Saturday, February 22, 2014

There Were No European Dark Ages!

A number of years ago on this blog, I promised a series of posts that would deal with the notion of the "dark ages."  That term is so wrong, so misused...and yet, I continue to encounter it over and over again even by professionals in the Humanities in adjacent fields.  Over the last couple years on forums that have grown up such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn as well as the old fashioned but still living Usenet groups, I've traded comments and debates on the issue.  I thought it was high time I took some of those posts and made them into long promised blog posts.  So here goes.

18 months or so ago, I had a discussion on one of these boards with an intelligent fellow who asked the following question:  "Some say the “dark ages” in Western Europe are directly related to the lack of paper and difficulties to keep track of administrative, legal and commercial activities. Is it a valid argument and what sources infirm/confirm this point of view?"  Now most folk interested in the field will recognize that this question is inspired by the Pirenne thesis, which boiled down to its oversimplified essence is that the Roman Empire continued unabated until rise of the Muslim armies and state in the 7th century.  

In the discussion several of those who responded to the question challenged the underlying assumptions of the question.  And that's where my comments started as well:

"...I will begin with questioning the premises. The question assumes that there are such a thing as the "dark ages" defined later in the thread rather broadly (600-1300); the question further assumes that there was an "inability" to keep track of administrative and economic details....which is poppycock and a display of ignorance. We actually have large amounts of material from all kinds of sources that track this kind of information, (depending on place and period.  700 years after all is longer than the Empire's life, so not surprisingly, some places and times we have more information than at others for a number of reasons).  Another assumption in the thread is that learning to write was practiced on papyrus. Papyrus in the ancient world wasn't a cheap product, the sources of papyrus were few, so while available, it certainly wasn't wasted on teaching students to write. (Later edit: This statement of mine isn't entirely true: we do have examples from antiquity of pen trials and student exercises on papyrus, especially from Egypt.  Nothing like practicing their letters [learning the ABCs as it were]). They used wax tablets: small pieces of wood slightly hollowed out and the hollow filled with wax...reusable and does not waste precious resources. Literacy is hard and near impossible to measure since what the ancient and medieval mind meant by literacy was the ability to read Latin (and Greek in the Empire), not the ability to read vernaculars. So when they speak about so and so being illiterate or that class of people being illiterate, they mean that they don't read Latin, not that they don't read or write. Many, particularly in the High Middle Ages and after, had functional literacy in their native tongues to carry on commerce. There is also a typical but erroneous assumption of the "collapse" of Roman culture. But I can only stress that there are some very important and serious unhistorical assumptions that lay behind the question and subsequent discussion."

For whatever reason, my comments were not well-received, though I said little different than other posters in the thread.  `In any case, my next contribution to the thread had this to say:

"Let's turn now to some of the more specific historical issues you raise. Let's start with the “Dark Ages”: According to you this is a commonly agreed upon term for the period 600-1300. Once upon a time long ago this was the the middle 19th century, and then really only among certain audiences. It was never used much among non-Anglo scholars. Writing over a century ago, W. P. Ker in his “The Dark Ages” on the very first page speaks of the change in the 19th century restricting the use of the “dark ages” to the period from already a century ago the term was dropped and restricted to a much narrower period. Over the course of the 20th century, especially since WWII, the term has been utterly rejected for that use too....restricted among British and American scholars now to the period 400-600 IN ENGLAND!!! Naturally you don't believe me, so how about you check some very basic tools like the Encyclopedia Britannica under “dark ages” where you'll discover a statement that says that the term is rejected by scholars. Or you could check out the newish Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Jordan, Chester(2004).Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Supplement 1. Verdun, Kathleen, "Medievalism" pp. 389–397. Sections 'Victorian Medievalism', 'Nineteenth-Century Europe', 'Medievalism in America 1500–1900', 'The 20th Century'. Same volume, Freedman, Paul, "Medieval Studies", pp. 383–389. In point of fact, the term exists only in English; our colleagues in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia have not been plagued with the term (our colleagues here ;may want to chime in for Eastern European and Russian historiography). They use, and have used “early middle ages”. If you really want to learn about it, I recommend an article by Janet Nelson History Workshop Journal, No. 63 (Spring, 2007), pp. 191-201 titled The Dark Ages. So no, the Dark Ages doesn't cover the period 600-1300, it isn't used by 21st century scholars except by a very limited number speaking of a very limited period, so called for different reasons than those you have given, and even that is changing for very important reasons. 

But you go on to claim that this “dark ages”, which we will now define as the Early Middle Ages (and really the period 600-1300 covers the Early and High Middle Ages) as a political, economic, and cultural black hole. While delightfully colorful and effectively pejorative, one wonders on what grounds one can describe a vibrant period as a “black hole.” Politically, not sure what the issue is there: there were powerful political entities, there was the rise of nationalism, there was every bit as much palace intrigue and violence as anything in the emperor's palace during the Roman empire, there was medieval political philosophy and that continues to affect how we think politically as much as the Greco-Roman inheritance does, constitutional movements have their roots in this period, notions of individual freedom, equality, political power of the people ...and more. It seems to me that a “political black hole” would be one in which there were no political structures and systems...but that doesn't describe the medieval at all. Likewise this supposed “black hole” of an economy produced wealth...this after all is the time of the Staffordshire Hoard, and other hoards, treasures from the Byzantium, from India are not uncommonly found, spices from the far East, taxes and taxation, tolls on trade, the commercial revolution, the rise of the middle class, the transition from Roman manorialism to a market economy, the emergence of the single family farm, and I've just touched the surface. Culture? You jest, I hope. But in case not, universities, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, fantastic literature including poetry and prose, philosophy, science, technological innovations, the visual arts, music and musical notation, architecture, drama....everywhere we look we find a vibrant, living, full culture. No, I'm afraid anyone saying that the period is a cultural black hole just hasn't bothered to look. This is a popular misconception that we medievalists seek to rectify: to have this easily disprovable misconception bandied about as fact in a dedicated group of professional medievalists is frustrating in the extreme.

Next you speak on the topic of illiteracy responding to my comment to your question. Originally, this topic came up because of a statement Dariusz made regarding literacy. So let's begin where we need to: the Roman Empire. There's this misperception that literacy was widespread during Roman times. Of course, what the Romans meant by literacy was the ability to read Greek and Latin; any kind of literacy in a native language didn't count, so the ability to read hieroglyphs, Hebrew, Aramaic, Celtic languages, and so on need not apply. So it again is difficult to ascertain who and how many could read. But the estimates based on the evidence indicate 7-10% of the Empire's population could read. The percentage among certain subgroups might have been higher, such as the military where being able to read was a necessity. Everyone else employed professional scribes to read and write for them, or didn't do it at all. Literacy was for the elite and the slaves the elite employed as scribes, and some priests. 

So when we move into the medieval period, why the disparagement when approximately 7-10% of the population could read Latin? During the fifth and sixth centuries, Roman education continued as witnessed by some fine Latin writers (and here I speak of the West); the seventh century was a century of transition wherein the Roman system was fully absorbed into the Christian monastic system which grew up alongside and imitated the Roman system. While it is true that monastic schools were the source of education in the early part of the period, the issues of “church control” are just silly. The king appointed abbots, bishops and other church leaders in their realms. As such, the King controlled education. Some kings had an interest in education and promoting it, some didn't...but that was more than most emperors of Rome gave to thinking about education in the empire. The interesting contrast about Rome and the medieval kingdoms is that in Rome education was only for the elites. In the medieval period, those in the church came from all sectors of society and learned to read. While the idea of “literacy” still referred to the ability to read Latin, everywhere we see that these monastic schools also wrote the vernacular languages and we have evidence that literacy in the vernacular was more, not everyone, but more widespread than Latin literacy. On this measure, by the time we get to the High Middle Ages, literacy (here referring to the ability to read) 1100-1300 is more widespread than in the Roman Empire. In case of doubt, as I'm certain there will be, I will be more than happy to supply plenty of bibliography both about literacy in the Roman world and in the Medieval. Just ask. 

A common mistake when reading on this subject is to confuse writing and literacy. Reading and Writing are different skills and were taught differently. Lack of writing does not mean lack of reading skill, though often (but not always) the inverse is true. 

Moving on, your next point is to try and say about papyrus. I said, in contrast to your statement about papyrus being necessary to learn to write, that a) in fact papyrus was expensive and not a commodity to be used to teach children how to write and b) that they used wax tablets for such things. We've seen that your quotes don't quite fit the bill, as a response. Do read Diringer though, a 50 year old book, but still standard reading in History of the Book. Fact is, though cheap to produce, shipping it all across the empire was not cheap, and being an import, subject to taxes, and of course the Empire took it over as a government monopoly. One third century usurper of the throne bragged that he could fund the entire empire on the profits the government made on the papyrus industry. There wasn't the equivalent of the big red tablet with big lines that we moderns took to class in our youth to learn those letters. As I shared before, they used wax tablets, not clay as you averred. 

They also used parchment. Less popular than papyrus during the Roman period, but still used for notes, records, inventories and the like. Quoting Diringer, “Among the Romans parchment was extensively used....” In fact, one use is as notebooks, competing with wax tablets in popularity, where um, students would practice their letters. Which means, when papyrus stops being used in the West, parchment and wax tablets have already been used to teach writing (not how to read, since that is a different skill altogether).. In other words, the very basis of your question, the absence of papyrus causing some kind of interruption in communication because, as you put it, “ how the disappearing of "paper-made" material impeded the transfer of communication and created this massive regression in social and economical development in Western Europe.” Yet we find already a widely available, widely used, common substance used throughout the empire, and by the time you are speaking of, 600, the most common writing material in the West: parchment. Where Pirenne is wrong, and many over the last 70 years have pointed this out, is that he didn't really look at the already widespread use of parchment and scriptoria in Late Antique and early medieval Gaul.  You turn next to ask: “Where are the warehouses that stored 5-some generation of land transactions, deeds and all other administrative records from Massilia to Treves?” That might seem to be a trump question. But first, where are such administrative records for the Roman period? The warehouses covering 5 generations? They don't exist. Depending on the period (700 years is longer than Rome occupied Gaul in the first place!) there are documentary evidences that remain that tell us quite a lot. The point I was making however is contrary to your original claim which had nothing to do with warehouses of records for particular locales. Your original post claimed that there were “difficulties to keep track of administrative, legal and commercial activities” due to a lack of papyrus. Yet, this isn't true. They had other writing materials, chiefly parchment, and during that long period you discuss kept records just fine, sent messages, communicated over long distances, wrote letters, etc. 

You next turn to my comment about Roman culture not collapsing. You cited something about political structures, which is a little problematic. But the point is that culture didn't collapse. Certainly, as Dariusz points out, there is a transition, but this transition takes centuries; Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries and into the seventh we hear of theater, games, literature on the Roman model etc etc, the funding of public good and works by the wealthy (those left standing). Perhaps not as often as had once been the case, but they survived the initial onslaught. 

But though transforming from Roman into Medieval, this doesn't mean that Roman culture “collapsed” (remember a collapse is a sudden, catastrophic failure, not a centuries long transformation from one kind of culture to another kind of culture). Throughout the period you have demarcated, there is great art, literature and poetry, philosophy, etc. Because they aren't Roman doesn't mean that it isn't culture, isn't fantastic, beautiful culture deserving of our appreciation every bit as much as Classical civilization does. ;

I am hoping by now that you are beginning to see the difficulties inherent in your question: there is no substantiation for the “some say” (though we'll explore that momentarily), the “dark ages” is not a term that is commonly agreed on for anything, not even in its most limited definition to the 5th-6th century in Great Britain (many of us who work in the period reject the term there too, meaning it isn't commonly agreed); 
while papyrus was not often used, that was a choice a) they could have imported from the Arabs as they did many other products and b) they had many other writing materials, especially parchment, On this parchment medieval societies composed and copied literature, brought together their knowledge in encyclopediae, wrote down their laws, kept track of their administrative, legal and commercial activities. 

In your explanation of what you're after in your second post, you described the period 600-1300 as being a “massive regression”. Now if we look over a 700 year period, we're going to find periods of economic downturn, and periods of economic success. If we compare to a similar 700 year period in the Roman Empire in the West....oh wait, it didn't last 700 years in the West. Ok, so let's look at the Roman Empire in the West....where we find periods of a roaring economy fueled by expansion and periods of a shrinking fact, the latter outstrips the former: looking at Britain for example which isn't part of the Roman empire until 43 CE, and done by 410, less than 4 centuries. Of those 4 centuries, it took nearly a century to Romanize and stabilize, so we're well into the second century by that point. By the last third of the third century though we see a trend in Britain of ruralization, depopulation, the change of croplands into pasture lands and other signs of economic depression that accelerate throughout the third and fourth centuries into the fifth and sixth. Its the period 600 and onwards that we begin to see recovery there, and by 700 in the full swing of what is mistakenly called the Northumbrian Renaissance, which isn't really a Renaissance but a whole new fusion and creation.

Let me turn to what I think is likely to lie behind your question. I think you recently read Henri Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne. Of course, your question has misunderstood Pirenne who argued that what disrupted communication was the Mslim invasions and kingdoms, not the loss of papyrus, this latter being a symptom rather than a cause of it. Further, Pirenne's thesis doesn't try to cover 700 years but rather a fairly narrow slice. Your question seems to be taking off from this foundation but in a way that distorts badly that very foundation.

This post was not well-received by the chap asking the question either.  But the next exchange will have to wait for another day or days.  And while my responses are meant to be broad sweeps covering the period the original poster outlined, 600-1300, if we took a narrower slice such as the 5th century, much would admittedly need to be adjusted.  And in future posts, they will be adjusted, because I think we need to discuss that period more fully.  But for now....there's this.