Why Are the Middle Ages Often Characterized as Dark or Less Civilized?

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Answer by Tim O’Neill, M.A. in medieval literature and have studied most aspects of the period for many years:

It’s clear that there was a collapse in learning and much technical capacity as a result of the fragmentation and chaos that followed the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. In places such as southern Gaul or northern Spain, this collapse was a slow decline over several hundred years. In others, such as Britain, it was much more sudden and catastrophic. Modern surveys of archaeological and documentary evidence, such as those summarized by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization show that this means a clear decline in material culture and technical capacity between the later Roman era and the seventh century. 

Factory-made, mass-produced ceramics that had been exported to the outermost corners of the empire were replaced with rough, homemade pottery. Evidence of luxury goods traded over long distances disappears from the record in all but the most elite gravesite finds. Learning was not extinguished completely thanks to the church’s teaching that “pagan” philosophy was valuable for its own sake and to be preserved. But much was lost in the turmoil. We have, for example, some correspondence between two monks from the ninth century discussing mathematical problems that, to modern eyes, look totally elementary but which were cutting-edge at the time.

This was not due to any lack of “intelligence.” People in the early Middle Ages were every bit as intelligent as their Roman-era forebears and also just as smart as we are. But when the whole infrastructure of the earlier culture falls apart under a complex combination of economic and political failures and your region is assailed on all sides from successive waves of invaders and wracked internally by political division and warfare, there tend to be more important things to apply that intelligence to than building aqueducts or translating Aristotle from the Greek. If our civilization collapsed, we would still have the intelligence to design computer games or decorate loft apartments, but we would be using it to grow food, protect our crops, and survive.

The myth of the Middle Ages as a “dark age” does not lie in the fact that things declined markedly after the fall of Rome—they did. It lies in the idea that this situation persisted until the dawning of something called “the Renaissance,” which somehow rescued Western Europe from the clutches of the Catholic Church, revived ancient Greek and Roman learning, reinvented “good” (i.e. realistic) art and made everything OK again.

This is the part of the story that is the myth.

The revival of material culture came long before the so-called “Renaissance.” It began as early as the eighth century and was driven by the needs of early medieval farmers to achieve more with less. With long-distance trade at a low ebb, European farmers had to be far more self-sufficient, and with populations lower, they had to be more labor-effective. Technologies and farming techniques that reduced labor and increased yields became increasingly required and saw an adoption of changes in the period between 500 and 1200 that revolutionized agrarian production. The adoption of the horse collar and horseshoes made plowing more effective, and the wider use of the heavy mouldboard plow meant that heavy, fertile Northern European soils could be brought under production for the first time. Watermills began to proliferate through Europe, mechanizing not just flour production but also a range of other processes once done manually. This mechanization spread to use of tidal mills and, eventually, to the invention of lateral windmills. The range of processes driven by these new machines increased to include sawing masonry, driving trip hammers, automated forge bellows, and more.

The resultant rise in production levels and standards of living from these technologies, combined with the end of the waves of invasion and greater political stability, paved the way for an upswing in the later Middle Ages. Contact with Jewish and Muslim scholars in Spain saw lost works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Archimedes, and many others translated into Latin and returned to the West. In the same period, universities began to appear across Europe, setting up a network of scholarship. This medieval revival also saw further technological innovation, with major inventions such as the mechanical clock, eyeglasses, effective gunpowder weapons, and the printing press.

So the idea that there was no innovation in the Middle Ages is simply wrong—it was a period of remarkable inventiveness. And the idea that Greek and Roman learning was forgotten until the Renaissance is complete nonsense. It had always been preserved by the church, and when conditions in Europe stabilized in the later 11th century, Western Christian scholars went in search of the works that had been lost. The revival came in the 12th century, long before the Renaissance. What the scholars and artists of the Renaissance movement did do is elevate the idolization of the Greeks and Romans to a new and, at times, strangely regressive level. So they denigrated the beautiful and technically advanced architecture of the later Middle Ages as barbaric (it’s still called “gothic” to this day) and aped Greek and Roman styles. They also didn’t pay much attention to Greek and Roman science, logic, and philosophy, since that had already been revived in the Middle Ages, but they idolized Greek and Roman literature, drama, and history instead. 

The idea of the whole Middle Ages as a “dark age” therefore actually comes from the early modern Renaissance and humanist movements and their denigration of their immediate forebears and idolization and idealization of the Greeks and Romans. Thus, the period between the Romans and this idealization in the early modern era became called the medium aevum—the “ages in the middle,” or the Middle Ages. They became traditionally characterized as a backward step, where art became “primitive” (because only realistic art could be “good” art), architecture was “barbaric” or “gothic,” and innovation was stagnant. 

These false ideas are still current partly because historians have only begun to revise our understanding of the Middle Ages quite recently and this is taking some time to seep into popular consciousness. But the prejudice against the Middle Ages is also driven by some strong cultural currents in our own time. Those with an animus against Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular like to cling to the old idea of the Middle Ages as a “dark age” because it suits their preconceptions about religion and forms a neat little fable where modernity is “good” and the medieval period is “bad.” Historians avoid these simplistic value judgments and reject the assumptions on which they are made, but simple pseudo historical fairy tales are hard to budge.

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