Pithy as this is, I’m going to share this joke.
However, it will be accompanied by one of my famous lectures. YAAAAAY!
The Dark Ages were the direct result of the destruction of the Western Roman Empire by barbarian tribes such as the Vandals and the Goths. During this destruction, countless libraries were destroyed, and the advanced learning and knowledge of the greater Roman Empire was lost for centuries.
The resultant dearth of education, scientific and architectural advancement and education created the Dark Ages, a far less educated time in Human History, and as any dictator will tell you, uneducated people are easy to manipulate.
The Roman Catholic Church originated from the only strong centralized organizing force to survive the fall of the Western Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Byzantium, which was still thriving for several reasons, was predominantly Greek Orthodox Christian, not Catholic). The Catholic Church therefore solely had the means to get civilization back on track in a functional way, and from the Church came education, industry, religion, and all the essentials of culture the Empire used to provide. However, a Church has different priorities to an Empire, which should be expected.
The Church took a few lines of gospel to “spread the good news to all the peoples of the world” and used them as justification to set up an informal empire. Kings and Emperors would rise and fall as they always did, but the Church had already established itself as the most effective means of continuing civilization for long enough that it had become indispensable; as bad as things were with it, things without it would have been far, far worse.
Here, we can apply the phrase “Say what you will about Adolf Hitler, but at least he kept the trains running on time”. People were willing to put up with the ever-increasing power and authority of the church because they saw the alternatives of living without its hierarchical and organizing influence and that vision scared them more than any Inquisition ever would. To live without the Church would be to live without any form of civilization, as the Church held the keys to everything — at first because they had to, and later because they realized how profitable it was to be the keymasters of civilization.
In time, the Church had become not just the keepers of Faith, the keepers of Civilization, and the keepers of Salvation, but also the keepers of Knowledge. Catholic Dogma and orthodoxy defined any and all scientific pursuits, education, economics, and political ambition– even the Borgias, often called “History’s First Crime Family”, held themselves loyal to the power, authority, and spiritual status quo of the Church rather than exist outside the essential framework (and protection) it provided. Running afoul of a Prince or King’s law was one thing, running afoul of God’s Chosen Representative on Earth was quite another.
In their capacity as the keepers of knowledge, the Papacy, the College of Cardinals, and the entire Vatican command structure found themselves with the unenviable task of determining who would be educated, where it would be centered, and of course, how all of this was to be paid for. After the fall of the Empire, there were no manuals on how to do this. Each Pope would experiment, and try to find means of doing so that worked and kept things stable to preserve the status quo. As a result, things that benefited the Church such as Plenary Indulgence would stick around, whereas simply charitably handing money out to those in need proved to be a drain on money and resources (as it tends to be) and became practiced only as was convenient. This wasn’t some grand conspiracy to keep the little people down. Well, not all the time, at least.
There WERE many greedy elements within the Church, and while embezzling could be downright common and expected depending on who was in charge at the time, even the most generous and charitable souls in the Church leadership knew that to help every single person in need would be so taxing on manpower and resources as to deny the Church the ability to help anyone at all– this has not changed, even today.
However, taking and holding power had become a major concern for the Church as Europe began to recover; the Church had no army, and Kings and Councils DID. Without a formal military, the Vatican would be hard pressed to defend against outside attack, so they pressed every remaining advantage they had. One in particular became more important than all the rest: knowledge.
As potential military and political threats emerged, the Church doubled down on their monopoly on knowledge. A good example was your average church service: conducted exclusively in Latin, only the Priest would know what was being said, and even then, he likely didn’t well understand it, as even by the Lutheran Reformation most priests were not at all familiar with the New Testament in a scholastic sense. They were scripted: they would be told “this is what you are going to say, so get out there and say it”, never mind that the people they were preaching to would understand it even less.
This is what made Martin Luther’s Gutenberg Bible such a big deal; by using Greek and Latin versions of the New Testament and reference materials, he was able to translate the New Testament into Common German; for the first time, people would be able to read the Word of God and understand the words, the stories, and the message of their Christ. From German, the Bible would be translated into French, Spanish, Porteguese, Hungarian, Norwegian, English, and, as of today, nearly every language spoken by man. The political fallout of this could not possibly be understated: while Luther had always been something of a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker by Church standards, this was downright heresy and treason, and had Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony and the other Princes of the Holy Roman Empire (which was actually German) not stood up for him, the whole thing would have been ended by either the Fires of the Inquisition or the Headsman’s axe and nothing would have changed.
What Luther did was break the church monopoly on knowledge and understanding of the Bible– before, the Church could abuse their power in any way they wished and justify it with a flimsy excuse rooted in a random page of a Latin text nobody else could understand. Now, the people could read the Bible for themselves. They had the ability to THINK for themselves, because they could look at any part of the Church’s justifications and disagree in an educated and literate manner.
The Church would never recover, and its power would slowly dwindle over the course of the Renaissance, with the decline picking up speed as it went and events snowballed beyond their ability to control.
By breaking the monopoly of knowledge, Martin Luther created a chink, a tiny crack in the dam that obstructed religious freedom, and today, everyone is reaping the benefits.
Hundreds of denominations of Christianity now openly practice when once there was only one or two, Atheists are free to pronounce their belief in disbelief without fear of a Church Inquisition imprisoning them, and neopagans like myself are free to break away from the Abrahamic God entirely for the first time since the death of the Roman Emperor Constantine.
It started with a revolution, but not one of swords, or even of money, but a revolution of knowledge.
Once we did try a Christian Society, and yes, then men who led it WERE rich, but that was not what made the Dark Ages dark. They were dark because the light of knowledge had been snuffed out.
Let’s make sure that never happens again.