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Chapter Eleven


This is the old story: whenever one sets out to discuss collapse, one ends up by talking about continuity.    —G.W. Bowersock


In the 1969 book Civilisation, companion to the BBC television series of the same name, Kenneth Clark had a chapter called "By the Skin of Our Teeth." Its premise was that western civilization was lucky to be alive. The "Dark Ages," as some have called the early Middle Ages, truly had been dark; just barely had the smoldering embers of the west's classical heritage survived to illuminate the world another day. But for the labors of a few monastic scribes, carefully copying the great works, who knows what sort of cultural backwater Europe would be now?

This theme is a hardy perennial, more recently on display in Thomas Cahill's best-selling book How the Irish Saved Civilization, in which Irish scribes were singled out for special praise. Clark and Cahill have in essence looked back to Saint Jerome's despairing question—"What is safe if Rome perishes?"—and deemed it a very good one.

In the previous chapter we found reason to consider Jerome's question alarmist. Namely: barbarians are people, too. Unlike Conan the Barbarian—whose professed aim in life was "to defeat the enemy, see him run before you, and hear the lamentations of the women"—most real-life barbarians are eager to settle down and savor the fruits of civilization: to defeat the enemy, tax him, visit his doctors, marry his daughters.

Another reason to deem Jerome a bit melodramatic is that, as historian have come to realize, the term "Dark Ages" is misleading. Even in the early Middle Ages, and especially in the later, there was creativity and vibrance.

Still, it is true that the early Middle Ages must have seemed fairly dim at the time. There was indeed a collapse in the Roman vicinity. Roads that once carried goods safely to market fell into disrepair and were beset by outlaws. Towns contracted, and farmlands were reclaimed by the wild. Mines were abandoned, and metal production dropped. Reliable coinage, especially gold, grew scarce, and people found themselves in a nearly "moneyless" economy, bartering goods or paying with their labors. Population continued to drop. The scope of government vacillated; barbarian kingdoms grew and shrank, and sometimes their "kings" had little real power anyway.

So even if barbarians aren't deeply barbaric, and even if the "Dark Ages" weren't pitch black, things did look dicey in Europe for a time. Any basic tendency of cultural evolution to carry society to higher and higher levels of complexity was not vividly apparent. So those of us who believe in such a tendency must say a few more words about the "Dark Ages." What firm dynamics of history made their end just a matter of time? Why does reconstruction reliably follow collapse and disarray?

The question is not confined to the most famous dark ages, the European ones. Chinese cohesion suffered a big setback in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., as barbarians poured in from the north. And the barbarian onslaughts at the end of the second millennium B.C. had wreaked havoc from the western Mediterranean to the Middle East. In the New World, there's the famous Mayan collapse, among others. And so on—a lengthy menu of regression to choose from.

In asking why collapses in general tend not to prove fatal, we'll focus mainly on Europe's Middle Ages. They are the best-documented example of major collapse and recovery and the most famous. They're also the most widely cited challenge to directional views of history. After all, if civilization really did survive by the skin of its teeth, then it must be pretty fragile.

There is one other reason to focus on Europe. In the "skin of our teeth" view of history, it isn't just civilization in the generic sense that was lucky to survive. Kenneth Clark might concede that, even without the monks, Europe would eventually have made leaps economically, technologically, politically. Clark's concern is more with western civilization. Would its distinctive emphases—on political liberty, for example have survived if the barbarians had permanency broken the link with classical Greece, the cradle of western freedom and democracy?

This is a subtler question, with a more tentative answer. But as we'll see, there is reason to believe that many historians overplay the role of the peculiar "heritage" of the west in shaping its modern form, and underplay the role of universal forces of history, as played out amid the quirks of medieval history.


The first step toward appreciating the inexorability of the west's resurgence in the later Middle Ages is to drain the early Middle Ages of the melodrama given them by the "skin of our teeth" view of history. And the first step in this melodrama reduction is to repeat the mantra from the last chapter: Keep your eye on the memes. In deciding whether a culture has collapsed in the first place, ask not what has happened to a particular people or a particular land; cultures can hop from person to person and place to place, leaving ruin behind yet staying healthy themselves. Well before the sacking of Rome, the Roman Empire's headquarters had been officially moved to Constantinople. There, in the eastern empire, in Byzantium, much of classical culture remained alive and well—in books, in minds, in practice--until Europe's "Dark Ages" had passed.

This is a common story with "collapses." Empty Mayan ruins are standard imagery in accounts of "lost civilizations." Seldom noted is that the Mayan collapse afflicted only part of Mayan civilization. To the north, whole cities survived, and kept Mayan culture, including its precious script, intact.

Similarly, the famous collapse of Indus valley civilization in south Asia during the second millennium B.C. is often depicted as an overnight vanishing. But people lived on and regrouped and retained key technologies—their advanced system of standardized weights, and possibly, their script; one of the area's modern-day scripts may well be a descendant of the original, the family resemblance blurred by millennia of evolution.

The second great antidote to melodrama is to remember that political maps aren't always a good guide to social complexity…


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at