(Ancient draft that needed finishing up, never got to it, didn’t want to just toss it, so, here ya go.)
A while back, John C. Wright discussed two topics that triggered a funny twinge of recognition and regret: the difference between the north and south of Europe; and the need to not let challenges to the faith go unanswered.
Background: an intelligent atheist friend asked me to read a book; I said yes, provided he read the Gospels, on the premise that any attempt to understand the western world without reference to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is like going into a fight blindfolded with your good arm tied behind your back.
He never read the Gospels, as far as I know. I, however, read Sagan’s Demon Haunted World.*
Here’s the thing: I knew the answers to Sagan’s challenges. I knew, on some level, that he was playing fast and loose with the truth, and using some subtle and not so subtle rhetorical tricks to steer the conversation away from reason and toward knee-jerk emotionalism. But reading it nonetheless caused great discomfort, and contributed to a bout of serious depression that lasted years. Two things I regret: that I didn’t recognize my unbalanced emotional state before I started, and that I failed intellectually to say: wait a second! That’s not quite the whole story, there, Carl! Instead, I let those challenges become the sort of emotional doubt that cannot be answered intellectually, that is a species of irrational despair. It was only by means of a miracle that I ever got out of it – God dramatically and instantly answered a prayer of desperation. Later on, once I was freed from evil influences much like Theodin was freed by Gandalf, I was able to see clearly what was going on. That’s the trick: our enemy does not want us to see things clearly or approach things rationally, because clarity and reason do not further his cause. He will do anything he can to create miasma and despair.
Mr. Wright’s thoughts and quotations brought all this back. So here’s a concrete examples of what Ms. O’Connor was talking about in her letter, using the point made in the essay about Northern versus Southern Europe as the point of information that answers the particular objections.
Sagan makes a big deal out of the witch burnings which took place in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The goal in his discussion is to paint the senseless and violent persecution of accused witches as a clear and inevitable result of the superstitious Church and religious beliefs in general (although adding generic religious beliefs is clearly a ruse – it’s the Church that engenders this sort of stuff. Other ‘religious beliefs’ are just drafted as sticks to beat the Church with). It’s a demon-haunted world, see. Sagan tells the story with all sorts of feigned sympathy, even quoting at length one German priest who opposed witch hunts and saw right through to the envy and jealously that motivated them. What’s not in Sagan’s account is any context. So, let’s give a little.
I get the impression that most people think of the barbarian invasions in pretty much the same way they think about the Crusades, complete with a PC rewrite – yea, yea, some nomadic tribespersons, who doubtless were oppressed somehow by the Romans, settled in Roman territory and had to fight the Romans’ attempt to expel them – sort of like late classical squatters versus late classical ranchers. Let’s just say that’s not how it looked at the time.
10,000 foot view: Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople around 330. From a military and political standpoint, the move turned Rome, over time, from the Center of the Universe into just another province.
The relationships between the Empire and the barbarians were complex. By this time, the Legions were mostly made up of recruits from the barbarian tribes. The various flavors of Goths admired and feared the Romans, and wanted to be like them. Deals were cut: the Empire would acknowledge certain areas as under the control of certain tribes, and even pledge some support to the tribes, provided they served the Empire, mostly in the form of not attacking the Empite and occasionally fighting for it.
Famously, Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in 410 A.D., 80 years after the capital had been moved. Alaric personally embodied all the complexities of the late Empire’s relationship to barbarians, having fought for the Emperor as part of Gothic semi-mercenary forces, then felt slighted because he wasn’t treated with the respect a victorious Roman would have been – he saw himself as a quasi-Roman; Romans saw him as just another barbarian. Once he gained power over the Visigoths, he decided to show Rome what kind of a general he was, and sacked it.
Thus, the real Dark Ages descended, where for the next several centuries, what used to be the Western Empire was invaded, raided and plunged into chaos. The Visigoths were bought off by Rome with what is now France; they were shortly driven from there into what is now Spain by the invading Frankish tribes, who were a subset of the Germanic tribes the Romans had had trouble with for centuries. And Vandals, Vikings, Huns and other thoroughly unpleasant people – the Visigoths were comparatively high-brow – either raided or invaded all but unchecked. Rome was gradually reduced to ruins, the population fell from around a million to a few thousand, and shepherds grazed their sheep on what had been the Capital.
But the Church persisted. All through this period, the Catholic Church in Rome did not forget its calling to convert the world. The Franks were extraordinarily tough – in the memorable phrase of one scholar, the Germanic tribes were ‘pre-logical’. Their behavior defied reason, their violence was at best barely controlled, and their superstitions were deep. Missionaries wrote back home of how utterly barbaric these poor Frankish souls were, how men would murder their enemies, friends and wives at the drop of a hat, how the highest honor and deepest shame were attached to if and how one exacted revenge, and how a murderer held a certain honor, but thieves were reviled – if they were caught.
Progress was made through confronting their superstitions. The Germanic tribes buried their dead far from where anyone would otherwise go, buried them with elaborate provisions for the next life, and were obsessed with fear least the souls of the dead should come back to haunt and curse them. Priests began to bury the dead right in and around the church, violating all sorts of taboos and fear. When nothing bad happened to the priests – they were not hunted down or cursed by the dead they had all around them – the Franks began to hold a higher opinion of them. There remained a LOT of work to be done, but at least the priests had their attention to some degree. Eventually, over the course of centuries, the Franks became remarkably civilized – by comparison. Still, up until last century or so, the descendants of the Franks remained disproportionately the trouble-makers of Europe.
BUT – this process was not at all homogeneous. The Franks closest to Rome made the most progress. They even adopted Latin (and promptly corrupted it almost past recognition). By Charlemagne’s time in the 9th century, what is now France was Christian at least in name and increasingly in practice. North of the Rhine, things went more slowly. What is now northern Germany was not converted until the 12th century, and even then, the distance from Rome provided space in which superstition and heresy could still flower. Latin was not adopted except in church and, to some extent, court. Everybody still spoke German or some other tribal language. While the nobility all through what is now Western Europe pretty much adopted a civilized attitude about things on paper, at least, the people north of the Rhine did so to a lesser degree than the Frankish peasants.
Once the Middle Ages were in full swing, say, the 13th century, then things started to get better: for one thing, you could travel from Italy to northern Germany with a very good chance of surviving the trip. The University system got going, and Germans were enthusiastic and productive participants in it. Germans started in building all those outrageously beautiful Gothic churches that still dot the landscape.
But – and here I’m speculating a little – just because cities and universities started getting civilized and Christianized doesn’t mean the osmosis of civilization out to the villages was instantaneous. Around 90% of the population lived in the country, only 10% in the city. In pre-TV preliterate times, country folk were not likely to be motivated to adopt the latest city fashions, so to speak. Such spreading of ideas from the cultural centers to the countryside appears to have taken centuries.
This is all in general, at a gross level.
So, anyway, what does this have to do with witch burning? Witch burnings took place in inverse proportion to how deeply Christianity had taken root among the peasantry, and how much pull word from Rome had. In Italy, there were very few – single digits, if I recall – over the 14th and 15th centuries. In France and Spain, there were a few more. But outside the areas where the Latin took root, where the word of Rome was farther off and less likely to be heard, and where the deep-seated superstitions had not been rooted out – that’s where the vast bulk of the witch burnings took place. Sagan even acknowledges this.
So, the rational conclusion would be that the Church’s influence *mitigated* to a large extent evil and superstitious practices. But that’s not what Sagan would like you to think.
* My Sagan obsession predates Demon Haunted World by a couple decades. But it didn’t help.
** One book that bears on this subject is The History of Private Life, volume I, which spends a couple chapters on the Franks and the efforts of missionaries from Rome to Christianize them. Most of the points I’m going to make are more like background that you pick up just reading lots of books, so it’s often hard to point to particular sources.