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Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Time Event
Myths about the Middle Ages
Hat tip to: m_francis 

James Franklin has a collection of links (some of them dead) in an attempt to debunk some common myths about the Middle Ages. This list is a summary of his longer essay here: The Myth of the Renaissance, where he argues that the Renaissance was a period when thought declined significantly, bring to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages.

I note two of the items on Mr. Franklin's list -- the one about Medieval thinkers believing the Earth was flat, and the one about why Catholics eat fish on Fridays, I myself have encountered in the last week. The comments below are his.

Here is his list.


James Franklin

There are so many myths about the Middle Ages, it has to be suspected that the general level of "knowledge" about things medieval is actually negative.
Here are some of the more famous ones.

  • In the Middle Ages it was believed the earth was flat.

    There's a whole book devoted to refuting this one: J.B. Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York, 1991) (review; also `The myth of the flat earth'.)
    The facts are that the Greeks knew the earth was spherical from about 500 BC, and all but a tiny number of educated persons have known it in all times since. Thomas Aquinas gives the roundness of the earth as a standard example of a scientific truth, in Summa theologiae bk. I q. 1 art. 1.

  • The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

    This has not been found in any scholastic, nor has the allegation been found earlier than in a Protestant writer of 1638. See `Heads of pins'; further; discussion.
    Aquinas does discuss "whether several angels can be in the same place at the same time" (Summa theologiae bk. I q. 52 art. 3), but that does not quite have the farcical ring of the original.

  • Medieval lords had a ius primae noctis: a legal or customary right to sexual relations with the newly-married wives of their underlings.

    There's a whole book on this one, too: A. Boureau, The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage. In short, there's nothing in the story.
    (The same author wrote The Myth of Pope Joan but I don't include this myth as I don't think it's ever been seriously believed.)

  • Some medieval Pope (unnamed, of course) instituted fasting from meat on Fridays to help the fishing industry of the Papal States.

    Mediev-l archives `Fish on Fridays' thread.

  • The alleged fragments of the True Cross would have added up to a whole forest.

    In a truly obsessive piece of scholarship, Charles Rohault de Fleury's Memoire sur les instruments de la passion de N.-S. J.-C. (Paris, 1870) counted all the alleged fragments and showed they only added up to considerably less than one cross ... more

  • Vikings wore helmets with horns

    How would you know Hagar the Horrible was a Viking if he didn't have horns? ... the facts

  • Chastity belts.

    A report; an article.

  • An early medieval church council declared (or almost declared) that women have no souls.

    History of the error.

  • "In the times of St Thomas it [woman] was considered an essence as certainly defined as the somniferous virtue of the poppy ...St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an imperfect man"

    These claims are made in the introduction to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, one of the founding texts of feminism. Aquinas believes all humans have the same essence. Though not exactly a believer in the equality of men and women, he did not call women imperfect men. details.

  • Religious taboos prevented medical dissection of bodies

    Katherine Park's book on late medieval dissection

  • The medieval burning of witches.

    Medieval canon law officially did not believe in witches. There were very occasional individual witch trials in the Middle Ages, but the persecution of witches only became a mass phenomenon from around 1500. The height of persecution was in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries ... article; resources.

  • The feudal system.

    Depending on how strictly it is defined, the feudal system, in the sense of a hierarchical system of property-based legal obligations between lords and vassals, is a later invention. This is argued in S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals (reviews). However, it is true that there was a manorial system or generalised protection racket, something like the "feudal system" of popular imagination.

  • The Renaissance.

    The thesis that there was a rebirth of learning in Europe in or around the fifteenth century, after a thousand years of darkness, is too diffuse to admit of clear agreement or disagreement. Nevertheless, the claim that the "Renaissance" is almost entirely a beat-up, put about by a gang of anti-Catholic art historians, has much to be said for it. See `The Renaissance myth'.

  • There's more ... and yet more ...
  • A book, Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths tackles a number at once ... review.
De Revolutione Scientiarum

Please read this: http://faculty.ugf.edu/jgretch/syllabi/psy450DeRevolutione.pdf

A fascinating article by Michael Flynn, author of the FIRESTAR books, WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS, and, more recently, EIFELHEIM. 

In proper Aristotlean fashion, Mr. Flynn politely demolishes the persistant myth (and I mean myth in the sense of lie) that the Middle Ages were a period of scientific backwardness. This is not merely false, it is the precise opposite of truth: the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries were when logic and reason were paramount, and the foundation stones of modern science set in place. He also offers thoughts on why the Scientific Revolution occured in Europe rather than in the long-lived civilizations of China or India. Like a proper medieval schoolman, he defines his terms -- a practice which ought to be revived for anyone intending any serious thought on any serious topic.

My most recent brush with the 'meme' that Christians burn scientists was quite accidental. I was looking up the name of an article I wrote for a Catholic newspaper (an examination of whether and how modern discoveries of the size of the universe pose a scandal to the Church) and so lazy was I, and possessed of such great faith in the Internet, I "googled" for it rather than looking in my own records. As it turned out, the article had been reprinted on the website of Richard Dawkins, global village atheist.

The comments appended to it were uniformly shocking in their sheer ignorance. Normally an ignoramus is comfortable with his ignorance, much like Sherlock Holmes dismissing the Heliocentric Theory because it was pointless for crime-detection. But these were a gaggle of geese loudly squawking about how knowledgeable and enlightened they were, how scientific and precise they were in their thoughts. They were the 'brights', you see.

Well, these brights were bright enough that they simply made up facts out of their own imaginations to suit themselves.

One poor soul dismissed the idea that I had ever been an atheist: he did not bother to check. It just suited him to believe it. He took it on faith. Another said the Catholic Church kept me in storage against a day when I could be trotted out onstage. (Hm. I am still awaiting my coded instructions beamed into my brain chip via Papal Satellite from my robotic Jesuit-ninja assassin-masters in the Holy Office.) A third said he read only until I referred to the Pope being a public figure speaking about Reason. The Bright was too bright to read to the end of the paragraph -- we all know brights do not need to do research, or read their opposition, or anything -- and too bright to read the newspapers. I was referring to the Holy Father's Regensburg speech, (entitled Faith, Reason and the University) which was famous enough to make headlines, and get its own wikipedia page.

Another bright fumed that the Church taught the world was flat. Another said science fiction writers could not be theists. Another bright criticized me for being a science fiction elitist when it came to space opera. (Me, the founder of the world-wide New Space Princess Movement, which now contains at least 3 members, and is poised to take the scifi world by storm!) And so it went, on and on, and not a single comment I read had anything to do with the topic of the article.

I admit I was flabberghasted by the uniformly low quality of the responses. You see, I am confident that I was not the last intelligent atheist to jump their sinking ship. There must be some out there who do not make simple errors in logic, or make up facts, or substitute emotion for reasoning. But this was like tearing off the roof of roaring hell, and beholding a burning cloud of malice and illogic rise up forever --  if hell were where an intellectual god had flung the smug, loud and stupid, instead of the sinful.

I wish the brights had been bright enough to read Mr. Flynn's article.

It behooves those who idolize science and reason to restrict themselves to scientific and reasonable conclusions on all topics, including the topic of religion, and not to single it out for some bizairre exception, as if it were too dangerous to touch, too dangerous to think about. There are rational atheists out there in the world I am sure, but they evidently don't gather at Richard Dawkins' website to leave comments.

(Maybe the selfish genes in which they have such touching, unquestioning faith, have programmed them not to.)

As if right now, I have made 700 first drafts of my latest novel.

That number is no doubt inflated. I save my work as a separate 'draft' when I make any change, even minor ones, in case I feel the urge to return to a previous wording of a scene. But, still, draft 01 is dated February 2006. I am not sure why this project is taking so much longer than my others. I went from first to final draft in NULL-A CONTINUUM in seven months. THE GOLDEN AGE from start to finish took only about nine months.

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