Applying quantitative analysis to history is fraught with hazards, but attempting to do so for the ancient and mediaeval periods is frequently impossible due to the nature of the source material that we have. Whenever I see historical material charted in such a manner, unless it is something like dendochronology or pot sherd analysis where we have a sufficient sample size to come to some conclusions, I’m immediately sceptical. I’ve seen this graph posted in a couple of places on the internet. The implication of this graph is quite clear: Christianity impeded humanity’s technological advancement. The implication of this post is also quite clear: the author of the graph is an unmitigated fool.
First off, the stamp of “nobeliefs.com” does not exactly inspire confidence. This is not to say that those who have no beliefs (by which I am assuming that they mean no religious belief) are unable to do history, but rather that it points to a partisan viewpoint. It would be just as questionable if the graph was from “ilovearchaicenlightenmenthistoriography.com”. Given how often such silly ideas on the Middle Ages appear from that intellectual context, maybe I should register that domain and make a satire blog.
The graph shows a line rising from the late Roman Empire predicting where technology would have been had the “Christian Dark Ages” never happened. The problem with this is that Rome was technologically stagnant. To be fair, the Romans produced some extremely impressive feats of engineering, and even towards the end of late antiquity were still building massive fortifications and aqueducts. However, this presupposes that because the Romans built large and impressive things and had some good technology that they had the desire to advance. Quite the opposite seems to have been the case. Roman attitudes towards such things were profoundly negative. Roman elites continually criticized craftsmen. Vespasian is said to have remarked to a man who invented a labour-saving device that it was no good because it put poor Romans out of work (Suetonius, Vespasian 22). A primitive steam engine was developed in Hellenistic Egypt, but it was treated as a toy and a novelty. Labour was plentiful and cheap in the ancient world, so why create labour-saving devices? Bored slaves were dangerous slaves and such labour was scorned by the very people who had the education and resources to create technology. The Romans could not imagine a world without slaves. The concept of abolition just did not exist in antiquity.
The graph implies that Christianity was the retarding factor towards its supposed technological downturn in the Middle Ages. The first problem with this is the sheer stupidity in labelling 400 – 1400 A.D. as the “Dark Ages”. Historians have periodized the Middle Ages into either Early and Late, or Early, High, and Late. This was a long, incredibly dynamic period. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw massive growth in Western Europe in the population and great advancement in engineering, agriculture, and banking, something that the graph’s creator seems to be blissfully unaware of.
The second problem is the assumption that a single factor limited technological progression, which the graph claims to be Christianity. When referring to history, monocausal solutions to any complex problem, especially one in which the data set claims lasted a thousand years without interruption, should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. For example, does the graph’s creator really believe that disorganized and chaotic Merovingian Gaul, which had more kings on a normal day than Westeros, had the centralized capacity to construct grand monuments such as the Romans did? Various parts of the post-Roman west were ruled by Franks, a couple groups of Goths, East Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Burgundians, Gepids, Avars, Lombards, Berbers, and Arabs. These fractious groups frequently squabbled internally, not to mention against each other, so to assume that somehow it was Christianity that stopped technological advancement that was not happening in the first place is a pretty desperate argument.
The graph also assumes that Christianity was some unified whole that could stop technological advancement even if it tried. The one example that is frequently brought up is the attempt by the Catholic church to suppress the work of Galileo. The problem here is that Galileo did not live in the Middle Ages at all, so one has to simply assume that the Western Church was regularly persecuting individuals involved in intellectual pursuits throughout the Mediaeval period. Not only was the reach of the papacy far too limited for such things, the Church itself was the preserve of intellectuals. Far from adopting a hostile attitude to intellectualism, most of the intelligentsia of the Middle Ages were members of the Church. While Clovis and his notably violent progeny rampaged around Gaul killing each other, Gregory of Tours was given a quality Roman education by the Church, despite never setting foot inside Roman territory. While Charlemagne struggled to write Latin, Alcuin and Bede penned insightful poetry and history, respectively. The church actively sought out highly educated men to serve in its highest positions, as Gregory the Great and Gerbert d’Aurillac demonstrate. Far from being a repressing intellectual influence, the Church was the preserve of knowledge while the barbarians were busy fighting. To assume that Christian scholarship was somewhat less sophisticated than what was produced by antique pagans because it was theology is also a mistake. Men like Cyril of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas wrote with as great a depth and complexity as Celsus or Porphyry.
Finally, where exactly does the graph’s data come from? The graph gives no indication of how to quantify technological advancement. I see no evidence of a steady rise in technology in antiquity, just as I see no evidence for a stagnant millennium-long “Dark Age”. Now that I’ve had my chance to rant about how poorly people understand history, here’s another graph to show the dangers of attempting to present historical data in this manner.
I’ve picked this one because I have repeatedly seen it abused to explain just how awesome the late Roman Republic and Early Empire were. One could easily make the assumption that because there were more shipwrecks during that period more trade was going on, and consequently greater economic sophistication. But you could just as easily assume that the Romans of that period built really crappy ships that just kept sinking, and only in the fifth century did they finally start making good ones. Or maybe boats before and after 500 B.C./A.D. do not appear in the archaeological record due to the materials they were built out of? Or perhaps the obsessive interest in the late Roman Republic and early Imperial periods has led to the misdating of wrecks that do not actually come from that period? The point of this graph is to demonstrate just how easy it is to jump to wild conclusions based on acontextual data. While the first graph is simply hideously wrong, the second is probably correct but it needs to be read carefully. Approaching historical data presented in this manner requires caution, context, and remembrance of just how patchy our historical record can be. Even where the record exists, statistics can be easily manipulated and un-sourced, so don’t throw caution to the winds.