Thursday, September 15, 2016

The myth of the Dark Ages

Bertrand Russell
Echoing the myth of the Dark Ages, a name for the European Middle Ages invented by the writers of the Enlightenment, Bertrand Russell wrote these words in his book Wisdom of the West (1959):
As the central authority of Rome decayed, the lands of the Western Empire began to sink into an era of barbarism during which Europe suffered a general cultural decline. The Dark Ages… It is not inappropriate to call these centuries dark, especially if they are set against what came before and what came after.
What came before was the Roman Empire; what came after the Renaissance.
The myth of the Dark Ages was invented by the writers of the first half of the eighteenth century to enforce another myth they had created, according to which at that time we were entering a new era of reason and knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, which they called by the name of the Enlightenment.
In the Espasa Dictionary, 1000 great scientists (1996) I proposed an objective procedure to quantify the relative importance of the various practitioners of science, using measurements such as the number of lines assigned to each scientist in encyclopedias of different countries (to avoid the bias in favor of countrymen). Later, in an as yet unpublished work (The quantification of history and the future of the West), I applied the same procedure to several branches of human creativity: science, philosophy, literature, the plastic arts and music. The next figure represents the resulting evolution of the Greco-Roman and Western science until the end of the Middle Ages. It can be seen that:

Greco-roman and western medieval science

  • Greco-Roman science ended, for all practical purposes, in the third century B.C.E., with exceptional scientists such as Archimedes and Euclid. Since that point in time, the development of science was reduced to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and during seven centuries was only practiced by isolated figures of much lower rank, as Hipparchus, Galen, Heron, Ptolemy and Diophantus. The most important among them is Ptolemy, responsible for the peak that can be seen in the figure in the second century. Rather than a scientific innovator, Ptolemy was a collector of previously accumulated astronomical knowledge, although his influence was very great, for his book (called by the Arabs Almagest) became the required text during over a millennium.
  • It will be noted that during the medieval thirteenth century there was a peak in Western science that surpassed everything done during the Roman Empire. Bertrand Russell’s analysis is therefore disconfirmed.
  • As for the first part of the Middle Ages, in the sixth to eleventh centuries, the figure appears to show an arrest of scientific activity, a Dark Age. But keep in mind that this is the inevitable result of the fact that most of the discoveries made during that time were anonymous, therefore the authors do not appear in my dictionary of scientists.
To verify that scientific and technological advances did not stop occurring during the Middle Ages, consider a non-exhaustive list of the most important:

  • Watermills driven by tidal forces seem to have been invented in Ireland in the sixth century.
  • The oldest known vertical windmill is dated on 1185, in England.
  • Starting in the twelfth century, the Dutch made major advances in the technology of dams which, combined with windmills, allowed them to reclaim land from the sea and increase the surface area of ​​their overpopulated country, a task they are still fulfilling successfully.
  • The carruca or heavy iron plow, that revolutionized agriculture, was invented in Western Europe during the sixth or seventh centuries.
  • By the ninth century took place the invention of the agriculture by triennial fallow rotation (which leaves at rest one third of the arable land, one year out of every three), which continued in use until the twentieth century.
  • The horse harness, imported from China during the tenth century, which allowed horses to replace oxen, doubling the speed of cultivation.
  • The stirrup imported from China in the sixth or seventh century and improved in the eighth by the Franks, and the saddle, whose design met significant improvements in the West. Both advances made the Western heavy cavalry an almost invincible weapon.
  • University of Bologna 
  • The university, dedicated to the cultivation of knowledge, reason, the arts and the sciences, which brought together thousands of students to learn from the best teachers of their time, a European invention of the eleventh century (the first was the University of Bologna, created in 1088).
  • The chimney, invented in the twelfth century in northern Europe, which eliminated the smoke from the houses. Roman houses had a hole in the roof that let in the water when it rained, and let out the smoke unsatisfactorily.
  • The non-hydraulic mechanical clock was invented in Europe in the thirteenth century and revolutionized the measurement of time. The oldest known was installed in England in 1283.
  • The boats of the Roman Empire were moved by oars, helped with a single sail which collected some wind thrust. In parallel with China, medieval Western Europe revolutionized the building of seagoing sailing ships that could move without oars, giving them three masts.
  • Although gunpowder was imported from China to the thirteenth century, the Europeans improved the design of the cannon. The first naval battle with artillery took place in Arnemuiden in 1338, at the beginning of the 100 Years War.
In my next post I will speak about the myth of the Enlightenment.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Science and History: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca


  1. You might mention that the University was developed by the Catholic Church. The church sponsored art and science long before the Enlightenment.