Christianity and the Origins of the Dark Ages

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the great commentators on this blog, points to a series of articles attacking Christianity at the Butterflies and Wheels blog:

‘Christianity responsible for Dark Ages and lack of reason?

In another article not linked this same author details how while its true science
cannot answer everything, unlike faith, it IS self-correcting AND also uses real
experts, not people prone to “talk” with God, etc. Thus his mockery, but

Christianity as responsible for Fascism and horrific crimes against humanity?’

I know this is quite a bit. But fight it we must.’

As Wakefield has pointed out in another of his comments, there are many who claim that Christianity was responsible for the origins of the Dark Ages, and this point of view clearly needs to be critiqued and attacked. So, let’s analyse Christopher Orlet’s arguments that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages in his article ‘The Barbarians’ Raw Deal’.

Firstly, Orlet is quite correct that many of the barbarian peoples who overran the Roman Empire were Christians. These were the East Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, who had been converted to Arian Christianity by Bishop Ulfilas. Ulfilas was the descendent of Roman citizens who had been captured and taken into slavery by the Goths, and who had translated the Bible into Gothic. Some of the Gothic kings, such as Theodoric the Ostrogoth, were extremely cultured, able rulers. Theodoric’s ruled a Gothic kingdom in Italy with its capital at Ravenna. He had a splendid court, and one of the greatest works of late antique/ early medieval architecture is his basilica at Ravenna. This has a number of fine mosaics on its walls depicting Christ, Our Lady and the saints, and Theodoric and his court, including the leading Roman prelates. However, the Goths and other, East Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals, were Arians who believed that Christ, while divine, was not equal to God the Father, and was more like a creature than an equal person of the deity, because, although the Son of God had existed before the creation of the Universe, and it was through Him that the Universe had been created, nevertheless he had been created by God the Father and so was not eternal. The debate over the nature of Christ’s relationship to God the Father, and His divinity was one of the major doctrinal issues in ancient Roman Christianity, and resulted in bitter controversy and persecution between Catholics and Arians. Other Germanic peoples, such as the Franks in Gaul and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain, were pagans who later converted to Roman Catholicism. It’s also true that many of the barbarian peoples who entered the Roman Empire did so because they wanted to become Roman citizens, and enjoy the benefits of Roman civilisation rather than overthrow it. The great defender of Roman civilisation, Stilicho, was a Goth. After the Fall of Rome, the various barbarian states that succeeded it looked back on ancient Rome as the perfect state, a wealthy, powerful and highly cultured civilisation. They strongly associated Christianity with ‘Romanitas’ – Roman civilisation, and so converted to Christianity in order to participate in the great culture of ancient Rome.

The barbarian invasions were a major cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, but there were also number of others. Rome experienced a series of severe economic and social problems from the third century onwards, and the causes of some of these are unclear. Rome experienced massive inflation in the middle of the third century, which the Roman emperor Diocletian attempted to solve through legislating stipulating the prices for a number of staple commodities, such as bread, clothing and so on. There was also an increase in taxation as the imperial authorities attempted to find the finances to support the Roman state and defend it against barbarian attacks and attempted invasions, which had occurred before these peoples converted to Christianity. Urban life declined, as the aristocrats and wealthy individuals who formed the town councillors and were responsible for maintaining the basic services of the towns, such as building viaducts, sewers, baths and other public amenities, withdrew to their country estates. Other parts of the population, including artisans and professionals, also left the towns for the countryside to the point where some Roman emperors had attempted to maintain supplies of food and other vital commodities by making membership of certain professions, such as baking, hereditary and demanding that they remain in the towns. This legislation, however, had to be repealed because of considerable opposition. It has also been suggested that the Roman population itself had suffered considerable decline, particularly through outbreaks of plague, though this is the subject of considerable debate. Some of the towns in the eastern Roman Empire, for example, seemed to have not suffered any loss of population and were still extremely large, populous cities.

As for the barbarian invasions, Rome had had a policy of settling barbarian tribes within its borders as foederati, imperial allies. These peoples then provided military service as auxiliaries defending Rome against other, invading tribes. A number of military tombstones and monuments from Roman Britain record Germanic soldiers serving in the Roman army. The immediate cause of the Gothic invasion was their revolt against exploitation by Roman merchants. Barbarians had been attacking and raiding the Roman frontier territories for centuries before the invasions of the later Roman Empire. However, the attacks and invasions increased during the fifth century, and there appears to have been a general migration of peoples, which disrupted traditional tribal territories and alliances across Europe. This was partly caused by the migration of the Huns into central Europe from their original homeland in central Asia. The Goths attempted to flee from them, and took refuge in the Roman Empire. According to Roman historians, however, they were then ruthlessly exploited by Roman merchants, who reduced them to complete poverty. In response, the Goths revolted and began a series of campaigns against the Roman state. Other barbarian peoples, such as the Vandals, Franks, Lombards, Alans and Gepids joined them. These peoples attacked both the Romans and the other barbarian peoples as they attempted to establish their own barbarian states within the decaying Roman Empire. Climate change may have been a factor in these migrations. There is evidence that during the fourth century sea levels began to rise, threatening the coastal homelands of some of the Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who lived along the North Sea coast. In addition to attacks from the barbarians from outside the Empire, there were a series of peasant revolts, such as by the Bacaudae in Gaul, against the high levels of taxation levied by the Roman state.

Now while economic collapse, urban decline and barbarian invasion were the major causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, none of them were directly linked to Christianity. While Roman Catholic political theorists state that Christianity provides a basis for politics in providing a transcendental support for friendship and the belief in immortality, as well as other institution, which formed the basis for human society and politics, Christianity itself is not a political system. There were certain institutions the Church Fathers believed were fundamental to human society, such as private property and the duty to provide support to the poor, sick and incapacitated. The medieval church also discussed and passed legislation on a variety of social and economic issues in order to create a moral, Christian society. Nevertheless, apart from insisting on justice and concern for the poor and disadvantaged, Christianity did not produce a specific political programme. The early Church shared many of the cultural views of Roman society as a whole, and while the Church viewed itself as comprising a community beyond the limits of Roman world, its members in the Roman Empire also saw themselves as Roman citizens. Furthermore, the barbarians, who invaded the Roman Empire had a strongly warlike, military culture in which warfare and combat played a major role. As for the greed of the Roman merchants who caused the Goths to rebel by exploiting them, this was simply the product of fallen human nature. Finally, the Romans themselves had problems finding solutions to the economic and social problems affecting the state, regardless of their religious beliefs. So Christianity cannot be considered a cause of Rome’s decline and collapse.

Now let’s deal with some of the other points Orlet makes in his essay. Regarding Tertullian’s attack on Platonic philosophy, Tertullian himself was not attacking philosophy itself. Indeed, he was profoundly influenced by Stoicism. He was critical of Greek philosophy because of the way it had been used to form the basis of heresies such as Gnosticism, which attacked and rejected Biblical Christianity through philosophical speculation. The Gnostics considered that matter and the world was created by an evil god, and that humanity was ruled by a series of archons that attempted to keep it separate from its true home with the good God in heaven. The origins of Gnosticism are the subject of considerable debate. There were different Gnostic schools and even non-Christian, pagan Gnostic sects. However, much of Gnosticism was based in Platonic philosophy, and so Tertullian was attacking Platonism as the basis of Gnosticism, rather than philosophy as a whole.

Now let’s discuss the accusation that Christianity attacked ancient philosophy and culture, and so destroyed ancient science and learning. Now it’s true that ancient philosophers, such as Galen and Pliny, did consider Christianity to be a religion of the poor and uneducated, and much of the opposition to Christianity came from pagan philosophers such as Porphyry and Hierocles, a Roman philosopher who, after writing various books attacking Christianity, also used physical force and persecution. The early Church was initially critical of the Roman curriculum because of its basis in ancient paganism. This situation altered, however. The fourth century Church Father, Basil of Caesarea, defended pagan learning in his work Ad Iuvenes – ‘To Young People’, and many of the other Church Fathers were highly educated. Indeed, the sermons of some of the greatest of the ancient ecclesiastical writers included references to the great writers of antiquity. They maintained this highly educated style of writing not just in their sermons addressed to leading Roman citizens, such as the senators, officials, aristocrats, governors and members of the imperial family, but also to the ordinary people attending their churches. Many of the Church Fathers also wrote treatises, which attempted to reconcile the Church’s teachings with Graeco-Roman scientific knowledge. These writers included Lactantius in the fourth century, while a recent edition of the works of Epiphanius notes that his writing contain of wealth of Graeco-Roman scientific knowledge and ideas. Roman pagans considered Christianity to be a philosophical school. However, while pagan philosophy tended to be restricted to members of the aristocracy, who had the leisure time to study it and the wealth to afford the fees charged by pagan philosophers for attendance at their lectures, in Christianity an understanding of the Gospel was open to anyone who came to Church on Sunday to hear the bishop expounding it from the Bible.

Now Orlet seems to assume that Greek philosophy was a form of ancient science, and appears to view the brutal murder of the female philosopher, Hypatia, as a Christian attack on ancient science and learning. Now this was very much the view of the late Carl Sagan, who seems to have taken it from Bertrand Russell. It is not shared by contemporary historians and philosophers. The dominant philosophical school in the later Roman Empire, and one, which was to influence Christian learning in the Middle Ages after the Fall of Rome, was Neo-Platonism. This combined Aristotelian science with Platonic metaphysics. It has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’, as its goal was to gain mystical union with God or ‘the One’, or ‘the Good’, through a system of intellectual ascent through the emanations produced by ‘the One’, Mind, and Spirit. The great Neoplatonic texts, such as the Enneads of Plotinus, are essentially religious in their discussion of the nature of morality and the One. While the murder of Hypatia was a truly horrific incident, it does not seem to have been part of a general attack on ancient culture or philosophy. She did not, for example, object to the closure by Christians of the pagan temples. Her attack by a mob, caused by the preaching of Cyril of Alexandria appears to have been part of a political rivalry between the bishop and the local Roman governor, with whom Hypatia appears to have sided. Cyril appears to have condemned the attack afterwards and done penance for it.

Sagan and Russell claimed that Hypatia’s murder marked the end of philosophy and science in Alexandria. It didn’t. It carried on in the city for at least two centuries afterwards. Indeed, it was the Christian, Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponous in the seventh century who contributed to the later collapse of Aristotelian philosophy and the triumph of the Copernican system by arguing that the heavens were not pure and unchanging, but were composed of the same matter as terrestrial objects. As for Justinian’s closure of the philosophical schools in 523, historians have suggested that this did not occur, and that Justinian merely redirected the funds the imperial government traditionally granted to it to the war effort to reconquer the lost territories. Certainly Graeco-Roman culture was very widespread in Byzantium, both amongst lay aristocrats and the Church, and there was certainly a university in Constantinople in the 12th century with a curriculum very much like that of the western universities. As for Neoplatonism, this was partly adopted into Christian theology, where it formed the basis of the mystical speculation of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and the scientific knowledge of the early medieval world before the discovery of the original Aristotelian and Platonic texts in the 12th and 15th centuries.

Now, in a previous essay discussing science and education in the Roman world, I pointed out that pagan, Roman authors had lamented in the early Empire that original scientific research had declined. While Roman writers such as Orbilian had established a curriculum, there was no system of state schools and indeed no Roman school building has yet been found. The usual system was for a group of parents to band together and hire a tutor to teach their children, with the schoolroom quite often being a stall in the market partitioned by screens from the rest of the area.

Thus, while Christianity attacked paganism, it did not universally reject Greek philosophy and indeed adopted and preserve much of it in the later Roman Empire, and preserved as the Empire was attacked and collapsed. Furthermore, while Rome fell due to the invasions of the barbarians, some of whom were certainly Christian while others, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons, later converted, this was itself part of a number of severe economic, social and political crises that were not produced through Christianity but the part of the general conditions of the late ancient world. Thus, Christianity did not cause Rome to fall, and indeed preserved much of Roman culture and passed it on to the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded it.

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42 Responses to “Christianity and the Origins of the Dark Ages”

  1. Pages tagged "wordpress" Says:

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  2. Ask the leadership coach » Christianity and the Origins of the Dark Ages « Beastrabban’s Weblog Says:

    […] Cherie posted a noteworthy aricle today onHere’s a small snippetAs Wakefield has pointed out in another of his comments, there are many who claim that Christianity was responsible for the origins of the Dark Ages, and this point of view clearly needs to be critiqued and attacked. … […]

  3. Ilíon Says:

    Shoot! Some of the more prominent Greek philosophers going back 500 years BC attacked paganism. They — and we — objected to the irrationality and immorality of paganism.

  4. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Of course one of the reasons I had asked this was the renewed interest from some sectors in attacking men like Rodney Stark, accusing him (and by default, presumably all who defend classic Christianity) of a “Dark Ages Revisionism” by which some are allegedly “whitewashing” the crimes of the church from that era. Etc.

    Stark argues this is far from the case, and was actually (in addition to BRs comments) a time of great innovation.

  5. Feyd Says:

    Great to see you here again Ilion!

  6. Feyd Says:

    Good stuff Beast. Yeah while some of the Barbarians who took over Rome Were Christian, their conversion cant meaningfully said to have been completed until after they conquered the City. Another great example of Conquering people taking up the religion of their defeated foes was the conversion of the Vikings. In the early middle ages missionaries from Britain were allowed to roam Viking lands precisely because they were seen as representing a conquered people – not that the Vikings fully took over Britain of course but they were largely able to raid her shores at will. Again the power of God’s word prevailed and the Vikings gave up their raiding ways. What an amazing God we serve to be able to calm such a formidable warrior people with just a few wandering and peaceful preachers!

  7. Feyd Says:

    Another point on Christians attacking pagans , in Owen Chadwick’s History of Christianity he talks about how Christians often went to great lengths to peacefully assimilate pagans by adopting as much of their familiar ways as they could – like worshiping in the same holy places and holding festivals on the same dates. If only atheists could have been so gentle and considerate back in the mid 20th century when they had the power to inflict their bizarre belief system on others!

    Its true in some cases Christians had to use force. Such as when pagans from eastern Europe kept raiding Charlemagne’s lands even after being defeated in battle, they were eventually forcibly converted — although its notable this was against the advice of Charlemagne’s religious advisor Einhard .

    Granted pagans and secular troops rarely seem capable of opposing Christian warriors. Even in recent history it wasn’t until Stalin requested the aid of the church that his armys began to reverse the course of WWII in Russia. Yet for Christians force is usually a last resort , if its resorted to at all!

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Ilion – you’re absolutely right about how some of the great Greek philosophers attacked the irrationalism and immorality of the pagan religions as early as the 5th century BC. The early Christian Fathers greatly respected and venerated the philosophers Socrates and Heraclitus because they appeared to preach a form of monotheism and criticised traditional polytheism.

    Hi Wakefield – thanks for the comment about Rodney Stark and the criticisms of him by atheists. There are a number of things that could be said about this. Firstly, as you you point out, Stark is certainly not the only person who views the ‘Dark Ages’ as a time of innovation. The French historian, Jean Gimpel, makes the same point in his book The Medieval Machine . A few months ago, the British historian Roger Bartlett presented a very interesting programme on science and the supernatural in the Middle Ages on which of the BBC’s cable channels – either BBC 3 or BBC 4. Again, he pointed out that the Middle Ages was also a time of considerable scientific research and interest, and that while it viewed certain events as having a supernatural dimension, the people were also well aware of the natural causes behind them. For example, during the Crusades an eclipse of the moon occurred just before a battle. One of the Crusades’ chroniclers stated that he and the other Christian knights considered this to be a good sign, indicating that they would be victorious over the Muslims. However, the historian was also very well aware that eclipses were natural in origin, and were caused by the shadow of the earth covering the moon once every 18 years or so. Nevertheless, the medieval Platonic worldview allowed natural events to be seen also as pointing to deeper, spiritual realities, and so it was considered that there was nothing contradictory in the two views of such an event, as both a natural phenomenon and a supernatural sign.

    As for changes in the view of the Dark Ages, historians regularly change, challenge and attempt to reassess the views of people, events and epochs in history. This is part of the normal practise of history, regardless of the particular religious or political views of the historians involved. Sometimes historians have changed their opinions because of the discovery of new information, but more often it’s because historians’ perspectives have changed, or a new interpretation of the events has been put forward. However, regarding the supposed suppression of science by the Church in the Middle Ages, there are very, very few historians who would actually support this view. It’s essentially the product of 19th century anticlerical writers, which has somehow entered the popular conception of the Middle Ages, rather than an accurate view of the medieval attitude towards science and reason.

    Historians are also using the term ‘Dark Ages’ rather less to describe the early Middle Ages, possibly because as more research is done on this period, they appear much less dark. The centuries immediately after the Fall of Rome – the 5th to 7th centuries – are described by historians and archaeologists as sub- or post-Roman, and there’s an extensive debate on the survival of Roman civilisation, or certain elements of it, after the Fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions. For example, the study of the development of towns in Anglo-Saxon England was revolutionised a few years ago by the discovery of the remains of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon town that later became Southampton. In general, towns declined after the Fall of the Roman Empire, and in early Anglo-Saxon England many of the old Roman urban centres were abandoned. Many of them were only re-occupied a few centuries later in the Anglo-Saxon period. The 7th century town of Southampton, however, was regularly laid out, demonstrating the existence of a central authority that could deliberately establish it as a planned settlement, and appeared to have established trading links to the Continent. Thus, although the revival of towns, both in Britain and the rest of western Europe really only occurred in the 12th century, nevertheless it appears that towns were being deliberately founded and organised trade established much earlier in the early Middle Ages than was previously considered. It’s research and discoveries like this, which has led to scholars referring to the period as ‘early medieval’ rather than ‘Dark Age’.

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Feyd, thanks for the reply and comments. Regarding the adoption of certain pagan sites and practices by Christianity in order to make the passage from paganism easier amongst those peoples who had converted, about a year or so ago I went to a lecture at Uni given by an archaeologist whose area of research was religious syncretism. He’d excavated a number of sites in Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia. According to him, while destruction of pagan temples and sites did occur, it was mostly in the towns, while in the countryside the pagan sites were generally respected and taken over for Christian use. He mentioned a pagan site in Ethiopia that had become a Christian shrine after the country’s conversion in the 4th century, and showed the interior of a Coptic church in Egypt, which featured a number of pillars from an ancient Egyptian temple or monument to the Pharoahs.

    Thanks for letting me know that the Vikings were converted to Christianity, because they gave Christian missionaries the liberty to travel amongst them and preach as members of the subject peoples. That’s really interesting, and I really wasn’t aware of that. As for Charlemagne’s forced conversion of the Saxons, I suspect that, however, horrific it appears to contemporary people, it was done because it appeared to be the only or the best method of subduing them and ending the continued raiding and attempted invasions by them of Frankish territory.

  10. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Thanks, BR.

    Which reminds me, while on this topic:

    One that is somewhat tangential to this since I referenced some of your stuff from earlier, I thought you might enjoy my own take on the Golden Compass.

    I had forgotten you had a somewhat different angle on this movie but the topics touch, since part of Pullman’s push was not only a reversal of morals (which I mostly mentioned), but as you pointed out his bad history and his faux outrage (not just moral outrage, but just RAGE) at Christianity for allegedly suppressing science and wonder and imagination and discovery, etc.

    As the authors and reviewers I quoted noted (both secular as well as religious to some degrees) there is more than meets the idea in TGC, and why it ultimately must fail in its prime directive to reverse the moral agency of the universe.

  11. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for your comment and the link to your review of the Golden Compass, Wakefield – it was really interesting.

  12. Biscuitnapper Says:

    I hope you don’t mind, but I was wondering if you could provide some supporting quotes from texts for some of the points you’ve made, such as: ‘Urban life declined, as the aristocrats and wealthy individuals who formed the town councillors and were responsible for maintaining the basic services of the towns, such as building viaducts, sewers, baths and other public amenities, withdrew to their country estates.’

    I was also wondering about the historical account of Hypatia that you alluded to, and how it differs from the ‘mythical’ as proposed by Sagan and Russell. I’m mostly asking because I often find myself taking the part of the apologist, and I’d like to know I am being backed up by objective historians rather than out and out revisionists!

  13. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Biscuitnapper – thanks for the comments and the queries.

    Regarding the request for quotations to support some of the points I’ve made in the above post, such as the decline in urban life in the later Roman Empire as the wealthy moved away from the towns onto their rural estates, the Oxford historians R.H.C. Davis discusses this in his book, A History of Medieval Europe – from Constantine the Great to Saint Louis (2nd edition, London, Longman 1988). Davis discusses the long economic decline of the Roman Empire and the consequent devaluation of the imperial coinage, stating:

    ‘As a result the only prudent course for a rich man was to invest his money in land. For unlike money, land retained its value. The owner of a great estate could live in luxury in his villa, secure from the worst evils of monetary inflation. He had workshops in which his slaves could make the necessary agricultural implements, and he could, if necessary, pay his taxes and buy his luxuries with goods in kind.

    ‘This drift of the wealthy from the towns to the country had serious consequences for the civilisation of the Empire. For Roman policy had always been to persuade the barbarian peoples whom they conquered to live in towns, since to them town-life was civilisation. But now, in the third century, they were unable to make town-life attractive. When the wealthy retired to their villas, the tradesmen in the towns lost their custom and were anxious to depart in their turn. Thus it happened that, in the third century, many Roman towns actually shrunk in area (Bordeaux from 175 to 56 acres adn Autun from 500 to 25. The parts that were no longer inhabited fell into ruins.’ (p. 26).

  14. Biscuitnapper Says:

    Cheers! I’m a science student so I don’t really have the time to read indepth into intriguing periods of history. I would like to add though, that the myth of the Dark Ages is an interesting one because, when you really think about it, there are so many contradictions within the assumptions about the age (both with historical evidence and between the default ‘ideas’ concerning the Dark Ages) that one should feel pushed to do more research (as I am currently trying to do with African history – that isn’t Egyptian!).

  15. Beastrabban Says:

    Similarly, on page 27 of his book, Davis discusses the way the later Roman Emperors attempted to solve the problem of the shortage of necessary tradesmen and artisans by establishing the collegium system in which membership of those professions, such as merchants in corn and oil, bakers and pork butchers became hereditary, and imperial legislation prevented the merchants, tradesmen and artisans enrolled in those guilds from leaving them. The system also extended to the city officials who provided much of the funding for the ordinary functioning of their communities from their finances:

    ‘The worst fate of all was to be enrolled among the curiales ; for the curiales had to serve as town-councillors and were held responsible for the provisioning of the town and for the payment of the full quota of taxes from its dependent territory, no matter whether any lands had fallen out of cultivation or not.’ (p. 27).

    Sagan’s view of the murder of Hypatia can be found in his book Cosmos , which accompanied his epic TV series. The alternative view, that it was the result of a power struggle between Cyril of Alexandria and the local Roman governor, can be found in histories of philosophy such as The Dream of Reason .

  16. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Biscuitnapper, I’m glad you found the above quotation useful. Yeah, the concept of the ‘Dark Ages’ has been challenged by historians and archaeologists over the past few decades as more research has been done on it. I think, however, that the popular conception of the ‘Dark Ages’ has been produced by the historical views of previous centuries, such as the Victorians, which viewed the period after the Fall of Rome as one of complete barbarism in contrast to the great achievements of classical civilisation.

    As for the history of the Dark Ages and the development of science during the Middle Ages, there are some very good books around. Jean Galpin’s The Medieval Machine is one, along with A.C. Crombie’s Science in the Middle Ages: Augustine to Galileo , and I’m probably going to have to cover this area in much more depth. There have also been a number of books published recently challenging the idea of a war between science and religion, such as John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1991). Brooke’s attitude is that relationship between science and religion is complexand subtle, and cannot be viewed as either one of conflict or harmony. The British Anglican priest and Quantum physicist John Polkinghorne also discusses it in his book, Science and Religion .

    I was interested in what you had to say about trying to research African history that wasn’t about ancient Egypt. That sounds fascinating, though I can appreciate that much of African history is indeed centred around the civilisation of the Nile. I don’t know if you’d find Colin McEvedy’s The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1980) useful. It’s a series of maps illustrating the history and prehistory of Africa from the emergence of the first hominids on the continent to the emergence of the great African civilisations like Ghana and Mali, the travels of Ibn Battuta and the Arab conquests, European colonisation and the emergence of the independent African states in the later half of the 20th century. I found Edward Ullendorff’s The Ethiopians: An Introduction to the Country and People (London, OUP 1973), for its discussion of Ethiopian history and traditional culture. I’ve also got the impression that there’s a lot of work going on at the moment on Timbuktou, and the scientific and historical documents preserved there which contain a wealth of material from when this was one of the major centres of African civilisation in the Songhai and Mali empires. This was the subject of documentary on BBC 4 a few months ago. Hopefully it might be repeated sometime, if not on the Beeb, then perhaps on one of the other channels.

  17. Ilíon Says:

    Biscuitnapper:Cheers! I’m a science student so I don’t really have the time to read indepth into intriguing periods of history.

    We all find the time to do precisely what we want to do.

  18. Biscuitnapper Says:

    Then clearly I’m just being lazy and as such am doubly grateful for beastrabban’s charity!

  19. Ilíon Says:

    Did I say anything about you being lazy? You have the priorities you have. I simply want you to see the pointlessness (and sometime foolishness) of blaming a supposed lack of time for the way you have chosen to organize and live your life.

  20. Biscuitnapper Says:

    I didn’t take anything amiss in what you said, and appreciated you pointing the pointlessness of an unthinkingly made comment (as most tend to be…). My comment was made in agreement with yours. I think I used the word lazy because it *is* a laziness of a sort, seeing as, like you said, people find time for what they want to do and offhand comments about ‘lack of time’ reveals ones priorities.

  21. Ilíon Says:

    It’s a particular burr under my saddle. So many persons in my generation (I was born in 1957) spend spend far more time telling everyone how “busy” they are then ever actually doing/accomplishing anything. And their “business” is almost always nothing more than disorganization which they refuse to correct.

    Mind you, my bitch with them is not that they are disorganized, nor that they accomplish little to nothing; it’s the self-deception to which I object, and the attempt to gey buy-in from others into that self-deception.

  22. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    ***** quietly and carefully closes laptop cover, then looks out of the window and whistles softly *****

  23. Ilíon Says:

    Once again, I’m not criticising *anyone* for “wasting” his time — that criticism must start with myself.

    What I am criticising is the far-too-common self-deception of proclaiming one’s being too busy to do this or that thing of which one might desire the result but not so much that one is willing to put in the effort to attain it.

  24. Biscuitnapper Says:

    A bit late, but I found this article that I thought would also interest you: Whilst I do understand and am sympathise with the ‘New Atheist’ movement regaining it’s heroes, it does make websearches rather more frustrating trying to weed out polemic from objective (or as objective as it could be) history.

  25. Ilíon Says:

    Here is some more about Hypatia and the mythology about her — “Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again

  26. Ilíon Says:

    Something about the mythology — Hypatia – Martyr for Science and Reason

    An amusing “screenplay” about the mythological warfare-between-reason-and-faith — Science and Religion – The Movie

  27. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments and the links, Biscuitnapper and Ilion – they’re really interesting and, I believe, accurate. I notice that one of the pages you’ve linked to on the myth of Hypatia as a martyr for science, Ilion, comes from the Venerable Bede’s excellent Quodlibeta blog. Bede’s a scholar of the history of science, with a Ph.D. in medieval science and its relationship to religion, so he really does know his material, which is solid and accurate.

    I also noticed that the piece on Maria Dzielska’s book on Hypatia you linked to, Biscuitnapper, mentioned John Toland as one of the sources for the idea that Hypatia was martyred because of her commitment to science. The article states that he was a Protestant. In fact, Toland was a Deist, rather than an orthodox Protestant, who believed that Christ had been a preacher of a rational religion of nature, which had been corrupted and distorted after His disciples had added the miracle stories.
    So, the origin of the belief that Hypatia was martyred because she was a scientist, rather than a victim of a vicious power struggle between St. Cyril and Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, is based on 18th century rationalism and religious scepticism, rather than Protestantism.

    These are really useful, interesting links and provide the real historical facts to correct the legend being promoted by Agora and related stories. I’m going to look out for the Agora movie, and if there’s any more publicity about it, I’ll include these links in an article specifically criticising the mythology of Hypatia’s martyrdom.

  28. Lord Kitchener Says:

    Hi Beastrabban

    My Hypatia ‘article’ is really just a promo for Tim O’ Neil’s blog in which he gives the legend a good kicking. I was going to do an article based on Maria Dzielska’s book in the run up to Agora but Tim has done a better job than I could.

  29. Lord Kitchener Says:

    Oh dear

    I have read Christopher Orlet’s article and it was hard to keep a straight face reading it. Orlet’s position is actually more extreme than even Gibbon and Charles Freeman.

    All I can say is that if it was the intention of Christians to destroy all pagan knowledge and learning then they did a pretty poor job of it.

    For the avoidance of doubt, the reason the Christian west fell behind so much was that the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarian invaders and all knowledge of the ancient Greek language was lost. Christianity is seen as the most important framework within which late-antique culture survived.

    The Empire itself fell because of the long term problems of inflation, a declining population and a shrinking tax base, along with a widening gap between rich and poor in the West and a spiralling trend towards ruralisation of the population; eventually this meant the Western Empire was unable to field strong armies and collapsed to external pressure. This led to a movement from a tax-based military system to a land-sustained one, the collapse of systems of administration, the decline of long-distance commerce and the localisation of production. People had better things to worry about (i.e survival) than natural philosophy.

  30. Ilíon Says:

    Lord Litchener,
    As you sure about that “widening gap between rich and poor in the West” bit? Are you sure it’s not really that you, along with all of us, have been trained by the leftists to think in those terms?

    When, at any time after Rome became more than just one more petty Italian city-state, was there not a *huge* gap between rich and poor?

    When does it even mean to be “rich” when one’s entire society is becoming increasingly poor?

    Also, until quite recently, cities were always net population drains. Not only did each city require a rural hinterland (with a much greater population than the city itself) to supply it food, but also each city required a constant influx of rural folk to sustain its population over time.

    It seems to me that the collapse of the cities is directly tied to the collapse of the rural populations.

  31. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for your remarks on your article Hypatia, Lord Kitchener. Tim O’Neil’s done a really excellent job there. I’ve got a feeling that the awesome Jerome at Jerome23’s Weblog has also highly recommended his work in that regard.

    Hi Ilion – of course you’re absolutely right in that in the ancient world and Middle Ages there was a massive gap between rich and poor, and that cities generally have a higher mortality than the countryside. I remember watching a BBC programme on ancient Rome a few years ago that stated that Rome itself had a very high mortality rate as it’s basically located in a malaria swamp. As a result, Rome was indeed dependent on immigrants from the countryside, and undoubtedly the rest of the Roman world, to maintain its population.

    However, the gap between rich and poor seems to have increased massively during the Empire, as the aristocracy aquired vast estates across the Empire, and supplanted the old Roman citizens of more modest incomes as the basis of political power in the Roman state. Now as I understand, the problem for the Roman administrative system came from the aristocracy using their vast wealth to support their own interests in the countryside, and withdrawing from their financial obligations to the state, such as funding local services and institutions. As a result, this financial burden was passed on to the lower income groups, with the result that taxation actually increased, even as the amount actually reaching the Roman central treasury declined. Now it might be that this view is the product of left-wing ideology, rather than more objective scholarship, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s generally held to be valid by scholars of ancient Rome regardless of their individual political beliefs.

  32. Ilíon Says:

    But that [the supplanting of the old Roman citizens of more modest incomes as the basis of political power in the Roman state] happened centuries before the collapse of the empire; it happened even before the collapse of the Republic into an Empire.

  33. Beastrabban Says:

    Yeah, you’re right there, Ilion – as I recall, it occurred after the Carthaginian War. However, I got the impression that desptie the vast inequalities of wealth in ancient Rome, the poor certainly did get poorer, and that the extremely wealthy aristocracy began diverting funds that should have gone to the treasury to their own uses, thus increasing the tax burden on those lower down the social scale.

  34. Ilíon Says:

    The powerful have always done that; as soon as a State exists, those who control the State begin to direct, toward their own personal gain, the power of the State to compel its subjects.

    How quickly the powerful cause the State itself to collapse depends upon many factors.

  35. Beastrabban Says:

    Not all of those involved in government do so for personal gain, but you’re right in that the temptation is always there. As for the different factors affecting the speed in which the powerful cause the collapse of states, Yeah, there certainly are a number of causes there, though sometimes it’s simply a case of events beyond their control.

  36. Ilíon Says:

    Did I say, or even imply, “all?”

  37. Ilíon Says:

    But, at the same time, given the reality of human nature, those who claim (and the more loudly they claim) to have no personal interest in the matter tend to be the most dangerous.

  38. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    “We have no ‘dog’ in this fight” is the old saying, Ilion.

    And then they often DO go about itching for a fight. Or to settle some ideological score…


  39. Ilíon Says:

    Yes, there is that.

    But I was specifically referring back to the sub-thread following from my statement about “the powerful” and BR’s objection.

  40. Beastrabban Says:

    You didn’t say ‘all’ in your post about the powerful and their role in the collapse of states. You just made a general observation about them, as did I , when I said that not all of the rich were concerned to destroy the state to satisfy their own aims or desires.

  41. Ilíon Says:

    I also didn’t say that the powerful set out intentionally to destroy the state.

  42. Jeo Badir Says:

    I apprecciate your analysis and conclusion, contradicting Sagan and B. Russell claims that Hypatia’s murder marked the end of philosophy and science in Alexandria. As an alexandrian supporter, I hope all interested in philosophy and progress of scientific thought, read and understand your statement, which is supported by most experts in the field that, “Indeed, it was the Christian, Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponous in the seventh century who contributed to the later collapse of Aristotelian philosophy and the triumph of the Copernican system by arguing that the heavens were not pure and unchanging, but were composed of the same matter as terrestrial objects.”
    Alexandrine medicine, science and philosophy advanced the cause of applied science and mathematics, while the responsibility of the dark ages was not caused by Christianity, but by Roman theocratic Papacy.

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