Were The Dark Ages Really Dark?

“The Dark Ages still reign over all humanity, and the depth and persistence of this domination are only now becoming clear,” says Richard Buckminster Fuller in Cosmography. “This Dark Ages prison has no steel bars, chains, or locks. Instead, it is locked by misorientation and built of misinformation… We are powerfully imprisoned in these Dark Ages simply by the terms in which we have been conditioned to think.”

Have you ever considered how History’s name-tagging takes effect in perception? It is generally assumed that Modernity was the fruit of the Enlightenment and that, in turn, the Renaissance was a time of unparalleled progress for humanity. Let’s move further back.

The term ‘dark age’ has been attributed to Petrarch (1304-1374) who described his own time as one of ‘darkness’. He was later followed by the Enlightened Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon and, more recently, Bertrand Russell.

Is it truly fair to deem the Middle Ages as ‘dark’? The Western Roman Empire had succumbed to Odin’s ravens. The Spanish Inquisition of the Church was clearly evil. But, is that all the Middle Ages were?

Professor Rodney Stark, a non-Catholic sociologist from UC Berkeley, published a seemingly counterculture book called Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press, 2016), which addresses ten prevalent fallacies about Church history.

“For a long time,” he says, “the dominant opinion has been that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe went through a long millennium of ignorance that has come to be called The Dark Age. The Renaissance was brought about by a weakening of the Church’s control over the great cities of northern Italy.”

This standard vision of the past world, in Stark’s words, is completely false: there are innumerable modern investigations of technological change that show how the Middle Ages “was one of the ages of humanity that stood out for its strong innovative character, in that technology was developed and put at the service of man in a way that no civilization had known before.” And it was during these dark centuries when Europe took the great technological leap forward that put it at the forefront of the world.

Stark is not alone. French medievalist Jean Gimpel demonstrates in his book The Medieval Machine (1976 and 2003) how “the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century has its roots in the Middle Ages, which had already revolutionized the world of work for the renewal of the sources of energy and technological invention.” The tech progress of the Middle Ages allowed a remarkable growth of productivity – which had remained stagnant in the Roman Empire, due to having enough slaves to get the job done – thanks to innovations such as wind and water mills, the rotation of agricultural crops, the plow, the chimney, glass spectacles, stirrups and saddles, firearms, sailing ships armed with cannons.

In addition to completely ignoring the prolific technological changes operated in the Middle Ages, most of the Enlightenment writers also turned their backs on the progress of that time in higher culture: music, architecture, painting, literature, the university.

The exceptional artistic current initiated in Europe in the 11th century was called ‘Romanesque’ even though the works created at that time were completely different from everything the Romans had done. And the ‘Gothic’ style, born in the 12th century, was criticized by some intellectuals during the Enlightenment.

In literature, the work of Gibbon, Voltaire, Cervantes, Machiavelli, was only possible because their respective languages ​​had acquired literary form thanks to medieval giants such as Dante, Chaucer, the anonymous songs of deeds such as the Visigothic El Cantar de Mio Cid in Spain, and the monks who — from the 10th century — were dedicated to writing about the lives of their saints. In education, the university, an institution dedicated exclusively to higher education, was something new. The Benedictine Order rescued, compiled, and even preserved important and even ‘dangerous’ classical texts.

The first universities were created during the 12fth century, and it was there that science was born. From the eminent medievalist, Warren Hollister (1930-1997): “Anyone who believes that the era that witnessed the construction of Chartres Cathedral and the birth of parliament and the university was a Dark Age must be mentally retarded.”

Banking was started by the Templars, and this skill was later transferred to the Italian city-states, where it was perfected, insurance was introduced, double-entry accounting was created, etc. Such institutions — so essential to the next historical step we have been told to call ‘Renaissance’ — would migrate to Germany centuries later.

According to the prestigious Ludwig von Mises Institute, the University of Salamanca was truly the birthplace of Economic Theory. It was first officially taught by Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546), more than two hundred years before Adam Smith’s The Wealth of the Nations. There could be no neo-Platonic Academia in Firenze without La Divina Commedia, and no King Arthur or Beowulf without troubadours.

If ‘Dark Ages’ is then a ridiculous fairytale, so is the concept of Renaissance and this same evaluation should be applied to the concept of Enlightenment. This takes us to our ostensibly progressive Modern Age as the pinnacle of human achievement. If what we have been taught is someone else’s interpretation of these epochs of human history, are we now in the post-modern Era? How shall we call our time? Who will set the record straight? Will it be fair or unfair?

Knowledge is acquired information. Wisdom is applied knowledge. Values and attitudes change; but to judge human history through incorrect or biased notions make us ideologize past and, with it, the present and future.

Frank Escandell is a fiction writer, researcher, and high tech blogger. He is also a collaborator with several Spanish radio and television programs on technology, society, and culture and the co-author of I Tego Arcana Dei: El Simbolismo Secreto de Rennes-le-Château, a hard study on the origins of the strange symbolism contained in that French church.

3 thoughts on “Were The Dark Ages Really Dark?

  1. Las inquisiciones protestantes del centro y norte europa fueron más malvadas si cabe que la Española.Frank . Buen artículo.

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