Were the Middle Ages that Dark as some historians often describe the period?

Major Reasons Why the Dark Ages were not completely dark | Image: 13th-century stained glass depiction of Charlemagne, Strasbourg Cathedral

For centuries, the commonly held view was that the thousand years following the fall of the Western Roman Empire witnessed large swathes of Western Europe deteriorate socially, economically and politically. Many have described those centuries as the worst time for Europe, hence the name the Dark Ages, also known as the Early Middle Ages.

Quite certainly Europe had devolved from a centralized government type of Empire to localism; however there were still some amazing feats of human ingenuity accomplished during that time all across Europe. Additionally, terming those 1000 years as “dark” seems quite unfair to other parts of the world where many societies and empires in the East, as well as in some parts of North Africa, appeared to be thriving.  For example, the Islamic world experienced its golden age during those so-called “Dark Ages” of Europe. The Abbasids had such a thirst for knowledge that they created an enabling environment where science and religion could flourish harmoniously.

Here, World History Edu explores some of the major reasons why the Dark Ages were not as dark as many purport it to be.

The Islamic Golden Age began during the Dark Ages

Dark Ages scholars

In the nutshell, the Islamic world during the Dark Ages was adept at using science and religion in a way that promoted the overall good of their society | Image: Famous scholars and scientists from the Islamic Golden Age (L-R): Averroes, Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, Avicenna, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī

While progress in Western Europe moved at a slow pace, in the Islamic world, enormous advances were made in all kinds of intellectual disciplines. During the Dark Ages, particularly the Early Middle Ages (5th century to 11th century CE), the Islamic world was a multicultural society with Baghdad making huge strides in mathematics, poetry and philosophy.

All that tolerance and curiosity was fueled by the Abbasids, the Islamic caliphate that overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE. Relying heavily on Persian customs, the Abbasid Caliphate (750 CE – 1258 CE) established a kind of multiculturalism not seen since the Hellenistic period. Their openness to foreigners and novel ideas allowed for scholarship to flourish at a very fast pace.

The language of commerce and religion was changed from Greek to Arabic, allowing them to translate many works of ancient Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates and Archimedes. By translating Buddhist and Hindu manuscripts, Abbasid scholars helped preserve an invaluable amount of knowledge for future generations.

Scholar and physician Ibn Sina (c. 980 – 1037) (known as Avicenna in the West) made huge strides in medicine with his book Canon of Medicine, which became the standard medical textbook for centuries in not just the Middle East but in Europe as well. Avicenna, who by the way was a polymath, is often revered as the father of early modern medicine, authoring hundreds of works, including about 40 on medicine. Similarly, mathematician and physicist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) (c. 965 – c. 1040) contributed immensely to optics. The polymath, who wrote Kitāb al-Manāẓir (“Book of Optics”), was the first to show how vision occurs in the brain, instead of the eyes.

The Islamic world borrowed the several mathematical concept from India, including the concept of Zero. And such was the enormous impact the Islamic caliphate had in science and mathematics during the Dark Ages that we credit them with introducing the Arabic numerals to Europe. Also, the Islamic world during the Dark Ages developed algebra in order to make the Islamic inheritance law simpler. Mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī enormous contributions to algebra and arithmetic earned him the title of “Founder of Algebra”.

Islamic scholars and philosophers like Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) held the view that the path to enlightenment was through Aristotelian reasoning, critical reasoning. To determine where to turn when trying to look towards Mecca, Islamic mathematicians made huge strides in trigonometry.

In the nutshell, the Islamic world during the Dark Ages was adept at using science and religion in a way that promoted the overall good of their society.

The Early Middle Ages helped curtail the power of the monarchy

With no centralized form of government following the fall of Rome, Europe was bereft of powerful emperors and leaders compared to the powerful Roman emperors and military leaders of the past. Excluding great leaders like Charlemagne – the Frankish ruler – who tried to reunite Europe under a centralized political system, there weren’t many attempts to roll back the glory days of the Western Roman Empire.

Owing to that political and economic vacuum, the Church stepped in. Needless to say, the pope did not have the official title of a Caesar; however, the Church became so powerful that it began to wield an even greater political and economic power than various monarchs in a fragmented Medieval Europe. The Church’s power was boosted by the fact that much of Europe was by then a monotheistic culture. This elevated the pope, cardinals and bishop to the top of the food chain.

Initially, this phenomenon stifled intellectual reasoning and technological advancement to some extent as religion took precedent over all other issues. However, the erosion of the power of kings and queens during the Middle Ages allowed Europe to gradually step into a system of governance where the kings and queens had to subjugate themselves to laws of the church and later to laws of the people (i.e. the Magna Carta).

Not all religious monks of the era repressed critical thinking and learning

Dark Ages

Benedict of Nursia (or Saint Benedict) was such an influential figure in the early Middle Ages that those centuries have sometimes been called “the Benedictine centuries”| Image: Saint Benedict depicted in an Eastern Orthodox-style icon, with Latin inscription

Often times the Early Middle Ages, i.e. the Dark Ages, is sharply criticized for the use of barbaric torture techniques, mindless wars, and repressive Church laws that stifled Europe’s progress. There is an element of truth in that. There is no doubt that Europe lost its momentum in terms of development after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. People were not as eager as the ancient Greeks or Romans to apply themselves and push the boundaries of knowledge and science. And in so many ways, the Church contributed to this phenomenon, purposely keeping people in the dark in order to advance their selfish ambitions.

However, not all clergymen and monks suppressed literacy and development of the mind. It has been noted that a good number of Christian monasteries held the notion that religion and philosophy were intertwined. Those monks, who by the way ranged from scientists, mathematicians, doctors, to philosophers, encouraged their congregation to actively seek knowledge.

For example, the head of the monastery of Montecassino, Benedict of Nursia, did not concentrate solely on spiritual doctrines; instead he laid out standards (Rule of Saint Benedict) that allowed monks to pursue intellectual works alongside the spiritual works. As result of the sheer impact he had, Benedict of Nursia is venerated in a number of churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The founder of Western Christian monasticism is also venerated as the patron saint of Europe.

Standards like the ones set by Benedict of Nursia would ultimately make Western values even more refined, allowing Europe to enter into the Renaissance period centuries later.

The Dark Ages witnessed the Carolingian Renaissance

Dark Ages

Pope Leo III and Charlemagne | Image: Pope Leo III, crowning Charlemagne from Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis, vol. 1; France, second quarter of 14th century.

As stated above, the Dark Ages or the Early Middle Ages were not all gloomy and chaotic.  There were some few rulers that made conscious efforts to nurture arts, literature and learning in general.

However, in order to accomplish those noble causes some rulers sought brutal means. Charlemagne (or Charles I) can be considered the most notable figure here. The Frankish ruler, who was also known as Charles the Great, had an enormous impact on Europe in the Middle Ages. Although not a learned man himself, Charlemagne was responsible for what historians like to call the Carolingian Renaissance, a period in the Middle Ages that saw the introduction of a standard handwriting script (i.e. the Carolingian minuscule) and advances in teaching techniques.

After conquering and bringing several Germanic tribes under his control, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. His vast control allowed him to promote a number of reforms that fanned the flames of intellectual development across Europe during the Dark Ages. Charlemagne’s efforts to inject light into Europe was aided by the likes of Alcuin of York, an English scholar, poet and clergyman.

Dark Ages

Alcuin of York (c. 735 CE – 804 CE), who was described in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (c. 817-833) as “The most learned man anywhere to be found”, is generally regarded as one of the most important intellectual planners of the Carolingian Renaissance | Image: Alcuin, roof figure, Museum of History of Arts, Vienna

The term “Dark Ages” was coined by Rome-centric scholars

After the fall of Rome in 476 CE, governance of Europe became small and local; so were the economic and political systems. Feudalism became the norm of the day as many Germanic tribes began to reassert control over their people.

In so many ways, those tribes replaced long-practiced Roman systems and traditions with their own culture. Rome-centric scholars, as well scholars that longed for the return of something similar to the Western Roman Empire, instantly developed a biased view towards the various cultures that sprung up after Rome’s demise.

Also, the term “Dark Ages” was popularized by some Renaissance scholars and philosophers because they considered ancient Greece and Rome as the zenith of intellectual development. Many of those scholars in so many ways felt embarrassed by those centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire; hence they failed to appreciate some of the important cultural, technological and social feats accomplished during Dark Ages.

Dark Ages FAQs

Early Middle Ages

Die Hunnen im Kampf mit den Alanen, (The Huns in battle with the Alans) by Viennese artist Johann Nepomuk Geiger, 1873).

How long did the Dark Ages last?

The commonly accepted answer to the above question is: five hundred years.

What is the difference between the Dark Ages, the Medieval Times, and the Middle Ages?

The Middle Ages refer to a period in Europe that spanned from 500 AD to 1500 AD. It began following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century AD. On the other hand, the Dark Ages capture the first half of the Middle Ages. Historians often place the Dark Age period in Europe between 500 AD and 1000 AD.

Why is it called the Dark Ages?

For starters, the period has been given that unenviable description because it ushered in a period in Europe where much of the knowledge and culture from the Roman Empire went missing. From art to history, to science and engineering, Europe struggled very hard to build upon the advances made by the Romans. As a matter of fact, in many parts of Europe, the situation was dire, as societies became less civilized and cultured.

To make matters even worse, little effort was paid to recording the events that transpired in the Dark Ages. This is in sharp contrast to the painstaking efforts, in some cases sponsored by the central government, Roman historians took in recording the events of their era. Simply put, the Dark Ages were “dark” because majority of the things and events that occurred in that period remain somewhat of a mystery to historians that came after that period.

Why was there so much confusion in the Dark Ages?

With the Western Roman Empire meeting its end in 476 AD, a huge power vacuum was created all across Europe. No longer was there a central government to keep the West in order and peaceful, and so chaos thrived in this power vacuum. Many local kings and lords busied themselves vying for parts of the fallen Roman Empire. There was no single local king or nation strong enough or with enough resources to conquer majority of Europe and thereby bringing some semblance of stability.

How important was Charlemagne the Great?

It was only around the beginning of the 9th century that Charlemagne, King of the Franks, started taking bold steps to unite much of Western Europe. It is for this reason, Charlemagne, later known as Charlemagne the Great, is revered as the Father of Europe.

How did the feudal system in the Dark Ages operate?

As stated above, the Dark Ages of Europe was largely bereft of any sound political structure or government. In place of the political and economic structure of the fallen Roman Empire, emerged the feudal system. Often with the permission of the kings and bishops, feudal lords took charge of the various fractured communities all across Western Europe. Ruling from their manors, these lords not only owned all the land of their community, but also they owned every bit of property on the land. The peasants under those feudal lords slaved all day in return for the protection the lords offered.

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