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Medieval misconceptions

Busting myths about the Middle Ages

Olvr, Wikimedia commonsNotre-Dame-de-Chartres
Chartres Cathedral (France, completed 1260)—view from south-east

The article Why would God bother with a tiny planet like Earth? refuted several myths about the Middle Ages. In particular, this period saw many scientific innovations and even discussions about the earth’s rotation.

The period has often been vilified as the “Dark Ages”. This term can be traced to Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374), but medieval historians have regarded this as a joke for decades. Petrarch idolized the Classical Greeks and Romans and ignored the huge advances made in the Middle Ages in architecture, science, art, music, logic, agriculture, technology, and morality.1 Also, they did NOT believe the earth is flat or kill rat-killing cats.2

Conversely, the so-called Renaissance (unlike the real 12th-century renaissance) was thus a reactionary period in many ways. It saw an advance in superstition, such as Hermetic magic. It featured witch burnings—although the death toll was about ~12.5k, contrary to popular belief—while Medieval theologians declared that witches didn’t exist. Even the Spanish Inquisition was not Medieval but Renaissance, although the death toll was much lower (~3k) than popular mythology claims. But we often see bad things called ‘medieval’ even when they were from the Renaissance or even the so-called Enlightenment (Salem Witch trials of 1692, Atlantic Slave trade). Conversely, good things like spectacles (13th century) and the mechanical clock (14th century) must be ‘early Renaissance’. (See What about bad things done by the Church?)

Not to be deterred, an atheistic critic, Richard J., repeated a lot more long-discredited medieval myths. A lot of elephant-hurling one-liners in this comment. So they just deserve relatively brief answers (by Dr Jonathan Sarfati, the article author). Still, for any really interested readers, further reading is provided. One advantage of a website with >15,000 articles and a search button is that it’s easy to find answers. (The initial email and responses can be found under the article, Why would God bother with a tiny planet like Earth? The following is slightly expanded and footnoted.)

RJ: Why would God bother with our planet, you ask ? It’s because he was lonely. Since you brought up the Middle Ages, I will say this. Scientific method has its origins from Aristotle not from Francis Bacon. Scientific pursuit started in classical Greece not medieval ages. Classical Greece and Rome influenced medieval art, literature and architecture. Western civilization was built by the Greeks and the Romans. Christianity contribution was only the preservation of ancient documents Greek and Latin. Slavery didn’t exist in Greek and Roman society. Medieval people were dirty and prone to diseases because there was no sanitation. Christianity contributed to the fall of Roman empire which led to the dark ages. Christian monarchs were involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Just because a scientist in the past was a Christian, that doesn’t prove that the god of the bible exists.

RJ: Why would God bother with our planet, you ask ? It’s because he was lonely.

JS: Not the article’s point, but the true Triune God of Scripture was not lonely because of the inter-Personal relationships.

Since you brought up the Middle Ages, I will say this. Scientific method has its origins from Aristotle not from Francis Bacon.

Aristotle was no experimental scientist. It was not possible because, under his philosophy, any experimenter interference would count as ‘violent motion’, not ‘natural motion’. See The Greeks, in the paper Refuting absolute geocentrism.

But the Middle Ages provided the foundation for science long before Francis Bacon, e.g., Roger Bacon in the 13th century. The eminent historian of medieval science, Edward Grant (1926–2020), wrote:

The creation of a societal environment in the Middle Ages that eventually enabled a scientific revolution to develop in the seventeenth century involved at least three crucial pre-conditions: (1) the translation of Greco-Arabic works on science and natural philosophy into Latin, (2) the formation of the medieval university, and (3) the emergence of the theologian-natural philosophers.3

See also The biblical roots of modern science.4

Scientific pursuit started in classical Greece not medieval ages.

No, it was stillborn in classical Greece. Much of the Medieval work was undoing the errors of Aristotle (384–322 BC) in physics, such as claiming that a moving object is kept moving by the fluid it’s in. This was replaced by the notion of impetus by John Philoponos (AD c. 490 – c. 570) and John Buridan (c. 1301 – c. 1359/62). Impetus was a forerunner to the modern concept of momentum.5 Medicine was also stuck on Galen (AD 129 – c. 216), and the pagan ban on human dissection that the Church lifted.6

British Library, WikimediaSt-Mark-Lindisfarne-Gospels
Portrait of Mark the Evangelist, seated, with his symbol, a winged lion blowing a trumpet and carrying a book, from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Northumberland, AD c. 720)

Classical Greece and Rome influenced medieval art, literature and architecture.

All those areas developed way beyond Classical Greece and Rome (as also explained briefly in the original article). These had nothing like the intricate artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells, or the paintings of Giotto. The Medieval period saw whole new genres of literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes. In architecture, the Gothic Cathedrals (such as Chartres) were works of genius, with innovations like the pointed arch, ribbed vaults, and flying buttress.7

Western civilization was built by the Greeks and the Romans.

They lacked the biblical concept of “all men are created equal”. See our new book, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality.

Christianity’s contribution was only the preservation of ancient documents Greek and Latin.

That is pretty important. You only have these documents because Christian monks valued learning, so they copied manuscripts, including those they disagreed with. They especially valued manuscripts about logic and natural philosophy and advanced both fields beyond where Classical civilization had left them.8

Slavery didn’t exist in Greek and Roman society.

Not serious. Spartacus? Slavery was abolished in the European Middle Ages. Note that despite the nonsense in high-school books about ‘feudalism’, medieval vassals had enforceable rights that slaves in Classical Greece and Rome could only dream about.

Medieval people were dirty and prone to diseases because there was no sanitation.

False. They washed daily and enjoyed frequent bathing.9 Soap was invented in the Middle Ages, and recipes to make your own soap were widespread.10 They also brushed their teeth with chewed twigs and rubbed them with coarse cloth after meals, and had recipes for toothpaste11 and mouthwash. They also lacked refined sugar and ate lots of calcium-rich dairy, so their dental health was quite good.12

Christianity contributed to the fall of Roman empire which led to the dark ages.

This fails what historians call the “East-West test”. That is, why didn’t Christianity cause the fall of the equally Christian Eastern Roman empire? This is often called the Byzantine empire and lasted another millennium.There was some disruption when a major empire collapsed. But the Church was a major preserver of learning. It didn’t take long to recover and then surpass classical Rome. E.g., the 8th–9th-century Carolingian Renaissance was led by the English clergy-scholar Alcuin of York, and the 12th Century Renaissance was more innovative than what some historians call “the other one”. The Domesday Book (1086), a record of the survey that William the Conqueror ordered for Anglo-Saxon England, recorded over 5,000 water mills, or at least one for every 50 peasant households. Athens and Rome had nothing like this.

Christian monarchs were involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimediawatermill
Watermill of Braine-le-Château, on the Hain river, Belgium (12th century)

They went against the teachings of the Church. The trouble was NOT that the Church failed to condemn slavery, but that it wasn’t listened to. Many christophobes attack Christianity and the West for something hardly unique to them: slavery. In reality, slavery was found in all inhabited continents, and all races were both victims and perpetrators. Indeed, the word slave comes from Slav, a ‘white’ race that was often enslaved. However, christophobes refuse to credit Christianity and the West for what was unique to them: the abolition of slavery and even making slavery unthinkable. See Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: Christian hero.

Just because a scientist in the past was a Christian, that doesn’t prove that the God of the Bible exists.

We never claimed it did. Rather, it disproves the lie that no real scientist can be a Christian or creationist. See The name game: scientific ideas named after creationists and Newton was a creationist only because there was no alternative?

Epilogue: after the original response, Richard J. wrote:

Jonathan Sarfati. You are so wrong in many levels that I won’t even bother refuting because you will not listen. I propose a debate. I want to debate you on the topic of dark ages. Do you accept?

It’s quite the opposite. It is you who won’t listen to the clear verdict of medieval historians—regardless of whether they are Christian or atheist. This is documented in the sources in this updated and expanded version of the response.

Published: 3 December 2022

References and notes

  1. O’Neill, T., How the Middle Ages Really Were: What are examples of things that are ‘common knowledge’ about history that historians almost universally consider incorrect? huffpost.com, 8 Sep 2014. Return to text.
  2. O’Neill, T., Cats, the Black Death and a Pope, historyforatheists.com, 8 Apr 2017. Return to text.
  3. Grant, E., The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts, Ch. 8, Cambridge Studies in the History of Science, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Return to text.
  4. Falk, S., The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science, W. W. Norton & Co., 2020. Return to text.
  5. Graney, C.M., Mass, speed, direction: John Buridan’s 14th-century concept of momentum, The Physics Teacher 51(7): 411–414, October 2013 | doi:10.1119/1.4820853. Return to text.
  6. O’Neill, T., The church and dissection, historyforatheists.com, 8 Oct 2022. Return to text.
  7. Esolen, A., Professor of English at Providence College, Were the Middle Ages Dark? Prager University videos, February 2014. Return to text.
  8. O’Neill, T., Cats, The Great Myths 8: The Loss of Ancient Learning, historyforatheists.com, 28 Mar 2020. Return to text.
  9. Did people in the Middle Ages take baths? medievalists.net, 2013. Return to text.
  10. How to make medieval soap, medievalists.net, 2019. Return to text.
  11. Five medieval toothpaste recipes, medievalists.net, 2016. Return to text.
  12. O’Neill, T., What was dental hygiene like during the middle ages? slate.com, 10 Apr 2015. Return to text.

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