The Myth of the Dark Ages

Viking, Saxon, and Early Christian Irish cultures

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The Myth of the Dark Ages

Postby Celtchar on Sat Jan 08, 2011 6:42 am


"History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction. That's why events are always reinterpreted when values change. We need new versions of history to allow for our current prejudices."
-Bill Watterson

In the fourteenth century Francesco Petrarca - commonly known as Petrarch - described the medieval era as "surrounded by darkness and dense gloom" thus began the demonization of the middle ages. What Petrarch failed to grasp is that every epoch has negative and positive aspects; Roman society (which Petrarch practically defied) included a vast gap between the rich and the poor, streets filled with human waste, inhuman methods of torture, religious persecution and methods of executions designed to maximize suffering. The positive side of Roman life has been popularized while the middle ages have received the opposite treatment; which is why we imagine every Roman as a handsome man in a clean palace reading philosophy instead of a plebeian prostitute leaving her latest child to die on a rubbish heap.

The scholars of the Renaissance vilified the middle ages in order to cement their own importance while revering Greco-Roman history as perfection. Their views were most likely influenced by Roman views of non-Mediterranean Europeans as evil subhuman barbarians. The barbarian stereotype continues to infect Western culture, too many people associate Scotland with unwashed noble savages fighting for "freeeeeedom" rather than the Scottish enlightenment. Petrarch fantasized about classical Latin replacing other European languages; making him one of the most celebrated proponents of cultural genocide in history.

Medieval Asian cultures have also undergone popularization; supposedly they were beacons of civilization, however negative examples are downplayed. The genocidal Mongol assault on Baghdad resulted in the slaughter of thousands and the end of the Islamic golden age. Common Mongol 'practices included; disemboweling people to make sure they had not swallowed valuables, piling heads into pyramids and collecting ears in order to count victims. Why does conventional history view Genghis Khan (who has been portrayed as a hero in at least two films) merely as the charismatic leader of exotic horsemen?

"God the great has elevated Genghis Khan and his progeny and given us the realms of the face of the earth altogether. Everyone who has been recalcitrant in obeying us has been annihilated along with his women, children, kith and kin, towns, and servants, as has surely reached the hearing of all. The reputation of our innumerable army is as well known as the stories of Rustam and Isfandiar. If you are in submission to our court, send tribute, come yourself, and request a shahna; otherwise be prepared for battle."
-Emissary of Hulagu Khan

Book burning was not limited to Europe; the Mongols destroyed innumerable precious texts, according to legend the Tigris ran black with ink from the ruined books of Baghdad. In the eleventh century Turkic invaders burnt the Royal Library of the Samanid Dynasty to the ground. The great library of Nalanda - one of the greatest centers of learning the world has ever known - was burnt to the ground by Muslim forces in 1193. Nalanda was so vast that it allegedly burned for three months, an irreplaceable library of books and manuscripts on Buddhism, fine arts, politics, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy was lost to the world forever.

Medieval spirituality has been stereotyped as mindless fanaticism; horror stories about supposedly cruel priests and evil crusades have obscured the rich practices of Celtic, Esoteric and Eastern Orthodox forms of Christianity. There is no room in the dominant narrative for the mysteries of Germanic, Vainakh and Baltic paganism. The Hermetic tradition? Forgotten and overshadowed by vulgar pulp fiction about fictional torture devices.

The modern view of knights and medieval soldiers as evil killers is the flip side of the romanticized portrayal of knights as noble heroes; both stereotypes lack complexity and prevent us from understanding the men behind the helms. The Black Death is frequently depicted as a tragedy confined to Europe and the result of a lack of hygiene (another myth see page) the first season of Blackadder for example featured peasants eating rats convinced that "a rat a day keeps the plague away." The truth is very different; census records indicate that the plague killed sixty-two million medieval Chinese people. The Black Death ravaged the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt; at least half of the Egyptian population died from plague.

"Plague depopulation, both urban and rural, was at least as severe in Egypt as in the more heavily stricken areas of Western Europe."
-Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England

Europeans did not believe that the earth was flat; Washington Irving the author of a heavily inaccurate book about Columbus invented the flat earth myth. The Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine empire killed Roman civilization not Germanic "barbarians" who kept Roman culture alive. Father Zeigler described Visigothic Law as a “Roman code “with” vestige of Germanic custom, Theoderik the Great portrayed himself as a Roman emperor in art. Feudal monarchies were not limited to Europe as evidenced by the Hoysala Empire, Japan, Joseon Korea, the Golden Horde, the Abbasid Caliphate and the Seljuk empire. When we look at negative examples of medieval European history in world context it becomes clear that tyranny, cruelty, war and other negative aspects of life were not unique to Europe.

Myth: only a handful of Europeans could read.

Fact: the Byzantine Empire was a highly literate society; education was widely available, the second Bulgarian empire was a rich cultural center with an extraordinarily high literacy rate and the maritime republics maintained a high literacy rate. In Scandinavia hundreds of documents written in the Runic script by common have been unearthed. Novgorod archaeologists have discovered thousands of medieval letters written by ordinary people on birch bark.

Myth: Europe was governed by brutal laws that were uniquely cruel.

Fact: the word 'medieval' is still synonymous with inhumane punishment; supposedly European legal systems handed down harsh penalties for the most trivial offenses, step out of line and you were lucky if you got away with a hundred lashes. Yet the truth is very different - while negative examples of European laws were very real Armenian law (Datastanagirk) punished offenses with methods ranging from stoning to amputation - Europe was in fact home to a great deal of humane codes. Merciful concepts were widespread throughout Europe, an offender could seek sanctuary with the church, the death penalty could be abrogated with a fine, criminals could be pardoned in exchange for military service or an offender could be banished from his town. In other words while the death penalty did exist in certain European cultures there were ways to avoid it; options that modern legal systems do not offer and a great many societies did not practice capital punishment. Germanic laws feature the weregild, a value placed on people (usually according to social rank) if someone was murdered or injured the perpetrator had to pay a fine to the victim's family (parallels include the Welsh Galanas, Polish Główszczyzna and Irish Éraic).

Medieval Russian law (Russkaya Pravda) did not punish a single crime with capital punishment, it based around compensation and crimes had to be investigated, Russkaya Pravda was in many ways a precursor to modern police procedure. Medieval Scandinavian law punished crimes with fines and outlawing, the death penalty was rare and Irish Brehon law punished crimes with fines. Brehon law as tolerated homosexuality; it is only mentioned non-judgmentally as a reason for divorce, a stark contrast to Islamic or Hindu treatment of Homoseuxals. In other words the cultures that came after the fall of Rome were not evil backwards barbarians they were more humane and egalitarian than Rome; compare Roman law (which made torture into an institution to Norse law). Other examples include:

*Salic law.

*Frisian law.

What about Chinese law?

"Ming Dynasty law emphasized severe punishment. In its preamble,the Ming Dynasty code of law points out: "The five chief forms of punishment are aimed at bringing fear to the people, to the extent that they dare not rebel." This was a consequence of the long-term chaotic social situation in the late Yuan Dynasty, when peasant uprisings were a regular occurrence. In feudal times there was a tradition of "using severe punishments in times of anarchy and disorder."

Myth: serfdom dominated Europe.

Fact: serfdom has never existed in Norway, Finland or Sweden, certain areas in the British isles were ruled by Udal law, an egalitarian system that allowed people to own land outright without having to owe fealty to anyone (the opposite of feudal law). Feudalism didn't exist in Basque society since Basques owned their lands free of the monarchy or church, Italy had abandoned feudalism, Frisia and the Ditsmarsch republic were free of feudalism. In the Byzantine empire the paroiki (people who lived on and worked tracts given to recipients of land grants) did not owe loyalty or service to the pronoiar.Other European nations abolished slavery extraordinarily early (Iceland eliminated slavery in 1117).

Myth: Europe was ruled entirely by cruel monarchies, democratic, republican or egalitarian ideals were unknown.

Fact: apart from gender equality Basque society was governed by (Strabo described Basques as having a "woman ruled society') a democratic system. The democratic Thing was the key Scandinavian institution, the people had the right to elect and remove kings, the Scandinavians also maintained standards of hygiene so much for the smelly peasants myth. Assemblies were highly important in Gaelic Ireland and San Marino is home to one of the oldest republics in history.


"Stand up, free Frisians!"

Medieval Frisia (currently Friesland, West Friesland, Groningen province, Ostfriesland, Stade and North Friesland) consisted of a string of autonomous areas, did not have feudalism or serfdom; they were free from tax and fief. Frisia was ruled by a democratic system where only landowners could vote; by modern standards this seems unequal, however we need to remember that similar conditions for voting also applied well into the eighteenth century. There is ample evidence that the Frisians had an ideology comparable to anarchism; the traditional battle cry was "better dead than a slave", law texts were prefaced by "the people want." Debt was effectively nonexistent due to the fact that there were no bailiffs. By the standards of the time (and even compared to modern life) Frisians enjoyed a vast level of freedom, especially since there was no central government, Frisian freedom (1101-1498) continued until the medieval era was nearly over.

ther examples include:

*The Icelandic Althing.

*Vainakh society.

*The Ditmarsch republic.

*The Maritime Republics.

*Medieval communes.

*The Slavic Veche.

*Gaelic societies.

*The Sami.

*The Greenlandic Landsting.

*The Old Swiss Confederacy.

*The Faroese Logting.

"This volume examines the existence of the Dithmarschen Republic (1227-1559), ruled by commoners who developed their own institutions, had their own written constitution, and successfully defended their political independence against the forces of Holstein, the combined powers of Schleswig and Holstein, and the united kingdom of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It argues that the unique characteristics of Dithmarschen are not unique, and that many medieval peasant communities shared these characteristics - the clan system, a militia, and the desire to govern themselves - but had lacked the advantageous geographic and political situation enjoyed by Dithmarschen. The text concludes that the small size of the Republic finally prevented its survival due to a reluctance to dilute its sovereignty by associating more closely with neighboring states." ... 0773497838

Compare that to the Ottoman Empire where the sultan was the absolute ruler or Japan where the Emperor was believed to literally be a god (a concept which fueled one of the worst genocides in Human history).

Myth: medieval Europe stagnated and did not grow culturally.

Fact: examples of sophisticated advanced societies include the Byzantium, the Bulgarian empire, the Carolingian, the Georgian Renaissance, Visigothic society (which granted women far more rights than contemporary Hindu society) and the Ottonian Renaissance.

Myth: medieval Europe had awful weather.

Fact: actually it was quite nice; from AD 950–1250 a warming period occured.

Myth: medieval people didn't bath.

Fact: the Norse, Gaels, Finns and Russians maintained high standards of hygiene.
Last edited by Celtchar on Sat Jan 08, 2011 7:16 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: The Myth of the Dark Ages

Postby Celtchar on Sat Jan 08, 2011 6:53 am

The myth of medieval witch hunts:

A fat greasy man in a leather hood leads a comely young women out to a pile of wood in the town square, he forces her to the top and binds her shapely body to the post with a rusty chain. The flames are lit and the girl dies a horrible death, if only she hadn't tried to win the affection of that young man with those strange incantation her grandmother always chanted! Witch burning scenarios are embedded into the Western psyche and often cited as 'proof' that medieval Europe was a uniquely cruel hell. The reality is very different; victims of public burnings were usually hanged to death after which their corpses would be burnt. Witch hunts and burnings occurred mainly when the middle ages were coming to and end (Joan of Arc was executed in the late middle ages) or after the medieval epoch.

The infamous book Malleus Maleficarum ('The Hammer of Witches') was not published until the end of the middle ages. Inquisitorial courts became systematically involved in witch hunting only in the fifteenth century. In other words witch hysteria was common during the supposedly perfect Renaissance; yet that hasn't created a negative view of the Renaissance. People think of witch trials as a strictly European evil which simply isn't true, under medieval Mongol law anyone 'guilty' of 'sorcery' was condemned to death. Victims of capital punishment in Ancient Greece were roasted to death in the Brazen bull, a common method execution.

The Council of Paderborn in 785 explicitly outlawed the very belief in witchcraft, obviously people could not be tried for witchcraft under such laws. The Council of Frankfurt in 794, called by Charlemagne condemned belief in witchcraft as superstition and ordered that anyone presuming to kill people for 'witchcraft' would be put to death. It was more dangerous to accuse someone of 'black magic' than it was to practice the dark arts in private!

The stereotype that medieval Europeans in general feared any beliefs outside of strict Christianity is easily disproved by examining how common occultism was in the medieval world. People from nearly every social status and profession engaged in magic; peasants, aristocrats, doctors, prostitutes, clergymen, even Bishops! Books of sorcery (galdrabækr) existed in Iceland in addition to staves; glyphs designed to produce results ranging from good dreams to warding off foxes.

Bishops often complained of lower class farmers taking the host (a representation of the body of Christ) back to their homes and drawing symbols on it in order to help crops or make animals fatter. The clergy of late Anglo-Saxon England produced 'leechbooks' medical manuals that contained spells for protection and healing, many of these rituals were Christianized versions of Pagan rites. Very few official condemnations of occult texts were issued; church officials were more concerned with heretical books, attempts to suppress grimoires and other such manuals were sporadic not systemic. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV ordered inquisitors ‘not to intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy involved.'

That isn't to say that witch trials did not occur in medieval Europe; however the sentence was usually nowhere as severe as neo-pagan books (written by people who seem to have a need to feel persecuted) would have you believe. In England, in 1466, Robert Barker of Babraham, Cambridgeshire, was brought before his bishop to answer for owning ‘a book, and a roll of the black art containing characters, circles, exorcisms and conjurations; a hexagonal sheet with strange figures; six metal plates with diverse characters engraved; a chart with hexagonal and pentagonal figures and characters, and a gilded wand.’ Was Baker tied to a stake and burned alive? Not exactly; he was sentenced to public penance, walking around the marketplaces of Ely and Cambridge in bare feet and carrying his books and magical paraphernalia which were later destroyed.

The Myth of Medieval Torture Tools

"You're a great torturer Bob, you can make a man scream for mercy in seconds but dang you can't make a good cup of coffee."
-Gary Larson

*The iron maiden was invented in the 18th century and and there is no record to suggest that it was ever used.

* The Judas cradle was a fictional device, there is no evidence to support the lie that it was a medieval torture device.

* The Choke pear did not exist prior to the 17th century and it used as gag, there is no proof to suggest the myth that it was used to destroy orifices.

*No record of the Spanish or spiked chair being used on anyone exists.

*The rack first appeared when the middle ages was coming to an end.

*The Scavenger's daughter was invented in the 16th century (like many supposedly "medieval" torture devices).

*The medieval torture device known as Crocodile shears was reserve only for people who had attempted to kill monarchs.
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