m_francis (m_francis) wrote,

Son of the Middle Ages

Return of the Age of Unreason - Part I

Returning from a trip one day and noodling in re medieval science once led me to an astonishing web-essay by someone calling himself Jim Walker on a religious belief site called Nobeliefs.com for Freethinkers.

Being trip-weary and in a curmudgeonly mood, I commented on the irony of someone denouncing religious belief while believing in so many myths and legends of his own at: The Age of Unreason: or Pfui

Now, thanks to the Galileo Effect -- there is always someone willing to point out an affront to another -- we have a response from Mr. Walker.

He writes that he is "not a Middle Age scholar" and then sets about proving it. 

Being a free-thinker, all his thoughts are free and worth the price paid.  His response generally repeats well-worn fundamentalist tropes long adopted by atheists, and misses the point of several things I said.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it also leaves one open to being misconstrued.  Because of this, he mistook my intention in some places, and in other places pointed out where I had been incomplete or had omitted a clarifying detail. 

Naturally, being a freethinker, Mr. Walker makes no provision on his site for comment [let alone for disagreement], and so once more we must make do here, where comment [as well as thinking] really is free -- and may be freely debated. 

A Message to the Anonymoi:

As usual, I ask only that non-LJ members identify themselves in some way in their comments, lest we confuse one Anonymous with another.  Use whatever screen name you please.  Those responding over on Blogger at The TOF Spot, the same rule applies. 

1. A Few Preliminary Comments
Mr. Walker has a marvelous technique for assigning things to the Medieval Period [bad] or to the Renaissance [good].  Namely, whenever he encounters something he considers good in the Medieval Period, he declares that to have really been the Renaissance.  He also uses the term "Dark Ages" to refer not only to the actual Dark Age, but to the entire Medieval period up to the point where he wishes the Renaissance would have begun.  It never seems to occur to him that people whose beliefs he does not share could ever have accomplished anything of which he approves.  The cognitive dissonance must at times be painful.   

Another marvelous tool is to construe any glimmering, hint, or lucky guess in antiquity, China, Islam -- anywhere but in Europe! -- as the really-truly beginning of something, while dismissing any development during the Middle Ages as mere glimmerings, hints, or lucky guesses.  Now, it is true that the Victorian Triumphalism of the Age of Science and Industry much needed tempering.  The Old Europeans tended to dismiss everything done by non-Europeans.  However, the post-modern impulse to dismiss instead everything done by Europeans is equally wrong-headed. 

A third technique he uses is a sort of guilt-by-association.  The debate Question is the origin of modern science.    However, Mr. Walker also brings up the crusades, the inquisition, the execution of Bruno, the trial of Galileo, the murder of Hypatia by a mob of Greco-Egyptians, even the sale of indulgences (I kid you not).  He betrays no actual knowledge of most of that stuff; but even if we grant him the premise, good science can be done by bad people.  The best science of the early 20th century came out of militaristic, jingoistic Wilhelmine Germany and its national socialist successor.  But we don't say that rocket ships or jet airplanes are bad because they were invented by Nazis or that the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis is wrong because the Kaiser invaded Belgium.  So these arguments are mere red herrings. 

Related to number three is number four.  And that is the association of one innovation with another on not better basis than a shared accident.  For example, in his anxiety to show that medievals never did nothing nohow he equates pickled herring with the fish relish used for οπσον by the ancient Greeks.  Apparently, since both involve fish, they must be somehow the same thing.  Similarly, he cuts and pastes Wikipedia snips - as if they were authoritative!

Mr. Walker is entirely correct to say that historical period-names are arbitrary.  This goes double for self-congratulatory names like "Renaissance" or "Age of Reason" as well as for deliberately-chosen derogatory names like "Dark Age."  Mr. Walker takes this as permission to name the historical periods as he damn well pleases.  Alas, actual modern historians prefer objective descriptions like "early 14th century Burgundy" to tendentious labels from propaganda mills.  I find that some of the names are useful, because there really are sea-changes in people's mental picture of the world.  The ancient world really did end, so did the medieval world, and so is the modern world even as we speak.  That the changes were gradual and seamless does not alter things.  The existence of dawn and dusk does not invalidate the distinction between night and day. 

2. A Note on the Dark Age
The dates are conventionally taken to run from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the Carolingian Ascendancy, roughly AD 500-800.  Two good histories covering the run-up to and most of the Dark Age is Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700 by Randers-Pehrson and The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750, by Peter Brown. 

The age was dark because a lot of barbarians burned down a lot of stuff, and a lot of documentation went up in smoke.  It is a 'Dark' Age because we "see" by documentation, and very little has survived "the shipwrecks of time."  It is not called "dark" because the people in it suddenly became stupid and ignorant. 

3. A Note on Sources
Mr. Walker makes much of his sources.  It is unclear whether he has read any of them or has simply skimmed the Publisher's Weekly summaries.  He writes, "I did, however, provide links within the text and sources at the end that are central to the argument. I guess that doesn't count as source material in Flynn's mind." 

To which I must answer, actually, no; not particularly.  Most of his sources had nothing to do with the origin of science, and their authors are journalists, novelists, art historians, Egyptologists, medical doctors, and the like.  None are trained in medieval history or in the history of science.  What has the opinnion of Christopher Hitchens' or of a pair of magicians regarding Mother Teresa to do with the matter? 

"The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" appears to be the usual post-modern feminist gnosticism; but whether Red Riding Hood is based on Diana the Huntress seems unrelated to the origins of science.  Andrew Dickson White's screed is in fact where the meme of "warfare" between science and religion first got rolling.  White is not taken seriously by historians, and many of his "facts" are simply made up. 

Links to crackpot sites like jesusneverexisted are as unpersuasive as links to answersingenesis.  It is no great revelation that other atheists believe the same myths and legends, or that they pass memes among each other like a bad headcold. 

Digital recreations of ancient Rome or surveys of scientists' opinions on matters outside their expertise are also irrelevant.   


Not content to put forward this roster, Mr. Walker then disparages the research of actual scholars of the subject.  He writes:

And no, I do not accept his comical list of pictures of books copy & pasted at the end as a valid way to cite source material. Did he actually derive his sources from them or did he just go to Amazon.com and search for books that look like it might impress his readers. I don't know. Lets hope not, because if he did get his sources from them, then the authors of those books got the information wrong, wrong, wrong.

Perhaps Walker missed the part where I wrote, "The following are from my personal library, saving only that some of the editions shown are more recent than the ones I have."  I have read each of them, most while researching the novel Eifelheim, which is set in the 14th century Schwarzwald, others because I sustained the interest afterward.  Mr. Walker is welcome to do the same; but somehow I doubt he will.  Actual research into empirical facts does not seem to attract him.  As a result of reading these texts, I changed my mind about much of what I had previously believed regarding the Middle Ages. 

That Mr. Walker believes that the premier scholars specializing in medieval history and medieval science are not only wrong, but "wrong, wrong, wrong" tells us more about his unfamiliarity with the subject matter than it does about the scholars or about the medievals.  

This is the world of the internet and Flynn provided no links for his readers to check his sources.

Alas, my sources are called "books." They are printed with ink on paper and are sprinkled with footnotes and other such highbrow stuff.  They require a reading protocol very different from "surfing."  See "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" for a discussion of the loss of attention span and the growing inability to actually read texts closely.  [Note: link is broken, try the link found in one of the responses below.] 
4. A Note on Hypatia
One of his sources is Michael Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr.  It is unclear if Mr. Walker has read this book or has taken a preconceived notion of Hypatia from Carl Sagan and read it back into the book.  In 2000 years, one comes up with Hypatia and Galileo, which is pretty slim pickings if one is to erect a vast edifice of "hostility to science."  The Hypatia myth can be traced to a Protestant tract by the deist John Toland, who wrote during the Reformation an essay entitled Hypatia, or the History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril. Like many fundamentalist embellishments attacking the Church, it has been swallowed credulously by many moderns, and is usually brought up in any discussion of Church and Science.  

In all this, the real Hypatia of history is doomed to be lost.  Deakin is a mathematician, not an historian.  As such, he may be a reliable authority on the mathematical value of Hypatia's work.  For example, he writes: "The most likely Hypatian material [in Diophantus' Arithmetic] is the detailed checking that the solutions are valid. Not particularly inspiring stuff, I'm afraid; rather the sort of thing one would prepare for rather dim students!" www.polyamory.org/~howard/Hypatia/primary-sources.html  This hardly makes her "the world's greatest living mathematician and astronomer," as the publisher's blurb would have it.  As to whether she was "a strikingly beautiful woman and a devoted celibate" there is no evidence at all.  Toland made that part up.  If the rest of Deakin's book is like that, it should be approached with caution.  But his website performs the invaluable service of providing what little we have in primary and early secondary sources. 
Here are direct links to what little we know, and from whom we know it:
Socrates Scholasticus
Chronicles of John of Nikiul
Damascius' Life of Isidore, reproduced in the Suda
Letters from her pupil Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais in Cyrene:
Plus a handful of passing mentions included in the link to Deakin's site. 
Have fun.  We'll probably come back to this later. 

To be continued
Tags: history, medieval

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