Returning from a trip one day and noodling in re medieval science led me to an astonishing web-essay by someone calling himself Jim Walker on a religious belief site called Nobeliefs.com for Freethinkers.
Being trip-weary and in a curmudgeonly mood, I commented on the irony of someone denouncing religious belief while believing in so many myths and legends of his own at The Age of Unreason: or Pfui
Now, thanks to the Galileo Effect -- there is always someone willing to point out an affront to another -- we have a response from Mr. Walker
He writes that he is "not a Middle Age scholar" and then sets about proving it.
Being a free-thinker, all his thoughts are free and apparently worth the price paid. The response generally repeats well-worn fundamentalist tropes long adopted by atheists, misses the point of several things I said. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it also leaves one open to being misconstrued. In places, he mistook my intention, and in some places noted incompleteness or omission.
Naturally, being a freethinker, Mr. Walker makes no provision for comment [let alone disagreement] on his site, and so we must once more make do here, where comment [as well as thinking] really is free -- and freely debated.
A Message to the Anonymoi:
As usual, I ask only that non-members identify themselves in some way in their comments, lest we confuse one Anonymous with another. Use whatever screen name you please. Those responding over on m-francis.livejournal
, the same rule applies.
1. A Few Preliminary Comments
Mr. Walker has a marvelous technique for assigning things to the Medieval Period [bad] or to the Renaissance [good]. Namely, whenever he encounters something he considers good in the Medieval Period, he declares that to have really been the Renaissance. He also uses the term "Dark Ages" to refer not only to the actual Dark Age, but to the entire Medieval period up to the point where he wishes the Renaissance had begun. It never seems to occur to him that people whose beliefs he does not share could ever have accomplished anything of which he approves. The cognitive dissonance must at times be painful.
Another marvelous tool is to construe any glimmering, hint, or lucky guess in antiquity, China, Islam -- anywhere but in Europe! -- as the really-truly beginning of something, while dismissing any development during the Middle Ages as mere glimmerings, hints, or lucky guesses. Now, it is true that the Victorian Triumphalism of the Age of Science and Industry needed to be tempered. The Old Europeans tended to dismiss everything done by non-Europeans. However, the post-modern impulse to dismiss everything done by Europeans is equally wrong-headed.
A third technique he uses is a sort of guilt-by-association. The debate Question is the origin of modern science. However, Mr. Walker also brings up the crusades, the inquisition, the execution of Bruno, the trial of Galileo, the murder of Hypatia by a mob of Greco-Egyptians, even the sale of indulgences (I kid you not). Now, he shows no actual knowledge of most of that stuff; but even if we grant him the premise, good science can be done by bad people. The best science of the early 20th century came out of militaristic, jingoistic Wilhelmine Germany and its national socialist successor. But we don't say that rocket ships or jet airplanes are bad because they were invented by Nazis or that the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis is wrong because the Kaiser invaded Belgium. So these arguments are mere red herrings. If I have time, I may come back to them later.
Related to number three is number four. And that is the association of one innovation with another on not better basis than a chance correlation. For example, in his anxiety to show that medievals never did nothing nohow he equates pickled herring with the fish relish used for οπσον by the ancient Greeks. Apparently, since both involve fish.... Of course, the technological innovation of pickling enabled Baltic fishermen to preserve and ship their catches over longer distances, and opened a source of protein and omega-3 oils to vast numbers of people. Greek fish relish was an appetizer for meals.
Mr. Walker is entirely correct to say that historical period-names are arbitrary. This goes double for self-congratulatory names like "Renaissance" or "Age of Reason" as well as for deliberately-chosen derogatory names like "Dark Age." Mr. Walker takes this as permission to name the historical periods as he damn well wishes. Modern historians prefer objective descriptions like "early 14th century Burgundy" to tendentious labels from propaganda mills. I find that some of the names are useful, because there really are sea-changes in people's mental picture of the world. The ancient world really did end, so did the medieval world, and so is the modern world even as we speak. That the changes were gradual and seamless does not change matters. The existence of dawn and dusk does not invalidate the distinction between night and day.
2. A Note on the Dark Age
The dates are conventionally taken to run from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the Carolingian Ascendancy, roughly AD 500-800. Two good histories covering the run-up to and most of the Dark Age is Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700
by Randers-Pehrson and The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750
, by Peter Brown.
The age was dark because a lot of barbarians burned down a lot of stuff, and a lot of documentation went up in smoke. It is a Dark Age because we "see" by documentation, and very little has survived "the shipwrecks of time." It is not called "dark" because the people in it suddenly became stupid.