After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe fell into a millennia of ignorance, barbarism and superstition due to the influence of the Christian Church, commonly known as the Dark Ages. This assertion is often accompanied by the claim that Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire and is part of the myth of the war of religion against science which is examined in Ten More Myths, volume two.
“As the Christian faith spread…it destroyed the belief of the classical world that there were gods residing in nature. This Christian demythologizing was one of the many factors behind the technical creativity of the period” Gimpel, p. 180, The Medieval Machine.
I must admit that this long held myth is finally starting to crumble. Many of the major encyclopedias have let off from referring to the time period from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance and Reformation as the Dark Ages. Rodney Stark quotes the 1981 edition of the Britannica as saying the term is now rarely used because it wrongly labels this time period as, “a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity.” (Stark, For the Glory of God, p.129)
My own secular college textbook on the period, called, The Western Heritage, makes no reference to the Dark Ages at all. It also denies the old claim that Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire. The text does quote Gibbon for one possible reason for the decline, saying it was, “the natural and inevitable result of immoderate greatness.” (p.180)
The textbook actually made mention of at least one of the many technological inventions that would eventually put Western Europe light years ahead of all other cultures, the mold board plow and three field system of farming. However, it failed to mention the invention of the stirrup which allowed Charles Martel to demolish the Islamic Saracen Cavalry at the Battle of Tours (Martel’s forces also had better armor, pikes, etc.). It also failed to mention the harness and the horse collar which allowed European farmers to plow with horses instead of oxen, which proved to be twice as productive, covering twice the amount of ground and more quickly. (Stark, ibid, p.130) Nor did they mention the European invention of iron horse shoes. (White, Lynn, Medieval Technology and Social Change)
The low tech advances were too numerous to list, but to name a few more, the European compass was a floating compass and far superior to that of the Chinese which had only North and not all the cardinal points marked like the European model.
While many give the Chinese credit for the invention of gun powder, others have pointed out a problem with this; the Chinese didn’t have guns. The Europeans took the Chinese “gunpowder” and within a few years were blasting each other with cannon and musket all across Europe. (Stark, ibid)
Far from being an unproductive time of doom and gloom the so called dark ages instead created the “foundations of modern European culture.” (Magazine, Archeology, Sept. 1998, Hodges, article, The Not-So-Dark-Ages) (Stark, ibid) Stark points out that during this time the Europeans also outlawed slavery, and my own secular college text gives Christianity the credit for saving the Classical writers from oblivion, before the Muslims arrived on the scene (all is not darkness out there,(Stark, ibid) (Western Heritage, p.178)
The extensive use of waterwheels and the invention of the overshot waterwheel brought about a long list of mechanical inventions powered by water besides just wheels grinding grain; they mechanically produced cloth, used lathes, hammered metal and were the first in the world to mechanically produce paper. By the first millennia AD, there were tens of thousands of water wheels in use all over Europe and on their tail followed the windmill; no other culture of the time came even close.
The invention of eye glasses, fire places and chimneys all are credited to the European “dark ages”, to name a few more major advances. Other cultures, like the Romans, huddled around smoky fires in the middle of the room and breathed the fumes; not in Europe.
As Stark so ably states in his, For the Glory of God;
“…so much technical progress took place during this era (the middle ages) that by no later than the thirteenth century, European technology surpassed anything to be found elsewhere in the world”…As Lynn White points out, by “the late thirteenth century, Europe had seized global scientific leadership.” (Stark, ibid, p.134) The noted historian White also gave a reason for the advancement of technology in Europe;
“Man shares in great measure God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asian religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but insisted it was God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” (Lynn White quoted by Gies, Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel, p.5)
Lynn White said;
“…Christianity, by destroying classical animism, brought about a basic change in the attitude towards natural objects and opened the way for their rational and unabashed use for human ends.” Lynn White, Cultural Climates and Technical Advance in the Middle Ages, Viator, vol. II, 1971, p. 187-88
That the fall of Rome and its exit from Western Europe did cause a lack of cohesiveness and stability, a vacuum which initially caused much turmoil, is true. But it was a void that Christianity would begin to fill with a culture and technology that would leave Rome in the dark (pun intended). And, as we shall see in dealing with the myth of the Copernican Revolution, the so called dark ages gave us an incredible university system which paved the way for the explosion or “bloom” of modern science soon to arrive….in Christian Europe.