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Friday, January 21, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Dark Ages

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.

This is from a fascinating Religion Dispatches interview with Nancy Marie Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross, a biography of Gerbert d'Aurillac (c. 946-1003), who reigned as Pope Sylvester II.

As regular readers know, we at the Egg are fascinated and impressed by the importance which traditional Christianity attaches to the systematic study of the natural world -- in other words, to science. You know: churches as solar observatories, Galileo on the pope's payroll, that sort of stuff. As we have often pointed out, the existence of the Vatican Observatory is an anomaly only to those who don't really get what Christianity was about before the rise of Fundamentalism.

Brown is a science writer with an interest in the Middle Ages, and even she was surprised by the extent of Sylvester's scientific interest. A Frenchman sent for advanced training in Barecelona, and therefore exposed to the wonders of Islamic science, he

... was the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero. He devised an abacus, or counting board, that mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. ...

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. ...

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.

Sylvester sounds remarkable, and Brown's enthusiasm for him seeps through the interview. Even if you plan to buy the book tomorrow, though, read the interview, if only for her fascinating description of what it takes to look at a rare manuscript in a French library.

Here, though, is what all this has us thinking about: the "Dark Ages."

Anybody who reads history knows that this term is unpopular and misleading. (Regine Pernoud's book on on why this is so, published in 1977, remains in print and is especially popular with religious conservatives.) But the term lingers in the popular imagination, and not without some cause. After the eclipse of Roman power, the societies of Western Europe certainly did have a rough time of it compared to, say, Byzantium and the Caliphate. For beautifully-imagined description of how this may have felt, read Iain Pears's Dream of Scipio.

When Fr. Anonymous was a boy, his sixth-grade textbook still spoke of the entire period between about A.D. 500 and 1400 as the Dark Ages, teaching us tots that all was ignorance and barbarism until the Renaissance. We quickly learned that this was nonsense; history is full of little "renaissances," like those of Charlemagne and especially of the 12th Century. For a long time now, we have seen historiography divide the period into "Low" and "High" Middle Ages, with the pretty clear implication that the "High" Middle Ages -- basically, starting in the 11th century -- were the period of the glorious Gothic churches, the advent of Aristotle upon the Christian world, and polyphony. In contrast, the "Low" Middle Ages were, umm, still pretty dark.

Sylvester's story confuses the picture a good deal. Consider this:

Pope Sergius IV, who had been Gerbert’s papal librarian, wrote his epitaph [posted at St. John Lateran]. It reads, in part: “The emperor, Otto III, to whom he was always faithful and devoted, loved him greatly and offered him this church of Rome. They illuminated their time, emperor and pope, by the brilliance of their wisdom. The century rejoiced.” Upon Gerbert’s death, Sergius said, “the world was darkened and peace disappeared.”

How prophetic those words, written in 1009, now sound. Less than a hundred years later, a pope would launch the first Crusade, and The Scientist Pope would be branded a sorcerer and devil-worshipper for having taught the science that had come into Christian Europe from Islamic Spain.

"The world was darkened." That says a lot, dunnit? One of the great scientists of the tenth century was branded as a sorcerer in the 11th -- and, by the way, the brand stuck; only recently has Sylvester's reputation begun to recover.

In the same way, we have sometimes observed, the Renaissance gets a free pass. Witch-hunting, for example, was not (as some people still imagine) a product of the early medieval era; it began slowly in the 1300s and reached its fever pitch during the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, during the Reformation, and among Protestants as much as Papists.

So when were the really dark ages? We suppose it depends upon definition. But the era of the Crusades, especially the period from 1202 forward, look pretty damn dark. So, much as we hate to admit it, the Reformation -- at least when considered as a run-up to the Thirty Years' War. For that matter, the brutalities of the colonial period, which began in the Renaissance and continued until 1960, are dark as a dungeon. Nor do Nazism, Sovietism and the two World Wars look really bright. And, hey, the endless peril of nuclear and biological terrorism is no day at the beach, either.

So, really, we're living in the Dark Ages right now, aren't we?

Yup. That's what sin gets you, friends. All ages are dark, more or less equally so, because we human beings are what we are. But then, all ages are bright and full of new life, too, because God is what God is.


Pastor Joelle said...


Father Anonymous said...

A wildly inappropriate comment from commenter Nixon has been deleted. We don't mind a little intellectual pushback, but we do mind outright meanness. One more of those, buddy, and you're banned.