by Daniel Gurpide

According to the Dutch economist Anguss Maddison, Europe suffered through zero economic growth in the centuries from 500 AD to 1500. Maddison shows that for a millennium there was no rise in per capita income, which stood at an abysmally low $215 in 1500. Further, he estimates that in the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live to roughly the age of 24 years—and that a third would die in the first year of life.

French historian Fernand Braudel, writing about the pre-18th-century era, points out, for instance, that although France was, by standards of the day, a relatively prosperous country, it is nevertheless believed to have suffered ten general famines during the 10th century; twenty-six in the 11th; two in the 12th—and these are estimates that do not even count the hundreds and hundreds of local famines.

European sewage and sanitation regressed back to primitivism during this era. Human waste products were often thrown out the window and into the street or simply dumped in local rivers. With the streets strewn with garbage and running with urine and feces—and with the same horrifying conditions permeating the rivers and streams from which drinking water was drawn—vermin and germs multiplied, and disease of every kind, untreatable by the primitive medical knowledge of the day, proliferated. Between 1347 and 1350, for example, the bubonic plague—the infamous “Black Death”—spread by the fleas that infest rats, ravaged Western Europe, obliterating roughly 20 million people, fully one-third of the human population. Norman Cantor, the leading contemporary historian of the Middle Ages, states: “The Black Death of 1348–49 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European and possibly in world history.”

Finally, the early Middle Ages witnessed a stupefying decline in levels of education and literacy from the Roman period. In the endemic warfare of the period, human beings lost the skill of writing and, largely, of reading. For example, during the 8th century, Charlemagne maintained that even the clergy knew insufficient Latin to understand the Bible or to properly conduct Church services.

A related disaster was that Classical learning was largely lost in the West. The loss of literacy in Greek was catastrophic for civilization, for it meant the simultaneous loss of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, engineering, and science. Andrew Coulson, a researcher in the field of educational history, points out that whereas the Greeks were fascinated by the natural world, taking pioneering steps in such sciences as anatomy, biology, physics, and meteorology, the Christians replaced efforts to understand the world with an attempt to know God; observation-based study of nature was, accordingly, subordinated to faith-based study of scripture. A decline in learning consequently afflicted every cognitive subject. What limited medical knowledge had been accumulated by Greek and Roman physicians was supplanted by utter mysticism. For example, St. Augustine believed that demons were responsible for diseases, a tragic regression from Hippocrates. Scientific work, in general, declined as interest in the physical world did.

W. T. Jones, the 20th century’s leading historian of philosophy, succinctly captured the essence of the decline, and of Christianity’s causal role in promoting it, when he stated: “Because of the indifference and downright hostility of the Christians almost the whole body of ancient literature and learning was lost. This destruction was so great and the rate of recovery was so slow that even by the ninth century Europe was still immeasurably behind the classical world in every department of life. This, then, was truly a ‘dark’ age.”

Daniel Gurpide: The quotations and data are extracted from an article by Andrew Bernstein: “The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages. A Critique of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason”.