Dark Ages in a Modern World

Earlier this week I read this article about a librarian at a 400 year old library in Bavaria who discovered a cache of silver coins.  It’s one of those really cool stories about someone who stumbled across a treasure that had been sitting under everyone’s nose for hundreds of years.  Sort of like the Viking hoards that have been found now and then buried randomly in the UK.

Maybe it was the library, maybe it was Bavaria, but this story reminded me of the most amazing story I’ve ever heard, a story one of my history professors at the University of Central Florida told us.

My professor, Elmar Fetscher, was this fantastic old German guy.  He taught the Medieval and Early Modern Europe classes that I took and was my advisor for an independent study on Cardinal Richelieu.  He was the kind of guy that knew his history so thoroughly that you would have believed he’d gone back in time.  There was a reason for that.

Dr. Fetscher was a young adolescent during World War Two.  His family lived near Berlin.  His father was a Nazi, but as Dr. Fetscher explained you kind of had to be a Nazi if you wanted to stay alive and keep your house and your business.  His father was a doctor, so he needed to toe the party line.  Somehow his family made it through the war in one piece and without their Berlin house being bombed or destroyed by Allied forces at the end of the war.  But things were so bad in Germany when the war ended that his family sent him to a monastery.

As Dr. Fetscher explained, he was not the monastery sort.  He was always asking questions and causing trouble and challenging authority.  He says that he and his buddies got into all sorts of trouble during their time there.  But when he reached the age where boys could become monks the brothers at the monastery were eager to have him join their ranks.  He laughed at them and said, “Why would you want me to become a monk?  I question everything you tell me!”  To which they replied, “That’s exactly the right quality to have as a monk.”

Well, Dr. Fetscher did NOT become a monk.  He left the monastery, went to college, and eventually moved to Florida.  But in the course of his studies he saw one of the most amazing things I have ever heard anyone describe to me.

There is an era of History that is frequently referred to as The Dark Ages.  This is the time after the fall of the Roman Empire but before roughly the year 1000.  Dr. Fetscher hated the term and reused to let us use it.  Why?  Because he knew better.

Once, when he was studying in southern Germany, he was invited to a certain monastery that has existed almost as long as Christianity has existed.  He was invited to visit their library.  This particular library had been built underground or into the wall of a hill, I can’t quite remember which.  It had been there for over a thousand years.

I imagine the library looking like this one from Hereford Cathedral dating back to 1100.

As Dr. Fetscher describes it, when they opened the door he was let into an absolutely huge room full of shelf after shelf of medieval manuscripts.  He said the room was easily as large as the main room of the University of Central Florida library (which is pretty darn big!).  The documents on those shelves were all from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Then the brother who was giving him the tour said, “But wait, there’s more!”  They walked to the back of the room through the shelves and there was a smaller door.  The brother unlocked that and let them through to another large room packed full of shelves.  Dr. Fetscher said that the shelves in this room were jammed floor to ceiling with more medieval books and illuminated manuscripts.  The brother told him that those were the ones that were from the 11th and 12th centuries.

And then he said, “Come on through, there’s something else I have to show you.”  At the back of the room was another small, ancient door, and through that was yet another room.  This room was carved out of the rock itself.  It was dark and close, but also filled with shelf after shelf of books and manuscripts.  Hundreds of them.  Maybe thousands.  The brother explained, “These are the oldest books we have.  They all pre-date the 11th century.  Some are as old as the 8th and 9th century”.

Well, Dr. Fetscher was blown away.  He said that the books appeared to be in good shape in spite of their age and that the cave-like room they were in was cool and dry.  He was allowed to touch one of the books and while it was brittle he could make out the writing.  The problem was, as he explained, that there are so few people who can read the Germanic language that they were written in and a great many of them are too delicate to move out of that room.  But, he hoped, some day we would have the technology to scan those pages onto a computer of some sort and read them.  He told me this story in 1996.

I have always been struck by how Dr. Fetscher ended his story.  He told us that the so-called Dark Ages weren’t dark at all.  Knowledge existed, books existed.  People were learned, but in certain locations only.  The problem wasn’t that knowledge was lost, it was that transportation was lost.  Since the people who housed and maintained the learning of the Western world couldn’t safely travel and spread that information it remained holed up in monasteries like the one he visited.  But the knowledge was out there.

Contrast that with the world we live in today, a world Dr. Fetscher might not have been able to imagine in 1996.  Nowadays knowledge travels faster than the speed of light.  All you need is an internet connection and the wisdom of ages is at your fingertips.  It’s no wonder that repressive governments like China block internet access.  But it also makes me believe that ignorance these days is willful.  In the modern world we have more “stuff” available for our brains than ever in the history of the world, but far, far too many people ignore it or turn away from it for the silliest of reasons.

So are we poised on the edge of a new Dark Ages?  An age where information is available but stifled by willful ignorance, thinly veiled superstition, and government suppression?  Hmm….  Maybe.