The Myth of the “Dark Ages” – Discovering Christian Heritage

Introduction

Over the past year I have begun reading a range of historical, sociological, and philosophy books on Christianity. I have read nine books on these topics mostly relating to history. This has lead to placing about twice as many books on my amazon.com wish list that I now wish to continue researching. However, there has been one major issue that has intrigued me in my reading. That is the period from 500-1,500 AD known still by many as the “Dark Ages”. Although most honest and respectable Historians will not use the term any more because its just nonsense, and they know it. Most are unfortunately aware of what is meant by “the dark ages”.

That after the fall of the “glorious” Greek and Roman world Europe was plunged into 1,000 years of “the dark ages” brought about by ignorant Christians until the rediscovery of Classical Literature and learning brought on by the hero’s of the “Enlightenment, and Renaissance”, men such as Voltaire and Gibbons.

However, the 1,000 years stretching from the fall of Rome to the Reformation of the Church was not an era of Christian Ignorance in Europe. It was neither entirely ignorant nor entirely Christian. It was also no shame to see Rome fall, for Europe, though no longer unified under the suffocating grip of the Empire, was free to gain immense wealth through creative innovations, and it was most often the church who lead the way in such endeavors.

A good kind of Asceticism.

The early monastic communities lead a secluded life, reject the pleasures or the consumer world. Often times to extreme lengths to inflict unnecessary pain on themselves, thus proving their devotion to God. This aspect is not what I wish to highlight. If it was all that monastic communities were known for I would not bother mentioning them. But they had a much greater impact on the history of Christianity and the Western World as a whole.

Monastic “asceticism” also lead to a high value on work, or a strong work ethic. For them it was an ethic, it was a value, a discipline. This is where their “asceticism” can not accurately be considered as asceticism at all. It was a unity. An understanding that spiritual maturity could be seen in the work ethic of the monk. This was Saint Benedict’s own words concerning the issue;

“idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as prayerful reading… when they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and apostles did, then they are really monks”.

Out of the early monastic community comes the first record of effective Capitalism. When wealth is not despised, but the consumer attitude and the ‘love of money’ is not prevalent, these early communities reinvested in those with similar notions of labor dignity. There own theological position changed, with prayerful reading and study, to becoming small investment firms that valued hard work over accumulating wealth for worldly pleasures.

Such market freedom was not possible under the Roman Caesars nor the Republic. Roman roads did not lead to Free Markets or creative innovations. Roman roads acted for the empire as an easier way to move about their armies returning with sacked goods from invaded lands benefited only by the elite in Rome. The Fall of Rome benefited everyone in Europe but an elite ruling cast of the Empires most privileged.

Romes Moral Grip 

Something often overlooked are the moral progressions moving away from the fall of Rome, and the dissipating of Greek Philosophy and its grip on cultured Greeks. For one, much of Europe was no longer Greek at all but German. Two, we shall take a look at the nature of what is often Romanticized and not addressed honestly as seriously lacking in ethics modern minds would even agree with. Again, it was no tragedy here to see the culture of Roman and Greek learning moving to the background.

Two issues often overlooked are views concerning women and slavery. There is plenty of praise for Plato, and Aristotle for being some of the greatest philosophers of all time. Yet both were slave owners and their philosophy justified these actions. Slavery has been a universal issue accepted by even the most primitive people groups. However, Christianity rejected human bondage more than once in the “Dark Ages” alone. Possibly the first know elimination of sanctioned slavery was not brought on during the “Enlightenment or Renaissance” but smack in the middle of the “Dark Ages”.

It was clever church leaders who first, extended sacraments to all slaves. Eventually priests began urging Christians to free their slaves if they had become Christians. Eventually the issue of intermarriage came along, and despite this being against most laws there is evidence of mixed unions between slave and free. In 649 Clovis II, King of the Franks, married his British slave Bathilda. Then the King dies Bathilda ruled until her son cam of age. Bathilde used her position to halt the slave trade and buy back the enslaved. Upon her death the Church acknowledge her as a saint. Then in the 8th Century Charlemagne opposed slavery along with the Pope and many other voices of clergy. Bishop Agobard, 9th Century;

“All men are brothers, all invoke one same Father, God: the slave and the master, the poor man and the rich man, the ignorant and the learned, the weak and the strong… none has been raised above the other… there is no… slave or free, but in all things and always there is only Christ.”

Again, in the 11th century St. Wulfstan, and St. Anselm successfully campaigned to bring an end to the last grips of slavery in Christian Lands. The slavery reappears no true Christians doubted that slavery in itself is against divine law. I have chosen these examples out of many throughout Christian history because again the “Dark Ages” is not only a fictional period but the idea that Christianity being the reason for the ‘darkness’ is nonsense.

Not to go in-depth but, slaves and potential slaves were guarded by the innovations and technologies created during this great time of progress. Water mills, wind mills, damns and agricultural innovations revolutionized trade and commerce throughout Europe. The earliest of such innovations were developed out of monastic communities by Christian monks.

In regard to women it’s not actually a stretch for anyone to try to find the prevalent views among Greek philosophy and the nature of the role of women in Greek culture. But what people often don’t know is the many benefits for women among Christian circles. They are astronomical. Truly. Even from infancy; women in Greek and Roman culture were far more likely the those born into Christian families to be discarded altogether. This was common and legal. There were many wealthy women in Greek culture, however they remained subject to laws that kept them out of the political and social arena -they had little to no public influence and were still view as less than men and no greater than slaves. Christian communities from the time of Christ welcomed women, even those who were outcasts, and many influential women in the Gospels and Acts are seen in support of the work of the church and hosting apostles and services in their homes. Paul’s views on women are the subject of a lot of scrutiny but are rarely looked at in light of Greek and Jewish culture. When you take another look it’s not to difficult to see that Paul’s views are progressive though not in the way of leaps and bounds. Women were appointed apostles, and taught in the early church, and in some churches Paul requires that as there are many women in church, that they refrain from asking questions in church but wait until they are home to be further educated. It was not common for Greek women to be educated let alone by their husbands.

One final fact about Christian communities the differed from Greek and Roman customs was the marriageable age. Simply put, in Greek culture and most ancient cultures daughters marriages were arranged often before puberty and young girls would often be subject to the worst atrocities at young ages forever ruining their sex life and possibly their ability to actually bear children. This resulted in very low fertility rates in Greek and Roman times. This was due to the desire to be sure that your bride was a true virgin. Among Christian communities the fertility rates were extremely high in comparison, simply due to older aged brides. Women enjoyed benefited immensely from being Christian for these reasons and more. Life was better for women whose fathers and husbands were Christians and children benefited from Christian parents.

Rome Losses its Mind

Had the great minds of the Greek and Roman world continued to pursue knowledge that would have been one thing. Greek thinking came about as close as it can get to mans discovery of ultimate meaning and truth. The climax of Greek thinking was perhaps their grasping of the idea of the “Logos”. An ultimate power behind everything, sustaining all things, essentially they nailed it on the head. However, Greek philosophers had grown tired of the use of logic, and reason. It had been cheapened by the political system of the day. Politics defended their agendas with the use of greater rhetoric and logical arguments. This giving birth to Skeptic Philosophy regarding the use of logic and reason. How is logic and a better rhetoric intrinsic to reality? And thus the skeptics were able to create this intellectual climate in which rationalism was now suspect to doubt, and dissatisfaction, and allowing the claim that real knowledge comes independent of reason. Again, they were so close they simply lacked the answer only God could reveal, Logos Incarnate.

That said, it was no tragedy to see Rome fall, and Europe was not plunged into an era of ignorance. There was no plunge into the so-called “Dark Ages”.

Enlightenment and Renaissance started in “The Dark Ages”

So the story goes, that once the fall of Popes from political influence held for centuries during the “Dark Ages” Europe was free at last to think again, to express themselves again, and to explore reason and science. That art, Literature, education, music, and science was to finally pick back up following were the Greeks had left off. That’s the story. But its all a lie.

Were Greek thinking climaxed and crashed Christian communities which developed in 5th Century continued to explore reason, logic, literature, education, and yes -Science. For now what I want to lay out is how the “Dark Ages” found freedom of expression to develop new music, art, and architecture.

900 AD saw the publishing of the first known Polyphony; the sounding of two or more musical lines to create harmonies. The 10th Century saw the development of a system of musical notation. Now music could be recorded and reproduced by someone who had never heard the song before, so long as he could learn to read the note and was skilled.

goth

As for art, here is a building from what was a poorly named period called “Romanesque”. An expression in art, sculpture, and architecture that was beyond what most Roman artists would understand, for sure.  During the Enlightenment and Renaissance period, art and architecture was criticized for not conforming to standards of Classical Greece and Rome. However, the middle ages also saw the expressions of Christian aspiration in the Cathedrals build by the Goths. Still standing today they are a reminder that during this era there was a great eagerness to express the thoughts and aspirations of men.

pagan-philosophers

13th Century artist Van Eyck was the first to use Oil Paint and put their work on stretched canvas rather than on wood or plaster. Thus allowing the painter to take his time and use brushes with great detail not worrying about the paint drying to fast.

Finally the church is often rightly criticized for not working to translate the great works of classic antiquities or even the bible itself out of Latin into the common language of the people, and thus educate the masses. However, the monastic communities were open to those who would send their children to such orders, and open for learning. But what of literature? The great writers and proponents of the Enlightenment; Gibbons wrote in English, Voltaire wrote in French, Cervantes in Spanish, and Machiavelli and Da Vinci in Italian. It was possible for these men to eloquently, yet falsely write concerning the “Dark Ages” and woes of Christendom because these languages had been given their form by medieval giants such as Dante, Chaucer, and nameless other monks beginning as early as the 9th Century. So much for the illiteracy and ignorance of the “Dark Ages”.

The monastic communities may not be the best model of education. They were however a formal education that involved prayer, study, and work. The need for a better form arose and Christians were the first to create the University in Europe. It was very much unlike the Chinese Institutions previously in existence. The Universities in Europe were not merely concerned with teaching the received wisdom. There concern and popularity was gained by innovation. The pursuit among university professors known as the ‘Scholastic” was knowledge, and knowledge that is meaningful gives way to remarkable results that make Christian university great. The worlds first two universities were started by Catholic scholars in Paris and Bologna in about 1160. Forty years later, Oxford and Cambridge, and by the end of the 13th Century an other 20 universities. Again, they became popular because of innovation. One of, if not thee greatest achievement of universities was the Scientific Revolution. Or I like to call it a revelation.

Science

Critical Revelation was required for societies to develop actual Science. Not that it was the only factor but there were many other cultures that could have developed science but were lacking a certain element of revelation for the task. China, Greece, and Islam were perhaps the closest of all other cultures to come close. The Chinese could have long before Christians or Greece.

Perhaps the overarching reason that neither China nor Greece reached an actual system of Science is because just as small gods do not create a universe, neither do impersonal essences or principles. Greece had a system of small gods, limited in power that they actually believed were the forces behind the physical world but their gods were an incoherent group that lacked the unity needed to even begin to comprehend the world around us. And the potential of Science falls flat on its face. And so it is with China, their god is an impersonal essence and universal principle. While there is received wisdom the universe has always been and will always be and is without natural laws that we can comprehend in physical terms. And again, Science is dead before it begins.

The truly most interesting case is that of a possible Islamic Science. It never happened. But they came very close as well. It is true that Muslim Intellectuals collected some classical manuscripts. However, their own “enlightenment” reached by the discovery of Classical Philosophy was detrimental to the potential of science rather than what some wrongly consider a tribute to Islamic Science.  The Devout Muslim historian Caesar E. Farah writes;

“The early Muslim thinkers took up Philosophy where the Greeks left off…Thus in Aristotle Muslim thinkers found the great guide; to them he became the “first teacher.”     Having accepted this a priori, Muslim philosophy as it evolved in subsequent centuries merely chose to continue in this vein and to enlarge Aristotle rather than to innovate.”

Here is one mistake. Aristotle was wrong about most of his philosophical theories and was not a scientist. In order to be a scientist you need to do science. Science involves theory and philosophy but is a system and brotherhood of accountability proving or disproving theories that help explain life in physical terms.

And what of their religion. Wouldn’t Islam have the necessary God to underwrite the rise of science? No. Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but has been conceived of as an active God, intruding regularly on the world as he deems it appropriate. Consequently in Islam arose theological problems which condemned scientific efforts to determine natural laws. This may lead to man determining that there are ways in which God is limited. Christianity was only different from Islam in this way because although God has been understood in the same way. The Christians, such as Rene Descartes (1596-1605) justified his attempts to determine natural laws on the interpretation that God is perfect and acts in a manner consistent with his Creation. (This is not to say that God can not perform miracles. But perhaps if he is the one performing them then he can do it in a way consistent with what he has created.)

My favorite example so far is Galileo. He is my favorite because it seems he is a favorite of those who criticize Christianity for its ignorance and holding back progress and innovation. There is a lot of drama in the story of Galileo. He was an arrogant, cocky, Christian Scientist whose views were not so much hated by the church but his way about publishing them. Galileo was friends with Matteo Barberini while he was still Cardinal. Upon becoming Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) he knew and liked Galileo published his scientific works and enjoyed his attacks on Jesuit scholars. The Pope went on to write a poem about the glories of astronomy.  Then some things went wrong. Remember too, the historical context; a Thirty Year war raged and counter reformations were underway.  The issue of these times was authority. The Pope not the scientist or reformer had authority to overturn the tables. Galileo was warned and assured that his Science could go on but that he needed to be willing to sidestep some of the theological issues and present his science as such without attempting to tamper with theology and thus challenge the authority of the church, forcing the Pope’s hand. Other great scientists works were celebrated pre-Gelileo because of their willingness to present their work without assuming ultimate power to outright condemn Catholic Orthodoxy.

Galileo was anything but tactful  in his next publication. However, he was creative in finding a way to get the work published making a spectacle of the Pope and Catholic Orthodoxy and betraying a powerful friend. Pope Urban VIII attempted to limit the consequences on his friend but the response was a general crack down on intellectual freedom on scholastics. However, these crackdowns came to late to prevent the surge of the scientific revolution developed by Christians including Galileo who was willing like Luther of his day to challenge the official orthodoxy with innovations he believed to be consistent with Gods creation and control.  Galileo;

“The book of nature is a book written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics”

Rodney Stark: “while Pope Urban VIII religious views may have caused Galileo to suffer for his scientific views, Galileo’s Science did not suffer because of his own religious views”

Being Grateful for the Reformation

I have always been grateful for the work of the great reformers and those who prepared the way so that this great movements could take place. However, there is new light cast on the Reformations that I am very grateful for as well. I realize more accurately why I can be grateful for what happened as a result of the reformations.

Bibles finally began appearing In more common languages. However a problem remained that was prominent during the medieval period. That is, people still need to learn to read so they can access the power of scriptures for themselves. Churches before and after the reformation were mostly empty. The catholic church became more concerned with baptizing Kings, thus whole kingdoms into Christendom. No need for personal evangelism, or personal salvation, when you can just baptize a whole kingdom. This was perhaps one of the biggest failures of the time leading up to the reformation and a problem the reformers faced as well. How do you get people interested in learning to read and wanting to read scripture and be in church. A problem Europe faces still today.

These conclusions have led me to believing that it was not simply the reformation or protestant movement that was needed but that the reformations eventually gave way to subsequent reformations that introduced Christianity to a new problem that would turn out to be Christianities best tool for multiplication. Christian Diversity. Though it is sad, the number of denominations within protestantism, it is amazing how the multiple expressions of the same faith creates an atmosphere of healthy competition among groups to out evangelize and win more reach more people with the message of salvation, and the Christian worldview.

Today

Unfortunately this means we need to constantly take efforts to unify our diverse ideas of how the church should look. There is a need to be under a larger banner of sound orthodoxy of the basics of the Christian faith. Social Christian Networks are a thing for the future of the Christian movement. As we have already seen the split and we continue to see new expressions of the faith popping up all the time in new christian communities, the challenge will be to network under some of the basics of a Christian Biblical Convictions.

Our circles will be popular for a number of cultural reasons. But perhaps we can attempt to popularize our networks through innovative action, built upon a sound biblical foundation, for the Glory of God,  seeking first his kingdom. Just as was carried out during the “Dark Ages” a period known for Christian Ignorance but in fact a period in which Christians successfully moved forward new innovations, such as the University one of the original centers for higher education, innovation, evangelism, and biblical foundations. A place where people were unified under the basics; ‘Know God and Make him Known”.

Final Thoughts

What will people say about our era?  Not just our generation but the era we are in? How will what we do affect the way people look at the centuries surrounding our life?

Revelation, Exploration, Reason, Innovation, Multiplication

Bibliography:

I know I didn’t use quotations. But I just want to give reference to some of the authors I have been using. I am very grateful to a friend John Randerson for correcting me on some of my own ignorance about History. He suggested Rodney Stark to me. I’ve since read 5 of his books, and have a couple more on my shelf to read. Vishal Mangalwadi’s book, “The book that made your world” was a huge encouragement to me and a massive faith builder. I have also begun reading the works of Francis Scheaffer and his re-hashing of history particularly history of philosophy and religion and worldview. Bruce L. Shelley’s very readable book on church history was awesome as well. Also thanks to years of biblical study in extra biblical resources such as Alfred Edersheim and the use of some great dictionaries.

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Categories: Church, Enlightenment, History, Modern, Philosophy, Renaissance, Society/Culture, Uncategorized, Women, Worldview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “The Myth of the “Dark Ages” – Discovering Christian Heritage

  1. Pingback: Two Historical Myths – Two Historical Revisions: Part 1 | Bible on Tap

  2. I loved Mangalwadi’s book!

  3. Pingback: Two Historical Myths – Two Historical Revisions: Part 1 | Constant streams...

  4. Pingback: Surviving University: A Brief History | Bible on Tap

  5. Pingback: Reformations Rethought: Part 1 | Bible on Tap

  6. Interesting… I like the way you made your points in this. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Church History: Recovering Kingdom Heritage | Bible on Tap

  8. Pingback: Medieval Man – Modern Man – Post-Modern Man | Bible on Tap

  9. Pingback: Luthers Schism. And, ” The Dark Ages? “ | Bible on Tap

  10. Reblogged this on Bible on Tap and commented:

    An old one but one of my favorite topics

  11. victorgalipi

    Thanks for an excellent rebuttal of the tired old myth of the “ignorant Christian Dark Ages”. It seems that no matter how often or how will this lie is exposed, it continues to rear its ugly head. From what I’ve seen, most often this worn out retread is used by people who have not really studied the “Dark Ages”, or Christianity for that matter. Many of them are professing Christians who for some reason don’t seem to appreciate or are ashamed of being Christians, as they are constantly bashing their own professed faith, usually by echoing old arguments like this one.

    Jesseevans, I do have a few comments on a few of the things you brought up in this fine article.

    You wrote: “Even from infancy; women in Greek and Roman culture were far more likely the those born into Christian families to be discarded altogether. This was common and legal.”

    Today being Sanctity of Human Life Day, I just posted on my blog about this at https://compassionofthechrist.wordpress.com/2015/01/18/sanctity-of-human-life-day-unborn-non-persons/

    The basic point I make is that children in the Roman Empire were considered non-persons, property, and newborns, usually female, could be laid on the ground and left to die at birth. Also my point is that abortion on demand today is the same kind of thing, if anything even more gruesome and cruel, and in an era in which we are supposedly far more civilized and enlightened than the ancient Romans. The tragic irony that I’ll point out here is that as the result of the “woman’s right to choose”, the strong majority of the babies aborted are female. Women’s rights? Really?

    Concerning women’s rights, and the Apostle Paul, I believe Paul was even more radical than you may realize. There were indeed female apostles and teachers in the early Church, but it goes even further than that. When Paul told women in the Corinthian church to be silent in church and learn from their husbands at home (1 Cor 14:34-36), he clearly was not referring to all women in all instances. We know this because in 1 Cor 11:5, women are spoken of, with no disapproval, as praying and prophesying in public worship. In context, the passage in 1 Cor 14 is referring to a group of women who apparently were speaking out of turn (1 Cor 14:26-33), causing confusion and disorder (1 Cor 14:40). As to 1 Tim 2:11-15, “a woman” means “the woman”, referring to one woman (or possibly one group of women) in particular that held to and were trying to teach some sort of Gnostic “cult of the woman”, with verses 13-15 indicating that this may have had something to do with one of the “Eve cults” that were springing up, because Christian women were exercising their freedom, and some were perhaps getting carried away, just as did some men who were likewise rebuked.

    Later ideas that all women were always to be silent in the church, or at least not teach men, were based on proof-texting and taking these verses out of their full Biblical context. When Paul said that there was not male or female, no slave or free, but all were one in Christ Jesus, he meant it.

    “What will people say about our era?”

    A great question. People might look at our era and think that besides the technological trimmings, we haven’t really advanced that much since the ancient Roman Empire,or earlier.

    This I believe is due in great part to the Church by and large failing, at least in the “Western World”, to do what was being done in the so-called “Dark Ages”. We are not building hospitals that minister to the healing instead of treating them like customers. We are not building universities and other schools that teach a knowledge that depends on divine wisdom and human reason, rather than supposed knowledge independent of reason. We are leaving too many things to the government that we should be doing, because when we really did it, we did a much better job, such as ministering to the poor.

    This, in turn, is happening, I believe, because we have to a great extent replaced “the answer only God could reveal, Logos Incarnate”, with a kind of non-Biblical Gnosticism in which certain church leaders in particular claim a modern superior spiritual knowledge that defies the clear words of Scripture and over 2000 years of church tradition and Biblical understanding, while looking remarkably like the current politically correct agenda of our times.

    This has made much of the Western church in particular increasingly irrelevant, since it really has nothing unique to offer, which in turn is speeding its decline, and the decline of our culture.

    If we are going to turn things around, and truly serve Jesus Christ and glorify Him, the Western Church may want to look to the example of Christians in Africa and Asia who are under great persecution and where being a Christian has to be taken seriously and really mean something. In other words, we may need to look to the church in supposedly less enlightened and civilized society.

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