One question which I have touched upon repeatedly is why is it that in some regions languages of elites replace those of the populace, and in other regions the inverse occurs? This is one reason why I’m very interested in genetic studies of populations, they add a new dimension to the large set of often confusing, contradictory and cloudy “facts” we have on hand. Among Anatolian Turks for example there is still a noticeable imprint of East Eurasian ancestry, though by & large it seems that Anatolian Turks are the descendants of those acculturated to a Turkish identity from a Greek, Armenian or Kurdish past (the main qualification is that I have read, though am not sure as to the veracity of the claims, that large numbers of Orthodox Christian Turkish speakers who switched language, but not religion, have been totally Hellenized after the exchange of populations). In contrast it is difficult to find any genetic evidence that the Magyars actually settled among the peoples of what is today Hungary (Pannonia), even though their origin was likely from the Volga region (some of the difference might simply be that it is harder to detect deviations from expectation if the Magyars were more similar to the peoples of Pannonia than the Turks were to the natives of Anatolia, as is likely the case).
In the lands of the former Roman Empire most of the Latin domains quickly assimilated the Germanic military elites to the native culture, in both religion & language. There are two glaring exceptions to this: Britain & the Balkans. Several years ago I read The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, and I began thinking of the processes described in this book when reading the chapter on post-Roman Britain in The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. To my mild pleasure I then came upon this passage:
This model for the Anglo-Saxon settlements, which I broadly accept, thus has the invaders settling in the very small groups, initially covering ahandful of local communities for the mostpart, which could as in Wales, be called tribal. Political leadership would have been very simple and informal, though of course necessarily military, for a fragmented conquest is still a conquest. THis picture further fits with the archaeolgy of early Anglo-Saxon settlements and cemeteries, which shows a very simple material culture, far simpler in every respect than that found anywhere in the ex-Roman Continent outside the Balkans.
My pleasure was not due to excitement about the collapse of Roman civilization. Rather, it was that I had anticipated an analogy which the author later spotlighted, suggesting to me that the correspondence is striking enough to be obvious to independent observers. What occurred by and large in the Balkans, and to an even greater extent in Britain, is that the complex of literate Roman city-centered society yielded to decentralized village-based societies, and barbarism seems to assimilated the peasants left behind after the withdrawal of the Imperial forces. Though one can find some evidence of exogenous genetic input indicating non-trivial population movements, especially in Britain, it does not seem that the native substrate was replaced in the majority across these regions (see the links here). In Britain the old models of pots-not-peoples seems falsified by suggestive gradients of alleles of Germanic provenance from East Anglia, the Dark Age “Saxon Shore.” But, in terms of total genome content the English as a whole seem to resemble the other peoples of the British Isles more than they do the populations of northern Germany (though again, there are regional variations within England, with East Anglia and the former “Danelaw” showing signs of the more recent gene flow). In the Balkans genetic relationships between populations seem to follow geography more than language; the Bulgarians resemble Romanians, not the Czechs, who are close to the Hungarians.
And yet despite the genes there was a massive cultural discontinuity between Roman Britain and the Balkans, and what came after. It is now fashionable to assert that the Roman world “transformed,” and did not “fall,” after 476. This view seems least defensible in the case of these two regions. Not only did Romanitas disappear, but the physical character of these societies as evident from the archaeology show rupture and regression. The fall of Roman Britain can be pegged to a specific date, 410, when the legions were recalled to the continent. This did not mean that the barbarian hordes struck immediately, rather, in the decades after political fragmentation and a reassertion of the native Celtic tribal traditions seem to have occurred. In The Inheritance of Rome the author suggests that the political prominence of what were once marginal regions, Wales and southern Scotland, is a reflection of the fact that these areas held the deepest stores of Celtic tribal cultural capital which might fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Latin civilization. To battle a militarized society one requires a militarized society, and the peoples of the Celtic marchlands fit that bill. It is here that there is a contrast between Britain and the Balkans: Britain was far less Latinized than the Balkans. Latinization had proceeded in Spain, Gaul (France) and the Balkans to the point that ib these regions the natives were initially termed “Romans” by barbarian conquerors. The persistence of Latin-derived languages in the Balkans into the modern era is also witness to the thoroughness of Latinization. Romanian, the persistence of the Vlachs, as well as the recently extinct language of Dalmatian can not be ignored. Of course Greece and the region around Constantinople were presumably Greek speaking. And there were obviously regions where the ancestor of Albanian was spoken. But it seems likely that Latin was the dominant language among the peasants across much of the Balkans, most certainly above the Jirecek Line. Justinian the Great, the last East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor who spoke Latin as a first language, was born near Skopje, the capital of modern day Macedonia. In Britain the working assumption is that the peasantry spoke a Celtic language related to modern Welsh, though the elite used Latin frequently, and Latin was the dominant written language. Though the Celtic inhabitants of Britain had adopted many Roman customs, they remained Britons, while the Thracians, Illyarians, Dacians, etc., of the Balkans had adopted Roman ways to the point where they termed themselves Roman.
There was also another difference between the British and Balkan case, in the former instance Roman influence disappeared for centuries (only to reappear via the Franks in the early 7th century), while in the latter the lines of Imperial control washed over barbarized regions many times over the centuries. In The Fall of the Roman Empire Peter Heather contends that the northern Balkans were effectively lost in the early 5th century to
barbarians as a sort of “No Man’s Land” where city-based civilization simply was untenable. But by the late 5th to 6th centuries it seems that the Empire reasserted its control and pushed secure boundaries out toward the Danube. By the year 600 almost the whole of the Balkan interior excepting Greece itself was lost to the Avars (see A History of Byzantine State & Society). The period between the collapse of Roman control of the interior and the later medieval emergence of nations which we would recognize such as the Serbs and Bulgarians is unclear and to a great extent lost to history. There were indications and references of massive Slavic migrations, though these groups were usually under the hegemony of non-Slavic groups such as the Avars and Bulgars. But as I pointed out above, the primary predictive variable of genetic change in the Balkans is geography, not language (this does not mean that language has no effect, I am simply suggesting that outsiders do not seem to have totally replaced the local population in toto).
With this general sketch in place, let’s move to the similarities. Britain, in particular the regions which became England, and the Balkans were barbarized and descended into a “Dark Age” in a classic sense (obviously I exclude the persistent arc of city-based culture which clung to the coasts and exhibited some depth in Greece in the case of the Balkans). Writing disappears. The local language is replaced (though with important exceptions in the Balkans). And Christianity also fades. The replacement of Celtic language with Anglo-Saxon dialects was so total, with so little borrowing, that the model of replacement does not seem totally implausible. Archaeologists have also uncovered extreme discontinuities in more prosaic aspects of culture such as how farmsteads are laid out. But as I said above from what I can tell the genetic data point to Anglo-Saxon input of only a minority, if a substantial one at that with local concentrations, across England. We are then faced with the possibility that the local Romano-British elites, along with the more thoroughly Celtic peasants, assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon culture (there are textual indications of the persistence of British subjects of Anglo-Saxon rulers in England into the era of the Venerable Bede, see Norman Davies’ The Isles). The genetic data indicate the same in the Balkans, though here I am less familiar with the research, and it seems much thinner than in reference to the British for social and political reasons (i.e., British people are interested in their genetic history and can fund that interest).
In The Early Slavs the author argues that the natives simply went barbarian. Though Roman civilization was predominantly peasant-based, and caught in a Malthusian trap, it was still quantitatively different in terms of its economic and social complexity from those of societies beyond the limes (see The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization). The cultural toolkit of Slavic tribes pushing into the Balkans in the wake of the collapse of Roman rule was far simpler than that which had been dominant prior to their arrival. In a localized world shorn of Roman networks of trade it may be that peasants saw in the barbarian culture something more adaptable and appropriate in light of the new structural conditions of their lives. On the margins of subsistence perhaps those who shed affiliation with what was now a distant political power fared best. The same may have been true for the Celtic peasants who lived under Anglo-Saxon rulers, and tilled the soil with Anglo-Saxon immigrants (the weregild for Celts in Anglo-Saxon Britain was less than for Anglo-Saxons, so the incentives were strong to switch if possible). We have copious data in the case of local elites who assimilate to the norms and values of their barbarian conquerors in the post-Roman states of the West (e.g., Romans of senatorial background like Cyprian, rival of Boethius, raising sons with a strongly Gothic cultural orientation), as well as the Visigothic elites conquered by Muslim Arabs & Berbers (who were at that point barbarians). But that is a function of the fact that the elites are literate, or employ those who are literate, and leave hallmarks of cultural shifts in their correspondences or actions.
This brings me to the title of the post. It is classic chestnut of wisdom that the Christian Church was the vessel which preserved elements of classical civilization for posterity through the Dark Ages. This model is tendentious, in large part because partisan Christians and anti-Christians wish to come to different conclusions, select their data, and cull their analysis, until they arrive at the inferences which they prefer. It is a dodge to admit that the issue is complex, but dodge I will. Rather, let us note that religion, and religious institutions, have been powerful forces across history. It seems rather obvious that “higher religions” have a strong cultural fitness advantage in any complex civilization. By higher religion, I refer to religious systems which combine primal religious sentiment with philosophical content as well as robust institutional organizations. Over the long term only higher religions can resist the spread of other higher religions. There are cases where non-higher religions can arrest or suspend the expansion of higher religions, but these are always temporary setbacks. Lithuania, Japan and Tibet are detailed case studies of temporary setbacks which only delayed the dominance of higher religions. Often higher religions imported from the outside stimulate the emergence of a complex literary society because of the need of a class of text oriented religious professionals to interpret the scriptures and commentaries which justify the existence of such institutions. In theory the Bible, the Koran, the Palin Canon, are causally prior to the variegated religious institutions which accumulate around them. In the model that the Roman Christian Church preserved Roman civilization the institution which arose due to the Christian scriptures as a side effect also served to maintain and perpetuate aspects of Roman culture which were not necessarily related to Christian religiosity (though naturally justifications were often presented as to why secular works were spiritually edifying or useful).
So why the inversion in my title? One cynical and obviously irreligious perspective contends that the specific belief content of higher religions is actually co-opted as a post facto rationale for organically emerging institutions which are products of complex societies. This can be approached from a religious perspective; many early Christian thinkers offered that a singular and unified political order was the ideal seedbed for a singular religion which expressed the fullness of truth (there are analogs to this sort of thinking among Buddhists when a potential chakravartin appears on the scene). The point is that higher religions seem to coexist with higher civilizations. In some cases they bring higher civilization to a lower one, and in other cases they are the products of higher civilizations (e.g., Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire, Buddhism in the early phase of Indo-Aryan literate states in the Indian subcontinent).
< br />But what if a higher civilization regresses to the state of a lower one? To some extent the collapse of the social and economic order in the Post-Roman world fits the bill, and Christianity remained a robust presence. But so did the Latin language in what became France, Spain and Italy. It is in these regions that the term “transformation” as opposed to “fall” apply the most. There was a shift away from direct taxation and toward what became feudalism, and an evolution from a civilian aristocracy into a military caste. Literacy became less prominent a feature of the cultural landscape, though it did not disappear (e.g., Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville and Boethius & Cassiodorus, the province of specialists rather than elites as a whole). But the contrast with the total collapse in what became England and the sharp reordering of the cultural landscape in the Balkans is obvious. The decline of Christianity (to the point of near total extinction in England) and the need for missionary efforts centuries after the collapse suggest to me that higher religion is not robust when higher civilization disappears.
I discount the suggestion that concerted persecution led to de-Christianization. Pagan societies and states did persecute Christians (or adherents of higher religions with foreign connections in general, such as the case with Buddhism in late Tang China), but on the whole they were more systematically tolerant of religious pluralism than civilizations where higher religions were dominant. Pagan Lithuania remained pagan for a relatively long time in part because it lay between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, and conversion to either religion would have aligned it with one of the states irrevocably (Lithuania eventually became Catholic and was absorbed into the Polish political and cultural orbit). But during the period when this state remained officially pagan large numbers of Christians were under Lithuanian rule, and at the height of the state the majority of the population was no doubt Christian, as were large numbers of Lithuanian nobles. There are many other examples which illustrate the trend whereby pagan persecution of adherents of higher religions is sporadic and situational, and not persistent, structural and systematic, so I won’t belabor the point.
What I am positing then is that the process of barbarization led not just to the discarding of language, but also of Christian religion, in both England the Balkans. In France, Spain and Italy the pagan or heretic (Arian) rulers of predominantly Catholic populations acceded to the religious sentiments of the ruled. In the Balkans and England it seems that the rulers had no such inclination, and the institutional framework of the Christian Church simply withered without the proper structural preconditions. There are cases where even Christian rulers can be paganized by their population, as seems to have occurred with Samo. Protestant critics of the depth of Catholic Christianization of illiterate peasants in Medieval Europe have already assembled a large amount of scholarship which allows us to comprehend how nominal Christians might shift their identity to that of identified pagans. The Christian priesthood was also often illiterate and quite ignorant of the details of their religion during this period (though sometimes the deviation was from the other end, an archbishop of Toulouse in the 18th century was a materialist and atheist, see The Pursuit of Glory). Here is a quote from The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914:
…While roughly a third of village schools were run by the Orthodox Church, the priests had little influence on their flock. They were themselves hardly more than peasants and were deeply ignorant; studying theology and doctrine were the domain of the robed ‘black clergy’ in the monasteries, who fulfilled no pastoral duties. Knowledge of the Christian doctrine was therefore minimal, as Maksim Gorky heard from a Kazan peasant, who said that God ‘cannot be everywhere at once, too many men hae been born fro that., But he will succeed, you see. But I can’t understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I’m concerned. There is no God and that’s enough. But there’s another! The son, they say. So what if he’s God’s son. God isn’t dead, not that I know of’
This describes late 19th century Russia, but I have read similar accounts from Prussian peasants of the 18th century who were left without a pastor for a generation because of a bureaucratic problem. These peasants’ worldviews were only recorded because there was an inquisition into their beliefs after the burial of a bull which occurred in the locality to ensure a good harvest (the peasants’ rationale was quite inchoate, but the burial of bulls was actually a custom of the Baltic peoples of that region, so I suspect the reemergence of the practice reflected folktales which had preserved fragments of the old religion). Books such as Theological Incorrectness report data that illustrate the reality that cross-culturally most lay persons exhibit religious sentiments and intuitions which are roughly the same. A tendency to “default” toward animism when philosophical religion disappears because of a lack of institutional support shouldn’t be too surprising.
With all that said, it is understandable then why higher religion goes extinct with a regression to barbarism, just as literacy, civilized arts and economies of scale go into decline. What I am contending then is that the suggestion that Christianity was responsible for the perpetuation of classical high culture is incoherent, the same level of civilizational complexity which would allow for the perpetuation of classical high culture in some form may also be necessary for the perpetuation of Christianity! What if Constantine had lost at Milvian Bridge? If you are familiar with Rodney Stark’s oeuvre then you will respond that this was irrelevant, and perhaps even counterproductive, as Christianity was a bottom-up movement with a better religious product which was inevitably going to become dominant. Looking from the year 300 I think that this is a defensible position. But years ago I read an alternative history short story which posits that Europe would be dominated by illiterate savages if Maxentius had defeated Constantine. This is fictionalization, but lays out the extreme case that but for Christianity Rome & Greece would have been lost forever. As it is, I think that this is likely wrong. Chinese civilization persisted after the collapse of the Han even though that polity did not have an organized religion like Christianity (in fact, Buddhism as a foreign religion spread after the fall of the Han and influenced indigenous religious traditions such as Daoism into competitive imitation). As a point of fact, it was the pagan Sabians of Haran who were heavily overrepresented in the translation of Greek classics in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs because the Sabians revered ancient pagan works. Haran’s paganism was a historical accident, as they were protected by the Persian Shahs from forced conversion by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. If Christianity had not become the dominant religion of the Roman world I suspect some other religious system would have become the vessel for classical culture. Higher civilization begets higher religion, or adopts higher religion.
Simple models of causality in the social or historical realm assume the unproblematic teasing apart of variables. Many anti-religionists as
sert that all evil done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. Many religionists assert that all good done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. I think both views are probably wrong. Religion may be the root of some evil and the root of some good, but I doubt it is the root of all good or evil, and I believe we tend to overestimate how much of a root it is in any specific behavior. Religious suicide bombing seems very comprehensible today, but the atheist anarchist movement of 19th century Russia also engaged in a great deal of suicidal terrorism.
The historical data I survey above tell me that there is a very easy way to destroy organized religion: destroy organization. That is what I believe occurred in Britain and the Balkans. Without scale, complexity and organization the Christian Church could not flourish. Even the bottom-up “Primitive Church” of the early Empire was likely dependent upon the structure which the Roman Empire provided. The Christianization of much of Europe after the fall of Empire was concomitant with the rise of complex polities which wished to integrate themselves into the Christian commonwealth of states, as well as the ambitions of kings who were eager to justify centralization of power into one individual with the ideology of one true religion. If globalization is here to the stay, then the global religions are here to stay. Additionally, the vast majority of the world religions all emerged in the period between 600 BC and 600 AD. We’re probably at some sort of competitive equilibrium, and without some major exogenous shock it looks like the market is saturated.