Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, May 22, 2011


When I read this introductory paragraph to a story by John Noble Wilford

In the thousand years between the decline of Rome and the springtime of the Renaissance, science and other branches of learning took a holiday throughout Europe. It was a benighted time in the history most of us raced through in school, skipping lightly through Charlemagne and Richard the Lion-Hearted, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, and arriving none too soon at the time of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Columbus and da Gama, Erasmus and Luther.

— I thought it was the set-up to a joke. No informed person really believes all those hoary old clichés about the “benighted” Middle Ages, right? I mean, he said “benighted” — surely that’s a dead giveaway of parody?

Apparently not. It’s really sad to see this kind of nonsense coming from Wilford, who has been writing about the history of science for a long time. If you want an absolutely clear-cut refutation of this simplistic Whiggishness, here’s a highly accessible account, and here’s a more scholarly one. (Oddly, the scholarly work is about half as long as the more popular book.) And if you want shorter accounts still, read Myths 2, 3 and 10 here.

It's always interesting to see the myths that are so deeply ingrained — so obviously true to writers and editors — that no one bothers to fact-check them.


  • Reminds me of an online conversation I had in one of my library classes, in which a fellow student said something about everything from the 4th century until the Renaissance being the horrible knowledgeless dark ages. I very gently brought up a few important names from each century: Augustine, Bede, Charlemagne, Thomas Aquinas...

    I was happy when the other student seemed to be genuinely surprised to hear about them. At least the problem was simple ignorance, rather than willful ignorance.

  • He probably thinks they were called the Dark Ages because there were so many knights.

  • The second paragraph of that review also floats an iffy statement:

    Ignored for the most part in Eurocentric accounts is the parallel culture that rose in the Middle East with the swift spread of Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.

    In recent decades, and especially over the past nine years, there have been so many books about math, science, and philosophy in the medieval Islamic world that it's awfully strange to see Wilford suggest that this angle has been "ignored." On the contrary, it's practically a commonplace of popular culture.

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