Friday, August 31, 2007

All Conspiracy Theories are Alike

I’ve already compared the Jesus Myth conspiracy theory to the daft idea that Shakespeare’s plays were written by some else. Oliver Kamm, in a recent post on his blog, compares the Shakespeare conspiracy to the 9/11 CIA-Israeli theories. I was amused to find Kamm is an aficionado of the anti-Stratfordians in that he seems to have bothered to read their books and devoted some effort to refuting them. He has a couple of good book suggestions if anyone else is interested in investing serious time on this very boring field. For the rest of us, Bill Bryson’s new book is on Shakespeare and his section on the anti-Stratfordians has been included in the Sunday Times serialisation. I’ve previously been rather rude about Bryson’s A Brief History of Nearly Everything, a book he was utterly unqualified to write and which fact he thought was a virtue. I won’t be reading his Shakespeare but I am sure it will sell like hotcakes.

Incidently, Kamm also identified a sure-fire way to spot a conspiracy theorist the moment they open their mouths. If they say “I’m not a conspiracy theorist but...” you can be absolutely that is exactly what they are. Jesus Mythers are equally determined to shake off the tag. I got a very angry email from one this morning accusing me of not taking them seriously enough. On the contrary, by spending much time on the subject I think I've taken it far too seriously already.

Part of my distain for the anti-Stratfordians is that I am a bit of a Bardolater myself. My wife and I have tickets to see Ian McKellen’s King Lear in December and I can’t wait. I saw it when I was at university at the National Theatre as a consequence of my sister having to study it for A Level. I’ve still not recovered. That production, directed by Deborah Warner, had Brian Cox in the title role while McKellen played Kent. Some bad pictures are on-line here.

Unlike some Shakespeare fans, I almost never read the plays. I have a Collected Works or two kicking around for reference purposes but the point of a play is to see it on the stage (or perhaps on screen). In England, we have the Royal Shakespeare Company which receives a large government subsidy and puts on lots of the plays at very reasonable rates. They also repay us by acting as a nursery for almost all our native acting talent. It never ceases to amaze me how many Hollywood stars began by treading the boards at Stratford and how many continue to do so even when their riches and fame mean they can do whatever they like.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at
Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How Dark were the Dark Ages?

So just how dark were the Early Middle Ages (c. 400AD – c. AD1000)? There are two schools of thought found in the academy roughly corresponding to whether the historian in question is a medievalist or classicist.

Most historians of the Early Middle Ages, typified by Roger Collins, take the view that they were not dark at all. They cite the wonderful objects found at Sutton Hoo, the mosaics of Ravenna’s churches, the Cathedral at Aachen, the numerous law codes, the spread of literacy and the formation of the people who would one day become Europe’s nation states. They can also point to the apogee of Byzantine civilisation under Basil II in the ninth century; the fact that it was a Frankish warlord, Charles Martel, who finally stopped the Muslim advance; and the rapid assimilation of new technology such as the heavy plough, stirrup, horse collar, horse shoe and mill.

Classical historians, like Bryan Ward-Perkins, tend to claim that the Early Middle Ages were dark, at least compared to the Roman Empire. They cite the collapse of central control in the west under the barbarian onslaught, the decline of literacy and loss of Greek, the reduction of trade, sharp falls in population density and the sheer amount of senseless destruction by the various tribes that fell on the Empire. The Vandals did not give their name for nothing.

Neither side follows Gibbon and blames Christianity for the ‘Dark Ages’. Indeed, Christianity is seen as the most important framework within which late-antique culture survived. It was also an essential factor in the spread of that culture into north-eastern Europe where the Romans had never taken it.

Both sides have part of the truth. The Roman Empire did fall in the West and this did lead to a serious reduction of material and intellectual culture. But the Empire had to fall for modern Europe to rise. Roman society was sclerotic, despotic and highly conservative. Innovation was rarely taken up. Much of the technology that revolutionised European agriculture in the fifth to thirteenth centuries was available to the Romans but they hardly used it. They had no desire to expand their borders and bring civilisation to the Germans and Scandinavians. Much of the pressure on the imperial borders was due to tribes wanting to join the Empire.

So the early Middle Ages started off dark with the great plagues, barbarian incursions and loss of elite culture. But they then took off at a far faster rate than the Romans had managed for centuries. You could call the Fall of the Roman Empire an episode in creative destruction.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bad Medicine and Bad History

In the excellent satire on the traditional teaching of history, 1066 and All That, kings are mercilessly divided up into the good and the bad, while historical events are either a good thing or a bad thing. Among other targets, Sellar and Yeatman were aiming at whiggish history where everything that had happened was judged by how much it had advanced us towards the present. It was called whiggish history because the Whigs were the closest that nineteenth-century England had had to a progressive political party. The greatest exponent of this kind of history was Lord Macaulay who strongly supported the Whigs.

We get a very similar picture from most popular history of science, where individuals from the past are marked against a 2007 exam script. Those who get high marks are the ones who anticipated the modern science the most clearly. The flaws in this way of doing history hardly need restating. Simply totting up how closely the past reflects the present does not help us understand why things happened. But we must be careful not to swing too far the other way. Like it or not, the present is the best time in history for anyone to be alive. This is not just the case in the rich West. The poor of the third world now have far higher life expectancy and better health than ever before. They also have the best chance in history of being lifted out of poverty. Developments that got us to where we are today are surely good things.

Health is a case in point. History of medicine is largely a blind alley until the mid-nineteenth century. There is a lot of medicine happening, but not much is doing any good. The reason that homeopathy, which attracted the wrath of Dawkins last week, is so well entrenched in the UK is because when it was founded, it was considerably less dangerous than the conventional alternatives. By being less likely to kill you, it gave the illusion of being better at curing you.

David Wootton’s latest book Bad Medicine documents the appalling failures of doctors through most of history and throws into sharp relief just how far we have progressed in the last century and a half. And it was progress. Needless to say, historians like Steven Shapin were not happy about Wootton’s thesis at all. In God’s Philosophers, my own history of medieval science, I am firmly in the Wootton camp. While I am full of admiration for the achievements of the Middle Ages, I have no illusions that life in those days was very tough and no sane person would want to live then rather than now. It is precisely because they did so much to help us reach our present condition that we owe them a debt of gratitude. However, we must also understand their achievements in their own terms and not judge people for failing to conform to our ideas. The balancing act of the historian is often a very difficult one.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Dark Night of the Soul

The news that Mother Teresa was afflicted by doubt and felt cut off from God throughout her ministry shows that she was in the same boat as the rest of us. The reaction of atheists to the news has been confused, largely because it destroys one of the central planks of their belief system. They constantly tell us that faith is something that allows no room for doubt while their worthy scepticism makes a virtue of it. So, to find that one of their hate-figures felt bereft that the mystical and life-changing experience of her youth never returned later in life, was a bit of a shock. Some are claiming that Mother Teresa was really an atheist herself, others that her doubts mean that she was a hypocrite.

In reality, we believers always go through periods of doubt when we are desperate for certainty. Moments of crystal clarity are all too rare. But even at those darkest times, I am still a million miles from being an atheist. I couldn’t be one even if I wanted to. In part, it is simply revulsion from the meaninglessness of atheistic existence. Blaise Pascal’s terror of the empty spaces can feel all to real for me. Partly, it’s because when I’m actually reading stuff by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and their ilk I don’t feel remotely convinced about what they have to say. If the best rational arguments for atheism seem hollow, their claims to be on the side of reason cut no ice. So it is plain that my doubts, when they afflict me, are just as subjective and emotional as the experience of God that he has occasionally blessed me with.

Apologies for the lack of a blog post on Wednesday. There is a bit too much on my plate at the moment but this has meant I’ve not been as productive as I’d like. This also means the article on 529AD is not ready yet. Among other things I need to visit the library and check some sources to make sure they say what they are supposed to. From experience, this is by no means guaranteed.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at
Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

Richard Dawkin’s two-parter, The Enemies of Reason, concluded on Channel Four tonight. It was an all-out attack on superstition, dowsers, astrologers, spiritualists and alternative medicine. I should say I hold no brief for anything of that ilk. Most New Age types are actively hostile towards organised religion anyway, preferring their own brands of disorganised religion and preaching the sort of tolerance that is usually intolerant of anything they don’t like. As far as I’m concerned it’s all hokum, but I remember a slightly excitable parish priest I once heard who announced in a sermon that reading your stars in the paper was a high road to hell.

Dawkins is pretty much of one mind with that priest. He is convinced that superstition is not just mad, but actively bad. Quite why was never made clear in his series. All the healers, spiritualists and the rest who appeared on his show were the most harmless little puppies ever to be mugged on screen by a rottweiler. I just couldn’t see what Dawkins was so upset about. It’s not as if the people reading their stars are actively undermining academic astronomy and spiritualists are only in competition with mainstream religion, which Dawkins can’t stand either.

With the second part of the show, on alternative medicine, it looked like he might have a point. It is true that homeopathy gets subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of a few million a year. I’m not comfortable with this but it is far from the most egregious example of government waste. Most forms of alternative medicine are exclusively in the private sector. People can spend their money as they like. The big problem for Dawkins was actually pointed out on the show by Nicholas Humphrey, who is himself as screaming fanatic of atheism. He is the one who first suggested that a religious upbringing was tantamount to child abuse. In this case, Humphrey was on the side of the angels because he had to admit that alternative therapies often have real benefits. This is down to the placebo effect. But placebos can only work their magic if the patient believes in what the practitioner is doing. Debunk alternative medicine and you loose the benefit.
This left Dawkins looking a bit of a prat. He hadn’t shown that alternative medicine did any harm. Homeopathy just uses water and most other practices have little opportunity to do any damage. He had also had to admit that the patients benefited. So his attack looked less like an assault against irrationality and more like a bad case of personal animosity. I suppose his fans will lap it up, but Dawkins is rapidly turning into a caricature of himself. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: the best thing he could do for the causes he believes in is to stick to explicating science or just shut up.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Medieval science and Justinian I

In the last couple of weeks, I had an exchange with Richard Carrier on medieval technology. Sadly, I missed the best links on the Internet about the question. These come from the web site of Paul Gans of New York University and cover the horse collar controversy and the stirrup controversy. Reading them was a bit eerie. You see, Gans sees the great horse collar dispute as primarily a bun fight between classicists (Richard Carrier, in the red corner) and medievalists (me, in the blue corner). Gans himself concludes that the medievalists were mainly right but probably overstated the case when they said that Roman horse harnesses straggled the unfortunate creatures that had to wear them. Trouble is, Gans is a medievalist himself, so of course he decides against the classicists. Do also check out the rest of Gans’s medieval technology web page.

My new website,, intended to try and get my book God’s Philosopher’s: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science has had a good first week. It’s had over a thousand visitors and a hundred people have registered their interest in the book. As it didn’t appear on Google until yesterday and has a very low page rank, I’m quite pleased. Several of my essays from Bede’s Library are linked to Wikipedia so I thought, in my innocence, I could add some links to the essays now on the new site as well. Alas, I was accused of spamming and all the links were taken down. Luckily, most have now been re-instated but it is quite a time consuming process.

Finally, I hope to finish an article on one of the most notorious events in intellectual history – the closure of the Athens academy of Plato in 529AD by the Emperor Justinian. Except, he didn’t really. As we so many of these stories, it’s amazing to find the source for it is so unreliable. It is only attested in the history of Agathias, who was not born until ten years after the purported closure. Furthermore, the alleged decree that Justinian issued is not found in the voluminous records of Roman law dating from his reign. It turns out, Justinian may have shut off public funds for the pagans teaching in Athens (although not in Alexandria, oddly enough), but he never issued a decree closing down the pagan schools. I hope to get an article up in the next few days. Then I should finally sit down and write one on the history of human dissection, about which misinformation still abounds, as a correspondent pointed out to me this week.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at
Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Is the Jesus Myth a Conspiracy Theory?

Ockham’s Razor, a conservative blog in the US, has picked up on an article from New Scientist magazine explaining how to construct your very own conspiracy theory. They apply this to the lunatic fringe-ideas on 9/11, the death of Diana and the assassination of JFK. Obviously, I immediately wanted to know how the Jesus Myth stacked up. Do Jesus Mythers follow standard conspiracy theory behaviour? There’s only one way to find out. Here is the New Scientist low-down on producing a conspiracy, coupled with my comments on the Jesus Myth.

Pick your adversary: A sense of anomie (dislocation from society and authority) fuels beliefs in conspiracy theories, so pick a big bad organisation of some sort - government or big business is ideal.

Well, Jesus Mythers tend to blame everything on the Christian Church which is certainly big and, by their lights, bad.

Choose your event: You’ll need a big, contemporary newsworthy event around which to weave your theory.

No question here – the life and death of Jesus was one of the biggest events in history, even if it took a while for the world to realise.

Develop your story: Construct your theory from carefully selected information that weaves together into a compelling story. If something doesn’t fit, reinterpret it in line with your theory.

This is classic Jesus Myther strategy. The story of how early Christians pulled the wool over the eyes of everyone including, it seems, themselves is certainly compelling. It is crafted from carefully selected and re-interpreted evidence weaved into a narrative that can then be used to explain away the evidence that doesn’t fit.

Create uncertainty: Question existing evidence or find new evidence that contradicts the “official” account.

The huge amount of effort that Jesus Mythers put in to invalidate the historical sources such as Tacitus, Josephus, Paul’s letters and the Gospels fits this perfectly. Their standard tactics are to find tiny inconsistencies and blow them up out of all proportion.

Prepare your defence: If someone highlights a gap or inconsistency in your evidence, don’t be afraid to tweak your story, but keep the core conspiracy in place.

After a lot of work, the pagan parallels argument of the Freke and Gandy has been largely defeated, but the Jesus Mythers simply retreat from that and move on to something else.

Broaden the circle of conspirators: to include those who question your position: “They’re denying the truth - they must be involved too!”

For Mythers, any Christian scholar is an apologist and all Christian sources are ruled out of court. Just for disagreeing with the Jesus Myth, atheist historians have been accused of being closet Christians on the Secular Web’s discussion boards.

So it’s official. According to the New Scientist, the Jesus Myth is a conspiracy theory.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at
Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, August 13, 2007

War and Peace and Religion

It’s hardly possible to walk into a bookshop at the moment without being regaled by titles telling you that religion is a bad thing. This is odd because several of the authors are scientists or philosophers who are more than a little familiar with evolutionary theory. It’s obvious that religion is pretty close to being a human universal and that, despite all the confident predictions of rationalists, it is stubbornly refusing to die out.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is an undesirable side effect of a useful adaptation, rather like the way that a moth’s lunar navigation system causes it to circle into a candle flame. Lewis Wolpert says it is a by-product of our tendency to assume everything is conscious and has purposes. Daniel Dennett supposes a hostile meme that spreads from brain to brain, reproducing like a virus of the mind. The trouble is, as any competent evolutionist should be able to see, these explanations of religion are inherently unlikely. They assume the exception before testing the rule. Most traits are adaptations that give their bearers some sort of evolutionary edge and religion is unlikely to be any different. Otherwise, if an anti-religious culture appeared, it would quickly dominate its neighbours which are handicapped by irrational faith. In fact, all humanity’s efforts at anti-religious societies have been appalling failures.

So, if we are honest about it, religion is likely to have survived because it does us good. If it looks like faith is a bad thing then we are probably looking at the matter the wrong way. Take the question of whether religion causes war. You have to admit that apologetic attempts to defuse this argument have been pretty pathetic. When Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says that most religious violence is cover for another motivation, usually political or economic, he clearly hasn’t read his history. It is absurd to claim that the medieval crusaders who marched across Europe to do battle with the infidel were not almost entirely motivated by a muscular Christian faith. Likewise, as we are now realising thanks to the searing honesty of ex-jihadis like Ed Hassan, Islamic suicide bombers and their masters are driven by a fanatical believe that their interpretation of Islam is true and demands that they make war on the West.

So yes, obviously religions cause wars. The point everyone misses is that they are even better at promoting peace. We can’t easily see this because of something I call the ‘headline fallacy’. Conflict is newsworthy while peace is a bit tedious. Look at the Middle East. While there’s no doubt that the Arab/Israeli conflict is fuelled by Judaism and Islam, it is more surprising that there are so few wars between Arab states. They are all led by dictators of varying degrees of unpleasantness but somehow they manage to rub along OK. The only exception in recent years was when the avowedly secular Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. When he needed to court Arab support, he promptly found religion and pretended an ostentatious piety. It isn’t outrageous to suggest that Islam, which forbids attacks on the faithful, prevents many more wars in the Middle East than it causes.

Proving why things don’t happen, however, is tricky. But there are enough examples of religion holding people together to make it more than likely that faith is a better promoter of peace than war.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at
Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Read the first chapter of my book "God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science"

Regular readers will have been following my efforts to find a publisher for my book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Many publishers and independent readers thought the book was good but they were not convinced that there was a market for medieval science, however accessibly presented. I want to prove them wrong.

So today, I am launching a new website: You can download the introduction and first chapter of God’s Philosophers absolutely free. If you like what you read, then please register your interest in purchasing a copy once it is published. You will not be committing yourself to anything and the resulting mailing list will only be used to send one email to inform you of how you can buy the book when it comes out. I will be using the list to show publishers that a market exists but I promise won’t let them use it for their own marketing.

God’s Philosophers tells the unfamiliar story of how advances in science and mathematics during the Middle Ages led directly to the period usually called “The Scientific Revolution”. It debunks the myth that the medieval era was one when all progress was obscured by the clouds of superstition. On the contrary, reason was lauded and even the Christian church supported the study of logic and philosophy. Along the way, you will read about many exciting characters and stories such as the doomed lovers Abelard and Heloise, the terrible fate of the astrologer Cecco D’Ascoli and the wretched family of Italian polymath Jerome Cardan. The book ends with the tumultuous career of Galileo and shows just how much his work owed to his medieval predecessors.

God’s Philosophers is written in an easy style and does not require any prior knowledge from its readers. Neither does it dumb down. Complicated issues of science and philosophy are handled in straightforward language with examples from everyday life. If you thought you weren’t interested in the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, read the first chapter. You may be surprised!

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In Reply to Richard Carrier

In his response to my defence of Lynn White, Richard Carrier concedes almost all I could ask him to. He is certainly entitled to disagree with White’s ideas on the influence of Christianity. As to whether the classical era was the most inventive in history, I shall await his new book. I shall certainly be purchasing it when it appears. If I did imply that the pike was invented in the fourteenth century, I did not intend to. However, its use as a counter to heavy cavalry does begin at that point. I also think he overstates the effectiveness of a makeshift palisade as seen in Braveheart, but I don’t either of us will be volunteering to test that one to death.

I’ve got three issues that I’d like to follow up. Firstly, at the end of his post, Carrier engages in a little semantic gymnastics but trying to claim the early Renaissance began in 1250. Medieval society always rested firmly on antique foundations but I don’t find the term ‘renaissance’ terribly helpful. Certainly, to redefine those bits of the Middle Ages we like as the early Renaissance while, no doubt, continuing to refer to the nasty bits as medieval, does nothing to advance historical understanding. The names we give to periods must not be allowed to imply value judgements. They are simply labels of convenience. In point of fact, I refuse to use the terms Renaissance, Dark Ages or Enlightenment because the risk of giving these terms more meaning than they deserve is just too great. My PhD thesis, on sixteenth century natural philosophy, did not include the words Renaissance or Scientific Revolution. Neither examiner appears to have noticed the omission which just shows we don’t really need these value-laden terms at all.

My second point is a bit less idiosyncratic. Carrier points out that horseshoes and the heavy plough we not unknown in the late Roman Empire. Nor, in fact, were watermills and some other machines. What is odd is the way that these technologies simply did not seem to catch on until the 7th or 8th centuries. There is no doubt that Roman society was deeply conservative but even that doesn’t explain why they never bothered with watermills and continued to prefer hand querns. Marxists used to claim it was a symptom of a slave-based economy. Other historians think that the big infrastructure projects of the Empire were invariably urban so their was no capital left for rural improvements. I’ve no idea what the answer is, but when Carrier claims the Romans would have used a stirrup if they saw one, he is engaging in wishful thinking. Societies, especially big empires, are often very slow to adopt the technology of what they perceive to be lowlier races.

Finally, Carrier claims that Roman agriculture was as efficient as anything in Europe up to the eighteenth century. Firstly, that means as efficient as anything up to the thirteenth century because there was little improvement in the intervening period. Second, there is evidence that medieval agriculture was more productive than under Rome. For instance, most population estimates reckon that densities in 1300 were roughly double at the height of the Roman Empire. France had a population of about twenty million just before the hundred years war. The province of Gaul supported roughly ten million. We need to treat these guesses with a lot of circumspection, of course. Also, improvements to agriculture probably account for only some of the difference. The amount of land under the plough might have increased and the medieval warm period, which today’s global warming lobby has been trying so hard to deny, also may have had a significant effect in increasing crop yields. Overall, however, medieval agriculture was almost certainly more productive than under the Romans due, as White realised, to horse collars, heavy ploughs, three field rotation and water mills.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Carrier, Dawkins and a diabolical Englishman

Richard Carrier has replied to my post on Friday with a forthright defence of the ancient world combined with a bit of retreat from his previous rhetoric. I’ll be saying a bit more on the question on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins is back. This time he is going after astrology, spiritualism, homeopathy and the new age. His new series, The Enemies of Reason, begins on Channel 4 on 13th August. There is a lengthy interview and preview in the Sunday Times which generally approves of the enterprise. Melanie Phillips in the Daily Bigot (whoops, I mean the Daily Mail) is rather less sympathetic. Personally, I find the phrase ‘breaking a butterfly on the wheel’ comes to mind when I think of setting Darwin’s rottweiler on a bunch of harmless hippies.

Finally, in this rather disconnected blog entry, I’ve recently finished reading Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders (published as The Devil’s Broker Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy in the US). It’s OK. Saunders is a journalist whose previous book was on the CIA’s covert work to influence the arts and culture. Quite why this qualified her to write about late-medieval Italy, I have no idea. But in the weird and wacky world of publishing, having a successful book to your name and journalistic contacts is worth far more than being competent to write the book in question.

Anyway, as I said Hawkwood is OK. Saunders can write clearly and has done a fair bit of leg work in the library. There are occasional patches of the purple prose which is now obligatory in popular history, but just make it look like her editor has asked her to liven things up. The story she has to tell is a good one and it is reasonably well told. The problem is simply that she has not really grasped the material. Although there is a lengthy list of primary sources in the bibliography, most of her quotations come from secondary works. Saunders does not appear to have sat down and read all the contemporary chronicles and sources. She has clearly read the Canterbury Tales and some Dante, which is a start, but there is no sign she has mastered anything that isn’t available in English translation. The result is her narrative is often cursory and disconnected. Stuff happens, wars are lost, cities surrender and Saunders has absolutely no idea why. It maybe no one else does, but there are ways for historians to handle this. Hawkwood should have been a work of narrative history based on the original sources of the kind patented by Runciman, Wolfson, Freeman and Lord Norwich. Sadly, it is a much lesser beast although its little light does shine brighter in the murk of the current popular history market.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Stirrups, horse harnesses and Richard Carrier

Apologies for the lack of a post on Wednesday. I had my PhD viva and could hardly lift a finger after two and a half hours of being grilled on sixteenth century natural philosophy and mathematics.

In a recent post on his blog, Richard Carrier has attacked the work of the distinguished American medieval historian Lynn White. Scroll down to the section headed ‘Horse S**t’ in the blog post here. Carrier’s motive is quite clear from his references to the ‘Horse collar of Christ’ and heavy cavalry as a miracle of Jesus. In fact, the relevant book by Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change, makes almost no mention of Christianity. While White was certainly a Christian, he is most famous for a 1967 article blaming our current environmental problems on Christianity, which is hardly the action of an unqualified admirer of the religion. Carrier, of course, is up to his normal anti-Christian bashing that we have come to expect from this luminary of Internet Infidels.

Carrier mentions White's theory about the stirrup. White correctly notes that this made heavy cavalry possible and that European warfare was revolutionised by it. Carrier sneers at this. He points out that the Romans used four horned saddles which worked almost as well as stirrups. What he doesn’t tell us is that these saddles were big, heavy and expensive. There is simply no way that you could equip a large contingent of light cavalry with them and stay within budget. And Carrier admits they were no good for heavy cavalry who really did need stirrups to function. He then tries to suggest that heavy cavalry did not radically alter warfare because it could be seen off by infantry in a defended position. True enough – everyone knew attacking dug-in troops with cavalry was suicidal (though that didn’t stop some fools from trying it). But once the infantry started to move, heavy cavalry could smash it to pieces in the field and often did. Witness the Battle of Hastings where the Saxon shield wall held off the Norman cavalry all day. But as soon as they broke formation they were dead meat. It was not until the fourteenth century that the real answer to heavy cavalry appeared – the pike. These long spears allowed infantry to form a prickly hedgehog that cavalry could not penetrate. The trouble was that pikes require trained professional soldiers who are able to move in formation. These didn’t exist in the feudal armies of the High Middle Ages or the barbarian hordes that preceded them. Warfare is a game of paper, scissors, stone. If you have heavy cavalry, you rule the roost until someone invents scissors.

The horse-collar too, was an improvement that, coupled with horse shoes, three field rotation and heavy ploughs, allowed agriculture to increase yields well beyond what the Romans managed. Where White went wrong was to assume these changes happened overnight. Of course, as we learn from Robert Fossier in the New Cambridge Medieval History, progress was actually much slower and the agricultural system that White assumed was in place by 900AD did not in fact become ubiquitous until after 1200.

So, White’s work has been criticised, adapted and finessed. That’s all within the rules of the game. But his fundamental point that the Middle Ages were a period of technological advance is unchallenged. Carrier’s blinkered hatred of Christianity is also preventing him from see the facts.

By the way, further to my recent post, it seems the Jesus Project is coming a part at the seams. Jim West and others have been finding all sorts of people are listed as fellows who know nothing about it including Richard Bauckham and Dom Crossan. Both have asked to be removed. Richard Carrier is still listed as a fellow though....

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.