The myth of the “Dark Ages”

Even the best storycrafter shapes a tale after his or her own likeness, and yet, stories have a way of getting away from us and shaping us in return. The most powerful of these stories become cultural myths, broad-sweeping metanarratives that reinterpret reality through a particular lens. Such myths may point to a deeper truth, but all too often they are mere self-justifying lies. When someone questions the veracity of the myth, the common response is, “Well, everyone knows it’s true.” Who, after all, is “everyone”? No one in particular. When everyone and no one says it is true, then “truth” becomes a mere abstract principal of authority that need not be bothered with such troublesome things as facts.

Certainly such myths haunt religion and cause the empirical scientist to roll his eyes. As we shall see, however, the most well-entrenched myths haunt science just as well.

One in particular is the myth of the “Dark Ages,” the idea that the medieval period of European history was a particularly grim, ignorant, unscientific, and overall backward period of history that can serve as a clear and terrifying example of a world without rational, empirical thought. When the world is ruled by superstition and religious authorities, it becomes unjust and barbarous, and the vast majority of people live in squalor.

This story is so thrilling, so juicy, that it forms our very imaginations. Our fantasy worlds tend to be filled with inquisitions and ignorant religious authorities. This myth also serves a stern warning of what could happen again, and many authors imagine dystopian theocratic futures that represent Dark Ages of new and perhaps even more terrifying varieties.
There is just one little problem with this story: it’s not true, even in the slightest. Of course there was ignorance and anti-scientific thinking in the middle ages, but we have those with us still today. When we look at the claims of the “Dark Ages” myth at face value, they quickly fall apart.

1. Was the middle ages a period of intellectual stagnation? No, rather it was a period of significant intellectual accelleration. It’s true that new inventions and ideas took a long time to develop in the middle ages, but they actually took much, much longer in ancient times. Keep in mind that humans may have begun riding horses as early as 4000 BC, but it took about 4200 years to invent a reliable stirrup.1 Today we are used to new innovations from year to year, but technology moved much more slowly in the past. Some reasons for this include limited communication and limited funding for merely theoretical projects.

2. Did the later middle ages merely rediscover inventions that had already been perfected by the Greeks or Romans? There are limited cases of such rediscovery, but this hardly forms the story of medieval invention. Most importantly, the loss of technology had nothing to do with religious or anti-technological sentiment, but merely the decay of infrastructure caused by the inevitable decline of the Roman empire. In fact, it’s not uncommon for an apparent rediscovery to have happened in the monastery.

3. Did the Catholic Church prevent intellectual, scientific development? No, in fact, the Church is largely responsible for preserving such development. The Church’s need for hierarchy sustained a need for education even when the needs of the time often made study relatively impractical. This accellerated dramatically with the rise of European universities–founded for training priests, of course–and then after the Reformation with the rise of seminaries. According to tradition, theological education was to be preceded by mathematical, philosophical, and even scientific education. Although the science of the time was more philosophical than empirical, it still helped in the development of new ideas. Similarly, the Church dramatically accellerated developments in art and architecture, precisely because the Church was able to generate money for such projects through the building and decoration of churches.

4. Did the Catholic Church persecute new scientific ideas? For the most part, no. The Galileo affair tends to color people’s view, but the Galileo affair was very late. During the Reformation, the Church became more defensive, and Galileo was bent on challenging its authority. In the end, Galileo was not tortured or burnt but merely put under house arrest. During the earlier middle ages, the dominance of Catholic thinking meant that people tended to assume that science and religion were completely compatible. Because of this, even one generation earlier, Copernicus was not persecuted for his heliocentric view.

5. Did medieval Europe merely borrow innovations from Arabia and China? Many key inventions were influenced by cultural borrowing, but that should not sully the image of medieval Europe. Borrowing is a major part of innovation even today; the computer, for example, has benefited dramatically for different international contributions. In many cases, Europeans improved upon or found new uses for things that were discovered in China, such as gunpowder. Cannons were already in common use in Europe in the thirteenth century. Much of the accelerated innovation of that period, in fact, may have been due to the borrowing that occurred through the crusades. Notable technological improvements in Europe also occurred in wind and water mills.

From a fresco by Tommaso da Modena ca. 1350; © Interfoto/Alamy

6. Did no new inventions come out of medieval Europe? No, lots of things came out of medieval Europe. In many cases it is not entirely clear whether Europe developed these things independently or else was influenced by other regions. Nevertheless, Europe is largely credited for the hourglass, the mechanical clock, oil paint, and significant architectural advancements. Medieval Europeans improved the design of arches until they were able to build gigantic basilicas with huge indoor spaces and minimal columns. Gothic architecture perfected this using flying buttresses and maximizing window space.

Illumination from Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 15th c.; photo from R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

7. Is the middle ages “dark” in the sense of historically obscure? Not at all. This is the classic fallback position whenever the myth of the “dark ages” is debunked. People claim that “dark ages” is really just a technical term for a period of lesser historical clarity. Such a period is dark in the sense of obscure; we know less about it than about other ages. The middle ages, however, are extremely well documented and hardly obscure at all. In fact, while the middle ages is full of hagiography and fabulous histories, it’s also the period where a fact-based approach to history starts to take hold. This does not guarantee perfect accuracy nor a complete separation of history from myth, but it does mean that the middle ages are anything but obscure. (Take for example Geoffroi de Villehardouin’s fascinating first-hand account of the Fourth Crusade.)


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