Thursday, May 30, 2013

Were the Middle Ages "The Brilliant Ages"? A Rebuttal

This video is making the rounds of the Catholic blogosphere:

I thought this video was guilty of overreach.

It is true that those who are hostile to the Catholic Church-- and who are not very knowledgeable about history-- tend to characterize the Middle Ages as an ignorant and regressive period.

And it is true that a lot of important developments took place in the Middle Ages.

In the High Middle Ages and in the Late Middle Ages.

Notice that none of the accomplishments named in the video had their origin in Early Middle Ages.

Western Europe between 500 and 1000 AD [except for an all-too-brief Carolingian Renaissance] was not a brilliant place. Let's not kid ourselves.

Here's a little test.

Name me one important scientific development between 500 and 1000 AD.

Name me one important theological development that occurred between 500 and 1000 AD.

Now, you might name the horse collar as an important scientific development.

And Radbertus came up with transubstantiation.

But you'll be searching hard for anything else to say about that time period.

Oh sure, there was the Carolingian Renaissance, but that barely lasted.

And the spread of the Catholic faith brought much learning to ignorant areas: England, Germany, and Eastern Europe.

But on the whole, there just was not a whole lot of intellectual, cultural or social development.

The period is fairly static. Compare the way people lived in 1000 AD to the way they lived in 1500 AD. There is marked differences: the printing press, the spread of the monetary economy, the weakening of feudalism, the proliferation of towns, these are stark differences that mark the two periods.

What about between 500 and 1000 AD? Not a heck of a lot of change. Sure feudalism and manorialism became common but that's not necessarily saying much. The peasant in 1000 AD farmed pretty much the way his ancestors did.

It is unfair to lay the blame of the lack of development on the Church. The Church is what preserved the intellectual patrimony there was.

The political, economic and social conditions did not favour scientific and intellectual development.


Part of the problem of commenting on the level of development of the Middle Ages is that the period is ridiculously long: over a 1000 years. The traditional periodization of  history as we know emerged during the Enlightenment. Writers were aware that their period was sharply distinct than the period preceding it (i.e. before the Reformation). So they divided history into Ancient, Medieval and "Modern" (to become "Early Modern" in English historiography). There was virtually no professional history at that time (that being a 19th century development) so they wrote about the Middle Ages in a very biased and unscientific manner. And many historical myths that developed in this period will not die: i.e. inquisitions randomly killing people for dissent, crusades to kill all the infidels, etc.  And the Catholic Church is to some degree a victim of this mythical historiagraphy because its history is wrapped up in that period.(It's also another myth to make "Catholic Church" and "Middle Ages" synonymous. Although the Church did have a hand in many things, not everyone and everything was directly run by it. )
I understand what the professor is trying to do, but it needed a bit more nuance. Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages were not high points in Western History, but that's hardly the Church's fault. It's difficult to refute people's whose understanding of history is minimal to begin with.