The Period of the Dark Ages
The period of time spanning from around 475 AD (when Christianity becomes the official religion in the Roman Empire) to 1200 AD (appearance of universities) is often referred to as “The Dark Ages”, especially for science. Dark implies in this case an absence of the light of knowledge. No progress was made during that period in the fields of knowledge. In the previous article of the series we have examined the causes for the decline of science. Now we should take a look at the period of stagnation, see what happened and examine some myths and wrong ideas.
Common Place: Complete Ignorance and Flat Earth
These are two common misunderstandings we have today about that period in Western Europe. First there is this quite widely extended idea that everybody thought the Earth was flat and that the concept of a round Earth only came back at the end of the period, when the ancient works of Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 AD), the book Almagest in particular, were translated from Arabic.
This may have been true for the popular classes but it was never true for the cultivated, where the idea of a round Earth fixed at the center of the universe was never lost. A spherical Earth was already admitted in the works of Plato (IV century BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) ; and the authority of these great scholars, especially Plato, was never doubted even in the darkest of the dark ages. Some of the doubts may perhaps be attributed to a fiction work by Washington Irving (1753-1859) titled “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”, wherein he put certain words in the mouth of the greatest among the ancient church fathers, supposedly Saint Augustine(354-430 AD ), though Irving isn’t explicit in this respect:
But in fact Saint Augustine didn’t actually write that. These are his words on the subject in the book “De Civitate Dei-The City of God”:
True it is, that along with such notions, scholars in the dark ages had no knowledge of gravity but a set of bizarre ideas about the nature of the Southern Hemisphere, in such a way that the place is conceived as a metaphorical pit (once you go down South, it is very difficult to go back North, like climbing a steep mountain) where the heat is unbearable.
Misery and war left the popular classes uneducated and forced them to concentrate on survival. Cult circles decreased drastically and culture took refuge in monasteries, where the last witnesses of ancient lore can be traced. Who were they?
Marcianus Capella (V century AD), Boethius (V century AD), Cassiodorus (485-585 AD) and many other anonymous souls made it possible that ancient knowledge (including the idea of a round Earth) never disappeared and that can be seen chronologically in the works of Isidore of Seville (560-636 AD) , Bede the Venerable (672-735 AD), and the very Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Evidence can also be found in pictures, manuscripts, symbols (like the Christian cross over the globe).
There’s a high resolution version of this mind map here: Mind Map Science Dark Ages por C. Lugosi, en Flickr
Was science persecuted during the dark ages?
No, it wasn’t. But, but…In spite of the fact that persecution was officially only applied to superstition, divination and magical practices, the truth is that pagan science suffered an awful lot, especially all of the postulates that contradicted scripture.
Academies were closed, pagan teachers were abused and driven to exile; informers blossomed within an imperfect system which was desperately trying to unite under the banner of religion, in an attempt to defeat numerous threats, especially internal fragmentation because of heresies and continuous war against barbaric external invasion.
However, this point arouses a lot of controversy and many still maintain that science was prohibited. Well, let’s see what written documents from the time actually said.
Idem aa. ad Modestum praefectum praetorio. Cesset mathematicorum tractatus. Nam si qui publice aut privatim in die noctuque deprehensus fuerit in cohibito errore versari, capitali sententia feriatur uterque. Neque enim culpa dissimilis est prohibita discere quam docere. Dat. prid. id. decemb. Constantinopoli Valentiniano et Valente aa. conss. (370? 373? dec. 12).
Impp. Honorius et Theodosius aa. Caeciliano praefecto praetorio. Mathematicos, nisi parati sint codicibus erroris proprii sub oculis episcoporum incendio concrematis catholicae religionis cultui fidem tradere numquam ad errorem praeteritum redituri, non solum urbe Roma, sed etiam omnibus civitatibus pelli decernimus. quod si hoc non fecerint et contra clementiae nostrae salubre constitutum in civitatibus fuerint deprehensi vel secreta erroris sui et professionis insinuaverint, deportationis poenam excipiant. Dat. kal. feb. Ravennae Honorio VIII et Theodosio III aa. conss. (409 febr. 1).
Which translated into modern English would roughly be
CTh. 9.16.8.Let there be no more astrological (divinatory) treaties. Those who in public or in private, in daylight or at night, saying or teaching, were caught in this deception, are sentence to death penalty.
CTh.9.16.12. Astrologers (diviners) must be prepared to deliver their books to the catholic bishop for them to be burned and never to perform these cheats again, not only in Rome, but in the whole empire, otherwise, we decree that if they were caught again acting in secret, they will be banished.
At the time “Mathematica” in Latin was one of these words that usage bents and meant astrology or divination, because of the complicated calculations astrologers had to make. “Geometria” was really the term for mathematics. So, the Theodosian Code is persecuting divination, not science.
A hundred years later Justinian had a new law compiled and this is what it said on the subject:
9.18.0. On malefactors, astrologers and others
Teaching and learning of the geometrical arts is of public interest, but astrology and divination are hereby banished and forbidden…
So again Justinian law not only doesn’t forbid science, but encourages the teaching and learning of mathematics, while condemns superstition.
We should insist that in spite of these written documents, reality took its own way and pagan science suffered terribly. Many times observing the sky was denounced as astrology, astrolabes pointed as diabolical devices, cooking herbs for medicine as witchcraft and so on. So yes, schools and academies closed, scholars and philosophers exiled, riots and lynching like Hypatia’s (350-415 AD). There’s no written ancient document prohibiting science but at the practical level, politics, religion and human condition (especially ignorance, sloth and greed) were enough to provoke similar effects.
The Gradual Acceptance of Pagan Science
Science during the dark ages was stagnant: annotators, commentators, translators, no advance. Preserving and transmitting knowledge in monasteries and a few reduced circles. Material conditions didn’t allow for more.
Ignorance extended widely among society, especially the popular classes, but it doesn’t follow from that, that everybody thought the Earth was flat again.
Science wasn’t persecuted by law, but material conditions and human weaknesses created an atmosphere that crushed pagan science.
In the previous article, I concluded that Christianity wasn’t the only responsible or culprit for the decline of old science. Initial rejection of pagan science for the reasons explained, turned later into acceptance by the very church fathers (from Augustine of Hippo) who concentrated in resolving contradiction conflicts with scripture in a process that lasted until the end of the period, when Aristotle was finally admitted thanks to the works of Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
There is a video about this article in our YouTube channel: Science in the dark ages
This article is also available in Spanish: La ciencia en la edad oscura