How the Catholic Church was largely responsible for the Dark Ages

By Dr. Mike Magee | 18 December 2003
AskWhy!

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Roman Christians from the fourth century set about destroying the Pagan culture that had given us Classical and Hellenistic Antiquity. The Dark Ages resulted. In only a few hundred years, only the topmost levels of the clergy could read and write. Many of the monks copying their bibles were simply copying the shapes of the letters, imagining them to be holy symbols from God. They prove it by making copying errors which could not have been made by a literate man, mistaking a gothic “f” for an “s”. No literate person could mistake the two. The seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries have left a scanty literature. Europe had sunk into the crassest ignorance and superstition. Defenders of Christianity are desperate to maintain that Christians kept alive learning in the Dark Ages. The skeptic wants to know why then they should have been so dark for so long.

Media Tempestas

Historians divide the time since the birth of Christ into three parts, Ancient Times, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times. The Middle Ages is a period of dark and turbulent semi-barbarism lying between two phases of civilization—ancient Paganism and modern Paganism. Between was the time when Christianity ruled unchallenged—the Media Tempestas.

The Middle Ages is a stretch of a thousand years called medieval and feudal, words that are like the word dinosaur—they are used pejoratively. They mean backward, barbaric, primitive or, at the least, old fashioned—the antithesis of our clever and sophisticated modern times. The reason is that in that thousand years, crime, vice, violence, drunkenness, disease, mortality, brutality, exploitation and injustice were immeasurably worse than before or after. Yet, they are the time when the church was at its most powerful, when cathedrals were built, bishops lived in palaces and many of the male population were churchmen—monks, priests, bishops, friars, templars, hospitallers, priors, lay brothers.

The Middle Ages extend from about 500 AD, when Paganism and the Roman Empire went extinct, to about 1500 AD. The half of this period from about 500 to 1100 are the Dark Ages. The Christian excuse for the Dark Ages is that the degradation of Europe was due to the barbarian invasions, which it took the Church several centuries to correct. The barbarians who supposedly caused the Dark Ages through their invasions were not only Christians already, they were not ignorant. Though “barbarian” to us means savage and ignorant, that is largely Church propaganda. Originally, “barbarian” simply meant foreign. Foreign languages to the Greeks, sounded like people murmuring, “baa, baa, baa,” just as the Goons discovered that several people saying, “rhubarb, rhubarb,” repeatedly mimicked a room full of people talking quietly, as at a cocktail party. The Greeks, in their arrogance, thought that foreigners were inferior in civilisation to them, but they did not necessarily think all foreigners were savage and ignorant.

Because the Middle Ages have the redeeming feature of medieval art, the glorious cathedrals, illuminated missals, wonderful tapestries and exquisite paintings, all of which are important but come from the latter half of the Middle Ages, the church pretends it pulled Europe through the Dark Ages. It ignores the truth—the church was largely responsible for them. One of the ironies of life—but only for Christians—is that the barbarian invasions and the Dark Ages coincided with the application of God’s plan to Europe.

What is there besides the art? The crafts guilds, which were heretical in origin, were for only a minority of craftsmen and were fiercely resisted by the Church until it found them irrepressible. What else is there? Nothing. The rest is misery, suffering, exploitation by priest and noble, appalling superstition, utter lawlessness, dense ignorance.

In the Middle Ages, the church imposed the strictest obedience to authority and for centuries nominally free men were slaves, tied to the land, even if they did have a lot of holy days. The feudal order was meant to reflect heaven on earth—obedience to God via one’s superiors. Children obeyed their parents, their parents were their lord’s vassals and had to obey him, the lord was the king’s vassal, laymen obeyed the clergy, monks obeyed their abbot, clergy and laymen obeyed bishops who themselves were feudal lords, bishops and kings obeyed the Pope—at least in theory. Originality and creativity had to await a commission from the church or a lord, otherwise it was anathema. The church had created itself as a reborn Imperium Romanum with the Pope as its emperor and Latin as its language.

The emergence of the new romance languages and particularly Provençal literature from about 1100 marks the end of the Dark Ages, at least in culture, though the heights of savagery had yet to be reached in the crusades, the inquisition and the witch hunts, taking us right up to modern times. The literature of the Dark Ages was in Latin bent to the needs of the divines of the Church, and its poetry was devoted to hymns. Even the vernacular literature was based on, or influenced by, Latin, much of it simply being translated. There was a body of Teutonic, Celtic, Greek and Arabic literature that appeared alongside the Latin, Teutonic and Celtic being the prime influences, and, though they influenced modern forms from the twelfth century, they were distinctly unmodern. The change was dramatic!

Dr Johnson is hardly farther from Beowulf than Chaucer is.
W P Ker, The Dark Ages

The Church claims it preserved the classical tradition of antiquity which it had destroyed brick by brick and book by book. It only preserved some favoured works as classic Latin and Greek texts for clerics to use to learn Latin and Greek purely for devotional purposes. S Boniface (675-754) stated clearly that the reason he wanted his priests and missionaries to understand Latin was to understand the scriptures and liturgy. The church had no intention or ambition to preserve wonderful works of Pagan authors. It preserved them almost by accident while burning books in barnfuls. It was only as men rediscovered lost techniques and discovered new ones that eventully the Media Tempestas gave way to the Reformation and the Renaissance. The discovery of printing was a major factor.

Some men throughout the Middle Ages had never been satisfied with the corruption and open self-seeking of the church and its servants. Reform movements had always sought a simpler, purer faith like that of the Apostolic Age that was more purely Essene. Eventually there came the Great Reformation with just those aims and from them came secular movements with equivalent slogans. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the Secular Trinity, reflected the values of the Essenes who spawned Christianity in the Apostolic Age.

The Making of the Middle Ages

The Goths, Vandals, Franks, and other Teutonic tribes, in the fifth century, did indeed destroy the superstructure of Roman civilization, but Rome, which had withstood the pressure from the barbarians for a millennium, succumbed after the Christians had been in control for less than 150 years.

The northern barbarians left Europe with our nation states, many laws, customs and traditions—eventually the governments and constitutions that made up medieval Christendom. They were farmers and animal breeders, not unusually uncouth except to the urban sophisticate, and had to force their way into the Roman sphere simply because the might of the Huns pressed them from the east. They were barbarians mainly in the sense that they spoke no Latin or Greek, but otherwise were much like any Roman bucolic, and many had lived within the boundaries of the empire as “Federati”. The supposed barbarians had their own oral or written literature, and mythologies, though some of the forms used, such as alliterative verse, might have seemed odd to us. Common strands in Aryan culture from Ireland to India suggest that European literature was not exclusive to a few people. Dark Age ignorance was the child of Christian bigotry.

And these “barbarians” were not so barbaric as some imagine. At the beginning of the second century, when the Romans were under the conscientious Stoic emperors, the historian Tacitus wrote a work on the Teutonic tribes of the north, The Morals of the Germans. His aim was to shame the Romans by holding up to them the superior standards of the Teutons! It was poetic licence, so to speak, but had to contain sufficient truth to be convincing.

Tradition has given the Vandals, who overran Spain and Africa, so terrible a reputation that we use their name still for destroyers or semi-barbarians. Yet, the fifth-century Christian priest Salvianus depicts both Goths and Vandals as stern Puritans shocked by the immorality of Roman Christians. He tells us that when the Vandals took Christian Carthage, they set about a purification of morals which disturbed the inhabitants far more than the loss of political freedom did. And within two centuries of their adoption of Christianity these Germanic peoples, whose Pagan ideals had kept them chaste for ages, were more flagrantly immoral than the Romans had been.

These “barbarians” wanted to accept civilization. Some had risen to the highest positions in the Roman army and state even before the fifth century. They were already Christians. The chief Germanic tribes which poured over Italy, Gaul, and Spain in the fifth century had already accepted Christianity, and few Christians have such superstitious awe of the power of priests and bishops as converted barbarians.

These Teutons, masters of Europe and pupils of the Church, blended their old law and ideals with the Roman in an attempt to begin civilization anew, and in every case the Church hampered and ultimately thwarted them. Barbarians are not responsible for the Dark Ages. They brought with them an acceptance of law and high ideals. They were rough and rustic, but not rude or crude. They needed a king deaf to the clergy but they bowed to the church, and the church was no force for civilization. The Church is to blame for the Dark Ages.

The Use of Literacy

The Christian administration of the Empire from the fourth century, set about creating a desert of the Pagan culture that had given us Classical and Hellenistic Antiquity. The Dark Ages ensued. The church controlled paper-making, publishing and writing. In only a few hundred years, only the topmost levels of the clergy could read and write. Many of the monks copying their bibles were simply copying the shapes of the letters as a pious duty, just as the post-nuclear monks in Miller’s, A Canticle for Liebowitz, uncomprehendingly copied electrical circuits, imagining them to be holy symbols from God. They prove it by making copying errors which could not have been made by a literate man. A gothic “f” looks rather like an “s” but no literate person could mistake the two. Doubtless they were allowed to illuminate the manuscripts with their own designs to alleviate the excruciating boredom of copying what, to them, must have looked like endless pages of tedious symbols.

Nevertheless, the Church controlled literacy and writing. Only its own people knew how to communicate by the written word. Again Paganism was at a disadvantage. The only schools were Christian schools. World famous academies founded by philosophers as prominent as Plato were closed by the Christians—just shut. Almost a thousand years of educational excellence—shut! For dogma. The Pagan teachers were impoverished, sometimes murdered or scattered to foreign countries like Germany or Persia, and their libraries stolen. The church was convinced that ignorance was godliness and writing was necessary only to propagate the holy books.

Illiterate societies substitute for writing an oral tradition that is often noble and highly creative. Illiterate people often have prodigious memories by our standards but an immense effort would be needed for memorising a whole culture.The memory man in John Buchan’s, The Thirty Nine Steps, could recite the secret plans easily as he died but Druids had to train for twenty or thirty years to learn the corpus of Druid lore which could have been stored for all by writing. And, was anyone bothered if the poet extemporised?

An ability needed by the top bards was, like Mozart and the musicians of his time, the skill of inventing variations on a theme. The young Druid, like all tyros, had to learn what he was set, but as a mature and respected bard he had to modify them and adapt them for this king and that. His originality would have been cheered not his ability to recite what they had already heard, though the elements of the story were fixed. What then came down over the centuries? The Declaration of Independence remains as it was at first because it is written. If it were sung by bards, it is unlikely it would have stayed as it was. So, in a self-imposed world of illiteracy, the Church with its few comprehending clerics, had a great advantage in preserving its tradition.

Worse, for us wanting to know about the Druids or Paganism in the Middle Ages, is that spoken words fade on the wind. We know nothing about the Druid Shakespeare, yet the Druidic tradition of poetry competitions lasted in Ireland until only a hundred years ago when the remaining traditions were collected. Welsh oral tradition died and what now exists is only a revival. Teutonic and Iberian traditions were also oral and have left nothing much. Nearly all of these oral cultures were driven underground by what was considered civilisation—Christianity. An oral tradition that is also secret might leave no trace at all—just what the Christians wanted.

A parallel situation, oddly, existed in Judah after the exile when the Hebrew scriptures were compiled. The ignorant peasants that had not been selected by their conquerors for transportation to Babylon because they had no skills, and the aged, preserved the oral tradition of the children of Israel for the years that their fellow nationals were away.

When the descendants of the exiles returned they had been commissioned by Cyrus to build a temple. They were placed in control of the country instructed to start a new religion and keep the country as a model puppet state of the Persian Empire. The locals were all against it, but the new people were in power, with the authority of the Persian king and the control of writing. They refused all of the pleas of the locals to participate in the new project and rewrote all the old legends to suit their improved religion of Yehouah.

The simpletons, called the Am ha-Aretz had one role only in this—to submit themselves to the new god and his new priesthood, who pretended they, themselves, had the continuous authority of Aaron and Zadok. Now the only tradition that remains in Judaism is the one allowed by the priests returning from exile because they controlled publishing. Control of writing and publishing is an immense power.

The Jewish scriptures were gathered together and re-written to suit the new hierarchy. Now, the records that have come to us from those literate Persian Jews are central to the Christian religion and have powerfully conditioned our culture for two millennia—they are the Christian Old Testament. The other major influence on us was the Classical and Hellenistic culture of the Mediterranean. No other ancient cultures could leave such marks because their words were not set down, but faded on the wind. Yet, the product of the machinations of the CIA of the ancient Persian kings are esteemed today by Jews and Christians alike as the word of God, the creator of all things. Cyrus would have been astonished.

All we know about the Media Tempestas, apart from archaeological evidence, comes to us from the medieval clergy. They were not ready to give us comprehensive accounts of the beliefs and superstitions of the “vulgus,” but they did let us infer it from their frequent denouncements, and the evolution of church practice to accommodate it. Culture is also usually more interested in the growth of the new than in the decline of the old. The long, slow decline of Paganism was not directly chronicled mainly because to do so would be to accept that it had not died instantly when Christianity became the religion of kings. But the announcement of its death was premature and, though old, frail and critical, it exerted its influence on the Church for over a thousand years—perhaps until today, when its merits are again being seen and some Christians have had to invent Creation Spirituality in reply. They might see the true resurrection—the resurrection of Paganism.

Education in the Middle Ages

Pope Gregory, a monk, ruled the Church from 590 to 604 AD. Fr J McCabe tells us the triumph of Christianity was now complete, Paganism and civilization were dead. Rome had not been destroyed by the Goths, but decade by decade, it fell into ruin at the hands of the forty thousand miserable and grossly ignorant Christians who now moved amongst the decaying buildings that had once housed a million. Europe was correspondingly desolate.

Gregory, before be became a monk, had been a Roman patrician, a rich man of the standards of the time, even Prefect of Rome. Gregory pronounced the end of the world. A man with possessions, the bible said, had more hope of getting through the eye of a needle than of entering the kingdom of heaven. So the men who had large estates in Italy passed them over to the Papacy and joined monasteries waitung for the day that Christians have always waited for—when they would meet Jesus, as they say today. The pope became a prince, and a few more forgeries, a century later, would make popes kings. Gregory knew that the last trump would soon sound in the ears of the mortals, and so nothing but virtue mattered.

He heard that Bishop Desiderius, of Vienne in Gaul, was conducting a small school, and he wrote him a letter:

After that we heard a thing that cannot be repeated without a feeling of shame—namely, that you are teaching grammar to some. This troubled us so greatly, and filled us with so deep a disdain, that we fell from our former praise of you to mourning and sorrow, because the praise of Jove must never be heard from the mouth that praises Christ. Think how grave and horrible it is for a bishop to repeat what even a religious layman should not. And, though our beloved son the presbyter Candidus denied the affair, at our pressing inquiry, and tried to excuse you, ye have not lost the suspicion, because it is so execrable for this to be said of a priest that it must be strictly investigated.

Desiderius had to give up “studying trifles and secular letters” to return to the pope’s favor. Apologists try to maintain that Bishop Desiderius had been teaching the classics in church. The letter shows he was not accused of that and one still has to puzzle about the nature of the crime even if it is true.

After Gregory’s death, the tradition in the Church, was that the pope had burned the old Roman libraries which still remained on the Capitoline and the Palatine Hills. Why should such a tradition be false? Civilization was to be killed. Gregory even pours scorn on the innocent rules of the grammarian Donatus, the teacher of S Jerome, an elementary form of profane learning.

The ignorance introduced by Christianity was profound. A bishop of Laon in France of the eleventh century says: “There is more than one bishop who cannot name the letters of the alphabet on his fingers”. Priests had no understanding of the Latin they mumbled. Even the secretaries of the Papacy at Rome sent out their documents in the most atrocious Latin, full of grammatical errors. Kings and nobles could not sign their names. Their signatures had to be cut for them in wood and stamped on documents. The illiteracy of Europe increased to more than ninety-nine percent.

The literary activity of the monks is as empty a legend as that of the early martyrs. The French writer, Montalembert is responsible for the myth, claiming that “every monastery was a school”. Not one monastery in a hundred educated even its own monks. Even schools for teaching clerics how to read the bible and the Breviary were so obscure and paltry that the names of them have been lost.

The monks copied books, Montalembert says, and, in the monastery of Novaless, there were six thousand seven hundred hand-written books! The Moors in Spain had seventy public libraries besides private collections, one of which contained six hundred thousand books and, in Pagan days, the library of Alexandria had seven hundred thousand books. The Julian library at Rome which, with others, the pope is said to have burned, contained one hundred and twenty thousand books.

At the close of the thirteenth century, the most intellectual and scholarly period of the Middle Ages, not one monk in the largest and greatest monastery of France, S Gall, could read or write! From the days of St Augustine, who railled against monks within a century of their appearance in Europe, until the Reformation, serious Christian literature is full of stern indictments of the idleness and the hypocrisy of the monks.

Christians have a vague idea that Plato and Aristotle and all the Greek works we so justly treasure were preserved by the monks of the Middle Ages. No piece of Greek literature was preserved by monks except perhaps, Aristotle’s Dialectics. Until the time of Charlemagne, who made the monks work, there was not a monastery in Europe that rendered any service whatever in connection with classical literature.

Do Christians really imagine pious monks spending the hours between prayers copying the obscenities of Apuleius, the amorous verse of Horace, the adventures of the gods and goddesses in Ovid? How does it square with pope Gregory the Great’s attitude to the most elementary education?—and he was a monk!

Greek literature was preserved in the Greek Byzantine Empire, and was conveyed to Europe by the Jews and Moors. As to Latin literature, religious monasteries regarded it, like Tertullian, as “inspired by the devil”, and would not look at it, and the bulk of the monasteries were too gross and ignorant to do any copying. Just because an abbot here and a bishop there liked a cup of wine, a maid and sensual matter in general, and preserved an odd book of verse, it is no cause for Christians to claim they preserved Latin authors. Copies even of the Latin classics were exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages, although a parchment-book lasted practically forever.

The copying that the monks did in their writing rooms, was of the bible and the Fathers of the Church—Christian literature. A famous scholar of the early twentieth century says bluntly that the monks destroyed more classical works than the barbarians.

Scholarship

The Latin of Gaul was in close contact with the Latin of Italy, but the vocabulary of Gaulish Latin included a lot of Gallic words. By the end of the fifth century, no one in Gaul spoke the Celtic language. Everyone spoke Latin, and, though it differed from classical Latin, especially in the Gallic words adopted into it, it did not differ much from the forms of Latin spoken elsewhere in the dying western Roman empire. Written Latin, however, was much closer to classical Latin, and in literate communities, the written word acts as a tether to stop the spoken language from wandering far from it. The trouble was that the Christians only taught writing to clerics, leaving the population illiterate.

Of the barbarians that invaded France, the Franks were pagans, but the church still got on well with the Frankish kings, indeed rather better than it did initially with the Arian Christian barbarians like the Visigoths with whom the Church had theological differences. So, even among the Franks, Latin enjoyed great prestige and was used for all official communication at the height of the Frankish empire. Even the Salic Law, the oral tribal code of the Salian Franks was written down in Latin. But the lack of general literacy meant that written Latin began to decay, taking its cues from the Vulgar Latin spoken by the people. Peter Rickard, a Cambridge University French scholar, wrote:

A weakening, through ignorance, through loss of tradition, and through chaotic conditions, of the norms of classical Latin, and the increasing influence of the spoken language led to a written Latin which is conspicuously non-classical.
P Rickard, A History of the French Language

Bishop Gregory of Tours (538-594 AD) wrote in Latin a few years before he died, the History of the Franks (591 AD).

Hardly a line of it could have been written in the classical age.
M Bonnet, cited by Rickard

Rickard adds that Gregory’s late sixth century Latin is much superior to that of his contemporaries, and very much superior to his seventh century successors. Learning was decaying even among the supposedly educated caste of the clergy.

The three rules of language (Trivium) were derided, and now things that the Trivium concerned, “trivia”, means something of no consequence. Bad grammar was commended. “Will the Latin grammar save an immortal soul?” senior clerics asked, rhetorically. They already had decided the answer was negative, and saving souls—an imaginary skill—was all that was important to them. S Benedict had little regard for grammar and rhetoric, and the Rule of his order was written in ugly schoolboy Latin. The order was not founded on any love of learning or scholarship. S Gregory the Great deprecated the humanities with citations from the bible. “What profit is there in the record of the Pagan gods or Pagan sagas, the labours of Hercules or the philosophy of Socrates?” Who but people in the deepest of ignorance and the utmost bigots could ask such a question? S Gregory was a Benedictine. Mainly, Christians did not bother. They already knew the answers, as they always do. The greatest ignorance always professes absolute knowledge.

The outcome was that books became scarce, and the ancient industry of copying the works of poets, orators and philosophers was suspended, except for the few needed to teach clerics. Many great classical authors remained unread, and their works allowed to decay, literally. Copying a few schoolbooks so that trainee divines could learn Latin and read their bibles was the preservation of knowledge the Christians bragg about.

Gregory of Tours, who throws such lurid light on the fifth and sixth centuries, died in 594. For the next half century, a thin and meager monkish chronicle tells the same dark story, and then there is not a scrap of reliable history for a hundred years. The seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries have left a scanty literature. Europe was sunk in the crassest ignorance and superstition. Defenders of Christianity are desperate to maintain that Christians kept alive learning in the Dark Ages. The skeptic wants to know why then they should have been so dark for so long.

By 800 AD, the spoken Latin of the Frankish areas of France was so different from Classical latin that it could no longer be called Latin. In the south, in the areas where Occitan came to be spoken, where heretics thrived, the Latin remained purer. Even the supposedly literate Catholic clergy could not understand Classical or even earlier Vulgar Latin, and a book called the Reichenau Glosses had to be prepared explaining the meaning, in the Vulgar Latin then spoken, of over 3000 words and phrases of the Vulgar Latin used by Jerome in his fourth century Latin bible.

The sheer ignorance of the priesthood was what determined Charlemagne, the devout and intelligent but illiterate Franckish emperor to improve matters. Besides religious reasons, an emperor needed clerks to keep his archives, and Chalemagne was attempting to restore the Roman empire. He decreed there should be schools of young clerks (lectores) in every monastery and every bishop’s palace. He had classical works copied onto vellum, a tougher material than the papyrus of the documents the Christians had allowed to rot. Many works of classical antiquity we have today are the Carolingian copies on vellum, not the originals.

The trouble with the success of Charlemagne’s restoration of a more Classical Latin is that the records were now kept in a dead language because it differed so much from the Vulgar Latin spoken. It was a crisis met by the Council of Tours in 813, a year before Charlemagne died. The priests were to preach in rustica romana lingua or in teotisca lingua, being spoken Latin vernacular or spoken Frankish German vernacular, respectively. The priests preached in the rustic Latin and even literate people spoke it, but the written language was a reversion to Classical Latin. The rustic Latin was effectively Old French. Consequently, there was still no French literature even in the ninth century.

Charlemagne effected a revival of learning but it took a long time to have a substantial effect, if that was what led to the Renaissance. And, it ought to be obvious that Charles was a soldier king not a Christian cleric. What kept the cognoscenti of Christianity silent for 450 years before Charlemagne got angry at their ignorance?

Christian Scholars are Easily Counted

W P Ker names six educators “and mentions a number” of others unnamed, who preserved the standards of a liberal education “in the ages of distress and anarchy”, as he puts it. This is in the whole of Europe for 800 years. Their school books were “elementary and pedantic” but had the “seeds of literature” in them. Their work was “poor and low”, not “difficult or recondite”, made “things easy” and “simplify the results of ancient learning for simple audiences”.

These audiences were not children in village schools. They were trainee priests in seminaries, most of whom finished up knowing little, and mainly quite unable to scan elementary Latin. To do their jobs, they learnt the mass and a few prayers off by heart. The small minority who were diligent enough to profit from their education finished in high office in Church or state. The efforts of these Christian educators were “humble enough” but were of great importance later, Ker says, and indeed they were because without this remnant, there could have been no revival of learning at all. It could only have come by being invented anew. That would have been a miracle in Christendom.

Ker did not want to criticize the middle ages, since to do so was, in Victorian times, to criticize Christianity, so he wrote:

Nothing is easier than to make the learning and thought of the middle ages ridiculous by isolated quotation of some of the common absurdities…

His apology is a condemnation itself. The “absurdities” of the period were not occasional but were “common”. That is why it is easy to do, though it was not easy to do with the thought of writers more than a thousand years before! Ker does it quite inadvertantly trying not to, but it is too easy to fall into. Christianity had led Europe backwards.

The midde ages was that period of absurd inversion of meaning and logic that Christians need to confuse the sheep sufficiently to keep them contented with their fodder. “Reality” was not real to the Christian scholars, the Scholastics. It was their word for the Platonic ideal world of Forms or Ideas. For them, reality was unreality or their preferred idealism. The abstract conception behind the word “horse”, representing everyone’s general idea of a horse and no horse in particular, is for the Christian scholar the “real” horse. The ones that have some value in our lives as animals for carryying loads are not real horses! Our world is unreal and the Christian imagination provides the real world—the “theoretical” one for Christians. So it is that people could be tortured to death in this world to save their souls in the imaginary one. Meister Eckhart makes the point:

All creatures are mere nothing. I do not say they are little or aught—they are nothing. That which has no entity is not. All creatures have no being, for their being depends on the presence of God.

God is, of course, the ideal “Good”. God is a Christian’s abstract word for the things that they like, and, for them, God is the hypothetical “Good”, the abstract conception behind all particular “goods”. It is an inversion. For unbelievers, the ideal is what is unreal. Particular cases are real. But Christians invert it to make their own obsession with the supernatural the defining factor in what is real or ideal.

Christianity has no reality that is testable, because it is practically unreal. So, it depends on authority to win polite arguments, and sheer force to win them when they cease to be polite.

Medieval thought was saturated in every part with the conceptions of Christian faith.
Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages

Christians have to have a text, and since all thought in the middle ages was conditioned by Christianity, all argument was based on Christian texts. Credulity and the lack of critical ability were general. Once an idea had been named, it became true—it became real.

Christianity’s skill then was what it still is—lying. Instead of reading what ancient texts said, they interpreted them. The bible is not allegory, Christians say, but true history, yet the surviving classical works suddenly became allegories, or partial allegories when it suited Christianity—by the grace of God’s providence. Modern fundamentalist Christians believe the bible is free of error. If they read what it says, it plainly is full of errors, but they do not read what it says, they interpret it. Luther’s view of allegories was that:

These allegorical studies are the work of people who have too much leisure. Do you think I should find it difficult to play at allegory making about any created thing whatsoever? Who is not so feeble-willed that he could not try his hand at it?

So, a Protestant bible is not allegory, but still needs a special form of interpretation that eliminates the contradictions in it, by setting contradiction against contradiction. It is obviously an angelic talent.

What is true of Christian learning in the Dark Ages is that there were odd corners of Europe where some eccentric monk and his friends wanted to read and write unmolested. While continental Europe revelled in the deepest ignorance, priests were parasites living off the tithes of paupers while doing nothing worthwhile, and the courts of popes and cardinals were debauched, corners of Ireland and then Britain had monks reading ancient books and writing histories and songs in the vernacular tongue. The spark of scholarship that barely remained alight was a spark kept by individuals, not by any policy of the Church or anything intrinsic in God’s preferred religion. In short, it was kept alight out of perversity, contrary to the drift of the Church.

Because it depended on individual enthusiasm, and against the trend of Christianity, when individuals died or moved on, the spark often died with them. It also sometimes moved with them, and another center of scholarship briefly flourished, curiously often producing florid and pompous Latin that the experts say was almost unreadable, only then to languish again. It was never quenched, luckily, but Christianity as an institution or as a gift of God can take no credit. Insofar as it was God’s intention to have the Church as it was, it was God who was responsible. The survival of any learning at all is a tribute to the human spirit and not to the Church, which is counter to humanity in practice.

Christians like to cite the Venerable Bede as an example of the Christian Church keeping scholarship alive when the barbarians all around were destroying it. In fact, Bede was an exceptional man in every way. He is anything but typical. His work did help to take scholarhip through those ignorant and distressing times, but it did so because it was exceptional. Had Bede been drowned fishing as a child, no one would have replaced him. He was not a product of a system that produced such men. He was a one off, and that is why he is remembered. Men like him can be listed and Ker does his best to do it. From Boethius and Bede, through Ermoldus Nigellus and Nithard, to Theodore Podromus and Walafrid Strabo, we scarcely get a list of household names, even in Christian households. Eight centuries and a whole continent! These people, some of whom are women, are not to be mocked. They tried to be creative when creativity was to be left to God, and humans were to be filthy and ignorant to prove their humility. They struggled against the tide, and mainly did not produce memorable work, but that they did it at all is a tribute to them—not the Church!

The Consolation of Boethius has a claim to be the most remarkable book of the Dark Ages, though they had barely started when it was written at the start of the sixth century. Ker describes Boethius as “a spirit of freedom and courage”, that is, “not wholly Christian either not Christian at all in any confessed or open manner…” Being free from theological dogma, it “was not Christian enough to be heretical”, and so was accepted everywhere on its own merits. Its lack of Christianity has perplexed the commentators. Boethius impresses the importance of service and obedience to God. The believer should be…

…the servant of the universe and of the light that kindles it, of the love that moves the sun and other stars.
W P Ker

Ker says it restored the Platonic tradition or something “older and simpler in Greek philosophy” when the Dark Ages were about to blanket everything in confusion. Boethius wanted to know how moral nature could be regenerated, for human goodness maintained the universe and kept the stars from wrongdoing. Everything in the world was divine. Nothing was absurd or unintelligible. Nature was divine for nothing was just natural! Plato (Timæus) said there were two kinds of causes, the Divine and the Necessary. The Divine was in everything, and the Necessary was necessary only for the Divine. Boethius could not see Nature as partial or imperfect but whole and absolute. People needed intelligence and study to appreciate such things, and out of this understanding came proper morality. Humanity would be taken into the mind of God when its knowledge was clear and nothing in the world was alien. To do this people had to blend their whole being with the world.

Despite Boethius and Bede, and the others listed, Europe stagnated over seven centuries, except for “notable additions and improvements”:

The educational work of the sixth or the ninth century is (with notable additions and improvements) largely the same as the thirteenth.
W P Ker, The Dark Ages

One wonders why Ker did not note them until you realise they are the subject of his book. They are the contributions of this handful of exceptional talents in a morass of wilful incomprehension. One could have added that, from the fourth century when Christianity triumphed, to the ninth century when Christian Europe was close to its nadir, a brilliant civilisation had been destroyed, and nothing except sterile ritual, and personal misery and guilt substituted for it. Ker thinks that classical literature had already lost its vigour before the Christian victory, but, if that was a contribution towards the darkness, it was no excuse, for Ker highlights the influx of barbarian myths to stimulate the flagging classical imagination at the end of empire. Yet this revival took 700 years to appear. Eventually, barbarian myths led to a renaissance, a rediscovery of Homer, but there is no explanation, besides Christianity, for the exaggerated delay.

The Morals of Christian Europe

Europe passed into a state of moral chaos and it grew worse and worse, not better, as the world moved farther away from Paganism. The priest, Salvianus, describing the fifth century, frankly describes the morals of the Christian world in which he lives, and admits to a deterioration of morals since Pagan days:

Besides a few who avoid evil, what is almost the whole body of Christians but a sink of iniquity? How many in the Church will you find that are not drunkards or adulterers or fornicators or gamblers or robbers or murderers—or all together?

Christians, with their noted double standards, would be quoting this at you, if it were about Pagans, but it is about Christians, so they tell us it is rhetorical exaggeration. The letters of the contemporary Pope Leo I support Salvianus.

Christianity supposedly abolished the brutal games of the amphitheater. It is wholly misleading. From about the year 380 AD, though the Church hugely influenced the Roman emperors, and was able to get privileges and wealth for itself, it never suggested to them to suppress the games. No Christian emperor had the courage or the inclination to frown on the games as Marcus Aurelius had done. The new generation of Christian Romans had the same passion for these brutal shows as earlier Romans had had. The Emperor Constantine had given an obscure decree against the games in one province of his empire, and it was never enforced even there. The fanatically Christian Emperor Theodosius, docile to every whisper from the bishops, compelled his prisoners to fight as gladiators.

In the year 404 AD, long after the complete triumph of Christianity, the gladiatorial games were proceeding as usual in the Roman amphitheater when the monk Telemachus flung himself into the arena to protest, and was stoned to death by the Christian spectators, but he is not the Christian Church. Until then, the Church had made no protest, nor did any ecclesiastical assembly or prominent ecclesiastic condemn the games until the end of the seventh century. The combats of man against man were abandoned—of Church pressure there is no trace—but fights with beasts long continued. It was eventually the difficulty of procuring wild animals that led to the abandonment of these. The Church blessed and smiled upon combats of knights in the Middle Ages, and it allowed duels to be fought into modern times, so it could be argued that it never stopped mortal combat at all!

Our only indications of the moral condition are Papal documents, written in such barbarous Latin that one can scarcely read them, acts of councils, letters of bishops, and scraps of monastic chronicles. These all tell a consistent story. Take the letters to Rome from Germany of S Boniface:

Today for the most part in our episcopal cities the seats are assigned to greedy laymen or adulterous clerics or wenchers, to enjoy the material benefits of them.

All the contemporary information tells the same story of gluttonous, drunken, and corrupt clergy and monks, of murders and mutilations, of a densely ignorant and coarse population. And just here the reader will find a useful illustration of the two ways of writing history, the Christian and the historical.

To manipulate ancient writings, to edit history in one’s own favour, did not appear criminal
if the end in view were otherwise just and good.
Dr W Barry, Papal Monarchy

The seventh century, the most ignorant and one of the grossest of all, has supplied more than eight hundred saints to the Roman calendar! A Catholic Cardinal writes:

The finest title of the seventh century to vindication is the number of saints it produced—no other century was so glorified except the age of the martyrs, the number of whom is known to God alone. Each year has its harvest, each day its group. If, then, it pleases God and Christ to scatter these splendours of the saints so bountifully upon a century, what does it matter that history and human glory think so little of it?

But if no work adequately reflects the life of the clergy and the people in this seventh century, ample evidence in Gregory of Tours and the letters of Gregory the Great show that it opened with as dark, violent, and vicious a population as had ever existed in Europe. The chronicle of Fredigarius extends that picture as far as 642, and, when the literary blank ends in the eighth century, Christendom is in exactly the same condition of universal vice and violence. It is grimly significant that the chair of Peter itself was filled by no less than 21 Popes in succession in the one hundred years after the death of Gregory.

In the year 896 AD Stephen VI became Pope, after a bloody contest of the various factions. He ordered the body of one of his predecessors, Formosus, who had been several weeks buried, to be brought to the Papal palace. The stinking corpse was clothed in the pontifical garments and propped in the throne. The august representative of Christ and the Holy Ghost, the channel of God’s mercy to the human race, gathered his “cardinals”, the name already being used, and bishops round the ghastly object, and they vented upon it a fury such as one would hardly expect savages to show to a corpse. In the end they cut three fingers from the right hand of the putrid body, and flung it into the Tiber.

Paganism has no equal of this trial of a putrifying corpse by the highest officials of the highest religious position in Christendom. If Rome and the Popes behaved thus at the end of the ninth century, the condition of the rest of Europe is unimaginable.

In the next year Pope Stephen quarreled with his own supporters. They thrust him into a dungeon and strangled him. Historians call the tenth century the Iron Age, presumably because of the free use of the knife and the sword. Six Popes succeeded each other in the next eight years, and, while history has no record of the end of most of them, we can surmise it. In 904 the most turbulent of all the fighting bishops cut his way, literally, to the chair of Peter, and the “Church of God” became for thirty years a Pornocracy or “government by whores”.

Cardinal Baronius notes concerning 912 AD, that Pope Sergius III, who had been the moving spirit in the trial of the body of Formosus and had murdered two Popes at least to get the holy see for himself, was the lover of that most powerful, most noble, and most shameless whore, Theodora.

Theodora, wife of one of the highest nobles of Rome, was of such loose morals that the chief writers of her time call her a whore and two Popes, Sergius III and John X, were amongst her lovers. Her equally beautiful and equally unscrupulous daughter Marozia also is called a whore, and Pope Sergius III was so notoriously the lover of the daughter as well as of the mother that the official Papal chronicle, the Pontifical Book, describes Pope John XI as “son of Sergius III”, by Marozia. These whores governed the Papacy and Rome for thirty years. Our chief source of information about them is the contemporary Bishop Liutprand, whose outspoken statements are sufficiently supported by two monkish chroniclers and the official Papal calendar.

Rome was more corrupt than it had been in the days of the insane Nero or the feeble-minded Eleagabal, and this corruption was intimately connected with illiteracy. Some members of the highest Roman nobility could not write their own names. Six hundred years after Christianity took over the world, are these corrupt conditions to be blamed still on Paganism. From being a literate, a refined and a cultivated city, Rome under the Popes had sunk into squalor.

What was the Church doing at this time to enlighten the people? At Laon the chief treasures shown to the public were some milk and hair of the Virgin Mary. There was a crystal lid to the golden case and you could—for a consideration—see the precious whitish fluid and the hair with your own eyes. This was Laon’s set-off to the rival attraction at Soissons, a neighboring town, which had secured one of the milk-teeth shed by the infant Jesus, but the monastery at Charroux had Jesus’s full set and seven churches had his authentic umbilical cord. Several churches had his foreskin, removed at circumcision and kept as a souvenir by Mary. One church had the miraculous imprint of his little bottom on a stone on which he had sat. There were thousands more with chips of the cross, wedding rings of Mary, swaddling clothes, mangers, etc.

Every one of these things was a cynical, blasphemous swindle, and Rome was the trading center. Any amount of Christian wriggling will not obscure it. Each of those objects was a blatant lie, yet Christians cannot accept that earlier members of their sect could even write a lying word let alone carve a piece of the true cross or produce an umbilical cord. Honour and honesty were as rare as chastity in Christianized Europe and as rarer in the Church. Christians admire those as “spiritual” days while our own is “materialistic”. But then they always defined words to suit themselves.

Pagan Greece and Rome had been comparable with ourselves in character and conduct. With the triumph of Christianity and the fall of Rome, Europe sank steadily age by age until it reached the unprecedented degradation of the last century of the first Christian millennium.

False Christs

Despite the Church being keen to keep preaching to itself, lay preachers were always wandering around medieval Europe, modelling themselves on the apostles. Known as early as the sixth century in Gaul, they rapidly grew in importance after the end of the first millennium.

In his Historia Fancorum, S Gregory, Bishop of Tours, relates the episode of a travelling preacher who declared himself a “false Christ” in 591. In The Pursuit of the Millenium, Norman Cohn tells the story:

A man of Bourges, having gone into a forest, found himself suddenly surrounded by a swarm of flies, as a result of which he went out of his mind for two years. Later he made his way to the province of Arles, where he became a hermit, clad in animal skins and wholly dedicated to prayer. When he emerged from this ascetic training, he claimed to possess supernatural gifts of healing and prophecy. Further wanderings took him to the district of Gevaudon, in the Cevennes, where he set himself up as Christ, with a woman whom he called Mary as his companion. People flocked to him with their sick, who were cured by his touch. He also foretold future events, prophesying sickness or other misfortunes for most of those who visited him, but salvation for a few.

He had 3000 followers, including some priests, and was greeted by huge throngs wherever he went, doing miracles that Gregory himself could not explain. He was called Christ and apparently expected his followers to worship him. He supposedly got rich out of his disciples, but the holy pair would prostrate themselves, offering thanks for any gifts, then would give them away to the poor. He set himself up as a type of Robin Hood, robbing the rich with a band of armed robbers to feed the poor, though the chroniclers did not admire this behaviour at all. If he distributed all he had to the poor and needy, and acted as a Robin Hood, you have to look askance at Church accounts that paint them as villainous.

Finally, at La Puy, a servant of bishop Aurelius came with a party of devotees to worship the “false Christ”, and effecting to prostrate himself before him, grabbed his legs, whereupon the others in the party produced swords and killed him. His companion, Mary, was tortured into admitting their devilish influences. The band of followers was scattered but many remained loyal, it seems. Gregory describes this as a common phenomenon, even in those days. Here were Cathar Christs, half a millennium before Catharism became well known.

S Boniface relates similar experiences. One was a man called Aldebert, who claims to have been ordained and even a bishop, but no Catholic bishop would believe it. At Soissons, a bishop refused him permission to preach in the church. Aldebert practised apostolic poverty and claimed healing skills. He had been delivered by what today would have been called a Caesarian section, and told people he had been born of a virgin. He said he was a living saint, and preached to common people in front of rustic crosses set up on country roads, though soon his followers built him churches and chapels, which he dedicated to himself. His authority was a letter from Christ he claimed to have. He was not a Cathar of the later, post-millennial years, when the Catholic Church was written off, but, perhaps at this time, he was one of those who wanted to unite the two Churches. Boniface considered him a serious threat, and set up a synod to discuss it at Soissons (744). It agreed to stop him but failed, and another synod in 745 excommunicated him. Yet, with increased popularity, he continued preaching and attracting large crowds. Still, he did not cease, and another synod in Rome declared him a lunatic. He was still active in 746, but around then disappears from history. As for S Boniface, in Friesland, he cut down a sacred oak and made it into a church. Later, Christians were outraged when the local people burnt down the building and murdered its builder for good measure.

A monk called Wettin had a vision around 824 AD, in which, in his guided travels around the World, he saw the interior of hell which was wide and largely empty, more the real world than the fiery Catholic hell. There he met living on a mountain top, buffeted by the wind, an old abbot called Waldo. Was this character meant to stand for the Waldenses? Their founder would not be born for another 300 or so years, so was this a later addition? Was it coincidence—just a name? Or was the accepted Waldo an invention to account for a sect established long before, or a prominent missionary of the sect? In just this way, the Bogomils were supposed to have been founded by a man of that name about 950 AD. Plainly, they were much older, though a leader or missionary might have been known as Bogomil.

Millennial Concerns

After over five centuries, with only these few exceptions, at the beginning of the eleventh century, clerics begin to tax themselves with apocalyptic and apostolic concerns. They were faced by apocalyptic prophets who either did not write, or whatever they wrote was destroyed by the Church, and who naturally did not find favour among the monkish chroniclers. Yet unusual popular religiosity, some of it subversive, was reported by chroniclers who normally ignored anyone thus motivated. Why would they make false heretical accusations unrelated to reality? Why would they make up a new heresy deeply threatening, to clerics, which newly claims that layfolk could pursue the apostolic life, indeed, that their pursuit of it is more Christian that that of the clergy. They were plainly not inventing these fears, and the cases just outlined suggests something similar was fitfully sleeping in the interval, but had now awoken.

This awakening was caused by disillusionment with the Church. Clear evidence that the Church needed reforming is the fact that popes like Hildebrand (Gregory VII) emerged with programs to change corrupt practices. Hildebrand demanded a celibate clergy and the suppression of simony—the purchase of ecclesiastical office or benefices. He failed! These practices did not cease, but the question is why should he have been concerned about them. They had gone on for centuries and were to continue for centuries longer. It was the disillusionment of the flocks of ordinary believers who forced it on him.

It is a remarkable thing that after 2000 years, Judgement day is still imminent or nigh or soon. Earnest clappies are still issuing dire warnings over the net that Jesus will be here soon and we should look for the good of our souls. Since they are warning us, they mean us, in other words we of this “generation”, just as Jesus did. every generation between Jesus and the present have had the same message—we are still waiting. Each generation, the evangelists die and their expectant punters die—no Judgement—but the next generation of clappies jump through the same hoops, or is it hopes? They die and—still no Judgement. Eventually, when it finally happens through their perverse selfishness and disdain for Nature, they will have the nerve to say: “Told you!”

Elisabeth of Schönau (1129-1164) thought the kingdom of God was nigh 1100 years after her god had vaunted the same opinion. Hildegard of Bingen also had visions of the Last Judgement, which presumably she thought close even if it was not nigh. Reason was not the strongest point of medieval people but today’s crucifixers ought to know better. When saints and mystics keep declaring an unmistakeable event as “nigh” for 2000 years, and it never happens, only fools can continue to believe it. That Christians ignore the plain evidence of history in favour of a bizarre wish that the world will end so that they can meet Jesus, must itself be sure proof that they need a psychiatrist not a redeemer.

The church has always been able to satisfy its simple followers by revising interpretations after the event, confident that the normal functioning of the synapses had been clogged up with belief. After all, that is how it started. Jesus expected the world would end in the Garden of Gethsemane. It did not so the date was revised by his followers—he meant within a generation, forty years to a Jew. It still did not happen, so the Church said he really meant the full generation of all those alive at the time. It would not come until the oldest of them had died. Eventually, the old boy, John the Apostle, died at a ripe old age. No end! Oh, buns! Postpone it indefinitely and claim that someone who was awful to Jesus had bee cursed to live until God decided the world would end. Brilliant, father! Somewhere now, there is a wandering Jew who cannot die until God lets him. Then the world will end.

In the Middle Ages, each time the great day failed to distinguish itself from its predecessors, the mystics declared that they had been successful. They had turned enough sinners back to God with their dire warnings that He had decided to postpone Judgement till a more wicked generation! Everyone breathed a sigh in relief. Hildegard and the other female visionaries also had their visions re-interpreted. She had not seen the Last Days but the Protestant Reformation, the Fall of the Holy Roman Empire or the Empire of Napoleon. No doubt, the holocaust of Hitler and a nuclear war have lately been added. The female seers were too clever to give precise dates, but they did seem to believe Judgement was imminent nevertheless, and that was 800 years ago.

The church has always subordinated women and, though these visionary women had a line to God, they were unable to accuse the Church of being mistaken. Apparently, God did not think the treatment of women was wrong or unjust. They all supported the status quo. Prophets see the future but only to enforce the status quo. Hildegard affirms that women are weak compared with men, and she did not mean physically. A woman was subject to a man as a servant to the master, and women were the source of sin in the world.

When traditional values are worth preserving, then it is admirable to be traditional, but when values are unjust, discriminating and oppressive, then no spiritual person can support them. We are at a revolutionary time. Unjust, selfish, oppressive Christian values have ruled our brains for an Age. It is time for them to be overthrown if the world is to survive. Only the Moslem faith looks to have the vigour to succeed, and that can hardly be said to be better. A determined return to Nature Spirituality via the Goddess is the only alternative to bullying patriarchal religions.

Apologists for Christianity, and some who are not, feel the need to defend the medieval Church. Excuses are many, but hardly stand up to a second’s critical scrutiny. That second is what most Christian punters do not get. The benign nature of the Church is assumed because we are all taught that Christianity is “good”, but because “the Church is only part of society”, the horrid habits it developed can be blamed on society as a whole. We are meant to deduce that in a cruel society, the Church could not avoid being cruel, in spite of itself. Christians always arrange themselves to be in a win-win situation. yet, if the claims of the Church mean anything, it is impossible to sustain. If it is true, then the claims of the Church are empty.

The Church claims, and claimed then, to be the moral authority. It had existed as such in Europe for eight or nine centuries, so was not lacking in experience. It claimed, through excommunication and interdict to be able to condemn anyone it chose to hell fire, and superstitious people, whether peasants or princes believed what the clerics said. They therefore did as the Church told them. If society was cruel, it must then have been because of the Church. How did it get like this?

Before the fall of Rome, the emperors had given the Church all of the property and wealth of the Pagan temples. So, the Church effectively began its establishment phase as the greatest landowner in the known world. Thereafter, through the Dark Ages, the Church was able to use the power of its wealth to survive, and even, by propagating the superstitious fear of hell among the nobility, to add to its wealth through the donations and legacies of princes convinced they could buy the condescension of bishops and thereby an entrance into heaven. People still believe the same, and churches continue to get legacies from those simple enough to think God is a miser. Besides all that, the Church tithed the peasantry a tenth of everything they produced, even herbs in their gardens, and sold benefices to the sons of nobility who were not prima genitus and not intelligent enough to do something useful. Unemployable and not educated enough to do their vicar’s job, they simply lived as a rich landowner.

The Church during the Dark Ages was unbelievably wealthy and prelates were rich princes themselves, living off the rents and tithes of the villeins. Bishops built castles with moats and towers, and abbots in monasteries lived in large fine homes in splendour. Bishops were feudal lords, and later had seats in the British House of Lords, for example. The distance of these leaders of the Church from the tenets of their religion was vast. It was not without cause, Cohn wrote, citing a quotation from Le Fevre, that the common people complained about the clergy:

They take no care of us at all, they live scandalous lives, they tread upon our heads… The common people make and deliver everything, and still cannot live without being tormented and ruined by the clergy… The prelates are raging wolves…

Catholic apologists for the Inquisition forget that the Church has changed in its dogmas since the middle ages. They should remember that had they been living in the middle ages with views the Church now holds, or is willing to condone, they would be among those commanded by the inquisitors, “Recant or the stake!”

How the Medieval Church Frightened People Into Obedience

How Powerful was The Pope in Medieval Times?

Animated map shows how Christianity spread around the world

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