Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A World Lit Only By Misconceptions 3: The Dark Ages

It's taken me a while to get around to this, because every time I think of sitting down to write this, I open this horrific book and it makes me die a little inside.

But for YOU, dear readers, for you alone, I will wade into this cesspool. Enjoy.

The Dark Ages

In that part of that book of Manchester's, before which little (but the prologue) can be read, there is a phrase that reads "still widely known as the Dark Ages" -- here perpetuates an old lie.

Here is the full passage, for your perusal:

The densest of the medieval centuries -- the six hundred years between, roughly, A.D. 400 and A.D. 1000 -- are still widely known as the Dark Ages. Modern historians have abandoned that phrase, one of them writes, "because of the unacceptable value judgment it implies." Yet there are no survivors to be offended. Nor is the term necessarily pejorative. Very little is clear about that dim era. Intellectual life had vanished from Europe.

The words that Vaulting is mumbling as I read this passage aloud mirror not only my own, but probably yours as well, dear readers. But just to be sure, my thoughts rhyme with "ducking bass pole".

For those of you who may not understand why the phrase "Dark Ages" is no longer used, it is not for fear of offending the dead, nor even for fear of offending those living who study them. Instead the term is no longer used because it implies the (at best grossly simplistic and at worst off-base and categorically untrue) statement that intellectual life had vanished from Europe -- the statement that 19th-century Classicists liked to make to justify their absurd opinions about the Romans and (even moreso) about themselves.

What it is, is about literacy, and about using our own society to judge others. Like social darwinism, this line of thought suggests that today's western society is the pinnacle of human achievement, and because this is the pinnacle, everything which came before must be somehow lesser. It wasn't that our society was better because it was more like that of the Romans -- despite what those who touted the nationalistic rise of the so-called British Empire would have had you believe a century or two ago; rather, Classical society was better because it was more like ours. We teach today using the Socratic method, literacy rates are high (though the more scholarship that is done on medieval societies the more literate they seem -- see the third article down by Dr. David Howlett for an older example), and education is a sign of membership in the upper classes.

Just take the phrase "the uneducated masses" -- something which Manchester can't claim to be a member of, and so can't use as an excuse.

Calling them the "Dark Ages" is, as some useful scholar has pointed out, an "unacceptable value judgment"* -- one that judges literate society as superior to illiterate. If you want something great to read, go pick up a copy of Michael T. Clanchy's book "From Memory to Written Record 1066-1307" and flip to the section entitled "Being Prejudiced In Favour Of Literacy". In it he writes that "Literacy has become the shibboleth of modern societies", a phrase which I mention primarily because it is one I very much enjoy.

Contrary to what Mr. Manchester thinks, the reason a value judgement is unacceptable is not because it will offend. No-one is sitting around saying "well, I'm a medievalist, and I take offense at your statement that everyone in the Middle Ages was illiterate." What we are saying is twofold:

First, it's not true -- there were dozens of cultures whose histories weave all throughout that 600 year period, who produced beautiful works of poetry and literature and prose -- Hell's bells, they were translating Genesis into Old English hundreds of years before Luther was a twinkle in his mother's eye -- and into Old Saxon before that!

Second, even if it were true, to suggest that all went "dark" -- and to carry with it all the concomitant metaphors it implies -- for six hundred years because of a societal change is to trumpet our own achievements without ever looking at someone else's. If our society is the pinnacle, then we've nothing left to learn from the past and we as historians should close up shop and move on to other, more "useful," professions.

The problem with calling the Middle Ages the "Dark Ages" is that it marginalizes and minimizes the impact of hundreds of years of thought, of art, and of society. The problem with calling the Middle Ages the "Dark Ages" is that it perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes that encourage people to dismiss cultural differences as inferiorities -- something western society has been doing for centuries, and not just to the dead. The problem with calling the Middle Ages the "Dark Ages" is that it's bad practice, it's poor scholarship, and it's unbecoming of any historian who would dare to call him- or herself such in public.

And so calling them the "Dark Ages" perpetuates the old lie: that We are the best, and that They will always be less than We are.

*And just in case you were wondering, no, I have no idea who said it, because Manchester didn't even bother to cite it. Not a single footnote in the whole book!


Vaulting said...

We might as well call the 1980s The Dark Ages - after all, there wasn't any internet!

tenthmedieval said...

But the disco lights prevented true darkness falling. Ever. That may not be how you remember it—actually, you may not remember that much of it I suppose, if any—and it's not how I remember it but it's how documentaries and papers will make it look to historians.

(Validation word: fempect. Possibly a particularly aggressive Joan Collins shoulder-pad?)

Phil Feller said...

There is also an internal contradiction in the last two sentences of the passage that you quote. Manchester writes, "Very little is clear about that dim era. Intellectual life had vanished from Europe." Well, if very little was known about that era, how do we know that intellectual life had vanished? Oh, that's right, unless it survives in extant work that Manchester would know about without doing research it isn't intellectual.

Josef said...

graduate student in public policy here. no background in history whatsoever. liberal.

read AWLOBF and wanted to see what others thoguht about it. reviews on amazon were split between low and high, with the low reviews a combo of offended religious folks and people claiming lazy/inaccurate scholarship. I'm interested in the latter, trying to find out what exactly of what I read was wrong, so I like the idea of your series (hopefully you've continued it, since I'm only up to this one (# 3)).

However, I found your discussion regarding literacy bias to be jaw-dropping. Maybe I am just a biased, blinkered individual, but to argue that one should not find literacy to be objectively better than illiteracy strikes me as really, really silly. I am not saying that everything about the Greeks, the Romans, or modern culture is fantastic and the epitome of human development, but reading and writing and recording are clear, obvious positives, no?

isocratesgrey said...

Actually there are many defenses of oral culture versus written culture, both from a first nations perspective and also from a Greek perspective. I am a huge fan of literacy, but you have to remember that writing is not the only way of passing knowledge or wisdom.

From Phaedrus:
And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.