Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In Reply to Richard Carrier

In his response to my defence of Lynn White, Richard Carrier concedes almost all I could ask him to. He is certainly entitled to disagree with White’s ideas on the influence of Christianity. As to whether the classical era was the most inventive in history, I shall await his new book. I shall certainly be purchasing it when it appears. If I did imply that the pike was invented in the fourteenth century, I did not intend to. However, its use as a counter to heavy cavalry does begin at that point. I also think he overstates the effectiveness of a makeshift palisade as seen in Braveheart, but I don’t either of us will be volunteering to test that one to death.

I’ve got three issues that I’d like to follow up. Firstly, at the end of his post, Carrier engages in a little semantic gymnastics but trying to claim the early Renaissance began in 1250. Medieval society always rested firmly on antique foundations but I don’t find the term ‘renaissance’ terribly helpful. Certainly, to redefine those bits of the Middle Ages we like as the early Renaissance while, no doubt, continuing to refer to the nasty bits as medieval, does nothing to advance historical understanding. The names we give to periods must not be allowed to imply value judgements. They are simply labels of convenience. In point of fact, I refuse to use the terms Renaissance, Dark Ages or Enlightenment because the risk of giving these terms more meaning than they deserve is just too great. My PhD thesis, on sixteenth century natural philosophy, did not include the words Renaissance or Scientific Revolution. Neither examiner appears to have noticed the omission which just shows we don’t really need these value-laden terms at all.

My second point is a bit less idiosyncratic. Carrier points out that horseshoes and the heavy plough we not unknown in the late Roman Empire. Nor, in fact, were watermills and some other machines. What is odd is the way that these technologies simply did not seem to catch on until the 7th or 8th centuries. There is no doubt that Roman society was deeply conservative but even that doesn’t explain why they never bothered with watermills and continued to prefer hand querns. Marxists used to claim it was a symptom of a slave-based economy. Other historians think that the big infrastructure projects of the Empire were invariably urban so their was no capital left for rural improvements. I’ve no idea what the answer is, but when Carrier claims the Romans would have used a stirrup if they saw one, he is engaging in wishful thinking. Societies, especially big empires, are often very slow to adopt the technology of what they perceive to be lowlier races.

Finally, Carrier claims that Roman agriculture was as efficient as anything in Europe up to the eighteenth century. Firstly, that means as efficient as anything up to the thirteenth century because there was little improvement in the intervening period. Second, there is evidence that medieval agriculture was more productive than under Rome. For instance, most population estimates reckon that densities in 1300 were roughly double at the height of the Roman Empire. France had a population of about twenty million just before the hundred years war. The province of Gaul supported roughly ten million. We need to treat these guesses with a lot of circumspection, of course. Also, improvements to agriculture probably account for only some of the difference. The amount of land under the plough might have increased and the medieval warm period, which today’s global warming lobby has been trying so hard to deny, also may have had a significant effect in increasing crop yields. Overall, however, medieval agriculture was almost certainly more productive than under the Romans due, as White realised, to horse collars, heavy ploughs, three field rotation and water mills.

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