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Dark Ages, Schmark Ages. The De-Textbook cuts through that and so much more fake-fact bullshit.

cloudy with a chance of witch burning

your periodic reminder that a good chunk of Europe basically shat the bed for a few centuries while everyone else kinda did their thing.

Alright, folks, whilst I’m fully behind making the point that historiographical categorization is alarmingly Eurocentric, my inner mediaevalist isn’t gonna pass this one up. Assuming that by the ‘Dark Ages’, we’re meaning the early mediaeval period (let’s say c. 500-900 C.E.), to be honest you’re gonna be disappointed if witch burning is your thing. Although commonly thought to be a feature of the mediaeval period, in fact the most notable epidemic of witch-burning hits Europe in the early modern period (c. 1500-1700). In the ‘Dark Ages’, you’re actually more likely to find laws punishing those who indulge in witch-burning and condemning the belief in witchcraft as superstitious. Laws like this are found in Francia, Italy, England, Hungary, Denmark, the Holy Roman Empire, and in canon (church) law. Even burning heretics doesn’t really hit it off until the late mediaeval period (c.1300-1500).

So what’s the weather like in Europe if it’s not raining witches? The term ‘Dark Ages’ has been used by historians since the Renaissance to refer disparagingly to the time that elapsed between the ‘fall’ of Rome and the ‘rediscovery’ of classical wisdom in the 1400-1500s. This period of 1000 years was considered ‘dark’ in terms of learning, and ‘dark’ in the sense that lack of records made it hard to discern what had been going on. Ironically, many records that would have been enlightening were destroyed or not preserved by Renaissance scholars on the hunt for ancient Roman and Greek documents. Because of the Renaissance insistence on pre-mediaeval learning, some areas of scholarship actually deteriorated, most notably medicine. Most of the medical developments of the Islamic world which had spread into Western European medicine by the medieval period were disregarded as scholars stubbornly returned to the ‘wisdom’ of their classical texts.

It’s worth noting as well that the yellow area on the map above (intended to indicate the extend of the Islamic world) should extend across most of northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the early mediaeval period. From the mid 700s up until the mid 1200s, all of modern day Spain was the Islamic state of al-Andalus. This map’s decision to distinguish Greece as blue and Byzantium as yellow is also puzzling, given that the former was under the latter’s control for much of the period. This map is backwards projecting a modern idea of a distinction between Western Europe and the Near/Middle East, and this idea does not reflect accurately early mediaeval socio-political realities.

TL;DR: There is so much room for discussions and criticisms of how history and historiography focus unduly on the experiences of Western Europe and of how the chronological categorisations that we use (‘ancient’, ‘mediaeval’, ‘modern’) derive solely from consideration of Western European developments. But relying on Monty Python-esque clichés of mediaeval witch-hunts and the ‘Dark Ages’ isn’t the way to do that. Especially when those clichés are false.

I’ve attacked this shitty concept of ‘cloudy with a chance of witch burning’ before, along with the very idea of the ‘dark ages’, but storiesandwonders has completely blown it away. Only thing I will add is that slap bang in the middle of what’s traditionally considered ‘dark’, there were a bunch of renaissances that everyone seems to ignore. Ever heard of the Carolingian Renaissance, to name one? And these were actual renaissances as we now understand the term, redevelopment and discovery and flowering of culture, rather than desperately scrabbling after classical remains like the supposed Renaissance that ended the mediaeval period.

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