Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Stereotypes are easy things to fall back upon. They simplify a situation or people and provide an easy explanation for a wide range of habits, activities, or circumstances. As easily as they can be applied, they are just as often incredibly wrong. A similar situation exists in the history of Western civilization. In this lesson, we explore how the Dark Ages may not be just as 'dark' as they seem at first look.
For a long period of time, the history of Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was thought of as a period of intellectual stagnation - a dark period where life was short, kings were tyrannical, and little was achieved to further our knowledge of the world. As a result, the period gained several degrading nicknames, like the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period - terms that still conjures images of barbaric armies and primitive, backward cultures.
The Middle Ages lasted for roughly a thousand years from 400-1400 A.D. (though, it should be noted, historians still bicker over these start and end dates). The traditional narrative of this period stems partially from a lack of significant evidence documenting the period's learning, unlike periods before and after. The Romans, who controlled most of Europe prior to the period, left huge buildings and engineering marvels like the aqueducts that could transport water thousands of miles. Moreover, the Middle Ages were followed by the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, a tremendous period of intellectual tumult that produced much of the scientific and philosophical writing still studied and highly regarded today.
In addition to this problem, the intervening period in Europe was also far poorer than before or after. The vast majority of the population were farmers who had to focus on growing food for themselves and their families and had little time for intellectual and academic pursuits. The few who did have the time were often religious figures or members of the incredibly small aristocracy of Europe. Though these men did make contributions to the knowledge of the world and philosophy, many of their writings have been lost.
Although the Middle Ages seemed like a simple time, you'd be wrong to assume the period was entirely void of any intellectual activity. The teachings of the Romans and Greeks may have been lost or ignored in central and western Europe after the fall of Rome, but in southwestern Europe and in Asia Minor, philosophy, science, and mathematics was alive and well. Indeed, recent scholars have pointed to the period from 800-1200 A.D. in areas held by the Byzantine Empire and other states in what is today the Middle East as a veritable golden age of intellectual activity and academic pursuit. For example, the Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun developed similar economic principles regarding division of labor, differences in wages, and the forces of supply and demand centuries before they were independently arrived at in Scotland by Adam Smith.
Furthermore, the Middle Ages were not a complete period of intellectual stagnation in Europe, and isolated universities often carried on the traditions of learning. The thinkers that attended these universities and schools of the Middle Ages often practiced scholasticism. Scholasticism differed from the logic and reason of the Enlightenment era, which often cast aside all facts in an attempt to recognize universal truth. Instead, scholasticism started with accepted truth, whether it was the Bible or the ancient Greek and Roman work. Then, scholars proceeded to read the works critically, making notations and debating with their colleagues in an attempt to understand, interpret, and make inferences to better understand the work's meaning and its applications to the contemporary world.
Furthermore, the scientific method - upon which the later Scientific Revolution and most modern science class experiments are based - was first pioneered during this period. Various men, including Robert Grosseteste and the Arab thinker Avicenna, built upon the Aristotelian emphasis on empiricism to show that future events could be predicted by examining past results. The key to the entire method, however, was Roger Bacon, a 13th-century Englishman who was the first man to formulate the scientific method as we would recognize it, where the scientist observes and identifies a question, forms a hypothesis, then devises an experiment to test whether their hypothesis is true. Only afterward can a conclusion answering the original question be found.
Limitations and Enlightenment
The ideas and scholarship of the Middle Ages naturally had their limitations. After all, it was only a select few in society during this time period that had the free time and means to pursue an intellectual lifestyle. Furthermore, the Middle Ages often receive a bad rap because of what came afterward: the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Both of these movements made progress in leaps and bounds in comparison to the slow advance of knowledge that occurred in the Middle Ages. Additionally, most of today's modern society is based on the science, philosophy, and legal theories that were formulated during the Enlightenment. As such, Western civilization today naturally hearkens back to that period as the 'beginning' of what we today consider modern, while assuming whatever came before was necessarily backward or wrong.
The common perception of the Middle Ages (that is, about 400-1400 A.D.) is that the period was a point of intellectual stagnation in history - a dark and backward time, where the learning and achievements of the Romans was irrevocably lost and not rediscovered until the logic and reason of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. While there is some truth in this idea - indeed, learning and scholarship was far smaller in scope and reach during the Middle Ages - it unfairly belittles the intellectual achievements that were made in the period.
For example, Asia Minor and Byzantine-controlled southwestern Europe experienced an intellectual boom during this period. Moreover, intellectual debate raged between students and professors who practiced scholasticism and read ancient works critically, making notations and debating with their colleagues in an attempt to understand, interpret, and make inferences to better understand the work's meaning. In addition, the very method by which so many scientific achievements would later be made was pioneered in this period by Roger Bacon and others.
While the Enlightenment may have given us many of the principles upon which modern society is based, it does not mean we can overlook the important improvements upon knowledge and learning made during the not-so-Dark Ages.
Once you've completed this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify a common perception about the Middle Ages
- Summarize why the Middle Ages is termed the Dark Ages
- Describe significant intellectual and scientific advancements made during the Dark Ages
- Compare the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment period
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