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Hallo again to all.

In our history textbooks, the term 'Dark Ages' typically refers to a time in the past when people were ignorant, knowledge was rare, information was hard to come by, and suspicion was rampant. The notion of Dark Ages seems to have come from the scholars who lived just afterwards, who wanted to make sure that their readers understood that things weren't so Dark any more. Wikipedia cites a 1942 article by Theodore Mommsen in which he quotes Petrarch: 'amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius, no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom'. Sifting through the history textbooks from which we once carefully studied Western Civilization (for in those days a Proper Education didn't include much that happened East of Crimea) we get the sense that, although the writers weren't in total agreement, the Dark Ages were thought to be from about 500AD to 1000AD.

What was Dark about the Dark Ages was not light but knowledge. People didn't know what was happening in the world around them — or know much else beyond their local village world. Literary output was stagnant; very few people could read; art and culture were stagnant or fading. Or so goes our cultural notion of Dark Ages. 'They were a long time ago, and people were darkly ignorant.'

Fungus the BogeymanOut of ignorance comes fear. If your village collectively does not know anything about the people who live in the larger village across the mountain, then in time there develop legends—communal beliefs—about the Bad Things and Bad People in that unknown place. In fact, it seems to us that the greatest fear is fear of the unknown, because since it is unknown, the object of our fear exists only inside us, where it can grow boundlessly. And usually does.

In folklore, fear of the unknown is often embodied in a bogeyman. Elderly Scottish relatives of ours used to call them boggarts, and we note that in the world of Harry Potter, a boggart is a monster that assumes the form of the victim's worst fear, and likes to hide in dark places. We also note that Professor Lupin taught Harry and his friends that the way to deal with boggarts is for two or three people to gather together, so that the group has no single worst fear. Our own favourite bogeyman is Raymond Briggs' Fungus the Bogeyman, a perfect character to scare children into keeping their rooms clean and tidy.

In medical books, we note descriptions of two kinds of diabetes: Type 1, in which the victim's body does not produce enough insulin, and Type 2, in which the insulin is produced but the victim's body does not use it. In thinking about the relationship between ignorance and fear, we've thought for a while that perhaps there were two kinds of ignorance: Type 1 ignorance, in which the victim's brain does not receive enough knowledge, and Type 2 ignorance, in which the knowledge is delivered but the victim's brain does not use it. We're certain that, even in this modern world a full millennium past the end of the Dark Ages, that Type 2 ignorance has risen to meet the need for a breeding ground for bogeymen. Alas, there are generally medicines that one can take to remediate Type 2 diabetes; O that there could be a pill to control Type 2 ignorance!

Harry Potter and his chums were able to dispatch boggarts because in a small group, no two people would have the same worst fear, and the hapless boggart wouldn't know what shape to assume. Sometimes, though, there are historic fears rooted deep in a culture, so that in a group most people will be afraid of the same things. Also we fear that the much-vaunted 'improved communication' of the electronic age has provided an excellent means of teaching everyone in the village to have the same worst fears, so as to be collectively very afraid of that larger village across the mountain. When a group of two or three are gathered together but are all afraid of the same bogeyman, they will need outside help in conquering that fear. We're quite certain that most of the objects of such fear are just bogeymen, not real at all except in the victim's mind.

We know exactly where a group of two or three gathered together can get outside help to overcome fear, and we suspect that you do, too.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 9 September 2007

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