Today, a first step away from the Dark Ages. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We're in Poitiers, in
central France, in front of a 7th-century
baptistery. This little stone church is only a dim
memory of Roman architecture. Its arches, pillars,
and lintels are only decorations built into the
walls. Their original structural purpose has been
lost. What does it mean?
You and I were raised on the idea that a Dark Age
lay between the Roman Empire and a new European
civilization. Now historians say Medieval Europe
wasn't nearly so dark. From the 10th to the14th
centuries, civilization underwent a rebirth. But
earlier -- in the near wake of Rome -- things
really were pretty bad. As the Roman empire closed
down, her northern reaches faded back into the
An old Anglo-Saxon poet looks at remains of the old
Roman glory. He looks at husks of once great
buildings and says,
So, for a while, Northern Europe barely
subsisted. Marauding Vikings and nomads swept across
it. Primitive peasants lived in mud huts. They looked
at those great ruins like so many dinosaur bones.
A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall
When all this world's wealth standeth waste
Even as now, in many places over the earth,
Walls stand wind beaten,
Heavy with hoar frost; ruined habitations ...
The maker of men has so marred this dwelling
That human laughter is not heard about it
And idle stand these old giant works.
Many of the great Roman aqueducts, ampitheatres,
and arches still stand. But they made little sense
to people for whom life was a brief exercise in
survival. Rome had built all that on the backs of
slaves. One thing we can give the Northern European
peasants is that they were not slave-keepers. They
would need a power source before they'd ever rise
above mere subsistence.
Eighth-century France finally began giving us new
power sources. First, farmers learned to use
horses. Then they gained full control of water
power. After that, they too started building a
civilization -- one that would soon surpass Rome.
But now we stand in Poitiers, looking at this crude
building -- begun in the 5th century and remodeled
in the 7th. It is a valiant attempt to start a new
life with grace and beauty in it. Like the old
Roman structures, it was meant for posterity. And
it does still stand today.
But they hadn't got the hang of it -- not yet. Five
hundred years later they'd build Gothic cathedrals
and more. But we gaze at this pretentious little
church -- this determined attempt to leave the
forest. And it speaks a bold, roughhewn grandeur of
the inventive spirit that I find more moving than
Notre Dame -- or the great coliseums.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds