For centuries it has been commonly held that after the fall of Rome came the “Dark Ages” -many centuries of ignorance and superstition imposed across Europe by Christianity.
“a dark, dismal patch, a sort of dull and dirty chunk of some ten centuries, wedged between the shinning days of the golden Greeks… and the brilliant galaxy of light given out jointly by those twin luminaries, the Renaissance and the Reformation.” -Anne Fremantle
Voltaire (1694-1778) described the long era as when “barbarism, superstition, and ignorance covered the face of the world”. These same sentiments were carried on by Edward Gibbon, and Rousseau. Likewise popular historian Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) agreed that “it is not inappropriate to call these centuries dark, especially if they are set against what came before and what came after.”
The terms Renaissance and Enlightenment often appear simultaneously, at times along with the word, ‘Reformation”. This is because, of course, they all took place within a single century, and stretching into two or perhaps three. The Renaissance is the french word for “rebirth”. According to standard historical accounts, the Renaissance occurred because of the decline in church control over major norther Italian cities such as Florence.
Western history in summary;
- Classical Antiquity, to the fall of Rome
- Dark Ages, when the church dominated
- Renaissance-Enlightenment, which birthed…
- Modern Times
This has been the prominent theme in most standard historical textbooks despite the many historians who have known for some time that this is a complete historical myth. Looked upon by defeated historians as “an indestructible fossil of self-congratulatory Renaissance humanism.” (J. H. W. Liebeschuetz)
It is not appropriate to stop using the terms Enlightenment or Renaissance completely. Rather it is better to understand these eras in light of a more accurate portrayal of the so called “Dark Ages”.
Since it has been said, that it is appropriate to refer to the “dark ages” as ‘dark’ in comparison with the lights of Rome and the continued Greek learning of the Renaissance, lets take a look then at just how great Rome and Greek culture really was. After all it was the Enlightenment and Renaissance era that brought about such a deep Romanticism for the ancient civilization. What if all such reminiscing of the past was exactly that. Romantic ideas about a time long past, a time thought to have been the ideal civilization worth patterning the future after.
What is often forgotten about Rome even in an era when the French fought for revolution and a republic, is that the Roman Empire was, well, an empire. Where constant power struggles took place among the ruling elite, and that beyond border wars that brought wealth to the empire, and some impressive public work projects, very little happened. Change, whether technological or cultural, went on very slowly.
“Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for future developments.” – Roman engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus (40-103)
“Of course half the population of the empire consisted of slaves… Most free Romans lived at a bare substantial level, not because they lacked the potential to achieve a much higher standard of living, but because a predatory ruling elite extracted every ounce of surplus production. If all production above the bare minimum needed for survival is seized by the elite, there is no motivation for anyone to produce more. Consequently, despite the fabulous wealth of the elite, Rome was very poor.” -Sociologist Rodney Stark
“When the collapse of the Roman Empire released the tax-paying millions… from a paralyzing oppression, many new technologies began to appear and were rapidly and widely adopted with the result that ordinary people were able to live far better, and, after centuries of decline under Rome, the population began to grow again. No longer were the productive classes bled to sustain the astonishing excess of the Roman elite, or to erect massive monuments to imperial egos, or to support vast armies to hold Romes many colonies in thrall.” (Stark)
What many historians have been content, along with Enlightenment and Renaissance writers, is to simply write off slavery, and become transfixed by the ruin’s of Rome and its ancient monuments. We make the mistake of mourning at the fall of an empire that bled the productive classes when we should be morning the immense sacrifice of the ordinary. There is of course something we could learn from a correct understanding of such an empire as Rome was.
Hence, there was no fall from the glorious Roman empire into the “Dark Ages” of Christian ignorance and superstition. No glorious empire existed, only for the elite ruling class, and only in the minds of intellectual giants of the Renaissance who’s history had been severely flawed by their Romanticism.
So what good happened in the “Dark Ages”?
As I have already mentioned. The elaborate hoax was created primarily by two famous “Enlightenment” intellectuals, Voltaire, and Gibbon. One of the down falls was that most intellectuals had little interest in anything but literary matters. The medieval period was not an era well known for eloquent Latin. At least not as good of Latin as the best from any Roman era. There was limited though not a complete lack of attention paid to the works of Plato and Aristotle, this was taken as ignorance.
I believe it will be sufficient to simply list the achievements made in this era then to expound on the areas where myths have become legends.
As has been said, much of the great Roman empires work force came, not from great technologies, but off the backs of slaves. As soon as the ninth century one-third of the estates along the Seine River, near Paris, had water mills, most of which were church-owned properties. Several centuries later there were mills every seventy feet along the river. (Walter Burkert, Franz Cumont)
By 1086 there were already 5,624 water-powered mills operating in England. “This mechanized the production of woolen cloth and allowed England to dominate the European market.” (Liebeschuetz)
Dams were also constructed and Europeans excelled in bridge building. A five hundred foot bridge was built in Ireland as early as 803. Europeans learned to harness the wind and not only used the power for the same purposes as water mills but used in order to pump water. The Netherlands, and Belgium used wind mills to pump out the sea and restore large portions of their flooded land.
Europeans developed a three-field agricultural system in which one-third of the land was left unplanted each year while still being cultivated and fertilized. This increased production tremendously. The invention of heavy plows brought better cultivation of wetter, more dense soil. Similarly the introduction of horse-collar supplanted the need for slow oxen teams. In monasteries the introduction of plant breeding produced more hardy crops. All together, these “Dark Age” inventions brought far more production with far less effort and time spent.
Chimneys also were invented, so no more holes in roofs letting rain and not allowing smoke to leave houses.
Eyeglasses were invented improving many peoples quality of life.
We all know the middle ages as an era of mounted knights. Well, before the “Dark Ages” there were no heavy cavalry. Stirrups, proper saddles, and lance where an innovation of the middle ages. (Stirrups, and a saddle with a high back brace would allow for knights to charge headlong into battle without falling off horses).
While the Chinese get credit for the creation of ‘gun powder’, Europeans are credited with the most functional cannons used eventually in naval and land battles.
What is so glaringly obvious is the great technological advancement of this era in comparison to that of the Roman times.
Along with great technological advancements came the well documented rise of capitalism. I realize that capitalism alone according is not the great cure all for a culture. Nor is democracy. But, even the infamous Karl Marx regarded the rise of capitalism as creating a “more massive and more colossal productive force than all preceding generations.” In short by the thirteenth century there were 173 banks in Italy having hundreds more branches across Europe. The grassroots of capitalism rose out of an unexpected source; The monasteries. Much more could be said about this. (Check out my Library for recommendations).
A great bit more could be said of moral progress throughout the medieval period. For example, by comparison, Roman philosophers were all slave owners, who viewed women in the same regard. Even an uneducated glance into their work would be offensive to any modern or post-modern person.
The “Dark Ages” saw many attempts and a handful of successful emancipation projects. Not only as a direct result of technological innovation, but as a result of theologians; popes, and monks alike. Slavery did not die easily as we well know. It re-surged in various part of Europe, at a number of times throughout the middle ages.
A seventh century King of the Franks Clovis II married his British slave, Bathilda who later reigned when Clovis died.
Charlemagne apposed slavery in the eighth century along with the Pope and other influential clerical voices.
Ninth Century Bishop of Agobard voiced: “All men are brothers, all invoke one same father, God: the slave and the master, the poor and the rich man, the ignorant and the learned, the weak and the strong… there is no slave or free.”
In the eleventh century, St. Wulfstan and St. Anselem successfully campaigned to remove the last vestiges of slavery in Christendom.
I have written previously on “High Culture” in the “Dark Ages”. You can check out a more lengthy explanation at the link. But again, in summary, the middle ages saw great advances in music and the development of polyphony. Wonderful art is littered throughout the period in the great Gothic architecture, stained glass, and “Romanesque” painting.
Literature was regarded as a lost art by Gibbon, Voltaire, Cervantes, Machiavelli, and Da Vinci. The Irony however, is that “each of their native languages had been given their literary form by medieval giants such as Dante, Chaucer, the nameless authors of the chansons de geste, and the monks who, beginning in the ninth century, devoted themselves to writing lives of saints…thus the vernacular prose was formulated and popularized” (Stark)
The next two great developments are left off here until later. The rise of universities, and higher education -specifically science will be be discussed in my next blog. And a second common myth exposed.
Common Myth: The “Dark Ages” existed from 500-1500 AD. Christianity imposed an era of ignorance and superstition all across Europe. A period preceded and followed by the glorious lights of Greek and Roman antiquities, and the Enlightenment-Renaissance.
Common Revision: The Period from the fall of Rome until the Enlightenment across Europe was not ‘dark’ rather, the fall of Rome initiated a great and accelerating learning curve of innovation and progress that was only beginning to reach maturity as is neared the time of the “Enlightenment-Renaissance” era.