Friday, October 05, 2007

The Fallacy of the unchanging Dark Ages

The Dark Ages was a 1,000 year period of "no change" according to this guy:

For most of human history, change has been the exception. Our ancestors for nearly a million years used one basic tool, a hand axe chipped out of stone. They made these axes the same way, every time. Theirs was a culture in neutral.

The Dark Ages were likewise unblemished by change. For a thousand years, there was almost no invention, no new ideas and no exploration. Literacy was actively discouraged. Anything that might pass for progress was outlawed.
Yikes. How did we possibly, um, change then...if there was no change. Methinks the man should listen to Terry Jones before making those kinds of statements:

Q You write that our view of medieval life is unduly grim because historians maligned the period. It's easy to see why a nobleman might want to burnish his image by commissioning a writer to vilify a predecessor, but who would benefit from a campaign to disparage an era?

A A very interesting question. Well, in the first place, it would have been the thinkers of the Renaissance, who wanted to establish a break with the past. They also wanted to establish their own sense of importance by belittling what had gone before. This then gets taken up by the promoters of Renaissance culture who are keen to establish its supremacy over the medieval world -- particularly since the Renaissance is a backward-looking movement which harks back to the classical world rather than establishing something new.

In the 20th and 21st century, Renaissance values have been adapted to fit the modern capitalist world. The whole myth that there was no sense of human individuality before the Renaissance is part of this attempt to make the present day seem the culmination of human progress, which I don't think it is.

Q Then how did the unrealistic stereotypes of the noble knight and the ignorant, downtrodden peasant originate and why have they persisted?

A Well, undoubtedly you did have proud and unfeeling aristocrats who treated the peasants like dirt. Also, the Middle Ages is a wide span of time, and there were times and places where the peasantry would undoubtedly have been downtrodden and ignorant. So there is a basis for all that. But the little bit of history I'm interested in -- late 14th century England -- saw a rise in education and the pursuit of knowledge amongst ordinary people -- partly it was a result of the Black Death and the fact there were so few people around that everyone was questioning everything. But it was a time of intellectual activity amongst all classes. Much more so than today.

Q Washington Irving, who gave us "Rip van Winkle," apparently also contributed some fabrications that still distort our view of medieval life?

A Yes. He seems to have been responsible to a large degree for promoting the myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat and that this formed part of Church doctrine. It never did, and people didn't think the world was flat. Chaucer himself talks about "this world that men say is round." There's a fascinating book called "Inventing the Flat Earth" by Jeffrey Burton Russell, which sets the whole story out.

Q What does this tell us about the trustworthiness of historians, in general? Do you have any advice on how to spot a sound or flawed account of the past? Is there such a thing as history or only histories?

A Well, I think you're right that there is no such monolith as "history" in the singular. I think every age writes its own histories and I think it's important that they do. It's how we help to define ourselves and to know who and where we are. I don't think there is any rule of thumb to spot distorted history any more than there is to spot distorted news that we read today in the press or watch on TV.

The main thing is to be aware that the makers of "spin" are at work today just as much as they were in the Middle Ages or at any time in human history. It's all a bit like a detective story. We have to look for the motives behind what leaders do rather than take at face value the reasons that they give us. It's just the same with history.

Yup. And that's why I named this blog "Spinning Clio."

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