Wednesday, April 1, 2015

“Primitive” Ancients

The news is all over the Interwebs this week that an early Anglo-Saxon remedy found in a medieval codex produces a remedy for current antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria like MRSA.

Medieval garlic and bile potion kills MRSA superbug (CBS)

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Are No Match For Medieval Potion (Popular Science)

1,000-year-old onion and garlic eye remedy kills MRSA (BBC)

By golly!

For a long time I’ve been suspicious of the narrative that ancient science and technology were so “primitive,” and that knowledge only began with the Industrial Revolution. I further question the idea that “science” was an invention of the seventeenth century and beyond. Institutionalized science in the service of profit and empire maybe, but humans have been observing the natural world and acting on that knowledge for our entire history as a species. It is key to our survival; it didn’t suddenly begin in the 1600’s with Francis Bacon.

Cave-dwelling humans put the needles of sedges in their bedding. These needles were known to ward off insect pests. This was over 70,000 years ago!

Nubians drank medicinal beer laced with antibiotics in the Ancient Egyptian period.

The antimicrobial properties of metals have been known since ancient times.

The Romans had concrete stronger and more durable (and more environmentally friendly) than that of today. They also used nanotechnology. There is evidence of mass production of weapons, and complexes like Barbegal harnessed the motive power of water.

The Iron Pillar of Asoka has managed to not rust for several thousand years. Compare that to railroad bridges only a hundred years old in the Midwest today.

The Arsenal of Venice was doing mass production long before Henry Ford, churning out a warship every few days at its peak.

Of course there is the Antikythera mechanism. (see here)

I’m sure there are many, many more examples of ancient knowledge and technology that we know of, and many others that have been lost permanently or are still waiting to be discovered like the Anglo-Saxon remedy.

Anglo-Saxon antibiotics are just the start – it’s time to start bioprospecting in the past (Guradian). I didn't know that the penicillin was discovered back in the 1870's

But why the demonization of the past, especially the European Middle Ages?

I suspect it is part of the concerted effort to demonize the past and inflate the present era. By lumping all of humanity’s past into an undifferentiated quagmire of suffering and misery, it allows the apostles of progress to shut down any criticism of the modern industrial era. By downplaying the technical achievements, folk knowledge and living standards of the past, you can more easily elevate the present social arrangement and argue that our era is “the best time to be alive in all of history, ever!!!”. How often, when the conversation turns to earlier periods in history, does some wag insist that everyone before the Industrial Revolution lived in abject poverty, misery, and ignorance, irrespective of time or place? This is always used to shout down anyone who criticizes our era where most people are institutionalized from birth, and spend every waking moment living and dying by the clock and scrambling for dollars, with all the freedom and agency of feedlot cattle.

In order to depict modernity as the Great Leap forward, the past must be demonized.

The Medieval period was demonized by a single historian – Jacob Burkhardt, who contrasted the Renaissance with the backwardness of the Middle Ages. If your belief is that classical art and architecture alone is the measure of goodness, then that might hold up (Burkhardt was an art historian). But recent scholarship has shown that much of the medieval period was marked by high living standards, considerable surplus, many small innovations, rich local economies, artisanship, abundant leisure, and relative peace and autonomy for most people. Yet Burkhardt’s demonization so dominated historical scholarship that it is still the conventional wisdom even today.

It turns out that people did not throw garbage out of windows:
People in the Middle Ages were no less sensitive to foul odors or disgusted by human waste than we are. They also did not understand exactly how human waste could spread disease, but they knew it did—they just thought it was something to do with its odors. So medieval towns and cities actually had a lot of ordinances and laws to do with waste disposal, latrines, and toilets. In medieval London, for example, people were responsible for the upkeep and cleanliness of the street outside their houses. The fines that could be imposed on them if they didn't do this could be extremely onerous. One account talks of an outraged mob badly beating a stranger who littered their street with the skin of a smoked fish, since they didn't want to have to pay the heavy fine for his laziness. In an environment like that, people are hardly going to be dumping buckets of excrement out of their windows.
How Did People in the Middle Ages Get Rid of Human Waste? (Slate)

Nor did they have to drink beer because the water was too filthy:
The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no reason to document or defend it; they simply repeat it as a settled truth. In fact, if no one ever documents the idea, it is for a very simple reason: it's not true. Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it. In Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby write: "The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine." Steven Solomon's Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization examines uses of water, including for drinking, going back to Sumeria.
The great Medieval water myth (Les Leftovers)

In fact, medieval Britons were twice as wealthy aspeople in poor nations today, and had far more days off:
“Even in backward mining communities, as late as the sixteenth century more than half the recorded days were holidays; while for Europe as a whole, the total number of holidays, including Sunday, came to 189, a number even greater than those enjoyed by Imperial Rome. Nothing more clearly indicates a surplus of food and human energy, if not material goods. Modern labor-saving devices have as yet done no better.”
As Lewis Mumford points out, sanitation problems are a function of overcrowding and overpopulation, and the medieval world had too few people for that. Its cities were not very big or dense, and most people lived in the countryside anyway. It was, he says, the early modern period, and later early industrialism, where the images of people living in filth is far more accurate because of rapid population growth and urban migration. Mumford also points out that public bathhouses and hospitals (originally shelter for anyone without permanent dwellings, hence hospitality) were far more common in the medieval period than later. There was actually more cleanliness and less homelessness in the Middle Ages than in later periods in Europe.
Let us depart, to begin with, from the notion that the period from the tenth to the sixteenth century was a compound of ignorance, filth, brutality, and superstition; for such a description does not altogether fit the life of Europe as a whole even during the worst parts of the Dark Ages, which still felt the civilizing influences of Celtic monasticism and the resolute order and economy of Charles the Great. This view of the Middle Ages is partly a product of the eighteenth century "Gothic Romances," with their lurid pictures of torture chambers, cobwebs, mystery, and madness. No doubt such elements existed; but they no more characterized the civilization as a whole than the existence of armed gangsters and organized rackets and fascist pirates entirely characterizes our present civilization. One must not magnify the black spots in the past nor minimize those in our own day.
Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p.13

Maybe we have other things to learn from the ancients, too:  What did the Romans ever do for us? They left a warning about the virtual water trade (Raw Story)
The Romans developed networks of trade and food supply that enabled them to escape local water constraints, in a way that is explained in a new study in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. Fertile regions such as southern Spain or Italy’s Po valley would grow lots of food and ship it back to Rome or to the drier outposts of the Empire.

Embedded within this is a what geographers call a virtual water trade – an indirect way of shifting this precious resource from wetter, less populated areas to those regions with more people or a less consistent climate.

The paper’s primary author, Brian Dermody at the University of Utrecht, suggests this sophisticated water economy ultimately contributed to its own downfall as it enabled urban populations to boom beyond sustainable levels.

Does this sound uncomfortably familiar? In the next 30 years we are facing a critical combination of inter-related stresses on the core resources that keep our civilisation running. As it happens, the Romans gave us a word for that too – the “food-water-energy nexus” (from the Latin nectere, to bind together).


  1. Great work again. Here is a companion to your piece.

    Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today's

  2. Your post was linked to in the strange subreddit /r/DarkEnlightenment.


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