The Christian Re-write of Mediaeval History

by | February 22, 2014

It seems that a few years ago a couple of authors (Jaki, Stark) released books declaring that Christianity gave rise to modern science and medicine via the dedicated work of monks (Bacon, Aquinus) during the Middle Ages. This certainly wasn’t the history I was taught. I learned that the ancients, over thousands of years, had great engineering and scientific advances as well as passable medical advances and that all this was lost during the Mediaeval Period in Europe – aptly called the Dark Ages because European civilization lost most ancient advances with the collapse of the ancient cultures that birthed them. The work of the Ancients was picked up after the Dark Ages, during The Enlightenment, when Europeans invented the scientific method and saw reason as the best way to run a society. Was I duped?

The short answer is no. Scholars aren’t part of some big high-fiving, back patting, secret-hand-shaking conspiracy to hide the truth and they have spoken up against these books. Richard Carrier writes a rebuke and so does Andrew Bernstein.

First of all, it’s important to note that while religious scientists (Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler) made great discoveries, it is hardly because they were religious. This was the world view of the culture into which they were born. These scientists probably held a lot of questionable opinions; for instance, like most men of their time they probably thought women had an inferior intellect – should we therefore infer that such an opinion allowed them to make their great scientific discoveries? It’s important not to confuse correlation with causation.

Now, back to the mediaeval period. The first thing to understand is the monks of the Dark Ages, drew on pagan concepts of naturalism; specifically Aristotle. There weren’t any new ideas put forth here. Moreover, during this hey day of Christian rule, monks may have worked to preserve some Greek and Roman artifacts, but they destroyed countless historical sites if they deemed them to be idolatrous or just plain unChristian or let fall to ruin things they didn’t think mattered (e.g.: the Flavian Amphitheatre also renamed to The Colosseum in the Middle Ages – they couldn’t even get the name right). If things seemed to have value to the Church, they were preserved – like the Pantheon where they jammed their saints, and various basilica (once used by Romans as legal buildings). I wouldn’t be surprised if works of literature were likewise thrown away.

It appears that mediaeval Christian theology certainly was the enemy of science and medicine as well. The works of Galen evaporated from the West and were reintroduced via the Islamic world. The Greeks and Romans may have been steeped in Religion (there was no such thing as separation of church and state), but their odd superstitiousness (augury, haruspices mingled in with civic life) didn’t seem to hold back their ability to engineer (look at all those aqueducts, the Pantheon – if you were to take the Pantheon and turn it on its side, it would fit into itself!) and I doubt it would have held back their abilities to figure out more science if they didn’t off themselves as a culture. Romans tended to absorb new religions and there wasn’t much conflict between religions – you could collect them like hockey cards. They frowned on Mithraism at one point because the men were castrating themselves and Romans – you know how they like family. It’s notable that the religions that they came into conflict were the Abrahamic ones because their god demanded that they only worship him (he’s so fussy). Further, the Greeks fostered the growth of minds that questioned tradition and may be even atheistic (Epicurus), philosophical minds that had scientific results (the pre-socratics) and philosophy that encouraged rational thinking – Socrates. All this going on in a rather superstitious culture.

Indeed, as Bernstein suggests, the Church of the Middle Ages let the people languish without science and let rot all the science that had been done by the ancients.

33 thoughts on “The Christian Re-write of Mediaeval History

  1. Bubba Kincaid

    A bit apotheisitic sounding from what I understand of the relative brutality of some of these ancient cultures, inflicted within and on other societies. For example, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of a more fulsome analysis that mentions the period in early christianity when they were the favourite fodder of Roman sadism, granted for a shorter time.

    I get the attack on christianity, but I don’t like apotheisms in that service. It clouds the true analysis, and leaves open easy counter-arguments like, “well, maybe the christians learned to behave that way from the Romans”, which come to think of it, they probably did.

  2. Diana MacPherson

    Oh I agree that Romans were no saints. Those periods in human history were quite brutal. I recommend reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for a well written and statistically supported rendition of the brutality of the regular person living in Ancient or Mediaeval periods. Indeed, there is a reason that the bible is so brutal. It is also notable that citizenship existed for only a minority of males in Rome and in the mediaeval period, most were serfs, subject to the whims of a monarch.

    However, that was not the focus of this post (though I may do a future post on this). This post centered on science and rationality where Christianity and Paganism is concerned within history, not empathy and compassion toward other humans.

    1. Bubba Kincaid

      Yes, but does it really make sense to divide history into Romans and Christians, when in fact it seems more befitting to understand European Christianity as just the natural progression of Roman (et al) paganism?

      I mean, from an atheist point of view, christianity is just another pagan religion like any other, albeit more widespread, wouldn’t you say?

      1. Diana MacPherson Post author

        Christianity is just another Mystery Cult that formed during the Roman period from Eastern religions like Mithras and Isis. The reason I believe historians mark the difference is because there was a big culture shift from the Ancient world to the Christian one – economically, socially, politically. I wouldn’t say that Christianity was necessarily a progression from paganism since much of the pagan history, philosophy, engineering, medicine and art was abruptly lost, leaving society to pick up and start over.

        1. Bubba Kincaid

          Ok, so my understanding of that period is different from yours. From my readings, I view that shift perspective as a more recent mythology, the reasons for creation of which I am trying to understand, especially since there was actually no such abrupt loss. I view the time period more as a natural progression, possibly with some diffusion effects into and from the wider western/northern european what-can-only-be-called tribes.

          1. Diana MacPherson Post author

            The Roman empire took a bit of time to collapse but it was defunct by ~480AD in the West as people started to flee the cities (which always happens when you have a collapse – the Greek Dark Ages of ~900 BC show this same abandonment of the cities) and tribes sacked Rome. It was during the 5th C that we see the gaps left by the centralized Roman government filled by “strong men” (same thing happened with other societal collapses – the Greek Dark Ages saw this phenomenon as well). In this period, Roman scholarship disappeared and literacy waned.

          2. Bubba Kincaid

            Yeah and plenty of huge civil wars and massive plagues before then.
            Natural progression of an empire too big to handle. Fragmentation? Certainly. And that’s just the West, the Eastern half of the empire went on for another 1000 years.

            Probably introduced christianity in the first place on purpose as an attempt to help keep the empire under control.

            Natural progression.

            here’s the last line of wikipedia:

            “The legacy of the Roman Empire in Western Europe includes manufacture, trade, and architecture, widespread secular literacy, written law, and an international language of science and literature.[207] The Western barbarians destroyed and could not replace these higher cultural practices, but their redevelopment by mediaeval polities aware of the Roman achievement formed the basis for the later development of Europe.[208]Observing the political reality of lost control, but also the cultural and archaeological continuities, the process has been described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.[209]”

          3. Bubba Kincaid

            By the way that last reference [209] is to a publication by Oleg Grabar, who is one of the best and my go to academic antiquarian.

  3. billybob

    Ken Ham and his cronies have tried to rewrite Eygptian history to fit into the bible timeline. All organizations and despots try to rewrite history to put a shine on their image.

    Hell, Texas is trying to get rid of that rascal Thomas Jefferson.

  4. Ultra

    To reference the middle ages as a christian period is dishonest. The fall of the Roman empire left a huge power vacuum. Much like the fall of a Dynasty in the east, it led to chaos and a reversion a less enlightened time. The mark of the modern European era is not the eradication of Christendom, or even religion proper, but rather the use of the printing press. This led to both… a more educated populace… and protestantism. Like everything religion evolves.

    1. Bubba Kincaid

      Sorry for being so coarse. These red herring goose chases just bug me to no end.

      Whether or not european christianity had an efficacious influence on the medieval to enlightenment ages really has no bearing whatsoever on christianity being just another superstition and mythology.

      I’m sure one can show that belief in mermaids was hugely beneficial to the general marineering discipline.

      I think one should be careful about getting duped into these arguments.

      1. Diana MacPherson

        Yes you are right – none of this proves Christianity has the ultimate truth but that’s not the intent of this post or the reason for calling out inaccurate representation of facts by Christians. I call that out because 1) As an atheist I hold the truth and methods to getting to truth as extremely important 2) There are many debates by famous atheists (Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Hitchens) that ask if Christianity/theism is good or bad and inevitably the Christian trope that it is a system of goodness is brought out. This is clearly untrue and misrepresentative of the facts. I don’t like it when facts are misconstrued. I argue for the facts in areas I have formal experience and knowledge in. I leave many of the science facts to working scientists like Lawrence Krauss (physics and cosmology), Sean Carroll (physics and chemistry) or Jerry Coyne (biology, evolution) to refute. However, I feel obliged to refute lies about Classical history in the same way Richard Carrier does (though he is a professional Ancient Historian).

        Further, there is a reason Gibson wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and that is because there was a great collapse of a far reaching central government (Rome) that had profound socio-economic effects on the Western world. There was a big fall. It was devastating. It existed. It is well documented in history by scholars from the Middle Ages onward. You may not like this categorization but it is a true one based on facts.

        1. Bubba Kincaid

          It’s not “true”. There are many legitimate academic camps on how best to describe the transition of the western roman empire in 3 words or less.

          To me, calling it “the great fall” is just hype to sell books and to prop up certain sensibilities.

          Personally, I’m in what’s officially called the “Late Antiquity” camp with academic historians like Peter Brown, “The World of Late Antiquity”(1971), “Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World”(2001).

          There has been a tremendous amount of scholarship since Gibbon wrote “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in 1776.

          1. Diana MacPherson Post author

            Firstly, I don’t see that scholars are up in arms about these dates (starting the Mediaeval period after the last Roman emperors were booted out in the 5th C AD), indeed most universities (full of scholars) the world over recognize the division between the Late Roman and Mediaeval periods when they set up their departments this way: Classics departments deal with the mediterranean world up to 5th C AD in the West and carrying on to ~9th C AD in the East. If scholars thought otherwise, Classics departments would be set up differently and either would continue into the traditional dates for the Middle Ages (none do) or the History and English departments dealing in Mediaeval Studies would look at work much later (whatever date that would be)).

            Secondly, even if I were to agree that there was no Mediaeval period (which I don’t think Brown would agree to either), his “Late Antiquity” only deals with the 5th – 8th Century (the Mediaeval period goes into the 14th C). Brown does not refute that Rome fell or that it was a huge soci-economic change, instead, he sees religion as having a positive affect. I don’t agree and this is what this post talks about. This era saw the loss of a large amount of essential knowledge, especially technical and scientific knowledge not to mention the cultural loss with the majority of literature gone. That makes a dark age. The Dark Ages were not a period of innovation but well, dark. Richard Carrier’s article that I link to describes this in more detail than my post.

          2. Diana MacPherson Post author

            What do you think of when you think of the “fall of Rome”? Do you see the Middle Ages as “dark”? If not, how do you characterize those times vis a vis Antiquity?

          3. Bubba Kincaid

            No doubt there was much strife.

            But i fear the “Dark Ages” might be entirely an originally christian construct to demarcate a time when they were trying to expand their power and base, so that “Dark” is really meant to refer to “Not Christian Enough”.

            I’m not convinced that the war and strife (other than in the healthcare sense) was any worse than pre-, and certainly not, post-middle ages.

            As for intellectual achievement, it very well could have been a period of “dumbing down”, but somehow if feels like that also depends on your definitions of purely scholarly achievement.

            Diane, I don’t think we need argue here which is the “true” and correct school of thought on the “Fall of Rome”. As i’ve indicated there are a few legitimate main schools. But if you do want to argue from the “catastrophic collapse” perspective then there are quite a few answers you need to be ready to supply. For example, do you distinguish christian romans as not being roman?

          4. Diana MacPherson Post author

            I think before we move forward, we need to agree on what “dark ages” mean. It doesn’t necessarily refer to strife but to the loss of knowledge (90% of literature, most engineering and nearly all scientific knowledge). Dark in this way is not synonymous with horrible (as in it was dark times for those people) but instead ignorance (as in their knowledge on those subjects was a blank).

          5. Bubba Kincaid

            Sure. And also, I think before we move forward, we should agree exactly what geographic boundary lines we will be enforcing in our discussion, what constitutes our ‘Europe’, and whether we will be allowing for socio-economic strata, and who we will include and exclude in those strata.

    1. Diana MacPherson Post author

      If we are talking about my question, what is your idea of “dark ages”. I would say no. It’s during the Renaissance that Western Europe’s contact with the Islamic world starts getting it out of the dark ages but it doesn’t fully get out until the Age of Enlightenment in 17th and 18th C.

      1. Bubba Kincaid

        Ok. So no 12th Century Renaissance. Good.

        Now, Do we include the “Carolingian Renaissance?”

        But it’s sounding like maybe you don’t want to include much of any of the “High Middle Ages”. Is that right?

        And that must mean neither the “Late Middle Ages?”.

        So of the Three Middle Ages, we will be excluding the High and Late and concentrating on the “Early Middle Ages?”.

        Also, for the “Ottonian Renaissance”, I would tend to agree not to include it since it isn’t all that exciting a one of the three “medieval renaissance”. Your position on the Ottonian?

        1. Diana MacPherson Post author

          Oh good grief, in the name of expediency let’s just include the broad dates for the Medieval Period – 5th C AD – AD 15 as identified here. Now, what is your concept of “dark”.

          1. Bubba Kincaid

            Well my original point was that it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to argue absolutely whether christianity has made a contribution to science or not, since you will just be troped into arguing a point about a very long ago and totally different era from the point of view of today’s context and verbiage. Sure it’s fun and enticing and somewhat gratifyingly fullfilling, but in the end it really has very little bearing or sense on religion being a mythology. It makes way more sense to be a bit more magnanimous about ancient history and concentrate more on today’s issues.

          2. Diana MacPherson

            And by arguing this point, you miss the point of my post which is to say that the Christians who argue that Christianity gave us reason and science is a way to correct them and I correct them by showing them they twisted historical facts.

            As I said in one reply, it is important to make sure groups do not distort facts and especially do not distort facts for their agenda. This is what holocaust deniers or totalitarian regimes do that want to deceive their adherents/citizens into compliance. If one wants to make sure one can get to the truth as much as you possible, one tends to fight for logic and reason as a method to uncover historical fact and one usually frowns upon the distortion of those facts.

            As for being magnanimous, why would I if it isn’t true? To appease Christians? That makes no sense and contradicts the above. If you just allow people to get away with saying any old thing, you end up with a deceived general public and a deceived general public is more likely to grant concessions to a group that deceives them into thinking their ideology is a great benefit to humankind. As for concentrating on today’s issues – this is today’s issues. Did you not look at the books I linked to that inspired this post or look at Richard Carrier’s and Bernstein’s responses? If you find understanding history and applying what we know to the present to be a foolish exercise, then why have historians at all? Why teach history in school? We can just concentrate on the present instead!

          3. Bubba Kincaid

            Well then maybe the way to argue the point with them, is to say, “that’s great christians, but you know, lots and lots and lots of stuff was discovered and invented by non-christians around that time too! and also there was this bad stuff that happened also boohoo.”

            You see, and the question then becomes, what exact psychological malfunction has caused you to overlook that much more powerful argument, instead of settling on an endless monkey work of a useless red herring debate?

          4. Diana MacPherson Post author

            Why would I concede their point that Christians invented a whack of stuff when it’s a lie? My argument however is that Christians did not foster science and thereby bring about modern medicine and science. This is the claim made in the books I referenced. Your argument is not more powerful, it’s flawed because it uses falsehoods in the same way the Christians do in these books. Clearly you haven’t read the other responses by Bernstein or Carrier. I’d also be careful about implying I have a “psychological malfunction”.

            I am not going to engage you further on this after that insult. I urge you to read the Carrier and Bernstein arguments and brush up on your history, refrain from name calling and ignore posts that your misunderstanding of history leads you to think are foolish.

          5. Stephen Lumini

            I have enjoyed the back and forth and even learned a bit(this reply should be on a post further down, but there was no reply btn there)

            I can’t help myself, but I want to take a stab at clearing up the discussion.
            I see Diana’s point as simply calling out authors who are purposefully misleading their readers. You can take religion completely out of the argument.
            If I wrote a book that claimed tall people were mostly,if not completely, responsible for all the advancements for the same time period, I would be performing the same disservice as the above noted authors.

            Misinformation regardless of the agenda is clearly something to be fought against.

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