Catherine Nixey, “The darkening age” is back – and annoying scholars in five languages

A couple of years ago I came across a strange volume, seemingly designed to smear the ancient Christians.  It was authored by a recent arts graduate named Catherine Nixey, and titled “The Darkening Age”.  Some fawning reviews appeared in the mainstream press in England – presumably arranged by the publisher -, which was unfortunate as her facts were often in error.  One of the reviewers, I recall, clearly knew that it was nonsense, but equally clearly had been told by someone to give it a good review!

Marketing is part of the job of every publisher.  Even I have received such contacts!  But even so the coverage seemed remarkable. An unknown author on a marginal subject, of no interest to most people, yet such monochrome positivity.  The book itself is not worth reviewing. Such books are ten-a-penny. So it was really striking how heavily it was promoted.  It certainly made me wonder why, and by whom.  Sometimes a book indicates the start of a movement, although nothing more has appeared.

Ignorant of all this, I came across the author on twitter with a supposed “quote” from Chrysostom on which I commented in a post, Hunting the wild misquotation again.

Today I came across a thread in Dutch on twitter which revealed that her publisher has arranged for the book to be translated into five languages (!)

This has called forth a review by Dr Roland Kany from the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, which none of us will have seen, but was helpfully posted by the twitter account.  The title: “Just read how evil they are!”

I thought it might be interesting to read it, so I ran the review through OCR, and created a Word .docx file, which I’ll put here in case anyone would like to use Google Translate themselves.

There are gems in the review.

Apparently Miss Nixey thinks that damage to the frescos in the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome is clear evidence of the use of an axe by the early Christians.  Dr K. blandly suggests that perhaps she missed the work of Bryan Ward-Perkins in 2004, showing that the damage was caused by a failed conservation attempt in 1953.

Likewise Miss N. believes that no work of Porphyry has reached us: something that is news to those of us who have read his life of Plotinus, his four books on vegetarianism, and his introduction to Aristotle, a standard textbook in the middle ages.

And so it goes on.  After four columns, Dr. K. finishes:

Und so weiter . Man muss in Nixeys Buch mühsam nach Abschnitten suchen, die einer Überprüfung ohne Einschränkung standhalten. Wer sich zu Nixeys Themen seriös informieren will, sollte zu anderen Büchern greifen: Johannes Hahn über Gewalt von Christen und Heiden in der Spätantike, Wolfgang Speyer über Büchervernichtung und Zensur, Egert Pöhlmann zur Überlieferung von Texten und Peter Gemeinhardt über antikes Christentum und Bildung. Sie bieten, was Nixeys mittlerweile in fünf Sprachen übersetztem und von vielen Journalisten gefeiertem Buch abgeht: Fachkompetenz, Augenmaß, Bemühen um sachgerechte Darstellung und Kontextualisierung. Nixey dagegen lässt fort, was ihr nicht in den Kram passt, und fügt wahre, halbwahre und unzutreffende Behauptungen zu einem Konstrukt zusammen, dem nicht nur Einseitigkeit, sondern ein Übermaß an Falschheit vorzuwerfen ist.

In Nixey’s book, one has to laboriously search for sections that can withstand a review without qualification. Those who want to inform themselves on Nixey’s topics seriously, should resort to other books: Johannes Hahn on violence by Christians and Gentiles in late antiquity, Wolfgang Speyer on book destruction and censorship, Egert Pöhlmann for the transmission of texts and Peter Gemeinhardt on ancient Christianity and education. They offer what Nixey’s book, now translated into five languages ​​and celebrated by many journalists, lacks: factual competence, a sense of proportion, an effort for appropriate representation and contextualization. Nixey, on the other hand, ignores what does not fit into the junk, putting together true, half-true, and false claims into a construct that is not just one-sided, but an excessive falsehood.

Let us hope that Nixey’s book continues to be ignored by most people.

UPDATE: Revised after part of the article mysteriously vanished.  The book has vanished without trace, it seems.  The twitter link now seems to be dead, however.

UPDATE (Jan 2021): Removing some unnecessary comments.

3 thoughts on “Catherine Nixey, “The darkening age” is back – and annoying scholars in five languages

  1. How refreshing to find a review of the Darkening Age which points out what a shoddy and misleading piece of writing it is! While there is no doubt that the early Christian centuries were responsible for a large amount of destruction of the “classical heritage”, for anyone who has studied Late Antiquity Nixey’s book is journalistic sensationalism at its worst. The trouble is that it is still being sold in respectable bookshops.

    If only a proper scholar would write an up to date account of the cultural transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Happily, the Christians were nothing like a as philistinic and destructive as Nixey describes- otherwise we would have even fewer vestiges of Greco-Roman civilisation and certainly fewer of their books (which were carefully preserved by Christian monks…)

  2. I think that the book was generally panned by those who knew the subject, although I have not drawn up a list!

    Nigel Wilson in “Scholars of Byzantium” and “From Byzantium to Italy” has covered some of this ground. But it would be good to have a proper survey, I agree.

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