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Slaughtering conventional history’s sacred cows

"Slaughtering conventional history’s sacred cows" Continued...

Rodney Stark
Photo by Nick Layman/Genesis Photos
Rodney Stark
Nevertheless, serious historians have known for decades that these claims are a complete fraud. Even the respectable encyclopedias and dictionaries now define the Dark Ages as a myth. The Columbia Encyclopedia rejects the term, noting that “medieval civilization is no longer thought to have been so dim.” Britannica disdains the name Dark Ages as “pejorative.” And Wikipedia defines the Dark Ages as “a supposed period of intellectual darkness after the fall of Rome.” These views are easily verified.

There may have been some serious, but short-lived, dislocations associated with the collapse of Roman rule and the organization of new local political units. But the myth of the Dark Ages posits many centuries of ignorant misery based on four primary factors: (1) most cities were abandoned and fell into ruin; (2) trade collapsed, throwing local communities onto their own, very limited resources; (3) literacy all but disappeared; and (4) the standard of living of the average person fell to a bare subsistence level.

It is true that Roman cities and towns declined greatly in number and size after the fall of Rome. The population of the city of Rome dropped from about five hundred thousand in the year 400 to about fifty thousand in 600. Of 372 Roman cities in Italy listed by Pliny, a third disappeared soon after the fall. Many towns and cities in Gaul and Britain “became like ghost towns, with small populations,” according to Roger Osborne in Civilization. All told, most of the empire’s estimated 2,000 “cities” (mostly towns) suffered this fate.

But these changes did not mean that the West had slid into backwardness. The truth is that most Roman cities no longer served any purpose. They had been funded by the state and existed only for governing: for collecting taxes, administering local rule, and quartering troops. As Osborne noted, “they were centres of consumption, not production, and had no autonomous reason for existence.” In contrast, the towns that arose or survived in post-Roman Europe were centers of trade and manufacturing—as were the many towns in the “barbarian” North, which continued to flourish. The towns and cities of this new era tended not to be large, because there were no state subsidies to pay for daily distributions of free food and entertainment for idle masses. Those people “now were not fed at all unless they made shift to feed themselves,” as the historian A.R. Bridbury put it.

Surely this was a major change. Just as surely, it was not decay.

With the demise of the fabulously rich Roman elite, the luxury trade bringing exotic food, jewels, and cloth from distant sources may have declined. But proponents of the Dark Ages myth propose that all forms of trade soon disappeared: in Van Doren’s words, “the roads were empty of travelers and freight.” But it wasn’t so—there was far more European trade after the fall. For one thing, although the Romans transported a lot of goods, it wasn’t really trade but merely “a traffic in rent and tribute,” in Robin Williams-McClanahan’s apt phrase. Coins and precious metals, food, slaves, and luxury goods flowed to Rome; little came back except tax collectors and soldiers. As Bridbury explained, Roman trade “did not generate income, it simply impoverished those from whom it was extorted.” Second, long before the fall of Rome the “barbarian” areas had established very active, dense, long-distance trade networks, and these not only survived but soon were extended south and westward. Post-Roman Europe sustained busy trade networks dealing in practical things such as iron tools and weapons, pottery, glassware, and woolens. Most of these items were well within the means of ordinary people, and some of the goods traveled several thousand miles.

“Everyone” knows that the fall of Rome soon resulted in an age of illiteracy. No doubt most people in the post-Roman world were unable to read or write. But this was nothing new: literacy was probably below 5 percent during the days of the empire as well. It also is true that after the fall, fewer people wrote in Latin or Greek—since they did not speak them either. Meanwhile, many of the “barbarian” tongues already were, or soon became, written languages. For example, written Gothic dates from the fourth century and Old English from about the fifth.

As for the average person’s standard of living, it is true that the state no longer subsidized food or made daily free distributions of bread, olive oil, and wine. But studies based on isotopic analysis of skeletons have found that people in the so-called Dark Ages ate very well, getting lots of meat, and as a result they grew larger than people had during the days of the empire.


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