So as a follow-up to the last Dark Ages post, I’ll note that in addition to people claiming the Dark Ages didn’t exist at all, there are (allegedly) also people who claim that the Dark Ages coincides pretty much exactly to the ascension of the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great in 306 AD ongoing until the Renaissance began sometime around the early 16th century. I don’t have any contact with these people, but I know they exist, because I see dumb charts like this one:
In order to get that chart onto this blog, I first had to download it onto my computer, and now my hard drive won’t speak to me.
I mentioned in the last blog post that using the height of Greco-Roman civilization as your metric for whether or not an era counts as a “Dark Age” is disingenuous, because almost all history before and after qualifies under that metric. This graph posits that history naturally slopes upward to more scientific advancement over time, so the Dark Age (which is apparently singularly the fault of Christianity) was notable because it was a significant regression.
I’m hardly the first person to take this chart to task, but for the sake of thoroughness, let’s look at all the ways this chart is stupid before:
-The y-axis isn’t properly labeled. What the Hell units are being used to measure “scientific advancement?”
-Where is the Golden Age of Islam on this chart? Medieval Baghdad was a center of art and learning for centuries, recovering, translating, and building upon the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, up until Genghis Khan burned it down.
-The chart starts at 1100 BC, which is about three thousand years after the start of recorded history and eight thousand years after the start of civilization, and which also conveniently ignores the Bronze Age collapse that led to a similar regression of art, culture, and science as the European Dark Ages.
-What metric for “scientific advancement” would have Europe (let alone the world) blacked out until 1400? Oil paint was developed in the 12th century. The tower mill was invented in the 13th century. Gunpowder reached Europe in the 13th century. Mechanical clocks were invented in the 14th century. Metallurgical technology and the associated arms races continued on throughout the entire time period, with major advances in arms and armor peppered throughout the era.
-The chart flips from Egyptian to Greek in 700 BC. In 700 BC, Greek activity was pretty much limited to 1) exploring the Mediterranean and 2) constantly murdering each other. It wasn’t until around 600 BC that pre-Socratic philosophy got anywhere, and not until after 500 BC that Socrates and his students showed up (presuming the existence of Socrates at all, which is another issue altogether – whether or not he specifically existed, his alleged lifespan definitely coincides with a golden age of art and science in the city of Athens). Virtually all major Greek inventions came during the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries. Side note: A lot of Greek progress in the 3rd century came from Archimedes, who was stabbed to death by a Roman soldier because that Roman thought the mathematical instruments he was carrying might be valuable. Christians don’t exactly have a monopoly on killing scientific geniuses for giggles.
Let’s be fair, though, and look at the most advanced form of the argument (that I know of) rather than picking on the semi-viral meme that popularized it (and happens to be incredibly fucking stupid). The basic argument in favor of a “Christian Dark Age” goes that scientific thinkers like Hypatia and Galileo were persecuted by the Christian Church, who feared that scientific knowledge would undermine the faith of their followers and thus sap their power. This persecution led to a decrease in the rate at which scientific advancements were made, so the “Christian Dark Age” is an era of slowed technological advancement, even though there wasn’t any kind of sudden loss of massive amounts of scientific information the way the chart depicts.
Let’s look at those two scientific thinkers persecuted. Firstly, Hypatia. Hypatia was a philosopher in Alexandria during late antiquity, when the Roman Empire still held Egypt, Christianity was legal, and the influence of bishops was on the rise. There is no account of the circumstances of Hypatia’s death that doesn’t show clear bias towards one of the major players involved, however what’s consistent is that there is a three-way feud between the Prefect of Alexandria, Christian but ultimately loyal to the state rather than the church, the Bishop of Alexandria, and the city’s Jewish population (not given any particular leader in the records).
According to the records, the Christian prefect of the city cracked down on Jewish festivities that were causing public unrest, something which the local leadership of the Christian Church generally approved of. The Jews saw this as persecution by the Christian population in general and retaliated against them, attempting a massacre of the entire Christian population. The Christian population than retaliated in turn, driving the entire Jewish population from the city. The Roman prefect, though Christian, launched a draconian crackdown on the Christian Church in response. The Bishop of Alexandria tried to make peace with the Prefect, but failed, and as tensions escalated a semi-militant order of Christian monks eventually attacked the Prefect, one of whom wounded him. The Prefect had that monk arrested and tortured to death, which hardly de-escalated the situation. Hypatia was known to advise the Prefect, so a Christian mob eventually gathered and murdered her (without the Bishop’s knowledge or approval) for allegedly corrupting the nominally Christian Prefect into acting against the Bishop.
Even assuming we take this story 100% at face value, it’s still about Christians acting without the knowledge or approval of their Bishop and in the wake of a major feud between themselves and the local government, a feud which included a mass slaughter of random Christians. “Rando Christian laypeople will sometimes lash out at semi-random bystanders after their loved ones are murdered and the government shrugs its shoulders” isn’t remotely the same as “the Christian Church directed their followers to murder Hypatia for her knowledge of science.” If we assume that the story is to some extent misleading (and it probably is), then it can’t be used as evidence of anything at all, because the actual reasons and circumstances of Hypatia’s death are unclear. You can’t say “the records were all from pro-Christian sources, therefore we should assume that what really happened is whatever fits my personal biases” and expect to be taken at all seriously, particularly considering the only actual contemporary source lamented how unchristian it was to kill Hypatia, so presumably if he were editing the record to cast his religion in the best possible light, he would’ve attributed her death to someone else or recast her as some kind of villain rather than being mostly a bystander.
Now let’s tackle Galileo. Allegedly, Galileo posited that the sun was the center of the solar system rather than the Earth, this was somehow threatening to Catholic theology, so the Pope imprisoned him. First of all, the heliocentric model of the solar system was popularized by Copernicus and had been accepted as fact by the Catholic Church specifically in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII used Copernicus’ heliocentric model to correct the calendar, which was at that time the domain of the Catholic Church. Galileo then ended up in a scientific debate defending the Copernican model against the model of Tycho Brahe (no relation), which combined heliocentrism and geocentrism under the argument that in a purely heliocentric model the stars would have to be crazy far away, and for that to be true they would also have to be way the Hell bigger than the sun, in many cases bigger than the distance between the Earth and the sun. The existence of such stupendously supermassive celestial objects was taken as extraordinary and not particularly likely, although it turns out that many stars totally are that big. There are a few Biblical passages that favor Earth being stationary (though not very strongly, almost all of them are far more easily interpreted as being related to earthquakes rather than geocentrism), and since the Protestant Reformation became a thing it was very important that the Pope appear to be tough on heresy, so the Pope took the Tycho model to be correct, and Galileo wasn’t especially gracious about this. Ultimately, fearful of the implications on his career of making an enemy of the Pope, Galileo left the whole controversy alone. He was not, however, imprisoned at this stage, nor was his work banned, or anything of that sort.
Several years later, at the request of a new Pope, Galileo was told that he wouldn’t face any retribution for discussing the Copernican model of the universe provided that he also presented opposing viewpoints. In particular, the Pope wanted his own plain old Aristotelian geocentric view presented. Galileo subsequently wrote a book in which a character named Simpleton expresses the Aristotelian viewpoint and is completely demolished by the smarter, handsomer, more awesome protagonist. The Pope wasn’t thrilled, and Galileo was subsequently placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, and his book was banned by the Church.
There’s a lot more meat here than there was on the Hypatia thing. For starters, our records are considerably more reliable, so we can be pretty sure of what happened and when. Secondly, the Church definitely gets up to some serious curbing of free speech here. Galileo’s decision to portray the guy who tried to compromise with him as an idiot was a pretty serious dick move, but it would clearly fall under First Amendment protections today. The Church hardly had a monopoly on doing bad things to people who said stuff they didn’t like, though. Socrates was executed pretty much just for being good at arguing persuasively against the positions held by influential people. Thirdly, the Church actually did accuse Galileo of heresy because his scientific discoveries kinda sorta contradicted a few Biblical verses if you interpret them in a very specific way. Both the fact that no one in the Church cared when Copernicus originally presented this model of the universe and also the fact that none of the verses in question were even particularly adamant about the Earth’s motion or lack thereof in an orbital sense make it pretty clear that the Inquisition was instructed to find some grounds upon which to prosecute Galileo rather than the Biblical contradictions actually being the motive for the prosecution.
While the Galileo affair does afford an example of the Catholic Church being dicks to a scientist, it does not provide any evidence that they were categorically dicks to scientists. Not only was the opposition to the Copernican model rooted entirely in the Protestant movement that didn’t exist for any part of the “Christian” Dark Ages (or the rest of the medieval era), the Catholic Church’s most extreme attacks on Galileo were prompted by a personal feud between Galileo and the Pope, which had nothing to do with scripture. Even to the extent that Galileo was persecuted for sticking by his beliefs in real science, it was only because the Pope benefited from appearing unyielding and vigilant against heresy so as to frighten Protestants, i.e. a competing religion, and thus not science. Pushing Galileo around was a way to threaten Catholics who might consider converting to some flavor of Protestantism into thinking twice about it, and had nothing to do with the Catholic Church being opposed to science in particular. The Catholic Church was not only okay with scientists in general, they actively funded the sciences (along with the arts) at the time.
The alleged persecutions of these two scientists can’t be used as examples of the Catholic Church or Christianity in general being opposed to science by default, because both of them were persecuted as a result of a particular set of circumstances that do not apply to science in general. Far from opposing science, the medieval Christian Church made every effort to preserve science for the duration of the Dark Ages, and remained a patron of the arts and sciences through the medieval era and into the Renaissance. The “Christian” Dark Ages happened because pagan Rome tore itself apart, pagan barbarians overwhelmed the borders, and then pagan vikings kept things off-balance during the recovery. The rise of stable, powerful, and incidentally Catholic kingdoms marks the end of the Dark Ages and the point when things start getting invented again.