In my personal bubble, it’s uncontroversial that conditions got worse in Western Europe starting around 500 (mostly due to the Roman Empire’s collapse, I’d assume), and “the Dark Ages” is a loaded term that’s mostly used by less-than-thoughtful writers use to pooh-pooh everything that happened between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (feudalism and Christianity in particular), on their way to making some ideological point.
In other words, “Dark Ages” strikes me as being less like “Great Plains” and more like “flyover country”– yes, it does refer to some real quantifiable phenomenon, but it’s frustratingly vague and flexible, and it mostly gets used in polarizing ways. As a result, it isn’t a good choice of descriptive term outside of an overtly political context.
In other words, “Dark Ages” strikes me as being less like “Great Plains” and more like “flyover country”
Exactly! Most times it’s used, even by those who should know better, it’s as shorthand for “nasty, brutish and short (and superstition and theocracy on top of that)”. It’s hardly ever as a neutral descriptive term.
The comments section seems to paint a pretty clear picture of what’s going on here, which Scott hinted at briefly in the main post.
Level 0: The Dark Ages (whenever that time Rome fell was—whenever the Renaissance is said to have started) sucked. People were dumb and poor and died.
Level 1: Actually, many positions in spacetime that occur during your so-called “Dark Ages” are very much unlike the picture you’ve painted, Level 0.
Level 2 (Scott): Look, Level 1. 500-1000 AD sucked based on a lot of metrics, and to say that the time period as a whole did not suck for Europe is hard to justify.
Level 3 (comments): Level 2 makes some good points, but the real issue is the Level 0 people!
Level 4: The real issue is direction-pushing over target-hitting.
One eye-opener in the comments, the tumblr threads, Wikipedia etc. has been the sheer diversity of pre-debate positions on what “Dark Ages” and “Middle Ages” refers to.
Of course, target-hitting is difficult and demands long waffly essays, whereas direction-pushing lends itself to short sharp “hey quick note if your model of history looks like this [ ] you have no idea what you’re talking about”-type statements.
You’re lucky to get even that. I mean, an “if”? Back in my day…
On the other hand, “in practice, infinite recursions are at most three levels deep.” Which I take to mean that this bottoms out at level 2.
This is basically correct. The solution is just to be very deliberate with terminology. Saying something like “Europe after the fall of Rome was so bad, we should call it The Dark Ages” isn’t shitty because there was no such thing, it’s shitty because pretty much every word in that sentence except the conjunctions is poorly defined or misused:
-“Europe” is a poor geographic scope.
-“After” fails to adequately put an upper limit on the time we’re talking about.
-“The Fall of Rome” is its own separate can of worms which I could fill several comment boxes with.
-“Bad” needs a more rigorous definition (which Scott focuses on)
This ties into an interesting issue about simplification and modeling. Everything we know about everything, basically, is a simplification. And to make it worse, most of our normal knowledge is in the form of ordinary language and narratives which makes it not just simplified but vague too.
Since that makes no statements of the kind “Europe entered a Dark Age after the Fall of Rome and that was bad” completely correct, we really should have some method of evaluating how valid we can consider it.
You say that pretty much every word in the sentence is poorly defined, and yes it is. Can we use that? Instead of going for exact definitions, can we give every word a distribution of definitions, according to how most people would interpret the word?
Letting all the words independently vary in meaning over their distribution creates a meaning-space. Perhaps estimating how much of that meaning-space corresponds to an accurate claim can give us a sense of how valid the vague statement is?
My hunch is that some claims are quite stable in the face of meaning-perturbations and it would take truly weird interpretations to change their truth values, while other claims (and I think this is a good proxy for “controversial”) are highly unstable, with small changes in meaning having big consequences for truth (i.e. their “correctness plots” have complex, sharp edges).
But this is true of most sentences, isn’t It? I had a school teacher who once got us to pretend to be writing instructions on how to put on your shoes to an alien who couldn’t cope with any ambiguity. It was awfully hard.
And people who take sentences out of textbooks and try to understand them without any of the context of ideas tend to come out with ridiculous stuff.
That’s a bingo.
Can I get this in the form of an Expanding Brain meme?
Not sure how I missed that opportunity…
After the Vandals stopped the corn fleets to Rome, Rome shrank to a town. Bam, the dark ages. (Fine, Rome was a slave empire ruled by military juntas who kept fighting civil wars, but it’s not like it was replaced by a peaceable free trade zone with Carnegie libraries in every town. ) For six hundred years the European superpeninsula was an impoverished mess, give or take when Charlemagne got the treasure of the Nibelungs from the Hun ring-fort. Then, after Hastings unified a chunk of France and England, big Viking raids stopped trashing the west coast of Europe, and after Manzikert the Byzantine empire was just a city state with add-ons- not big enough to trash eastern Europe as a hobby. Bam, from dark ages to middle ages. Then around 1450 the French king had the Bourgeois brothers put together an artillery park that could knock down castle walls and let him grab a centralized monarchy, other kings got artillery and centralized monarchy, centralized monarchies in Portugal and Spain started bringing in the wealth of the Indies and Americas, bam, from middle ages to Renaissance.
With military juntas, military history explains a lot.
I will admit, there was a brief moment reading this where my mind went “An isolated demand for rigor? But this isn’t about politics!” and it took me a second to remember that people can be
stupidepistemically clumsy about normal topics, too.
(I mean, everything’s political with enough degrees of separation, and everything in politics is mutually reinforcing, so it’s not exactly hard to politicize any given topic- but there are still some topics where we can predict politicization with high accuracy, and others where it seems more random.)
I’m increasingly aware of how much of my mental activity is explicitly determined by those around me- I keep trying to compensate for their blind spots. I hope it doesn’t influence the content of my mental map, but it has a pretty profound effect on what I emphasize and how hard.
This debate used to be way more political, especially in places where the Catholic Church is a major political force. If you’re trying to argue that the Church’s faction should not gain political power, it is very useful to point to 500 years of civilizational collapse and say “hey, remember the last time you guys had huge amounts of temporal power? Remember how everyone was covered in mud and illiterate and died of plague at 35? Yeah, let’s not do that again.” Conversely, it becomes very useful for the Church faction to turn around and say “No, you’re completely misrepresenting this period…there totally was lots of art and science, and the peasants only starved some of the time!” As pro- and anti-clerical factions aren’t as important today, this debate is now primarily the venue of historians.
I went to a college whose main reason for existing was to teach us all that the dark ages weren’t dark, and that any place and time where the Catholic Church was dominant was actually great. The defending-Cortez part was particularly interesting. I feel like I should now retake all of history and see what I missed.
Option 3: the period when Christians gained power did suck, but it was Romanity that put a bullet in its own heart; Christians were organ receivers.
Hey, I don’t have a side in the object-level debate…I’m just here for the historiography.
The strife between Ancients and Moderns
rages for a long time and is not going to end soon, but if you want antidote to ancient bashers, check the works of Lucio Russo.
According to Russo, the golden age of science was Hellenistic Greece (more precisely the whole Greek world from Sicily to Afghanistan) roughly between Aristotle and Archimedes, and the true dark age came when the Roman bastards destroyed all.
According to Russo, Greeks knew square-cube law of gravity, theory of evolution, discovered America and were generally on 17-18th century level in physics and mathematics.
From your Wiki link on Russo’s claims:
“The Forgotten Revolution has received mixed reviews, praising Russo’s enthusiasm but noting that his conclusions outreach his sources”
Yes. And that’s understatement. When I got to the bit in his book where he claims the ancient Greeks invented movies, I stopped even bothering to note his wild claims and stopped taking his book with any degree of seriousness.
Usually when non-idiots (and why do you care what Cracked has to say?) try to make the point of no dark ages, they’re usually referring to “The Dark Ages” being synonymous with the entirety of “The Middle Ages”, or more specifically the point between around 450AD to 1400AD. Most of your argument is to re-position the date. Fine.
Except 1000AD is ridiculously late. Your silly list of philosophers would of course be missing a lot from 450 to 1000 because this isn’t a commonly studied time for Philosophy. Neither is the middle ages generally, but it’s especially bad for this time frame. But famous intellectuals during this time would be say, Boethius, Bede, Alcuin, and Eriugena. Those are just the big names. A problem lies in two areas though. One being there are a ton of anonymous texts from this period (and later), and you can’t name anonymous people (and historians of philosophy don’t want to study anonymous people). The other is that as you say, there was a civilization collapse. The population was low.
See I have no problem with pointing out that from about 450AD to 600AD there was very little going on. That is probably a real dark age. It’s also nothing like what people mean when they say “The Dark Ages.” The people who use that term might have forgotten the Carolingian Renaissance happened before 1000AD.
The overall problem is that a population collapse is not a dark age. You don’t talk about “The Mayan Dark Age”, you say “The Classic Maya Collapse,” and even THEN there’s debate about this term up to and including there being “no Classical Maya Collapse” because it wasn’t universal to the entire Maya civilization. Which is also why your very first bullet point is completely stupid. The Dark Ages refers to Europe by all common conceptions of the term. Al-Andalus and the Byzantine Empire extended into Europe, and pointing them out is nothing like pointing out say, India during the Warring States Period.
The entire point of the argument against The Dark Ages is the term, and Cracked be damned if they over-correct. I’m not even convinced they over-corrected, at least they didn’t try to fuzz the date around just to point out the completely obvious observation that *something* happened, and the relative economic position of the Arabic speaking world was higher. You’re not helping the problem by making this ridiculous list of reverse points and then going “oh by the way I understand the argument is based around the fact that the terminology is fuzzy.” *That it is fuzzy* is why people argue against the commonly accepted meaning, and a population collapse and its corresponding affects isn’t anywhere near in line with what anybody thinks of when they hear “Dark Age.”
This all started not from some isolated demand for rigor, but for the very real problem that for at least a hundred years, everyone, even a lot of historians, tended to think the entirety of the time frame between the fall of the West to the fall of the East was some uniquely bad pit of ignorance and death, to which no other event on earth and in time can compare. Any correction of that, even over-correction, at least fixes that problem and hopefully gets more historians into the field and maybe actually reading the literal thousands of untranslated un-edited manuscripts still sitting in libraries around the world, instead of just going on to study WWII some more. Even the tiniest sliver of higher sophistication is better than, you know, NOT being more sophisticated.
This is why I linked All Debates Are Bravery Debates so many times.
I agree that there was more going on toward the end of the 500 – 1000 AD period than the beginning, but I think that would have been true of almost any period I chose – the whole point is that Europe is gradually recovering from a disaster, and with each year they recover a little more. I figured that 1000 AD was a natural nice round stopping point that wouldn’t claim I had any particular reason to single that year out.
So many times? I saw it once.
But think about pointing out Skulls. The whole point is that Europe is gradually recovering from a disaster, but everybody in the field already knew that and no historians are contesting the general sentiment that obviously *some* sort of recovery had to happen and it took a long time. The only problem is what to call it, where the dates are, and if it should be singled out at all due to how it compares to other world events in history. The same reasons there are arguments about the Classic Maya Collapse.
The fashionable sentiment of “No Dark Ages” has a more nuanced position that is obviously correct in light of what “Dark Ages” tends to mean in the popular imagination, and is useful for the purpose it was started. But you’re ignoring that by just pointing to a Skull, then claiming moving past the Skull is an Isolated Demand for Rigor.
I mean, you end Against Bravery Debates by advising people to stick to the object level, and complaint 1 seems pretty object level to me.
I know I’m banging this drum but I think the over-correction (if there is one) is not between “historians agree: something rather unpleasant happened sometime in the 5th century” and the popular view “Dark Ages, what Dark Ages”, it’s the popular view as promulgated for centuries that “Classical Greece and Rome: High point of global human civilisation; Them Damn Christians: wreck everything for a millennium with their dirt and ignorance; Enlightened Us: now we’re not Christians anymore, we can appreciate Classical Greece and Rome because We Smrt” and real history.
There was a disaster and there was a recovery. Funny you picked 1000 A.D. – ever heard the quote from the 11th century chronicler?
That is, the Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture replaced the cramped and dark ancient styles 🙂
(And dammit, you bet I will punch inna snoot anyone who disses the 13th century! Which admittedly is a lot later than the dates we’re arguing over)
Too late for any of those manuscripts that were (until quite recently) sitting in libraries in Baghdad, Grozny, Sarajevo, or Damascus.
I try not to think about the destruction of the Baghdad Libary throughout the Iraq War, or the loss of manuscripts throughout ISIS controlled territory.
It is difficult for me to comprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a statement.
I mean, you can’t name anonymous people by definition, if you’re using a particular useless definition. But unknown authors are referred to unambiguously all the time. Part of the introduction to Xunzi is a discussion of whether there was a person by that name, and if so, how much of the text might have been written by that person. The same discussion is routine for a huge number of ancient sources. Or compare the well-known Pseudoapollodorus. He didn’t sign his work “Pseudoapollodorus” — we gave him that name to signify that he wasn’t Apollodorus.
As the Xunzi introduction points out in so many words, historians of philosophy are interested in the texts, not the names of the authors. If no name is known for the author of an important work, that impedes discussion and historical treatment in absolutely no way.
What in the world are you talking about? I didn’t say “unknown authors” did I? “Xunzi” is the attribution to the author or authors of a particular text. We call Psuedo-Apollodorus that name because the attribution was for a long time just “Apollodorus” but we’ve rejected that as accurate but still accept the useful name. These are not even remotely close to the cases of “Anonymous Texts” that I, and everyone who knows anything about this subject, am referring to. That “particularly useless” definition of Anonymous Texts is completely standard and widespread for the phenomena that everybody but you apparently knows was widespread during the “middle ages.”
I am referring to the litany of completely unattributed glosses, commentaries, original works, and translations that plague the period around 500-1500. Unlike Xunzi and Psuedo-Apollodorus (who were always attributed to the names Xunzi and Apollodorus), these texts were always unattributed, they were never intended to BE attributed to anybody, they were deliberately anonymous because in many cases the author and their contemporaries didn’t find it important to bother naming who wrote it, or they outright did not want to be known. Occasionally we have lists of names of active writers for a time period, but to us they are nothing BUT names, and there is not the slightest clue who could have written what or who that person was. Because these texts are not attached to ANY name or label whatsoever, most tend to be thought of as lesser, derivative, or uninteresting and not much work is done to actually read them. Have you seriously never heard that joke that the most prolific author in the middle ages was somebody called Anonymous?
If the work was significant, its author would be named, something like “the unknown author of Important Paper”. If it was significant enough, a spurious name would be attached. That is why historians like to wonder whether the names attached to significant works had anything to do, in reality, with the authorship. The fact that nobody refers to unimportant works from the middle ages is not caused by an inability to refer to them, it is caused by a lack of desire. In the same way, the fact that Mesopotamian works of literature have no titles has not hindered the study of Mesopotamian literature in any way at all. We consider those works significant, so we name them ourselves, conventionally calling them by the opening words.
There is no difference, from the perspective of historical scholarship, between the ideas “we don’t know who wrote this text, but by convention we attribute it to a ‘Xunzi'” and “we don’t know who wrote this text”. If you want, you can name the author of any paper you want.
And what exactly is your experience here? Take for example, Pangur Bán. We have given no attribution to this work other than Anonymous or, “An Irish Monk,” or, “The author of Pangur Bán” even though the work is famous enough to be the obvious source of the name Pangur in the animated movie The Secret of the Kells. When referring to the text you name the text, it’s Pangur Bán. Now this author isn’t going to end up on a googled *list of names* is he? And what was I talking about in my initial comment? Oh right, why a googled list of names might not be exactly indicative of intellectual activity in the middle ages.
You might notice spurious attributions like Xunxi are attributed long in the past. They are attributed because the author might have wanted to attribute his derivative work with a more famous person, or because some editor somewhere lumped together related works and confused genuine works with derivatives, or was simply careless. These names are important to us because they give us context for the works under the name by doing things such as telling us what historical attitudes were to the texts, or informing us that the works are related in some way. Historians are interested in spurious names insomuch as it elaborates on that context, it is not just some idle curiosity.
This process does not generally go in reverse. You study the already existing attribution for its context, you do not MAKE the attribution outside of very few cases in which you can prove X person wrote it or X person wrote a group of related works. It has nothing to do with how important or influential the text is, and everything to do with if naming an author actually tells us anything about it. Author names are not necessary for academic referential purposes, but they are necessary for a list from google. Anyway, outside of those few cases, texts remain written by “Anonymous” or “An Anonymous Author.”
I never meant to imply it was in principle impossible to EVER name an anonymous person in any circumstance. It was a turn of phrase in reference to a googled list of names and the historical context of the middle ages.
Yeah, Dark Ages Western Europe is sometimes called “the worst time and place” – AFAIK, it was better than anywhere not in Eurasia at the time (hunter-gatherers may also be an exception).
Where did you get that graph of lead production, as measured by ice cores?
The paper I know doesn’t have an ice core as often or as regularly as every 50 years. graph
(copper noisy ice cores smooth not ice cores)
Oh, here is your graph. It cites the same paper I linked. The general shape is correct, but it has false precision. The real paper can’t even convert proxy data to tons of production. It is a fraud.
From the article:
Are you arguing that the real paper can’t do the conversion (and pretends to) and so is a fraud, or that the graph purportedly based on it is a fraud?
The blue graph is a fraud.
It claims to be data from the paper, but blue graph claims to have ice core data every 100 years and the paper does not. It is also nowhere near as noisy as the real data. For example, the real data has a spike in 300BC that does not appear in the blue graph.
My guess is that the blue source is based on historical sources and has nothing to do with the paper. Historical reconstructions are great, but the whole point of ice core data is to be independent evidence. The paper has a graph of historical reconstruction that is often reproduced and falsely labeled ice core data, but that graph also does not have such fine time steps.
I’m not sure how the paper reaches the number of 80,000 tons/year, but it looks to me like a purely historical claim.
The paper does not transform the data using the 80k ton/year number. I think it is intended just as a reality check. They add the further historical claim that 5% of the lead is vaporized, and get the right order of magnitude amount of lead in the air (about half the observed rate).
With that calibration, one could attempt to convert the ice core data into production data. So maybe I shouldn’t have said that the authors “can’t” do this. Partly I meant is that they can’t do it purely based on ice cores, but mainly I meant that they didn’t do it. And they didn’t do it because it is a bad idea. Attributing such a transformation to the authors of the paper would be extremely misleading, but I wouldn’t call it fraud and so maybe I shouldn’t have drawn attention to it. If, as in this post, you are just looking at the history of Spanish silver mines, such a transformation is pretty reasonable, although I think adds nothing to the raw data. (And it’s also a bad choice of calibration—a time of change.) But if you are interested in the longer term, as the authors of the paper and wikipedia, then it is probably a bad transformation because different mines probably have different rates of atmospheric pollution. This is particularly bad for lead because it was a byproduct of silver production.
Edit: It looks like a couple of people have already said something similar to this, but I’ll just leave this here anyway.
I think I can help explain where this confusion is coming from.
I was taught that the Middle Ages is sometimes also called the Dark Ages even though it wasn’t completely dark. There was no distinction made between the Early Middle Ages (which actually were the Dark Ages, as you clearly show) and the High/Late Middle Ages. So I’ve always had this fuzzy conception that the Middle Ages was kind of dark but not really, but I never had a clear idea that there was a nice separation between the two types right around 1000 AD.
I think this misconception (that the Dark Ages is the same thing as the Middle Ages) is pretty common. It seems like a lot of the articles that you linked to have this same blurring – I don’t think the Cracked article does this, but some of the others have the Dark Ages as lasting 600-1300, 500-1500, etc.
This post really clarified to me that the Middle Ages has 2 pretty distinct periods: one that really was dark, and the other that was at least about as good as the Roman Empire (and then you get definitely better than the Roman Empire during the Renaissance). So basically the picture in the “smug Tumblr post” is accurate as long as the second point is labeled “*Early* Middle Ages”.
Scott, as somebody who has a hobby of precolumbian american history I gotta make a correction here: You claim “There wasn’t any bronze in the Americas” but that’s inaccurate: The Inca and other south american cultures did, in fact, have bronze. The Purepecha, the second largest empire in Mesoamerica at the time of Spanish arrival behind the Aztecs, also had arsenic bronzes, though my understanding is that the Purepecha smelted it for aesthetic rather then mechanical purposes, with a way higher proportion of arsenic then what would be needed for that. (in fact, some researchers think that due to the similarity in Purepecha metallurgy techniques to South american ones and due to linguistic and art motif similarities as well as how they sort of came out of nowhere in historical records, that they may have actually travelled by sea from South America to western mesoamerica)
Obviously, “The Bronze ages” still doesn’t apply to them as it’s an isolated landmass and it’s intended to be a retroactive categorization of specific periods of Eurasian history (Precolumbian Mesoamerica in fact has it’s own “ages”: Archaic, , formative, preclassic, classic, and post classic) but I felt it was worth noting that there was, in fact, Bronzeworking in the Precolumbian Americas.
Hey got any good recommendations for pre-Columbian history? Preferably online but if there’s any books you feel are extra superlative I’d also check ’em out? I think I know a lot more than the average person, but I’d love to know more.
Try 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
Thanks for the correction, I’ve changed it to “…in Australia” above. If there was bronze in Australia, I don’t want to know about it 🙁
The outset of this period is marked by the Plague of Justinian, which first appeared around 541 AD and had sporadic recurrences until 750 AD. It is estimated to have killed around 13% of the world’s population. While it was centered on Constantinople and the eastern Med, Italy was significantly affected and mass graves testing positive for Y. pestis DNA have recently been uncovered along river routes in Germany. Some archaeologists believe the plague may have affected settlement patterns as far away as Finland and Sweden, as well as disrupting trade in Gaul and the Romano-British region.
To the North, the Irish Annals of Ulster also (rather tersely) record a “failure of bread” around this time, which may be linked to the fallout of a massive volcanic eruption. Norse sources offer supporting evidence of an unusually long winter around this time. The plague, and the long winter, precede what Scandinavian archaeologists interpret as a period of demographic and economic decline in the broader region.
So it is possible that Europeans of this period had to contend with unusually disastrous ecological circumstances.
edit: On the social front, the Gothic Wars around the middle of the 6thc probably contributed significantly to population decline at the outset of the period. Estimates based on Procopius (the same ancient source for the plague numbers) have up to 15 million deaths during these 20 years.
There is a reason Emperor Justinian looks so wan in Civilization IV.
Wouldn’t the Crisis of the Third Century have also had some negative effects of the population between 200 and 600 AD?
Yes, absolutely. I studied sub-Roman Britain for awhile, and from when the Romans left till the Saxons took over, there was very little written down at all. What we do have is some panicky stufff about how bad the plague and famine were, and how everyone was pretty much lying down waiting to be taken over by the Saxons. The plagues and famines destabilized everything, and may be a cause of some of the conquests that happened at that time.
In fact I’ve heard that a small cool period may be the cause of the barbarian invasions that toppled Rome. With things getting cold and harvests failing in the north, tribes began moving south and right into the Romans’ lap.
Chuck Klosterman, in his 2016 book But What If We’re Wrong? (subtitle: “thinking about the present as if it were the past”), mentions the Phantom Time Hypothesis. He writes:
There is also a considerably more ambitious Russian version, which proposes that everything we “know” about all time prior to the 11th century was invented by French religious scholars.
He acknowledges that both of these theories have been “broadly discredited”, including by astronomical evidence (when various eclipses and comets were observed). “Unless, of course,” he continues, “you believe the Dark Ages are classified as ‘dark’ because they didn’t happen at all, and the ancillary details they encompass were manufactured by sinister people who made sure the math worked out.”
The chess champion Kasparov has endorsed the dubious theory that history is much shorter than we are told.
As a conspiracy of evil overlords, this is 100% implausible.
As a bet between a bunch of beer-drinking monks that got out of hand, it’s somehow almost plausible.
Well, it’s kinda sorta almost like “a bet between a bunch of beer-drinking monks” because for a lot of these sort of gaps in genealogies, histories, etc. they were filled in by made up material. King Whosis wants to establish his claim to the throne by a long list of ancestors back to Adam, you count up the generations and use the Biblical history to get down to someone post-Flood who could be an ancestor (e.g. Ham, Shem and Japhet being the ancestors of Africa, Asia and Europe). You don’t quite know how the country got from “Caesar of Rome” to “where we are today”, so you make your best guess and write that up.
But “there were thirty generations between Noah and our king” is not the same thing as “we know this only happened a hundred years ago but we’ll invent a story that it was a thousand years ago”.
But AD 614 to 911 is less than three hundred years.
I just wanted to say that this Phantom Time Hypothesis is amazing. I have to read that book one of these days.
I was thinking this the whole time since the infuriating “The Dark Ages were never a thing. The entire concept is complete and utter horseshit cobbled together by a deluded writer.” It’s infuriating not because of the issue of the Dark Ages (which is more tiring than infuriating), but because of the dysfunctional rhetorical practice of making an ambiguous statement with such certainty.
This isn’t exactly a matter of fuzzy category boundaries, because the Dark Ages isn’t a category but a single concept. Saying that an abstract concept “isn’t real/isn’t a thing” can mean many things in theory, but in practice it means saying that we shouldn’t use it. This can be for many reasons, the most legitimate one being that it doesn’t represent reality accurately (less legitimate reasons being political).
There are really of two different disagreements here: either we we agree on what’s required for the Dark Ages to exist but disagree about the actual facts of the Early Middle Ages, or we agree on what the Early Middle Ages was like but disagree about whether the Dark Ages is a fitting description.
Arguing both at once, typically by using a difficult-to-interpret statement like “the Dark Ages didn’t exist” is a way to confuse the audience and smuggle in a weaker-than-it-sounds argument during all the commotion.
Can we please stop using ambiguous phrases to mean “if we use my meaning of X, X is true; therefore my meaning of X is the right one, and X is true”, and instead discuss what we actually want to discuss?
No we can’t, I guess. Rhetoric that works, works. But perhaps working out a “defense against the dark arts” way of dissolving the confusion is possible.
No we can’t, I guess. Rhetoric that works, works. But perhaps working out a “defense against the dark arts” way of dissolving the confusion is possible.
I think just learning to recognize the rhetorical trick makes it a lot less effective. In this case, Scott unraveled the trick with a more in-depth exploration of what people mean when they say “Dark Ages.” Someone could still credibly make the claim that the Dark Age wasn’t as bad as many people assume and that we should challenge some of the preconceptions about what it was like, but someone who asserts “the Dark Ages never happened” is probably just being deliberately edgy and playing with words.
In my experience, most people are good at recognizing these type of tricks when applied by other people/outgroups but not so good at recognizing when their own side does it. And it doesn’t help that a lot of those abstract concepts are emotionally and politically loaded, and a challenge to a concept like “racism” or “patriarchy” is likely to be interpreted as an attack, if not outright hatred. Like, I really enjoyed Scott’s deconstruction of the concept of racism and its many muddled and contradictory meanings…and he never claimed that racism didn’t exist or wasn’t a problem, just that it’s not some kind of evil mind virus, and that we should probably have a better and more consistent idea of what we mean when we use that word, rather than talking about it like an evil mind virus 90% of the time and then retreating to the motte of the consequentialist definition when challenged on that. It struck me as a totally logical critique of the sloppy way that most people use the concept. But I imagine many people would read something like that and interpret it as him belittling the struggles of minorities.
On the other side there was Scott’s defense of the term meritocracy, a broad and ideologically loaded concept that could probably be criticized on the same grounds as the term “racism.”
That’s why it’s useful to have relatively apolitical examples like “is Pluto a planet?” or “did the ‘Dark Ages’ exist?” It lets people think about the broader issues with how we use language to represent complex abstract concepts without triggering too many defense mechanisms. I mean, politics still sneak in, inevitably. But most people don’t get fired up about those examples in the same way.
Being deliberately edgy and playing with words that people then take seriously has led to a lot of problems, especially when done by academics dealing with complicated and politically charged topics. A few reasonable-in-context phrases can be taken too literally by impressionable outsiders and suddenly a vulgar ideology with a built-in motte and bailey defense is on the loose.
Recognizing the trick does render it less effective, but that doesn’t matter so much if you have to read long complicated essays to learn to recognize it in the first place. It’s true as you say that people will know immediately that something’s off when it’s being done to them, but typically won’t be able to articulate it and therefore can’t call anyone on what they’re doing.
I can’t articulate it well either, I got into exactly that “was Pluto a planet?” discussion once and I couldn’t explain the issue in a clear enough way on the fly.
What’s needed is a simple way to explain the concept and then a punchy expression to refer to it. Besides “motte and bailey”, we’ve good examples in “bravery debate”, “weakman” and “isolated demand for rigor” (more popular but less charitable ones are “derailing” and “whataboutism”).
Maybe something like “model match argument”? As in, the argument asserts that a model does/doesn’t match reality? It makes it easier to see the whole thing as a discussion about models (meanings of words) and that both the validity of a model and the basic facts are in play.
I wonder what some of the other topics that people are trying to sound sophisticated about while drawing a less accurate picture than the naive one are. Right off the bat I can only remember people talking about humans not descending from apes but merely having a common ancestor. Anything else?
I was thinking of the “US Civil War was not about slavery” thing.
It’s really the perfect example, because if you hold the Tier 3 position and discuss it with someone at Tier 2, it is extremely common for the latter to structure his argument against the Tier 1 understanding: did you know the North was economically complicit in slavery? did you know that Lincoln was not an abolitionist? did you know that the Emancipation Proclamation was a pragmatic and incomplete wartime measure rather than a moral pronouncement?
I’ve always expressed my impatience with such claims as “It is useless/meaningless to make statements about what a particular event ‘was about’ when that event was brought about by many distinct social/political forces”. To come up with a reasonable assertion, one instead has to do the work of actually tracking down the social/political forces and evaluating their motivations.
Of course you could conclude that such-and-such a cause (e.g. slavery) was or wasn’t the key tipping point that brought about an event like the US Civil War, but this wanders into the territory of privileging one cause over others just because it was a necessary cause, something I’ve always held should be done very cautiously.
A version of this is something I often say:
No war starts for one reason. A war starts for ten.
Similar to one of my favorites: Wars, like fights, start when someone hits BACK.
We lost Vietnam vs. we could have won if we surged/really put our back into it
New World chattel slavery was uniquely horrible vs. Arabs and black Africans had a slave trade
The Allies were superior to the Axis vs. carpet bombings, nuclear bombs, and the Bengali famine = Holocaust on both sides
Martin Luther King Jr. was an important, revered figure in American history vs. he was a confused adulterous demagogue
Edison was brilliant vs. Thomas Edison was not the sole unmoved mover from which all his ideas came so therefore we owe it all to Tesla, etc
WWII Bengali famine = Holodomor – i.e. not quite the other Holo-.
I’ve lately been thinking that “Europeans conquered America because of technology like guns” is an example of this as well. To be fair to the Tier 2 people: yes, matchlock rifles are much worse than flintlock; yes, epidemics are important; yes, Afghanistan shows us that it can be hard even for technologically powerful empires to conquer highly mobile bands of tribal nomads. But if “guns were inferior weapons to bows” were true (as Scott himself says in his review of “Empire of the Summer Moon”), then it needs to be explained why whenever one tribe acquired guns they immediately began to defeat their neighbors who had bows… why there was such a thing as the “gun frontier” that historians like Frank Secoy have written about. Also, if bows were really the superior weapon, why didn’t Europeans use them as well? It’s not like they hadn’t also invented them.
And forget about guns: what about metals? The introduction of iron weapons was a big deal in the Old World– there’s a reason you stop seeing people make bronze swords after a certain point. This was true in America as well– in addition to there being a “gun frontier” and a “horse frontier” there was a steel frontier, e.g. the Iroquoian tribes of the Great Lakes area used to wear wooden slat armor that looked like this. They stopped using them once their traditional enemies started acquiring steel arrowheads from the French or the Dutch. A similar situation obtained in the Southwest, where the Apaches used to wear armor made from alternating layers of leather and sand. The Shoshones, who had already acquired horses, used to deck their steeds out with full suits of thick buffalo-hide armor– it protected them from sharpened stone weapons, but when their enemies began to use steel and guns, this armor was abandoned. Why, unless it were a militarily inferior technology? In other words: is it really that surprising that a civilization with firearms and steel cuirasses was able to defeat one with wooden/leather armor and flint arrowheads?
On the point about bows vs. guns, you can argue the narrow point that a particular bow is better than a musket. In purely military terms, you might be right. An experienced archer with a longbow is more deadly than a musketeer, one-on-one. But the words experienced and longbow are critical there. A bow (which is hand-crafted with relatively rare materials) is more expensive to produce than a musket (which can be mass-produced). Learning to use a bow effectively is a lot harder than firing a musket. The result is that a society which uses bows is at a disadvantage overall, even if the weapon is actually superior. This is the same story as Tiger tanks vs. Shermans and T-34s in WW2.
Given the extra complexity of a musket vs. a bow, I’d be surprised if that were the case.
Actually that’s a complete myth.
I don’t believe the “rare materials.” Yew had to be imported, but bows can be made out of any of a wide variety of hardwoods. And making a long bow isn’t all that hard.
On both making and training, the big issue is one of quality. Learning to shoot a bow well enough to hit an army isn’t that hard. Learning to shoot it well enough to hit a target, or a single man, is. Making a simple hardwood longbow isn’t that hard. Making a yew longbow requires yew and probably more skill as well. Making a wood/horn/sinew composite bow is a complicated, skilled, and time consuming process (a year according to Taybugha, although that’s because different parts have to be done in different seasons).
Also, if the reconstructions of the Mary Rose bows are correct, the military long bows it carried had a very high draw weight, which would have required extensive training to be able to use. That wouldn’t be true for bows in general.
Woo! Something to distract me as I wait to be blown all the way to the North Pole by the hurricane gusts!
Okay. So I will start off not denying that (a) there were Dark Ages and (b) they did suck. I am going to immediately qualify that by saying the worst of them were in the areas where the high civilisation had previously reached and as the power of Rome contracted, those left high and dry behind certainly weren’t having a fun time (being Romano-British wasn’t a party as the native tribes decided to take advantage of the legions pulling out).
On the other hand, the former barbarians were very keen on “So… this civilisation thing, how does it work again?” This is why we get titles like Kaiser and Tsar surviving up to the 20th century – they decided that the mostest coolest thing was to adopt a title based on Caesar.
As to “The Roman Legions at their finest could have licked any land army up to the height of the Middle Ages” – well, yes. And yet, let me just murmur Varus, give me back my legions! On their day. the Romans could flatten anyone – see Mons Graupius where they whomped numerically superior forces who held the high ground. But by the same token, given the right opponent, territory, tactics and strategies, and they could get whomped, too.
The Middle Ages are a different kettle of fish, and I’m casting a beady eye on Petrarch here because you’re not entirely blameless here, bucko! So in the wake of total civilisational collapse, I think it is a trifle demanding to ask “Where are their great achievements?”, as it would be to descend upon Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the hurricane and ask “But where are your great philosophers? What technical and scientific advances have you made? You’re just not making the effort, are you?”
So I’m going to develop my point by treating American history the way Enlightenment polemicists treated the Dark/Middle Ages (and they didn’t make a fine distinction here).
(Seemingly this comment is too long and will have to be cut up into chunks to appease the Gods of WordPress, so Parts II and III coming next!)
Part II: How America was a howling wasteland of desolation in its Dark Ages, just like the real Dark Ages
Let’s start with that swipe about America going from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilisation: something I have learned, when trying to source who exactly said it, was the result of angry French nationalist newspaper having a go at President Hoover in the 30s:
Well, for a long time this was the attitude to America, possibly at its height in the 19th century. Look at the feeling amongst American literati, on one hand, that their output was inferior to European models, and the corresponding English (and Anglophilia was a big motivation for America) attitude as in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit that America was a nation of tobacco-chewing, bowie knife wielding, feet on the table orators prating about liberty while indulging in slavery and mutual slaughter should they feel their ‘honour’ impugned:
Even in the best representations, Americans were seen (as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the character of Quincey Morris) as cowboys; talking slang, free and easy in their manners, prone to guns and the shooting off thereof, and definitely a juvenile proto-civilisation.
As we move into the 20th century, we see English novelists torn between amusement and aghast at the Americans not alone admitting but boasting of their police methods – the Third Degree, where confessions are beaten out of suspects (the infamous “rubber hose” and the finer points of its application):
If you ever read the Rex Stout novel Red Threads, there’s a good scene where the heroine is questioned under Third Degree methods. She’s a bit too middle-class for beating testimony out of her to be safe, but the other tricks can be, and are, used.
Okay! Onwards to the parallels!
America in its Dark Ages is the era of the Salem Witch Trials, the history that Hawthorne loved to use as exemplifying how cramped, stultifying and ruinous to the minds and souls this period was. Pre-Revolutionary America is notionally and tenuously connected to its mother civilisation, but is fallen away from its achievements and glories in many ways. What fine arts and architecture it possesses are all the fruit of English and European learning, craft, invention and teaching – Paul Revere did not discover silversmithing for himself, Georgian Boston did not develop that style of architecture on its own. Its native products are those of barbarism: the displacement of the indigenous tribes, the brooding, overbearing conformity to a primitive social structure and religious frenzy.
Part III: The past one thousand years are only applesauce, it was the rediscovery of and craze for the Classical method of constructing horoscopes that produced REAL SCIENCE!
Post-Colonial America is now in what, at the most charitable, can be called the Middle Ages. It possesses the relics of the glorious past, attempts to ape them with greater or lesser success, develops its own laws, systems and methods in the same way a child attempts to copy what it sees its parents doing. As the purity of Classical Latin was replaced by the debased lingua franca of Church Latin, so too does the native Noah Webster simplify for the unlettered tongues and childish mental abilities of the young nation the ancestral language.
Where are its great philosophers and scientists? Where is the American Cicero, Socrates, Pasteur? Even its boasted army that defeated the British redcoats relied upon a European import who, when he was not throwing pantsless parties, was imparting good Prussian discipline and tactics on a rabble of poorly armed hunters and riff-raff:
(It didn’t matter that von Steuben was gayer than the Stonewall riot and the Castro combined, America needed him and Franklin knew it, so they got him out of Europe before he could be tried and imprisoned for sex crimes).
And so we continue onwards with, as noted by La Liberté and so many others, the retention of slavery past the time the civilised world had abandoned it, civil war re-discovered and given a new horror by the technological progress adopted from the English Industrial Revolution, Prohibition and the gangsterism it gave rise to, the noteworthiness of American criminality and venality, and many, many other unique elements of the American struggle as it held on to and copied the remnants of a culture it could no longer understand.
It was not until the Second World War that the USA obtained its footing as a world power, and as Scott has noted in his post, much of this was due not to American progress per se but the Hungarian High School Science Fair elements of its culture; the re-discovery, in an American renaissance, of the arts and sciences due to the influx of the talents and genius of refugees from the Old World bringing the treasures of Classical knowledge freshly unearthed once more.
And that is how we get the Dark Ages -> Middle Ages -> Renaissance -> Glorious Wonderful Enlightened Us in an American context.
I’m sure some Americans would like to point out “Hang on a minute, Americans did a lot of this stuff on our own, you know! We took what we inherited, refreshed it, adapted it, and built upon it!”
Sorry. Doesn’t count. Barbarians until the Renaissance. Never did nothin’. Middle Ages nothing but dirt, oppression and theocracy imposing mandatory superstition. Only the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome saved us all. That’s the story, morning glory! 🙂
There is a general academic trend not to call things by their cool-sounding, short names regular people understand.
In Sinology, for example, there was a period once called “medieval China.” It worked pretty well, since it was, you know, a time of transition and transformation between what we usually call “ancient China” and “late imperial” or “early modern” China. But now the serious people call it “middle period China.”
I think the theory behind such things is usually something like “well, we don’t want to give the impression that medieval China was like medieval Europe.” But given that no one who knows enough about China to be talking about “medieval China” thinks it was basically like medieval Europe, I think it’s actually just a signalling treadmill.
You say you want a name “regular people” can understand. Why do you expect a regular person to know enough about China not to think it was basically like medieval Europe? I think it’s less of a signalling treadmill and more of an association treadmill – they’re trying to get people to actually think about the underlying period, rather than automatically bring up the associations that the word “medieval” has.
I suppose, but this is a double-edged sword.
For example, there’s a similar issue with the idea of “Chinese feudalism.”
In the PRC there’s a tendency to call everything before 1911 “feudal,” but in English-language scholarship there is also a thing where you call the period from about 1000-221 BC “feudal” China because, well, there were nobility who had things kind of like fiefdoms and they had farmers who were kind of like serfs.
This went out of fashion because there are also a lot of disanalogies between Zhou-Warring States China and European feudalism. But if you instead pick a word that means even less to the average English speaker than “feudalism,” you may have avoided them making some incorrect assumptions, but you’ve also avoided conveying some kind of information by a common point of reference.
I have similarly mixed feelings about when to translate Chinese words into English equivalents, but tend to prefer cross-cultural intelligibility there as well. Calling Chinese opera “opera,” for example, might confuse some people into thinking Chinese opera is similar to bel canto or something. But that would probably be less confusing than saying “Chinese xiju (a performing art combining sung, rhymed lyrics with characteristic melodic and rhythmic patterns with room for performer improvisation)…” and then just proceed to talk about “xiju” for the rest of the book. Or I can just talk about “Chinese opera” and assume that anyone who cares enough to read a book or article about Chinese opera knows enough to not assume Chinese opera is the same as Italian opera.
If you were willing, I’d appreciate a good effort-post or link to the differences between European Feudalism and Chinese (and/or various other Asian) forms of Feudalism.
Hmm… I have been thinking about whether there is anything I have enough expertise on to do an effort post yet which is also of interest to this community. It would probably be about Chinese or Japanese civilization in some way, but I’m not yet sure what. I study literature more than history per se, so I’m not super qualified to expound at length on a question like the nature of Chinese “feudalism,” but I’ll think about that one. Thanks for the suggestion.
Seconding an interest in this.
Suntzuanime has a great point, but I’d like to add: all meaningful scholarship in Chinese history is done in Chinese (Mandarin, these days). And I’m sitting here having no idea how Is say medieval in Mandarin. I would probably write something that, when translated back into English, would be Middle Period. Mostly because medieval looks like it refers to a middle of something and is such an odd word.
[Hard to post-hoc this with translation software — could be they’re being clever and are updating the term — but I have failed to disprove this theory, so of course now I’ll just assume I nailed it.]
中世紀 or 中古.
I did an edit in brackets, but that’s my whole point. Those clearly are Middle Period. So using Middle Period in English is probably just translating from the Mandarin.
And I’m not trying to be a jerk about Chinese history, but… do you know of any prominent Chinese historical scholars that aren’t at least writing in Chinese?
[Edit: I’m no expert in Chinese history, I’m just having a hard time imagining the opposite. Thousands of years of history and a long tradition of scholar officials, it would be like saying a lot of influential American legal research is being done in French. Nothing against the French, but there are a huge group if people that care a lot and have much more and much easier access to the original sources.]
There’s certainly a vast amount of scholarship on Chinese history being written in Chinese, but there’s also a lot of significant work being written in English by people who work largely or exclusively in English. Same goes for Japanese and, to a somewhat lesser extent, several other languages, like French.
“The history of China” is a subject more analogous to “the history of Western Europe” in its breadth and depth than a subject like “the legal history of the United States” (though even then we get Alexis de Tocqueville, etc.).
tenuous-connections, couldn’t you make the same argument about the field of classics? Yet lots of classical scholars are in America.
Yeah, I think I might have tried to claim too much. I’d say it’s more that China has the academic center of gravity — at least enough so that the terms in English derive from the Chinese terms.
You could make the same argument that the classics should have an academic center of gravity in e.g. modern Greece. I suspect you’re right about that not being meaningfully true. I know almost nothing about the field, but I’m thinking that, while governments have changed and armies have conquered, Chinese culture really does meaningfully date back thousands of years, with the scholarship building up during that whole time, where the civilizations studied in Western Classics really did collapse (losing the ability to advance or even maintain scholarship) — so anyone wealthy enough to want to study them became the worldwide experts.
I can imagine why you’d think this, but it’s simply not the case. There is a long tradition of Sinology in the West and most of the terms come from that (“Confucius” and “Mencius” are Latin names invented by Jesuits hundreds of years ago, for example), or from efforts of Western scholars to think of appropriate translations and analogues, though many have been updated, of course. We don’t call “Neo-Confucianism” “the study of the Way,” for example.
Chinese scholarship on China and English-language scholarship on China are still very different in more ways than the language. It’s true that, all-told, Chinese-language scholars produce a much larger quantity of scholarship (they also have much laxer publishing standards), and that English-language scholars rely on them to no small extent for a lot of basic research, but it’s not true, exactly, that it’s the “center of gravity” other than in the same sense Italy is the “center of gravity” for studies of the Roman Empire.
Some would probably complain that English-language scholars don’t pay enough attention to what Chinese-language scholars are doing, and that’s probably fair. But most Chinese-language scholars pay no attention to what English-language scholars are doing (because they can’t read it) and definitely miss new perspectives as a result. There is a lot more exchange between these two worlds very recently, but you also have to keep in mind that for about 30 years not too long ago China was not letting foreigners in and actively persecuting non-ideological scholarship of their own.
I’m not a professional historian, but I have published peer-reviewed articles which deal with the history of ideas in India.
There is a very plausible theory by Ronald Davidson that the collapse of the sub-continent spanning Gupta Empire in India led to the development of Tantra. He describes quite vividly what happens when you an Empire falls. Empires are all about long trade routes and extending law and order over a wide area to facilitate trade.
The Guptas (ca. 300-600) provided stability in precisely these forms. Travel and trade were possible. People could move around. Access to foreign markets (anyone further than the next town) meant that merchants got rich. They paid a load of taxes and the Guptas spent it generously on arts and religion. It was a prosperous time. Davidson describes how, as the Empire fell apart, there was mass unemployment from both public and private sector. Men fell into banditry to make a crust. The roads became unsafe and trade routes collapsed causing the crisis to accelerate. Soon many people retreated to walled cities and did not venture very far.
Where the Guptas has sponsored many works of art and literature and supported artisans, in the aftermath of their demise, the production of art and literature fell precipitously until a new Empire was established ca 900 (The Palas).
In many senses it was a “Dark Age”. And I imagine that many similar problems emerged with the collapse of the Roman Empire: economies shrank, and with that came mass unemployment, crime, and wide-spread poverty; funding of places of learning and the production of art and music fell precipitously. And so on. And in Europe it culminated in the Black Death, which ironically, helped reset the economy by reducing the population by 1/3 or whatever it was. Unemployment was a thing of the past at that point.
Davidson argues that the crisis in India prompted a new religious form, which synthesised elements from many different existing religions. It focused on a kind of psychological equivalent of alchemical transformation: using the imagination and magic to transform oneself into a world conquering or world saving god. And this continued to develop and syncretise for some centuries. The same did not happen in Europe, because the Roman Church was independently wealthy by then. No doubt it suffered, but it did not collapse. And it also provided a continuity that was absent in India, both in terms of copying books (and all that), but also in terms of church law. Even in the Dark Ages, priests had authority that devolved from God, through the Church.
I live within spitting distance of a mound erected by William of Normandy in 1068. He built a fort and then a castle on it to dominate the local trade routes. And he did this all over England, both taking control of and making safe, the long range trade across the country. And when the North rebelled, he just killed everyone involved. A small army was able to take over the whole country in this way – in a very short space of time.
Trade, especially the ability to trade well beyond the local area seems to be crucial to these stories. Before the modern era, trade enriched the ruling classes, who spent lavishly and provided both employment and social stability across wide areas. But that seems to inevitably blow out – probably because heredity is a lousy way to chose rulers or provide continuity. Now of course, government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex, and the state cannot be generous because it is starved of funds by the merchants who took control of the world in the 18th Century (as Marx noted). So we have the worst of both light and dark ages.
One aside here that seems important to me (not remotely a historian!). Advanced societies/economies with a lot of trade allow for a great deal of specialization. Instead of every village having one smith that does everything, you might have some stuff (weapons, tools, whatever) made by some guy who’s really good at it, and those get sold all over the place. You might even have a whole network of people working together from different places, so you can build ships or something.
When your trade networks collapse, the specialization falls apart. The specialists go back to being ordinary smiths, and eventually die off. The networks of trade and know-how that made your shipbuilding or cathedral building or weapons manufacturing or whatever so successful, die off. And once they’re gone, it will probably take a lot of time to build them back again.
Probably the high end of art and literature and philosophy and theology and science are all instances of the kind of specialization that’s only workable in a pretty stable place with a lot of trade and specialization. That seems like one mechanism for a dark age to happen.
One piece of evidence against your thesis is the jewelry, a form of art that survives pretty well. The Sutton Hoo treasure is from the sixth century and is impressive. The Tara Brooch from the seventh or eighth century. That’s at least one art where there was a high degree of specialization during the period.
That’s why we’re arguing about the Dark Ages and were they really that dark; the places under the direct control of the Empire really crashed and burned when the Empire pulled out and finally collapsed, but the barbarians who had never (or very lightly) encountered the Empire were chugging along steadily just fine and ready to step into the breach and pick up the shinies and make a copy doll’s house version of the old structures and old hierarchies.
They wanted to emulate the Empire, they thought it was cool and impressive!
A couple of very minor, bemusing observations before I go to work.
Objection (3) (“Petrarch wasn’t a historian, how dare he judge that period as ‘dark’!”) seems to become even weaker and more confused in light of rebuttal (2) (saying that one of the major misconceptions about the Dark Ages is that they extended beyond 1000) combined with the fact that Petrarch considered his own time (the 1300’s) to be part of the Dark Ages. Clearly it took multiple vague references to “some dark age” for the concept of 500-1000 as the Dark Ages to gel, and what we ended up with doesn’t even look that much like what Petrarch first suggested.
From the wording, I’m not sure if this might be a deliberate allusion to Star Wars discourse implying that if you think about it, the Old Republic (mainly governed by the “light side”) was arguably as bad as the Empire (run by the “dark side”), because there was slavery under the Republic while there was no slavery under the Empire.
I thought there was slavery in the Galactic Empire, particularly of certain species like Wookiees and Twi’lek.
Under the Republic it is illegal but the laws are poorly enforced on some Outer Rim planets (Amidala is surprised that the Skywalkers are slaves because it is supposed to be illegal).
True, but I think the argument is that while both the Old Republic and the Empire are anti-slavery, the Empire enforces this far more effectively (as it is able to enforce most things far more effectively).
I believe you are correct. I’m not positive whether the Empire was complicit in the enslavement of the Twi’leks, or if it was more of a black market transaction. Certainly they would have had to at least turn a blind eye, as they clamped down fairly hard on Ryloth.
The Wookiees were absolutely slaves though: Han Solo earned Chewbacca’s life debt to him when he saved Chewie, then an imperial slave, from getting shot. Wookiee laborers were also used to help build the Death Star.
Mon Calamari (Admiral Ackbar’s race) were enslaved as well: Ackbar spent some time as Tarkin’s pilot before arranging his defection.
Of course, this is all EU, so it’s possible this becomes untrue in official Star Wars canon later on. IIRC the stuff with Wookiee slaves helping to build the Death Star and Ackbar was closely tied to Bevel Lemelisk, and it’s not looking like Lucas is keeping that character (he should probably have shown up at some point in Rogue One otherwise)
Per the “canon” tab of Wookieepedia, it’s still canon that large numbers of Wookiees, including Chewbacca, were enslaved (and the Empire classified them as nonsentient), but I’m not sure if the Death Star thing is still canon.
The Empire could have been more effective in preventing the slavery of sentient species (apart from the Twi’leks) while still having slavery operate on a large scale by calling it something else or classifying them as non-sentient. Or it could have only been effective in preventing the enslavement of humans, while ignoring or encouraging the enslavement of other species.
I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at with your second point. That doesn’t seem like any sort of useful success metric. Heck, you don’t even have to speculate if you move the goalposts far enough: the Republic had two people named Skywalker enslaved for years, the Empire had one person named Skywalker enslaved for a day or two. That’s hundreds of times more effective at preventing slavery!
If we’re just trying to come up with ways the Empire was better and we’re allowed to use the EU for it, I’d say “preparedness for the Yuuzhan Vong invasion”. A unified galaxy backed and cowed by the Death Star and associated superweapons, with an Imperial Army coordinated by Battle Meditation and Grand Admiral Thrawn, would have done far better against the Vong than either the Old or New Republics. And this isn’t even a coincidence: Palpatine knew they were coming, and to some extent the tyranny of the Empire was because the galaxy was preparing for war (although that doesn’t do much about the xenophobia).
Prepping a reserve of hatred to turn on the Vong? With aliens rehabilitated due to their contributions, headed by Thrawn?
That makes a scary amount of sense, actually.
I’m with Han on this one:
My own headcanon was that the Empire banned privately owned slaves, and in most regions and sectors enforced that with a heavy and unforgiving hand. And the Force help you if you were ever caught with Human slaves…
The Empire itself owned slaves based on judicial judgement, right of conquest, exigent circumstances, military draft, and Imperial decree.
Even today in the real world, judicial “sentenced to labor” and the draft are real things, even in the “civilized” west.
This doesn’t seem to mesh with the relative abundance of Twi’lek dancing girls, for example.
If you strip out the EU you can get away with that by making them not slaves (iirc EU canon is that they were working off carefully calculated impossible-to-clear debt), or making Jabba the only Hutt lord powerful enough to get away with that sort of thing (he’s fairly powerful in EU, but has some contemporaries)
Ultimately, Episodes IV-VI just don’t have enough screen time on normal life under the Empire for us to come to any sort of conclusions there, and the EU novels that establish these things are easily swept away the moment they conflict with any new movies.
I always got the impression that Tattooine was a pretty lawless place no matter what part of the timeline you’re looking at. We see stormtroopers on it in Episode 4, but they’re not local troops, they’re detached from Vader’s Star Destroyer to look for the droids, and we don’t see any local Empire presence other than that.
I don’t know if that jibes with the EU, though, because I don’t know the EU other than a couple of books I read in high school and have mostly forgotten.
Guess I should have expected that here at SSC a comment like that would spark a good lively discussion between Star Wars “historians”. 🙂
I sympathise with those who have brought up Ireland and Scandinavia. My concern is that ‘dark ages’ talk implies too much continuity: there is the grand narrative of Western Civi, in which ‘we’ (those of European descent, white people) flourished in antiquity, flailed in the dark, and then triumphed in modernity. My gripe is that there isn’t a ‘we’ that is the subject of this story: the ancient world was a Mediterranean world, and it is only in the middle ages we see a civilisation that looks like modern Europe. The Mediterranean peoples (olive oil people, as Taleb calls them) who went on to share in later European civilisation go from light to dark, but the northern Europeans, the butter people, are only stepping into the light. Take Britain, which has a dramatic, well-defined dark age that is also a lot shorter than the ordinarily cited 500 year span. The period between the Roman departure and the Saxon conversion is pretty much pitch black by all the relevant measures. After conversion, butter people who call the island home (even if they were rather recent arrivals) enter history on their own terms, as something more than a mere foil to Roman grandeur. Sure, the Saxons look undistinguished compared to the Athens of Pericles, but that’s hardly a fair comparison. They do pretty well considering that they had been tribal illiterates just a few generations earlier. For much of the conventional dark ages, the Saxons enjoy what is, by their standards and those of their northern European neighbours, an age of light.
Another dichotomy: http://migmigmigmig.blogspot.com.br/2009/10/vinl.html .
The monk Rodolfus Glaber wrote around 1050 about how Europe had begun to shrug off the burden of the past and was now cloaking itself in “a white mantle of churches.”
In general, there is a lot of prejudice about overlooking the differences between the worst centuries of the second half of the first millennium and the much improved early second millennium. For example, Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” largely shudders in horror at the entire period between the fall of Rome and the renaissance, without noticing all the spectacular Gothic cathedrals begun around 1100 AD that clearly required a fairly lawful society to be built and survive unpillaged all these hundreds of years.
A simple explanation is that the western classical world had fallen to illiterate barbarians, who took a long time to climb up to the civilizational level of those they had conquered. It’s worth noting that the Germanic invaders didn’t particularly hate the Romans and would have more or less liked to keep things going at the same economic level, they just didn’t have the skills or culture to do it.
You can see something similar in the Late Bronze Age Collapse of around 1200 BC that brought down the palace cultures, but eventually climbed up to a higher level of complexity.
I do like that we’re all getting ready to fist-fight over the 8th-10th centuries 😀
You are my people! We may not all have the same politics, moral systems, or IQ levels, but we care about the stuff that really matters!
Once more into the breach dear friends!
@The Germanic invaders didn’t particularly hate the Romans and would have liked to keep things going at the same level, they just didn’t have the skills to do it-
The Vandals particularly hated the Romans and cut off the corn ships from Africa to keep things from going at the same level. Worked great.
Which is why everyone hates the Vandals.
Refreshing my memory on the Vandals by hitting up Wikipedia, it really was Rome vs Carthage: Round Two.
And everybody was some variety of Christian by this point, so you have the Arians versus the Trinitarians as well 🙂
This was really good, you should make more blog posts like this
The classical world’s standard of living, as measured in terms of entertainment and professional sports venues, was pretty high. For example, the coast of Turkey is full of Greco-Roman theaters, such as the one in Miletus that’s somewhere between Pauley Pavilion and Wrigley Field in size. It’s not just benches on a hillside either: it’s built like a modern stadium with tunnels under the stands to make it convenient to get to your seat.
I did a straw-poll-by-comment on Facebook, and no-one went for the “the Dark Ages is just a synonym for the Middle Ages” thing. For a long time I thought the Dark Ages were about 500-1000AD or so (it’s so tempting to be Anglocentric and say 410AD-1066AD) and the Middle Ages are what followed, except these days it seems that “Middle Ages” covers the whole 500-1500-or-so (476-1453/1492?) span, and “Dark Ages” tends to be used to refer to the half or so.
Looking around a bit, it seems that Wikipedia sayeth: “The term was originally intended to denote the entire period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, similarly to ‘Middle Ages’ and implying an intermediate period between Classical Antiquity and the Modern era. In the 19th century scholars began to recognize the accomplishments of the period, which challenged the image of a time exclusively of darkness and decay. Nowadays the term is not used by scholars to refer to the entire medieval period; when used, it is generally restricted to the Early Middle Ages”
It wasn’t until a few days ago that I discovered that anyone might even think the Dark Ages and Middle Ages were synonymous.
So the people saying “the Dark Ages weren’t dark, look at all the cool stuff in the High Middle Ages”, they seem to be flogging a horse that’s so dead that it has passed from memory for many of us, and is now nothing more than a whip-marked piece of dirt.
 of my British friends, mostly Cambridge-educated.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that British, Cambridge-educated people have a better grasp on Medieval history than the average person. I suspect if you were to grab a bunch of random Europeans and Americans and asked them to describe the Dark Ages, you would get a lot of people talking about Braveheart or Robin Hood.
Americans, maybe. It’s not their history, I mean I’m not up on the finer points of what was the Warring States period and what was the Spring and Autumn period in China, or even what was what in the Fertile Crescent way back in the way back when.
I don’t know so much about continental Europe, it varies from country to country. In England – I specifically say England because I’m hazier on Scottish and Welsh history – well, the Dark Ages are all about Saxons and Vikings and stuff, then after 1066 you have kings whose names you actually try to remember (I remember quite a few lists of monarchs that start with the conquest), you have proper castles and buildings that are still up and in use. Roman ruins aren’t just things you see photos of in books – they’re places you go on school trips, or have a look around if you’re on holiday in the area.
(There’s notably less 410-1066 era stuff to have a look around. I mean, there’s Lindisfarne, there’s some Viking stuff in York. There are plenty of nice artefacts in museums, I mean it’s clear there were some good craftsmen working in that era, but still the difference is striking).
I do take the point that when you’re the sort of person who just laps up historical stuff and come from a family where going out to see a castle is an ideal thing to do on holiday, then it’s too easy to assume that your view of history is universal. But being able to get through almost fourty years without so much as having heard of the Dark Ages being used to refer to the whole of the Medieval period, and then to suddenly hear about it now on an American blog, I have my suspicions…
I think the expectation that the average person could give dates even as accurate as the millennial order of magnitude is optimistic. Ask them when they think the Dark Ages began and ended and you’ll probably get a beginning range from 1000BC through 1700AD and an ending range about as wide.
I honestly struggle to understand those like you who read the many commenters who warn about the widespread notion of Roman-to-Renaissance Dark Ages and go full ‘never saw that, must “be flogging a horse that’s so dead that it has passed from memory for many of us”‘, implicitly suggesting those other guys are delusional.
Even a shallow Google search will tell you that the quadrupede appears to be very much alive and healthy.
As historians are fond to remind each other, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As a thought experiment, how would you actually show that “dark age” Anglo-Saxons did not have steel boats? We have two written sources about the period, neither of which mentions steel boats, but I could also easily produce a lot of twenty first century sources that don’t mention steel boats, and a handful of archeological finds, most of them burial mounds and some of these contain boats which happen to be wooden. However, these are not a representative sample of boats, it is the kind of boats that they buried very high status individuals in. Additionally we would not expect steel boats to survive the intervening 1500 years, so what are you basing your argument on?
More seriously, almost all pre medival sources we have, come down to us either because there is a classical tradition, where Romans copied Greek sources, Byzantines copied Greek and Roman sources and Arabian scholars copied Greek, Roman and Byzantine sources, at which point these sources were introduced into a western canon. The thing about the dark ages is, that we know we do not have sources, because the Byzantine scribes lost access to western Europe, we do not really know anything beyond that, because nobody copied the sources since then.
The problem does of course not get easier, by the fact that the few artifacts we have are easily of a similar quality to anything the Romans produced.
So your argument amounts to the claim, that we should neglect the things we have and instead fill in the blanks by a lack of sources. (Note that the decline in lead smelting may well be a substitution effect.)
Having said that, the entire idea of comparing cultures in a way that would fill the term ‘dark ages’ or ‘technological development’ with meaning is of course a fools errant, as 19th century anthropologist found out the hard way. The trouble is, you are making too many arbitrary choices in comparing dissimilar things, to pick a concrete example: Is 1850ies London or the Indus Valley Civilization more advanced? Pretty much our entire knowledge about the Indus Valley Civilization is, that they had canalization, which London did not. So from a modern standpoint, it seems reasonable to just disqualify London for the stench alone.
“As historians are fond to remind each other, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
This common quip is actually not true. Absence of expected evidence *is* evidence of absence. This is a trivial consequence of the laws of probability.
Under ideal conditions you are right, but in history we only deal very rarely with ideal conditions. The problem is, that almost all sources and almost all artifacts are lost and what we have is already the exception. From that you can then always argue that what we don’t have existed because it just didn’t survive.
The lesson here is not whether the Dark Ages were X% grimdark vs. Y% grimdark. (Although, I would suggest that the Byzantine world was still rolling 4d6-drop-lowest while western Europe had regressed to 3d6 in order.)
The lesson is that civilization is fragile. It’s easy to sit in Periclean Athens (or 1891 Paris, or 2017 Seattle) and think “wow, the march of progress is inexorable!” But it isn’t. Civilization is something to be lovingly nurtured and ferociously guarded; the wolves at the door haven’t gone away just because your lamp burns too bright for you to see out into the dark.
Yeah, I think that’s part of what’s really going on here. Debate about the Dark Ages, to an extent, is a proxy for anxiety over the present-day West.
Debate about the Dark Ages, to an extent, is a proxy for anxiety over the present-day West.
And that’s what it has always been; Petrarch wasn’t seriously interested in historiography, he wanted to compare the mythical Golden Age with his own period and shine some reflected lustre on his own era by contrasting, to its disfavour, the immediate predecessor.
Ditto with the Enlightenment propagandists who preferred to style themselves the spiritual heirs of the Classical civilisations, hence their ancestors had to have been in severe decline before their advent and rediscovery of the wonders of past learning.
Maybe, but (among people with any opinions on history at all) it’s not hard to find people who think Dark Ages Western Europe was the worst society to have ever existed and are completely unconcerned about today. I think this is the official history, in fact.
Sure, and there were probably people who were fascinated by Koko the Gorilla simply because they were interested in the mental abilities of non-human primates and had no interest at all in human abilities. But I think that in both cases, much of the attention these issues receive is due to people subconsciously drawing comparisons with culture war issues.
Yeah, I strongly agree. There’s a lot of evidence for a European dark age. I’d put it shorter then you have it; say from about 500 until about 800, I think the period during and after Charlemagne probably is when society began to make forward progress again. But I strongly agree that it happened.
One way to measure quality of life in the ancient world is in terms of pottery shards, that’s a reasonable proxy for both trade and consumption. Archeologists in most of Europe find lots and lots of Roman era pottery shards, and almost none in the centuries right after the fall of Rome.
A lot of important technologies were lost. The ships the Roman Empire could build were better than anything anyone in Europe could build until about 1200-1300 or so.
Literacy went way down, and this is the period a lot of ancient books were lost; as far as we can tell, almost all of the ancient books that were lost were were lost between 500 and 800 AD, almost every book that anyone referenced after 800 AD can still be found today.
Architecture went way backwards. The quality of iron tools and weapons declined for a time. Trade was much lower; you can find evidence in the Roman era of olive oil grown and made by the Mediterranean that was consumed as far away as England, but not in the era after the fall of the Roman empire. Population also went way down, as you mentioned.
Are you talking about just Latin, or also Greek? Do you endorse the claim that the East entered a Dark Age at the same time?
500 sounds way too late to me. For example, Ptolemy has a bibliography of Hipparchus and hasn’t seen it all. Varro has dozens of Greek sources that no one ever mentions again.
Your first point is absolutly correct; a lot of books that were “lost” in Europe in this time period were preserved elsewhere, in whole or in part, especially in the Byzantine empire or in the Islamic world. Not all of them were, but many. A lot of them were “rediscovered” during and after the Crusades.
You are right that 500 was probably too late; literacy in Europe had been in severe decline for a long period before the traditional “fall of the roman empire” date of 476.
As I pointed out in an earlier comment, the majority of the population decline on the graph Scott was referencing occurred under the Roman empire, starting about 200 A.D. Population started going up again about 600 A.D., a bit over a century after the empire fell.
To put the population point a little differently, Scott is dating the Dark Ages from 500 to 1000. Population increase in that period entirely reversed the population decline of the second half of the Roman Empire, bringing European population back up to its 200 A.D. high point.
Rhomanian (Byzantine) skeleton-first built dromons were a straight improvement over Roman Empire shell-first liburnias, which in turn kicked the crap out of the ponderous quadriremes and quinquiremes at Actium. Dromon type ships continued being built throughout the Dark Ages in Greece and even Italy despite the apocalyptic Gothic War. By the 10th century the Italians had begun to refine the dromon into the superior galea sottile, which was in turn eventually adopted by the Rhomanians themselves in the 12th century.
Shipbuilding is a really poor example of lost knowledge, because the knowledge that was lost was mostly obsolete. Nobody cares that you can’t build a massive ten bank galley like Anthony was commanding at Actium when such ships are just not tactically useful.
And wasn’t Roman shipbuilding so crappy that it wasn’t until they reverse-engineered a wrecked Carthaginian ship, plus got help from nations (like the Phoenicians) that had actual navies, that they finally got a proper navy of their own? So not the greatest example of “and yet another Original Roman Discovery that kicked the backside of anything that came afterwards”.
They didn’t know how to build quinquiremes during the first Punic War until they salvaged and reverse engineered a Carthaginiam wreck yes, but Roman shipbuilding would improve, and they went on to became the premier naval power of the Mediterranean. That said they definitely depended heavily on the ship-building and ship-sailing expertise of conquered peoples.
The Romans had had a small fleet since the late 4th century, so they clearly knew how to built warships, although most likely not to the same standard as the Carthaginians built them.
(As I recall, the Carthaginians used prefabricated parts on their ships which greatly increased their shipbuilding efficiency, so it’s likely that the true import of the reverse-engineering was “Great, now we can build navies quickly enough to compete with the Carthaginians!” rather than “Great, now we, who have never had any warships before, can build our first navy!”)
Ten bank galley? I thought the practical limit was three banks of oars. The Ptolemaic 40, long before Anthony, is conjectured to have been a giant catamaran, two hulls, each with three banks with about 7, 7, and 6 men to an oar.
Sorry i mispoke, a ten oarsman galley. Three banks was indeed the limit. We don’t know how the eights and tens used as flagships in Anthony fleet were arranged, but two banks of four or five oarsmen each seems likely. The workhorse quinquireme was likely three banks in a 2-2-1 arrangement.
I thought the Byzantines were more about flamethrower (fire-siphon) ships, still around in Hobson-Jobson as coast guards, than straight galleys. Caracalla. Haldane’s Callinicus. Superior to straight galleys, because flamethrowers. Inferior to any ship with scantlings that could take firing a broadside, because fuel tank rupture, so the Portuguese could take over the Indian Ocean, but that was hundreds of years later.
The bulk of the Rhomanoi fleet was regular dromons. The fire siphon ships were a special weapon only deployed for fleet actions. Remember they bulk of the fleet’s time was spent moving troops, dealing with pirates, and doing customs enforcement. For that you absolutely need normal galleys.
Changes in naval tactics also reflected improvement in ship design: for example, ramming was dropped in favour of boarding because early medieval ships were now too strong to be sunk that way.
I’m not going to bother arguing against as many have done it better. See David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5000 years” (which includes 100 pages of references) and Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”. TL;DR I’d much rather live in the middle ages than under the romans. The bad things of the middle ages were those things inherited from latin culture, the good things from the northern “european” partly hunter gatherer cultures. The roman empire is the single worse thing that ever happened to so-called “europe”. The spread of it’s awful exploitative culture is still wreaking havoc to this day with harmful words like “nature”, “tradition”, “religion”, “property”, “unity”, “virility”, “republic” that have no equivalent in other languages. The third reich should be regarded as a footnote compared to it.
Can you give a TLDR of what was so bad about living under the Romans? I mean besides the general badness of living in any premodern era.
Must . . . resist . . . urge
Can you give a TLDR of what was so bad about living under the Romans?
Boudicca and Caratacus would like a quick word if it’s convenient 🙂
Ask not what the Romans did for us, ask rather what they did to us!
Item 1: Legal, widespread infanticide. If you give birth to a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, expose it. One reason the Romans (at least until the C4th) thought that Jews (and later Christians) were weird/ repellent was that they didn’t practice it.
… I thought they were exposing sick children way more than female (despite, yes, misogyny). If the latter, how did their population exploded?
The fact that they forced people to fight to the death as a form of public entertainment good enough?
I thought of that clip recently, and realized it’s a generalized defense of imperialism. (Compare: “What did the British Empire ever do for us!?”)
Random thought: has the post-colonial period effectively been a “dark age” in many countries, for pretty much the same reason?
Depends on the country. Botswana is doing pretty well. Zimbabwe, not so much.
Fun fact: the original meaning of “virtue” is simply manliness. Though among the Scandinavians too, “effeminate” was one of the worst insults – but the chief god was a part-time transwoman.
This is not isolated. Check out the etymology of “bad.”
I didn’t expect it to be (as in, I expect the same of most other cultures too). Thanks for “bad”.
Given what we currently believe about lead, the chart is evidence that the Dark Ages were a time of reduced violence and high IQs. Sounds pretty good!
Among all the other things identified probably also at work to one degree or another, I think an additional factor may be a general unwillingness of many nowadays to concede of the possibility of significant backsliding in any area, technological, cultural, economic, artistic, etc.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that not just in Europe, but all over the world, you can clearly point to periods when things got better and periods when things got worse. Sometimes you have an unfathomable explosion of creativity in a short time and small space; sometimes you have centuries where almost everyone’s just too busy trying not to starve or be raped and pillaged. And this, of course, should be the default assumption. Continual progress in every area would be really weird.
The ironic thing about those looking to “complicate” the supposedly overly simplistic idea of the dark ages probably have somewhere in the back of their own heads an ever more simplistic parabola.
This is something that especially annoys me in this article: Scott brings up a refutation, and brushes the refutation aside in, well, an aside. It’s like a TV show lampshading an improbable plot device; that doens’t make the plot device good.
If the data for silver, copper, and iron was as good as the data for lead, why didn’t you graph those instead of using the data for lead which has an easy rebuttal? (Answer: Because the Wikipedia source he used is vague about how much those decreased and has no dramatic graph for them.)
“This might not be entirely fair – Roman scrolls were smaller than medieval books, so…”
“I can’t find any great sources quantifying the number of books written in the classical world…”
“And true, a lot of this is sparse and reconstructed. …”
Also, maybe I should take back some of the things I said about SSC being too charitable. It’s easy for me to steelman some of these: “But if you only challenge the term “Dark Ages”, I feel like you’re doing the opposite of this suspension-of-judgment. ” Because Scott’s comparing it with terms that are grammatically similar, but are understood by their users differently. Almost nobody takes “Alexander the Great” to be a judgment that he was great. “Dark Ages” normally is interpreted as a judgment that the time period is dark. The phrases are parallel in the sense that they both contain an adjective that can be used to judge, but they don’t both contain an adjective that is actually used to judge.
This is one of the worst posts I’ve seen here, and maybe the worst ever if you don’t count political ones.
“Dark Ages” normally is interpreted as a judgment that the time period is dark.
Yes. Nobody goes “The Great Depression – well, as you can tell by the name, it sure was a fun time!” But “Dark Ages” was used, and Petrarch really should get a punch inna snoot for kick-starting this, as “Awful time because everybody was stupid and under the thumb of – ugh- Christians“, and not “the nearest thing to an SF apocalyptic wasteland in actual history”. Gibbon used it as a moral judgement – the decline of Rome was caused by its decadence, that softness in part caused by the adoption of Christianity and thus weaning the Roman ruling class away from the manly stern virtues of the past (like slavery, conquering everywhere they could reach by land, using those conquered provinces as cash-cows for ambitious Romans to get their leg-up on the political ladder) and then naturally after the collapse came literal dirt and ignorance and darkness, all due to the lack of moral fibre.
Christianity didn’t really get a foothold in Northern Europe until late in the dark ages, so I am confused by anyone who thinks it was caused by a religion which wasn’t even well established.
Ireland was Christian throughout the Dark Ages, and kept the flame of high culture alive and well, before reintroducing it to Western Europe.
I think you mean the Germanic lands of Northern Europe?
Many of the Germanic tribes had become mostly Christian a century or more before the fall of Rome, although they were mostly followers of the “Arianism” branch of Christianity. This was a cause of some conflict later on.
Many, but far from all. It was mainly the East Germanic peoples who had become Arians in the fourth and fifth centuries: namely the Gothic polities, the Vandals, the Gepids and the Burgundians. The Franks remained pagan until the late fifth century. The Anglo-Saxons until the sixth to seventh. And the Norse until well into the tenth.
It’s weird that so many who put the blame for these so-called “Dark Ages” on Christianity can’t explain why they occurred when the Church was at its very weakest and why learning, trade and technical development returned and flourished in the later Middle Ages when the Church’s influence was at its height. If their thesis was true, it should be the other way around.
But the counter narrative goes too far as well. See for example, the Irish saved civilization post that’s first up top. Yes, in 450-800 there were some isolated monasteries in the British Isles where some barely literate people lived. Yes, they eventually started sending literate advisers to local warchiefs, where they converted the wives and wrote down some of the oral history. No, that’s not basically the same as Rome at its height all thanks to Mother Church.
Ireland was still sending scholars to Europe up through the 1500’s!
Yes, the Irish Literati were operating in an often more rural, uncivilized milieu, but this wasn’t Rome, this was the Northern and Central France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Northern Italy.
Look at the works of Dicuil – similar to Herodotus or Ibn Battuta:
Who is believed to have also written under the pseudonym Hibernicus Exul:
Even worse than that, Brad: none of them were Democrat Party voters!
The horror! 🙂
Your exaggerations in the opposite direction are no better than the original exaggerations. 450-800 in British Isles was really grim — even worse than in Ireland during the famine if you can believe that. You want to deflect with some lame attempt at scoring political points, I guess I can’t stop you.
Brad, you reliably pop up with a “bah humbug, this is right-wing propaganda” comment on nearly every post. Sometimes you have good things to say, but generally I can assume what you’re going to say before you say it.
Maybe try being less predictable in your politics and I won’t be able to indulge in point-scoring?
The Irish were producing noteworthy literature in both Irish and Latin during the West’s Dark Ages:
“Early Irish literature is the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe…. [Gaelic] adopted and made its own in secular life scores and hundreds of words originally used by the Church for ecclesiastical purposes. Even to the present day we find in Irish words like póg, borrowed from the Latin for “[the kiss] of peace”, pac[is], Old Irish póc…. It is a tremendous claim to make for the Celt that he “taught Europe to rhyme”, yet it has often been made for him, and not by himself, but by such men as Zeuss, the father of Celtic learning, Constantine Nigra, and others. Certain it is that by the time of the Irish mission to the continent, as early as the 7th century, we find the Irish had brought the art of rhyming verses to a high pitch of perfection, that is, centuries before most of the vernacular literatures of Europe knew anything at all about it.”
“Hiberno-Latin was notable for its curiously learned vocabulary. While neither Hebrew nor Greek was widely known in Europe during this period, odd words from these sources, as well as from Irish and British sources, were added to Latin vocabulary by these authors….
“[T]he sixth-century abecedarian hymn Altus prosator shows many of the features of Hiberno-Latin: the word prosator, the “first sower” meaning creator, refers to God using an unusual neologism. The text of the poem also contains the word iduma, meaning “hands;” this is probably from Hebrew yadaim. The poem is also an extended alphabetical acrostic, another example of the wordplay typical of Hiberno-Latin.”
I often wonder what would have happened if Hiberno-Latin – the high culture language of Western Europe – had taken off and become a Lingua Franca for the elites across NW and Central Europe, then the peasants lter on.
Would it have changed the trajectory of European or even World history much, or not at all??
I’d nominate the lower Mississippi Valley in 1600s and 1700s for that. It’s great farmland, and two hundred years before it had been the center of a civilization to rival the Aztecs or Inca, marked by cities built around great earthen platforms; these might remind us of Aztec pyramids, and indeed some of them seem to have been temples, but they also held high-status dwellings, dance platforms, and funerary sites. Hernando de Soto’s expedition approached these cities in the customary Spanish style; he failed to establish a lasting presence, find the gold he was looking for, or conquer much of anything, though, and after his men returned to Mexico City (de Soto having died in present-day Arkansas in 1542), no significant European contact was ever made with the Mississippians.
European diseases spread much faster than the Europeans themselves did, though, and smallpox, measles, and typhus killed so many people over the next hundred years or so that the Mississippian civilization fell apart entirely under the pressure of population loss and social upheaval. Some of their shattered remnants — the Natchez, for example — maintained a lifestyle similar to their ancestors, on a smaller scale with less social complexity. Others took to a raiding lifestyle, simultaneously adopting the horse (which had been spreading through the region at about the same time), though they sometimes maintained cultural memories of the time when they’d built the largest cities in North America.
History does not record whether they called it the “before-before time”, nor whether “I live, I die, I live again” was ever used as a catchphrase.
Pardon me for lack of other source, but it appears that the Europeans are almost-wholly innocent of this collapse.
Yeah, I was oversimplifying to economize on space, and disease was more of the final nail in the coffin than the sole cause of its collapse. But it did kill a lot of people, and besides I’m not in the camp that ascribes moral responsibility for smallpox to Europeans (except for that one time at Fort Pitt, and we don’t even know if that worked). De Soto himself did nothing much, though not for lack of trying.
The 15th century was a pretty tumultuous time for the Americas even before that Italian dude showed up; the Pueblo cultures had big problems about that time, for example, thanks to persistent drought and conflict with neighboring peoples. But it took Variola and Morbillivirus to tick it over from “Thirty Years’ War” bad to “Mad Max” bad.
I claimed Roman scrolls were smaller than medieval books, but the difference in magnitude was much greater than that alone could account for.
I claimed I couldn’t quantify the number of books written in the classical world, but that the size of libraries was a reasonable proxy.
I said the data were sparse and reconstructed, but the best data we have.
I said the lead numbers weren’t proof on their own, but looked better when supported by other lines of evidence for other minerals.
I think it’s fair to have some evidence that isn’t 100% knock-down decisive, to explain the flaws with it, but to show that it’s the best evidence we have and supported by lots of other evidence that points the same direction.
Hm, to my mind what Scott’s done here is basically how informal arguments should be written, and substantially better than a lot of what’s out there. You acknowledge the potential holes, try to point out why they you don’t think they’re a big deal, or, in the worst case, just say “I know this is a leap but let’s just go with this for now” (or “just spot me this for now”). What is the alternative? To not acknowledge the potential holes like is so common? That’s much worse. To not write anything that has potential holes? Everything outside of mathematics has potential holes. I mean yeah a more detailed examination of the counterarguments would be nice, this is not exactly going to get published in any sort of history journal, but this does attempt to actually cover the holes, this doesn’t really seem bad for an informal piece like this.
The alternative is that if your argument depends on “I know this is a leap but…” you recognize that your argument is flawed and you don’t post it. If the choices are between recognizing the flaw in your argument or glossing over the flaw in your argument, either way it’s a flawed argument. Don’t make those.
Like I said above, I think that’s an unreasonable standard for informal arguments. (And also like I hinted above I worry that complaining when people acknowledge the holes in their argument will just result in more people not acnowledging holes. Which most people already don’t, unfortunately, but still, not something to be encouraged…)
Scott’s post was a bunch of scattered claims, so he could easily have removed that particular claim from his argument without being unable to make an argument at all. It would just have had one fewer claim in it. (If, of course, the other claims don’t fail in the same way.)
For amusement’s sake, I should note that Armarium Magnum considered the “one way to politicize the discussion; not recommended” graph as “the stupidest thing on the internet.” (Now that I think about it, I may have gotten that link from SSC. I’m not sure.)
Of course, that was way back in 2009, and much stupidity has come to pass in the meantime.
A good quote from that article:
GodDarwin bless Tim O’Neill, you have to love a post that contains:
One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who has the lack of common sense to hang around on atheist discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy.
His new endeavour is History for Atheists and I will be quoting chunks of it, because an Australian of Irish-Catholic heritage getting salty over the versions of history and literature as depicted in pop culture, the media, and on the Internet, is right up my street.
I have read a libertarian objection to the idea of the European “dark ages” to the effect of “yes, things were worse in Rome, but getting gradually better elsewhere, and maybe some of that improvement even came about as a result of the weakening of that central authority.”
This seems possible to me, but it also introduces a different possibility we shouldn’t forget:
It seems to be entirely possible for civilization and prosperity to simultaneously become more widely spread and yet fall from its maximum height. We tend to judge time periods past by the “great” achievements of “great” men: was there an incredibly poet, philosopher, artist, inventor, or conqueror? It’s at least logically conceivable that there would be a period of fewer “great” achievements and yet during which the common people had more to eat, rates of basic literacy improved, etc.
“We tend to judge time periods past by the “great” achievements of “great” men: was there an incredibly poet, philosopher, artist, inventor, or conqueror? It’s at least logically conceivable that there would be a period of fewer “great” achievements and yet during which the common people had more to eat, rates of basic literacy improved, etc.”
With the possible exception of “conqueror,” shouldn’t those two concepts always be linked? Great poets, philosophers, artists, and inventors only come around when common people are wealthy enough for some of them to try out being poets, artists, and inventors.
Or where a government is taxing the rural population and spending some of the money on artistic patronage in the capital.
When I was a kid, I rather seriously measured the greatness of a civilization by how many monuments it left behind, and I lamented how we benighted moderns weren’t building anything to last the way the Romans did.
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind”
Unless some vandal desecrates it, that should still be there in 19690 and maybe 196900 AD. I need to do the math on micrometeoroid erosion sometime.
Or where a landed aristocrat writes poetry or philosophy as a hobby.
I find it “funny” that Right-Libertarians like (and depend on*) the products of long trade routes more than just about anyone else, and despise the authority that maintains them more than most.
*: though by liking what they depend on, they’re already ahead of SJWs.
Interestingly, libertarians generally tend to believe that among the legitimate responsibilities of the government are the police, the courts, and the military. All of which are part of establishing and maintaining long trade routes.
Thinking that police, courts, and military can work properly in the absence of cultural cohesion is so cute! Also, the smaller the state, the less police and (national) courts count for *anything*, and the costlier (not to say “riskier”) it is to make the military count. And coordinating sovereign regions by contract means sometimes there won’t be one of those.
And no, Left-Libertarians (the originals) don’t believe in police, courts, or military. Though they aren’t whom I criticized, and yes, are dumber.
Can I suggest you rotate the second map by 90 degrees clockwise? It’s not a great map, of course, and much worse than Ptolemy’s, but as it’s currently displayed, it has east at the top, which makes it look worse than it actually is.
I urge you to follow that link to the T and O maps. Many of those maps are like that, and it is intentional.
I don’t think that’s the point. Yes, T and O maps put east at the top, but comparing two maps facing in different directions is a bit unfair, particularly when one of them is the same as all of the other maps you normally see and the other isn’t. And east at the top made a lot more sense before they had mapped the entire globe. These days, it’s just annoying.
Hmmm. I think we’re weighting the orientation’s importance differently. As I see it, the choice of what the cartographer puts at the top of the map is part and parcel of how that cartographer views the world. It’s not just how accurate their coastlines are for use by ship captains, for example; it’s how hard they appear to be trying to make the map usable by ship captains in the first place.
It’s like they’re trying to make a point about what’s important in the world, and in this case, it’s the Garden of Eden, rather than where to find the best black pepper. It goes beyond, say, those maps you see here and there that put the Southern Hemisphere at the top. The latter show awareness of other accurate maps and are making a point about the arbitrariness of top==north; the former appear to be utterly unaware. Their choice of orientation is part of that.
1. World maps are not usually used by ship captains.
2. Why would a map with east at the top be a significant problem for practical uses? Obviously, a world map in that style has some fairly serious cartographic issues, but if I’m trying to map the US (for instance), why couldn’t I put east at the top and have a map that’s just as useful, and fits on the paper better? Besides the fact that it looks wrong because everyone is used to north being at the top, that is.
I know nothing about TO maps, in fact I think this might be the first time I’ve ever heard of them, but just from looking at them and reading the Wikipedia entry, it seems like they were more akin to an infographic than an actual tool for navigation. Kind of like one of those maps you will see that sizes the different countries by their population or GDP. It’s designed to give you an idea of something, but it really can’t be used for anything.
If that’s the case, it would seem that something like orientation or detail wouldn’t really matter.
1. Fair point; I didn’t mean to imply such maps were specifically for naval use. (And look who I’m talking to.) I just picked a random example of why our standard of accuracy should have been useful back then.
2. I don’t think east==top is not useful, based on how many times I’ve oriented a map that way in Boy Scouts. Rather, it’s just that I find that choice telling, and therefore relevant.
@JayT: same; I’d never heard of them until now, either. And yes, they look very style-over-substance. But again, that seems to be all they cared about (unless someone finds a counterexample for Scott to use).
And even as an infographic, I’m not sure how useful they were. They just look… crude. See also: late Roman busts and statues, vs. Dark Age mosaics, the Bayeux Tapestry, et al.
I’m not even trying to defend them as good maps. They weren’t, and they definitely let what they wanted to be true for religious reasons influence them.
Naval mapping dates to the Portolan charts that started in Italy in the 1200s, and are very important in the history of cartography. They used rule of thumb in the Dark Ages for navigation.
All of that said, I think it’s fair to point out that one map is misaligned relative to the other, and suggest that it’s somewhat unfair to the map that doesn’t follow modern conventions, and makes it look even worse.
Just doing a quick Wikipedia search on old maps turns up this one:
That is obviously significantly better than the TO map, and from the same era.
I’m also not sure comparing artwork across eras is all that illuminating since tastes change wildly from era to era. If you looked at early 20th Century art and knew nothing else about it, you would assume that the Cubists had lost the ability to make realistic art, but that wasn’t the case, it was just a matter of a new style being more popular.
All that said, I know very little about this subject, so I have little confidence in anything I say!
I’m not sure how many other professional medieval historians are part of this thread, but I am one, and I endorse what Scott says absolutely: Europe experienced a dramatic decline in industry and culture in the Dark Ages, and some sort of decline in population, although it is hard to say how much. I recommend Bryan Ward-Perkins, “The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization” (2005) as a good place to start reading. Some key signs: in Italy, ordinary people stopped using wooden coffins and buried their dead in shrouds. They also stopped using roofing tiles; even many Roman peasants had houses with tile roofs, and Italy is simply full of pieces of broken Roman roofing tiles. Cities in many areas shrank to 1/10 their size. Long-distance trade declined; during Roman times a handful of highly productive factory towns supplied the whole empire with ceramics, but once the trade routes were broken those factories shriveled, and in some areas there was no pottery for a century until they relearned how to make it for themselves.
For Britain, Robin Fleming’s “Britain after Rome” gives a great overview of what happened after the Roman legions withdrew. One group of Britons re-occupied an Iron Age hillfort at Cadbury Congresbury that had been abandoned during the centuries of Roman order. Within this ancient fortification they set up a small community of wooden houses built in ancient, pre-Roman styles, dominated by the wooden hall of their patron. Like refugees from a zombie apocalypse, they lived largely by scavenging. They used Roman ceramics, glassware, and cut stone, but it was all decades old, most of it scrounged from abandoned towns and villas. “Some of their pottery, however, came from another source: it was probably salvaged from nearby third-century cemeteries, places where cremation burials lay, and where pots could be dug up, emptied of their human ash and then used for cooking or hauling water.” They lived in this way for a century, until they were either driven out or decided it was safe to come down.
Not all of Europe was like that; some regions maintained much more order and wealth, and a few (like Venice) grew greatly. But a lot of it was. And as for science, there basically was none in Western Europe for a thousand years.
That’s just wrong, I’m afraid.
This isn’t really a credible source.
According to the very page he linked, the guy has a PhD in history and philosophy of science and wrote his dissertation on the decline of medieval learning during the 16th century. Who else would you want writing a book on the history of science in the middle ages??
Really? Gosh. Except Hannam has both a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in the history of science from Cambridge and his book was endorsed by leading historians and recognised and praised as an excellent piece of research and writing would be totally uncontroversial. It was shortlisted for both the the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2010 and the British Society for the History of Science Dingle Prize in 2011. And here is leading historian of science, former Sarton Medal Winner and former president of the History of Science Society, Edward Grant, on Hannam’s book:
““Hannam has written a splendid book and fully supported his claim that the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern science. He has admirably met another of his goals, namely that of acquainting a large non-academic audience about the way science and various aspects of natural philosophy functioned in medieval society and laid the foundation for modern science. Readers will also learn much about medicine, magic, alchemy, astrology, and especially technology. And they will learn about these important matters in the history of science against the broad background of the life and times of medieval and early modern societies.” (Metascience, September 2010)
So if this book “isn’t really a credible source”, I’d love to see what is. How about you now back up your little blurt above or admit you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
The quote you put up uses the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ but it doesn’t say The Dark Ages.
Hannam’s book covers both the so-called “Dark Ages” and the Medieval period generally. And that’s not relevant to the point I was responding to anyway.
This post is about the dark ages so I wanted to know if Hannam’s book discussed that period, if it is a credible source.
It is and it does.
I’d agree with everything else you’ve said, but that last part is nonsense. The later period actually saw a flowering of (proto-)scientific analysis unmatched since the Islamic Golden Age. Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan, Nicholas of Cusa and many others brought about advances in physics, optics, dynamics, astronomy, anatomy and the beginnings of chemisty and laid the essential foundations for the Scientific Revolution. If you’re a “professional medieval historian” as you claim, I suspect you specialise in an area that does not cover this remarkable series of developments.
And as for science, there basically was none in Western Europe for a thousand years.
By that criterion, there was none before then either; the Romans weren’t scientists, they were engineers. Very good at practical hands-on problem-solving technical issues; not so interested in the theory (though there were mathematicians – quick, somebody name a famous Classical Roman mathematician and no, Archimedes was Greek).
“. In fact, you probably could have taken a similar picture at the time, with an east/west instead of north/south axis. From The Muslims of Andalusia:”
Uhh…. that would be a pretty north-south axis:
The same if you want to compare Christian Europe to the Muslim world in general at the time:
I get that the second one is normally talked about as “east-west,” but that’s not how it is for the purposes of a picture on a map, it’s just that a lot of the conflicts we like to talk about most involved people travelling all the way from the nearly westernmost parts of Christendom to the nearly easternmost (and normally most prominent, unless you happen to be talking about Al-Andalus) parts of the dar-al-Islam.
Nitpick: Ivan the Terrible is a victim of the changing English language. When his Russian nickname was translated as “terrible”, “terrible” meant “terrifying”. He was supposed to be Ivan The Really Scary, not Ivan the One Star Out of Five.
I always liked the translation of Гро́зный as “awesome,” but in the biblical sense rather than the modern.
The word you’re looking for is fearsome. Ива́н Гро́зный = Ivan Grozniy = Ivan the Fearsome. Some people prefer “the Formidable” to preserve the positive emotional valence, but fuck that shit. If they don’t see “the Fearsome” as a compliment, maybe Russian history is not for them.
This should be a highlight *somewhere*.
We should modernize it to Ivan the Terrorist.
Don’t be silly, when we don’t like a government we don’t call them terrorists, we call them rogue states.
Ivan the Great and Terrible?
Am I horribly old-fashioned that I do take the cognomen “the Terrible” in the sense of “inspires terror”, not “dreadful service, limited menu, completely unreasonable manager, would not leave a tip”?
When the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible addressed King James, in the preface, as “most dread sovereign”, they meant it as a compliment.
Claude Lévi-Strauss had an interesting take on the debates about the “quality” of different historical period. He distinguished “periods of innovation” and “periods of enhancement”. In periods of innovation, entirely new domains of technology that deeply transform human society are discovered at a fast pace. In periods of enhancement, the existing technologies are made better, but entirely novel discoveries are rare and overall the organization of society remains pretty stable.
He posits that there have been exactly three periods of innovation in human history: the paleolithic revolution (stone tools, domestication of fire, possibly domestication of dogs, burial, fishing, figurative art, hearths, language…), the neolithic revolution (agriculture, pottery, weaving, and ultimately metal working and writing), and the industrial revolution (heat engines, long distance communication, etc).
In this scheme, the difference between the iron age and the middle ages does not even register.
Long-distance communication predates the industrial age; drum networks in Western Africa, for example.
I don’t think drum networks in Western Africa could communicate across the Pacific – but the telegraph could.
I’d have appreciated this a lot more if the Warring States Period hadn’t been specifically excluded from “innovation”.
The graph of lead production doesn’t really jive with the idea that the Dark Ages were a result of Rome falling — production had declined sharply centuries before the fall of Rome. It suggests that maybe we should count the Dark Ages as beginning considerably *before* the fall of Rome.
As I understand it, lead production in Rome was largely a byproduct of silver mining (Galena). The silver mines ran out, as mines do, which lead to both a drop in lead production, and severe issues with Roman coinage. (The later history of which is quite amusing, with coinage being debased, replaced with something else, which in turn is debased and replaced).
Given that, the drop in lead production was at least partially a side-effect of one of the causes of Roman decline, rather than a demonstration of it.
I hadn’t noticed that. Lead production is falling through almost the entire period of the Roman Empire.
And Scott interprets that as evidence of the bad effects of the Roman Empire ending.
Yes, it’s quite striking — both lead production and its rate of increase are increasing, the Roman Republic becomes the Roman Empire, and shortly thereafter the entire trend sharply reverses.
If lead production was tied to silver mining, as
someoneThegnskald mentioned, then I imagine (a) as you exploited your silver resources and exhausted them, your lead went down as well (b) now that you’ve an Empire, you can milk those wealthy Eastern provinces for money, you don’t need to mine your own silver and so you’re not producing your own lead?
The standard way of making silver in that era was tied to lead, yes. The process was called cupellation — you’d heat silver-bearing lead ore or bullion in the presence of crushed seashells, lime, or bone ash (sometimes formed into little cups called “cupels”). The lead would oxidize into litharge and be absorbed by the flux, and pure silver would remain.
Native silver is quite rare.
Yeah, just eyeballing that graph, it looks like 90% or so of the decline had already taken place by the time the dark ages begin.
Imagine a person who lost money, or their source of income, trying to continue as before by borrowing, selling less important assets, and general financial shell games. This keeps going, with more and more strain, until it can’t anymore.
I was thinking throughout reading the post that you could put the start date of the Dark Ages around the Crisis of the Third Century, where Rome probably would have ceased to exist right then had Aurelian not managed to contain the damage. That let things stay superficially stable while the Western Empire cannibalized its outlying provinces for a couple more centuries.
For anyone out there who wants an audio version I have started the Unofficial (though approved by Scott) SSC Podcast. In addition to this post, you can also find the last four posts as well.
Going forward I plan maintain a podcast feed of all the posts (with obvious exceptions like meet ups and open threads) and if there’s demand I’ll do some classics as well.
Here’s the iTunes Link.
And if you prefer here’s the RSS feed:
There’s still some dialing in and polishing to be done. (For instance I think I should slow down a little bit.) But feedback is welcome.
Finally if you just want the mp3 of this post you can find it here:
WERE THERE DARK AGES?
OK, but the title is “Were there Dark Ages“, plural. So far, Scott has only established the existence of one, from roughly 500 AD to roughly 1000 AD (and I’d like a bit more discussion on where we should really put the ending point).
So, yes, there was more than one Dark Age. Whatever it was that happened to Europe and the Near East in the Bronze Age Collapse, that lead to a proper Dark Age. Any good theories on the cause?
I’d have a hard time coming up with a third Dark Age, at least for Europe, unless we cheat and say everything before written history was “Dark”. But maybe I’m missing something. And back to the topic at hand, why is the term so often “Dark Ages”, plural, when it is clearly being used to refer to a single continuous period of time that the writer does not intend to further subdivide?
The end of the 1350-1500 era had a minor “dark age”, in that substantial knowledge was lost with the decline (near collapse) of the guild system (combined with political changes that led to increased repression of certain classes of ideas), and a lot of people took craft secrets to their graves. Set the arts back considerably; as I understand it, we are still not certain how some of the pigments used then were made, although we do have some guesses.
But it just depends on how specific you want to get with the idea of a dark age.
Toba population bottleneck?
I’d have a hard time coming up with a third Dark Age, at least for Europe, unless we cheat and say everything before written history was “Dark”.
Well, there’s the old favourite, the Black Death. Massive reduction in population, people firmly convinced the end of the world had come, seemingly unstoppable disease and death, and the attendant hysteria and frenzy that followed such. Had a bad effect on trade and industry, but also in the aftermath due to the labour shortage spurred nascent mechanisation as the need for labour-saving devices was plain. Lesser outbreaks of plague down to the 17th century also had poor effects but were never as sudden, seemingly universal, and savagely deadly.
I suppose a counterbalance to the idea of a Dark Age was the mediaeval English wool trade; took off in a big way in the 13th century, led to huge agricultural, social and economic changes, and at the peak between the 14th-15th centuries was a massive wealth creation machine and economic driver. But I suppose that doesn’t count because it came too early for The Renaissance and wasn’t based on rediscovering lost Classical Roman knowledge! 🙂
The Black Death seems like the kind of thing that might kick off a Dark Age, and I believe our friend y. pestis is sometimes implicated in the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire a century or so after the fall of the West. But the 14th-century incarnation of the Black Death didn’t really last long enough to count as an Age, and the century that followed was mostly characterized by “look at all the cool stuff we can do now that we
don’t have to feedcan’t ruthlessly exploit millions of excess serfs”, so not terribly Dark.
The Renaissance really was a regression, it just had good propagandists.
Not sure how serious you’re being, but that’s interesting; with the printing press, you can stave off a “dark age” in the strict sense even as your society declines on other metrics.
The Renaissance was so Dark that it allowed Italy to compete.
Elsewhere I linked to this.
One problem with “the Renaissance” is that people move around the definition to suit the current topic. If they want to talk about poetry, they talk about Dante and Petrarch. If they want to talk about science, they jump forward 250 years to Galileo. But we’re talking about the Black Death, so Giotto and Petrarch don’t count. The first century 1350-1450 after the Black Death was just awful. The second century 1450-1550 had great art, but that’s it.
The printing press took a long time to get going. James Hannam, cited by Mr X, argues that it had a negative effect by promulgating superstition. I’m skeptical, but I think it’s a hypothesis worth keeping in mind.
I think it was CS Lewis who quipped that the Renaissance is just the bits of the Middle Ages that modern people happen to like.
It’s pretty murky why it is plural in English. The Dutch word can mean either Age or Century, but that doesn’t directly explain English. The most popular Latin phrase was medium aevum, thence medieval. But another Latin phrase was medium saeculum, where saeculum has the same ambiguity between Age and Century. The English made it plural before they invented a vulgar term.
I’ve previously yelled about the Library of Alexandria trope on here, so I’ll just tsk-tsk and shake my head more in sorrow than in anger at the estimations given (the likely number of scrolls was more towards the 40,000 than 400,000 figure; please make sure you’re sitting down before reading this next bit, but ancient authors and indeed authors up to quite recently often deliberately used exaggerated figures for rhetorical effect). Plus I’m going to come back at you about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri; a lot of the material recovered from the rubbish dumps is private correspondence and official documentation of a bureaucratic nature, but some of it is (to us) invaluable literary and historical material, and it demonstrates the ancients had no more qualms than we do about tossing out worn-out or superfluous copies of works everybody knew or that had fallen out of the public taste. Let’s not get too pearl-clutching about “the lost libraries of the past!”
What I’m going to yell about now – and thanks to History for Atheists for putting it in a pithy and concise manner for me – is the notion of the Great Discoveries of the Classical Past. I don’t think anyone on here is arguing that the Dark Ages weren’t dark; what we’re arguing is that they were never quite as universally bad everywhere as painted and they sure didn’t cover the entire range ascribed to them by the early polemicists.
Look at your guy there, Baronius! He’s not lamenting the lack of trade and industry and technical innovation, he’s complaining the age was dark due to the lack of WRITERS. Petrarch was not bemoaning nobody was trading with China, he was going on about nobody writing polished Silver Age Latin or sweet luuuurve poetry like Ovid (with the heavy implication that he was going to have to take on the burden of being the Ovid of the day, sigh). The notion of the Dark Age, the Age of Iron, is one so hoary it has long whiskers and the free travel bus pass; compare the idea of the Yugas in Hinduism and indeed see Baronius using the rhetorical device of the iron and leaden ages – this is a commonplace when making comparison between the past Age of Gold and our current Wolf Age.
Anyhoo, if the Classical era was so great, why didn’t they have moon rockets? It’s as fair to ask that question of them as it is to go “So where are the great Dark Age philosophers?” And honestly, cataloguing the Antikythera mechanism as an “analogue computer” is slightly gilding the lily!
From History for Atheists:
But we can combine multiple data sources. That Baronius was complaining about lack of great writers is one data point, that trade declined was another data point. If it were only one thing then that would be an argument against the Dark Ages, but it was multiple things.
If it were only one thing then that would be an argument against the Dark Ages, but it was multiple things.
But it’s not the argument Scott was making. He was arguing – and I’m not disputing this! – that the Dark Ages were dark because of the population crash, economic collapse, lack of transmission of the knowledge that had been available, going backwards in technology, etc.
Then he cites two guys as credit for the term “The Dark Ages” and their concerns are none of these things, they’re grousing over “no authors like the ones what us learned scholars admire from the past”.
That’s like claiming the Great Depression was so-called because it inspired the Golden Age of Hollywood. Gee, that sure was great, so it sure was great!
Well those two guys are the ones who the term “Dark Ages” is attributed to.
If we find evidence that the Great Depression was named by some guy who attributed said greatness to by the Golden Age of Hollywood then that would be evidence that this facet was important to the namer.
The context is important here, I’m not talking about the restoration of high culture and learning. That’s what the Irish are famous for.
Google “Schottenklöster”, these were the monasteries founded by Irish scholars in German lands. In that era Schott=Irish, just as Scot=Irish, Scottus=Irish also.
Google “Johannes Scotus Erigena” (meaning John the Irishman from Ireland)
A veritable who’s who of Medieval thought.
You know what nobody hates each other about yet?
Clearly I know nothing at all about Russian history, because that is *not* my first association with the phrase “Time of Troubles.” It’s amazing how much mindshare D&D takes up for me.
The It’s Complicated Ages
The You Never Write (Philosophy Any More) You Never Call (Because the Huns sacked your village) Ages 🙂
You used to call me on the heliograph
Any time you wanted love.
Lest Darkness Fall
I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time: I have never been able to get my head around Athens. How is it that a civilization with less than a million free citizens over the span of 150 years suddenly generated a quarter of the modern philosophy curriculum, not to mention Euclid, Archimedes, Hippocrates and others? One guess is that it’s something like early quantum mechanics: when a certain way of thinking was discovered by Socrates, all the low-hanging fruit were consumed in a short intellectual bloom. But I always suspected there must be something else going on…
You are thinking about Athens and in the same breath you mention the accomplishments of the whole of Hellenic civilization. That’s giving Athens far too much credit. Euclides was Alexandrian, Archimedes from Syracuse, and Hippocrates from Kos. All were educated in their respective birth places, and the first two are not know to have ever left it. Hell while Aristoteles learned and taught at Platon’s Academy in Athens for twenty years, he was originally from Stagira in Southern Macedonia.
Incidentally, Aristotle ended up fleeing Athens for fear that the citizens would lynch him due to his Macedonian origin.
…and don’t even get me started on the Boeotians. 😉
Platon had died, and without his protection Aristoteles was just a semi-civilized barbarian putting on airs, as far as the Athenians were concerned. It’s all good though, he tutored Alexander and helped usher in the greatest age of Hellenic civilization.
True, though it does rather go against the idea of classical Athens as a beacon of rationality and philosophical enquiry.
None of the three people you mention are from Athens. Hippocrates lived in the classical period, but I don’t think he worked in Athens. It was more than 150 years from the birth of Hippocrates to the birth of Archimedes.
That would be some very intricate sarcasm. No, despite the inaccuracies I’m serious. I knew these people were not from Athens but I sort of assumed most of them ended up there (Wikipedia says I’m wrong about both Hippocrates and Archimedes). The thing I was really wrong about is population. Wikipedia again says the civilization had not 1 million but 7 million inhabitants, which is a little less crazy than I thought. I still think it’s surprising that in <200 years between the late Classical and early Hellenistic period Greeks produced significantly more "people of note" (in a "let's invent a new field of scholarship" sense, not "let's read some Greeks and write some stuff" sense) than the Romans did in any comparable period with an order of magnitude more population. On the one hand, this is probably explained by the fact that the Greeks were first in everything and so occupy more of the cultural zeitgeist. On the other hand, maybe there's some other factors like democracy or decreased centralization.
7 million in Classical Athens? That can’t be right. The City of Rome at its imperial height was a million and change, and Athens was a lot smaller.
The Wikipedia page I found is saying a population of 250,000 (of which 30,000 were citizens), which is about what I’d have guessed.
I’m talking about the Greek civilization as a whole, since I’m assuming Athens was just prominent because people would move there, like Florence during the Renaissance. I’m basing my answer on the geometric mean of the (highly uncertain) numbers for 400BC here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_history_of_Greece.
The Romans were a very conservative culture. Many of their achievements were expansions and refinements rather than true innovations.
It isn’t just that they failed to innovate, but they failed to copy Greek science and engineering.
— Lucio Russo
According to the Greeks, philosophy was invented by three guys from Miletus (now in Turkey iirc): Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all of whom had radically different ideas about what everything really was, when you get down to it. (Thales taught Anaximander who taught Anaximenes.)
There are some serious flaws in this… not sure what to call it… polemic?
Your entire point 3 is demolished by your own point 4. None of “Cold War”, “Renaissance” or “World War I” are ‘negative’ names. The objection to the term is that it’s a historical judgement made by a non-historian who lacked sufficient knowledge of the era to coin the term. Nonetheless, it fit comfortably with the biases of contemporaries and gained cachet. (as continues to be true today)
5b is a much stronger argument than you give it credit for. Most of your points about the unusually large economic activity of Ancient Rome in 6 relate directly to the military/slave-supported structure of that society. Using sources from Al-andalus on western Europe is almost exactly like using Soviet Propaganda on the US or vice-versa.
7 is such a blatant example of a biased sampling that it’s hard to know where to begin. The philosophical conversations were in the educated and “connected” society of Europe, the Catholic Church. Since the modern world has ditched the worldview entirely, they no longer consider the developments important. Others have suitably addressed the question of scientific developments. Although it’s true that the idea of “experiments” didn’t seem to occur to them, the same has to be said of the ancient world.
The real reason the “Dark Ages” term is bunk is that it’s a huge label pasted over all of Western Europe and stretches it across 6+ centuries with a corresponding set of caricatures and gross oversimplifications.
I can offer two different examples of experiments in the medieval period, one possibly before 1000 (the source that describes it was written later, and we don’t know if it’s real or an invention of the author). My sources are the Jomviking saga and the Rehla of Ibn Battuta.
I suspect there are many other examples, but those are two I came across.
There was a Byzantine monk in the 6th century who disproved Aristotle’s idea that heavier things fall faster by climbing up a tower and dropping things over the parapet. Apparently nobody had thought of doing this before; or if they had, they hadn’t thought of reporting it.
Firstly, Strato of Lampsacus, the third master of the Lyceum (the school Aristotle founded) taught that falling is accelerated motion and that weight doesn’t matter for freely falling bodies.
Secondly, if you drop things of very different weight (say, a feather and rock) off the top of a parapet, they won’t land at the same time. Go ahead, try it.
Thirdly, Aristotle’s physics aren’t quite as absurd as moderns tend to think.
I dunno, man. I just dropped 50kgs of graphene aerogel and 1 kg of lead and the lead hit the ground first.
But then I dropped 1 kg of graphene aerogel and 50 kgs of lead, and the lead hit first.
“7 is such a blatant example of a biased sampling that it’s hard to know where to begin. The philosophical conversations were in the educated and “connected” society of Europe, the Catholic Church. Since the modern world has ditched the worldview entirely, they no longer consider the developments important.”
Plenty of people are excited about Aquinas, William of Occam, Duns Scotus, St. Anselm, St. Augustine, etc. It’s just that none of those people came from 500 – 1000 AD. You can’t call in anti-Catholic bias when people were happy to talk about Catholics from other periods.
I don’t usually comment here, but this post concerns my area of expertise, as it were, and whenever the Dark Ages are being maligned, some weird sense of duty compels me to come to their rescue…
A few quibbles to begin with:
– Counting the number of philosophers is a cheap shot; philosophy was subsumed by theology in Western Europe from the death of Boethius (whom I’m glad someone mentioned) to the 12th century; but in each century there were a few writers who produced some pure philosophy: Isidore of Seville, Alcuin, Eriugena…
– On the number of books at the library of Alexandria vs. at the university of Paris: the fact that scrolls vs. codices is apples vs. oranges is duly noted, but let me impress on you just how vast the difference is (full disclosure, this is my field of study, so the following may turn into a bit of a rant). At Alexandria, you’re counting scrolls; the length of a typical scroll translates to about 20-30 printed pages in a modern book. This is why works by ancient writers are divided into several “books”, each of which would take up one scroll: the City of God is 22 scrolls, the Republic of Plato is 10 scrolls, etc. At the University of Paris in 1300, they had codices, and these were huge; for example, I’m in the final stages of publishing a work by a 4th century writer; the book, my editor tells me, will be 550 pages long (admittedly counting an introduction, critical apparatus, etc.). But in its 13th century codex form, this work takes up folios 396 to 407 of a huge doorstop comprising 487 folios total; the whole codex, as was the norm at the time, features dozens of works by various authors in the same broad category. So if the library of Alexandria only had 40,000 scrolls (okay, that’s a pretty low estimate), it would have had less text than the Sorbonne in 1300 by an order of magnitude.
– this post seems to make light of the horseshoe, the rigid collar for oxen (how come the stirrup doesn’t get a mention?); but modest as they may seem, these inventions brought about revolutions in agriculture, and often made the difference between starvation and (relative) plenty. The fancy inventions of Antiquity, on the other hand, never saw mass use in the fields. Why bother to splurge on labor-saving equipment, when you own an army of slaves to till your lands?
This brings me to the first of my main points: moral and ethical development don’t get a lot of mention. The disappearance of slavery was one of the great conquests of the Dark Ages (as here defined); granted, being a serf wasn’t a picnic, but the fact that people couldn’t be bought and sold like cattle (and used for sexual gratification) is surely a huge improvement.
The second main point is that the decline of the Dark Ages was essentially the decline of Rome; as in, the city of Rome. Rome peaked at about million people under the first Emperors, but the second biggest in the Western Empire was Capua with a measly 36.000; then Cordoba with 20.000, etc. Italy was ravaged in the 6th century by the Gothic Wars, which brought destruction on an unimaginable scale; it’s fair to say the country never really recovered. On the other had, Gaul under the Merovingians and Carolignians did pretty well, economically speaking, and the Palatine Chapel of Aachen, for instance, holds up comparison with a lot of Roman monuments, if not for scale, definitely for beauty; Wisigothic Spain, until Islam came along, was a brilliant beacon of civilization; and Germany, well, went from a mass of barbarians squelching in the mud to being an urban civilization; same for the Poles and the Hungarians, at the end of the period considered. So of course the average prosperity in Western Europe looks bad because of Rome, but the median shot up.
Okay doing the math here, every ten folios of a codex is roughly 600 pages. While every scroll is roughly 25 pages. This means that a 200 folio codex is equivalent to some 480 scrolls. Assuming the average codex contained about 500 scrolls worth of material, a 1000 volume collection is half a million scrolls. That’s larger than even the high end estimate for the Library of Alexandria. In fact the late 13th century University of Paris would have likely been on solid ground claiming it had not just exceeded Alexandria’s collection, but doubled it.
Crying on your neck with joy about the scrolls versus codices thing; too often the inflated guesstimates of the past are used disparagingly against the more solid figures of “how many books in the university library?” without stopping to consider the huge whackin’ difference.
I don’t know what criteria Harold Bloom used, but his criteria seems a little bit idiosyncratic. I was surprised, for example, to see Sappho on the list, given that only a few fragments of her poems have survived. I was also surprised to see George Orwell’s Essays included, but not (the far better-known and more influential) Animal Farm; ditto for the inclusion of Cicero’s On the Gods, but none of his speeches. Conversely, I’m not sure why, say, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy or Bede’s Ecclesiastical History are less worthy of canonicity than some of the works Bloom included on his list.
What have you fixed? Scott admits that it’s just a random list he found on Google. He even explained his reasoning for doing this (to avoid sampling bias).
It looks like a fairly good list. No names jump out at me that obviously don’t belong.
Admitting that your sources are bad doesn’t make them any better.
Well, Freud (for example) was a psychiatrist rather than a philosopher. Leaving that aside, though, the list clearly has a modern bias: over half the names are of people writing within the last 150 years or so, and I’d be surprised if this period really produced more great philosophers than every previous century put together. Which isn’t really a problem with the list, if we’re just treating it as some guy’s personal opinion. If, however, we’re treating it as an unbiased and objective sample of great philosophers throughout history — which we really need to, for Scott’s argument to work — it does pose rather a big issue for the list’s reliability.
Considering the explosion in population, literacy, and education, I wouldn’t be surprised if the past 150 years produced more great philosophers than every previous century put together. And as a philosopher, I also think that’s actually quite a plausible claim.
Maybe if you assume that the ratio of great philosophers to literate people remains roughly constant, but that doesn’t strike me as a safe assumption.
Whilst I don’t know what your specific department is like, a lot of philosophy departments, at least in the Anglophone world, seem to approach their subject in a very ahistorical manner.
@The original Mr. X, Hey, analytic departments cover the history of philosophy thoroughly, all the way from Frege to Quine!
If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing With Made-Up Statistics.
Feel free to find and analyze another list. (Although beware of p-hacking.)
“You can’t point out how bad my evidence is unless you go and find some better evidence” is one of the more annoying internet fallacies, and I’d rather it not be dragged into this conversation.
The truly interesting question is why liberals are so averse to the idea of a civilization collapsing.
Oh, good! I was beginning to think I would have to learn something about history to have an opinion about this discussion, but hey, if we can just reduce it to culture-war terms, then I’m in luck!
You’re not curious as to why a strange opinion like “There WAS no Dark Age!” is not just common, but practically unanimous among the Cracked writer demographic?
Cracked writers would sell out their own grandmothers if there was an edgy listicle in it. That’s not a political thing, it’s a Cracked thing — it was true before Cracked politicized and it’ll still be true after it gets bored of the culture war, if that ever happens.
There might be some political valence to this, but Occam’s razor says “it makes good copy and sounds intellectual in a hip, contrarian way” is more than good enough.
Ten Ways Granny Has Been Holding Out On You
Cracked’s tone probably comes from editorial.
Boring backstory: Cracked was originally a print magazine, similar to Mad. Then in 2007, they launched an online presence by cannibalising a smaller site called Pointless Waste of Time. The guy who wrote PWOT (David Wong) became Cracked’s executive editor.
Wong brought across a lot of the PWOT style, which is was basically “everything you know is wrong!” for people who aren’t into conspiracy theories. In later years he kind of went off the rails into social justice territory, and the site’s tone reflected this.
It became filled with strident contrarianism (or what it imagined as strident contrarianism). You can probably fill in the blanks. Columbus is bad. The South was bad. The USSR singlehandedly won the war against the Nazis. The Pilgrims are bad. All delivered in a smug tone suggesting the reader believes all of the foolish myths they’re debunking.
It read like Guns, Germs and Steel thrown into a blender with Lies My Teacher Told Me and the resultant shreds of paper narrated by Stephen Colbert. There was a lack of nuance, a lack of fact checking, and an annoying “PREPARE TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN” tone that got to me after a while.
I don’t go around blathering about how Cracked are SJWs. But I don’t read it any more.
“The Dark Ages are a dirty myth” is not an opinion that originated on Cracked.com, though. It filtered down from academia.
“Columbus is bad, the South is bad, the Pilgrims are bad” are all self-evidently liberal opinions. Why liberals would so energetically try to deny that the fall of the Roman Empire was a bad thing is much less clear.
I’m a bit doubtful that your question has any real answer. This sort of associational-culture-war stuff seems to be pretty random to me, with the results being determined by what chain of association happens to catch on first (if there’s a winner at all; different ideas may just be more or less prominent in different groups). In some cases (e.g. Columbus) the answer is pretty determined and there aren’t really alternate paths that will yield different answers. But in a number of cases there are. For instance, recent feminism-vs-traditional-Islam disputes.
So, I could draw for you a chain of association from Blue-Tribe ideas to “there were no dark ages”. But I could also do the opposite; indeed, how to do that has already been mentioned a number of times, and is something you certainly see out in the wild — there’s plenty of people out there to whom it makes intuitive sense that the Dark Ages must have been awful because, you see, they were Christian. I sure remember seeing that “not recommended” graph going around on the internet back in the day!
So it’s not clear to me what would be gained from this exercise. Whatever chain of association I draw for you just isn’t going to apply to a pretty substantial portion of the population you’re talking about. And honestly I think a lot of it is indeed just a sort of contrarianism (of the “Wow! I never knew that! Let me show off my superior knowledge to everyone!” sort).
…that said, if I had to draw one, it would be that “there were no Dark Ages” stands in contrast to “the Dark Ages were much worse than the Roman Empire” which goes together with “the Roman Empire was really great”. But I’d be pretty skeptical of that chain. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen “there weren’t Dark Ages” more often from people pushing why relgion is good than I have from Cracked & co. I think contrarianism is the primary reason in reality.
Some liberals are averse to the idea of a civilisation collapsing; others relish the idea of the dark ages because it gives them a convenient stick to beat Christianity with. I don’t think this debate can be reasonably mapped out onto a left/right divide.
We could argue that civilizations collapse if and only if they allow Christians too much influence, I suppose. But that would make the Bronze Age Collapse even harder to explain.
I found Will Durant’s The Age of Faith (ISBN 0-671-01200-1) to be a good source of context for The Dark Ages. As for judgments, at the end of the Dark Age Section, page 579, he writes:
Which seems reasonable and has a different view of what to consider impressive?
On the topic of these questions, to me, they act as conversations topics that attract people to say something interesting, into making subtle or not unsubtle points. Depending on who is answering the question the range of answers is vast. The important bit seems to be in which direction the question answer wants to take it, while the question just seems like a sneaky way of saying, Hey!, Let’s tell stories about what we know about space/time place X. Without such questions, how would I ever get to quote the random historians I have read?
I’m no expert, but I believe it’s nearly impossible to trace any western European’s family tree back to antiquity. Prominent Romans and Greeks knew their ancestors back for a thousand years. Modern European royalty family history goes back to Charlemagne and then reaches a dead end. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descent_from_antiquity
I have a hard time understanding how that’s even possible. Does anyone know why the descendants of ancient Roman senatorial families stopped recording their family ancestry? Were the later generations so focused on survival that they no longer knew how to read and write?
Well, just to compare: I’m thinking here of a particular branch of my own family, one that’s probably been literate for hundreds of years and would have had the resources to keep track of itself for about as long. Literate or no, though, its history gets pretty garbled around the time of the Russian Revolution, what with two intercontinental moves, the destruction of records, shifting borders and the concomitant language barriers, and the Soviets not being particularly inclined to humor the old aristocracy’s genealogy hobby. I’ve occasionally taken a whack at reconciling family legend with recorded history, and I’ve generally come up short.
Stands to reason that some similar stuff might have gone down during the fall of Rome.
That’s interesting. Could they back this up, or was this just a claim?
As I recall the English royal family can trace its ancestry back to Cerdic the Saxon (about the 6th century).
I believe many prominent Roman families could trace their ancestry to the fall of the kings in 509 BC. I think anything before that was just a claim. Here’s a wikipedia entry on the Cornelia family and the Valeria family. The Valeria family includes a consulship in 509 BC to one of the last emperors in 461 AD.
It is one thing to claim to be related to historical figures. It is another to trace one’s lineage to them. It is yet a third to do so accurately. The wikipedia article on Junius says that contemporaries were skeptical that the Junius Brutus family was actually descended from the regicide, because he didn’t seem to have had any surviving sons. At the very least, this demonstrates that they didn’t make a precise claim of descent, maybe just laid claim to specific consuls.
The example that comes to my mind is Julius Caesar’s gens, which laid claim to Aeneas, among others.
You mean that the current British royals are descended from him? They also are from Muhammad, and Dracula!
The Muhammad connection is speculated, but it depends on some really tenuous identifications in Dark Age Iberian records, and most historians doubt it’s real.
Perhaps related to the Dark Ages not having been as dark in Ireland, Celtic genealogies reach (however dubiously) well into Antiquity.
Well, Caesar, for instance, traced his ancestry back a thousand years to the goddess Venus, so I’d take the Romans’ admirable record-keeping with a pinch of salt.
Others have already made most of the points I was going to make, but here are a few things I think worth emphasising.
As others have already noted, while a widely-read Cracked article is a reasonable place to start in some senses, it’s not really a good reflection of why historians are wary of using the term “the Dark Ages”. The article goes too far the other way and tries too hard to pretend there is no kernel of truth to the concept of the “Dark Ages”. But the main reasons modern historians try to avoid the term is (i) it still tends to get applied to the whole Medieval Period from 500 to 1500 and that’s totally absurd and (ii) it’s too closely associated with Whiggish, positivist historiography that’s entangled with anti-Catholic sectarian bias and some woolly-headed nineteenth century ideas about “the Renaissance” and “barbarians” for it to be untainted by those ideas.
The former problem is the main one though. The idea that Christians killed the Classical world, caused the fall of the Roman Empire, destroyed all ancient learning (insert garbled stories of the Great Library and Hypatia here) and suppressed science and technology until the glorious dawning of the Renaissance is deeply embedded in popular culture and accepted as The Unvarnished Truth by many, including most New Atheists. Any attempt at educating the latter about the last 150 years of historical analysis of the Middle Ages that has corrected these ideas is usually shouted down as “revisionism” at best and crypto-Catholic apologism at worst. I had to deal with a particularly boneheaded example of this in a long blog article last year, which gave me the chance to trace the history of the term “the Dark Ages” and why this concept is so resistant to correction: see History for Atheists: ‘The Dark Ages’ – Popery, Periodisation and Perjoratives.
Anyone with a real grasp of the relevant history knows that extending this term all the way to the early sixteenth century is pretty ludicrous. By the same token, as I acknowledged in the final paragraphs of my article, its a fact that things did go seriously downhill in western Europe from the third century onward and took several more centuries to improve again on several key measures.
So why not call this period “the Dark Ages”? Well, because of the way that term has been tangled up with some outdated ideas and cliches and because pejorative terms based on old fashioned value judgments are not preferable to more neutral terminology. The Early Medieval Era or the Early Middle Ages are perfectly good terms to differentiate this period (c. 500-1000 AD) from Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages, but doesn’t come with all the baggage.
Most of your points above are valid, therefore, but still not a good reason to retain a tainted term. Other points you make are also badly overstated. If the Early Medieval Era is marked by anything, it’s by innovation, development and expansion in key technologies. As others have noted, horseshoes and yoking collars sound unimpressive to us and look primitive next to the Antikythera mechanism. But the Antikythera device, as nifty as it is, led nowhere and changed nothing much. Those horseshoes and the horse collar, with the mouldboard plough, crop rotation and oat and barley agriculture, meant that a vast territory which had been unarable wasteland under the Romans became some of the most productive land on earth. Western Europe went from being the poor man of the Roman Empire to one of the richest parts of the world, with an economic boom that stablised the region, established the foundations of a global trade network and began an expansion that would eventually span the world. With this came other innovations, improvements and expansions of application of technology that left the Roman world behind. The Romans had water-powered industry, but their labour surplus (millions of slaves and a large population) meant it was generally uneconomical to harness mechanical power. Early medieval fragmentation and population decline meant mechanical power became essential and watermills went from rare to ubiquitous, along with the development of tidal mills, bridge-mills and windmills. This in turn led to more applications of mechanical power to a wider range of tasks and to the application of machines to new uses. That got us mechanical clocks in the High Middle Ages, which quickly went from mainframe sized to desktops. And then to handhelds within a couple more centuries. So our computers are actually the descendants of medieval watermills, not of the dead end of the Antikythera mechanism.
Things like Bloom’s rather dusty list and the idea that Roman art is somehow nicer because its realistic are based on some even more dubious and rather nineteenth century assumptions, but I’ll stop here for now.
Could you give us some examples?
I mean, I literally cannot recall in the past decade or two seeing or hearing anyone use the term “Dark Ages” to apply to any time after 1100 AD (if that), except to immediately deny that such usage was ridiculous because 1100-1500 at least was seriously un-Dark. And I just briefly skimmed the first hundred google results for “Dark Ages”, failing to find anything that cited an end date later than 1100 AD without immediately going on to dismiss the whole concept.
You all seem to be terribly insistent on stamping out a myth that nobody much has believed in a generation, to the extent of distorting reasonable discussion of the subject. Or maybe I’m missing some significant cluster of people who actually and unironically used “Dark Ages” to refer to e.g. the 15th century, but I don’t think so.
He did give one example.
Even if it were true that many people make these errors, I don’t see how they are the fault of the choice of words. Does using the phrase “the Dark Ages” make it more likely that people will get the period wrong? Does it make it more likely that they will blame Christians? How?
In fact, since the phrase is out there, if most people define it as a shorter period, I think it would be better to promote the dominant definition. Surely abandoning it makes it more detached from dates and causality. (If most people use it to mean 500-1500, that would be a reason to abandon it. Maybe it was wrong to try to salvage it from Gibbon, but it looks to me that it succeeded.)
That example has the author asserting that “one common definition” of the Dark Ages is 476-1500, then immediately noting that another common definition ends in 1000 AD and that’s the one he uses and defends throughout.
Everybody is happy to generically assert that other people are claiming the whole period up to 1500 AD was a “Dark Age”; I’m still not seeing anyone actually claiming that for themselves and saying that it is the definition they use for a non-mythical Dark Age.
Yes, the problem isn’t miscommunication. However, he does endorse the long definition:
–Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
Sagan was a great scientific communicator but a bad historian, as his support of the Hypatia myth shows.
The Earth was not at the centre of the universe but at the bottom of the Heavens, people made plenty of astronomical observations (though not for reasons familiar to us moderns, remember that planets were just dots of light in the sky and without telescope they had no way to discerne their properties), scholars like the bishop Nicolas d’Oresme considered the possibility of heliocentrism way before Copernicus but dismissed it on well founded empirical grounds. Copernicus himself, who actually used not perfectly circular orbits but more epicycles than Ptolemy, got little success with a theory lacking proofs, which triumphed only after more than a century.
I was just about to link that article myself.
I don’t think Flynn ever said it outright, but I came away from that series with the impression that Kepler was the real unsung hero (and that not a little of the blame for his being unsung goes to Galileo). The toxoplasma of rage strikes again.
I should also note Flynn has done a series on Hypatia (and has a recent blog post on the one of the stranger examples of New Atheist bad history). And while I’m at it, his novel Eifelheim was excellent.
@b_rat, I don’t think that anyone is claiming that there are historians out there that believe the Dark Ages went from 500-1500, but rather that it is something that is widely believed by laypeople. Since this was posted I’ve been asking a bunch of people when they think the dark ages was, and by far the most common answer I’ve gotten was from people pointing to events that happened in the 1200s and 1300s, with the Black Plague and the Crusades being very popular answers.
true, sorry if I lost myself in my musings. To be fair, Sagan here does not explicitly say how long the Dark Ages were during the “millennium”, and I don’t know if he explicates elsewhere.
What really puzzles me is Scott’s own “an entire millennium when human economic progress across an entire continent went backwards“, after arguing that he was talking about 500-1000.
Was produced almost forty years ago, and parts of it were seen as rather overblown even then. So, yeah, forty years ago you still had people seriously believing in a 15th-century Dark Age. Forty years ago, most Americans disapproved of interracial marriage, and gay marriage wasn’t even within stone-throwing distance of the Overton window.
Sometimes you actually win this sort of battle, and when you do it is generally considered bad form to bring up forty-year-old evidence to justify continuing the fight.
So you want fresher evidence for 500-1500? Tsk, that stuff is for posers. How about up to 1650? One just has to search a bit, let’s see:
– 2001, book “Understanding the Heavens: Thirty Centuries of Astronomical Ideas from Ancient Thinking to Modern Cosmology“: Giordano Bruno was burned in 1600, a date almost symbolic of the end of the “dark ages”
– 2002, book “Trust Us, We’Re Experts“, inform us that during the Dark Ages the Church punished scientific inquiry, presenting the example of Galileo.
– 2003 article on a BioMed journal of Genetics (?): Michelangelo died in 1564, the year Galileo was born, so these giants of the Italian Renaissance, who helped drag mankind, kicking and screaming, out of the Dark Ages, never met.
– 2008, book “American Justice: Ethical Foundations and the Evolution of Modern Law“: And out of the blackness of the Dark Ages the Era of Enlightenment literally blossomed through the work of Isaac Newton
– 2006, before a House of Representatives vote over stem cells, Rep. Christopher Shays: I think it’s time we recognized the Dark Ages are over. Galileo and Copernicus have been proven right. The world is in fact round; the Earth does revolve around the sun.
– 2011, book “Burning the Flag of Extremism“, new record: this was an age when the Church of Rome cast a spell over the children of man: the years A.D. 538 to 1798, otherwise known as ‘the dark ages’
– 2012, The Village Voice, newsweek founded in 1955: […] anti-scientific notions straight from the Dark Ages that Galileo struggled to escape
– 2016, Professor of computer science at UW: We are in the Galileo stages of machine learning. No longer in dark ages but Newton is still to come
– From SparkNotes (: Renaissance – Literally meaning “re-birth,” the Renaissance saw the rebirth, or reintroduction, of classical art and literature in the 15th and 16th century, following the “dark ages”
“Shorter” forms of long Dark Ages:
– 2001, book “Exploring the World of Chemistry: From Ancient Metals to High-Speed Computers“: The Middle Ages are sometimes called the Dark Ages because of the ignorance, fear, and superstition that ruled much of Europe
– 2008, Live Science: Like a medieval ATM, one family bankrolled the cultural movement that dragged Europe out of the Dark Ages and into modernity. With their love for art, science and culture, the Medici of Florence catalyzed the Renaissance that began in the 14th century
– 2010, book “An Ocean of Air: A Natural History of the Atmosphere”, Dark Ages up to the XIV Century
– 2013, some weirdo includes The Unholy Chart and its rather long Christian Dark Ages period in his book
– 2014, book “Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic“, Dark Ages = Medieval Period, only V-XII Century
– 2016, book, “Earth, the Sapphire Planet“, the scientific Renaissance of the XVI century recovered the Greeks after the Dark Ages
– 2016, scholarly book, “The Bright Dark Ages – Comparative and Connective Perspectives“: The European ‘dark ages’ in the millennium 500 to 1500 CE was a bright age of scientific achievements in China, India and the Middle East.
And I could go on and on…
Well, I really unnerve automod 😐 (Too many links here too? The curse word that was formerly there?)
Curse words don’t piss off WordPress automod as far as I know, but links do.
Thanks to B_Rat for saving me the effort of finding some of the vast number of examples of “the Dark Ages” and “Medieval” being used as synonyms. This is so common it’s simply bizarre that John Schilling is painting himself into a corner by trying to pretend it isn’t. Objecting that Sagan’s stuff was 40 years ago and so invalid evidence seems to imply he thinks that things have changed in the popular conception of the medieval period in the intervening period. I have no idea what gave him that impression.
A couple of years ago Sagan’s protege Neil de Grasse Tyson was assuring his myriad Twitter followers that people in the Dark Ages believed the earth was flat and that the flat-earther B.O.B. was regressed in his thinking by “500 years”. Not long before this the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt blundered into the field of history with a book full of howlers about how the medieval period was one of unrelenting misery and flagellating monks until the wonderful dawning of the glorious Renaissance saved us all. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. So if John thinks this idea has somehow vanished since Sagan wrote I can only ask “what colour is the sky on your planet?”
Easily – try this, or this or this. And that’s just from one site. Mention the idea that things had recovered by 1000 and that the High Middle Ages were a period of expansion, growth, innovation and inquiry on any atheist forum and wait for the response. It won’t be sanguine and well-informed agreement, I can assure you.
The first of those spends a great deal of time discussing the onset of a Dark Age ca 500 AD, and blaming it on the Evil, Evil, did I mention Evil Christians. It does assert that said Dark Age did not end ca 800 AD. I don’t see any mention of the alleged Dark Age continuing past 1000 AD, or of any post-1000 event or quote that might be attributed to the Darkness of the Age.
More generally, that site is full of nonsense that ought to be refuted, but it’s a different kind of nonsense than the historiographical “Dark Age” argument.
You seem to be working very hard to try to avoid conceding the point that the term “the Dark Ages” is commonly used as a synonym for “medieval”. Do some searches on the relevant key words on news stories about ISIS for multiple examples. Or just look at the ones B-Rat has listed for you. Yes, Kenneth Humphreys’ chaotic and hysterical site is full of nonsense, and part of that is extending “the Dark Ages” to refer to anything up to 1500 or even beyond. Seriously, give up.
I asked for evidence on a point of dispute, acknowledging some level of uncertainly on my part, and when you and others provided links to alleged evidence I actually read them. This, to you, constitutes “working very hard”?
You are correct to thank B_Rat, because his links unlike yours were actually on-point to the question I asked. You on the other hand seem to have nothing to offer but gratuitous and now redundant general rudeness and personal insult.
So, yes, giving up now.
Oh please. I gave the first links I had to hand because I was at work and didn’t have time to find the kind of quotes B_Rat has since provided. You came up with some contrived reading of those links that, bizarrely, pretended they didn’t support the bleeding obvious point that “the Dark Ages” and “the Middle Ages” are regularly used as synonyms in popular usage. I couldn’t believe you’d be so obstinate over something so clear, so I was about to post a whole slew of further evidence when B-Rat beat me to it. If you don’t like people noting you’ve backed yourself into a corner, try conceding the point before you find yourself in that silly position. And nowhere did I “insult” you, so stop being so precious. You were wrong. You’ll live.
For what it’s worth:
When I was a high school senior in 1970, my history class (granted, it was a funky-groovy honors history class) had to write an essay on the question, “Were the Dark Ages really dark?” My essay took the line that it was pretty dark up until 1000 AD but not after that.
I’m not putting on airs to have been so perspicacious so young — the only sensible explanation for my essay is that this is the way the textbook described it. A high-school textbook, in 1970.
(Or else I was just being a trimmer, trying to get credit for a correct answer by saying both yes and no. But I don’t think that’s it.)
We were taught about the Dark Ages in history at age 9-10 (early 90s, leading UK private school) and the definition used was very much post-Roman, pre-Medieval, which given the British focus meant earlyish 5th Century to some slightly indeterminate time before 1066. Alfred was definitely a creature of the Dark Ages; William, Harold and Harald definitely not. “Middle Ages” was the collective term for everything between Rome and the Renaissance, Medieval for the bit of that which wasn’t dark (again, start date fuzzy but certainly before the Norman Conquest). Given that AD&D2e uses pretty much the same definition, I’d assumed that was the general usage – it would never have occurred to me before Scott’s article that anyone thought the Dark Ages ended in the Sixteenth Century.
Nobody here is arguing that the chance of encountering a reasonable account of the Early Middle Ages is zero. What we’re saying is that the chance of the opposite is definitely non-zero.
Once again, a quick Google search can show that this is true even for contemporary schools (though luckily it does not seem prevalent). See:
– These lessons from an adjunct history professor with a not so subtle Middle-Ages=Dark-Ages=Bad view.
– This high-school activity titled “Year 8 history enters the Dark Ages” and centered on crusaders.
– This horrible excuse of a site (I’m not that sure, but I think it’s a high-school teacher, somehow teaching history:“pre 1450 (our class) we are still finishing the Dark Ages. During this time, you had WEAK kings and no real strong nations. After 1450, you have monarchs gain more and more power. “)
– These lessons for kids from a history high-school teacher (It has the weird Early, High and Late Dark Age” designations)
– This awful video from a carter school’s site (Amusingly, “the Dark Ages actually weren’t that bad at least until the plague came in the 14th century.”)
– This campy Wikispace’s Causes of the Dark Ages (I really don’t know where to start from)
– This middle school’s site, page “The Middle Ages or Dark Ages”
– This Lesson Plan Library from the Discovery Channel site written by a science teacher (“Discuss how the Crusades helped lead to the end of the Medieval Period, or Dark Ages, and the beginning of the Renaissance.”)
See the comments on Scott’s post on Kolmogorov complicity. In the first comment thread, David Shaffer refers to Dark Ages Christianity. This in the context of a post where almost every example of thinkers persecuted by the Catholic Church was from the Renaissance era, and not one was from before 1100 AD.
We must get different Google results, because two of the results on just the first page for me (i.e. the first ten results) uncritically give the definition you claim is nonexistent:
– The Dark Ages: Definition, History & Timeline
– Description for History Channel’s “Dark Ages” on Youtube
That’s not including sources that give both definitions, or use only the longer definition but say it’s a myth.
Google also links to another example of someone uncritically describing the Dark Ages as lasting 1000 years on the first page for me, in the five links under the “People also ask” tab:
It seems truly remarkable that the first fifteen results for me included several examples of the thing you couldn’t find while searching through “hundreds” of results. A shame you wasted all that effort.
Well, to be fair, Google actually gives different results to most people, personalized. Though a hundred without encountering any of those seems a bit extreme.
(I’m among those seeing plenty of long Dark Ages stuff)
But don’t historians have the remedy of saying “hey, you’re misunderstanding the term”, rather than never using the term again?
Some people think you can “slander” someone in a written blog post. Some people think evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Should we also stop using these words and ideas, just because people are confused about them?
People often misunderstand words and concepts. It’s fine. Words don’t become “tainted”. You don’t need a HazMat suit to use them. If we forbade words because the public misunderstands them, language would probably regress back to grunting and pointing.
If the problem was people misunderstanding the term, then yes. But that isn’t the problem.
There’s an argument to be made for a term being more harm than good. Abandoning evolution or the 2nd law of thermodynamics because people misunderstand them is a terrible tradeoff, but replacing “the Dark Ages” with “the Early Middle Ages” or something is arguably a good one.
I understand the potential risk from using the term “Dark Ages” and possibly making people think it ended in 1500 AD.
But I think the potential risk from refusing to use the term “Dark Ages”, or condemning all use of the term, is making people think there was no period of extreme social/economic/intellectual poverty just before/after the fall of Rome in the West.
Rather than allow either of those misunderstandings, I’d rather just say “There was a Dark Age, and it ended by 1000 AD”.
I’m not even fixated on the name, I’m fixated on being able to talk about and acknowledge the existence of the thing that it points at. I feel like claims of “there was no Dark Ages” isn’t just a statement about how you like naming things, it’s denying the existence of the historical phenomenon itself.
And since there’s a thing that needs to be named, and a well-known commonly-used name for it, I don’t think the possibility of some people misunderstanding it is worth abandoning our ability to talk about it at all.
(no, “Migration Period” is not a good substitute for this purpose)
To refer to the fact that many things decreased in sophistication or uniformity in the Early Medieval Period and even use the shorthand “a Dark Age” for this is reasonable. I’d still say the term “the Dark Ages” or “the Dark Ages” for this period still carries too much loaded baggage of a Whiggish, sectarian and/or Positivist nature when the neutral term for the period works just as well as a name for the period.
But given that at least some of the period saw revivals of and then eventually returns to earlier levels of sophistication or uniformity, that the declines in the early period varied in extent from region to region and that some things (maritime technology, agrarian methods, mechanical power) actually increased in sophistication and widespread use, the whole period needs a more nuanced depiction than the label “a Dark Age” tends to give.
The concepts associated with the term reek of romanticised Gibbonian cliches about how the Romans were wise and rational and modern and somehow more like “us” than early medieval people and so the early Middle Ages was a bad thing that we somehow escaped from and “got back” to being more like the wonderful Romans. This is fundamentally crap (the Romans were every bit as weird, superstitious and, to us, alien as anything in the Middle Ages, early or late).
Talking about what changed in the Early Medieval Period using accurate, value-neutral terms is proper historical discourse.
Nobody of some sense denies that with the fall of the Roman Empire many parts of Europe experienced times of instability and reduced standards. So where does this much push back against the post come from?
What I think rubbed many commenters the wrong way, apart from uncharacteristically bad arguments and sources (by themselves bad signs), was the fact that many blunders and peculiarities seem to match the very “Dark Ages as bad, bad human involution in opposition to the awesome Roman and Renaissance times” meme that the term historically is loaded with and that is exactly what makes historians hate the name passionately. This would directly contradicts the statement that we should not worry too much “the possibility of some people misunderstanding” since it appears to show, well, that very misunderstanding.
I refer to things like “Not every scientist was burned at the stake”, only one mention of the High Middle Ages’ accomplishments (in the initial rather dismissive “yeah, not everyone in the Middle Ages was dumb” paragraph) despite multiple comparisons with the heights of the Romans and of the Renaissance, the slip of (emp. mine) “an entire millennium when human economic progress across an entire continent went backwards“, the numerous mentions of decline and stagnation in the face of the (undeserved) derision of the only cited innovations, the enforcement of the “Europe was dirty, Al-Andalus built a thousand baths” silly cliché, the attack to the High Middle Ages’ libraries despite the post nominally being on the 500-1000 period (this works only if one already assumes that 500-1000 libraries were worse, which is not argued for in the text), the fact that 3 of the 4 examples of possible implications of the Dark Ages are just untenable by anyone with a modest grasp of the history involved (3. being the exception), The Fudgin Chart without a giant label “one way to be TOTALLY IRREMEDIABLY WRONG, PERIOD”, not making explicit the obvious “well, things weren’t super-awesome because the ‘extra good’ Empire had just badly collapsed on itself” while stating the possibility that it might have had instead to do with religion and, finally, the statement in the end of a “broader intellectual and infrastructure decline, which in some specific ways and some specific fields didn’t reach back up to its Roman level until the Renaissance”, whose “wait for the Renaissance” part is impenitently misguided.
Giving up “Dark Ages” does not mean “abandoning our ability to talk about it at all”! One can perfectly say something like “Following the long decline, unrest and ultimately disintegration of the Roman Empire, the Early Middle Ages were in general a period of disorder, fragmentation and reduced wealth and intellectual production, but also of innovation, adaptation and recover.”
Here is the graph that originally prompted this. It shows the Middle Ages as a single point in time. That is too stupid for anyone to believe, but it may be related to other, real mistakes. Do people believe that the Dark Ages were stagnant, with progress only resuming in the Renaissance? That’s bad, but is it the fault of the terminology? It is more an argument against the term Renaissance than the Dark Ages.
A lot of commenters seem to suggest that the Dark Ages is not a natural category. If you define a period by its level of accomplishment, then its end is when it surpassed Rome. Aside from the problem of pinning that down, it isn’t a noticeable event, but just another bit of progress. Whereas, if it’s the line between the Early and Late Middle Ages, it’s equally arbitrary, but implied by the names to be less important.
(Some people say that the discovery of the New World was epochal because it obviously surpassed Rome. But that’s way too late to be the end of the Dark Ages.)
It’s part of an argument against both incoherent and value-laden terms.
I feel the need to start by saying that I find Slate Star Codex an awesome blog with amazingly though-provoking and well-argued, nuanced pieces… and exactly for this reason, hell if parts of this post are awful.
I mean, much of it is perfectly reasonable, but I’d say it shows some surprisingly weak arguments and the same weird grasp of the medieval period that made Scott write this positive review of “The Swerve”, a work particularly infamous among historians for being pretty much fiction
(among the others, the review totally fails to recognize that the “curiosity” medieval thinkers warned from is mostly gossip). What strikes me are the passages that seem to resonate with the picture of the Middle Ages presented by The Swerve.
The very beginning of the piece is more than suspect:
“Many people’s idea of medieval times is exaggerated. Not every scientist was burned at the stake”
– I don’t know of any scientist burned at stake by the Church, let alone during the Middle Ages (please, no Bruno).
“not everyone thought the world was
flat and surrounded by space dragons […]. Granted.”
– Not even peasants were really into a flat-Earth.
This period is technically correct, but also freaking bizarre. It’s like I was to start my critique of the Copenhagen school of QM with “Sure, not every physicist was on board with the let’s-work-on-cocaine stuff. Granted.”. Ok, but why should I think even one was? Sounds like a superweapon, or “By the way, did you fuck any goat this month?”.
In many posts on SSC a great deal of data comes directly from peer-reviewed articles, or at least well argued sites. Here we mostly deal with Wikipedia, past writers rhetorical evaluations taken at face value (big no), a century old medical journalist (apparently the “The Muslims of Andalusia” bit comes from “The Story of Medicine”, 1932) and some random guy’s list of ‘da betta philosophaz an’ writ’ns, WTF? (Also, as it has been observed one can only wonder in bewilderment the point of the lead graphic, the comparison among libraries is tricky and so on.)
Then, the “wrong” interpretations of “The Dark Ages happened” in 9. are so over-the-top that they leave plenty of room for the massively absurd ones implied by the not-totally-completely-everything-was-shit shtick, a rather obvious way to suggest that most was. The “possibly right” political ones mostly don’t make sense, also (i.e. 1&2 ignore the prevalence of the fall-of-the-Empire effect).
The cherry on top is the hint that The Chart is bad because it “politicize this discussion”, like otherwise it could have some merit. I mean, it’s THE CHART!, it’s bad everything!
About the general point, yeah, it makes sense, there was a period of 3-5 centuries after the Roman Empire’s collapse that saw lower demographical and commercial levels (which is not the same as a constant decline, see the jaw-dropping remark of “an entire millennium when human economic progress across an entire continent went backwards“). But this is what explains the also lower levels in learning, writing and large scale infrastructures, a causal relationship that gets no mention in the post, while one gets the distinctive impression that the implicit assumption is that those pesky “not every scientist ” burning religious fanatics have something to do with it. Which is exactly what many No-Dark-Agers rebuff. I think they are quite justified in their choice of priorities: I mean, books titled “The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World” still get published, and I rather seldom hear of opposite titles outside selected circles.
The constant comparisons to the Roman Empire or the Renaissance without acknowledging the heights of the High Middle Ages don’t help, like the claim that a millennium of Greek culture gave us, well, everything under the sun (“geometry, history, cartography”? How does one even invent those?).
I often wonder why the (High) Middle Ages are not the period of election of the Rationalists, since as argued for example by the distinguished historian of science Edward Grant it was an age of unprecedented study and self-conscious use of Reason. Those guys were busy classifying fallacies and mastering their arguments with quodlibeta! If anything, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire and the Greeks on the whole were all far more into the Mystical Woo-Woo.
Did my long comment disappear? 😐
It seems to have. I saw it in my email alerts to new comments on this thread, but now it’s gone.
Are you going to try to reconstruct it?
It got stuck in the spam filter. I’ve unstuck it.
I think it was spamfiltered because you posted lots of links and it appears to be your first comment.
IMO the most interesting (and telling) anti-Dark Ages arguments are the Christian ones. There has always been a strong ascetic tendency among religious fundamentalists, and from the perspective of Christian asceticism the hemi-millennium from 500-1000 CE was an unvarnished golden age.
Christian monasticism (an Egyptian import) started to take shape in Western Europe in the 4th century CE, and the Rule of Saint Benedict in the 6th provided both a catalyst and standardized blueprint for the many monastic communities that followed. Culture, trade, economic development, population growth were dismal, but it was a hell of a time to believe in god.
Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option, is the most transparent expression of nostalgia for the Dark Ages, but this impulse is something that exists across time (see St. Francis of Assisi, Gautama Buddha) and across religions (see Jainism, Salafism, the Amish, etc.).
The most honest form of the Christian anti-Dark Ages argument is very similar to the arguments made by the permaculture/eco-village boosters on the left: material and cultural development are overrated; spiritual and communal development deserves greater weight in making value historical judgement. It’s an attempt to change the values being judged by the term “dark.”
HG Wells A Short History of the World saw the fall of the western Roman Empire as a lower-class revolt against a slave empire run by military juntas. Incredibly popular for decades, well-written, at least partly accurate, and clearly from a left perspective.
There’s a flaw in this scheme — namely, even before the so-called fall of the Roman empire its Western provinces were not necessarily distinguished or prosperous.
Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, etc. had been civilized for a long time and remained so afterward. On the other hand, Gaul had been barbaric before the Roman conquest and reverted to barbarism soon thereafter, during the disorder of the 3rd century, to be precise.
Under the Roman empire, Gaul and Britain were not well-known as a wellspring of philosophers, artists, scientists, or anything like. They played a peripheral role.
So after the fall of the Western Roman empire the long-civilized and prosperous parts remained civilized and prosperous (and were briefly reunited again under Justinian, in fact), while the poor and backward provinces remained poor and backward.
It took another 500-1000 years and a sustained assault from all quarters — Slavs, Arabs, Normans, Turks, crusaders, etc. — on the remnants of the Roman empire for this situation to be reversed.
The Dark Ages seem less impressive when put this way.
And, as I’ve noted above, those “Dark Ages” actually saw western Europeans harness, create and develop agrarian techniques and technology that took it from being the economic (and cultural) backwater of the old Empire and ultimately turned it into the powerhouse that then expanded across the globe.
So when we choose to measure the Early Medieval Period by philosophers and books by comparing it to the whole of the rest of the Roman Empire, including the former Hellenic world, of course it comes up short. Compare it to pre-Roman and Roman Era western Europe and what we actually see is increasing sophistication in many areas. This is yet another reason why modern historians are leery of the whole concept.
The philosophers of the Dark Ages are not high on popularity lists, but their work was influential to those who came later. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Boethius, Ockham, Scotus.
Here are a few maps of the spread of Irish Enlightenment across Europe:
Irish monasteries synopsis:
Irish monasteries in Britain:
Irish monasteries in Continental Europe:
Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Irish Universities in Europe:
Hi! What’s the source for these please? Thanks in advance!
I wholeheartedly disagree with the article. 500-1000 (or whatever) was a period of great population expansion and putting lots of new land under the plow. It was a period of forging new tradenetworks, commerce and fabulous wealth. It was a period of great technological progress. It was also a period of great political centralization, for better and for worse. And it was a period of fantastic poetry and art and the perfection of the alphabet, the very apex of our ancient civilization. Well, from a scandinavian perspective at least.
Having been sent this article by a friend, without having ever read your blog, I answered with a long winded message, which I believe is important in regards to the failings of this articles. I will reproduce it entirely here and hope it will be an interesting read:
“I am displeased with that article you sent; not because it is wrong (it has a lot of factual truth) but because it is pedantic, incomplete and unhistorical.
I believe the one good thing about this article is its correction of the misconception that the Dark Ages encompass the whole of the Middle Ages, and not only the 5th-10th Century period.
But then again; what historian denies the demographic and economic decline of that time? This is very well-known, and rather obvious… Population and economic income inferior to the Roman Empire? NO SHIT, that’s what a crumbling Empire does for you!
But once this has been stated, what more to say? Of course, a decentralized Europe with economic stagnation will have less books, less « culture » in general. But numbers here hide the reality and it is just like erasing the great men and women of that time who did exist.
It took me about 20 minutes to find things and men worthy of consideration that all predate the year 1000 :
– Romanesque architecture and art
– The Codex Aureus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Aureus_of_St._Emmeram
– The Book of Kells
– Pope Sylvester II (c. 946–1003), a Christian scholar, teacher, mathematician, and later pope, reintroduced the abacus and armillary sphere to Western Europe after they had been lost for centuries following the Greco-Roman era. He was also responsible in part for the spread of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in Western Europe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Sylvester_II
– John Philoponus (ca. 490–ca. 570), also known as John the Grammarian, a Christian Byzantine philosopher, launched a revolution in the understanding of physics by critiquing and correcting the earlier works of Aristotle. In the process he proposed important concepts such as a rudimentary notion of inertia and the invariant acceleration of falling objects. Although his works were repressed at various times in the Byzantine Empire, because of religious controversy, they would nevertheless become important to the understanding of physics throughout Europe and the Arab world. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Philoponus
– Augustine of Hippo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo (†430)
– Alcuin of York https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcuin
– The venerable Bede and his ecclesiastical history of the British people https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_History_of_the_English_People
– Abbo of Fleury https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbo_of_Fleury
– Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymologiae
– Cædmon’s Hymn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%C3%A6dmon%27s_Hymn
– Lady Hrotsvitha and her satirical poems and comedies https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hrotsvitha
– Earliest French poem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequence_of_Saint_Eulalia
– Half of the Patrologia Latina (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrologia_Latina), that is hundreds of hagiographies
And while may say this is not that much for 5 centuries, and that would also be not taking into consideration everything that may have been lost, destroyed or rebuilt, everything that I do not know, everything that is not on Wikipedia…
The worst thing about the article is its complete erasure of the Carolingian renaissance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_Renaissance), with invention such as :
– A new calligraphy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_minuscule)
– A new monetary system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_Renaissance#Carolingian_currency)
– An improvement of Medieval Latin
– The spread of cathedral schools
– Carolingian art https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_art and architecture
And this is not even comprehensive research. This is just 20 minutes on the Internet. The author of the article was perfectly happy to look at some numbers, draw a quick conclusion, and write off the whole period.
The Dark Ages WERE a period of economic and demographic decline and/or stagnation.
But things such as counting numbers of books or authors to establish culture for example, is ridiculous and not medieval. Medieval works do not have authors, per se, or very rarely, until the 12th century at the earliest because it was not really a thing to sign your work. Authors which we know now, are famous because they were famous while alive (and therefore their memory remained alive). Similarly, books did not contain a single work; most of them were miscellanea. Therefore, it makes no sense to count books in order to find out the number of works. This kind of mistake shows a lack of historical thought, in which context is key for comprehension.
Anyway, I understand the urge to correct people who are arrogant and fake, such as the article denounces. But the good thing to do would be to do rigorous while doing so; no need to erase the culture of the Early Middle Ages to state that the rest was more impressive/active/numerous/whatever.”
Thanks for shedding some light on the Dark Ages.