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The (Not So) Dark Ages

Over the last few months of my life, I’ve talked to enough people, read enough on the internet, and banged my head against enough walls to know that most people misunderstand the medieval period. They usually think it was one of repression, superstition, corruption, and lack of teenage dance culture. In reality, it was a time of flowering learning, deep religious faith, and lively folk customs. And while I can’t do much more here than dispel a few of the most offensive myths, I hope this helps some people to understand the period from 500-1500 (or so) a little better:

The medieval period involved an authoritarian Church stifling scientific and academic inquiry.

This is probably the most false of the myths. Theist, atheist, or spaghetti monster, one must admit that medieval scientists made major advances. In Christian Europe, the Benedictines spurred a massive revival of learning following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Jean Buridan proposed an early principle of modern physics, and Roger Bacon set the framework for empirical scientific inquiry. In Islamic lands, Avicenna, Alhazen, and Averroës were all influential in furthering philosophical and scientific advances. Among medieval Jews, Hibbat Allah, Maimonides, and Moses ben Joshua worked for an increase in rational inquiry into both religion and the natural world. And while none of these men were modern scientists, they were men of faith whose religion (or Church) did not get in the way of their furthering scientific inquiry. And guess what? Medieval academics didn’t think the world was flat! They even had a rough idea of the earth’s circumference.

Superstition was rampant in the medieval period.

There is some truth to this. Christianity has supposedly always meant the elimination of superstition as God is who is. But, of course, local customs have always affected the way people think, leading to everything from “the evil eye” in Islamic texts and sources, to belief in fairies in medieval England. That said, the persecution of witches in the period is mostly nonsense. When one thinks of witch burning and heretic killing, one is mostly thinking of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, with a few notable exceptions.

In Christian Europe, the pope was the all-powerful ruler of men.

Here, we see truth and untruth. The pope had a position of great prominence because most Europeans were Catholic, but struggle with him was quite common. From the Concordat of Worms to Thomas à Becket, struggles between kings and the religious were relatively common. As with all periods, the Middle Ages held a certain political tension: lords wanted to further their own political ambitions and popes wanted to spread religious power and observance. As for the myth of the bloated, corrupt Church, that is mostly a product of the Renaissance. While no pope is perfect and the Church undeniably had its issues, the Borgias came just as the Middle Ages had ended.

The political system was oppressive and misogynistic.

While liberal democracy and equal rights were far from the norm, we have many examples of strong medieval women. Margery Kempe, Anne Komnene, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and the Virgin Mary, as prototype for the strong woman, all come to mind. As for fiefdoms and the feudal system, this is a loose categorization used by modern historians. Serfdom was a practice, but all in all many medieval peasants ate better than most of us in our McDonald’s-laden dreams of burgers and fries. Society had three parts: workers, fighters, and clerics. The lords fought, protecting the workers and clerics, etc. I can’t claim the period was perfect, but it was far from absolute despotism. In fact, the divine right of kings is an invention of the Enlightenment! In the medieval period, kings were often quite weak and dependent upon the priests, people, and nobility for their power.

Muslims invented everything, which the Christians later stole and claimed as their own.

False. The middle ages certainly produced wonderful Islamic thinkers who contributed invaluably to medieval science and philosophy, but the reality is that the interplay between the two groups (and others) produced what we have. Muslims had access to Greco-Roman thought lost in the West, but which underpinned much of Western philosophical inquiry. Both Roger Bacon and Alhazen pioneered empirical science in their own unique ways. We should learn to appreciate how two religions actually helped each other advance philosophically and religiously, not try to pick sides in a historical culture war.

And a few last fun facts: the Inquisition actually killed fewer people over its centuries-long tenure than the number of Christians killed by the Japanese following the Tokugawa Shogunate’s banning of Christianity. Also, while the Jews faced terrible persecution in parts of medieval Europe, some popes actually stood up for them and protected them from other Christians. In Islamic lands, Jews and Muslims were even able to work side-by-side. Lastly, it’s untrue that the Bible could only be written in Latin. While that custom developed later in the period, we have fragments in both Old English and Gothic of Biblical texts, implying that (at least early in the period) the vernacular was fine to use in Scriptural translation!

So, I hope this little polemic has been helpful and dispelled some myths. I’d ask you to pass it on and to spread the word. As a (wannabe) medievalist, I think it’s very important we recognize our own history. In essence, stop calling them “the Dark Ages;” they weren’t quite that dark.

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