Dark Ages: Myth and Reality
The Dark Ages is a terminology used to refer to the period in history between the Greco-Roman world and the Renaissance. In terms of figures, this translates to the beginning of 5th century all the way to the 13th Century. At the dawn of the renaissance period around the 14th Century, there was an implicit tendency to pejoratively summarize the period before renaissance as a time of debilitation, degeneration and deterioration. In the light of celebrities of the renaissance period such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei, the Fall of Rome and the incessant infighting that ensued thereafter faired poorly by way comparison. Consequently, some historians have taken the unfair advantage of this juxtaposition and painted the entire period before renaissance and after Constantine with a broad brush of mediocrity. We can take a look at a few of these positions and then scrutinize their authenticity thereafter.
In the early part of the 20th Century, J.B Burry referred to the Dark Ages and Middle Ages as a time when reason was in prison and there was no progress in knowledge. Peter Gay characterized it as a period when myth was rehabilitated and criticism abhorred. Others like Gibbon even attributed the backwardness of this period to Christianity, which stifled civic engagement and occasioned the fall of Rome. One of the most brutal attacks yet came from William Manchester who rubbished the Dark Ages as a period of mindlessness and obsession with strange myths. All these positions and many more implied that the Dark Ages under the watch of Christianity furthered idiosyncrasy and wallowed in corruption.
Conversely, other thinkers have pointed out developments in the Dark Ages that tell a different story. Peter Wells points out that the developments of the Carolingian renaissance had their roots in the 5th century achievements. (Peter Wells, Barbarians to Angles). Recent archeological evidence has shown that the Dark Ages had intricate articrafts and well developed literature. These have been found on ornaments, belts and gold chalices. (Peter Wells, p. 11). Furthermore, historical structures of this period also exhibit high architectural abilities. These can be seen on ‘churches, cathedrals, palaces, boundary walls and bridges’.
In the world of literature, the Dark Ages had shinning examples of literary giants. The writings of Augustine in the beginning and those of Thomas Aquinas at the end leaves no doubt. It was in the 6th Century that Monte Cassino was founded by the Benedictines. (Jim Woods Jr, How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization). This centre of learning endured all kinds of transitions and assault. It was Canon Law and the order in monasticism that became the seedbed for Civil Law. The Church promoted education especially among the Barbarians and preserved philosophical thoughts of the Greeco-Roman culture as well. (John Vidmar, The Catholic Church Through the Ages). In fact, the modern FBI is a beneficiary of the Bernardo Gui’s guidelines for inquisitors. (Vidamr p. 148). It is also important to remember that the rise of Quranic Philosophy and the byzantine iconography all took place during this period. How would all these achievements be possible if reason was in prison?
On the whole, the intercourse of Myth and Reality in the history of the Dark ages can help us to separate one from the other. Sure enough, there was some systematic decline in this period. The fall of Rome is indubitably an established fact. However, it was barbarian invasions and not Christianity, war rather than religion that led to this fall. (Thomas Woods). Yes, Rome fell under the watch of Christianity but the mere presence of Christianity was not a causative agent. Surely, presence does not imply causation. Otherwise, we would all be guilty of everything that has gone wrong in the contemporary world. The generals of the Roman Empire were wowed into a state of complacency by the apparent success of the empire so much so that they could not read the signs of time. Corruption, high taxes and slave labor did not help either. All things considered, it is still unwarranted to judge the success of the Dark Ages based on its weakest moments. Just as it is unnecessary to deny the decline of this period, it is equally intellectually dishonest to ignore the facts that present themselves in archeology and literature; proving the progress during this period. Consequently, contrary to popular belief, the Dark Ages under the umbrella of Christianity was an indispensable and irreplaceable foundation of the renaissance period and beyond.