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The Not So Dark Ages

It has been a strange half term from my perspective, with time away from school inspecting, the death of Queen Elizabeth and then a bout of Covid all making it harder than usual to drop into the normal rhythms of the year.  I am sure I came up with a plan at some point in the proceedings to develop a more coherent approach to these weekly blogs, but I seem to have forgotten it if I did.  I do know, however, that I still have a backlog of ideas that I want to tell you about, so I will crave your indulgence in continuing to share some of what I read earlier in the year.

This week, I return to Past Mistakes by David Mountain, which is subtitled ‘How We Misinterpret History and Why It Matters’, and which provides a splendidly entertaining romp through the ages, pointing out how so many of the things we take for granted turn out to be way wide of the mark.  It looks like I still have several pages of notes from the book, so I am just going to have to hope that you might find it as interesting as I did.  

First up is the debate about whether history is, as Thomas Carlyle famously put it, the biographies of great men or whether we are all, men and women, just pawns in the game of life with no control over the markets, the climate or the circumstances in which we are born.  For his part, Mountain asserts that we do not need to reject the possibility that individuals can, and do, change the course of history. 

Most historians today are happy to compromise, arguing that history is neither the sole product of a few great individuals, nor the inevitable consequence of an impersonal force like progress, but a combination of large-scale, long-term processes – economic, demographic, climatic – and the ability of groups and individuals to address, adapt and respond to these processes.  As the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead put it: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

Mountain makes the point that a past full of heroic men gets a little repetitive after the umpteenth unconquered general, visionary artist or valiant statesman.  It is the real history of real people – heroes and villains, failures and successes – that’s not only more accurate but far more interesting.

It is often said that history is written by the victors, which in many instances is true, and historians can spend lifetimes picking the grains of truth out from the reams of propaganda that make up the bulk of many historic sources.  But this rule only works if the victors can write – and the barbarians who fought the Romans in the fifth century had never so much as held a stylus when they crossed the frontiers of the empire.  Some barbarian groups, like the Huns and the Picts, apparently never wrote a single word before fading from the scene.  As a result, we are left in the curious situation whereby the history of the end of the classical world has been written by its losers – and the Romans were incredibly sore losers and highly capable propagandists.

The author contends that evocations of the Roman world as a haven of reason and rationality are overly generous, ignoring as they do the deeply religious and superstitious character of most Romans.  For example, farmers believed they could avert a hailstorm by holding a mirror up to the sky and showing a threatening cloud its own reflection.  The pagan priests of Rome were made to promise, on pain of death, never to reveal the city’s guardian god for fear that the deity might be tempted to join Rome’s enemies if they could call its name. 

Before a battle, military commanders would consult a roost of sacred chickens that were brought along especially.  If the chickens ate the food given to them, all was well: if they refused, flapped their wings or flew away, engaging in hostilities was considered an inauspicious move.  Indeed, the word ‘inauspicious’ comes from the Latin word for bird-watching – ‘auspicia’.

Contrary to popular belief, Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned because fiddles did not exist in ancient Rome and would not be invented for another thousand years.  Rumours that he started the fire that destroyed much of the city found an eager audience among early Christian writers, who despised Nero for his brutal suppression of Christianity and took every opportunity to blacken his name, both at the time and then down the centuries.

The Roman division of the world into civilisation and barbarism has fundamentally shaped the way people interpret their own times – from the Age of Exploration via the Scramble for Africa to the justification of empire.  We look at the world and at each other through the lens of civilisation and barbarity handed down to us by the Romans.  Historian Niall Ferguson has compared 21st century Europe, ‘decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums’ and awash with ‘outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith’, to the licentious late Roman Empire, warning starkly: ‘This is exactly how civilisations fall.’

We are told that the concept of the Dark Ages can be traced back to the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, who devoted much of his literary talent to contrasting the ‘pure radiance’ of ancient Rome with the ‘darkness’ of his own time.  The past millennium had been nothing but a ‘lamentable story’, he mourned, in which the bright day of the Roman Republic had descended into a ‘night of chaos’ populated only by ‘sterile-minded and wretched men’ – Petrarch himself excepted, of course.  It proved to be one of the most influential ideas in history. 

Even today, some seven centuries after these diatribes against the age of darkness were first penned, it is still widely accepted the demise of the Roman Empire plunged the world into a thousand years of ignorance, fear and superstition, broken only when men like Petrarch began to rediscover the forgotten knowledge of the classical world – which has almost no foundation in truth at all.  Progress may have slowed in Western Europe, but elsewhere in the world it continued apace, particularly in the Middle East and China.

Mountain draws this section of his book to a close by saying that as historians shake off the illusions of the Dark Ages, it is becoming increasingly clear that many long-held beliefs about medieval ignorance in Europe are wrong.  It was not widely believed, for instance, that the Earth was flat.  As was the case with Islamic geographers, almost every European medieval writer and thinker knew that the Earth ‘is but a little round ball’, as a 15th century compendium put it. 

He concludes that it is more than a little hypocritical of us to continue condemning the Dark Ages as a superstitious or anti-scientific time in order to congratulate ourselves on how enlightened we are today, as European scholars have been doing ever since the Renaissance.  Ultimately, the obscurity of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ has nothing to do with any ‘sleep of forgetfulness’ that the world supposedly succumbed to between the fall of Rome and the rise of Renaissance Europe.  The ignorance is our own, as usual: the assumption, still widespread today, that history beyond Europe is somehow less important, impressive or relevant to the modern world – something well worth remembering as we focus on Black History Month.


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