Sunday, August 30, 2009

I find your lack of belief disturbing

In a couple of recent posts, James pointed out that the logical positivist position that statements about God are meaningless applies equally to statements that God does not exist. Some commenters suggested that this only applies to hard atheism, the assertion that God does not exist. It does not, however, apply to soft atheism, which simply means that one lacks any belief in God. See here and here including the comments.

I don't understand exactly what is meant by lacking a belief. For myself, I find my belief or disbelief isn't a simple matter, but works on a scale or field so that I believe some things more strongly or weakly than others and the same holds for things I disbelieve. In the middle area is indecision or agnosticism, where I neither believe nor disbelieve, although even here there is often a leaning towards belief or disbelief. Presumably it would be incumbent upon me to explain why I place a particular claim where it is in the scale. This is obviously a simplification, as the border areas are fuzzy, and a weakly-held belief can have some positive characteristics that a strongly-held belief lacks. Yet nowhere in this spectrum do I find anything I could accurately call "lacking a belief."

However, outside of the spectrum I do find something like this. Were someone to ask me if I believe some random concept I hadn't heard or thought of before -- like whether there is an advanced civilization of penguins on the fourth planet orbiting Sirius -- I would place my belief in this somewhere in the spectrum. But prior to having this concept presented to me, it wouldn't be true to say I disbelieved it or was agnostic about it, much less that I believed it. Here I could accurately say I lacked a belief in this concept. But to make the point clearer, once I heard the idea I could no longer claim to lack a belief in it. I either believe it, disbelieve it, or am agnostic about it.

So this is why I'm confused by people who say they lack a belief in God. They have clearly heard of the idea; they're actively discussing it. Yet they specifically distinguish themselves from agnostics who say that they neither believe nor disbelieve in God, as well as from hard atheists who simply disbelieve. So, again, I don't understand exactly what they mean by this. I find no room in myself to say I lack a belief in something I have heard of. I have to agree with James: soft atheism looks like an attempt to disbelieve in God without having to go through all the rigamarole of having any reasons for it. It looks like an insistence to believe and disbelieve whatever you want regardless of the way things actually are.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Family in the Early Middle Ages – Part Two

In part one we looked at the differences between Roman family practices and Germanic family practices. Over the course of the early middle ages, some Roman practices would come to dominate over the Germanic practices while some Germanic practices would displace those of the Romans. When trying to determine whether it was going to be a Germanic practice or a Roman practice that would be absorbed into Medieval Europe, the force which was most responsible was the Christian Church, which became the single most powerful influence shaping the family.

A good example of this is marital theory. By the year 1000, the Germanic theory of marriage, which had stated that you don’t need the free consent of both people, had been rejected. In its place, the Roman principle that you must have the free consent of both parties was accepted. The reason for this was that the Christian theologians of late antiquity such as Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine had decided that the Roman principle was morally superior and included it in their Theology. To a surprising degree, Church leaders and theologians took on and challenged practices which had been perfectly acceptable to both Romans and Barbarians, condemning these and trying to have them expelled from Europe. Their reasons for doing so are still controversial.

Endogamy and Exogamy were two major issues. Endogamy refers to marriage within the kingroup. Exogamy refers to marriage outside the kingroup. For Romans and Barbarians endogamy was preferable to exogamy. In general you wanted to marry your relatives and you only married outside the kin group if you really had to. This is not to say that Romans and Barbarians didn’t have incest taboos. Certain relatives were off limits; brothers, sisters and direct relatives. Anyone beyond those immediate relatives were fair game, in particular first cousins if you could arrange it. As early as the 4th century, Christian Emperors began to condemn endogamy and instead required people to marry those who were not close relatives (for an (ill-advised) modern day condemnation of endogamy see here). During the course of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the prohibited degrees of kinship - the list of relatives you could not marry- grew wider and wider. By the year 1000, this list included not just first cousins but second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth cousins. They included not just blood relatives, but spiritual relatives (godparents) and those you are related to by marriage. This would be enforced by the Church through ecclesiastical discipline, excommunication and penance.

In addition to opposing marriage within the kin group, Christian leaders also opposed other practices that were acceptable and common among Romans and Barbarians. Beforehand, divorce was not overly difficult for men and women to obtain. Church leaders opposed the practice in all but a few prescribed cases. Christians also condemned infanticide and the right of the head of household to reject a newborn child. Christianity was also hostile to adoption, which in Antiquity was a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs to manage estates (infant adoption was rare). Roman law was pro remarriage and encouraged people to remarry within a certain amount of time. Christian theologians took the opposite viewpoint. Concubinage was condemned and it was seen as only slightly better than prostitution.

It was one thing to condemn all these practices and declare them to be sins for which one had to do penance. It was another thing entirely to get people to accept that they should abandon them. In some cases the Church's attempts failed. By the year 1000, concubinage was still widespread in Europe. However most of the practices condemned by the Church were waning and beginning to gain a social stigma. Adoption became much rarer than it had been in the Roman Empire. Polygamy had vanished but it had taken a while to stamp this out.

Merovingian kings were quite open in their polygamous practices. One king called Chlothar I was asked by his wife to find a good husband for her sister. Chlothar said that he would be willing to do so, but added that it would be helpful if he could meet the sister and get to know her so that he would be able to find a suitable mate. After meeting her and speaking with her, he informed his wife that yes, he had someone in mind…..himself!. History does not record what his wife thought of all this. Another Merovingian ruler called Dagobert I hedged his bets by marrying three women simultaneously. By contrast, Carolingian rulers never married more than one woman at one time. Charlemagne divorced a lot of women and had quite a few girlfriends on the side, but he didn’t go as far as to resort to polygamy. Carolingian rulers who lacked the personality of Charlemagne sometimes found themselves brought to heel by the popes. For example Lothair II, tried to divorce his wife in order to ditch her and marry his mistress Waldrada, but found that the papacy thwarted his efforts, something they never would have dared to do 100 years earlier.

As regards naming practices, it was the Germanic principle of only having one name which would become the norm in Europe by the year 1000. In the case of marital property transfers, the Germanic practices won out and the dowry disappeared from Europe. Instead, the ‘bride price’ and ‘morning gift’ became standard. Both the multiple names and dowry system of the Romans would return with a vengeance in the High Middle Ages as these were revived.

Why were the Christian Churches opposed to the practices I mentioned and what motivated their drive to reshape European society?. There are a number of theories as to why they were doing this and two in particular have gained notoriety. The first has been advanced by an English anthropologist by the name of Jack Goody. Goody argues that one must not take the explanations given by contemporaries at face value, mainly because these explanations often made no sense. When marriage to your sixth cousin was forbidden (seven degrees of kinship), for example, the explanation given was that ‘we have to extend the probation to seven degrees because the world was created in seven days’. According to Goody, this is such a ridiculous explanation that you cannot buy it. Even when there is a biblical precedent (e.g Leviticus) the Christian prohibition goes way beyond it.

For Goody, there is a fairly obvious pattern. Many of the practices stamped out were ‘strategies of heirship’, a means by which families could guarantee there was a male heir around and keep the family property intact. Cousin marriage would ensure that the property would stay with relatives. Another example was the Roman practice of adoption which was often used to establish male heirship. Polygamy would increase the odds of increasing male heirs. Divorce would get rid of wives that could not produce heirs. Goody maintains that the Church were involved in an unconscious strategy to weaken family structures and increase the odds of property being left to the church.

The leading critic of Jack Goody was a medieval historian called David Herlihy. Herlihy rejected Goody’s rejection of contemporary explanations and pointed to some which were not at all nonsensical. For example, the prohibition against divorce comes straight out of the New Testament. St Augustine condemned Endogamy, because marriage served the purpose of bringing people together who would not otherwise be united in bonds of love. When you married a relative you were thwarting that purpose because you were not bringing two different families together, you were all related. Therefore as an instrument of social utility, endogamy would have to be rejected allowing the tendrils of love to spread as far though society as possible.

Herlihy extended the argument to say that social engineering and morality were central to the church's prohibitions. Infanticide was rejected along with other Roman bloodshed such as animal sacrifice and gladiator shows. Polygamy was rejected because when a few men hogged all the women it would create a large body of restless men who would be prone to violence. There is a remarkable letter from Pope Gregory the Great which explains the churches opposition to marriage within the kin group as follows:

We have learned from experience that the offspring of such unions cannot thrive.

This suggests that there was at least some awareness among contemporaries that the children of closely related individuals would suffer problems.

Neither Goody nor Herlihy gained enough evidence to support their conclusions so the redevelopment of the family in the middle ages remains an open question. Personally I like the idea of a giant church conspiracy to grab everyone's money, but if pushed I would have to plump for Herlihy.

Family Life in the Early Middle Ages - Part Two

James Hannam's 'God's Philosophers' is now available from Amazon

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Monday, August 24, 2009

The Saxon Saviour

It was not until Charlemagne’s conquests that Christianity really made any headway with the Saxons. Charlemagne’s policy was to make sure that the conquered were forced into mass baptisms at the end of a campaign, and then later to send the missionaries among the Saxons in order to explain the religion to which they had just joined. Not surprisingly the Christianity of the Saxons was somewhat on the superficial side, since they didn’t really know what they were getting into. Nethertheless Charlemagne’s and the missionaries he supported did succeed in moving the eastern boundary between paganism and Christianity from the Rhine river to the Elbe river where it would remain until the time of the crusades.

One text in particular tells us a great deal about what the conversion of the Saxons entailed and some of the ways in which the Carolingians made concessions. In the first half of the 9th century, a version of the Christian gospel was translated into old Saxon, apparently so that the Saxons had a better understanding of Christianity and could read it for themselves. This version of the gospel is called the Heliand and it presents a retelling of the Gospel story as a Germanic heroic epic.

Having been thoroughly ‘Saxonised’, Christ becomes a warrior, the towns of ancient Israel become ‘hill forts’ and the three wise men become warriors and thanes. John the Baptist is called a ‘soothsayer’ and the Lord’s Payer apparently contains ‘secret runes’. When Christ leaves the wedding at Cana, the Heliand says that

‘Christ, the most powerful of kings decided to go to Capharnaum, the great hill fort, with his followers. His forces of good men, his happy warrior company assembled in front of him’

In the passage of the Gospel of Luke regarding the arrest of Jesus of Nazareth in the garden of Gethsemane the differences between the original and the Germanic version are interesting. In the original revised edition version:

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”. When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

The same scene in the Saxon Version appears under the titles ‘Christ’s deep fear before battle, his last salute in the garden’ and ‘Christ the chieftain is captured, Peter the mighty soldier defends him boldly’. The passage reads:

‘Christ’s warrior companions saw warriors coming up the mountain making a great din
Angry armed men. Judas the hate filled man was showing them the way.
The enemy clan, the Jews, were marching behind.
The warriors marched forward, the grim Jewish army, until they had come to the Christ.
There he stood, the famous chieftain.
Christ’s followers, wise men deeply distressed by this hostile action
Held their position in front.
They spoke to their chieftain, ‘My Lord chieftain’, they said, ‘if it should now
Be your will that we be impaled here under spear points
Wounded by their weapons then nothing would be so good to us as to die here
Pale from mortal wounds for our chieftain’.

Then he got really angry
Simon Peter, the mighty, noble swordman flew into a rage.
His mind was in such turmoil he could not speak a single word.
His heart became intensely bitter because they wanted to tie up his Lord there.
So he strode over angrily, that very daring Thane, to stand in front of his commander
Right in front of his Lord.

No doubting in his mind, no fearful hesitation in his chest he drew his blade
And struck straight ahead at the first man of the enemy with all the strength in his hands
So that Malchus was cut and wounded on the right side by the sword.
His ear was chopped off.
He was so badly wounded in the head that his cheek and ear burst open with the mortal wound
Blood gushed out, pouring from the wound.
The men stood back; they were afraid of the slash of the sword.

The author took a few liberties here. For a start, Simon Peter is supposed to be a fisherman, not a swordsman, and the gospel account doesn’t elaborate on the High Priest’s injury, or glorify it as the greatest head wound ever suffered as if it were appearing in a Rocky movie. Yet to gain Saxon acceptance of Christianity compromises would have to be made, after all what kind of God would not resist his arrest?.

The point of this passage is that Christ tells his followers to not resist, but in the Saxon version it is because he must undergo ‘the workings of fate’, the ultimate determinant of reality to the pagan Germanic peoples. When he is crucified, the cross is interpreted as a tree or gallows, which would have seemed similar to the hanging of Woden in the cosmic tree when he tried to learn the riddle of death and discovered the mysterious runes:

There on the sandy gravel they erected the gallows
Up on the field, the Jewish people set it up
A tree on the mountain

Once resurrected, the warrior Christ becomes greater than Woden having escaped his own fated death with his own power and ascending to the right hand of God; the old Gods have been replaced by the Saxon saviour.

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Friday, August 21, 2009


Just in case you haven't seen it before, behold the Postmodern Generator. Every time you hit refresh, you get a brand new, completely meaningless postmodern essay. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Michael F. Flynn and the Middle Ages

One of the questions thrown up by God's Philosophers is why no one did the work of Galileo in the fourteenth century. After all, John Buridan and Nicole Oresme had already cleared most of the ground. About the only important material that Galileo had that they lacked was the conic geometry of Apollonius of Perga. In the book, I suggest that the Black Death might have had a deleterious effect on medieval natural philosophy and delayed for almost two centuries the next series of significant advances.

Michael F. Flynn, the renowned science fiction writer, decided to ask what might have happened if Buridan had enjoyed just one more insight and realised how he could experimentally verify his ideas. The result was Questiones super Caelo et Mundo, an award-winning short story published in ANALOG Magazine in 2007 about a visit to Buridan, Oresme and the young Albert of Saxony in Paris from the Oxford natural philosopher William of Heytesbury. All the characters will be familiar to readers of God's Philosophers. Flynn is best known for 'hard' (that is, realistic) science fiction and in this spirit, he has ensured that his story, although fiction, avoids anachronism. The result is one of the most entertaining reads I have come across in a very long time. Since it is now available online, it is well worth an hour of anyone's time. And if you do enjoy it, you should also check out Flynn's novels, especially Eifelheim, which also deals with issues from the Middle Ages.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Timiditas et Deditio

This is just ridiculous. Jytte Klausen wrote a book about the Muhammad cartoons published in a Danish newspaper several years ago, and the rioting and violence that they provoked among some Muslims. South Park did a two-part episode about it that was extremely sacrilegious and hilarious (here's part 1 and part 2). Most newspapers and magazines wouldn't reprint the cartoons themselves, even though they were what the outrage was about, so most people never got a chance to even see them (you can see them here if you want). The book is entitled The Cartoons that Shook the World, and is to be published by Yale University Press.

Here's the kicker: the publishers decided not to include the cartoons in the book. They want to publish a book about some cartoons without including the very cartoons that the book is about. It looks like it wasn't YUP that's at fault though; apparently Yale University stepped in after the Press had thoroughly vetted the book, and decided not to include any depictions of Muhammad. Roger Kimball has several enlightening posts on this here, here, here, and here.

I wrote about the cartoons on my other blog a while ago, and made four points; please forgive me for quoting myself:

1. It's incredibly ungracious to treat something profanely when many people consider it sacred. It's morally reprehensible to do something for the sole purpose of offending others, especially when it comes to something as close to people's personal sense of identity as their religious beliefs.

2. Nevertheless, they had the right to publish these cartoons. Free speech, freedom of the press, etc. entails the right to offend. If you only have free speech until someone is offended by what you say, you don't really have free speech.

3. To respond to a handful of cartoons by threatening and committing violence is absurdly disproportionate. In fact, the cartoons themselves were pretty tame. Most had nothing offensive about them at all, except that they depicted Muhammad. Some of the cartoons even mocked the newspaper for commissioning the cartoons, or even the cartoonists themselves.

4. The prohibition against making images of Muhammad is not a universally-held doctrine in Islam. Many museums throughout the world, including the Muslim world, have paintings of Muhammad, which have been made by both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout Islamic history. Drawings and paintings and even cartoons of Muhammad have been made many times before without similar responses. As such, the rioting showed all the signs of being a contrived outrage.

Let me make a fifth point: acquiescing to bad behavior only encourages more of it. After all, it shows that it works.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Reviews of God’s Philosophers in the Sunday Times and the Spectator

Both the Spectator and the Sunday Times have long and broadly positive reviews of God's Philosophers this week. As before, I'll gut the reviews for the main points.

In the Spectator, Dan Jones, author of Summer of Blood, a new book on the Peasants' Revolt, says,

Hannam does a good job of explaining how a few medieval scholars had come devilishly close to realising that the earth was in motion, and that the moon controlled the tides. Copernicus nailed much of it in the 16th century, but Hannam shows that some of his arguments were straight lifts from the work of much earlier scholars, such as John Buridan. Buridan suggested as early as 1350 that sunrise and sunset was caused by the earth, not the sun, moving. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed…. this is a very useful general survey of a difficult topic, and a robust defence of an unfairly maligned age.

Conversely, he notes,

With so much ground covered, occasionally this book feels like a catalogue of scientific saints. There must be more than 150 characters, few of whom reappear after their first mention, and in places one wishes Hannam would pause longer for thought before rattling onto the next genius.

In the Sunday Times, James McConnachie, says,

In his spirited jaunt through centuries of scientific development, James Hannam tries to overthrow this cultural prejudice. He trumpets the Middle Ages as an era in which rational thought crystallised and scientific freedom flourished… We should not write off these men as "superstitious primitives", Hannam appeals. "They deserve our gratitude." He largely wins it for them…

… however,

… his plea is sometimes let down by a textbookish tone. More troubling is his overly partial stance. He is extraordinarily hostile to the Renaissance humanists, for instance, for throwing away 300 years of progress in pursuit of a dream of the classical past; "incorrigible reactionaries", he calls them. He also gives oddly little weight to the achievements of Arab scholars.

I would say that I gave Arab scholars as much weight as I honestly could. The plain fact is that in recent years, the Arab contribution to science has been somewhat overstated.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Medieval Cosmology and the Church

There is a new lecture out from the Faraday Institute entitled 'Medieval Cosmology and the Church' from the brilliant (and somewhat eccentric) Allan Chapman, author of 'Gods in the Sky: Astronomy from the Ancients to the Enlightenment'. It's a great listen and it gives a good insight into the richness of Medieval Culture. It covers the development of crucial internal structures in the Middle Ages, the universities, the town councils, cathedrals, merchant corporations and academic fellowships and highlights the role of 'personal authority exclusion zones' (such as the city of London) and the system of dual authority between the secular powers and the church. These helped create an environment in which intellectual culture could thrive and the inheritance of antiquity could be built upon.

I found two things of particular interest. One was the way in which Chapman highlights the scientific details in Chaucer, which would assume some knowledge on the part of the readership. The prologue to the physician's tale, for example, is a complete treatise on Galenic medicine. The story of the rapscallion alchemists goes into their apparatus and the texts they relied upon. The Miller's Tale features the devious student Master Nicholas and his attempts to get into bed with his masters wife. In his room this young scallywag owns a copy of Ptolemy's Almagest (probably the condensed John of Saccabosco version) and an astrolabe. Having talked about Medieval astronomy, Chapman remarks that 'the popular idea of a persecution of scientific interests simply become laughably silly at the fact that the church, the universities and the great monasteries taught this stuff relentlessly for centuries'.

Another interesting detail was how Medieval scholars thought almost proto-relativistically in certain matters. One problem was whether you might get bored in heaven; after all, singing hymns and playing the harp with the elect might get extremely tiresome after the first million years. Similarly, if you happened to end up in hell with a sentence of eternal punishment, you might get used to the heat after a while and it wouldn't be so bad. Would Satan have to keep turning up the temperature?. This wouldn't be a problem because you would be outside of space and time. Hence if you were in hell, it would always be the same instant and it would be horrible because you could only look back on what you had done in your life. In heaven, you would have no expectation of anything better because you would be in the presence of God, the elect and the apostles in one supremely glorious moment. It would be like watching Johnny Wilkinson's winning drop goal in the final minute of the 2003 World Cup on loop for all eternity.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Family in the Early Middle Ages - Part One

Family life in the late Roman Empire and Early Middle Ages is in some aspects familiar to the modern eye, but in other aspects very strange. By the end of the early middle ages the family would look a great deal more like the families of today than the families of the ancient world, and this is in large part due to a working out of the differences between Roman marital practices and Barbarian marital practices. The force that was most often responsible for deciding which practices would be adopted and which rejected was the Christian church. Under the influence of Christianity, Roman and Barbarian customs would merge to forge new concepts, customs and laws.

Roman and barbarian families at the time of the great migrations of the 4th and 5th centuries (or Bloodthirsty Barbarian Invasions if you prefer) resembled one another in certain crucial respects. Both the Roman and the Barbarian families were often thought of in terms of the ‘household’. This was a much broader unit than the family of today, which is usually thought of in terms of the nuclear family; two spouses and their children. Roman and Barbarian households certainly consisted of a husband and a wife, and children if they had them, but it also consisted of many more people than that. It consisted of servants, slaves, distant relatives and household property. The only people in Roman and Barbarian society that had households which look like today were the very poorest individuals, those who could not afford servants and slaves.

Another similarity between Roman and Barbarian families was that the head of the household had extensive powers over the members of the household. According to Roman law, the father was the paterfamilias who had complete control over his children as long as he lived. The life or death authority once held by the Roman father was no longer in effect by the 4th century AD but the father still retained significant control. One of most famous examples of this was the right of the head of the household to reject newborns. If a child was born and the head of the household decided that ‘we have too many children as it is’, or that ‘the child seems rather sickly’, or that ‘we have too many girls already’, the head of the household could refuse to pick up the child and at that point the child would either have to be killed, or abandoned to either die or be picked up by someone else. Tacitus was astonished to hear that the Germans ‘hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child’ but it is now thought that unwanted children were exposed by the tribes, usually by being left in the forest.

The Romans and Barbarians accepted various types of long term relationships between men and women. They had marriage, which was intended to be a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, who intend to have children. But they also accepted relationships which have not made it to the modern world, one example being concubinage. This doesn’t have a great reputation these days. If I was to go to a drinks party at the weekend and introduce my partner as ‘my concubine’ I would doubtless get some very odd looks and a few embarrassed mutterings like ‘ interesting’. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages concubinage was a socially acceptable relationship in both Barbarian and Roman circle. It referred to a long term, but not necessarily permanent, relationship between a man and a women who cohabited and were willing to have children. As for why someone would want to enter into a concubniage, sometimes there was no choice involved. Roman law forbade members of certain social classes from marrying those of other social classes, in which case your only option was for a relationship of concubinage. Sometimes individuals would not want to marry until the heads of their households had died. Another similarity was that the head of the household would have extensive powers regarding the arrangement of marriages of children. Children sometimes married against the wishes of their parents at great risk. The Lombard Code for example, imposes the death penalty for children who did so.

Another difference was in the naming of people. The Romans had three names signifying something different. So for example, in the name Gaius Julius Caesar, the first name Gaius is the individual name like John or Phillip is today. The second name, Julius refers to your clan or tribe; a group of people claiming descent from a common ancestor. The third name Caesar is the name of the head of the household into which you were born; this would usually be your biological father. The barbarians who came into the Roman Empire had a very different system. Barbarians only had one name, for example Einhart, the biographer of Charlemagne (see illustration on the right). A barbarian name often consisted of two elements, each of which had a specific meaning. It was possible to denote familiar relationships in barbarian society because each family had a collection of familiar suffixes and prefixes that it used almost exclusively. So you could tell who someone’s relatives were by knowing their name. That’s why, for example the historian Nithard's brother was called Harnid using the same combination of items.

You also find important differences in marital property transfers between Barbarians and Romans. When Romans got married, the property transfer took the form of a dowry, a property transfer that moves from the bride and the bride’s family to the groom. In a Germanic barbarian marriage, the property moved in the opposite direction. It was the obligation of the groom and the groom’s family to provide property to the bride and the bride’s family upon marriage. This transfer could take two forms. One was the bride price (property you give to the bride’s family before the marriage), the other was known as morning gift (this one to the bride herself the day after the marriage).

Another striking difference between Roman and barbarian relations was that Romans were monogamists who could only marry one person at a time or have one concubine. Barbarians were polygamists who could be married to several women at the same time and have multiple concubines (which sounds pretty high maintenance to me!).

Perhaps the most important distinction between Roman marriage and barbarian marriage related to marital theory. Romans and Barbarians both gave heads of households important powers over their children but Roman law stipulated that you could not have a marriage between two people who did not both freely consent to the marriage. If one or another party said ‘I do not want to get married’ there is nothing the other could do to force the issue. Barbarians did not regard free consent of the two people as an essential component of marriage. You could have a marriage against the will of one or both parties to the marriage if necessary. The only thing that you must really have under barbarian law was intention on the part of somebody that the two people get married, followed by consummation. No consummation, no marriage. This theoretical distinction had important consequences. For example, in Roman law, marriage by abduction is not permissible. You could not kidnap a woman and force her to marry you against her will. In barbarian law it would be reprehensible to kidnap someone and marry them – you would probably get fined for doing so – but it would still be legal.

As the dominant cultural force of the time, it was the Church which would ultimately sift through these conflicting practices and determine which were permissible. Roman culture would spread to the barbarians, but filtered through a Christian lens. We will look at what would eventually emerge in part two.

Further Reading

Family Life in the Middle Ages - Linda Elizabeth Mitchell

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Size Doesn't Matter, part 3

In this series I am contesting the claim that the unimaginable vastness of the universe, revealed to us in modern astronomy, makes it absurd to ascribe any significance to the earth and its inhabitants. In part 1 I addressed the science side of this claim and in part 2 I addressed the historical side. Ignoring the issues already discussed, this claim assumes that the relative sizes of the earth and the universe demonstrate that the former must be, somehow, insignificant or unimportant. Apparently, on some level, we instinctively equate size with value or significance. The original meaning of the word "great" is "very large", a phenomenon that occurs in many languages. "Bigger" just means "better."

But to take this as an ontological statement about something's actual importance is incredibly naïve. Just because bigger sometimes seems better, it's absurd to think that there is a significant correlation between size and value. What exactly is it about size that would bestow value anyway? Why would a smaller thing automatically be less important than a bigger thing? While it's true that the immense size of the universe can make us feel insignificant, this is a psychological fact about us, not a scientific fact about the universe. For people who accuse others of simple-mindedness, those who argue that the universe's size demonstrates our unimportance are remarkably simple minded themselves.

C. S. Lewis puts this so much better than I ever could that I'll just refer you to the 7th chapter of Miracles:

There is no doubt that we all feel the incongruity of supposing, say, that the planet Earth might be more important than the Great Nebula in Andromeda. On the other hand, we are all equally certain that only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man's legs than his brain. In other words this supposed ratio of size to importance feels plausible only when one of the sizes involved is very great. And that betrays the true basis of this type of thought. When a relation is perceived by Reason, it is perceived to hold good universally. If our Reason told us that size was proportional to importance, the small differences in size would be accompanied by small differences in importance just as surely as great differences in size were accompanied by great differences in importance. Your six-foot man would have to be slightly more valuable than the man of five feet, and your leg slightly more important than your brain -- which everyone knows to be nonsense. The conclusion is inevitable: the importance we attach to great differences of size is an affair not of reason but of emotion -- of that peculiar emotion which superiorities in size begin to produce in us only after a certain point of absolute size has been reached.

We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality -- the Sublime. But for this, the merely arithmetical greatness of the Galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in an account book. To a mind which did not share our emotions and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument against Christianity from the size of the universe would be simply unintelligible. It is therefore from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal's own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulæ is, almost literally, to be frightened at our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian I do not say we are wrong to tremble at that shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the vastness of Nature ever threatens to overcrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualised by human imagination which does so. This suggests a possible answer to the question raised a few pages ago -- why the size of the universe, known for centuries, should first in modern times become an argument against Christianity. Has it perhaps done so because in modern times the imagination has become more sensitive to bigness? From this point of view the argument from size might almost be regarded as a by-product of the Romantic Movement in poetry. In addition to the absolute increase of imaginative vitality on this topic, there has pretty certainly been a decline on others. Any reader of old poetry can see that brightness appealed to ancient and medieval man more than bigness, and more than it does to us. Medieval thinkers believed that the stars must be somehow superior to the Earth because they looked bright and it did not. Moderns think that the Galaxy ought to be more important than the Earth because it is bigger. Both states of mind can produce good poetry. Both can supply mental pictures which rouse very respectable emotions -- emotions of awe, humility, or exhiliration. But taken as serious philosophical argument both are ridiculous.

It reminds me of Jodie Foster's comment at the end of Contact (I don't know if it's present in the novel by Carl Sagan): if we're the only living creatures in the universe, it seems like an awful waste of space. But as Victor Reppert writes, "It is not as if energy or time [or space] is a scarce resource for God and we have to ask him, if he seems to be ‘wasting’ it, why he isn't putting it to better use. ‘Waste’ is an issue only where there is scarcity."

A similar objection that I mentioned in part 1 needs further comment. I pointed out that the universe's mass density -- the amount of matter in the universe -- must be extremely fine-tuned. Otherwise, the universe's expansion would have precluded the possibility of life existing anywhere at any time in the universe's history. In other words, the universe must be the particular size it is in order for us to exist. However, one could point out that while this matter may have been necessary at the universe's inception, it seems gratuitous for it to still be here. To insist that this vast universe is all there for our sake seems absurd. Every piece of matter may have had some relevance to the universe's initial expansion billions of years ago, but there is no obvious connection between distant pieces of matter and the human race's present existence. There are plenty of galaxies billions of light years away, which have plenty of planets orbiting plenty of suns. What does a particular rock on one of these planets have to do with life on earth now? The absence of such a connection makes humanity appear irrelevant to the universe.

Ignoring my previous response, this objection assumes that life or the human race is the only possible reason why the Judeo-Christian God would have created the universe. But just because all this matter has no relevance to humanity's existence today, it does not mean that God does not delight in it for some other reason, and so sustains it in existence. Again, this point is made best by C. S. Lewis:

There is no question of religious people fancying that all exists for man and scientific people discovering that it does not. Whether the ultimate and inexplicable being -- that which simply is -- turns out to be God or "the whole show," of course it does not exist for us. On either view we are faced with something which existed before the human race appeared and will exist after the Earth has become uninhabitable; which is utterly independent of us though we are totally dependent on it; and which, through vast ranges of its being, has no relevance to our own hopes and fears. For no man was, I suppose, ever so mad as to think that man, or all creation, filled the Divine Mind; if we are a small thing to space and time, space and time are a much smaller thing to God. It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us when we think about the nature of things. It comes to intensify them. Without such sensations there is no religion.

A final point: in order to assert that the premoderns thought that the earth's size somehow rendered its inhabitants significant, it would require us to believe (at least) that they thought the earth and its inhabitants significant. In order for the statement, "they believed X because of Y" to be true, it has to be true that "they believed X." The argument that they thought the earth's size bequeathed significance on humanity can't even get off the ground unless they thought humanity had significance.

But this is not the case. We've already mentioned one criterion: brightness. The earth was thought to be less important and valuable than the celestial objects because they were bright while the earth was not. Another criterion that's often misunderstood is the earth's location at the center of the universe. This is usually twisted to imply that the center was the place of prestige, but the exact opposite is the case. They thought Earth was located at the bottom of the universe, which, in their view, was the least prestigious place therein. And the further down you went, the worse it was; this is why hell was thought to be at the center of the earth, and Satan at the center of hell. Arthur Lovejoy, in The Great Chain of Being, wrote that the medieval model is better described as "diabolocentric" than "geocentric." See the essays by Dennis Danielson on this.

However, one might object that Christianity conceives human beings as being so significant that God chose to be incarnated as one to die on their behalf. But this misunderstands exactly what the Christian claim is.

Christianity does not involve the belief that all things were made for man. It does involve the belief that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. I have not yet succeeded in seeing how what we know (and have known since the days of Ptolemy) about the size of the universe affects the credibility of this doctrine one way or the other. ... If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it. Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely.

In other words, whatever significance or value human beings have is derivative. The moral law tells us that people do have an inherent value; the reason murder is wrong, for example, is because each individual is of infinite worth. But the reason each individual is of infinite worth is because he/she is created in God's image. And the reason God loves us is not because we are lovely or lovable, but because he is loving; indeed, the claim is that God is love itself.

(see also part 1 and part 2)

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Military Selection

Recently I have been trying to post on matters Medieval; however I always have one foot firmly in the 19th century. In the book Galileo goes to Gaol and Other Myths about Science and Religion there was quite a good essay by Robert J Richards on the German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel. Richards has had something of a longrunning spat with Daniel Gasman over how much inspiration the Nazis took from Haeckel’s work (see here and here). The full text of this essay happens to be online here and I thought it was fairly successful. Anyone familiar with the history of the Third Reich knows what a hopelessly confused mish-mash of ideas National Socialism really was; hence one can find many antecedents but no single blueprint.

The part I found the most interesting was Haeckel’s idea of ‘Military Selection’, a phenomenon he noted during the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71. He appears to have been under the impression, that while the most heroic and virile men were manning the front and getting slaughtered, the most cowardly and feeble men were manning the bedrooms and propagating themselves. Haeckel writes:

The opposite of this artificial selection of the wild Redskins and the ancient Spartans is seen in the individual selection which is universally practised in our modern military states, for the purpose of maintaining standing armies, and which, under the name of military selection, we may conveniently consider as a special form of selection. Unfortunately, in our day, militarism is more than ever prominent in our so-called "civilisation"; all the strength and all the wealth of flourishing civilised states are squandered on its development; whereas the education of the young, and public instruction, which are the foundations of the true welfare of nations and the ennobling of humanity, are neglected and mismanaged in a most pitiable manner. And this is done in states which believe themselves to be the privileged leaders of the highest human intelligence, and to stand at the head of civilisation.

As is well known, in order to increase the standing army as much as possible, all healthy and strong young men are annually selected by a strict system of recruiting. The stronger, healthier, and more spirited a youth is, the greater is his prospect of being killed by needle-guns, cannons, and other similar instruments of civilisation. All youths that are unhealthy, weak, or affected with infirmities, on the other hand, are spared by the "military selection," and remain at home during the war, marry, and propagate themselves. The more useless, the weaker, or infirmer the youth is, the greater is his prospect of escaping the recruiting officer, and of founding a family. While the healthy flower of youth dies on the battle-field, the feeble remainder enjoy the satisfaction of reproduction and of transmitting all their weaknesses and infirmities to their descendants. According to the laws of transmission by inheritance, there must necessarily follow in each succeeding generation, not only a further extension, but also a more deeply-seated development of weakness of body, and what is inseparable from it, a condition of mental weakness also. This and other forms of artificial selection practised in our civilised states sufficiently explain the sad fact that, in reality, weakness of the body and weakness of character are on the perpetual increase among civilised nations, and that, together with strong, healthy bodies, free and independent spirits are becoming more and more scarce....

If any one were to venture the proposal, after the examples of the Spartans and Redskins, to kill, immediately upon their birth, all miserable, crippled children to whom with certainty a sickly life could be prophesied, instead of keeping them in life injurious to them and to the race, our so-called "humane civilisation" would utter a cry of indignation. But the same "humane civilisation" thinks it quite as it should be, and accepts without a murmur, that at the outbreak of every war (and in the present state of civilised life, and in the continual development of standing armies, wars must naturally become more frequent) hundreds and thousands of the finest men, full of youthful vigour, are sacrificed in the hazardous game of battles.

It’s curious to see what is essentially an anti-militaristic argument coupled with a proposal to murder disabled children. This kind of rhetoric of racial disintegration was pretty much par for the course in the late 19th and early twentieth century. One recalls Francis Galton’s infamous plan to ‘restock Africa’ with ‘Chinamen’.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Great Translation Movements

“seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he learned the Arabic language, in order to translate. To the end of his life, he continued to transmit to the Latin world, as if to his own beloved heir, whatever books he thought finest, in many subjects, as accurately and as plainly as he could.”

Latin scholars in the 12th century recognised that not all cultures are equal. They were painfully aware that with respect to science and natural philosophy, their civilisation was manifestly inferior to that of Islam. They faced an obvious choice: learn from their superiors or remain inferior forever. They chose to learn and launched a massive effort to translate as many Arabic texts into Latin as was feasible. Had they asumed that all cultures were equal, or that theirs was superior, they would have had no reason to seek out arab learning and the glorious scientific legacy that followed would not have occured.

Whatever the causes, the effects of the 12th century Renaissance were dramatic. It was a time of broad based cultural change across Europe in almost every field. The Gothic style of art developed and along with it the age of the great cathedral building. In religion, reforms occurred. The Cluniac reforms and the Cistercian reforms both originate from this period. Changes also occurred in language and literature. The vernacular became used more and more often in literature and song. Similarly, in music, in law, in education, there were new reforms going on everywhere. In the case of the history of science the most important development was the initiation of a widespread translation movement. In the Middle East one of these had occurred when Arabic culture had availed itself of Greek learning. Now it was the turn of European scholars to come into contact with and build on, the philosophical and scientific traditions of antiquity and Islam translating by their corpus from Arabic into Latin.

The earliest translations appear to have been made in Northern Spanish monasteries in the tenth century. There are manuscripts that exist now in Barcelona which came from the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees. These talk about things like the use of the astrolabe and Arabic mathematics. The texts are in Latin, so clearly the people at this monestary had availed themselves of some of the learning around them. Gerbert of Aurillac (945-1003) was a teacher, and future Pope, who went to Spain and showed a particular interest in mathematics and astronomy (an account of his life can be found in chapter 2 of God's Philosophers). There he learned how to use the astrolabe and properly introduced the instrument back to Latin Europe. He also wrote a treatise on the abacus. These 10th century translations seem to have had very little impact. They were not widely spread outside of Spain. It was only with the political and social stability of the 12th century that an extended appropriation and assimilation of Arabic learning would take place. This would happen predominantly on the Iberian Penisula.

In the 11th century, Christian forces made substantial gains into the Islamic Empire which increased awareness of Arab learning. In the year 1085, the city of Toledo was taken, capturing a large chunk of northern Spain for the Christian west. Spain provided the prime location for translations for three reasons. Firstly, there was a settled Arabic culture. Toledo had been under Islamic occupation for 375 years, Cordoba had been ruled by the Islamic empire for 500 years. The second factor which made Spain a prime location was the presence of numerous Christian communities which had been there since the Islamic conquest. These were known as Mozarabs and they produced the first translations. These native Spaniards like John of Seville were born in Arab south but moved to the Christian north and began the translations early on. Another was Hug of Santia who was patronised by the Bishop of Tarragona in the Kingdom of Aragon. The third was the ease of travel to Spain. It is a lot easier to cross the Pyrenees from France than it is to get on a boat and go to Baghdad or Cairo.

What were the motivations of the translators?. Many of them note that their activity was aimed at curing what they called the ‘poverty of the Latins’. They recognised the riches of Arabic civilisation, learning and libraries and wanted to bring them to their native Latin culture. For example, when Robert of Ketton translated the first treaties on alchemy in 1144, he writes in the preface:

‘this is because alchemy, what it is and what its goals are, are hitherto unknown to my Latin people’.

Medieval Latins readily acknowledged the superiority of Arabic intellectual culture. In fact Arabic authorship of a text became more or less a mark or guarantee of it’s quality. This was so pronounced that in the 12th and 13th century there were Latin authors trying to pass themselves off as Arabic authors by signing their texts with pseudo Arabic names. This gave them the authority of the Arabic world. The most productive of the translators was Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187), an Italian. His students wrote of him that he:

had come to a knowledge of all of this that was known to the Latins; but for love of the Almagest, which he could not find at all among the Latins, he went to Toledo; there, seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he learned the Arabic language, on order to be able to translate.

He would spend the rest of his life there in Toledo and taught his students how to translate and carry on his work. He would eventually translate over 70 books on astronomy, mathematics, physics, medicine, classical works and Arabic works. He translated six works of Aristotle, Euclid's elements and the algebra and mathematics of al-Khwārizmī. (It was hard to translate al-Khwārizmī’s name so it became Algoritmi from which the word Algorithm comes). He translated the work of Al kindi on optics and vision, Thabit ibn Quarra’s very technical treatise on Astronomy, eight books of Galen on medicine; works of alchemy by Jabir ibn Hayyan(Geber) and by the pseudo Al-Razi.

Floods of translators emerged from all parts of Europe, from England, Italy Germany and even from Slavic lands to translate works into Latin. But Spain was not the only place for this type of work. Sicily in the 12th century had a stable, multi-ethnic and trilingual culture. This was because a kingdom had been set up there by the Normans. They had conquered Sicily from the Muslims and set up a court in which the languages were Latin, Greek and Arabic. There they had a very multicultural atmosphere, for example Roger of Sicily invited Arab scholars to come and work at this court, the most famous being Al-Idrisi who was a cartographer. His maps are some of the only ones which uniformly put south at the top and north at the bottom (see the image on the right).

In the 13th century a second phase of the translation movement began and the attention turned eastwards towards the Byzantine Empire. By now the Latins had a taste for classical literature and thought it would be better to get the original sources. In some sense this was right. Translation was not the high art it could have been. The greatest translator here was William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican who lived most of his life in Greece. He was the bishop of Corinth and was encouraged by his friend St Thomas Aquinas to find better translations of Aristotle (Aquinas was unhappy with the quality of those that were in Europe at the time – many sentences were incomprehensible). William translated 50 books, including everything we have now of Aristotle. He also translated everything he could find of Archimedes.

Interestingly not much classical literature appears to have been translated in these paticular movements. Instead the focus was primarily on logic and natural philosophy which indicates there was a strong demand for these in the 12th and 13th centuries. There was some need that had to be filled by natural and philosophical works, a need fuelled by the schools started by Charlemagne’s edict. These schools developed as important centres of learning and rapidly replaced rural monastic centres as the focus of intellectual study. The educational institutions which developed in the 12th and 13th centres in turn would give rise to a peculiarly medieval institution, the university.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

A Spectacular Invention

If anyone examine letters or other minute objects through the medium of crystal of glass, if it be shaped like the lesser segment of a sphere with the convex side towards the eye, he will see the letters far better and they will seem larger to him..such an instrument is useful to all persons and to those with weak eyes, for they can see any letter, however small if magnified enough.

One of nature’s great inventions is the human eye. Unfortunately it is also one which has a particular biological problem which usually manifests itself around the age of 40. Here the lens begins to harden, a condition which can bring about farsightedness (presbyopia) and cause the organ to no longer be able to focus on close objects. Until the 13th century the only way to cope with this was the use of crude magnifying glasses and crystals. Then in 1285, a breakthrough was made. In 1306 a sermon was given by a Father Giordano de Pisa, in which he said:

‘Not in all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end of finding them. Every day one could discover a new art...It is not twenty years since there was discovered the art of making spectacles that help one see well, an art that is one of the best and most necessary in the world. And that is such a short time ago that a new art that never existed was invented..I myself saw the man who discovered and practiced it and talked with him’

This announcement was probably meant to spread the word outside the monasteries to the general public who could make good use of the invention. The craft of making eyeglasses had evidently been established by a small group of artisans. Pisa at that time had a thriving glass industry with many mirror and drinking glass makers. The inventor himself had chosen to remain secret, probably more out of commercial self interest than personal modesty. The first spectacles produced were simply two magnifying glass handles riveted together and hung on the nose. The convex lenses were manufactured from quartz or beryl. These were difficult to keep in place and several different methods were tried. These included hooking them to a hat brim, attaching them to a plate over the forehead, clamping them on the temples and putting spatula like extensions under that hat. The lenses themselves were probably not of great quality, however they did not have to be particularly accurate to fix farsightedness which simply required magnification.

When printed books arrived, the demand for spectacles increased dramatically. Mass production increased resulting in many primitive poor quality products. In 1465 the Spectacle Maker’s Guild brought in regulation and quality gradually increased. By this time similar guilds had been formed in Germany, France, England, Italy and Holland. In the 15th century, thousands of spectacles were being produced in Florence and Venice and convex lenses had been developed for short-sightedness. The Florentines in particular understood that vision declines with age and manufactured their eyeglasses in batches of five year strengths.

What was so great about this invention?. Well as one commentator recently put it,spectacles have effectively doubled the active life of everyone who reads or does fine work-and prevented the world being run by people under 40. The invention of eyeglasses had the effect of more than doubling the working life of skilled craftsmen. This was especially true of scribes, readers, instrument and toolmakers, close weavers and metal workers. Fine work and fine instruments could be produced. Scholars and copyists could continue their work and people became accustomed to the idea that human physical limitations could be transcended by human inventions.

David S Landes in 'The Wealth and Poverty of Nations' suggests that the development of eyeglasses and manufacturing of lenses pushed Europeans into other areas and prompted the invention of precision measurement and control devices such as fine wheel cutters, gauges and micrometers. This laid the groundwork for articulated machines with fitted parts. Furthermore the Europeans were beginning to move towards replication and mass production.

Importantly for the history of science, the knowledge of lenses was spreading and opening up new possibilities. In the Low Countries (which became the main suppliers of spectacles to Britain) the microscope and the telescope would be invented in the 1600s and open the door to new worlds.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reawakening the West

‘When the wisdom of the ancient times was dead and had passed away, and our own days of light had not yet come, there lay a great black gulf in human history, a gulf of ignorance, of superstition, of cruelty, and of wickedness. That time we call the dark or Middle Ages.’

‘Popular opinion, journalistic cliché and misinformed historians aside, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages were a period of enormous advances in science, technology and culture’

‘A series of interlocked technical innovations—an agricultural revolution, new military technologies, and a dependence on wind and water for the generation of power—shaped the history of medieval Europe.....Europe transformed itself from a cultural backwater based on an economy scarcely more advanced than that of traditional Neolithic societies to a vibrant and unique, albeit aggressive, civilization that came to lead the world in the development of science and industry.’

The twelfth century is often referred to as the first renaissance for the Latin West, a time of great intellectual revitalisation in Europe. There were a few attempts from the period around 600 to 1000 to try to reorganise and reignite Latin culture in Europe after the traumatic collapse of Roman civilisation, but these tended to be largely local and short lived. The first real attempt was by Charlemagne who was crowned first king of the Franks and then in 800, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The so called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ did have some effects, the most important being the edict he made stating that every cathedral and monastery must open a school. Charlemagne himself opened a palace school in his palace at Aachen and imported the English scholar Alcuin of York (705 - 804). The York school was renowned as a centre of learning not only in religious matters but also in the seven liberal arts. Sadly these nuances were lost on the Danish Vikings of Ivar the Boneless who managed to sack it in 866.

Alcuin was a superb teacher and scholar who copied out classical texts. He also wrote educational manuals, (rather homo-erotic) poetry and a large number of letters. Deciding that ‘the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles’ , and with the support of Theodulf of Orleans, Alcuin brought in Anglo Saxon teaching methods, helped run a school for both clerical and laypeople and in addition, developed a new style of writing. The Carolingian script as it came to be called was easier to write and read and was also supposed to reproduce the way the Ancient Romans wrote (which it didn’t). Charlemagne’s edict was partially urged on by his concern that even the clergy were not well educated and it took some time for it to take effect. Alcuin had written to Charlemagne that ‘If your zeal were imitated by others, we might see a new Athens rising up in Francia, more splendid than the old’ yet reviving the intellectual culture was a rather sluggish process because of the instability of Europe in this period up until the 11th century.

(It was also Alcuin who said ‘those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness’, something that remains true today, as evidenced by the Guardian’s comment is free section.)

The cultural flowering of the 12th century was sparked by a number of different factors. The first was that the barbarian raids dramatically declined in frequency. These raids, a long torment of rapine, invasion and plunder by enemies from all sides, had contributed to the gradual attrition and collapse of the Roman Empire and continued throughout the Early Middle Ages. By the Tenth century they had begun to dwindle. This allowed for the resumption of a stable coastal life and trade once again.

The second factor was the surge of the European population in the 1100s. It is very difficult to estimate what the population of Europe was in the Middle Ages, but scholars have suggested that it doubled in that century. It may even have quadrupled in a very short period of time. This meant more urbanism which allowed more division of labour. More division of labour brought more leisure time, all of which meant more space for intellectual development (Interestingly the Greek word ‘schole’ from which scholar emerges means ‘leisure’, because scholars are leisured people; apparently).
How was this population supported?. It has been suggested that there was a widespread climactic change in the period from about 1000 to 1200 in which the weather was warmer and wetter than usual. There is some evidence this is actually the case (this was the time when the Norsemen were able to colonise Greenland and sail to North America).

A critical development was the enhancement of technology which was greatly improved at the time and is covered in chapter one of ‘God’s Philosophers’. One important innovation was the horse collar. This proved superior to the old method of harnessing which used a bar across the chest of the horse (the throat-girth harness). This meant that as soon as the horse started pulling it would cut off its windpipe, thus meaning the Romans, who had used it, could not extract the maximum work from their animals. The arrival of the horse collar would allow the full use of horse power.

The widespread use of water wheels also emerged at this time. The Romans because of their slave culture did not worry about where to get power from (there were always cheap slaves). They had begun to do some interesting things with water power in the last centuries of the empire because the supply of slaves had shrunk, but by this time it was too late; order and trade had collapsed.

In the Middle Ages ,water and wind technology started developing to a greater extent. Undershot waterwheels were constructed at many sites across the western European landscape. In England alone, there were 5,624 mills by 1086 and far more on the continent .Wind was harnessed to turn windmills and tidal flow to drive tidal mills. This required the mastery of older kinds of mechanical gearing and linkage. New kinds would have to be invented including accessories such as cranks and toothed gears. These made it possible to use power at a distance, to alter it’s direction and convert it from rotary to reciprocating motion. Millwrights were increasingly able to perform an increasing variety of tasks, to grind corn, to pound cloth, hammer metal and, most importantly, mash hops for beer. Saw mills, flour mills, and hammer mills sprung up and windmills were used to reclaim land from the sea. That combined with crop rotation produced more food, which meant less work and more leisure time and so forth.

As a result, Medieval Europe rapidly became the first great civilization not to be run primarily by human muscle power. The History and Economic Professor David S Landes goes so far as to call the society of Europe in the Middle Ages ‘one of the most inventive societies history had even known’. As James McClellen writes in ‘Science and Technology in World History’:

'Europeans perfected water- and wind-driven mills, the spring catapult (or trebuchet), and a host of other devices, and in so doing they drew on new sources of nonhuman motive power. Their civilization was literally driven by comparatively more powerful “engines” of wind and water which tapped more energy of one sort or another than anywhere else in the world. Medieval Europeans have been described as “power-conscious to the point of fantasy,” and by dint of the medieval fascination with machines, more than other cultures European civilization came to envision nature as a wellspring of power to be exploited technologically for the benefit of humankind. This distinctive attitude toward nature has had powerful and increasingly dire consequences.'

See also:

How Dark were the Dark Ages? - James Hannam
Medieval Science and Justinian I - James Hannam
Stirrups, Horse Harnesses and Richard Carrier - James Hannam
The Medieval Technology Pages - Paul J Gans
The Great Harness Controversy - Paul J Gans
The Great Stirrup Controversy - Paul J Gans

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