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You Gotta Do the Reading, Man
Why does the idea of the "Dark Ages" mean so much to econobros?
We were, in fairness, perhaps asking for it when we called our book The Bright Ages, but honestly that the vitality of the myth of the European medieval as “the Dark Ages” continues to astound us. In general, those wedded to this perception of the period fall into 2 camps:
people who haven’t thought a whole lot about the European Middle Ages and so are relying on tropes from pop culture, or some vague sense of the period from some earlier educational experience (usually either high school or college);
people who think somewhat more about the European Middle Ages but REALLY NEED there to be a cycle of decline and rebirth in order to make some other point about modernity.
The first group are wonderful. In our experience, they’re curious but often just don’t know where to start to learn more. Matt, for example, did a webinar for the National Humanities Center in Fall 2022 and talked there with several hundred K-12 teachers. They were great! Medieval Europe doesn’t have a heavy presence on a lot of state standards (though they are in Virginia…) and so the questions seemed to revolve around why the period matters and how can we easily access materials to help teacher and student see its importance. These are fun - and good - questions because this is a conversation happening in good faith and experts love to help others find out more.
The second group, well, that’s a bit more… frustrating. Most recently, there’s this:
There’s a lot to unpack with Noah’s assertion here.
So to keep things simple, let’s for now leave aside the BS “debate me, bro” posturing, and let’s also leave aside the Eurocentric (frankly, kind of racist) assumption that all civilizations should be defined by widespread literacy, and let’s also leave aside that in this specific case the literacy ratesfor ancient Rome and medieval Europe were about the same (roughly 15-20%, but much higher (near 50%?) by the late Middle Ages), and finally let’s also for the moment leave aside that the only real reason Noah and his readers know about ancient authors is because medievals copied those texts down.
Leaving all that aside, the bigger point we want to make is a simple one.
You gotta do the reading, man.
Noah’s assertion is, in fact, very easy to disprove. There are, quite literally, hundreds of archives across Europe containing thousands of manuscripts that were created during the European Middle Ages - and these number don’t even account the massive archival loss that happened during World War II,or the various library fires that dot modern history. In addition, it should surprise no one who reads this newsletter that scholars of the European Middle Ages have been writing about the period for, again quite literally, hundreds of years. In every instance, they talk about their sources - the things that medievals wrote down. There are even, ahem, some books published just in the past few years about how much we can know about the European Middle Ages because of the sources that survive from the period.
But the point of being wrong here is to stake out a position. Upton Sinclair, the great muckraking progressive, once said:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
And this, I think, is the point of Noah’s pointed meme. He and those sympathetic (such as his reply guy above, an economist who founded a “AI” company) aren’t doing the reading because they really need there to have been a Dark Ages. A certain strand of econobro, for example, needs there to have been a decline and rebirth an undulating graph that tracks… something.
Right after The Bright Ages appeared, another economist with a big following on twitter and substack posted a “critique” of our conclusion that Rome didn’t fall.That critique was led by this chart and it’s explanation:
Note here the definition of what makes a civilization (technological progress, but with no definition of what that means), and also where the “data” comes from. The numbers about population and income are “guesses.” The trend across FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS is extrapolation based on those guesses. Voila, “Dark Ages,” baby!
This critic had at least done some of the reading but what his response reveals is that our argument and evidence (we don’t do “guesses”) didn’t fit his priors and so our argument had to be discarded. Econobros are triumphalist modernists, wedded to the inherent virtue of technological innovation, in part because their income depends upon it. Their models need to explain the world that is perpetually being created ex nihilo, that cannot care for the past because that past can show alternatives - possible worlds that have existed or that could exist in the future.
As we wrote a while ago for The Washington Post:
It has been said that bad history does violence to the past. Allow us to gently disagree. The long dead can no longer be harmed. The real danger of bad history is that it does violence to the future. The study of the past, at its best, is filled with the potential of prophecy. History, at its best, opens up possible worlds.
You don’t like The Bright Ages? Fine. No worries. There are lots of other great books out there on medieval Europe. They all show not only how much we do know about the past but also how much we don’t know yet, how we can learn more and tell a better, more honest, more true story about the period.
But as teachers, we both know when people didn’t do the reading. And man, you gotta do the reading.
UPDATE 6/26/23: should’ve linked to this amazing book by Elizabeth Popp Berman on where this econobro thinking came from.
We should note for those unfamiliar that Noah doesn’t really like us medievalists much because we often clown him for these dumb takes). Add this post to the list, I guess.
In pre-modern Europe (both under Rome and in the Middle Ages), “literacy” would usually mean the ability to read and not write. This didn’t change until early modernity and widespread literacy not until much later.
This list from Wikipedia doesn’t even include other losses, such as the destruction of the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy.
It transformed and we’re correct. Also, you can google the post to find it if you want.