Highlights From The Comments On Dark Ages

Thanks to everyone who made interesting comments on yesterday’s post about Dark Ages.

Several people challenged the matching of the economic/population decline to the “fall of Rome”. For example, from David Friedman:

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.

From ksvanhorn:

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.

Dissonant Cognizance:

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.

And ctj09 agrees:

I’d actually move up the first date [for the start of the Dark Ages] to around the time of the Crisis of the Third Century, a period where the Roman Empire very nearly collapsed and never really recovered from. Especially because the Manorialism and the explicit Dominate-style hierarchy that typified the early Middle Ages was first really developed during this period. Not to mention just after the Crisis, the Emperor Diocletian laid the ground work for a lot of what would become institutions and norms in the early Middle Ages.

Other people thought the end date of the Dark Ages could also be earlier. Many brought up the Carolingian Renaissance. For example, Krill12:

1000AD is ridiculously late…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.

From RIP_Finnegan:

In my opinion the Carolingian Renaissance is pretty much proof positive that people even at the time saw part of their task as recovering old glories. I don’t have a source book to hand, but that’s the impression I got from Einhard and the RFA. There are those who argue the Carolingian Renaissance was mostly hot air, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a reliable middle ground between that and what they teach French schoolkids. Also, even if the Pirenne Thesis is no longer good money, it’s clear that there was economic continuity from Rome later than once thought. I would say that the popular conception of the Dark Ages probably owes more to the period after Charlemagne, when the Papacy was in disarray, Europe was fragmented, Vikings were on the loose, and the polities we know from the Middle Ages were just finding their feet.

However, that’s not the whole story, of course. The Carolingians saw themselves as superior to Rome in one very clear way – they were Christian! In the Cathedral in Aachen, among all the re-used Roman architecture, there is a plain throne made of materials from the Holy Land. I think perhaps this ties into the James Burnham theory of Whig history – that no matter how bad things get in reality for us, we’ll construct a worldview that makes civilizational defeat a victory for Truth and Justice.

Lillian disagrees:

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.

So “300 – 800 AD” might be as good a five hundred year interval to call “the Dark Ages” as 500 – 1000. I think this is true of a lot of historical periods – depending on what artists or scientists you think are most important “the Scientific Revolution” or “the Renaissance” can have pretty fluid boundaries – but it’s worth noticing the fuzziness.

I had briefly noted that scrolls might be shorter than codices, but felt okay dismissing this because they would have to be something like two orders of magnitude shorter for it to make much difference. Well…here’sCaf1815:

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.

If this is at all right, then mea culpa.

A lot of people don’t like the idea of Dark Ages because they underestimate the continuity between the classical and medieval world; John of Salisbury argues that they overestimate it:

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.

Similar concerns from georgioz:

At one point Scott says that “by mid Dark Ages, there was no city in Christian Western Europe larger than about 50,000 people.”

What geographic area are we looking at here? It has to be western Europe but not Spain since Scott correctly declares Spain as part of Al-Andalus and therefore not subject to the western christian definition. So it leaves us with northern Italy – not Sicily or southern Italy as those were basically muslim Abbasid and/or Byzantine respectively until Norman conquest of Sicily in 11th century.

So what does that leave us with? Basically Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Northern Italy. We cannot speak about Germany or Scandinavia as it was beyond Limes Romanus – the northern Roman border. And one can arguably say that nonitallian parts of what we have here actually flourished during 500-1000 compared to the tribal past. I am not sure if one can say that what is basically Frankish empire plus Britannia felt some sort of Dark Ages. To the contrary. So it basically all boils down to decline of the city of Rome itself. City of Rome and northern Italy went through a very rough period. But given that the empire they ruled disintegrated it is to be expected. Other cities like Constantinople or Baghdad or Cordoba flourished instead.

This is why I think historians want to have broader view. If one actually takes the area of whole Roman empire at its regional peak under Trajan then one can definitely see scientific and cultural progress in that area during 500-1000. That would be fair comparison with classical Roman times. Not only do we have now actual states in northern and western Europe such as Frankish empire or slavic protostates. But the rest of former Roman Empire did quite well under Byzantine rule and rule of Abbasid / Córdoba caliphs.

offwo2000 makes a fascinating claim about the year 1000 I’d never heard before:

It’s funny because Christianity actually caused the recovery about AD 1000. People were genuinely convinced that the world would end in AD 1000 and so the papacy started the “Peace of God” movements where rulers would stop fighting in the hope that they would be rewarded in heaven after the apocalypse. This became the catalyst for the papacy taking more control of international affairs, which enabled Western Europe to stop fighting between itself so much, focus on rebuilding the economy (there’s a surge in water-mill building, for example, since peace meant that they would actually gain their return before being destroyed) and allow uniting against common enemies.

(I’m not sure how seriously to take this since the wikipedia article on the Peace of God movement doesn’t really mention the “year 1000” thing, which I found the most interesting part).

On the philosophical implications of saying the Dark Ages “were real”, John Nerst:

Consider what it means to say that these things do/don’t exist or are/aren’t real:

global warming, a solution to global warming, race, infinitely many prime numbers, the patriarchy, Kurdistan, devil worshippers, free will, schizophrenia, Esperanto, Black English, white privilege, the Friendzone, meritocracy, fate, luck, sin, seasons, personality types, learning styles, genders other than male and female, the color purple, the word ‘cromulent’, the word ‘irregardless’, the War on Christmas, property rights, fiat money, a chance of rain, a meaning of life, the meaning of life, God

And on the political implications, the anonymouse:

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.

(fortaleza84 adds “Debate about the Dark Ages, to an extent, is a proxy for anxiety over the present-day West.”)

Finally, I talked a bit about the Dark Ages bringing up two axes of “civilizational moral goodness” vs. “civilizational impressiveness”. Cernos quotes Will Durant on a different way of judging the “impressiveness” of the Dark Ages:

The Dark Ages are not a period upon which the scholar can look with superior scorn. He no longer denounces their ignorance and superstitions, their political disintegration, their economic and cultural poverty; he marvels, rather, that Europe ever recovered from the successive blows of Goths, Huns, Vandals, Moslems, Magyras, and Norse, and preserved through the turmoil and tragedy so much of ancient letters and techniques. He can feel only admiration for Charlemagnes, Alfreds, Olafs and Ottos who forced an order upon this chaos; for the Benedicts, Gregorys, Bonifaces, Columbas, Alcuins, Brunos, who so patiently resurrected morals and letters out of the wilderness of their times; for prelates and artisans that could raise cathedrals, and the nameless poets that could sing, between one war of terror and the next. State and Church had to begin again at the bottom, as Romulus and Numa had done a thousand years before and the courage required to build cities out of jungles, and citizens out of savages, was greater than that which would raise Chartres, Amiens, and Reims or cool Dante’s vengeful fever into measured verse.

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164 Responses to Highlights From The Comments On Dark Ages

  1. Ignazio Ziano says:

    “People were genuinely convinced that the world would end in AD 1000” this is another myth about the Middle Ages. It has, however, been disproved many times: e.g., there are a ton of signed contracts between monasteries and tenants all over Europe that start before 1000 AD and end after 1000 AD. Hardly a proof of concern, yet another one of the misconceptions invented starting from the 1600 (among them, ius primae noctis, of which there is no proof, and the fact that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat – whereas St. Augustine, read by all the scholars in Middle ages, reasons that it must be round). Dark Ages also seems to be quite an Anglo-Saxon term: in Italy, “Medio Evo” is used (“Middle Ages”), and same in France, “Moyen Age”, signifying a middle age between the splendor of Antiquity and the splendor of Renaissance.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Isn’t that kind of like saying no one really believed in Y2K because banks issued 30 year mortgages in the 90s, or that no one really believes in global warming because the price of beach front property hasn’t plummeted?

      • cathyby says:

        No, it isn’t. The Y2K problem was about the correct manipulation of dates. Just as the existence of Y2K projects suggests companies thought they’d exist post 1999, existence of contracts past 1000 suggests the same.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I mean the fire and brimstone parts of Y2K.

          This is the first time I’ve heard of the “Peace of God” movement, but all I’m saying is the fact that not everyone believed it doesn’t mean enough people didn’t believe it to make a difference in reducing warmongering.

        • ragnarrahl says:

          There were a LOT of people who thought Y2K was apocalyptic. Sure, the economic elite were not among them. Would you predict that? I would, and I would predict the same about apocalyptic beliefs approaching year 1000 if such existed.

          • cathyby says:

            I’m just a poor pleb who worked on Y2K, and if it hadn’t been fixed it *would* have been serious. (Doubtless the media went OTT but since when don’t the media go OTT if it sells?)

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            I was an in-the-trenches programmer back then. Me and my peers were *busy*, and it was not useless makework. There were a lot of “the lights turn off, the trucks and trains stop moving, and calling 911 wont save you” things that got fixed.

            In many ways, it was good for the industry and good for technical civilization. For example, ideas like”build to test”, “check for regressions”, “refactoring”, and even “source control” moved out of avionics and nuclear and into the mindshare level “do this or you’re not doing” of the rest of swdev.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            It’s worth noting that not everything Y2K-related was necessary. There were certainly programs that would have caused some critical problems, such as variations on the air traffic control systems crashing on some bug where the time calculated between two dates produces a negative number. And there were certainly projects that ended up paying down technical debt by shoring up their processes.

            But there was also a great deal of overreaction. I was working for the government at the time, and recall their claim that everything, across the board, had to be certified “Y2K-compliant”. This was hundreds or thousands of programs, depending on how you counted it. Some of them truly needed a good looking at – anything controlling an actual weapon system, say, or a major logistics management application, was worth inspection – but this also included systems that were:

            * already breaking 5-10 years out because of long-term planning features, were detected years ago, and fixed
            * doing nothing critical, like basic admin tasks
            * written post-1995 by newer programmers that had none of the instinct of truncating years in order to save every last byte
            * still in prototype stage, and wouldn’t be ready until after 2000 anyway
            * automating very little, since at every step, a human was assessing the output and had no chance of mistaking a newborn in the hospital nursery for a centegenarian

            It was in the private sector too. My father was a physicist working for a company that made X-ray fluorescence analyzers. They discovered a bug where the program would say that the radiation source was suddenly good for another 100 years come 2000. He was being sent to various sites around the world to patch a bug in their software. (This was before the days of automatic patching over the internet.) I pointed out that the company could just patch when they resupplied a new source anyway, since they knew when it really needed servicing, and they were the sole supply (IIRC). (In this case it wasn’t so egregious. He was having to travel all over on unrelated service calls anyway.)

            It’s important to remember that the Web was only a toddler at this time. There was much less automation than there is today. Program crashes were often expected, and someone was invariably nearby with a fix, or to take over for the program manually. The most automated or critical systems like credit card databases or stock price analyzers got the most scrutiny – they were justified.

            Automated test frameworks and better software version management and other features are welcome, and I’m glad to have them around today, but I could argue that they would have come anyway – it’s honestly not clear to me whether Y2K made the demand for such tools noticeably more evident than they already were.

        • ragnarrahl says:

          Also: Most Christian eschatologies kind of see the end of the world as something that takes place over a multi-year scale– think along the lines of 7 year treaties being significant parts of the timeline. Even if it starts in the year 1000, not every contract is immediately useless in 1003.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Indeed. For better examples (since the idea of the seven-year treaty comes from Protestantism), consider the reign of Antichrist, or the “Last Roman Emperor” / “Great Catholic Monarch” who was a favorite of medieval visionaries.

    • Anatoly says:

      This is oversimplified. AFAIK (not an expert, looked into it years ago) there’s a genuine controversy about how much concern with the world ending there was before AD 1000. Some context:

      – the chief reason people might have been concerned is not numerology, but a specific warning in the book of Revelation about the Satan being put in chains for 1000 years, so people thought 1000 years after the birth of Christ might have been the right time for the Antichrist to come
      – the AD year-numbering was not in common use. Learned scholars knew how to count years since the birth of Christ, but there was disagreement between them on the order of a few decades. So it was never about a particular specific year, more like “our generation” sort of thing
      – thus the romantic picture of masses huddling in the churches on Dec 31 999 praying is clearly wrong, but some historians are peeved because they think the refutations of the romantic picture go way overboard into “nobody cared”
      – there’s lots of scattered evidence about scholars and bishops and such here and there either being concerned or relating others’ concerns and fears, or allaying them. The controversy is about how significant this scattered evidence is
      – a good book of the pro-1000-was-significant camp is: Landes, Gow, Van Meter, The Apocalyptic Year 1000.

    • Deiseach says:

      everyone in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat

      Oh yes, another example of what “everyone knows”! I know some of the comments were less than impressed by the alleged Irish contribution to the reclamation of civilisation, and I agree that there is an amount of mythologising and aggrandisement about that. But talking about that map comparison Scott did, between the clumsy later map and the reconstructed map allegedly based on the work of Ptolemy, not all knowledge had been totally lost.

      An 8th century Irish saint, St Feargal (Latinised as Vergilius), became archbishop of Salzburg (in what would later be Austria). He was known as “the Geometer” because of his knowledge of geography and got himself into trouble with St Boniface, the famous Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Germans, over baptismal theology and also for teaching geography – that he taught the Germans the Earth was round (there are shades of the later Galileo affair in this):

      Later on, St. Boniface accused Vergilius of teaching a doctrine in regard to the rotundity of the earth, which was “contrary to the Scriptures”. Pope Zachary’s decision in this case was that “if it be proved that he held the said doctrine, a council be held, and Vergilius expelled from the Church and deprived of his priestly dignity” (Jaffe, “Biblioth. rerum germ.”, III, 191). Unfortunately we no longer possess the treatise in which Vergilius expounded his doctrine. Two things, however, are certain: first, that there was involved the problem of original sin and the universality of redemption; secondly, that Vergilius succeeded in freeing himself from the charge of teaching a doctrine contrary to Scripture. It is likely that Boniface misunderstood him, taking it for granted, perhaps, that if there are antipodes, the “other race of men” are not descendants of Adam and were not redeemed by Christ. Vergilius, no doubt, had little difficulty in showing that his doctrine did not involve consequences of that kind.

      The fact that Fergal succeeded to the bishopric of Salzburg after Boniface was killed shows that he was not stripped of priestly orders for heresy.

      Another 8th century Irish monastic and geographer who ended up in the Holy Roman Empire and the Carolingian court was Dicuil, who wrote a compendium called De Mensura Orbis Terrae where he very well knew that the Earth was round, quoted from 5th century Classical source to back his work up and used evidential testimony as well. From Northern Mists, by Carl Ortwin Sauer:

      Dicuil was an Irish monk who, like numbers of his kind, went to the Frankish lands where he was a noted scholar. He wrote an astronomy about 815 and the geography De mensura Orbis terrae ten years later, probably at the Carolingian court. The treatise testifies to the state of Irish learning. St. Boniface earlier had denounced St. Vergilius (the Irish Ferghil) for teaching the Germans that the Earth was round. Dicuil so declared in the title of his book supported by a fifth-century authority, Theophrastus’ Mensuratio Orbis, and by his own observation and reasoning. Also he compiled what he could of regional geography, suing reports of travelled Irish monks. One thus told about being on the Nile and going from it by canal to the Red Sea. Others told of Iceland, as remains to be noted, with their evidence of the spherical shape of the Earth. Dicuil and his fellow monks were not befogged by myth or doctrine.

      So the whole “everyone knows that the mediaevals believed in a flat earth and that go too far and you’d sail off the edge and everyone knows that Columbus set off to prove the earth was round” is about as accurate as any of the pop culture “everyone knows” beliefs.

    • Jugemu says:

      English speakers also say “Middle Ages” (or Medieval period), referring to either the whole period between Rome and the Renaissance or the period after the Dark Ages but before the Renaissance.

    • JohnofSalisbury says:

      Whatever we think of the millennial expectations (there was some, but it didn’t stop all contract-making), the contemporaneous Church reform movement was of immense importance. The peace of God was one aspect, fostering norms of war and increasing the cohesion on Christendom. The assertion of ecclesiastical independence from state control was probably even more important. Before the 10th century, all politics the world over was deeply sacral. Now it is largely desacralised. The Gregorian Reform was the pivot: we do God, the bishops told the princes, you should stick to government. And so it has come to pass. As I say below, Tom Holland discusses it very well: https://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2008/10/europe-christian-essay-less

    • Murphy says:

      “there are a ton of signed contracts between monasteries and tenants all over Europe that start before 1000 AD and end after 1000 AD”

      This seems to disprove a different position to the one proposed.

      If the claim was that litterally everyone, 100% of the population believed that the world would end 1000AD then yes, that would be an excellent proof against that statement.

      If the position is that really quite a lot of people believed that, that evidence in no way disproves it.

      imagine a world where ,say, 30% of the population thought the world was going to end. Including many leaders.

      Almost all farmers are still going to sow crops for next year even many of the ones who are sort of buying into the belief, most of the population is still going to be going about life exactly the same as ever.

      Also the beliefs of scholars do not always mirror the beliefs of average people on the street.

  2. Lillian says:

    Holy shit, i made the highlights.

    The thing with trying to draw a border for both the beginning and end of the Dark Age is that history is not so accommodating. You have the Crisis of the Third Century, but then Aurelian in five very intense years manages to keep the ship of the Roman state from sinking. Then a decade later Diocletian patches the leaks and gets the ship underway again. The crisis is over and things are kind of good again. Except you know there’s still civil wars, and barbarian invasions, and Diocletian kind of invented serfdom. But you know, the ship’s still sailing, even if it keeps wandering close to the rocks.

    Fast forward a century later and the ship is still a going concern under Theodosius. Then Honorius takes over in the west and executes Stilichio, at which point everything immediately goes to shit, complete with the Sack of Rome. A century after that the western ship has clearly foundered: the Barbarians rule. Except even then a lot of authentically Roman culture still survived even if the state did not. Theoderic of the Ostrogoths came to Italy at the invitation of the Roman Senate, Italia was still fairly urbanized, and most of its inhabitants continued to live under Roman law. That was all then destroyed by the apocalyptic Gothic War and concurrent Plague of Justinian, which devastated Italia on a scale unlike anything short of the Black Plague eight centuries later. Things were pretty bad for a few centuries after that, but it’s not like they hadn’t been bad for a while either.

    So while things are clearly getting progressively worse, you also have periods of stability when things don’t seem so bad and the decline is arrested. This makes the boundary fuzzy. At which point have the preludes to the Dark Age become the main event? The start of the crisis of the Third Century, its end under Diocletian, Christianization under Constantine, the final split of the Roman Empire after Theodosius, Odoacer declaring himself King of Italy, and even the Gothic War are all valid start points for the Dark Age. Things are lighter for the earlier points, and darker for the later ones, but there really is no clear this is where you draw the line.

    You get the same effect coming out the other side. The Carolingian Renaissance is the first obvious point of brightness, something you can point to and say that the tide is turning. Then the death of Louis the Pious ushered in an absolutely miserable century and a half, as the heirs of Charlemagne fought bitterly over his empire while Middle Europe was ravaged by Vikings from the north, Saracens from the south, and Magyars from the east. Also threatened but not ravaged by the Andalusians from the west.

    Still things stabilized eventually. The Ottonians brought some order to Germany and Italy, while the French got their shit together and made an arrangement with the Norse. Alfred the Great and his heirs resisted the Danish invasion, founding the Kingdom of England. The Vikings and the Magyars stepped down their raiding in the face of more effective resisitance. The Saracens were driven from the Alpine passes and their fleets effectively opposed at sea. Things were getting better again, and this is the Ottonian Renaissance, the oft cited end of the Dark Ages around AD 1000.

    Rebuilding civilizatiom is slow going though. So you don’t see a widespread return of high culture and learning until after a century of relative stability and growth had passed. Also the First Crusade and the establishment of the Crusader Kingdoms expanded commercial links between Latin Europe and both the Orthodox and Muslim East, leading to increased trade and cultural exchange. This starts the 12th century Renaissance, when the wealth and institutions if Middle Europe had grown to the point that the civilization was once again prosperous and dynamic. Culture, commerce, philosophy, the arts, and the sciences, they all start truly floruishing like they haven’t in a long time.

    So once again you can take your pick of which of the three Medieval Renaissances you like best as the end of the Dark Ages. The earlier ones are darker, the later ones lighter, but there is no real clear and unambiguous point. The Carolingian Renaissance has the issue that it ended and things went to shit again. The Ottonian is unimpressive, there is no great flourishing, things just got more stable and stopped being quite so unrelatingly miserable. Finally the 12th century one does have a great flourishing, but only after things had already been going reasonably well for a while. None of them is completely satisfying as something you can point to and say that this is when the Dark Age ended.

    Basically the question of whether there was Dark Age in Middle Europe is a fairly clear and settled matter. It’s the question of when there was a Dark Age that is not so simple.

    (Christ, i can’t believe i typed all that on a phone in bed while putting off sleep…)

    • engleberg says:

      @Holy shit, I made the highlights-

      Congratulations. You deserved it.

    • Deiseach says:

      the heirs of Charlemagne fought bitterly over his empire while Middle Europe was ravaged by Vikings from the north, Saracens from the south, and Magyars from the east. Also threatened but not ravaged by the Andalusians from the west

      Meanwhile, the Irish are sitting out on the western extremity going “Don’t know about you guys, but we’re doing pretty okay! Oops the Vikings – actually, now we’ve solved our Viking problem! Doing good here!”

      And then the bloody Normans landed and we got “civilised” 🙂

  3. googolplexbyte says:

    Does the fall of past civilisations really have any bearing on risk factors to modern civilisation?

    There are no barbarians left to overthrow civilisation. The closest thing I can think of is the incredibly unlikely possibility of a surprise nuclear strike from North Korea on a upcoming Chinese Communist leadership reshuffle followed by an invasion. That might be enough to collapse Chinese Civilisation temporarily and have massive economic repercussions for the rest of the world. But I’d reckon things would self-correct fairly quickly.

    Famine is now considered entirely within government control, we’ve demonstrated time and again our ability to bounce back from natural disasters, the Spanish Flu infected half of the world’s population and we managed to recover without modern medical technology.

    I don’t see why we can’t both accept that societal collapse has reduced all of the past’s greatest civilisations to blank slates time and time again, and confidently state we are now in a categorically different position than any of those civilisations were.

    I’m not saying that modern civilisation can’t collapse, just that ancient civilisations aren’t a good dataset for modeling possible outcomes for modern civilisation.

    I think a great example of this is that the Roman Empire and the Detroit Metropolitan area had similar peak populations and subsequent reduction.

    That’s what societal collapse looks like modern world. But no one talks of the Decline of Detroit as some grand historical even vaguely comparable to the Fall of the Roman Empire.

      • DavidS says:

        I don’t think ‘foreigner commits crime, gets imprisoned then deported’ is an overthrow. Or someone having a complex traumatised response to that sort of crime.

        @googolplexbyte: I agree that we lack that key group of steppe nomad type barbarians who were something of a civilisation-level threat to various civilisations in ancient and classical times (directly and through domino effects). But the Roman Empire wasn’t actually conquered as such: it fractured as a state for a range of (very disputed) reasons. I think there may be something to learn in terms of the fact that a status quo can seem powerful and stable but then get into a cycle of decline, and that it’s not necessarily self-righting.

        I think though that the question isn’t about ‘total catastrophe back to a blank slate’. The fall of Rome clearly didn’t leave a blank slate, we have masses of continuity in language, law, religion, culture, literature, politics… the greatest superpower now speaks a language which owes a lot to Latin, is a Republic with a Senate, largely follows the religion of the empire before its fall etc. etc.

      • beleester says:

        Really? That’s devastation on par with the Sack of Rome, in your eyes? You think that refugees committing random crimes are the equals of the friggin’ Goths and Vandals?

        Call me when you find some barbarians who can actually burn down a city instead of raising the crime rate 5%.

        (If I had to pick, I’d nominate ISIS, who are pretty damn barbaric, and a hell of a lot more capable than refugees.)

        • aNeopuritan says:

          I suspect Rome too went from “no biggie” to “too late”. As for there being a difference between “refugees” and ISIS, “count the women and children”.

          • beleester says:

            There was also a Roman who used literally every speech on every topic to argue that Carthage should be destroyed. If you treat every crime as an attempted sack of Rome, you’ll never have peace.

            Edit: I should add that I’m not arguing it’s impossible for Western civilization to collapse from barbarians, just that you picked the least threatening barbarians I can think of.

          • The Nybbler says:

            There was also a Roman who used literally every speech on every topic to argue that Carthage should be destroyed. If you treat every crime as an attempted sack of Rome, you’ll never have peace.

            Carthage was destroyed (though shortly after Cato the Elder died), and Rome had peace. With Carthage, anyway. But that was the Republic, long before the Empire or the fall.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Really? That’s devastation on par with the Sack of Rome, in your eyes? You think that refugees committing random crimes are the equals of the friggin’ Goths and Vandals?

          Every barbarian menace starts out looking insignificant, until it doesn’t.

          • Brad says:

            See: Counterargument, fully general.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            So, in order to detect the forces which will collapse civilisation, we need to focus on insignificant things which bother us a lot for free-standing political reasons?

            Can I nominate “racists on the internet”?

          • aNeopuritan says:

            I’m the same race as a lot of them. So is much of the population of my city, which doesn’t look at all like them.

          • broblawsky says:

            The Romans were persistently (and mostly unjustifiably) terrified of barbarians, dating back to the sack of Rome by Brennus in 387 BC. That fear lead to the collapse of the Republic by feeding the political careers of megalomaniacs like Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar with “just” wars against the Celts and Germans. Their victories over the “barbarians” helped them undermine and eventually destroy the Roman Republic.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Maybe my reading is idiosyncratic, but to me “There are no barbarians left to overthrow civilisation” implies that civilisation will never be overthrown by barbarians, not that civilisation won’t be overthrown in the immediate future. ISTM that most people here have been defending the latter view, but that doesn’t prove the former: after all, Rome in, say, AD 300 wasn’t in imminent danger of being overthrown by barbarians, but that is nevertheless what ended up happening.

        • cassander says:

          >Call me when you find some barbarians who can actually burn down a city instead of raising the crime rate 5%.

          Like, say, detroit? Granted, it didn’t exactly burn, but it has been pretty substantially destroyed.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Seems to me that was more a case of local corruption and mobs than barbarians; more the Nika Riots than Gothic invasions.

          • bbartlog says:

            Yeah, we’ll just ignore the part where it went from 98% white to 83% black over the past century or so. *Entirely* unrelated of course, just an unfortunate coincidence that the other negative stuff happened at the same time.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Well, ISIS is about wiped out now because we actually started fighting them instead of funding them, but that was pretty barbaric. Just south of the border we have the Zetas, the cartels. Mexico is basically a failed narco-state. South Africa’s got about 18,000 murders a year, and obviously yes, yes, apartheid is evil, but it wasn’t this bad in the 80s.

      The world is pretty barbaric. I feel like you’re kind of sitting on the steps of the Roman senate and saying “Barbarians? What barbarians?”

      • David Speyer says:

        I haven’t done any deep digging, but Wikipedia says it was worse in the 80’s. Basically, murder rate stable between 25-30/10,000 murders/capita in the 60s and 70s, a rapid spike from 1978-1993 climbing to 75/10,000, a drop following the end of apartheid in 1994 down to stabilizing at 30-35/10,000 at present. I’m not denying this is very high — the US is 5/10,000 and any other wealthy nation is much lower — but the 80s do look worse.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Correction noted. My point stands. South Africa is an example of a stable, modern nation that descended into barbarism.

          Human nature hasn’t changed. Civilization is the slow, painstaking repression, containment and redirection of an awful lot of natural human urges and behaviors. I get very worried when people start making appeals to nature with regards to human behavior. Natural human behavior is “form tribe and murder everyone else for their resources.”

        • WarOnReasons says:

          The Wikipedia numbers come from the official government data which are most likely to be falsified. For example, for the years 1995/96 Interpol estimated that the murder rate was twice as high as the official report.

          • christhenottopher says:

            That would be a more plausible explanation if South Africa had a unique drop in their murder rates. They weren’t. Besides well known declines in the developed world, much of the developing world saw drops in the intentional homicide rate too including countries like Colombia, Guatemala, and (after a blip in the mid-90s) Chile (Wikipedia doesn’t list much for African countries, but for what is these during the 90s, Zambia slightly rises and Swaziland slightly falls with only 2 data points each and Zimbabwe more or less stays stable). Governments can and do lie with their numbers, but I think in this case a better explanation is South Africa was just riding their homicide decline wave (probably caused by a combo of unleading gas, a decline cocaine usage, and some other X factors that are less discussed). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate_by_decade#1980s

          • WarOnReasons says:

            The government stats from SA show monotonous decline in homicides starting from 1994 and yet the official rates of attempted homicides continued to rise as before (along with all other forms of violent crime). Do you know other countries which exhibit the same pattern?

      • ragnarrahl says:

        Your article on ISIS talks about “US-backed militants” being the ones doing the “about wiping out” of ISIS.

        I have this weird feeling of deja vu.

      • And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        Mexico is basically a failed narco-state.

        I was there a couple of years ago and managed to escape with my life, but it was a close run thing. If you’d like to learn even more about Mexico I’d happily share my first hand experiences of its horrors, titled “At one point, there was a road block”.

    • roystgnr says:

      “Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children’.” – Hannah Arendt

      The trick is to civilize them, each and every time, with an overwhelmingly high success rate.

      We may not have to worry about a modern Visigoth Invasion, but would modern Nika Riots be so far-fetched? That wasn’t a civilization-ending event but it wasn’t incomprehensibly far off.

    • Deiseach says:

      There are no barbarians left to overthrow civilisation.

      There weren’t any barbarians back then. The ones pressing on the borders of Rome were climbing up the ladder of copying Rome themselves, and were being pushed, by the incursions of real barbarians on their home territories, down into the heartland of Rome. Or, like the Vandals, they decided they’d quite like an empire of their own, moved into North Africa, and got into a fight with Rome for precisely the same reason that earlier Rome had fought with earlier Carthage.

      The whole point about the fall of earlier civilisations is that it happens. Eventually every great empire crashes. And nobody at the height of the empire thinks it’s going to happen to them. We have no more reason to think that hey, Western civilisation as we currently know it is going to keep on going forever and ever. We’ve had about two centuries and we may get a couple more centuries. Rome managed about five centuries, Egypt even longer. But Italy today is not a world power, neither is Egypt. The focus has moved elsewhere.

      We can’t forecast that in three hundred years time the United States of America is still going to be an entity. Heck, even right now we’ve got some hysteria about “the surge of victories and good results for right-wing/conservative parties all over Europe and in the USA means the end of democracy!”

      The risk factors remain, even if the means has changed. And a city like Detroit ending up in the state it has is a very bad sign for a nation; you’re not talking about some Old West gold-rush town that became a ghost town when the mines ran out, or some small Rustbelt city that was built around one major local employer which has now moved production to China, it was a large city built around an entire industry which has seen drastic reduction in manufacturing jobs even while parts of the city continue to flourish. That’s the microcosm that acts as a bellwether: the shift in the economy from industry to other (such as financial services or service work). New York still thrives because it’s the financial sector, but the balance has tilted elsewhere from places like Detroit as representing the Old Economy to San Francisco as representing the New Economy, and even there you’re not talking the city as a whole, you mean Silicon Valley. looking at the population of San Francisco, it’s under 900,000 which is ludicrous; the Greater Dublin Area is 1.3 million and there’s no way Dublin is comparable to San Francisco for economic clout.

      That’s the kind of tilt that is a straw in the wind: as the peripheries do worse, resources are pulled back and concentrated in the core.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        That Vox article is really begging for a rebuttal in the next CW open thread.

        • Deiseach says:

          If by “rebuttal”, you mean “a good kicking with hobnail boots on”, then yes please! 🙂

      • watsonbladd says:

        Detroit proper might have declined, but the urban area it is the center of remains fairly prosperous. What declined was a large industrial sector that was mostly steel and steel accessories. Peripheries were never going to make it as the economy becomes more and more specialized, rewarding concentration. What is worrying is that we have cut back in exploration and science funding. The endless frontier is now apparently not worth it.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The endless frontier is now apparently not worth it.

          It’s mostly empty and what isn’t empty is hostile.

    • John Schilling says:

      There are no barbarians left to overthrow civilisation.

      What did the Visigoths look like to Rome, a half century before the (first) sack of Rome?

      Certainly not a threat to overthrow civilization. Why, our armies had utterly thrashed them the last time they tried to invade a truly civilized land. OK, that was in a previous century and our armies haven’t won any really great victories since, but still, come on. They are too busy fighting petty wars with other peoples beyond our frontier, and mostly losing those, to truly threaten us. Besides, the ones we see most often are right here adopting the best parts of our Universal Culture, and many of them now serve loyally in our army so how dare you question their patriotism? Sure, there are a few who commit robbery and rape in the streets of our cities, but that’s hardly the Sack of Rome and with a bit of assimilation they should turn out just fine. And yes, the ones who live in their own lands have laws and customs that seem backwards to us, but they are a Nation with laws and customs and borders and peoples and a government with the same basic form as our own, so calling them “barbarians” is just a sign of ignorance and petty prejudice. They’ll come along very nicely; the eternal victory of the Universal Culture is assured.

      • Nornagest says:

        Late Roman culture did win, pretty much. Half of Europe speaks Latin-derived languages these days, more than half of it uses Roman-descended laws, essentially all of it is running either Christianity or Christian-inflected secularism. There’s recognizable Roman symbology in government buildings all over the world. Greco-Roman ideas still form the foundations of Western philosophy, mathematics (and thus much of science), and representational art. And there are academic arguments over the bare fundamentals of what the old Gaelic and southern Germanic religions looked like, they were so thoroughly stamped out.

        It’s just that that didn’t imply a victory for Rome the empire, nor prosperity for the people that used to be its inhabitants.

        • publiusvarinius says:

          To be fair, many forms of Roman tradition did not fare quite so well in the areas controlled by the particular group John has in mind.

          Also, these two points:

          There’s recognizable Roman symbology in government buildings all over the world.

          That’s just a type of aesthetic that was popular when lots of current government buildings were built. Let’s say steampunk becomes a popular architectural style in the 24th century – the reason probably won’t be our descendants feeling a particularly strong connection to the values embodied in 19th century heavy industry.

          Ancient Egyptian culture definitely lost, but the Louvre has a pyramid nonetheless.

          more than half of it uses Roman-descended laws,

          Similarly, the Roman-style law we have now is “second half of the 18th century” fan fiction. Customary law (admittedly this has some Roman influence) took hold in Europe fairly quickly, and remained in force for a long time, except in matters of and regions directly administered by the Church.

          • Lillian says:

            The University of Bologna was founded in the late 11th century for the purpose of studying and teaching the Code Of Justinian, which would go on to become the basis upon which modern civil law is built. How is this late 18th century fan fiction? They had the literal body of Roman Law to guide them and had been using it for centuries.

          • pontifex says:

            At least in the United States, the founding fathers did look back to the Roman Era. Basically, they viewed themselves as continuing the glorious tradition of the Roman Republic. You have to remember that at the time monarchy was regarded as “normal.” and republics, to the extent that they existed at all, were seen as unstable aberrations. So the Roman republic gave the United States a kind of legitimacy, just by existing at all. The fact that there is so much neo-classical architecture in Washington D.C. is not an accident.

          • publiusvarinius says:


            Five centuries passed between the Corpus Iuris and the founding of the University of Bologna. The main texts of Roman law were all lost until the 11th century, and Roman law had to be re-imported from Byzantium.

            The Napoleonic Code was informed by Roman law, but the customary tradition used in France at the time had no relation to either Ancient or Medieval Roman law. Even if you insist that Roman law influenced these customary traditions, you could just replace “18th century fan fiction” with “18th century fan fiction about 11th century fan fiction”.

            @pontifex: Roman ideas did influence the United States. But that happened after 1300 years! Apart from perhaps Christianity, it’s not clear that Roman culture won significant cultural victories in its time. That does not change the fact that many of the ideas were rediscovered or taken up by later civilizations. Heck, people in Israel resurrected Hebrew: hopefully we can agree that we should now declare pre-Roman Jewish culture the true winner of the cultural struggle with Rome (or even Babylon)!

            The fact that there is so much neo-classical architecture in Washington D.C. is not an accident.

            This is pretty much an accident, however: neo-classical architecture was extremely popular at the time D.C. was built, and was even more popular in thoroughly monarchist Europe than it ever was in the United States.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Heck, people in Israel resurrected Hebrew: hopefully we can agree that we should now declare pre-Roman Jewish culture the true winner of the cultural struggle with Rome (or even Babylon)!

            I don’t think it’s uncommon at all for Jews to actually hold this view. I have heard people say things like, “The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans all persecuted us… and where are they now?”
            I only have anecdotes to rely on, but I would guess that most Jews hold views of this sort at least with respect to the Babylonians, and maybe even the Romans as well.

          • Watchman says:

            @ publiusvarinius,

            I’m not sure what you mean about the main texts of Roman Law being lost between the sixth and eleventh centuries. The Corpus Iuris was clearly known in western Europe in the Carolingian period (or bits of it at least – it is a large work) but never actually applied there, since Justinian only ruled the eastern Roman Empire and footholds in Italy and Spain. The earlier Codex Theodosianus (which would have applied as much as any law was universally applied at the time) has extant manuscripts from pre-eleventh century and underlies some of the sixth and seventh century lawcodes from the Burgundians and the Goths. Burchard of Worms (in the German Rhineland for those not familiar with it), around the year 1000, was certainly able to draw on actual Roman law alongside canonical law when he wrote some of the works that lie at the start of the documentary development of medieval and modern Roman law.

            You are right this is not Roman law as practiced though – but bluntly, we have lost most of this other than the judgements, some of the twelve tables, and the occasional decree by emperor or governor. It is one of those strange assumptions that we actually know what Roman law said, since it varied over several hundred years and several thousand miles. And it is worth noting that the incomplete nature of Theodosius and Justinian’s attempts to collect law (they basically edited existing laws rather than writing new ones) shows that even in the fourth and sixth centuries most of this law was lost – it was not the fault of the ‘Dark Agres’.

          • some of the twelve tables

            I find the loss of the twelve tables particularly odd. It’s as if nobody had a copy of the U.S. Constitution and it had to be reconstructed from bits quoted in court cases.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            @ Watchman:

            The Corpus Iuris was clearly known in western Europe in the Carolingian period (or bits of it at least – it is a large work) but never actually applied there, since Justinian only ruled the eastern Roman Empire and footholds in Italy and Spain.

            Theoretically the whole of Europe south of the Rhine was part of the Empire; the barbarian kings were the Emperor’s clients, and his writ wan in their territories no less than in the rest of the Empire. Granted, though, I’m not sure whether the Corpus Juris was actually enforced anywhere outside of Constantinople’s direct control.

            @ David Friedman:

            I find the loss of the twelve tables particularly odd. It’s as if nobody had a copy of the U.S. Constitution and it had to be reconstructed from bits quoted in court cases.

            I don’t think the Twelve Tables can accurately be compared to the US Constitution — the Twelve Tables were, as far as we can make out, clarifications of disputed points of law, and indeed seem to have had little or nothing to say about constitutional matters. It’s more like if British statutory law of the 18th century was lost, and had to be reconstructed from Blackstone.

          • Watchman says:


            The loss of important texts (even allowing for Mr X’s useful clarification) is more common than you might think, simply because our modern ideas of preserving texts and particularly our modern idea of basing our actions of specific texts rather than on a series of evolutions away from those texts are linked to a particular mindset, that of a literate religion based on a book rather than on a site or a natural feature. The Romans seem to have coped just fine without requiring original laws to cite, and during the early medieval period there is a striking tendency for known laws to not be actually followed in dispute resolution, despite the fact the relevant lawcode might actually be mentioned – law was not a matter of looking up documents and prior judgements, but of interpreting a variable body of knowledge including laws and judgements, but also the Bible and whose nephew the guy being accused of somethign was. Precedent and textual authority took a while to develop.

            And the purpose of this long reply on a minor point is to point out that modern assumptions about the significance of things are not useful for analysing history. And this looking at things through the filter of modern assumptions (actually something no historian ever seems to have escaped from since the days of Thucylides) always seems to me to lie at the bottom of assumptions about the existence of a dark age.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Another thing to remember is that, important as the Twelve Tables might have been during the fifth century BC, their provisions had been superseded by the end of the Republic, and by the end of the Empire they had basically zero relevance. When preserving documents is a matter of laboriously copying them out by hand, people are going to have higher priorities of things to copy than a bunch of old statutes written in an archaic dialect nobody can understand anymore, and which ceased to have any legal relevance centuries ago.

      • DocKaon says:

        The Visigoths looked like a capable military force which had been raiding and pillaging Roman territories periodically for 150 years. The Germanic tribes were an ongoing problem for the Roman Empire for centuries and by problem I don’t mean the occasional German tribesman would move to a Roman town and commit crimes. I mean they would raid and pillage and have to be either bribed or driven off by military force. The Visigoths killed a Roman emperor in battle in 238 which is a lot more than 50 years before the sack of Rome.

        Whenever Rome had problems like internal conflict or war with Persia, the Germans would start raiding and pillaging cities. When El Paso is burned by the Mexican army, I’ll start getting worried.

        • publiusvarinius says:

          When El Paso is burned by the Mexican army, I’ll start getting worried.

          Hold on, there are some scary parallels here!

          1. Mexicans did pillage U.S. territories in the last 150 years, multiple times.

          2. After the first incursions of the Goths, Goth-Roman relations were peaceful for almost 100 years, until one day the Goths requested the Romans to allow them to cross the border wall and settle down in the empire. Rome permitted this, hoping that the Goths will make good workers and soldiers. The Goths revolted shortly after settling in, and slaughtered the Romans.

          (This is meant to be a silly joke, it’s clear that the Mexicans are not attempting to conquer the U.S.)

          • Doctor Mist says:

            While I do like the silly joke, I would also submit that the Goths never had a grand plan to conquer the Roman Empire. They just wanted to be where the action was. Once there, they wanted more of the action. Eventually, they took charge, often violently.

            Sometimes when that happens, the New Boss shares enough of the Old Boss’s values, assumptions, and priorities that you can at least pretend that there is continuity. (See The Wars of the Roses.) But in this case they brought different values, assumptions, and priorities, and they didn’t include the amalgam of political and cultural practices sometimes called Romanitas.

            I find myself in agreement with the comment elsewhere that the fall of Rome was a Good Thing, not because the Dark Ages weren’t dark but because it represents a step on the only known path toward liberal democracy. If this be Whiggishness, make the most of it.

          • The Goths revolted shortly after settling in, and slaughtered the Romans.

            At least if you believe Gillian Bradshaw’s account, it was the fault of the Romans for badly mistreating the Goths, contrary to the agreement under which they came in.

          • Protagoras says:

            @DavidFriedman, Fits with what I know of Roman history. Of course, those looking for modern parallels can easily find broken promises and exploitation in modern situations as well.

        • 天可汗 says:

          Whenever Rome had problems like internal conflict or war with Persia, the Germans would start raiding and pillaging cities. When El Paso is burned by the Mexican army, I’ll start getting worried.

          SAGREDO: If the shit hits the fan and America descends into civil war, who wins?
          SALVIATI: El Chapo.

        • Bellum Gallicum says:

          This discussion reminds me of people in Maui saying the Volcano is extinct there because it hasn’t erupted in 500 years (that’s not a long time in geology).
          I feel that cultural time relativity makes people blind to the long term implications of small actions.

          The article Scott linked to about the payments to single mothers in the 50s was an interesting example of this but military history is fill with tiny conflicts that quickly overwhelmed once dominant societies.

          I think what people are actually doing is being willfully blind to change in order to bring it about. Most people I know in America seem to be bored with success and much more interested in blowing it up or giving it away to see what comes next.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      Does the fall of past civilisations really have any bearing on risk factors to modern civilisation?

      I’m speculating a bit, but I think the real common issue here is failure of imagination. If you are a hypothetical Roman Citizen living in Rome during good times, it’s difficult to imagine everything falling apart in a few generations. After all, you live in a major city in the world’s leading superpower. So you will naturally have a tendency to assign a very low probability to collapse. And perhaps underestimate the chances.

      The other issue here is inside versus outside view. From an inside perspective as an American, it seems pretty unlikely that the United States will fall in the next couple hundred years. And yet, taking an outside view, i.e. looking at powerful states in history, it seems like the odds are pretty good.

    • nydwracu says:

      There are no barbarians left to overthrow civilisation.

      Tell that to Baltimore, Langley Park, or Rotherham.

  4. Jiro says:

    I remember a blogpost, I think it was by Scott although I may be wrong, where the author pointed out that if an argument is put together out of nothing, any refutations of it are going to sound like a whole bunch of unconnected nitpicks. I think that’s the case here. The only way to refute Scott’s original blogpost is to refute every single item individually and any single refutation sounds like one person picking on a minor point. It’s also close to a Gish gallop; it contains enough separate claims that it’s beyond even SSC’s capacity to completely refute every one, so it’s going to seem like Scott lost on a couple of points but his main thesis stands no matter how people respond.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I got the impression that Scott’s post was itself a point-by-point refutation of scattered claims.

      The blogpost you are thinking of might be a section way down inside “You Are Still Crying Wolf” (search for “pyramids”).

    • Nick says:

      Yeah. It’s not clear to me how much Scott has adjusted his view, outside the specific (like the scroll vs folio thing). I wish he’d done a retrospective on his thesis at the end, now that he’s read a lot of the criticism.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think Scott’s post was mainly “There was too a Dark Age and the over-correction about there never being one at all is incorrect and here’s why”, and most of us refuting that were saying the correction of the over-correction was itself an over-correction.

      Then we got into maps, etc and as you say, scattered picking of points and going “No, and here’s why”.

      I think we all do agree that Scott is correct; there was a Dark Age and it was a terrible, horrible, no-good time. But the real necessity for the correction is the bad old popular notion still floating around, that was based not on history but on biased and partial polemical usage, that the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were all the same thing and it was all Glorious Classical Times -> Oh no Barbarians and Christians At Once! -> Mud, Misery, Plague, Superstition -> Renaissance and Classical Times Once Again -> Hurray, Civilisation Can Now Flourish!

    • pontifex says:

      I remember a blogpost, I think it was by Scott although I may be wrong, where the author pointed out that if an argument is put together out of nothing, any refutations of it are going to sound like a whole bunch of unconnected nitpicks. I think that’s the case here.

      Seems a little harsh. You think that the argument that there was a Dark Age was “put together out of nothing”? There is a fair amount of evidence there. I also don’t think the points are unconnected. Population is connected to economic activity, is connected to literacy and trade, etc.

      The only way to refute Scott’s original blogpost is to refute every single item individually and any single refutation sounds like one person picking on a minor point. It’s also close to a Gish gallop

      A Gish Gallop is when you keep creating arguments that are essentially unresearched bullshit, in hopes of overwhemling people trying to answer the arguments. Otherwise known as a “firehose of falsehood.” Again, I don’t think that applies here. Scott’s points are generally well-researched (although a few of them were somewhat successfully challenged.)

      Also, I disagree that the SSC community couldn’t address all the points. I think at least one comment attacked each point. Probably the thing that comes out looking the worst (to me at least) is the graph of lead production. And maybe the choice of 1000 rather than some earlier year as the “end.”

      …it contains enough separate claims that it’s beyond even SSC’s capacity to completely refute every one, so it’s going to seem like Scott lost on a couple of points but his main thesis stands no matter how people response.

      I apologize if this comes across as unkind, but did you manage to successfully refute even one point? Is it possible that Scott is just right about this particular thing?

  5. willachandler says:

    It is worth reflecting, too, that Europe’s Age of Darkness was Persia’s Age of Enlightenment — for details, a good starting-point is Wikipedia’s article on the Arab world’s great physician-heretic-polymath Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (854-925 CE), who was known to the later, European Aufklärung as Rhazes or Rāzī.

    Rhazes’ own writings too are excellent: see, e.g., Arthur Arberry’s translation of The Spiritual Physick of Rhazes. There are mighty few cognitive and/or philosophical and/or medical elements of the European Aufklärung that aren’t anticipated in Rhazes.

    One lesson, perhaps, is that the very same Enlightened Ages that historically have originated in heretically scientific freethinking, have historically been ended by state-sponsored suppression, censorship, and persecution of those same heretical freethinkers … and yet despite this barbaric suppression, their Enlightened ideas have recurred and strengthened, century-after-century, in every nation all around the globe.

    In summary, the staccato advance of the Aufklärung is observed on every time-scale, from “ages”, to “centuries”, to “generations”, to “election-cycles“; hence rigorous localization of this advance in space and time is infeasible.

    Take a lesson, modern-day Progressives and Conservatives! 🙂

    • aNeopuritan says:

      1) that place was always called “Iran” – this is what may be correctly called “Persia”.
      2) indeed, intellectuals in the “Arab world” were disproportionately everything except Muslim Arabs: Persians, Berbers, Christians, Jews …

      • willachandler says:

        Indeed my observations might more properly have ascribed, not “Persian”, but rather a Sasanian origin to the modern era’s medico-Enlightenment.

        To learn more, good starting-points are the Wikipedia articles on the “Academy of Gondishapur” and on “bimaristans” (as the first modern hospitals were called, during the Middle Ages).

        Also recommended is Benjamin Kedar’s brief monograph “A Note on Jerusalem’s Bimaristan and Jerusalem’s Hospital“, which iconoclastically surveys the Enlightened medical practices that the Islamic Middle East conveyed to the Dark Age Christians of Europe.

        Kedar’s lively, in-depth account of Middle East medical history will be especially appreciated by SSC fans of the history of the Crusades! 🙂

        These articles survey the (immensely rich) cultural and professional environment in which the great Middle Eastern physician-polymaths — including Rhazes and many more — cultivated their Enlightened medical heresies.

        A more in-depth scholarly study of the intertwined scientific and medical origins of the modern Enlightenment might begin with Andrew Miller’s “Jundi-Shapur, bimaristans, and the rise of academic medical centres” (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2006).

        The ablest physicians — such as Al-Razi (Rhazes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) — were both hospital directors and deans of medical schools. Only Jundi-Shapur and Baghdad had separate schools for teaching the basic sciences; otherwise, these were taught at the same facility as the clinical instruction. …

        Extensive libraries were attached to the hospitals, containing the most up-to-date books. In 872 AD, Tulum Hospital in Cairo had 100,000 books, Mustansiriyya University in Baghdad had 80,000 volumes, Cordova library had 600,000 volumes, Cairo had 2,000,000 volumes and Tripoli had 3,000,000 volumes.

        To grant some perspective, in the 14th century Europe’s largest library, at the University of Paris, consisted of a mere 400 volumes. The library at Tripoli was 7500 times the size of that in Paris!

        Practically speaking, for anyone who gains an appreciation of this medical history, the Trump administration’s proposed healthcare policies stand revealed as an ideology-driven counter-Enlightened reversion to the (pre-Sasanian) medical Dark Ages.

        A harsh assessment … yet “them’s the facts.”

      • willachandler says:

        PS  Caf1815 argument that “scrolls are smaller than books” — as quoted by Scott’s OP — is substantially obviated by above-quoted library-sizes from Andrew Miller’s “Jundi-Shapur, bimaristans, and the rise of academic medical centres”.

        Of greater significance is this: the Enlightened polymath-scholars of the Middle East not only curated immense, comprehensive libraries … they acted creatively, radically, and effectively upon their library-learning … said “effectively altruistic” (EA) political and social actions being a big part of what characterizes the Middle East’s medical polymath-scholars as uniquely and foresightely “Enlightened”.

        Here’s a proposition: let’s not turn our backs on humanity’s centuries-old tradition of Enlightened social activism that is medically-grounded, science-respecting, justice-augmenting, and — when sustained over history’s long arc — radically effective! 🙂

  6. theredsheep says:

    First post here. I’d like to note that I’m reading up on Byzantium right now, and they, too, had a sort of Dark Age. All the books I’m reading agree that, between Heraclius and the Iconoclasts (basically the seventh and eighth centuries), everything got worse in a hurry. Cities shrank and were rebuilt or moved to be more defensible. The output of literature other than hagiographies dropped precipitously (which makes the study of Byzantine history for this time period infuriating). The army had to be reorganized into the “theme system,” a quasi-feudal arrangement where soldiers supported themselves on grants of land rather than pay.

    The impetus for this collapse? Islam. When the Muslims took Egypt, the Empire lost its single most profitable region. The losses of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine were nothing to shrug off, either. The Empire suddenly had a very powerful enemy who’d just taken their best source of revenue. At the same time they had to deal with Slavic incursions in the northwest. The adaptation was painful.

    It’s worth noting here that the original meaning of “barbarian” was simply “one whose speech sounds like ‘bar, bar,'” i.e. a non-Greek-speaker, i.e. Not One of Us. The Muslims were far from uncivilized, at least once they’d assimilated to the cultural norms of the places they conquered, but they could still be Barbarians.

    Another lesson from Byzantine history: ages can be dark and light in different ways simultaneously. The last 250 years of the Empire were a long, miserable dismemberment. After losing Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, the Empire split into three bits–plus various petty states ruled by Western powers, Balkan Slav chieftains, or sundry Muslims–and the faction which took back the capital had to fight like hell to put everything back together again. Even once they’d reacquired a solid core, they had a long series of civil wars, barely-averted disasters, rebellions, and invasions. Life was nasty, poor, brutish and short.

    Except it wasn’t. Those last few centuries were politically hopeless, and Imperial behavior was often despicable, but it was a wonderful time for the arts. Some of the most beautiful icons were made during this period. Literature flourished like never before. When the Empire finally collapsed, a lot of gifted Greek scholars fled the ruins and settled in the West. They’re said to have kick-started the Renaissance.

    Or so I read. I’m not a historian, just a guy who’s read a bunch of books.

    • Deiseach says:

      Ravenna! Ravenna kept a lot of Byzantine influence which you can see in its church architecture and iconography, because in a kind of reverse of the flow of Imperial power to the East, it was the seat of Byzantine influence in Italy up till the 8th century when the Lombards said “Nice place, think we’ll keep it”.

      So again, everything is generally going to hell but there are islands of culture and light and beauty here and there.

    • willachandler says:

      Dittos … double dittos! 🙂

      Khosrow I: the Philosopher_King

      Khosrow I accepted refugees coming from the Eastern Roman Empire when Justinian closed the neo-Platonist schools in Athens in 529. He was greatly interested in Indian philosophy, science, mathematics, and medicine. He sent multiple embassies and gifts to the Indian court and requested them to send back philosophers to teach in his court in return. Khosrow made many translations of texts from Greek, Sanskrit, and Syriac into Middle Persian.

      He received the title of “Plato’s Philosopher King” by the Greek refugees that he allowed into his empire because of his great interest in Platonic philosophy. … A synthesis of Greek, Persian, Indian, and Armenian learning traditions took place within the Sasanian Empire.

      Dark Age … what Dark Age? 🙂

      Perhaps Europe’s (geographically localized) Dark Age was merely a prolonged cultural consequence of central Europe’s persistently dogmatic, religion-centric, monarchial conservatism?

      If so, then the Modern Era’s wide dissemination of Enlightened modes of cognition affords practical, post-Dark Age cultural illumination.

      Laura Shigihara: a Modern Era (“overwhelmingly positive“) “Rhazes of gaming” …

      Because what’s the point of studying the history of the Enlightenment — in particular, Enlightened medical practices — if not to appreciate when “it’s happening again”? … and then, to help it along! 🙂

      • theredsheep says:

        Perhaps Europe’s (geographically localized) Dark Age was merely a prolonged cultural consequence of central Europe’s persistently dogmatic, religion-centric, monarchial conservatism?

        I think you’ve got it turned around a bit. During the Dark Ages, the affected areas of Europe were politically quite decentralized (in the sense that hardly anybody had effective rule over what we’d call a large area), and religiously diverse (in the sense that half the barbarian kingdoms were Arian, the rest either not bothering to convert or switching between Christian beliefs for purely political reasons). Monarchy and theocracy only came much later in the West during its revival, and both were hallmarks of the more advanced civilizations of Byzantium and the Muslims. This doesn’t mean theocracy and monarchy are signs of progress per se, but the Dark Age collapse IMO came from other factors.

        • willachandler says:

          Please let me remark, theredsheep, that your well-phrased and admirably cogent remark has raised hopes (in me at least) that you will comment more often.

          Yes, it’s far from easy to rigorously exclude pretty much any factors as contributing to Europe’s Dark Age collapse.

          As a provocative example, who can assert with certainty, that the cumulative dilution/selection of culturally adverse neanderthal/denisovan genes, was not substantially contributory to the slow ending of Europe’s Dark Ages?

          Heck, something tamed the barbarians … who can say for sure, that the slowly cumulative genetic effects of female mate-selection and race-mixing intermarriage played no beneficent role? 🙂

          To paraphrase Tolstoy, it may be the teaching of history that “Enlightened Ages are all alike; every local Dark Age is dark in its own way.” In which case, we are best off asking “How do Enlightened Ages start, and what sustains them?”

          • hlynkacg says:

            Go away John.

          • Randy M says:

            Please let me remark


          • Lillian says:

            Go away John

            So i haven’t been here long. Are his posts always the written equivalent of bad post-mortem art? Like almost outright offensive in their vacuous pretentiousness and often outright unpleasant to look at.

          • Brad says:

            He banned two years ago for failing to respect a moderation directive not to use topic-comment sentence structure or bold markup.


            Since then he has continued to flagrantly violate the wishes of the owner of this website. Thus demonstrating directly the nature of his character.

          • pontifex says:

            So i haven’t been here long. Are his posts always the written equivalent of bad post-mortem art?

            Sadly, yes.

          • Nornagest says:

            Brad’s not wrong, but he’s not giving the full story. The topic-comment structure thing was basically a test of good faith; Scott deals with people who’re obnoxious but haven’t written any posts that individually merit a ban by telling them to tone down the more annoying aspects of their style on pain of one. Invariably they don’t. willachandler — or John Sidles, which was his first account and I believe his real name — is unique in that he didn’t fuck off once it was clear he was unwelcome, instead preferring to create new accounts every time he’s banned. Which has now happened upwards of half a dozen times.

            The best thing to do is to ignore him, or respond with a one-liner. He’s… not exactly a troll, I don’t think he’s being insincere (though he’s definitely trying to wind people up, and parts of his style are probably affected), but he should be treated as one.

          • theredsheep says:

            Pardon me, but what’s “topic-comment sentence structure” in this context? I did try googling, didn’t get anything super-clear. I gather it doesn’t mean “uses needlessly hoity-toity words, and condescending to boot,” which is the prominent sin here …

          • Nornagest says:


            Something like this.


            It was much more prominent in his early posts. He occasionally slips back into it, especially when he’s doing his Gish-gallop thing in response to someone, but not much anymore.

    • cassander says:

      I’m always found it interesting how much more….feudal post latin empire constantinople was. Prior to 1206, the character of the civil wars are generally of two varieties, “successful general gets ambitious” or “relative tries to usurp throne from unpopular emperor”, generally short with a minimum of actual fighting Post 1261, the wars seem to get longer, more entrenched, and less about winning control the center than than factions of dukes trying to keep the center weak. The byzantine state, as late as 1341, was quite a formidable entity. Not what it was, of course, but far from helpless, but the next century is an almost pathetic parade of wasted opportunities and self inflicted wounds. I’d really like to learn more about the period, but sadly, I’ve only ever found one book that really focused on it, and it’s largely about narrative not analysis.

  7. ragnarrahl says:

    Regarding Wikipedia not talking about the y1k thing: sure, but its sources do:


  8. publiusvarinius says:

    If this is at all right, then mea culpa.

    I don’t think it is. Eleven codex leaves don’t usually correspond to 500+ pages. For example, we know that the Latin Vulgate normally fits on ~1000 codex leaves and ~1200 pages in a modern book.

    Since manuscripts from that age tend to be heavily illustrated and illuminated, even if we made the wild assumption that literally every second page was an illustration, we’d still get that 1000 leaves correspond to 1200 pages in a modern text (one leaf has two sides).

    Based on modern Greek prints of classical Greek books (such as Euclid’s Elements, which conveniently retains the book numbering), 40 pages in a modern book is not the upper, but the lower end for a scroll. So let’s take the low-end estimates for the Ancients: 40 pages/scroll, 40000 scrolls in Alexandria. We have 1600000 pages of text, which still makes for at least 1.5x as much as the Sorbonne in 1300 – if we make the generous assumption that an average Sorbonne codex had 1000+ leaves!

    • Caf1815 says:

      I made that estimate in the first place, so I might as well defend it. You’re right to take Bibles to test my point (and I’ll freely grant I chose an example from the upper end of the scale to drive it home). Modern Bibles are much more densely typeset than most books, usually without footnotes or much by the way of introduction or appendices. Still, the Bible on the shelf behind me has 2054 pages. Bibles, by the way, are the last survivor of the medieval habit of putting together a whole library shelf’s worth of text under a single binding. Ever thought of how weird it is to have a cosmogony, several sometimes conflicting histories of a little Middle-Eastern kingdom, a bunch of poems, letters to random people, and lots of other stuff all bundled together, and call it a single book?
      Medieval Bibles, on the other hand, had less densely packed, less abbreviated text than the typical codex (and no illuminations in library books, either, just a few colored-in initials; fancy illuminations were for books to be given to princes who wouldn’t read them). So let’s take a typical Bible manuscript from the Sorbonne around 1300, BnF lat. 40: it has 463 folios (600 folios is something of an upper limit for a codex; these things are heavy). Each book of the Bible is preceded by a preface, sometimes as long as the book itself. It also has a few handy works of reference thrown in for good measure, such as Hrabanus Maurus’ allegorical interpretation of Maccabees, and the standard textbook Interpretationes Nominum Hebraicorum, which provides a translation for each proper name in the Bible (usually pretty accurate, Paris had a sizable Jewish community to consult). The Vulgate, I should add, has more books than the KJV, too: 76 vs. 66. Let’s be generous, and say that half the content is actual Biblical text. So, 250 folios ≈ 2000 pages. And that’s for Bibles; for pretty much any other type of text, the ratio would balloon considerably.

      • publiusvarinius says:

        Thanks for the informative response. Randomly sampling the numbered minuscules on Wikipedia, I could not find any that gives a Septuagint or Vulgate that short, often even just New Testament without the Gospels takes over 300 leaves. (edit: I’m not saying that they don’t exist, especially since you give an example in your post; I’m saying only that they are not common enough to be easily found by random search)

        Then again, most of these might differ from what was held in Paris, medieval texts can vary a lot (e.g. which hand is it written in? Uncial is very different from Carolingian, etc.) and I trust your expertise better than Wikipedia, so I’ll adjust my expectations upwards accordingly. Taking into account your point about random works being more tightly set than the Bible, I still think that an average ratio of 250 to 2000 has to be an overestimate.

        • Caf1815 says:

          Right; the numbered NT minuscules listed on Wikipediaa are, by definition, Greek texts, and overwhelmingly the produce of the Athonite monasteries. This a completely different cultural area, and the Greek monks didn’t read the Bible in the same way or for the same reasons as at a western university (prayer/meditation vs. scholarly study); consequently their codicological practices were completely different. For a good sample of the kind of Bibles held at the Sorbonne around the turn of the 14th century, flick through the catalog of the French National Library Mss department. I chose Paris because it was mentioned in the OP, but mss. from Oxford, Bologna or Salamanca would look much the same.
          Just to clarify, I wouldn’t sign my name to an affidavit that the Sorbonne library was definitely 10 times bigger than Alexandria, or that it was the biggest ever, anywhere: the Pandidakterion in Byzantium at the same period certainly dwarfed the holdings of any western institution. I just wanted to correct the impression that it had less reading material than a bachelor’s bathroom. The point is that, with the very notable exception of the city of Rome, there was hardly a place in the West that didn’t see a steady increase in the availability of texts throughout the Early Middle Ages. The comparison with Alexandria is a bit odd, by the way, since we’re only supposed to be considering the Latin West; we should be comparing the number of books in Bologna or Paris in AD 1000 with the number of books in Bologna or Paris in AD 1, which is pretty much 0.

          • Watchman says:

            Just as a question which we can never answer, whilst the Library of Alexandria might have had lots of scrolls, did it have losts of separate works written on those scrolls, or simply lots of copies of the same thing? This would kind of be significant to this debate.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The comparison with Alexandria is a bit odd, by the way, since we’re only supposed to be considering the Latin West; we should be comparing the number of books in Bologna or Paris in AD 1000 with the number of books in Bologna or Paris in AD 1, which is pretty much 0.

            Plus, the library at Alexandria is famous precisely because it was so unusually big, so using it as the baseline for the ancient world is going to be highly misleading. Instead of asking whether any medieval libraries were bigger than the literal biggest library in the ancient world, we should be looking at the average size of libraries, or how many and widespread they were.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            @The original Mr. X:

            Instead of asking whether any medieval libraries were bigger than the literal biggest library in the ancient world

            We weren’t asking that. In fact, we were comparing biggest libraries to biggest libraries. I would love to see a comparison of average libraries, and how widespread they were. Can you suggest any sources we could use?

            @Caf1815: I did account for this partially, I compared the Septuagints with modern Greek texts, but the latter are very similar in length to modern Latin Vulgates as well. I did not account for the differing codicial traditions, however.

            we should be comparing the number of books in Bologna or Paris in AD 1000 with the number of books in Bologna or Paris in AD 1, which is pretty much 0.

            I don’t think that’s right – if we’re comparing Roman culture to its Barbarian-influenced successors, we should compare the best they had. Comparing particular geographical areas is not quite as meaningful: the Alexandria of AD 1000 would was also doing worse than the Alexandria of 49 BC, with “We don’t need the books that agree with the Quran, and we don’t want the books that are opposed to the Quran” being the mantra.

          • the Alexandria of AD 1000 would was also doing worse than the Alexandria of 49 BC, with “We don’t need the books that agree with the Quran, and we don’t want the books that are opposed to the Quran” being the mantra.

            Is there any evidence that that story is true? I associate it with the almost certainly bogus claim that Umar was responsible for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

  9. adrian.ratnapala says:

    The point about how bad things got around 200 AD onwards is valid, but traditional history has names for that such as “The Crisis of the Second Century” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (with some respite in-between). We traditionally use “Dark Ages” only to refer to the really bad stuff that happened after the western empire fell even though it is part of the same progression, and that makes some sense because even a decaying empire managed to retain its learning far more than the successor societies.

    I don’t think the traditional belief was that everything was fine and dandy under the Romans until Theoderic burned it all down. It’s more “Those **cking Romans were so **icking corrupt that they pillaged their empire like crazy for hundreds of years until eventually the whole west was swamped in darkness and ignorance for N centuries.” And I would agree with that statement, and could make a decent argument for various values of N ranging between 3 and 10.

    • John Schilling says:

      We traditionally use “Dark Ages” only to refer to the really bad stuff that happened after the western empire fell

      If you’re going to do that, then you pretty much have to address the question, “When did the Western Empire fall?” And 476 AD isn’t a really satisfactory answer in anything but the most trivial sense.

  10. Deiseach says:

    I don’t think the traditional belief was that everything was fine and dandy under the Romans until Theoderic burned it all down. It’s more “Those **cking Romans were so **icking corrupt that they pillaged their empire like crazy for hundreds of years until eventually the whole west was swamped in darkness and ignorance for N centuries.”

    But I think there are two levels we are arguing on here; the first is the one you have, where there is proper history being done and everyone pretty much does agree (1) yes there was a post-final collapse Dark Age and it was not great (2) by the end, the Romans had pissed away all their gains for various reasons. I think Scott’s original post was trying to argue on this level against what he saw as “Dark Age denialism” as in Cracked and other clickbait articles.

    The second level is where the argument is really going on here, and that’s the popular version which is not the “yeah the Dark Ages were bad but by the end, so was the once-glorious Empire”, it’s the survival of the likes of Gibbon and Petrarch about “Once upon a time there was a Golden Age of grave thinkers and worthy statesmen in gleaming white togas, then we got a millennium or so of literal crap and darkness until, well, us: now we’ve arrived on the scene and found once again the lost knowledge mouldering away in the musty monasteries, so the Age of Gold is back again!” That is what the over-correction is reacting against, and that is what we’re mostly arguing about: that yeah, there was a bad time but then it developed into a less bad time and civilisation was rebuilt by people pulling themselves up out of the muck and it wasn’t a case of “lost Classical learning re-found, profit!”, it was the slow recovery during those ages that led to a society able to make use of that lost (and it wasn’t so much lost as put aside, else there would have been no rediscovery) knowledge and hey guess what, some of them even made discoveries of their own that were not completely dependent on the old stuff!

  11. Alejandro says:

    Brandon from Siris has extensive comments on the original post, well worth reading.

  12. Jeff R says:

    One other thing I think might be driving Dark Age Denialism (just being facetious): Empire. Westerners in the last half-century or so have been raised to believe that empires are bad, they oppress and exploit native peoples, they have no redeeming qualities, and they’re the worst form of political organization there is. But then they also learn about how there was this big empire in the Mediterranean that lasted for a pretty long time and life was pretty darn good under it, at least by the standards of the time, but then it collapsed and things got substantially worse for people in the region of its old dominion in any number of ways.

    Clearly, these two ideas are in tension and need to be resolved somehow. One simple way to do it is just airbrush the whole concept of the Dark Ages from your mind.

    • nydwracu says:

      Sure, there’s that, but I’ve also seen a lot of Genghis Khan apologism — you see, the Mongol Empire practiced religious tolerance! (And they weren’t white, so clearly they must have been good, because white people are uniquely evil.)

      The Dark Ages imply that civilization can collapse, which can’t be true. Everything is always getting better all the time! Except “better” mostly means “more moral”, because everything is getting worse, but actually everything is still getting better because during the postwar economic miracle people mostly weren’t as woke as debt-ridden college students are today. So the Dark Ages could not have happened, because it’s impossible for anything to get worse.

      • Nornagest says:

        I think the Genghis Khan apologism is probably coming from the same place that gives us Hitler-themed restaurants in Taiwan. Your average American doesn’t have a great idea of what Genghis Khan actually did or how he did it; he knows that he was a Mongol, he knows that he conquered a lot of land, but besides that all he’s got on tap is a few scattered factoids. If one of those factoids happens to be “Genghis Khan’s army encouraged religious tolerance”, and none of them is “Genghis Khan’s army massacred entire cities”, then the Golden Horde ends up looking pretty good.

        Pol Pot apologism, on the other hand… it’s pretty hard to explain that as anything besides pure ideological bias.

        • If one of those factoids happens to be “Genghis Khan’s army encouraged religious tolerance”, and none of them is “Genghis Khan’s army massacred entire cities”, then the Golden Horde ends up looking pretty good.

          I don’t think the Golden Horde exists as such until after Genghis dies and his sons inherit. The basic pro-Mongol argument seems to be that they established a large empire within which there was a reasonable degree of freedom of movement, trade, interaction. You get, for example, recipes written in China pretty clearly influenced by middle eastern cooking.

          • Evan Þ says:

            The average factoid-quoting American doesn’t have the least idea of any of that.

          • I don’t think the average factoid-quoting American is the source of the idea that the Mongols were, on the whole, good guys. That’s coming out of a book or books by an author who did know that sort of thing and being picked up and echoed by readers who very possibly don’t.

  13. Alex Zavoluk says:

    An interesting point that Matt Ridley made in The Rational Optimist that I did not have time to get into the original comment section: Romans used manpower for everything, but even centuries before the Renaissance, most of Europe used animals, for example to plow fields. By the start of the Renaissance, IIRC, they had replaced oxen with horses.

    This fact is notable because harnessing other sources of energy is an important developmental milestone. It allows an individual person to consume much more energy each day than if they had used only their own muscles.

    • Nornagest says:

      (Epistemic status: wild-assed speculation.) I wonder if the population decline after the fall of Rome might have something to do with that? Later, after the Black Death, we saw adoption of various labor-saving innovations in response to another population decline, and you can breed and train animals a lot faster than you can get human populations up.

    • Wrong Species says:

      How did the animal power of Medieval Europe compare to the other regions at the time?

      • MawBTS says:

        Cattle sizes shrank during the middle ages. The Romans had breeding programs to improve cattle. When Rome fell, these apparently stopped. Early medieval Europe seems to have emphasized sheep over cattle, maybe because they can be used for clothing as well as food.

        About horses, I’m not sure how medieval Europe stacked up to the Arabic world. In the Crusades, there are references to the European knights having bigger, slower horses than the Seljuks and Fatamids. But the heavy medieval destrier originally comes from Arabian stock captured at the battle of Poitiers, so I don’t know. Worth mentioning that the Crusaders used stallions or geldings, while their opponents liked mares.

        One thing is clear: if you stop actively controlling for a genetic trait, it quickly regresses to the mean. If you breed a strain of big animal, and then let run free and breed with its wild relatives, soon all your hard work will be gone.

        • Watchman says:

          A hint from a trained early medieval historian – if you have an argument that references the Battle of Poitiers (in reality probably a conflict between two groups of raiders both attacking the Aquitanians, later blown up to give Charles Martel the image of a heroic defender of Christianity) it is probably wrong; it’s basically the image of the Dark Ages in a microcosm, with added clash of civilisations (to be fair, Bede, writing in 735, was possibly the first person to give it that significance).

          There is good evidence that early medieval people used animals best suited to them – heavy, beef-producing, cattle are good for a market economy, but for an agricultural one cows produced milk primarily, and having smaller cows requiring less grazing (and which were a lot less dangerous – they shared the house in most of northern Europe) makes sense. It is a dangerous idea that bigger means better – in the Roman Empire bigger meant that those tending the cows were producing meat for others…

          So there is no reason to think that those breeding horses (and place-name evidence indicates that there were specific horse farming settlements around at this time) were not capable of breeding together the biggest and strongest horses to produce big and strong horses when required, but as the major purpose of horses was for riding, then smaller, safer and more comfortable horses (perhaps quicker too if there were royal messanger services, as some indicators suggest) were likely to be the main requirement.

        • baconbacon says:

          Early medieval Europe seems to have emphasized sheep over cattle, maybe because they can be used for clothing as well as food.

          Sheep are also cold hardier than cattle in general, so if there was a mini ice age this could have been a driving factor.

    • Salem says:

      But this is interesting because draft animals are not really a supplementary source of energy. In the pseudo-Malthusian environment of say 9th century Europe, more draft animals means fewer people!

      • Douglas Knight says:

        It’s not that simple because animals eat different food than humans (until the introduction of maize). In particular, it is common to do crop rotation within a single year, growing wheat in the summer for humans and clover in the fall for animals (plus nitrogen fixation). Maybe there is a necessary trade-off in the summer, but my impression is that there is a lot of land that will grow grass to feed animals, but wasn’t worth planting with grain, even in with the highest population density.

        • Nornagest says:

          Even now, it’s easy to find land in the Western US that’s used for cattle grazing but would not be economical to farm, either because it’s too dry or too hilly.

        • Salem says:

          Right, but instead of draft animals you can use the grass to feed other animals which efficiently convert that grass into human calories. Sheep, say. A horse is good at pulling a plough because of its big old muscles, burning those calories all day long. So it has to eat much more grass than a sheep, which gives you milk and wool and meat. Replace the horses with sheep (which can also live on more marginal land, note) and you get more people.

          • bbartlog says:

            Maybe. Who pulls the plow when you replace the horse, and how much does plowing help agricultural productivity? It’s complicated. Presumably plowing has higher returns on better land. And milking is more efficient (in terms of human labor) when you have cows.

          • Salem says:

            Oh, absolutely. That’s why I said it was interesting. The point is that the draft animals aren’t some alternative source of energy that we harnessed, they were putting our existing sources of energy to a different configuration.

            Water mills, by contrast, aren’t very interesting. Now you have a new energy source – of course you’ll be richer!

      • Watchman says:


        It is pretty clear that land was not a constraining feature on population size in Europe before the eleventh century, considering how much more land was brought into use from then on, much of it perfectly usable with technology available earlier (and areas such as the New Forest in England remained mostly non-agricultural till the present day). As most animals in use in western Europe could in fact graze on land that was not in agricultural use this is even less of a problem.

        I’d also question how a draft animal is not a supplementary source of energy – it might require human energy to lead the animal, but the animal would achieve the work of several humans.

  14. JohnofSalisbury says:

    For those interested in the 1K stuff, I thoroughly recommend Tom Holland’s Millenium, aka The Forge of Christendom.

    • willachandler says:

      Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s book-length PhD thesis, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel from the First through the Seventeenth Centuries (1927) — which is a work that describes Christian Messianic speculations too — thoroughly documents:

      • Rampant Messianic speculation, among Jews and Christians alike, spanning the centuries 900-1100 CE.

      • Rampant Messianic speculation, among Jews and Christians alike, spanning the centuries 0-900 and 1100-1700 (that is, spanning all the non-Millennial centuries).

      The former Messianic fervors make fascinating reading … and make the latter Messianic fervors seem predictably dull. Because in all centuries, patterns of Messianic fervor repeat time-after-time.

      That in all centuries, rationality and scholarship convey scant immunity to (invariably disappointed) Messianic/apocalyptic fervor, is a chief lesson of Silver.

      • hnau says:

        I realize this wasn’t your main point… but “(invariably disappointed) Messianic/apocalyptic fervor” is a great example of an observation that’s 100% explained by selection bias.

        • willachandler says:

          Yes. Because quantum-anthropically speaking, in all the universes in which the Messiah did arrive, Wikipedia’s ever-lengthening list of Messiah claimants has a terminal, definitive entry … provided that there’s a post-eschaton Wikipedia (debatable).

          Even today, our universe’s very own super-IQ surfing-supermodels are arguing cogently that the end days are upon us! 🙂 🙂 🙂

        • Evan Þ says:

          Not necessarily… we Christians believe that Messiah did arrive, but not everyone recognized Him, and so the list still goes on.

          • willachandler says:

            Yes. And there exist other professions of Christianity — professions that are esteemed by plenty of folks (including me) — that motivate devout Christian faiths and practices which are (practically speaking) entirely independent of Messianic theology.

            Any heaven that theologically excludes (for example) Fred Rogers and Mark Twain, won’t find all that many aspirants among SSC readers … as for their authentic “Christianity” (or not), diverse opinions prevail.

            So in practice, that simple two-word phrase “we Christians” encompasses diverse “we”-communities that profess diverse Messianic theologies, doesn’t it?

            No doubt, G*d had some good reason — plausibly even a hilarious reason — for arranging our universe so. 🙂

          • Evan Þ says:

            I fail to see how Mr. Rogers’ universalism means he did not believe in Jesus as being Messiah? Yes, our theologies differ (as I just pointed out myself in the open thread), but all of us (okay, practically all – AFAIK we don’t have any Mandaeans here?) unite in giving that title to Jesus.

          • willachandler says:

            No matter one locates the boundary between “Christian” and “non-Christian” SSC readers, there is plenty of faith-friendly Enlightenment to be gained from the curated anabaptist web-site Mennonerds, which is the nearest approach to a Christian SSC-compatible community (that is known to me, anyway).

            What’s notable about the anabaptist Mennonerd faith is the absence of theological certainty and lack of theological specificity:

            We [Mennonerds] don’t have a strict statement of faith or creed … We expect our members to have a deep faith and have a respect for Scripture as informing that faith.

            On the latter point, we do want to be clear that we seek a wide generosity of interpretation; we do not want to be conflating our understanding of Scripture with Scripture itself.

            For example, nothing in the Anglican historian Francis Spufford’s personal testimony would bar him from Mennonerd bloggership (AFAICT anyway):

            I don’t know if there’s a God.

            (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know. It isn’t a knowable item.)

            But then, like every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only the emotions I can prove. I’d be a unrecognizable oddity if I did.

            Whatever the “Christian conservatives” in America say, there is no one set of rightful opinions that follow on automatically from your belief.

            If you have signed up for the redeeming love of God, you don’t — you really don’t — have to sign up too for low taxes, creationism, gun ownership, the death penalty, closing abortion clinics, climate change denial and grotesque economic inequality.

            You are entirely at liberty to believe that the kingdom would be better served by social justice, redistributive taxation, feminism, gay rights, and excellent public transportation.

            You won’t have the authoritative sanction of the gospel for believing in those things either, of course. But you can.

            Heavens! 🙂  🙂  🙂

            Do self-professed Christians like Spufford and the Mennonerds perceive no essential distinction between Anglicans and Anabaptists? The plain answer is “yes” … Christian theological divisions are inessential to these people’s as-lived Christian faith.

            Moreover, this practice-centric/forgiveness-centric Christian theological perspective is found, nowadays, not-uncommonly among Catholics too.

            The friendly, vibrant, ever-growing Mennonerd blog-o-sphere community is therefore heartily commended to SSC readers who are broad-mindedly faith-friendly and practice-oriented! 🙂

  15. omegaxx says:

    A point I disagree with Scott on is how good of a metric population is in arguing whether the Dark Ages existed. I’ll take China as an example. The type of fluctuations that Scott point to (~30% decrease in population) has occurred in China many times, but are accompanied usually by massive warfare, civil unrest, plagues, etc–in short, the same kind of stuff that Western Europe was going through around the Fall of the Roman Empire. It suggests to me that rapid drops in population accompanied by decrements of living standards are probably not rare, and that to call the period 500-1000AD “Dark Ages” requires something else (regression in technology? loss of classical teachings?) beyond mere population figures.

    • engleberg says:

      As well as losing the corn of Carthage, the Roman garum factories were lost. Well, what was garum? A tasty fish sauce filled with bacteria that killed you? Or a multivitamin supercaloric manna so stuffed with nutrients that your thriving body took a few extra bacteria in stride? Until the factories were destroyed and everyone starved.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oooh, speaking of garum, this serendipitously links in with something I was reading about kimchi; that the fermentation process results in high levels of probiotic bacteria that are beneficial for gut health (and we’ve been talking on here about the gut biome and its possible effects before).

        So yeah, maybe counter-intuitively letting stuff ferment and develop a soup of bacteria can be good for your health?

        And it seems the South Korean use of red pepper in kimchi is due to cultural appropriation on the part of the Koreans, since that spice and other New World produce was introduced to Japan (and from there traded to Korea) by Portuguese traders from the 16th century onwards 🙂

        • Nornagest says:

          Kimchi, hell. Pretty much every culture has something lacto-fermented on the menu, from European half-sour pickles (far superior to the vinegar-pickled kind, by the way) to Indian achaar, to Japanese tsukemono. And all the different takes on yogurt, of course.

          This stuff’s probably not bad for you, but I doubt if losing any one particular version would do much.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            European half-sour pickles (far superior to the vinegar-pickled kind, by the way)

            We might disagree on the fate of Roman culture, but at least we agree on the things that really matter! 🙂

            UKians, ask in your local Polish shop. If you don’t have one, ASDA “plastic bag” pickles are also acceptable – but don’t bother with the ones that come in jars.

            Most of these fermented products are preserved vegetables. I wonder if fermented fish had its own (different) health benefits/detriments.

        • sourcreamus says:

          Kimchi maybe good for gut health but it is also a risk factor for stomach cancer.

          • Nornagest says:

            I wonder if that’s the fermentation process, or something else (chili pepper?). Do you know anything about sauerkraut as a risk factor? It’s basically the same stuff, just with a different spice mix and without the rice flour.

          • bbartlog says:

            It’s been speculated that the decrease in stomach cancer over the past century (a time period when the incidence of many cancers has been increasing) is due to reduced consumption of pickled foods. Which would implicate fermented foods in general. But I don’t think there’s any really airtight case for the link; obviously many other things changed along with the reduced consumption of pickles. Intestinal parasites surely decreased as well, for example.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            speculated that the decrease in stomach cancer over the past century

            My own speculation is we’re eating a lot less smoked and burned food. Both can be true.

        • engleberg says:

          @So yeah, maybe counter-intuitively letting stuff ferment and develope a soup of bacteria can be good for your health?-

          Never would have thought of that. Thanks.

          What was garum? Expensive stuff that you’d give the price of a villa for at one end, fishy-tasting stuff everyone sprinkles on random greens and some bread at daily meals for the other? Partly for protein, partly for the rush you get when your nose is opened by hot stuff. When the corn fleets were stopped, I bet all the other food sources came under pressure.

    • Watchman says:

      This is an important point. The basis for comparison here seems to be normally the modern world (from Gibbon onwards), with the lack of serious pandemics and multi-generational warfare since the seventeenth century (maybe later for warfare depending on how you view the Hasburg-French conflicts and Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars).

      But if we compare natural populations of mammals, then within decades swings of much more than 30% are to be expected. Presumably similiar swings also affected humanity until we started farming and the rest of our path of technological advancement (certainly there were swings wide enough in early human evolution to allow there to be one common male and one common female ancestor (at different times)) and the great apes have such population swings, even if humanity is the major cause nowadays. So it is quite likely that our relatively stable population (even 1914-19 did not cause huge population swings on this scale) is a bad comparator and expecting a stable population long-term is a bad idea. If early-medieval population capacity followed the natural world in expanding to the practicable limit, and that limit changed for some reason (major volcanic erruptions in the sixth century seem likely for example, although increased demand for taxation/food rent would also work) then population fall would be inevitable in any period (and this would explain the lack of sudden upturns if the default situation was the upper limit for population anyway). It just happens from the sixth century we have good enough historical records to start to map these fluctuations, which makes it look like this was a new thing, rather than a regularly-repeating process.

      Note that there was famine and pesticilence in the ‘Ancient World’ – but our sources are so scanty that it is rarely recorded. The possibly normal swings in population in the ‘Dark Ages’ happened in a period with better historical coverage (at least in terms of surviving records – perhaps unsurprisingly) and with better cemetary archaelogy available, and from the eighth century the survival of large numbers of documents relating to estates and people. Thus, such swings could be mapped. Swings before will only be noted if recorded in one of the rare surviving sources, few of which provide practical information. Add to this the fact that much history of this period was in the twentieth century done through the teological prism of Marxist theory, which saw the birth of fedualism as a destructive process of imposition of power by the aristocracy over an ordered but autocratic and slave-based society, and which influences much analysis to this day, and you start to get the feeling that Scott is picking on an estimate which is almost necessarily out of context, but would anyway perhaps just reflect the problems of living in a society with minimal productive surplus.

    • m.alex.matt says:

      It needs to be noted that at least part (perhaps even a large part) of the swings observed in Chinese population over the centuries are a record keeping thing. The bureaucracy falls apart/concentrates on other things than complete accurate counts of households during times of massive warfare, civil unrest, and plague.

  16. he marvels, rather, that Europe ever recovered from the successive blows of Goths, Huns, Vandals…

    Hold up! What is Durant doing putting the Goths in with the Huns and Vandals? The Huns and Vandals basically came in and wrecked stuff, sure. But the Goths are different.

    First, some background. By the time of the Late Roman Empire, Roman armies were ethnically and culturally barbarian. Few ethnic Romans served in the military, and even those who did took on “barbarian” behaviours like speaking a Germanic language with their comrades and wearing pants. Gothic armies were not distinct from other Roman field armies of their time, fighting for the Roman state as long as they were paid, and rebelling when the central government could no longer afford to keep them happy. It’s not even clear that they thought of themselves as a distinct ethnic group at first; that may have been an idea applied to them retroactively once they started forming distinct kingdoms of their own.

    So when Alaric and his Goths sacked Rome in 410, it wasn’t really as a foreign invader smashing Roman civilization, but as a Roman general rebelling against a central government that hadn’t been capable of keeping its own army commanders in line for centuries. The Goths continued to fight for and against what was left of the Western Roman state for decades thereafter, even helping to stop Attila at the Catalaunian Plains. And nearly a century later, it was the Ostrogoths under the Roman-educated Theoderic the Amal who re-unified Italy, holding some semblance of a Rome-centric political union together, if only for a few decades.

    Contra Durant, it seems that Rome may have been more (or equally) fragile without the Goths, and that Gothic armies and leaders did as much to stabilize the crumbling empire as they did to destroy it.

  17. raphaelmoras says:

    A fan here, love the discussion. As a gyide here in Champagne in general and Reims in specific I would like to offer a commentary over the last phrase of this post. The last version of the Cathedral of Reims is certainly the result of an “easy” decision by the Archbishop: it was only the “gothic” effort to rebuild the church on top of the previous one’s accidentaly burned ruins.

    But… what about its first version? Nicasius was not building the first cathedral ever in Reims, it was the second, but the first in the current place, on top of the roman bath ruins. The man was decapitated in front of his opus by the invading Vandals in around 406 a.C., just for being a christian leader. He had certainly a tougher time at Reims back then.

    What about Remi? He was not the only one to try, but he was the one that convinced the invading Franks to become christians, through his friendship with Clovis through letters. Reims is the birthplace of the european christian kingdoms!

    What about “la reconstruction”? In the 20s the city rebuilt 60% of its buildings, after the germans bombed it to the ground. Rockfeller paid for the Cathedral’s ceiling to be rebuilt.

    My point being: although I am very happy seeing Notre Dame de Reims as an example of a civilizational accomplishment, let’s not forget about the baptism of Clovis and how much the city suffered and survived since the romans. And my useless rant is over, have a good day.