Tag Archives: History

The Dark Ages Weren’t so Dark, and Neither Is Modernity

I’m currently reading Barbarians to Angels by Peter Wells, which is a mostly successful attempt to rehabilitate the Dark Ages’ dismal reputation. The written sources are mostly from the Roman perspective, so one understands their rampant pessimism. Wells, an archaeologist, prefers a different historiographical method: archaeology. There is more to history than mere texts.

Roman inventions such as concrete were lost, and though literacy did not disappear, it wasn’t anywhere near where it was in Roman times; there was decline. But civilization did not die. International trade stayed alive, and with it the swirling exchange of ideas, customs, religions, and inventions that accompany commerce. Artifacts from as far away as India, Sri Lanka, and China have been found in Dark Age sites in Sweden and Ireland.

The visual arts remained vibrant, even if the written arts didn’t. Of course, illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells provided their own vibrancy, even if in their illustrations and not in their actual text.

All in all, Wells has not persuaded me that early medieval Europe was the technological and cultural equal of the Roman Empire. But he has certainly vanquished the myth that the Dark Ages were as dark as the popular imagination believes.

Much as I love history, the real reason for this post is to point out just how well we moderns have it. In chapter 12, Wells writes the following about one of the 8th century’s greatest scholars:

The most prominent scholar of this period was Bede, a man of Anglo-Saxon origins who was born in northern England about 672 and died in 735. At the age of seven he entered the monastery that was based at the neighboring sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow, in Northumbria, just at the time that this monastic complex was reaching its apex of cultural achievement. The library at the monastery contained some five hundred books, making it on of the most extensive in Europe at the time.

Let’s put this in context. My Kindle e-reader, which fits in my hand, can hold more books than the finest library in all of 8th-century Europe had to offer. Just imagine what a mind of Bede’s caliber could accomplish with today’s intellectual resources.

That’s not all. Now think about today’s 7-billion-strong global population, and compare it to the fewer than one billion people alive in Bede’s time. There are at least an order of magnitude more people alive today with Bede-level intellects. And most of them have access to university libraries and the Internet. What will they accomplish?

We truly live in amazing times.

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The Abner Doubleday Myth

It turns out that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. The true story of the game’s origins is actually quite mundane — it evolved over time as a messy, Hayekian spontaneous order. No one person can claim to have invented the modern version of baseball.

The story of how Abner Doubleday was given his mythical status, however, is immensely entertaining. Apparently it came from a crazy person — literally — who wrote a letter to the founder of Spalding sporting goods. Spalding spread the story because he wanted people to believe that baseball was a uniquely American game, invented by an American. People were eager to believe him; some still are.

Joe Posnanski tells the tale well, as he does with everything he writes. Read the whole thing. It will make you laugh, and you will learn something about how easy it is for tall tales to become accepted fact. Lessons abound for the public policy world.

Regulation of the Day 145: Unregistered Chariots

When King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922, six chariots were among the artifacts found inside. One of them even had some wear and tear; maybe Pharaoh had personally used it for hunting.

It is even possible that falling off that very chariot caused the broken leg that is believed to have ultimately killed him at the age of 18 or so. That chariot is now on display in New York as part of a traveling exhibition of Tutenkhamen’s artifacts.

Getting the chariot from Egypt to New York was quite an ordeal. At roughly 3,300 years of age, the wood is fragile. First it was carefully packed into a truck and driven to Cairo from the Luxor museum. Then it was loaded onto a New York-bound cargo jet. A curator was by its side at all times.

Once it arrived stateside, the New York Times tells of an unexpected regulatory hurdle through which the chariot had to pass before leaving JFK International Airport for its Times Square destination and painstaking reassembly:

When New York traffic officials reviewed the papers required for the oversize truck that would transport the chariot into Manhattan, they saw that the cargo inside was classified as a vehicle, and demanded its Vehicle Identification Number.

“I’m totally serious,” said Mr. Lach, the exhibition’s designer. “But we got it cleared up.”

Good for them. The exhibit is on until January 2 if you care to look for the chariot’s VIN yourself.

Ancient Noise Ordinances

Some types of regulations go back a very long way.  Some of this is likely only legend, but according to the historian Donald Kagan, local noise ordinances date all the way back to ancient Greece:

At the Gulf of Taranto lay the Greek city of Sybaris, whose citizens’ taste for luxurious living has provided a synonym for voluptuaries. They were said to honor cooks with golden crowns and give them the same honors for preparing a fine meal that they gave to choregoi for staging winning tragedies. They taught their horses to dance and were once defeated in battle when their opponents played tunes on the flute that lured their cavalry away. They went to parties at night and slept all day, imposing the first anti-noise legislation; even roosters were barred from the town.

-Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy,  p. 125.

Hayek on History

“[I]f it is too pessimistic a view that man learns nothing from history, it may well be questioned whether he always learns the truth.”

Capitalism and the Historians, (F.A. Hayek, ed.), p.3

Will Durant on Human Achievement

I spent a good chunk of the long weekend engrossed in Will Durant’s autobiography, Transition. Durant and his wife Ariel were best known for their 11-volume The Story of Civilization series, which is a fine introduction not just to history, but to literature, philosophy, art, music, science, and all the other cantos in the poem of human life.

Transition is mainly the tale of Durant’s transition from seminarian to secularist, and from his youthful flirtations with socialist anarchism to a gentler, more tolerant and mature worldview that saw humanity as a good but flawed creature, set in his ways, yet capable of breathtaking progress and achievement. This passage, describing Durant’s first trip to Europe in 1912 aboard an oceanliner, captures that transition in microcosm:

One night there was no moon, nor any star; then our great ship, ghastly alight in the engulfing dark, seemed like a phosphorescent insect struggling in the sea. But as we neared the rocks of Britain’s ancient shore the mood of my thinking changed, and I marveled not at the vastness of the ocean but at the courage of man, who had ribbed it everywhere with the paths of his floating cities; who had dared to make great arks of heavy iron and fill them with thousands of tons of the products of human hands; who had built upon these frames luxurious homes for many hundred men; who had made engines capable, through the expansion of a little steam, of propelling this enormity of steel and flesh safely and quickly across the widest seas, making the rage of the ocean impotent. It was man that was marvelous, I said, as I stood secure and relieved on the solid soil of England.

(Transition, pp. 218-19)

Before Lawyers

Before there were lawyers, there were philosophers. The Sophists, given a bad name by Plato, earned their bread by teaching people how to plead their cases in court. There being no professional lawyers in 5th century B.C. Athens, people had to represent themselves. Witness this tale (probably too good to be true) of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras:

It is said that [Protagoras] taught a young man on the terms that he should be paid his fee if the young man won his first law-suit, but not otherwise, and that the young man’s first law-suit was one brought by Protagoras for recovery of his fee.

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 75.