One of my favorite information revolutions is the Fall of Rome and how that changed almost everything in history and continues to have impact today:
Agreed: “The cultural heart of the Roman Empire was the East and not its poorer Western counterpart.” And especially, “Inquiry in the sciences thrived and the Islamic world built upon the cultural inheritance of the Greeks to produce its own advances.”
So why was it true that “By the end of the Middle Ages Western Europe – for better and for worse – had not just recovered from the fall of Rome but was well on the path to world domination.”
The tripartite elite
The standard governing structure of the Roman Empire, and for much of the world up to and including the present day, was a tripartite elite consisting of the executive (king, Tsar, emperor, pharaoh etc), the military (with its control of violence interior and exterior), and the priesthood (with its control of information, myth, and salvation). At one time or another one or another of the arms was dominant but together they all kept the people suppressed through their control of sanctioned violence, taxation, and information.
The fall of Rome changed it all.
Much was lost with the fall of Rome, though the common folk, freed from the burden of taxation, were better fed, and lived longer.
At first the upper classes tried to maintain the Roman was of life but over time the former Roman Empire became more and more ‘barbarian’ and more and more local. Literacy declined amongst the elite classes. The use of money declined in favor of barter, and payment in goods and labor. Roads were no longer maintained by any central authority, travel became dangerous so long distance trade declined. Churchmen were hired by small secular courts to attend to the spiritual welfare of the court and act as scribes. By the eighth century there were few traces of Rome in the provincial capitals or the manors.
Literacy was left to the Church.
Financially, the Church was independent because it had the right to tax the populace directly through tithes. It didn’t need political or military authority. The combination of economic independence and learning broke the link between the control of information and the secular power structure – information was freed from the tripartite elite.
For example, if a weaver made more from his labor or if the weaver’s shop made more because it used a new technology, the Church was a beneficiary. So the Church had a vested interest in encouraging commerce, and encouraging innovation to create an increase in wealth. Monasteries and abbeys acted the way an agricultural extension services do today – carry out experiments and pass the results along to the populace.
This changed the way people in the West viewed learning – it was no longer the sole prerogative of the upper classes and scholars supported by the governing powers. It was something that ordinary people could use to make themselves a better life.
This world view meant that by the time the press was introduced it produced books for purchase that were used to enhance the learning of the common folk.
This is contrary to what happened when it was invented in the East where it was given to the Emperor (China) or King (Korea) and used solely for the benefit of the governing classes; it didn’t enhance the learning of the common folk.
That capitalism was invented in the Protestant countries is not because of the Protestant work ethic, it is because the press was suppressed in the Roman Catholic countries; common folk had more access to learning in Protestant countries and so learned, innovated, and prospered.
But that’s another story.
The key to the wealth of the West was the liberation of information and it was due to the Medieval Catholic Church.
For more see: Hunter/Gatherers to Digital Natives: Six Information Revbolutions: