Friday 17 January 2014

Debunking Cracked's Debunking of the Dark Ages

In debunking a number of myths about the Dark Ages, Cracked breathlessly perpetuates a whole new slew of them.

Well played, Cracked!

Following in lock step with cutting edge academic fads (okay, this one is getting a bit long in the tooth), they set up straw men and then proceed to bash the heck out of them with snark. It's a remarkable performance.

Now, Cracked is a humour site, so you can't expect serious scholarship. Heavens, no. This is the internets. Glib and irreverent is what you'll get; and Cracked is about 'truthiness', not truth.

One glib turn deserves another, don't you think?

"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws."
--Edward Gibbon

Now that's hyperbole; he's rhapsodizing, but there is a grain of truth to it. It's currently fashionable in academic circles to poo poo the very idea of the Dark Ages, disparage Rome, and hail barbarians as misunderstood illiterate philanthropists. That also has a grain of truth, but it's not the whole picture.

The Roman Empire was a highly extractive state, the city itself a great parasite sucking up wealth from all over the Mediterranean like a gigantic tick. Less inclusive than the Roman Republic, it was doomed in the long term. It's foundation laid the seeds for its ultimate destruction.

The empire's collapse brought about a painful transitional period known in popular culture as The Dark Ages. Academics sometimes refer to the period as Late Antiquity (200 to 800 AD), or the Migration Period (400 and 800 AD). This covers the fall of the Roman Empire up to the time of Charlemagne. But let's stick to the period between 400 and 800 AD.

Quick question: if the United States government were to collapse under the pressure of multiple invasions by rapacious foreign powers, while simultaneously being hit by plague (killing tens of millions) and total economic collapse which resulted in the abandonment of almost every major city, do you believe it would improve American living standards, or do you think it would be a time of hardship? Even, dare I say, darkness?

Just a question.

Think about it.

Cracked breaks things down into five myths and then seeks to debunk each in turn.

The first of their myths, that 'Society was Cruel and the Standard of Living Sucked' sets up the traditional view of the period with a sneer: "Look, they were called the goddamned Dark Ages for a reason. Society was barely a thing, and infrastructure was practically nonexistent. Warlords and barbarians roamed the land, every surface was covered by a layer of filth, and the general populace had the life expectancy of a three-legged gazelle in a lion's den. Meanwhile, the church was going around torturing people until they converted, and then probably kept torturing them anyway. Honestly, go find a movie or book about the era and we guarantee it's not going to have a bunch of smiling children on the cover."

They exaggerate their opponents argument and present it with disapproval. This invites readers to disassociate themselves for fear of ridicule. D'aw!

'It was a period of intellectual and economic darkness where everyone was either a brutal warrior or a filth-encrusted victim.'

An absurd a generalization as to be false on its face. Obviously not everyone was a warrior or a victim. Some were warrior victims. Cracked likes to set up easy breezy targets.

We're quickly whisked on to 'The Reality'. No lack of certainty here. Set hyperbole to maximum: 'The standard of living was pretty decent, even if you were poor as hell. In fact, humanity managed to hit new highs in charity, health care, and innovative philanthropy almost on a daily basis.'

Sweeping claims. The kind you'd expect from a drunk in a bar. Arguing is obviously folly, but let's take a look anyway.


First, when the rockin' Roman Empire collapsed, the Imperial City lost its grain supply in Sicily and North Africa (Egypt was busy feeding Constantinople). Wouldn't be a big deal except they provided the grain dole for 200,000 people living in Rome. That's right: the Emperor fed hundreds of thousands of poor Romans, for free, for centuries. All part of the Bread and Circuses regimen to keep the people pacified (and keep the Emperor's head on his shoulders).

Without it, the population of Rome fell from upwards of one million inhabitants (this is still a disputed figure, some place the apex at 250,000) to less than twenty thousand, living in squalid villages amidst marble ruins. At least until they turned them into lime kilns. The Roman Forum itself became a cow pasture.

What happened to all those poor sods when the grain shipments stopped? Don't worry: the slack was taken up by Christian charities, says Cracked. Never mind that the Pope himself was hard pressed to put together enough resources to feed a few hundred. Happy fun time! And if you dare disagree, you're ignorant and your mom looks funny.

That's just how Cracked rolls.

As far as living standard goes, decent compared to what?

Peasants covered in shit
Standards of living are generally higher when there is urbanization, specialization, and surpluses. Yet many cities were abandoned after the fall of Rome. All shrank in size. Those still inhabited became walled. Trade dried up and population collapsed by more than twenty per cent. Some eight million people died in the chaos. Scaled as a percentage of today's population, that'd be 105,000,000. Aqueducts, monuments, and temples were torn down. Coins were no longer minted, so people had to resort to the barter system. Wouldn't that be awesome? Roads were no longer safe, deterring trade further.

Ship wrecks are often looked to by archeologists as an indicator of trade as well. During the reign of Augustus, a height of 180 ships was reached. By 500 AD, it falls to 20. Long distance trade was drying up, and it would not return to Roman levels until the 19th century.

Greenland's ice can also be used to track economic activity. Levels of lead, silver, and copper in the ice cores declines after the first century AD, and Roman levels of mining intensity aren't seen again until the late 13th century.

The only trade centers of significance in Western Europe in 700 AD were Toledo (under the Umayyad Caliphate) and Salonika (under the Byzantines, ie. the Eastern Roman Empire). All other trading centres, from Londinium to Lutetia (Paris) to Rome were no longer of any consequence. There was not a single city in all of Europe with a population over 15,000.

None of these things are signs of prosperity.

Of course, Cracked notes, correctly, that slavery disappeared in Europe during the Dark Ages. Cracked claims this is because 'improvements in farming technology and better-bred draft animals made forced human labour less necessary as time progressed.'

While there were improvements in farming technology in the form of harnesses and the like (Jared Diamond talks about this in Guns, Germs, and Steel), that was not the reason slavery was abandoned.

Nor was this an era of endless technological innovation. Slave and serf based societies are notoriously non-innovative; people lack incentives and the elites are afraid of the economic disruption innovation brings.

What's the real story?

Slaves flooded into Rome with every military conquest, undermining Roman labour and small land holders. Why pay a Roman citizen when you can get slave labour for free?

With Rome's collapse, there were no new conquests, and therefore no large injections of fresh slaves. No new sources of free labour. Slaves were typically The Other, brought from foreign lands. The term slave is derived from Slav, for example.

Without long distance trade and travel, aspiring overlords were left only with locals to exploit, and they were already serfs. No need for both.

But wait! Cracked says serfdom was AWESOME (did you see what I did there? It's a straw man. I learned that from Cracked). Cracked says 'the classes that would probably have found themselves in slavery were mostly either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter were still technically not free (they couldn't leave the land without their lord's permission), but enjoyed a much greater freedom than slaves.'

Let's look at that little treat of truthiness.

Almost everyone in the rural areas was a serf. Cities had been mostly abandoned (Londinium wouldn't be reoccupied until 886). There were few 'free workers'. Trade had collapsed so there was no merchant class. 

In fact, serfdom was already well underway before the final collapse of the Empire in the form of Coloni, agriculture workers who became tied to the land and were at the mercy of the land owner. This proto-serfdom began under Diocletian, who also forced children to take up the vocation of their parents, partly in order to help create a reliable supply system for the army.

The Roman middle class withered away, squeezed to bits by the rich elites on one side (who paid no taxes at all) and slavery on the other. Unable to compete with vast slave plantations, Roman farmers fell into debt, had their land confiscated, and either became Coloni, or fled to Rome to live on the dole. Post-collapse, they'd all wind up as serfs.

There's a warning in that for us.

Note the violence inherit in the system
In addition to taxing and fining serfs, lords also required free labour from them. The amount of time varied depending on where you were in Europe, and how big a dick they were, but ranged from two to four days a week.

Natch, serfs lived at subsistence level, the same as slaves did, and their lords had absolute authority over them: they were judge, jury, and executioner. They set the taxes and fines, and provided the police force.

Do you see a lot of rights here for serfs?

(Eventually the back of serfdom was broken by the Bubonic Plague; the silver lining of mass death is that labour became more valuable. In England, aristocrats and merchants managed to gain power at the expense of the crown (think Runnymede in 1215, The Glorious Revolution 1688), restricting the King's power. Over time this led to more pluralistic political institutions, which made a middle class, and ultimately the industrial revolution, possible.)

Now lets look at the claims about new heights of charity, health care, and philanthropy.

First, medieval medicine was more likely to weaken and kill you than help, so the less medical care you got the better. 

Second, there were reasons why Christian philanthropy appeared: widespread poverty, starvation, and rampant disease. The Plague of Justinian (likely a pre-Black Death trial run of the Bubonic Plague), for example, ravaged Europe from 500 AD to 800 AD, killing tens of millions. The population loss is estimated by some to be between 50 and 60 per cent of the European population between 541 and 750, which coincides quite nicely with the they-never-happened Dark Ages.

It likely arrived in Constantinople from Egypt on a grain ship. Rats then spread it through the city to devastating effect. Bodies were stacked six to ten high. Farmers avoided towns and cities, leading to hunger. Half the population of Constantinople, almost 250,000 people, died.

Another defamatory, anti-Dark Ages painting by a silly artist bitching about The Plague or something stupid like that.
By 700 AD repeated outbreaks of the disease had claimed between 25 and 100 million people worldwide. This at a time when the population of the entire planet was under 300 million. Ouch! The Bubonic Plague sauntered back to book end the Middle Ages in 1345, killing another third of Europe's population in short order.

No darkness anywhere at all to be seen. 

In case of criticism, Cracked deploys this whopper: "Don't get us wrong -- if you went back to the medieval era in a time machine, you would hate it for all of the five minutes it took the locals to murder you for witchcraft."

So, it's ridiculous to call it a Dark Age, but if you went, you'd be murdered for witchcraft in five minutes. Mmmmm. Tasty logic pretzel.

"The rise of Christianity, while admittedly resulting in a lot of people being set on fire, also saw a dramatic increase in charities." Just to be picky, during the rise of Christianity, it was an outlawed cult that was frequently persecuted by Roman authorities, and it wasn't burning anyone.
Satan chowing down

Next it's on to debunk medieval tournaments and jousting. Cracked says that the Dark Ages were 'all about harmless family fun.' 

Nice one. The mild pastimes of the Dark Ages mean they were more civilized than the Romans or the peons of the High Middle Ages. They watched more violent forms of entertainment, after all. Cracked posits, 'So which age deserves the "dark" moniker?'

Huh? Huh, punk? Which?

Huh, indeed, Clint. Forget Clio! The large scale games of the Romans and the jousting matches of the High Middle Ages are signs of prosperity as well as depravity. The Empire could afford to mount expensive games to entertain the masses, import animals from lands thousands of miles away, and support gladiators, not to mention constructing stadiums of stone and concrete that could hold up to 50,000 spectators. In the Dark Ages the biggest buildings in Europe were piddly halls made of wood.

People had an inexplicable, unhealthy fixation on Hell, sin, punishment, and damnation.
Further, that these pageants happened in Roman times and then came back in the High Middle Ages suggests the appetite for such spectacle never disappeared, nor was it avoided due to superior morality; human nature hadn't changed, it just lay latent because of a cash shortage. They did enjoy burning cats alive for entertainment. Such great family fun! And sometimes towns would buy a convict from an adjacent city so they could stage a public execution. You know, for fun. Today we watch people hack and blast each other to pieces at the cinema. At least the violence isn't real.

Cracked then attacks the idea that the Dark Ages was a period of 'constant, brutal warfare'. While 'Rome was the tits when it came to large-scale warrin',' fighting during the Dark Ages was on a miniscule level and therefore of little consequence.

In truth, not truthiness, societies engaged in perpetual, low level warfare experience death rates from violence that are significantly higher than those of state societies. The Leviathan generally puts a stop to a lot of internal violence by monopolizing force. Stephen Pinker goes into this at some length in 'The Better Angels of our Nature'. Feudal lords and barons, on the other hand, frequently attacked each other. Their target? Serfs. Peasants would be killed and crops burned in order to cripple the rival lord economically. It was a zero sum system in which you only prospered by taking what your neighbour had.

Vivid example of small scale warfare
Next Cracked makes claims about the Roman military: 'Over the course of the second Carthaginian War, Rome suffered nearly 400,000 casualties without batting an eye. The Roman Empire wasn't really interested in outwitting its opponents -- it just outlasted them. If Rome had a problem, it kept throwing troops at it until it stopped causing trouble.'

This twists a truth (that Rome didn't give up and did lose many armies) to give a false impression (that they were stupid and ham fisted militarily). Roman armies were no disorganized mobs of untrained slobs casually tossed into battle, nor did Rome take losses without concern ('Varus, give me back my legions!'). Rome had a highly sophisticated and flexible military system that led to it dominating the Mediterranean. Legions defeated the Carthaginians, outclassed Greek phalanxes, beat the Gauls, the Egyptians, and more, precisely because they used advanced tactics and were militarily sophisticated for their time. 

True, they fell behind eventually. The foot soldier was outclassed by the mounted archer, and Rome found itself unable to adapt. Being an agrarian based society, they couldn't field large numbers of horsemen. That's were feudalism came in: serfs supported a mounted warrior class better able to withstand assault from nomadic raiders. 

The Age of Cavalry began.

Finally, during the fifth century, war did rage across the dying remnants of the empire. German raiders were piercing the Empire's frontiers, and the cash strapped army was often unable to stop them. Stilicho, one of the last successful Roman generals, stripped the gold from The Temple of Jupiter in Rome in order to pay his troops. 

The Visigoths invaded around the turn of the century, and were followed by an Ostrogth invasion in 405 AD, while the Quadi and Asding Vandals invaded from the north. To repel them, the Rhine was stripped of men. So the Marcommanni and Quadi, along with the Vandals, invaded undefended Gaul, which they pillaged at their leisure. Franks, Burgundians, and Alemanni followed. Spain was looted. Britain abandoned. Rome was sacked in 410 AD by Alaric, King of the Visigoths. 

By 450 AD, barbarians had carved their own kingdoms out of Rome's carcass. Visigoths in Gaul, Suevi in Spain, and Vandals in North Africa. In northern europe, Attila the Hun arrived, conquering all the barbarian kingdoms in his path. He was repulsed at great cost by a coalition of Romans and barbarians at Campus Mauriacus on the Seine, but fighting continued.

In 626 AD the Avar Khanate flooded into the Balkans and seized Greece. Meanwhile Anglo-Saxons were busily conquering England and the Umayyad's seized Spain.

Charlemagne himself spent his entire reign fighting wars of aggression.

As Cracked notes, 'When the Roman Empire fractured, Europe's economy became increasingly localized. Without an intercontinental tax base and a healthy division of labor, giant standing armies became artifacts of a bygone era. This sudden lack of fiscal infrastructure also left the scores of kings and princes who filled the Roman power vacuum strapped for cash.'

Gee, that sounds like a painful period of economic collapse, doesn't it? They don't seem to be able to support a standing army for some reason, yet the people are no worse off.


One of the greatest dangers of the Dark Ages: killer rabbits!
They go on to claim there were 'no campaigns, no decade-long struggles, no hellish living in a war torn land'. There weren't? In fact, Italy was a war zone for decades as Byzantium sought to retake it during the 6th and 7th century, leaving cities and countryside devastated.

Then it's on to the myth that the Dark Ages were 'an intellectual abyss.' Cracked expresses outrage at the writing off of an entire period of history 'as a giant brain fart'. They admit that literacy had fallen, but then claim that 'that has been the case with every single era until recent history'. Yet literacy in the Roman empire was significantly higher than it was during the Middle Ages. You can't write graffiti everywhere if you're illiterate.

And while Carolingian miniscule is hailed as a shattering innovation, there were far fewer scribes in the Dark Ages than there were in antiquity. And at the other end, once the printing press was invented, books became far more common.

Finally, Cracked seeks to eliminate the entire concept of the Dark Ages. The article poses the question: Were the Dark Ages a real thing at all? 'Ha, of course not! In a shocking twist, historians never had anything to do with "the Dark Ages," although some were fooled into adopting the term. As we mentioned earlier, these days, medieval historians tend to avoid it, preferring more neutral terms such as "Migration Period," "Early Middle Ages," or just "Middle Ages," depending on which of the hundred different meanings of the "Dark Ages" they're referring to.'

Their verdict? 'The entire concept is complete and utter horseshit cobbled together by a deluded writer.' 

Cracked's crack historian blames Petrarch, who allegedly based his defamatory anti-Middle Age bigotry on nothing in particular. Just, you know, feelings and stuff. How DARE he?

Now, Petrarch looked back to the Roman Empire as a lost ideal. There's no question he exaggerated and his view of Rome was coloured by nostalgia and romantic ideals of a lost Golden Age. But Cracked goes on, as is typical, to overstate their case and talk of the 'countless achievements of the 'age of darkness' he was so gleefully villifying.'

That Petrarch. Such a meanie! So cavalier with the truth, with accuracy. Just like, oh, I don't know… Cracked.

They add, 'all it takes is some asshole with a catchy term and an audience to defile an entire era.'

Wow. Breathtakingly obnoxious stuff.

Petrarch existed in an Italy broken into dozens of city states. It was a period marked by frequent, small scale warfare. There are legitimate reasons why Petrarch, and many other Italian writers, might reasonably look back to the unity of Rome as a positive thing.

Just don't expect that to be understood by a nasty little piece of work like J. Wisniewski.

Ultimately, Cracked wants to tell you that it's illegitimate, ridiculous even, to refer to a period in which half of Europe died of starvation or disease, and ninety-nine per cent of the survivors fell into serfdom, as a Dark Age. Never mind that cities were abandoned by the dozen, trade collapsed, literacy dropped, money fell out of use, centralized government vanished, and law and order went into abeyance. 

I wonder what would qualify as a Dark Age in their books? 

Now, were the Dark Ages as bad as they are sometimes depicted? No. Not everyone was covered in shit all the time. There were bright spots. People kept living, loving, being born. Life went on, as it always does. It's always been harsh. That's the kernel of truth buried under the article's mountain of hyperbole. Things really didn't begin to change until the beginning of the 19th century when British standards of living started to arc upward at an ever increasing rate. We can thank technological innovation, the Civilizing Process, Gentle Commerce, Creative Destruction, and inclusive political and economic institutions for that.

Was the Roman Empire as wonderful as Gibbons would have us believe? Nope. There was great inequity, and it got worse as the Empire aged. But Cracked goes so far with its revisionism as to create a new, and false, impression. All while claiming, tongue half in cheek, to set the record straight. 

Check out their article and make up your own mind. 

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