Puncturing Declension Narratives

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Elena.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on February 8, 2016.

Last week Homeschoolers Anonymous posted this photo, “an actual graph Reb Bradley created for his mental health curriculum.” You can see it here:

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So you know what’s strange? A lot of Protestants argue that before the Protestant Reformation, most people were duped by the Catholic Church into believing they could work their way to heaven. These individuals weren’t really saved and weren’t really following the Bible, the argument goes, and the priests and monks—the ones who did read the Bible—were corrupt wolves who took advantage of the people. I’m wondering how this sort of chronology—which I imagine Bradley himself holds, given his other writings—squares with the graph in the image above.

There’s something else I find most people don’t know. During the middle ages, most Europeans were much more pagan and much less Christian than people today realize. People used charms, spells, and old folklore and ideas that the Catholic Church had never been able to fully root out, and that Protestant Reformers weren’t able to root out either. In fact, some historians have argued that early European settlers to the U.S. were more pagan than they were Christian, and more apathetic than they were churchgoers, and that it took until the mid-1800s for the American people to be fully “Christianized.” In other words, the idea that people before the mid-1800s were “relying strictly on the Bible for wisdom for life” is utter bullshit.

As for the idea that children were obedient before the mid-1800s, I’d say two things. First, there were disobedient children. Anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet knows that. It was also wasn’t that uncommon for children to run away from home during adolescence. But second, before the mid-1800s it was both legal and socially acceptable to beat one’s children if they didn’t obey. In fact, child abuse was not recognized as a thing until the mid-1800s. It’s not that it didn’t happen—it did—it’s just that before this, it was considered normative. So maybe we can stop saying how awesome it was back then, because children obeyed their parents in fear of a beating?

As for the divorce rate, it’s worth noting during the middle ages priests struggled a great deal to prevent spousal desertion and bigamy, things that did happen and were in fact surprisingly common. Many people practiced “common law” marriages, and the church was often hard put as to how to regulate marriage. I mean gracious, priests spent centuries working to eliminate concubinage, and initially allowed it (provided a man did not also have a wife) because of its prevalence. Similarly, the church was so concerned by the amount of sex taking place outside of wedlock that they ultimately decided that a verbal promise to marry at some point in the future (no witnesses required), when followed by sexual intercourse, instantaneously created a binding marriage. That in itself created problems, because there were plenty of cases where a pregnant woman a man had promised to marry her before they had sex, and he said he hadn’t—in those cases, the courts had to figure out whether or not the couple was already married. This didn’t change until the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s.

In other words, marriage and sexual relations during the middle ages were complicated, and the church didn’t have near as firm a grasp on the issue as people like Bradley appear to think. Domestic violence or other disturbances were common, and in some cases wife-beating was legally sanctioned. Even where divorce was banned, and couples were typically allowed to legally separate if they did not remarry, and they could also seek annulments in some circumstances. In many cases couples simply moved out and moved in with new partners, the church be damned. In a way, the middle ages is the story of the Catholic Church attempting to control and regulate an unruly mass of people who were more interested in simply living their lives than in following a list of rules.

The suicide rate is a bit more difficult to speak to, as statistics are nearly impossible to find. We do know, however, that murder rates were extraordinarily high, and that the common people consumed alcohol in rates that would be considered excessive to the extreme today. And that’s not even touching child mortality.

History is complicated, and fascinating, and profoundly messy. The narrative Reb Bradley tells in his graph above could hardly be more ahistorical. The same is true about just about every declension narrative I hear today. Did you know that one study of marriage and birth records in the colonial Americans found that one in three women who married was pregnant at the altar? Listening to conservatives, you’d think having sex before marriage was just invented yesterday. For their part, narratives about increasing crime rates after removing prayer from school ignore the reality that crime rates today are at a historical low. I am extremely skeptical of declension narratives as a genre, because history isn’t this simple, one-dimensional story just waiting to be plugged into your talking point. This shit’s complicated.

9 comments

  • Thanks for this excellent denunciation of sacred cows. As one Brit wrote in the 1770’s: “It seems those braying loudly for freedom are themselves owners of slaves.”

    But “fundamentalists” praising the Good Old Days will always be with us – despite all the evidence of human progress. As Auden mocked Sartre: “Existentialists declare/That everywhere there is despair/Yet keep on writing.”

    Bro. Mordecai in Vancouver

    • Loura Shares A Story

      Do you know what is goofy? There is actually a Bible verse that says not to talk about the “good ‘ol days”. Ecclesiastes 7:10, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I think the term is “Decline Narrative”, not “Declension Narrative”.

    And Decline Narratives have a dark side as the First Axiom of a Grievance Culture obsessed with restoring The Perfect Past when We were On Top and Everything Was Perfect.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Just I’ve always heard the term “Decline Narrative” used.
      And encountered “Declension” only in a linguistic/semantic context.

  • Pingback: 12 February 2016 Religion and Atheism News | Evangelically Atheist

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Bradley’s graph (everything OK until ZANG!) also reminds me of another decline/declension narrative graph:
    The one plugging “Anthropic Climate Change”, i.e. Global Warming(!) some 5-10 years ago.

  • Loura Shares A Story

    “history isn’t this simple, one-dimensional story just waiting to be plugged into your talking point.” Amen!!

  • “Listening to conservatives, you’d think having sex before marriage was just invented yesterday.” Hahaha, yup.

    This post is amazing.

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