Tuesday, April 3, 2007

New Light on the Dark Ages

In 1776 Edward Gibbon published his still famous
"Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". The book was an immediate sensation and has been widely read and quoted ever since. The book is primarily a history of the Roman Empire but its publication put an idea into motion that has had prolonged and profound consequences.

Gibbon's main thrust in the book was an attempt to
answer on very important question. That question was; what caused the fall of the mighty Roman Empire? Rome had lasted for over a thousand years and had encompassed the entire known Western "civilized" world.

The "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is
considered one of the seminal works of the
"Enlightenment" (That period of time starting in the mid eighteenth century when Rationalism or more broadly put scientific thought emerged as a major philosophical movement). Gibbons work became famous not only because it was one of the first works of modern historiography but also because of its conclusion that one of the chief culprits in the fall of Rome was Christianity.

The demise of Rome has almost universally been regarded as a major disaster for the Western world because the loss of the Roman Empire brought a loss of Roman knowledge and organizational ability and consequently resulted in a "Dark Age". Following Gibbon's lead came many similar works that over time produced the now popular image of the Dark Ages as a time in which ignorant, bigoted Christians ran rampant over Europe destroying what was left of the Roman legacy of learning, art and technology. Christianity has been widely thought of as largely responsible for the dark ages.

However new archaeological work is showing that quite the opposite is true. The November/December issue of Archaeology magazine reports on a group of studies conducted by the European Science Foundation and others. While Gibbon and those who followed his lead saw Christianity as the "source of decay" in the ancient world, recent scholarship has concluded that
"The Christian Church was actually the mediator of the continuity from late antiquity to early medieval Europe". The eminent historian Judith Herrin of Kings College, London argues that rather than hastening or causing the fall of Rome, Christianity actually delayed Romes' demise. Her work also concludes that it was the Christians of the Roman Empire who were the
ones who were largely responsible for the transmission of Roman culture to its eventual medieval form.

For example, it has long been believed that the collapse of the Roman presence in Britain was marked by a sharp discontinuity in Britons culture and economy. However new research such as Herrin's and John Blair's of Queens College, Oxford shows that the transition from Roman to British culture was gradual and mediated by the organized Christian presence. Blair using primary archaeological evidence argues that Britons towns and eventually cities grew up
around church monasteries. The evidence indicates that Monks were sent into Britain from the early ecclesiastical centers. These monks established monasteries, which included churches and living compounds. These eventually grew into towns and cities. These were the only "urban" settlements in Britain through the eighth century and were the vehicle by which Roman learning was preserved and spread through Britain. Early British royalty even settled on the periphery of these Christian proto-villages and not visa versa as had been believed. This explains the persistent mystery of why churches and not royal residences are the focus of the
downtown area of British cities.

Why This Is Important!

For over two hundred years it has been widely believed by scholars and others following the lead of Gibbon that Christianity retarded the economic and cultural development of Europe. This notion is often seen in today's popular media. Christians of the Dark Ages are portrayed quite negatively as Gibbon characterized them. Instead new research shows that it was these early Christians who were primarily responsible for preserving and carrying forward Rome's legacy to the modern world. Rather then being responsible for the loss of Roman achievements, Christians were the ones who salvaged what little they could and preserved it for us.

This new emerging view is also consistent with the work of the great scholar G.K. Chesterton and others who have argued that it was these early Christians who fought against the rise of Eastern despotism in Europe that in all likelihood would have followed the fall of Rome. In their opposition to eastern forms of government the groundwork of democracy was preserved.
It was upon this resistance to theocratic and state despotism those later democratic institutions were able to emerge.

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