1. Did Christianity Cause the Dark Ages?
2. What has Christianity, as a body of beliefs, contributed to science?
Part I was an introduction, for anyone wondering what prompted my interest in writing this. Part II covers the time frame from Jesus to 410 A.D. with a particular focus on those two questions. This post covers the time frame from 410 to 741 A.D. with a focus on the same two questions. As before, particular individuals are offered as examples from the time frame in question.
Philosophy and Christianity in the Fifth and Early Sixth Century East
Pagan neo-platonic philosopher Proclus Lycaeus began his work in Athens in the 430’s A.D., creating one of the most extensive expressions of Greek Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rise of Christianity in the eastern and western Roman Empire did not suppress the development of Greek philosophy. Alexandrian Platonic influence is found throughout Christianity, affecting the thinking of the Capadocian fathers in the East and St. Augustine in the West.
Indeed, the eastern schools continued in much of their pagan character, despite the contradictory views between Greek scholarship and Christianity. Similarly, although there was involvement of Church and State in the palaces, Christian values were never imposed on Byzantine rulers, whose society continued to follow a pagan structure.
Accordingly, the Church cannot be blamed for the limited scientific development in Byzantium, as the Church never attempted to control the education system there.
Although Proclus was a pagan, his work was neither ignored nor suppressed by Christian thinkers of his era. At some point between 430 and the following century, an unknown Christian writer created a series of books and writings, under the name of "Dionysius" which reflect Neo-Platonic ideas derived from Proclus. The writings of that Pseudo-Dionysius influenced later Christian writers in the Byzantine east and, in the ninth century, spread to the west in a Latin translation made by John Scotus Eriugena.
While that Greek academic system, which never fully accepted Christian values, saw no advancement, there was impressive creative advancement within the eastern monasteries. Within the monasteries, Pseudo-Dionysius developed his mysticism that drew from Scripture and from Neo-Platonism. It was within the monasteries that music and liturgy developed, as the eighth century’s St. Andrew of Crete developed the canon. It was the monasteries that produced beautifully creative writing, like that of St. John Climacus , St. John of Damascus, and St. Andrew of Crete. And it was the monasteries that developed and defended iconography against opposition from eighth century iconoclasm.
St. Patrick and Fifth Century Britain
There was not a large enough Christian population for Christianity to have substantially contributed to the collapse of Roman control over Britain, which was officially abandoned in 410 A.D.
Moreover, fifth century Christians placed a high value on education. As a result, St. Patrick of Ireland (born in Roman Britain around 387 or 390) expressed embarrassment that he had never learned Latin as a child. He wrote about his difficulty writing Latin in his Confessions, widely regarded as an authentic fifth century writing by St. Patrick. He had had the opportunity to study rhetoric in his youth, and he regretted later that he had not taken that opportunity.
Soon after the middle of the fifth century, the British Church lost communication with the Church in Gaul and in Rome, in what historian R.P.C. Hanson called “a curtain falling", an interruption of normal life: “The literary evidence dies out. The Gaulish Chronicler could gain the impression that the Saxons had virtually enslaved all Britain.” Fleeing invasions by Angles, Jutes and Saxons, many of the Christians, in what would be known in the seventh century as England, settled in Wales, Cornwall and Cumberland.
The Church, under Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, sent missionaries to England. It would take more than a century to complete the Christianization of the peoples that had settled there and those who had converted to their way of thinking. In 669, Rome sent more missionaries under Theodore and Hadrian. In the early eighth century, the boy who would become known as St. Boniface lived in a newly Christianized region in Devon, near a monastery of Benedictine monks who set up a preaching cross to evangelize pagan regions as a Christian ruler overtook them.
To blame Christianity for the Dark Ages in England would assume that Roman Britain was more Christianized than the evidence supports. By the eighth century, when England was fully Christianized, the worst of the Dark Ages were practically over.
On the other hand, Christianity’s evangelistic spirit was a direct cause of the efforts by Gregory the Great and his successors to bring England into the Church and to bring England back into European civilization beginning in the sixth century, and those efforts succeeded.
Rome in the Late Fifth and Early Sixth Centuries
The barbarian Odovacar unseated the Roman emperor in 476. In 493, Theodoric became the Ostrogothic king. Theoderic valued Roman law and culture, even if all real power was now held by the Goths in the military. Roman Catholics governed the western empire, Arian Goths controlled the western army, and the Goths’ military leader held the most powerful post at that time – not the Catholics.
Bl. Boethius, who wrote both philosophy and theology, was born around the early 480’s to a Roman family of senatorial rank. He is exemplary of the synthesis of secular and theological education in Western Europe, in contrast with the East. He studied Aristotle and the Neoplatonist writings of Porphyry and Proclus. As a young man, he wrote about arithmetic and music. Perhaps in an effort to gain the Goths’ alliance and to bring peace, he designed a sundial and a waterclock (probably assisted with other people’s technical skills).
The inventions that he championed are indicative of the contribution of the Christian religious mind to science to the development of science. As demonstrated by economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla, it was the Western European attitude toward clocks and toward regulating life by time that led to the development of crafts guilds and scientific discoveries that eventually led to the Industrial Revolution.
An interest in clocks, and an interest in regulating life by time, appears both in the work of Bl. Boethius and St. Benedict in the sixth century, both of them prompted in part by Christian values of orderly life and a daily cycle of prayer.
In the mid-sixth century, the Emperor Justinian began to retake lands from Germanic control, and quickly retook Africa from the Vandals. Gothic control of much of the western empire was overthrown around 550, and the wars between Romans, Goths and Vandals officially ended in 554.
The eastern and western empires were soon reunited while both were under Christian control. The ability to re-establish unity after centuries of fractures is a testament to the strong value placed on unity and peace within Christianity. The Byzantine and Latin cultures had changed in different directions and, indeed, the populations were not ethnically the same people, their Churches had different theologians in different languages, and yet, they managed to re-establish unity of both Church and State.
The Cataclysmic Sixth Century: Epidemics, Floods and Earthquakes
Pope/St. Gregory the Great was born in Rome around 540, when it was still possible to obtain a Roman elite education in a few places in the west. However, Rome was about to see a series of devastating events, while fighting off Lombard invasions.
Plagues struck parts of the already weakened Roman Empire in the 540’s. The first epidemic in 542 took the lives of a third of the affected population. Following the wave of immigrants in the early fifth century, many aristocratic families fled to Constantinople and elsewhere. The Roman Senate was replaced in some regions by local authorities, and the Roman government truly began to collapse in the sixth century.
In 587, along with the damage of war, heavy rains caused the Tiber to burst its banks, flooding the area around Rome. In February, 590, Pope Pelagius died of the plague. In September, 590, Gregory the Great became Pope, and held the position for 13-1/2 years. During his first year as pope, he completed several well written books that remain classics. “Pastoral Care”, his book on leadership, applied to leadership of both Church and State. It was based on principles of servant leadership not unlike those of contemporary best selling books on business management and church leadership.
Another storm during 590 destroyed houses and churches in Rome, plagues continued, and by 593, Gregory preached, “a deserted Rome is burning . . . we see buildings destroyed, ruins daily multiplied.”
It was, at last, that series of natural disasters, plagues, and Lombard invasions to which the last of the Roman political system finally succumbed in the west.
In 592, the Church took another step toward holding order through the series of disasters. Gregory began to issue orders to the local militia in defense of the city, as he and his fellow bishops gradually assumed such secular responsibilities, paying daily expenses in Rome when impoverished public finances left inadequate military power. When Roman troops were left unpaid by the government, Gregory paid them from the Church’s funds.
As the Roman education system collapsed in the west, more western monasteries began to provide education, holding libraries, accepting children as students and sometimes as monks, serving not only as places of prayer but also as places of reading and knowledge.
The Rise of Islam
At the time when Western Europeans fled to the East, much of the East was Catholic, including Egypt, Palestine, Greece and Asia Minor.
That began to change in the seventh century with the rise of the Persian and Arab Empires. Forty-four monks were martyred at the monastery of Sabas during the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in 614. Some monks had fled, forced to wander from place to place as the Persians, and later the Arab Muslims, advanced. Syria fell in 636, Palestine fell in 638, and Egypt fell by 642.
The Persian occupation of Damascus from 612 to 628 and its surrender to the Arab empire in 635, still allowed a Christian, such as St. John of Damascus, to have a prominent role.
In 651, Damascus became the capital of the first of the Umayyad caliphs who ruled the Arab Empire, including the eastern and southern provinces of what had been the Byzantine Empire in an earlier time. There, it had been possible to receive a classical education, becoming proficient in his knowledge of Greek prose and verse. St. John of Damascus was educated there. In early adulthood, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, serving in the fiscal administration of the Arab empire although he was a Christian.
However, around 706, the Umayyad civil service switched its official language from Greek to Arabic. Within a decade or so afterward, John of Damascus left his post and became a Palestinian monk.
By the late seventh century, Muslim Arabs had gained control of northern Africa, taking Carthage in 698. By 715, the Eastern and Western Empires had become irrevocably divided and Arab attacks plagued Constantinople. Constantinople was besieged by Arabs from 717 to 718. In the wake of frequent wars, people faced plagues and famines, adding to their hardships.
In the early eighth century, the Berbers, led by Arabs, invaded Spain, taking it from one of the strongest Visigothic states within weeks. The invaders destroyed the Spanish culture that had produced, earlier in the same century, the work of Isidore of Seville, who had introduced Aristotle to seventh century Spain – the last of the classical Christian philosophers.
That era of decline in the east cannot be attributed to Christianity as a religion. The Byzantines eventually prevailed, successfully defending Constantinople, although portions of what had once been part of the Byzantine Empire remained under Arab control. Constantinople was still Christian when it emerged from its decline of the seventh and eighth centuries, and it was the wealthiest city in the world for centuries afterward.
The Rebuilding of Seventh and Eighth Century Western Europe
in 687, Pippin II gained control of the Frankish Kingdom, negotiating agreement among various factions of the nobility. He established an era of peace and founded monasteries, as Irish monks spread through Gaul.
At Pippin’s death, the kingdom might have fallen apart, as his own personality had held it together. However, his 30-year old bastard son, Charles Martel succeeded in securing the kingdom in 716. Charles Martel provided for abbots and clergy who supported him, but he also secularized some Church property to gain the resources he used to build an army.
In 722, St. Boniface began his major missionary work in Germany. He faced a divided and sometimes heathenized church and pagan religions, including Bortharians who worshiped Thor, the god of thunder. There was idol worship, fortune-telling, sorcery, and even human sacrifice among the pagans. Boniface often sought books for his own use and books to be copied for his clergy and for monasteries. He carried his own books with him wherever he went.
At that time, Muslim invaders were moving beyond Spanish boarders. In 721, they advanced along the lower Rhone basin. In 725, they reached Burgundy and Autun.
The risk of Muslim invasion in the Frankish Kingdom continued until 732. That year, the Muslim ruler of Spain invaded Aquitaine, leading to the Battle of Tours (Poitiers). As the Muslims moved toward the wealthy St. Martin’s of Tours, Charles Martel’s army, and that of Duke Odo of Aquitaine, defeated the invaders. While the battle may have held minor importance in itself, the victory became famous and was greeted as a sign of God’s favor. In time, Charles also took back the Rhone Valley and Provence.
Charles Martel died in 741, after a reign of 25 years, having turned the corner in the battle against Muslim aggression in Western Europe. After his death, the Carolingians who followed him helped to build a culture that fostered developments in science, music, and philosophy that ultimately served to bring Western Europe out of the Dark Ages. Christianity, through the evangelistic and educational efforts of St. Boniface and the Irish monastic foundations, was again a part of the solution.
(In addition to the bibliographies given in the biographies linked here, sources include Pierre Riché, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe and G.P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind. I plan to post Part IV
next week-end or, perhaps more likely, the following week-end, as time permits after Easter -- I'll get to it.)