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Disclaimer: am an historian and agree with the basic premise of OP. Without a doubt, it would be preferable to have been born in 100 CE as opposed to 800 CE, in most parts of Christian Western Europe. But I think he dismisses point #1 far too hastily. Go a little bit south of the Visigoths, and you have one of the world's largest libraries to date and a city to rival ancient Athens in size (Muslim Cordoba).

The point I try to make when I teach this stuff is not that there was no period of decline in Christian Western Europe after the fall of the Western empire. That's a given. But the culture of the Greeks and Romans also had a home in places like Morocco, Afghanistan and Egypt. Those places were doing great during the "Dark Ages" and were just as much the inheritors of the Classical world as, say, Germany and Ireland.

In other words: fixating on a Dark Age that only befell something like 1/4 of the zone of Greco-Roman influence gives a misleading impression because it imposes much more modern geographic boundaries. Many of those "lost" classical texts rediscovered in the Renaissance were still readily available in places like Isfahan and Shiraz. Likewise with population: I would wager that, taking a century-level view, the regions encompassed by Alexander's empire increased steadily in urbanization and GDP from his time to that of the Mongols.

Quite so. And when there was a great rebirth in interest in higher learning at the beginning of the Medieval period, many would-be scholars ran off to Muslim lands to read, often in Arabic translations, what the Greeks and Romans had originally written, and also the further original works of the Arabs themselves.

IANAH, but if you graph the rate of progress, it seems to generally be exponential (over the long term). Did this rate of progress continue smoothly in other parts of the world, during the "Western European Dark Ages", or did it slow a little? i.e. not a decline, but a lull or slower progress. I guess if 1/4 of the world is declining, that would make global progress a little slower than if it had contributed equally.

As a layperson, I've always had the impression you counter, i.e. that there was great progress in classical times, and it didn't accelerate again until the Renaissance.

OTOH I know of one fundamental development made elsewhere during the W.E. Dark Ages: algebra.

A list of advances that came from the eastern and southern parts of the sphere of Greco-Roman influence c. 500 to 1000 would be pretty impressive I think. Off the top of my head, there'd be: algebra, chess, windmills, distilled alcohol, mounted plate armored warfare (earliest proto-knights are from Sassanian Persia) and Greek fire. I think the astrolabe too?

A fun list and it would be interesting to see what else it might include. Technological innovation might be an interesting counterpoint to arguments based on population or GDP. I might write a blog post about it...

I'd be very interested in reading that!

Unfortumately, there's no objective metric to quantify the importance of each development, which is a problem for charting it, but this kind of thing has been attempted for the development of life on earth, and of technology, based on complexity.

e.g. Kurzweil's singularity stuff. I think his charts are quite well argued for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PPTCountdowntoSingularity...

It's also been back-extrapolated to estimate the genesis of life (which pre-dates earth, they find): https://phys.org/news/2013-04-law-life-began-earth.html

Moore's Law has a similar chart, but it's easy to quantify in FLOPS or other computation units, so doesn't really help here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Moore%27s_Law_over_120_Ye...

You can chart outcomes instead of trying to score inventions.

See for example: http://lukemuehlhauser.com/wp-content/uploads/all-curves-wit...

I'd caution that these graphs are completely useless for talking about a technological singularity though, and - even worse - they make it seem like "something must happen" because that line is so obviously "almost vertical". This simply isn't the case, and - importantly - is almost the opposite to the argument for a singularity.

Thanks, I'm interested here in global progress during the dark ages.

I agree that GDP and other outcomes are another approach - and perhaps more accurate and more easily measured. GP suggested tech innovation might be an "interesting counterpoint" to conventional population/GDP approaches.

Innovation from China too... though I have the impression the government managed to lock-down dangerous (to the government) innovations, like gunpowder and flight, so I think progress would have slowed there, too.

Chinese gunpoweder was pretty ineffective for anything except as a terror weapon. There are plenty of records of it being as terrifying (and dangerous!) for those using it as those it was used against. There's little evidence it was anymore effective than things like the incendiary Greek Fire used by the Byzantines to great effect.

I'm not aware of any particular efforts to suppress or restrict it beyond the usual Chinese restrictions on weapons. Wikipedia says a (non-central-government) militia official demonstrated a particularly effective form, and that there was later a restriction on trade of sulfur and saltpeter, but that appears more to build up their own stocks.


Err.. they had manned kites if that was what you mean? Marco Polo say to foretell whether a ship should sail, a man would be strapped to a kite having a rectangular grid framework and the subsequent flight pattern used to divine the outlook[1]. That does seem to have been particularly restricted.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_flying_machines#Man-carr...

progress, it seems to generally be exponential

Unclear how one would measure this, but assuming one could...

One would definitely expect some kind of accelerating rate of change: it would be very rare for innovations to be lost completely, and fairly common for one old piece of innovation to be waiting on a new innovation to unlock a subsequent change.

Assuming a constant rate of "raw innovation" would give an accelerating rate just by combining new innovations with existing technology.

The linked article explicitly makes this point:

"Every other historical age name is instantly understood by everyone to refer to both a time and a place. [..] let’s just agree to call it the Western European Dark Ages, as long as we can also agree it existed and was bad."

Like I said, I agree with the linked article but I think it skips over the implications of this point too hastily. "Christian Western Europe" is not a particularly large or important chunk of the Greco-Roman world, relatively speaking. Insofar as talking about a Dark Age gives the impression that there was a massive break with Classical Antiquity throughout that whole world (as opposed to just parts of the northwest quadrant of it), the concept is misleading. But if we're calling it the Western Christian European Dark Ages, Scott Alexander and I agree.

> "Christian Western Europe" is not a particularly large or important chunk of the Greco-Roman world, relatively speaking.

Importance is I guess in the eye of the beholder, but it's pretty hard to argue that Christian Western Europe isn't a particularly large part of the Greco-Roman world.

it's pretty hard to argue that Christian Western Europe isn't a particularly large part of the Greco-Roman world.

The argument was that it wasn't particularly large or important.

It's pretty easy to make this argument: In terms of the known world during Greco-Roman times, most of the known world was to the South and East. Persia and Carthage were major empires, and writings from those parts and beyond were known in Rome. Compare that to Western Europe: The Romans barely knew that Britain existed before Julius, and it was so unimportant that they abandoned it. Gaul was geographically a large part of the empire, true, but wasn't particularly important. Note that land grants to legionaries were given in Romania, because Rome wanted to control that area rather than in Gaul.

Counter-factual histories are endless of course, but it can be worthwhile thinking about them occasionally. We live in a world where the Mongols stopped before Vienna (at least partly because they didn't see anything rich enough in Europe to bother with). If they hadn't stopped, or if they hadn't destroyed the Islamic world and inland trading empires like they did it is entirely possible that Western Europe would still be considered a backwater.

Thanks for the extra lecture, but none of it is remotely pertinent. The land that became Western Christian Europe (the England-ish part of Britain down through France to southern Italy) is in fact a large part of the Greco-Roman world. It doesn't magically become not-large by including "or important," any more than it would be truthful to say Western Christian Europe "wasn't a particularly northwesterly or important part of the Greco-Roman world."

> Note that land grants to legionaries were given in Romania, because Rome wanted to control that area rather than in Gaul.

This isn't really true at all. By the time Trajan conquered Dacia (and distributed land to his veterans there) Gaul was a settled, integrated part of the empire.

Right on. Guessing many who are reading this have already come across it, but "The Years of Rice and Salt" by KSR is a great counter factual history in this vein. I'm going to use it as a "textbook" of sorts next time I teach a world history survey.

> I would wager that, taking a century-level view, the regions encompassed by Alexander's empire increased steadily in urbanization and GDP from his time to that of the Mongols.

There is evidence of a medeival decline, even in those areas, although obviously not as bad.

In "Why The West Rules, For Now", Ian Morris defines "The West" very broadly, and definately includes everything you are talking about. He then comes up with various metrics which are not averages, but which focus the most successful part of the region (e.g. population of the biggest city).

Not surprisingly, the most successful parts of the west by his reckoning, were in the Islamic world during the middle ages. But even then his overall metric shows a medeival dip for the west, which his "east" (aka China) did does not see.

I don’t see how The West could shift around like that. You might as well say “the most successful part of the New York art scene is in Philadelphia”.

How is that the New York art scene? It’s equivalent to “privatize profits, socialize losses”. You’re saying when The West succeeds it’s because of its Westiness, and when The East succeeds it’s because it was having a Westy period.

Before the Mongol invasions? That would surprise me, if so. Would be interested to see his evidence, if anything from the book is online.

I haven't read this book, but it is on my list.

This data would surprise me too, but the author is fairly well credentialed and has done reasonable work at estimating this kind of thing before. He is one of the authors of https://classics.stanford.edu/publications/cambridge-economi...

His work on city size seems to be in this PDF, pages 109-117: http://www.ianmorris.org/docs/social-development.pdf

I'm far from an expert on this. The only thing I noted was that his estimate of 125K in 1000CE Baghdad is lower than I expected. He argues it may actually have been lower given the documented size, and he notes the 500K-700K estimates for Baghdad imply a much higher density to anywhere else at that time.

I'd note that I don't see the OP's point (that population declined in the Muslim cities during this period) reflected in the numbers I'm seeing in this document. That is mostly because it isn't clear about the whole area population as opposed to the largest cities.

What do you think about the role of Christianity in the decline of Western Europe after the Western empire fell? The Church was very powerful. And there was an absolute focus on "spiritual life", with physical reality considered as just an illusion.

This is a pet peeve of mine - you're mixing Christianity with Platonism. In the Roman Empire, it was Plato and his intellectual descendants who had the idea that reality was an illusion. Christianity was influenced by this, but only somewhat, because it's a core Christian teaching that the saved will enjoy eternal, bodily life ("I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting"). If you believe that reality is an illusion, like a Buddhist, this form of eternity would be a bad thing, not a good one.

More specifically answering the historical question, the Church was just as strong in the Eastern Roman Empire as in the fallen West, so its presence does not really distinguish the one (lasted until 1453) from the other (Dark Age).

OK, but was it the same Church in the East and West?

Or, even if nominally the same Church, were their attitudes about science the same?

They were the same Church throughout the Dark Ages, until 1054. The treatment a person would get from the Church depended on the politics of the local bishop more than anything else. In general, the "conflict thesis" - that the Church was opposed to science as such- is no longer believed by historians. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_thesis#Modern_views There are few examples of scientists being persecuted, and these few were also involved in politics, which was cutthroat for everyone.

OK, thanks.

But it's not just about outright opposition, I think. During that period, didn't Islamic civilization generally support science more than Christian civilization did?

Quite the opposite. The Church (mostly monasteries) in Northern Europe was the main source of progress in science and the progress was rapid. Mostly applied science though like agriculture, melioration, construction, metal forging, waterwheeel etc.

This book explains quite well how Western European civilization during Dark Ages was sucking all kinds of inventions and improving them slowly in order to adapt itself in hostile conditions of Northern Europe.


Interestingly, the linked article has a (made-up) image relevant to your question. Search for the caption: "Pictured: one way to politicize this discussion; not recommended"

Well, made up graphic or not, the idea strikes me as rather plausible.

Also, it's about religion, not politics.

Experience shows there is a wide range of behavior available to adherents of the same religion, and adopted by them. Saying, for example, one is a Christian, says virtually nothing about one's behavior - Christians participated in crusades, Christians burned people at stake, Christians refused to even touch weapons, Christians founded major pieces of modern physics and mathematics, Christians owned slaves, Christians actively participated in abolitionist movement... It is not a good predictor of behavior. And thus, hypothesis that their behavior is explained by their religion sounds extremely weak. It's like saying Romance and Germanic languages are bad because (many) people in Europe spoke Romance and Germanic languages and they had Dark Ages, so clearly these two are related, while in China nobody spoke these languages and they were just fine. Clearly the theory sounds just as plausible?

I'm not considering behavior of individuals. Rather, I'm considering how Medieval society was dominated by the Catholic Church. To me, that seems utterly undeniable.

An alternate explanation is that medieval Europe split into multiple small conflicting areas of influence, each of which was trading economic, military and religious influence against the others.

In this explanation, the Church was merely one player, and it wasn't the religious nature in itself which led to the lack of progress. Instead, it was the inward-looking nature of all of Western Europe which meant all players were more interested in gaining influence within that closed sphere rather than growth (Perhaps the reign of Charlemagne is an exception here).

There are numerous examples of this kind of behavior: the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 is probably outside the period of time usually classed as the "dark ages" but is still a good example of this behavior.

OK, thanks. That makes sense to me.

I'm pretty much in the Hawking/Dawkins camp regarding religion, I must admit.

Edit: Quoting Hawking, from the Wikipedia article on the conflict thesis: "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works." That was obvious to me when I was 12.

> There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason

Except if you look at actual history of science and religion, it's way far from being that simple. Religions change, sometimes drastically, and are completely capable of overthrowing and even completely abolishing (see move from Catholicism to Protestantism) the authority structure. And science has plenty of authority issues, to the point where researches note that in some areas significant progress is made only when "old school" dies out and is replaced by "new school" - not because of reason, but because of physical limits of human existence. And some areas of science are very much influenced by political and other issues that have little to do with observation and reason.

So in practice both work in ways much more complicated than that.

I'm no fan of religion myself. Including fundamentalist atheism.

it's about religion, not politics


cause (an activity or event) to become political in character.

But good luck with that theory anyway!

No, I made it about religion. And religion <> politics. Except to the bloody Midieval Christians, anyway. Which is a key aspect of the argument.

But anyway, de gustibus non disputandum est :)

And religion <> politics. Except to the bloody Midieval Christians, anyway

The loss of most of the Eastern Roman Empire and the defeat of the Persian Empire by a religious-based empire at around the same time indicates this "exception" may not be quite as universal as you seem to believe.

Fair enough. I should have said something like "followers of dogmatic religions".

I'm greatly amused, by the way, that modern fundamentalist Christians and Muslims agree that Jesus will return for Armageddon. And just disagree about whose side he'll be on.

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