A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Dark Ages Weren't So Dark After All

That's what Nancy Brown argues in her book, The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages. She states in a recent interview:

Nothing in my many years of reading about the Middle Ages had led me to suspect that the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. 
Nor was his science just a sidelight. According to a chronicler who knew him, he rose from humble beginnings to the highest office in the Christian Church "on account of his scientific knowledge." 
To my mind, scientific knowledge and medieval Christianity had nothing in common. I was wrong. 
Like a modern scientist, Gerbert questioned authority. He experimented. To learn which of two rules best calculated the area of an equilateral triangle, he cut out square inches of parchment and measured the triangle with them. To learn why organ pipes do not behave acoustically like strings, he built models and devised an equation. (A modern physicist who checked his result calls it ingenious, if labor-intensive.)
Gerbert made sighting tubes to observe the stars and constructed globes on which their positions were recorded relative to lines of celestial longitude and latitude. He (or more likely his best student) wrote a book on the astrolabe, an instrument for telling time and making measurements by the sun or stars. You could even use it to calculate the circumference of the earth, which Gerbert and his peers knew very well was not flat like a disc but round as an apple.

Science was of such importance, I was surprised to learn, that these scholars were willing to overlook all their religious and political differences. Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, Arab or French, Saxon or Greek, they sat down together to translate books, to make scientific instruments, and to further their understanding of mathematics, astronomy, and logic. Many of these scholars were churchmen, and some became Gerbert's lifelong friends. 
The popular picture of the Dark Ages is wrong. The earth wasn't flat. People weren't terrified that the world would end at midnight on December 31, 999. Christians did not believe Muslims and Jews were the enemy. The Church wasn't anti-science.
In the Dark Ages, contrary to what most people think, science was central to the lives of monks, kings, emperors, and even popes. It was the mark of true nobility and the highest form of worship of God.
When I teach my introductory courses in theology and Christian ethics, I devote some time to the arrogance of the contemporary world in labeling periods throughout history in order to make the modern era the pinnacle of human civilization. Think of what assumptions contemporary human beings must have about themselves and their civilization to refer to the 11th through the 15th centuries as "the Middle Ages." And how highly our great-great-grandmothers and great-great-grandfathers must have thought about their abilities see themselves as living in the Age of Enlightenment. And what kind of hubris does the current generation in the West reveal in referring to our time as postmodern, as if we have moved even beyond the Enlightened modern world! (Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the human inclination to name our history so that the past is focused singularly on us is idolatrous.) So, it stands to reason, therefore, that we who are so blessed to live in the most progressive era in history have the intellectual resources to refer to the period in Europe between the fifth and eleventh centuries as "the Dark Ages," an ignorant time with very little learning and a backward time in ways and practices.

Fortunately, most historians today exercise a little more humility referring to this period of time as the Early Middle Ages (but notice we haven't expunged the notion of the "Middle Ages"). When the Dark Ages are referenced it is usually refers more to how little we know about that time. Nevertheless, there is still this unspoken consensus that the Dark Ages was mainly a time of ignorance and silly superstitions. Nancy Brown helps dispel us of our ignorance of this time and takes a poke at our Enlightened postmodern hubris as well.


Robert Cornwall said...

Of course, the terms have context. And both refer to the time between the end of the Classical Age in the West and the beginnings of the Modern World with the Renaissance/Reformation.

Dark Ages weren't as Dark as we suppose, but in the minds of those who say the close of the Classical Age a disaster for the West, maybe it was a bit dark!

Lauren said...

Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the heads up.

I always like it when we find out that the past wasn't as simplistic or naive as we often make it out to be.

People often knew more then about some things than we know now. How easily knowledge is lost! I keep wondering what life would be like today had we not lost the library of Alexandria. Imagine.

Anyway, thanks again for the post.

Bruce said...

Excellent post that reminds us of our simplistic ways of thinking. This could be an example of how the differing religions could get along without all the hatred.