Dark ages mainWe have all heard about the “Dark Ages” between 500 AD and 1500 AD.  Some common descriptions include:

“There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.” – Ruth Hurmence Green (1915-1981, a notable atheist with the publication of her book The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible).  Joseph Lewis in An Atheist Manifesto claims that, “If you do not want to stop the wheels of progress; if you do not want to go back to the Dark Ages; if you do not want to live again under tyranny, then you must guard your liberty, and you must not let the church get control of your government. If you do, you will lose the greatest legacy ever bequeathed to the human race—intellectual freedom.”  Jeffrey Taylor, correspondent for Atlantic Monthly and NPR’s All Things Considered, states in Salon.com, “There is a reason the Middle Ages in Europe were long referred to as the Dark Ages; the millennium of theocratic rule that ended only with the Renaissance (that is, with Europe’s turn away from God toward humankind) was a violent time.”

The diagram below, which has circulated on the internet, claims to demonstrate that the Middle Ages caused a tremendous hole in advancelearning and advancement caused by Christianity.  Anne Fremantle in her study of medieval philosophers, The Age of Belief (1954), wrote “of a dark, dismal patch, a sort of dull and dirty chunk of some ten centuries.”  Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, who attacked the church, describe the period as one when “barbarism, superstition, and ignorance covered the face of the world.”  Rousseau declared that the era following the fall of Rome caused “Europe [to] relapse into the barbarism of the earliest ages.  The people of this part of the world . . . lived some centuries ago in a condition worse than ignorance.”  The great Roman historian Edward Gibbon called the fall of Rome the “triumph of barbarism and religion.” (here)

Unfortunately, this derision of the Middle Ages being a darkened period, continues into contemporary descriptions.  Such perpetrators include Bertrand Russell, Charles Van Doren, and William Manchester.

Like the myth that the church hindered science, or that everyone in the middle ages believed the earth was flat, or that Galileo was thrown in jail for promoting the heliocentric model of the universe (which you can read about in my previous posts linked); the term “dark ages” is a pejorative term to deride the period as backwards, ignorant, and dismal.  Given that the church and Christianity was the most influential institution in the Middle Ages, to reference that time period as the “dark ages” is in essence to slander Christianity.  Who, in their right mind, wants to associate themselves with “incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness” as the noted historian Manchester does in his A World Lit Only by Fire.

The problem with this myth is that it is so contrary to the facts.  If the “dark ages” were so unproductive and backwards, how does one explain the proliferation of inventions and developments during this time period.  A simple listing of inventions, discoveries and developments demonstrates the the Middle Ages were anything but dark:

  • The collar and harness for horses and oxen enabled the drawing of very heavy wagons, with increases in speed
  • The invention (8th century) of iron horseshoes that protected the feet of horses but greatly improved their traction in difficult conditions
  • The swivel axel (9th century) was developed that made large transport carts much more maneuverable
  • The invention of the horse drawn furrow plow increased food production
  • The water mill was invented in the Middle Ages
  • The mechanical manufacturing of paper instead of by hand and foot
  • Windpower was harnessed to mill, grind, and to pump water
  • Eyeglasses were invented in 1284 in northern Italy
  • The mechanical clock, a 13th century invention, for centuries existed only in Medieval Europe
  • The blast furnace (12th century)
  • Spinning wheel (13th century)
  • The agricultural revolution of the three-field system
  • Chimneys (12th century)
  • Universities
  • Quarantine (14th century)
  • Musical Notation (11th century)
  • Western Harmony
  • Local Self Government
  • Chartered Towns

The fact of the matter is the term “dark ages” is a form of the ad hominem argument.  In short, it’s name calling.  Until one can demonstrate that the middle ages was backward and made no technological, societal, or intellectual advancement (which is not possible given the proliferation of advancement during this time as shown above), the term “dark ages” is just a term of derision that is vacuous of any substance.  One more telling point to demonstrate that the Middle Ages were much more advanced than even our current modern and contemporary age. In the Middle Ages a peculiar institution completely disappeared, but tragically was reintroduced in the modern era: slavery.  This very fact shows that the Modern Age is much more dark than the Middle Ages ever were.

As Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College says at the end of the video below: “Instead of the ‘Dark Ages’ as it is popularly called.  The Middles Ages might better be described as the “Brilliant Ages.'”

Resources

Quick Quotes from the Experts:

“Nevertheless, serious historians have known for decades that these claims [that the Middle Ages were dark] are a complete fraud.  Even the respectable encyclopedias and dictionaries now define the Dark Ages as a myth.  The Columbia Encyclopedia rejects the term, nothing that ‘medieval civilization is no longer thought to have been so dim.’ Britannica disdains the name Dark Ages as ‘pejorative.’ And Wikipedia defines the Dark Ages as a ‘supposed period of intellectual darkness after the Fall of Rome.’ These views are easily verified.” (Rodney Stark, How the West Won. ISI Books, 2014)

“Let’s set the record straight. From 962 to 1321, Europe enjoyed one of the most magnificent flourishings of culture the world has ever seen.  In some ways it was the most magnificent.  And this was not despite the fact that the daily tolling of the church bells provided the rhythm of men’s lives, but because of it.” (Anthony Esolen, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, p.132)

“It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked up these strange ideas from websites and popular books. The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any.” (Tim O’Neill “The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews ‘God’s Philosophers'” Strange Notions)

Books:

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization by Anthony Esolen (Regnery, 2008)

The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, by James Hannam. (Regenery, 2011)

Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, by Regine Pernoud. (Ignatius, 2000)

How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark (ISI Books, 2014)

Articles:

The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews ‘God’s Philosophers'” by Tim O’Neill. Strange Notions n. d.

“5 Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe about the Dark Ages” by

“Top 10 Reasons the Dark Ages Were Not Dark” by Jamie Frater. Listverse June 9, 2008

“15 Myths About the Middle Ages” by Sandra Alvarez and Peter Konieczny. Medievalists June 27, 2014

“Misconceptions About the Middle Ages Debunked Through Art History” by Bryan Keene and Rheagan Martin. Iris: The Online Magazine of the Getty February 20, 2015

“Myths about the ‘Dark Ages'” by John Tertullian. Contra Celsum April 13, 2011

“How the Middle Ages Really Were” by Tim O’Neill. Huffington Post September 8, 2014

“Top 10 Inventions of the Middle Ages” by Jamie Frater. Listverse September 22, 2007

Videos:

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