Why they should really rename the second half of the Middle Ages

So a couple of my friends on Facebook shared a Cracked.com article titled, “6 Ridiculous Myths About the Middle Ages Everyone Believes.” I clicked on it, and immediately noticed the first item, “Scientific Progress Was Dead,” wasn’t exactly a myth. Here’s what the article says:

Aside from the fact that, as we’ve already explained, most people in the Middle Ages did not think the Earth was flat, the church wasn’t responsible for killing science — to the contrary, it was largely responsible for saving it.

After the barbarians invaded Europe and Rome went the way of the dinosaurs, the Catholic church was the last remaining aspect of Roman culture in Western Europe. The church went about setting up monasteries across Europe, and along with the monks came the monks’ massive libraries. Monks were just about the only educated people in the early Middle Ages, and pretty much everything we know about this entire time period was written by them.

As time went on, the church stepped it up a notch and started establishing universities to foster the preservation of knowledge. You may have heard of a few of them: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris (not to mention pretty much every other top school in Europe). At these universities, students studied more than most college kids do today, with an average bachelor’s degree taking up to seven years to earn, and a master’s or doctorate taking several more. The universities were also big on translation, having successfully translated into Latin guys like Aristotle and Plato, which effectively made the Renaissance possible. All of this despite the fact that beer bong technology was still in its infancy.

Let’s count the problems with this. First of all, the Catholic Church did some preserving of ancient texts, but not nearly as much as was done in the Islamic world. Second, as Richard Carrier points out in his excellent post “Science and Medieval Christianity,” there’ s a huge difference between copying and maybe arguing about some ancient texts and doing original science.

But perhaps most importantly, this article suffers from a conspicuous lack of dates. Want to know when Oxford was founded? Late 11th century. Cambridge? 12th century. University of Paris? 12th century. Translation of Aristotle into Latin? 12th and 13th centuries. Translation of Plato? 15th century.

Another way to explain this that I like to use because I was a philosophy major is to look at the history of philosophy. The history of medieval philosophy begins with Boethius, who is famous for noticing hardly anyone in Western Europe spoke Greek any more, deciding it would be a good idea to translate the complete works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin, and then getting himself executed circa 525 AD when he had only finished translating a couple of Aristotle’s logical works.

After Boethius… well, okay quick, name some medieval philosophers for me. The first names that come to mind for most people are names like Aquinas and Ockham, figures of the 13th and 14th centuries. Many people will know names like Anselm and Peter Abelard, figures of the 11th and 12 centuries. Very few people will be able to name Johannes Scotus Eriugena, who was basically the only moderately important European philosopher in the first 500 years after the death of Boethius (9th century, to be exact).

Perhaps the source of the problem here is that the term “Middle Ages” covers roughly a millenium of history. When you think about it, this makes the question “what was life like during the Middle Ages?” kind of a stupid question. It’s like asking “what was life like during the second millenium AD?” Do you mean Renaissance? Cold War? When? Though I don’t know enough about the Middle Ages to critique the rest of the Cracked article, I suspect that it wouldn’t stand up to close examination precisely because of this problem.

Now historians already distinguish between the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages, but these names really don’t convey to the average person how totally different these periods of time were from each other. I think maybe there’s be a lot less confusion on this if we could agree to rename the 12th century onwards the “Proto-Renaissance” or something. But I’m not a professional historian so I don’t have any say in these things.

Aside that I didn’t manage to work in to the rest of the article: if you want more evidence for just how thoroughly society disintegrated after the fall of the Roman Empire, I recommend Brian Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of RomeIt’s a fairly quick read and will teach you just how much we can learn about ancient history by digging up old pottery.

  • Joe Shelby

    Most of the others also fit in that same category, of “things weren’t so bad in the 12th century, but by the 15th…”. Bathing, Sexual Repression, Women as Property – all things that changed as a result of the suppression of new knowledge by the Church*es* – and this is the key part particularly for the latter two and for science and reason. Each of the splinter churches, once established, reasserted a new conformist/absolutist morality on its followers (Luther, Calvin, the Puritans in England, and the counter-reformation Catholics), and in doing so, each (lead predominantly by misogynistic men), suppressed anything that might cause people to consider going to another church. Oddly in insisting they were all different, their levels of suppression of knowledge and women’s rights were all pretty equal…and to a degree, remain to this day (note how the Catholic Church is allied with the American Evangelical churches on the issues of birth control and abortion, even as much as they hate each other on just about every other theological issue out there).

    The eventual result of all of this was, of course, the madness of the 17th century, where witch trials and holy wars were happening at the same time as the genius of Newton and Huygens.

    Chivalry was kinda the opposite – it was a literary impression/tradition, and it didn’t come into vogue (even as a fiction) until the Late Middle Ages after the crusades effectively introduced the idea of the educated gentleman-knight to the west…but it still primarily remained a fiction.

  • Anj

    The early “Dark Ages” or Middle Ages may not have been dark, or full of illiterate people, but this went into the proverbial handbasket once the medieval church got up and running.
    The Dark Ages/Early middle ages are probably my favourite post Roman period (I am from the UK, so Sutton Hoo probably had a big influence in my interest in this period, as well as the Viking era here in Scandinavia).
    It is true that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Bede, and the Lindisfarne crowd did the majority of writing the history, but how accurate that is is another story, but either way, their literary works are astounding for the art, but are very little in the way of new science & knowledge.
    When you get to the early Norman period, yes, the cathedrals were truly impressive for their time, but equally, other worlds outside Europe existed, and as with the Viking era, and many eras before that, trade between the middle east, china etc was alive and kicking, and ideas, at least relating to metallurgy were flowing back and forth. It was when the church came to have real power in Europe that this was cut off

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John Wilkins

    The period from the late 11th century through to the 13th is what I think of as the first renaissance. Before the disruption of the Black Death, there was a flowering of logic, science, technology and economic exchange. There is also the Carolingian period much earlier. We denigrate the scholastics now, but they were professional, reasonable and critical.

  • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

    Ah, another installment in Cracked.com’s perennial “myths you probably believe” series (although in fairness to Cracked, anyone going there for a history lesson has completely misenterpreted the purpose of Cracked.com). Basically, it does look like the accuracy problems in the article stem from the fact that the Middle Ages does cover about a thousand years and some pretty important social changes.

    You’re right that it’s unhelpful to just lump the whole period together as the Middle Ages. We need better terminology for this time period. Unfortunately the term “Middle Ages” has a kind of brand recognition effect in people’s minds which would be really hard to change.

  • MNb

    If you want to know what the level of scientific understanding was in Western Europe in the 10th Century, don’t look further than Pope Sylvester. In a letter to the Bishop of Utrecht he explained that doubling the sizes of a rectangular body did not mean that the volume would double. For this Sylvester was considered a mathematical genius.
    Also note that the first European universities were founded several years after the fall of Toledo, the muslim city that already had had a university for several centuries and also had a library. That’s were scholasticism got it’s decisive stimulus from. I’m not saying all the famous medieval guys were dumb. There is no way though that medieval christianity can be praised for any scientific resurrection. Another proof in case is Byzantium, the heir of the Roman Empire, that did not make any scientific progress at all during its long existence.
    History of physics interests me. Only in the 15th Century – indeed, after the fall of Constantinople – western Europe managed to equate the level of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge again. Kudo’s for medieval christianity for maintaining a fertile ground, as Russell already noted in his History. It was a necessary, but no way a sufficient condition for the scientific revolution of the early 16th Century.

  • MNb

    Your main point is absolutely correct. Just as it doesn’t makes sense to say that the Middle Ages began around 500 it doesn’t make sense to say they ended in 1500 CE. For England Antiquity ended in 400, when the Roman legions left. According to several scholars Antiquity in the Eastern Roman Empire lasted until the early 7th Century with the Arab conquests. In a similar way you can argue that the Middle Ages ended with the fall of Toledo or lasted until well into the 16th Century. The famous Dutch rebellion against the Spanish King aimed to protect medieval privileges of the cities and of nobility. At the other hand the idea of an absolute monarch (17th Century) is the culmination of a process that begun in the 14th Century, when kings began to take control of nobility.
    To get things confusing definitely, the Migration Period began in the 3rd Century, when the Franks invaded Gallia for the first time and ended in the 10th Century, when the Vikings/Norsemen had settled all over Europe.

  • Ray

    I think the term “Middle Ages” actually has a lot going for it. You have pretty much the same political configuration throughout 700-1250: The Mediterranean is divided between the Arabic Caliphate (albeit increasingly fragmented and Turkicized throughout the period,) the Greek speaking Byzantine empire, and the Frankish realm, with a German monarchy and a Latin Priesthood. Turks control the Steppe. India is continuously fragmented (although Pala, Gujara-Pratiharas, and Chalukyas seem like persistent fixtures). China is a little off and on with regard to unity. The point is, both the Mongol conquests and the rise of the Arab Caliphate are huge earthshaking events, with nothing comparable in between. This is a pretty good match for the middle ages as they are usually imagined.

    I suppose if you want to confine yourself to western Europe, you can sort of Justify the early/high middle ages distinction, since there’s some added cosmopolitanism going on around the crusades, but European philosophy at that point is pretty much just getting in on what the Arabs had been doing for a couple hundred years already. The really interesting proto-Renaissance thinkers are after the Mongol conquests anyway (Occam, Petrarch, Bradwardine, Oresme) so you might as well draw the line there, even if there’s no clear evidence the Mongols had anything to do with it (although the did bring firearms, which made warfare look more modern in Europe — eventually.)

    I’m also somewhat unconvinced the Plague can be considered a major distruptive event in European intellectual progress. After all, the 15th century brought the first rigorous methods for perspective drawing, the printing press, and the discovery of the New World.

    I’ll grant that the European High middle ages have a certain look about them, what with their Gothic Architecture and Black Letter Scripts, but that seems to me to be about it.

    Oh, as a side note, I don’t really think of Philoponus or Boethius as medieval. One was a Roman Senator, the other studied at the school of Alexandria. In other words, both have very clear connections to the institutions of the old Roman Empire.

    • Ray

      On reading MNb’s comment, I suppose I really should be attributing the cosmopolitanism of the 11th-13th centuries to the Spanish Reconquista rather than the Crusades. Now I feel a bit silly.

  • Yvain

    Thank you. You took what I was thinking but wrote it much better. Although you were very kind in letting them get away with only a few sentences on how “managed to preserve a couple of classical texts in a few places” and “did significant original science” are not the same thing.

  • ecolt

    I studied Medieval Art History, and I have to agree that a big problem is the sheer breadth of the time involved. While historians do break things down into different sub-periods, it gets lost among the general public. To be fair, a lot of history gets skimmed over by the people who don’t constantly study it, but “medieval” can refer to anything between Late Antiquity and the early Renaissance (most of my classes covered about 350 AD – 1450, which is a crazy amount of time to lump into one big period).

    There’s also the problem of geographic scope. You noted that the Catholic Church didn’t do nearly as much to save ancient texts as the Islamic world. Well, in much of the medieval period Spain and Portugal were actually part of the Islamic world, and were considered Europe’s greatest bastions of culture and learning. In fact, a lot of the motivation to study ancient texts and ideas came about when Crusaders brought things back from the Arab world. And the whole article works under the assumption that the only pre-medieval culture worth preserving was Greco-Roman when, for example, Scandinavia and Iceland kept alive a strong pre-Christian tradition of literature and the study of history.

    So, while I think you definitely raise some good points (and, like you said, Cracked isn’t exactly a respected history journal or anything) I have to agree with the spirit of their article. I guess that coming from a philosophy background it is logical for you to see the Middle Ages as something of a Church-dominated void, but having studied the arts and literature of the period I do have to agree that medieval Europe wasn’t nearly as boring and desolate as our high school history classes and Monty Python would have us believe.

  • Trent

    The reason there are no philosophers from the early middle ages is that there were no early middle ages ;-)


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