Let’s Talk About How Great Medieval Europe Was (The “Dark Ages” Really Weren’t So Dark After All)
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“Who is more civilized?” asks Anthony Esolen, distinguished professor of Classics (and inaugural Fellow of the new Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College). He’s urging us to think about today’s society in comparison to that of the so-called “Dark Ages,” and what he has to say will undoubtedly surprise you!
Though commonly called the Dark Ages, the medieval era wasn’t so dark after all. Historically, the Dark Ages more accurately describes a period in ancient Greece from around 950 and 750 BC when the population dropped, settlements were left in favor of a return to the nomadic lifestyle, and writing and the Mycenaean civilization disappeared. The Middle Ages, or Medieval Era, was a time in history full of literature, carnivals, plays, and other cultural activity. Not to mention, incredibly devout Christians spreading the faith and philosophy (and science!) rooted in, and because of their strong devotion to Christ.
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You probably learned in high school history class about the black plague, Crusades, bad popes, lack of sanitary latrines, horse and carriages, and every other thing shed in a negative light. Did they focus on the negative to make you appreciate what you have now, or just because the textbook writers didn’t know how wonderful the Middle Ages really were? Do we ever ask if our curriculum had a biased agenda?
There are plenty of other centuries without bathrooms—hopefully, those are all behind us! The Middle Ages was also the time of princes and princesses, incredible saints, heroes, and scientific advancement. As with most other periods in history, this one can’t be chopped off with dates and completely separated from other time periods. They are all connected.
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For instance, the Renaissance, which is commonly considered the more positive time period after the Middle Ages, has been debated with historians as to whether or not it even happened. The term was coined in 1858 by Jules Michlete, and later Jacob Burckhardt used it in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. But, many traits (science, literature, culture, festivities) attributed to the Renaissance can be found to have originated in or existed during the Middle Ages.
Or take the Enlightenment (late 1600s to early 1800s). What is so Enlightening about it? Why do we call it that? These are questions I learned to ponder as a history major. It certainly makes it easier to talk about certain eras by labeling them, but keep in mind who put the label there and why. The Enlightenment was full of changing ideologies, technological advancements, and revolutions. Good or bad—what do you think about the label “enlightening,” especially as a Catholic when that period held not-so-Christ-friendly philosophical schools of thought?
So, who decided it was the Dark Ages? Of course, I wouldn’t want the black plague or necessarily want to be separated from my husband who went off to fight in the Crusades. That’d be terrifying! But, look at us now—we have nuclear weapons and terrorism. Not much better, just different.
The only time I would say is potentially “better” than another is the time is AD compared to BC because of Christ. Then again, God was always watching over humanity, so who is to say what is better or not?
We tend to think of our own society as incredibly progressive because we have smart-phones, vaccines, airplanes, and democracy. We even think we are better than all other times before ours. But, think about it like this: people living in the “Dark Ages” knew how to suffer, while today we tend to only know how to complain and over-medicate our bodies and rant on social media. We don’t understand pilgrimage in the same way medieval men did, we overdo our voting rights and think our opinion matters so much that we deny others their free will and speech, and we walk along like zombies texting on our phones instead of stopping to smell the roses.
Don’t get me wrong, smart-phones, vaccines, airplanes, and democracy are great! I’m very thankful for them. But, I’m also thankful for history, for the miraculous time and effort our ancestors put into building medieval castles and cathedrals, and everything else they’ve passed on to us! Instead of blaming the Catholic Church (which was the only Christian Church at the time) and its people for their faults, I am grateful for the Church’s survival through these past millennia and for all the saints that have helped humanity. Don’t let anyone lead you away from being proud of your Catholic heritage or traditions because of their view of the Middle Ages!
So, who is more civilized?
Professor Esolen points out in response to his own question: “We dismiss the achievements of our ancestors and fall short of them. They [those in the Middle Ages] honored their ancestors and surpassed them.”
It’s difficult to see ourselves as more civilized when you put it like that.
Especially as a Catholic, my life is so enriched by the past traditions. I live in the light of the truth, and I don’t think the truth is that the “Dark Ages” were all that dark. I wouldn’t want a time machine to take me back to a time without indoor plumbing because I know God put me in this time and place for a reason.
Just imagine a world without all the distractions we have, where people have plenty of time to think, to contemplate. That’s a great place to live, and so is ours. Kind of makes me want to turn off my computer right now and go for a walk on my neighborhood beach just to listen to the wind and the waves.
– Summa Theologia by Thomas Aquinas
– The Rule of St .Benedict by St. Benedict
– The Soul’s Journey to God and The Reduction of Art to Theology by St. Bonaventure
– The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
– Interior Castle St Theresa of Avila
– On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
– The Canterbury Tales by St. Thomas Becket
– Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
– The Song of Roland
– The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
– Piers Plowman by Langland