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.

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