Monday, February 07, 2011

Note on some Nonsense and the Dark Ages

Book Cover

The following is a expanded version of a comment I left on the website Skeptical Humanities.1 It concerns some thoughts on pseudo-scholarship and the dark ages.

Its been almost 30 years since I’ve read Holy Blood, Holy Grail,2 and it has got to be one of the most flagrant examples pseudo-scholarship ever. What is remarkable is that the bibliography in the book is actually pretty good; but the main purpose of that bibliography is to support massive woo. What I found especially annoying was on one page they would introduce, tentatively, some far out speculation and then pages later would treat that speculation as a “fact” and use it to support some even more far our speculation and then pages later use….. And so forth.

The pseudo-scholarship in the book is used to give a aura of respectability to fantasy and out of control conspiratorial thinking, with virtually no evidence to support it. What I especially loved was how our authors danced the fact that there is NO early evidence that Jesus married Mary Magdalene at all. There is plenty of early evidence, from Gnostic sources, about Mary Magdalene being regarded as a Disciple of Jesus; but being married to him, not a sliver.3 In fact the earliest evidence I know of the belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is from anti-Cathar writings of the 13th century that attributed this belief to the Cathars.4 I note this is c. 1200 years after Jesus’ death! None of the Church fathers seem to know of such a belief and since they accused the Gnostics of believing all sorts of stuff that they the Church fathers found offensive. I would think they would have included this one if it had existed.

If you think Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is bad than don’t read The Jesus Papers,5 by one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Michael Baigent. In the book the author asks us to take seriously papers which he has seen, but which he can’t read, (The documents are in Aramaic), but which he assures us will rock the foundations of Christianity. Oh and the owner won’t let them be examined by scholars or studied. We can’t even get pictures of the documents. But we must take them seriously. ORLY!?

The Dark Ages are an interesting period. There is this bias that goes back to the Renaissance that regards The Greeks and the Romans as “like us” and in a sense our contemporaries and regards the period between as an age of obscurantist darkness.6 Well in many ways this is just nonsense. The foundations of modern Europe were laid in the “Middle Ages”,7 and frankly it is careful and in my opinion distorted thinking and writing that leads people to think that the Greeks and the Romans were “like us”.

I have found, for example, it a lot easier to get into the mind of Thomas Aquinas, despite the fact I’m a secularist and agnostic, than the mind of Cicero despite the fact that I share many of Cicero’s beliefs.

The Classicalist M.I. Finley wrote a brilliant essay called Desperately Foreign, (Its in a collection of essays he wrote called Aspects of Antiquity,8.), that describes the world of the Greeks and the Romans as only superficially like our own and in the end “Desperately Foreign”. This tendency of “modernizing” the Greeks and the Romans produces a mindset that sees kindred spirits in the thinkers and doers of antiquity and one that emphasizes the strangeness and irrationality of the Dark Ages / Middle Ages. The cultic, irrational elements of Greco-Roman culture are thus either down played or bluntly ignored. Thus we read that until the third century B.C.E., Greek art had, “nothing vulgar, coarse, or debasing”.9 This statement is simply, and utterly wrong. As any half decent examination of just vase paintings of the 6th and 5th century B.C.E., would reveal. The fondness of the Greeks and Romans for Mystery Cults, arcane mystical speculation, and their reputation in antiquity for frenzy and extreme behavior have to be ignored in the distorted view of them being modern rationalists.10

In fact in many ways the European world of the “Middle Ages” is less “Foreign” than the world of the Greeks and the Romans. To cite an example the pervasive influence of the Bible, given that our society is still in many respects Bible saturated, makes the “Middle Ages” more comprehensible to us, or me at least. Also much of European law and attitudes about law and the enforcement of law are related to Germanic and Customary law from the Dark Ages / Middle ages.11

As an interesting side note it appears likely that for the mass of the population their standard of living may have improved(!) with the fall of the Roman Empire. So that this great disaster which is still seen has a great retreat of civilization may have benefited most people.12

Thank you Michael Baigent for bringing back memories of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that example of “scholarship” as cow muck.

1. See Here.

2. Baigent, Michael, Leigh, Richard, Lincoln, Henry, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Jonathan Cape, London, 1982.

3. See Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, New York, 1979.

4. For example Peter de les Vaux-de-Cernay says concerning Cathar beliefs that:

Further, in their secret meetings they said that the Christ who was born in the earthy and visible Bethlehem and crucified at Jerusalem was “evil”, and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine – and that she was the woman taken in adultery who is referred to in the scriptures;… (From de les Vaux-de-Cernay, Peter, The History of the Albigensian Crusade, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge Sussex, 1998, s. 11, p. 11.)
5. Baigent, Michael, The Jesus Papers, Harper Collins Pub., New York, 2006.

6. To give but one example of this bias. See Gibbons The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The chapter on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the first volume is especially revealing of this attitude. Given that copies of The Decline … are so easy to find on the web I will not be posting links to it.

7. A couple of books that go into the establishment of Europe during the Middle Ages are, Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians, Pan Books, London, 2009, Lewis, David Levering, God’s Crucible, W. W. Norton, New York, 2008, Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome, Penguin Books, London, 2009, Heer, Fredrich, The Medieval World, Mentor Book, New York, 1962, Herrin, Judith, The Formation of Christendom, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1987, Moore, R. I., The First European Revoolution, Blackwell Pub., Oxford, 2000.

8. Finley, M. I., Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin books, London, 1977. The essay Desperately Foreign can be found on pp. 11-15.

9. The Sociologist Sorokin quoted in Muller, Herbert J., The Uses of the Past, Mentor Book, New York, 1952, p. 115.

10. A good start on correcting this view is Dodds, E.R., The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA., 1951.

11. See the books listed in Footnote 7 for more details.

12. See Wickham, pp. 203-231, Moore, pp. 30-47.

Pierre Cloutier

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