Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Dark Ages

The Dark Ages is the period of cosmic history in which there was no visible light in the universe. When the universe was about 380,000 years old, the temperature dropped to about 3,000K, electrons combined with protons to form neutral hydrogen atoms, and the radiation which had previously been scattered by the free electrons, was able to travel freely through space. The universe therefore became transparent to the passage of radiation, and this radiation was distributed over visible and infrared wavelengths. However, as the universe expanded, the radiation was rapidly redshifted to longer wavelengths beyond the visible range, (to ultimately become the cosmic microwave background radiation we detect today), and the universe became completely dark for many millions of years. These are the cosmic Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages lasted until the first stars, galaxies and quasars were created. Until recently, it was estimated that this didn't occur until the universe was 1 billion years old. Recent data from the WMAP satellite in 2003, however, suggests that the Dark Ages ended when the universe was somewhere between 100 million and 400 million years old.
The Dark Ages, or Early Middle Ages, is the period of human history between approximately AD 600 and 1000, when the classical pagan culture of Greek, Hellenistic and Roman civilisation was succeeded in Western Europe by a period of economic and intellectual stagnation.

After the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity, it fell into decline, and the Western Roman Empire was overcome by the pagan barbarians.

In 'Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud', Peter Watson writes that "in early antiquity religious toleration had been the rule rather than the exception, but that changed with the animosity with which the pagans and Christians regarded one another. We should not overlook the change that had come about in men's attitudes with the arrival of Christianity as a state religion. There was an overwhelming desire to 'surrender to the new divine powers which bound men inwardly' and 'a need for' suprahuman revelation. As a result, the thinkers of the period were not much interested in (or were discouraged from) unravelling the secrets of the physical world: 'The supreme task of Christian scholarship was to apprehend and deepen the truths of revelation.' Whereas paganism had imposed few restrictions on the intellectuals of Rome, Christianity actively rejected scientific enquiry. The scientific study of the heavens could be neglected, said Ambrose, bishop of Milan...'for wherein does it assist our salvation?'"

Between Boethius (AD c.480-524) and Anselm in the 11th century, there was only one significant thinker, Erigena in Ireland. Books and learning fell into an almost terminal decline in Western Europe, and it was the Islamic world which preserved much of the classical culture. In particular, the works of Aristotle, most of which were totally lost in Europe, were preserved by the Arabs, and only re-introduced to Europe in the 13th century.


Chris said...

However, nowadays we Europeans are passively submitting to Islam. Only this time, Islam won't bring back the lost knowledge but will usher in the new Dark Ages.

Gordon McCabe said...

Given enough time, these roles do have a remarkable habit of reversing, don't they?

Anonymous said...


I think you have some major problems with this to the extent that you are trying to paint Christianity as inherently anti-science or at least an impediment to it. They weren't the Christian Dark Ages, they were the pagan Dark Ages that took Christianity hundreds of years to triumph over. I suspect you would agree that for science to flourish, there must be a common belief in a reliably observable natural world governed by physical laws and predictability. The dichotomy between the natural and unnatural (or material and immaterial) was a belief brought to pagan Europe by Christianity. Much more here. While it is perfectly true there was (and still is) an ongoing tension within Christianity as to the priority to be given to the material world, as well as many spiritual/moral objections to various scientific inquiries, the groundwork for Western science was laid by Christianity, which explains why almost all scientific inquiry until well into the Renasissance (a lot) was conducted by or under the auspices of the Church. One can probably say the same about Islam in that period. It also explains why paganism, even classical paganism, has never come close to fertilizing scientific inquiry to any comparable extent or, in most cases, at all. Really now, step back a moment and ask yourself how it could be that, if Chrsitianity stood in diametric opposition to science, the one area of the world where science progressed and triumphed more than any other was Christendom. Modern sceptical scientists like you didn't just arrive on a boat from distant parts in the 19th century and there were no closet Dawkins's in the 13th.

Also, that quote from Ambrose almost certainly relates to his very public opposition, not to what we would call astronomy, but to Manichean and classical pagan astrology, then widely believed and much fought over. I trust you aren't championing that.

Gordon McCabe said...

The groundwork for Western science was not laid by Christianity, but by Greek science, and by Aristotle in particular.

Christianity doesn't stand in diametric opposition to science, which is why I didn't say that it does.

The transition from antiquity to the early middle ages is defined by the spread of Christianity, the rise of the priesthood, the development of scripture and liturgy, and the fall of the internally weakened Roman Empire in the West, under pressure from the barbarians.

The Christianity of the late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages was inward-looking, and emphasised the importance of the afterlife, as epitomised by the hugely influential philosophy of St Augustine. For the Christian church in this era, only supernatural revelation and scriptural interpretation provided a means of accessing the truth. During this period monasticism flourished, with its outright rejection of, and retreat from the physical world.

Rather than revelation and scripture, Aristotle emphasised logical reasoning and empirical observation. With the re-discovery of Aristotle's texts from the Arab world in the 13th century, this caused great discomfort to the church. In Paris, then the leading theological centre in Europe, teaching of Aristotle's natural philosophy was banned in 1210 and 1215, and this was supported by successive papal bulls.

It was Albertus Magnus, who occupied the chair of theology at Paris from 1242, who argued that the truth could be accessed by logic and empirical experience, as well as scriptural interpretation, and Thomas Aquinas, a pupil of Magnus', then attempted a fully-fledged reconciliation of Christianity with Aristotle.

So, Christianity in diametric opposition to science? Only for 700 years or so.