In Dark Ages, Seeds Of A Modern Economy

The Dark Ages have long been seen as a period of cultural, social and economic stagnation, but new research indicates there was actually lots of economic growth and change during that period. In fact, we have the Dark Ages to thank for the modern European economic system.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Now, we're going back to the Dark Ages to learn something about the American economy today. We often hear that America's global dominance is coming to an end, and history offers a scary model: Rome.

When Rome fell, Europe collapsed into the miserable Dark Ages. But as Chana Joffe-Walt and Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money explained, the Dark Ages might not have been so dark, economically speaking.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Do you want to know why we've all been taught that the Dark Ages were so dark? It's all about spices.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Spices can tell you a clear, quick, economic story. You walk into a spice store.

JOFFE-WALT: Like Penzeys in Grand Central Station in Manhattan.

Mr. TOM STANDAGE (Author, "An Edible History of Humanity"): So here, we see ginger from China, anise seeds from Spain, caraway seeds from Poland.

DAVIDSON: This is Tom Standage. He wrote "An Edible History of Humanity," and he says, look at this. You have spices from all over the world. Clearly, you're trading with the whole world. You're doing well.

JOFFE-WALT: Ancient Rome was like that, too. They also loved spices, maybe even more than us. They smothered their food with them.

DAVIDSON: Mm, delicious. But then it's the Dark Ages. From around 500 to around 1000 A.D., all after Rome fell, dinner was bland, and so was lunch. Spices, or at least any evidence of them, almost completely disappears.

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, if you can't see the spices, it's a question of, you know, is absence of evidence evidence of absence? And does it mean that trade really has fallen off?

DAVIDSON: Well, that's exactly the question we are trying to figure out today. So now, we have to leave the spice store. We have to go back to the studio and talk to Michael McCormick. He's a historian at Harvard who thinks he's found some alternative to spices to figure out just what was going on in the Dark Ages.

Professor MICHAEL McCORMICK (Department of History, Harvard University): Rats are fantastic. I'm talking about the black rat, Rattus rattus.

JOFFE-WALT: Rat bones. McCormick tells us rat bones are completely changing our view of the Dark Ages.

DAVIDSON: That's because if they didn't have spices, it doesn't necessarily mean that Europeans in the Dark Ages were not trading with the rest of the world. Rat bones, it seems, prove that, in fact, they were.

JOFFE-WALT: Because rats like to go where people go.

Prof. McCORMICK: They like us. They're very fond of us. They like to be close to us, or as you may have noticed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIDSON: Right. We don't like them very much, but they like us.

Prof. McCORMACK: The feeling's not mutual.

DAVIDSON: See, Rattus rattus, the black rat, is not particularly ambitious.

JOFFE-WALT: No. They won't travel more than a few hundred feet from where they're born, at least not on their own four feet.

Prof. McCORMICK: They don't mind being transported passively, especially if they're in a nice, dark, moist place with lots of grain, like the bottom of a ship.

JOFFE-WALT: So a rat is born in, say, Alexandria, Egypt, rides a trading ship to Italy, dies. And 1,500 years later, some archaeology grad student digs up its tiny little bones, and suddenly we know, someone in Egypt was trading with someone in Italy.

DAVIDSON: For centuries, we had so little information about the economy of the Dark Ages. We had almost no spices. There were so few texts having anything to do with economics. Right, Mike?

Prof. McCORMICK: Very few texts.

JOFFE-WALT: And so, all the big historians, the text books I read in college...

DAVIDSON: Yeah, same for me.

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah, they all assumed, hey, they had no spices, they weren't writing about trade. They must have been broke, isolated, sad little economies.

DAVIDSON: But then those rat bones showed there was all sorts of trade going on.

JOFFE-WALT: And not just rat bones. There's this new diving technology, and we've been finding all these shipwrecks from that period.

DAVIDSON: The Internet also new innovation has transformed scholarly collaboration.

JOFFE-WALT: There are new discoveries all the time, big ones.

Dr. KEVIN LEAHY (British Museum): Well, I got an email, and the email was headed, wow, with an incredible number of exclamation marks after it. And I nearly fell off my chair. I never, ever expected to see anything like this.

JOFFE-WALT: Kevin Leahy is from the British Museum, and he's talking about the mother of all so-you-think-you-knew-the-Dark-Ages discoveries.

DAVIDSON: You might remember this one. Just last summer, they found 1,800 gold pieces from 7th century Anglo-Saxon England. This one find is something like three times bigger than all the artifacts from that period combined.

JOFFE-WALT: And it and the rat bones and the texts all have one clear message: These early Medieval folks who we've all pitied all these years, so broke and alone, they were rich.

DAVIDSON: At least richer than we thought they were.

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. And they were doing business all over the globe.

DAVIDSON: At least the part of the globe that they knew about.

Dr. LEAHY: The Dark Ages really are misnamed.

DAVIDSON: They weren't so dark, and they weren't all that sunny, either.

JOFFE-WALT: Let's call them gray.

DAVIDSON: The Gray Ages, and let's keep looking for rat bones.

I'm Adam Davidson.

JOFFE-WALT: And I'm Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

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