the not-so dark ages (a history assignment gone wrong)

According to the textbook, the medieval period was a time of “intellectual and social stagnation” and “philosophy and learning were the handmaidens of the Church”; not much going on because the Catholic church wouldn’t let people think about anything but the Catholic Church.

The Renaissance began when Luther posted his ninety-five complaints on the doors of his church in Germany. Suddenly people began to think for themselves and art was better. Citizens became more interested in the Helenistic past and Rome was once again terribly romantic. Thanks to the invention of the movable type printing press, books became cheaper and more readily available.

Scientific thinking really took off during the 1500’s. That quirky Spaniard Chris Columbus had found The New World (well…Lief Eriksson was first, but who’s counting…). People were studying all sorts of things: gases, physics, geometry, the human body.

Here’s the thing that irks me about most text books when they discuss the “dark ages”: they are either willfully ignorant or they are lying. Any real historian worth his salt would take our text book’s first two chapters and use them to start a fire for s’mores. Upon my soapbox I go…

When the Barbarians invaded and burned Rome to the ground, it was monks who saved the scrolls that survived. They did not save only the religious texts: they saved scrolls and parchment from antiquity. (by the way: the reason they are called “barbarians” is because the only thing Romans could understand the invaders to say was “bar, bar bar”) The university system that we have today, with it’s series of examinations for advancement came from Monks. And the whole argument about the Church saying science was “evil”? WRONG. Father Nicholas Steno (a former Lutheran who converted) is known as the Father of Geology. “The first person to measure the rate of acceleration was yet another priest, Father Giambattista Roccioli.” (Woods, 2005) Father Roger Boscovich is the father of the modern atomic theory. Seismology was so heavily studied by Jesuit priests that to this day it is called “The Jesuit Science.” Most of the craters on the moon are named for priests because they were the first to see them. They were the first to see them because (gasp!) The Church had enough money to build really good telescopes! And they actually let people use them!

As an aside, the reason bibles were chained down in churches is because people used to steal them. Before the printing press was invented, it took a very long time to scribe an entire Bible and they were pricey. They were, however, left open and available twenty-four hours a day in the vestibule of the Church. The laity were free to wander in and read, they just couldn’t walk off with it. (Gosh, and even the pens at my bank are chained down…)

And NO, Copernicus was not condemned by the entire Church for his theories. He was shunned by some, but he was actually lauded by Pope Clement VII. When he finally published his stuff, he dedicated the book to Pope Paul III. (Wow. Sounds like he was really given a hard time.)

Galileo said of his visit with Pope Paul V, “I have been received and shown favor by many illustrious cardinals, prelates, and princes of this city.” When he published his Letters on the Sunspots, the future Pope Urban VIII sent him a letter of congratulation. What got him in trouble with the Church was not that his views were new or against doctrine, but that he wanted scripture to be re-written to fit the new science. There was a squabble over Copernicus’ theories and how they fit Galileo’s. It had nothing to do, however, with the position of the sun and the Church’s terracentric philosophy. Catholics were constantly under attack by Protestants for not upholding scripture; they felt overly obliged to protect it, anyway, but they were certainly not going to re-write the Bible for a scientist.

The Catholic church is not perfect (although, granted, it has claimed to be in the past), but it’s high time the authors of our text books actually studied some of the history they claim to try to teach us. History is not prejudiced, not blind, and not to be rewritten for the convenience of a short tome. Text book authors either need to get it right or don’t claim to get it at all.

There. I’m off my soap box now.

Amy W.

PS…don’t even get me started on Luther… 🙂


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