Medieval Monday – Light in the Dark Ages

On Friday I wrote about my theories on how the age that we currently live in will be viewed by History.  I called it The Age of Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls.  And in the comments a few people likened the path we’re on now to the Dark Ages.  That got me to thinking.  Why?  Because, frankly, I’ve never believed the Dark Ages were as dark as your average high school survey of history leads people to believe.

Why do I believe that the Dark Ages weren’t that dark in spite of popular opinion and the word of some scholars?  Because of a Medieval History class I took in college at the University of Central Florida.  Our prof in that class, Dr. Fetscher, was this great German guy who had as many fascinating personal stories relating to history as he did lessons from textbooks.  I’ll never forget the time he told us about visiting a very old monastery and seeing the shelves and shelves of books that had been written and preserved by monks back when there were only three digits in years.

© Serban Enache |

That episode from Dr. Fetscher’s life left enough of an impression that I have always looked at the history of the Dark Ages, the years between the Fall of Rome (476) and the year 1000 with a healthy amount of skepticism.  And recently, as I was reading A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren, I was struck by Van Doren’s question, “Did the people of the Dark Ages feel the same way about their lives as we do?  Or did they see a light that we no longer see?”  Modern people look back at that age of decentralization with its lack of trade, education, and the arts and judge it harshly.  But how did the people who lived through it see their lives?

Of course, since people living in Europe between 500 and 1000 didn’t have Facebook to post about their every emotion as they had it, it’s pretty hard to tell what they thought of things.  But Van Doren makes a really good case based on the evidence that we do have of the time period.  His theory is that your average citizen was probably content with their lot because they didn’t have the same goals as the people of the Roman Empire had or that we have in the modern world.  (Goals which, by the way, are eerily similar)

Van Doren points out that the Fall of the Roman Empire was not the first nor the last time that a vast civilization collapsed.  Before Rome, the great civilization of China experienced a similar sacking and collapse by the same folks who sacked Rome, the Huns.  Yet their civilization recovered within a few generations.  In the mid-14th century Europe was decimated by the Black Death.  It entered an economic and personal decline that makes our Great Depression look silly.  And yet Europe had recovered and moved on within 150 years.  Modern man recovered from the Great Depression and devastation of war on either side of it within a few decades.  Time and time again civilizations have taken a massive hit and recovered within a reasonable amount of time.

So why did it take 500 years for mankind to get over the Fall of Rome?  The natural resources available were the same as before and after.  The collective IQs of Europe probably didn’t dip to the point where not a single man or woman born in those 500 years could figure out how to farm better or govern better or travel further.  The challenges people faced weren’t any more insurmountable than those of the native people that created the Roman Empire from scattered tribes in the first place.  Rome may not have been built in a day, but it certainly didn’t take 500 years.  So what was it then?

Van Doren’s answer is St. Augustine.  Yep.  St. Augustine and Christianity.

Wait a minute, you say.  Isn’t Christianity ultimately the force that pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages?  Wasn’t it Charlemagne’s efforts to Christianize the barbarians of Europe and connect people throughout Europe under the banner of a single faith that caused people to come together and swear allegiance to a single ruler?

Of course it was!  Ah, but what was early Christianity saying to people between 500 and 1000 AD?  Because let me tell you, it wasn’t the same message that you can hear in any given church today.

“The Conversion of St. Augustine” by Benozzo Gozzoli

In his seminal work, The City of God, St. Augustine makes a sharp distinction between the City of Man, with its focus on wealth, luxury, entertainment, and the flesh, and the City of God, which is spiritual, humble, pure, and holy.  St. Augustine was writing at a time when all that had been Rome was crumbling as barbarian invasion after barbarian invasion shook the foundations of what the people of Europe believed.  His message was that all of the chaos around them was just the City of Man being destroyed.  The City of God, he said, could now shine through.  And the City of God was not concerned with material things.

I think Van Doren might be on to something when he asserts that the reason why the Dark Ages lasted so long and the reason that the people who lived in those years might have been content to live that way was because the overwhelming message that they were hearing, that they had heard since Christianity came to prominence, was that poverty was good.  Self-sacrifice was the way to heaven.  Riches, the City of Man, would lead to hell.  It is also no surprise that so many ascetic orders of monks came into being during this time.

This was an entirely different mindset than what we assume to be true about life in the modern world.  I don’t think modern people can comprehend a life where success was achieved by having as little stake in the world as possible.  But if the humble life of a servant of God was the pinnacle of success, if your average person who had been brought low at the Fall of Rome was made to believe that their new reality was a better reality, if less was suddenly more, than it’s no wonder that it took so long to change.

Perhaps, as Van Doren asserts, the people of Europe of the Dark Ages didn’t think they needed to change.  Perhaps they were fulfilled not by having houses and riches, trade and travel, but by living deep in the contemporary belief that a life dedicated to something not of this world, dedicated to God, was a better measure of success.  It was certainly easier to achieve that kind of success than worldly success.

I like Van Doren’s theory.  I’m not 100% convinced, but it does seem highly plausible to me.  After all, the values and goals of different eras of history are as changeable as the weather.  But what do you think?


5 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – Light in the Dark Ages

  1. There have been many collapses of empires dating before 3000 b.c – and may dark ages – “dark” not to be taken literally as most do. I always imagined it as a time of re-organization as is about to happen once more.

  2. That actually seems like a pretty decent life: not always feeling like you need to do more/have more to “fit in”. Being happy with what you have instead of what you “should” have.

  3. I think that is a very strong theory. We often forget history, and what we do remember is the odd tree in a very large, worldwide, culturally diverse forest.

  4. The reason was the disconnection of western europe from the eurasian trade system after the conquest of eastern med and north africa by the Muslims.

    Prior to this the med formed a single integrated trade system that was connected to the larger continental trade system. Europe was recovering economically. trade flourished, the cities were growing and centralised kingdoms full of romanised barbarians were rising. Then the muslims overran the richest and most vital portions of the Christian world, Egypt and the Levant. This disconnected Europe from the trade system. Europe was forced back onto its own resources and isolated. As a result the western european economy essentially collapsed. Whereas before goods and coinage from as far as Ethiopia and Egypt could be found in northern Fance, afterwards currency almost vanished north of the alps and all production became localised. The cities emptied. The collapse in trade reduced tax revenues which weakened the central government. This allowed the rise of local warlords and created a situation that could be exploited by Magyar, Saracen and Viking raiders.

    Europe would not be reconnected to the system until the taming of the Magyars and the success of the First crusade reopened the routes and reconnected western europe.

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