The not so dark Middle Ages
Debunking the myth of Middle Ages as a time of backwardness
Debunking the myth of Middle Ages as a time of backwardness
For centuries, the terms ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Middle Ages’ have been synonymous. Until very recently, they were used almost interchangeably to label a period ranging roughly from the fall of the Roman Empire (in the second half of the 5th century) to as early as the mid-13th century or as late as the first half of the 16th century. ‘The Dark Ages’ is a particularly loaded label, however. In fact, it is a value judgement, and, as with all value judgments, the extent of its ‘darkness’ is very much in the eye of the beholder.
In fact, for centuries, the Middle Ages have been referred to as an era of barbarism and economic, cultural and intellectual decline. This myth is so deeply rooted in Western culture that even to this day, when something is considered to be brutal, unsophisticated or outdated, one might describe it as being in the ‘Dark Ages’ or as being ‘positively medieval’. Today, most modern scholars agree that the ‘Dark Ages’ refer to a long and complex period of history, whose perceived ‘darkness’ throughout early modern times has depended heavily on changing political, ideological and religious pursuits and that, on the contrary, the Middle Ages were an era of great inventiveness during which art, architecture, literature, international trade and culture flourished.
The idea of a dark intermediary period between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance came from the mid-14th century Italian scholar, Petrarch, who divided history into two periods: the classical period in which Greeks and Romans brightened the world with their intellectual achievements, and a period of darkness and cultural stagnation (in which he himself felt to be living). Although ‘medieval’ people saw themselves as a continuation of Antiquity, the idea of intellectual darkness was not new to them. 9th-century Carolingian scholar, Walahfrid Strabo (a Latinist and a teacher), thought that the Carolingian Renaissance led by the emperor Charlemagne had been a bright period of learning and intellectual development, illuminating the darkness that had preceded it. However, having written many years after the Emperor’s death and during a civil war, Strabo regretted (as Petrarch would do centuries later) the decline of knowledge in his own ‘barbarous age’, which, according to him, was growing ever dimmer. Contrary to Strabo’s general pessimism about his own times, Petrarch did hope that ancient civilisation would be recovered and that he might even live to witness it.
During the Renaissance (the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity covering the 15th and 16th centuries), Petrarch’s idea of a dark and barbaric medieval past fed into humanists’ belief in their own present time as the rebirth of classical culture. This belief had been conditioned by the words of Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century artist and art historian, who considered that Roman art had been the best and most divine of any other. Humanists, like Giorgio Vasari, believed that the period that had preceded them had been a dark intermediary time between the higher valued Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. The ‘Middle Ages’ then, was a period that brought about the loss of the great intellectual achievements of Antiquity.
While humanists criticised what from their point of view was a lack of Latin language, literature and culture, 16th-century Protestant reformers did not see the ‘Dark Ages’ as being problematic since to them this period represented the rise and expansion of the Catholic Church and of papal and clerical corruption.
During the 18th century, these criticisms were what led the ‘Dark Ages’ to become the Enlightenment’s worst enemy.
As an intellectual and philosophical movement, the Enlightenment (late 17th and into the 18th centuries) was founded on the ideals of the pursuit of knowledge and happiness, reason, progress, light, and freedom. It was precisely the concept of democracy and freedom that led the German art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, to bring the superiority of Greek art to the forefront, rejecting all art created in contexts of tyrannical rule. The Middle Ages, ruled by the Catholic Church and the monarchy, were seen to be obscure, full of superstition, hierarchy and serfdom. The new age of Enlightenment was a complete contrast and brought its own style of artistic expression - 'Neoclassicism' - that evoked the earlier and superior forms of art and thinking.
Below: The last meeting of the legendary Scandinavian princess Hillelil and her lover, the English prince Hildebrand, before he went off to battle and perished.
In the final years of the 18th century, the ‘Dark Ages’ started to take on new meanings.
The uncertainties caused by the French Revolution and the world's rapid industrialisation reversed the negative reputation of the Middle Ages. Many European nations began to see them as a time in which their national identities were founded and they could envision their political future. The rediscovery of founding myths, courtly literature and religious art made for a romanticised, exotic and nostalgic ‘Dark Ages’. Some people saw it as a time of impressive architecture and others as an age of harmony, chivalry and faith.
Coincidentally, this was also a time in which travellers started to re-discover (with romantic delight) the ruins of gothic churches and cathedrals, languishing and decaying with the passage of time. This general appreciation of the ‘Dark Ages’ in literature, (and later) art and architecture became widespread in the third quarter of the 19th century, and was not based as much on actual knowledge and appreciation of medieval culture and inventiveness as on a gothic taste for all that was morbid, quaint, sentimental and obscure.
The 20th century called into question the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’. Scholars began to study all aspects of medieval society and culture, gradually unveiling what, for centuries, had been a millennium we knew very little about. Their studies identified many periods of political, social, intellectual and economic Renaissance during the Middle Ages, and revealed that the philosophical and scientific roots of ‘The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century’ in particular, actually laid the foundations for the achievements of the Italian Renaissance and for the 17th century Scientific Revolution.
Below: This coin is inscribed in both Latin and Arabic. It was made for Offa (reigned 757-796), king of Mercia, and the design was copied directly from a dinar coin of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (754-775)
The 20th century also revealed a profoundly inter-connected world. Medieval international trade, for example, was so extensive that some 8th-century Anglo-Saxon coins were inscribed in both Latin and Arabic, revealing far-reaching connections. Christian missionary activity was also widespread, taking ancient knowledge to monasteries far and wide.
Tight links with the East led to the transmission of texts that were translated from Greek to Latin, copied and then studied. During the Carolingian Renaissance, these translations were reviewed and corrected, ensuring the preservation of classical texts. Education, knowledge and art became a driving force in recreating the splendours of Antiquity while building a unified Christian Empire. In fact, classical literature and philosophy were not ‘lost’ at all during the Middle Ages, they were just re-interpreted under the lens of Christianity and focused towards the most important of medieval pursuits: salvation.
Below: The opening page of the Gospel of Saint Matthew from a copy of the Four Gospels, made during the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne. It is written entirely in gold with headings in red.
The sheer amount of effort (and cost) that went into making and decorating a medieval manuscript reflects a profound appreciation for knowledge and the reader’s expectation of being ‘illuminated’ by the wisdom contained within the page. In fact, manuscripts produced during this period were of an immensely rich variety. Copies and translations were made of classical, historical, theological and liturgical texts. The latter in particular, because they contained the Holy Script, could boast the most intensely rich colours and gold ink, and created astonishing effects of fluctuating light. Owning and collecting one of these books was not only a sign of great culture but of power and wealth.
While it is true that only a small fraction of the population had access to written texts (or was capable of reading them), medieval knowledge and culture existed in multiple forms.
To begin with, the 11th and 12th centuries saw the foundation of the first universities (perhaps the most successful and lasting of medieval inventions) in cities such as Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca and Paris. University cities fostered a rising new book trade that laid out the foundations for the modern day printed book. Paintings and illuminations were also a means for acquiring knowledge. Bursting with colour and gold leaf, they invited the mind to wander (quite literally). Certain manuscripts told of the voyages and adventures of great explorers such as Marco Polo, depicting bizarre beings that populated the farthest corners of the earth (and yes, medieval people were aware that the earth was round!). The medieval world was a big and bustling place, and seals and coins enforced ideas of law and order as well as territorial identity.
Below: Bizarre mythical beings said to have been discovered by Marco Polo during his voyages through Asia
The Middle Ages were also a time of profound faith. Great knowledge, engineering and innovation went into building churches and cathedrals that have, effortlessly, stood the test of time. These medieval skyscrapers and their giant stained glass windows, have narrated sacred history while inundating space with light and colour.
The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were, in fact, not that dark after all.