Monday, March 04, 2013
Let's Talk Dark Ages
Yup. Those Christians are the biggest problem. I know this 'cause, you know.
Without them, us smart people could whip it all into shape pronto. You know.
CHRISTIANITY WAS A SOURCE OF PROFOUND HUMAN MISERY FOR ITS FIRST THOUSAND YEARS OR SO. So saith the savant. I'm not going to argue theology or gay marriage here. I'm going to talk about another favorite subject of mine, why attention to history is intensely relevant even for the brilliantly intuitive who are sure the world began the day they first remember.
Yes, we were ALL taught that there was a Dark Age after the fall of Rome, that a combination of feudalism and the Catholic church plunged our European forebears into a squalid, inert, and actually laughable blank of accomplishment for at least five hundred years. Brizoni has done this one better by postulating, without proofs or a single reference, that Christianity resulted in a thousand years of misery. Let's see. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in c. 350 A.D. Which means, by his math, there's nothing new worthwhile until sometime after 1350 A.D.
He uses the word "profound." Can't help thinking it's a perfect descriptor of his state of ignorance. He's a libertarian, right? But it's never occurred to him that our so-called understanding of the period after the fall of the Roman Empire has been compromised for a thousand years (or so) by the celebrity status of the longest-lived, most statist and brutal dictatorship in the history of Europe. Napoleon and Hitler and even the Brits aspired to emulate their example, but none of them could rival the Romans in the PR game. Because there is no Tacitus, Ovid, or Suetonius to chronicle life immediately after Rome, there obviously was no life after Rome. Imagine that today's imperial Washington, DC, were suddenly to go out of business and there was no presidential press secretary, Washington Post, or inside-the-beltway pundit corps to explain the meaning of everything. Stories might still exist in the 50 states, but without that solipsistic capital voice, how would we know that any of it actually matters?
Suddenly, no senatorial sex tapes, no electoral scandals, no tableaus of glamorous administration insiders behaving horribly, no massive fiscal implosions. History itself would more or less cease to exist.
Next, imagine that Hitler had won and the Nazis ruled for the thousand year reich he had in mind. What would remain of European history, Russian history, American history? Only the Hitlerian version. And even while the world recovered slowly from the devastation he had wrought, we might regard the period after as a dark age in which little or nothing happened, and whatever did happen was probably backward, vicious, and yet uninteresting because, well, stinky. Rats, you know. Which were invented in The Dark Age. Ring a bell with your elementary school education about the time period Brizoni knows so well?
This is not a merely academic set of questions. The whole idea that the Christian era of Europe and the west began with a dark age is the foundation stone of historical opposition to the Roman Catholic church. Wonder where it comes from. How about the Brits? Who amputated Christianity from its founding institution in the 16th century and have warred against the Pope and Roman Catholicism ever since. Obviously, Brit historians have had no dog in this hunt. (After all, Oxford University dates only as far back as 1096 A.D., safely after the Dark Age proper, though well within Brizoni's window of nothingness. Cambridge is even younger.) Christianity didn't begin to make a positive impact on the world (excepting the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, of course) until Shakespeare rediscovered and reinvented Roman comedy and Sir Francis Drake defeated the evil fucking Spanish Armada and all its Satanic Catholic Inquisitor henchmen. Sir Isaac Newton and the Age of Enlightenment followed and, abracadabra, modern rational though modestly Christian civilization is born. Although the Americans were an unexpected development we got over because look at our special relationship. Win-win. Got it?
Still happy with your generalization, Brizoni?
A different perspective. Julius Caesar was a kind of Hitler. The "barbarian" Celts he conquered and slaughtered were not at all uncivilized. In fact, they controlled more of the western world in terms of territory than Rome did. They also had outstanding engineering, including a network of roads that facilitated trade from Scotland to Turkey. They had science, they had art, they had poetry, they had laws which protected children, women, the infirm, and the mentally deficient. They had Boudica, who was not an anomaly but a testament to the fact of female power, exemplified by women who could own property and divorce their husbands for reasons of impotence, infertility, and homosexuality without losing their right to reclaim their dowries or marry again. And, uh, no, the Romans had none of that. The Romans disposed of unwanted babies under their bath houses. The Celts didn't dispose of babies deliberately at all. They had a sense of something that's been called the right to life.
Sorry. This one you should watch all of.
They also had gold. Lots of it. Hundreds of mines interspersed among their prosperous towns. Why Caesar invaded and obliterated Celtic civilization. Rome had run out of gold. Caesar needed money to fuel his political ambitions. Of course, he got to write the history of what happened in his campaign. His military advantage was that Celtic government was federal rather than centralized. There was no Celtic emperor or dictator or commanding general. Gaul had a population of 10 million men, women, and children. Caesar killed a million of them. After his conquest, the Roman Empire resumed minting gold coins, bearing Caesar's likeness.
Let's skip ahead, shall we? Rome finally falls in 476 A.D. Except in Brizoni's math, the next 500 years are considered the Dark Age. Questions nobody asks. Why is continental Europe suddenly so Christian that Brizoni and company feel they are a deadening totalitarian influence? Perhaps because their pre-existing cultural philosophy was already amenable to a religion of compassion and humility. Perhaps because Rome had already become far more involved with the Celts as trading partners than they subsequently admitted, and the Celts were so much more literate than history tells us that the gospels worked their way through the culture with great rapidity. Another profound question. Where does the Roman Catholic elevation of the Virgin Mary to near co-equal status with Christ himself come from? It's nowhere hinted at in the gospels or epistles, and the Church of England has done everything possible to return her to her scriptural place. Could it be that the spread of Christianity throughout a Celtic culture that valued women more than Rome ever could or would was accompanied by a theological adjustment that accords more with our own contemporary ideas of civilization? Nah. Probably not. Hell. The Romans were hot! They'd have loved Lady Gaga. Except maybe not so much the meat dress. But they were definitely into depilatories. When you think of Romans, think shaved pussy. What else do we need for a trans-epoch hookup?
On to the filth, feudalism, illiteracy, and churchy totalitarian part of the Dark Age argument. This is all, literally, Madison Avenue invention. Marble columns and shapely women in togas versus shapeless blobs in burlap smelling strongly of dung. That's pretty much what you've been told or sold, isn't it? But forget the marble and the see-through silk of Hollywood concubines for a moment. After waves of Roman invasion had destroyed most towns and settlements larger than your own suburban cul de sac, the European population was primarily rural for a long time. Rural folk don't need exotic sewage systems. Think outhouses. They also didn't have bad teeth. The worst thing that ever happened to human teeth was corn, which originated in the New World, hundreds of years in the future. They probably didn't even smell bad. Or at least no worse than Romans. It's just that all the Romans got to read in the Roman Times how bad the barbarians smelled.
Oops. Maybe not. I tried to track down Roman literacy rates, which people like to assume were high, for some reason. Probably because they were so civilized, except for their habit of killing absolutely everybody who opposed their rule, down to the last man, woman, and child. Turns out there's not much evidence that plebeians were literate. I found a site (not this one, but they're all similar) where people who purported to know claimed the hoi polloi were fairly literate, but their evidence was slim. Greek house slaves were frequently well educated. That takes in the Roman power elite households, but who else? I mean, who else do we know anything about in Rome but the power elite households? It's like trying to generalize about the looks of poolboys nationwide via a sample from Beverly Hills. The only tangible evidence has to do with some misspelled graffiti found in Pompeii. But Pompeii was the Malibu of its day, a seaside enclave of the rich and famous and their no doubt clever personal assistants, er, slaves.
So, yeah, the Dark Age peasants were probably illiterate. So was most of Europe as late as the First World War. But illiterate doesn't mean stupid or uneducated. A lot of what we know about ancient cultures comes from the remains of their buildings (unless the Romans already leveled all your buildings, cough, cough, CAR-thage, Gesundheit), where they write things down to boast through the centuries about their greatness. So it was with the Egyptians, the Mayans, and, yes, the Romans too. But Greek poetry begins with Homer, who is today believed to be the man who finally wrote down an ancient oral tradition based on faultless remembrance of ancient lines. The same is true of Beowulf, the oldest poem in English, believed to be as old possibly as 800 A.D., well within Brizoni's thousand year window of misery. Well, I've studied more Latin than anyone but a formal Classics major, and I can report honestly to you as a writer and a sometime (however indifferent) poet that Beowulf is a better poem than anything surviving from the Roman Empire. For that matter, even Viking art is better than Roman art:
Where does that leave us? Oh. With churchy totalitarianism. I dunno. You're a rural people recovering from total annihilation. Think zombie movie. How do you keep any learning alive? By establishing free public schools realm-wide, funded by the gubbamint?
Oh, that's right. Forgot about feudalism. Stupid me. Awful awful system, right? Especially when compared to a single elite city that subjugates the entire known world to keep the supply of exotic wines and whores flowing. Feudalism was the original precursor of federalism, autonomous communities with a kingdom asterisk. Most everybody gets to live his life without interference as long as he pays his taxes. What are the taxes for? To arm the nobles who ride off to war when other allegiances are invoked. The rest of the time, of course, the nobles get to behave badly and despoil local maidens and other unsavoury things. I'm not condoning it. But I would love to see Chuck Schumer ride off to war on a charger when Pennsylvania disputes a New York interstate tax scheme. Just saying. Main point is, the Dark Ages did not involve the kind of huge armies and ethnic cleansing that were typical of Rome. Merovingians and Cathars aside, of course (because I knew Brizoni would bring them up right away, given his encyclopedic knowledge of Christian history). btw, if the Dark Age was so dark and dumb, why do we have these and these at all? Shouldn't they all just be squatting in cowpies, hiding from the priests, in their customary utter darkness?
Back to monks. Protected communities who remembered Latin and read it and wrote it and did other stuff. How theocratic of them. It's just a shame they couldn't be bothered to save civilization while they were at it.
There's more, but I'm tired. I won't explain that after the muslim conquests in the Mediterranean, the Crusades became necessary to restore contact with the Old World and launch the Enlightenment. Something Christianity did not just for God but for all of us who have lived ever since. I won't reference the rise of the guilds and consequent creation of an educated middle class. I won't talk about the brand new social mobility created by, gasp, capitalism. I won't elaborate on the significance of art and architecture that far surpassed anything Rome ever produced (most of which Albert Speer could have knocked off in one afternoon). All of which happened inside Brizoni's thousand year immoral Christian misery.
Because there's no way he'll ever listen. He still thinks the Inquisition is infinitely worse than Stalin's pogroms. Which I've already disproved to no avail. Long ago. But we are all prisoners of our earliest unrecognized assumptions. Which he'll read in my case, and yours, as Christianity. What he doesn't understand is that our faith and his renunciation of faith are not equivalent. Unlike atheism, faith is not a checkbox. It is challenged constantly. Those who have it rethink it, rebuild it, recommit to it all the time. How we know we're alive and not just going through the motions of someone else's set of neat notions.
P. S. More things we know that just ain't so.
Elaborate Medieval Torture Devices
Quick: What pops into your mind when we say "medieval"? We bet most of you pictured some kind of torture device ("I'm gonna get medieval on your ass!").
You can just picture a man back then, led by church officials into a sinister underground chamber. He looks around, really wishing now that he hadn't written that hilarious caption about the Pope's new hat. In front of him stands the famous Iron Maiden, a hideous vertical chamber with an interior lined with iron spikes...
As if that weren't bad enough, there was also the Pear of Anguish, which would spread open and violently tear apart whatever human orifice it was pushed into...
... and the Spanish Chair, an iron seat covered in spikes which a victim was strapped into while his feet were roasted...
But in Reality...
Despite being one of the most famous torture devices ever (and having a heavy metal band named after them), Iron Maidens didn't exist back then, and there's no record they were ever used on anyone. If you're saying, "But I've seen them in museums!" well, that's why they exist. These kind of "horrors of the medieval times" exhibits were hugely popular in the 19th century and it appears the Iron Maidens they showed off were cobbled together for the exhibit.
That terrible pear thing that they used to punish sodomy and adultery by ripping the offending organs to shreds from the inside? Also a myth. Nobody can find any reference to the device before the 17th century, and no record at all of it being used to destroy somebody's asshole.
What about the spiked chair? It's supposedly a device of the Spanish Inquisition, but once again there's no record of them using it, or anybody else.
If there's anything here you liked, thank Brizoni. I wouldn't have written it without his harpoon. Does that make him my muse? No. But if he'd like to think so, I have no objection. Nor should you. He's done wonderful things aplenty. To my mind, the real Dark Age is now, when so many of our best young minds are crippled by crap teachers and curricula. Worse, they're sure that what they don't know about the past doesn't matter. They're just plain smarter than the march of time. Which makes them dumber than shit. Why I never even had to get to theology to prove my fair haired boy a fool.
Sad. He's a fiery and brilliant voice of freedom. And a useful idiot of Rachel Maddow's leftist crusade against any human power that resists the new and future religion of the enlightened, government omnipotence unchallenged by the Old Ghost of God. The New Rome, rational ruler of soulless units. Forget sad. Tragic.