Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Oh, Good. An Excuse to Talk About the Middle Ages

with 4 comments

And the Renaissance. 

As if I  needed an excuse.

But Jem brought up something that’s out there in the air, and that has been out there in the air for centuries, and it’s a misreading of history–a deliberate falsification of history that started in the eighteenth century–that makes it virtually impossible to understand Western intellectual history in any coherent way at all.

First, the rise of intellectual atheism did n ot begin in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment, and especially in Eighteenth Century France.  The philosophes were the first to reject Christianity in particular and traditional religion in general in any systematic way, and they were also the ones who established the narrative about the history of science and the arts that most of us now just assume must be true.

That narrative went like this:  first there were the Middle Ages, which were dark and benighted, ruled by a tyrannical Church that surpressed science, burned people at the stake for making scientific discoveries, and forced everybody to concentrate on God and their own sinfulness by spending all their time on their knees begging for mercy.

The first break came with the Renaissance, when science valiently struggled to be free of religious schackles and the Church condemned Galileo for proving that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around.

The second break came with the Reformation, as people threw off the superstitions of Catholicism and broke the stranglehold of Church on science and learning.

The final and most important break came with the Enlightenment, when man finally overthrew all vestiges of irrationality, and valiantly chose to put reason over religion.

I’d say that that particlar narrative, or something like it, is what most of my generation was taught was the progress of culture in the West, and versions of that narrative remain with us in the New Atheist narratives of Dawkins and Harris, who are still casting themselves as the brave ational Scientists beset by the forces of superstittion represented by “fundamentalists,” Creationists, and Catholics.

Unfortunately, that particular narrative of cultural history is, in virtually every item, wrong.

Let’s start with the Middle Ages.

First, far from concentrating only–or even mostly–on God, the Middle Ages was one of the most determinedly pragmatic periods in all of Western history.

The Middle Ages invented the university as we know it, and the great universities that arose in this period were largely concentrated on training…lawyers.

Yes, I know, lawyers don’t sound all that pragmatic.  But one of the other things the Middle Ages did was reestablish and extend the rule of law, first conceived and implemented in classical Rome, then obliterated first by the excesses of the Empire and then by the great invasions.

This was not a small thing.  Amost everything we like about Western culture over and above other cultures depends on the rule of law for its very existence.  It’s in the Medieval reconstruction and reimagination of the rule of law that the idea of separation of church and state first appears in Western thought.  They meant something different by it than we do, but they did mean it.  For a while, kings and governments were forbidden to put priests and religious on trial secular courts for any reason whatsoever.  Beckett ran afoul of King Henry because he refused to allow Henry to try a priest in a crown court…for murder. 

Nor were the Middle Ages short on science.  It was Copernicus, not Galileo, who proved that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, and Copernicus was a figure of the high Middle Ages, not the  Renaissance.  

What’s more, his work was not suppressed, but celebrated.  It was taught throughout the Medieval schools and universities, including at the Vatican’s own school. 

The Middle Ages saw advances in many areas of science and technology, not only in astronomy but in agriculture, architecture and engineering.

Even that staple object of derision–how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?–wasn’t as stupid as it came to sound, but just a way of formulating a uestion about the nature of the soul.

So what did the Renaisance do?

It ushered in the reign of something called Christian Humanism.

I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 23rd, 2009 at 7:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Oh, Good. An Excuse to Talk About the Middle Ages'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Oh, Good. An Excuse to Talk About the Middle Ages'.

  1. Hi Jane,
    Thanks for pointing out the actual historic progression toward atheism and considering believers in God to be less intelligent. Most, if not all, of my knowledge of history, and philosophy as well, has come second hand through literature classes (English major) and reading on my own. That’s why I wrote in the interrogative sense.


    23 Oct 09 at 10:36 am

  2. Oh, it gets much worse than that. I can still see a film in junior high science class which included a cartoon history of the world. The Grecco-Roman world was blotted out by the lengthening shadows of the barbarians, and in the resulting darkness we heard a plainsong chant:
    “You FALL off.”
    Then a light came on as a Renaissance scientist exclaimed “The world is round!”
    (That was probably a Frank Capra film, by the way, and may have been his sincere understanding.)
    But six years later, give or take, I was reading Lynn White, MEDIEVAL TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL CHANGE for Medieval I, and Robert E. Howard had already suggested to me that the Roman Empire might not have been an unmixed blessing, a view of affairs which would have shocked my Medieval History professor–a big Byzantium fan.
    However, I would guess the non-readers from that science class–that is, those who read only under compulsion–still believe the film. Reading is a VERY subversive activity.


    23 Oct 09 at 5:28 pm

  3. By coincidence, I am reading “The Medieval World View An Introduction” 2nd edition by William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman. I brought is as a used book via Amazon.

    I’ve reached the transition from Ancient Rome to the middle ages which is the period where the Popes are sending missionaries to England and the Germans. I find myself thinking about the effort to spread democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the papal advise to missionaries on how to treat the pagan beliefs could be adapted to our problems of changing tribal societies to democracy. Perhaps the fact that conversion to Christianity (with relapses to paganism) took centuries might be a warning.


    23 Oct 09 at 8:58 pm

  4. I seem to have been taught a significantly different version of the Middle Ages, although at this point it’s hard to distinguish between what I learned in school and what I picked up on my own. I certainly never say ANY film on the history of the world, much less the one Robert descibes. As best I can recall, I was taught that the Roman Empire collapsed for various reasons that were never really explained, which meant that Europe and the UK no longer had proper governments, which meant they suffered through the Dark Ages, a long period of very confusions invasions, raids, warlords and other exciting things. However, the Church kept struggling through all this to protect and hand on some remnants of civilization, and eventually their efforts to persuade and force the various warlords and invading barbarians that there were proper ways to behave had fruit, and you got the Middle Ages, when certain of the warlords became kings, with the active support of the church, and started imposing law and order on larger and larger areas, which was a Good Thing, to quote ‘1066 and All That’. However, the church and state were now competing for secular power, and the church had now become rather spectacularly corrupt. This lead to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Rennaissance, all the wars over religion (which is a term I didn’t use much, because it always seemed rather doubtful if Spain wanted to invade England because England was Protestant or because Spain was a very aggressive and expanding imperial power at the time.)

    I seem to have picked up – or been taught – information with an emphasis on political development from empire through complete collapse to nation states, new empires and eventually modern democracy.


    24 Oct 09 at 8:44 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 253 access attempts in the last 7 days.