I’m a huge history buff and I find I’m often surprised to see the types of inaccuracies that exist out there when it comes to some historical facts. It’s not just that certain people believe long discredited myths about history – it’s that these “facts” are repeated in books, on websites, in TV and movies and sometimes – shock horror! – by teachers and academics.
So, I’m starting a blog series today called “The Truth About …” which will look at and – hopefully – rectify these historical myths.
So, first up: The Truth About … The Dark Ages.
The “Dark Ages” is the phrase commonly used in the past (not so much anymore) by historians to refer to the period (roughly) between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. As historians of yore would have us believe, this period was a time of superstition, the rise of the Catholic Church, lack of intellectualism, and a time that was, just generally, a bit crap. The reason modern historians rarely use the phrase anymore is because … well, the “Dark Ages” weren’t really that dark.
It was the writer Petrarch who first invented the idea of the “dark ages” in 1330. He was using the phrase to refer to the lack of writers that existed in the period. This attitude continued during the Age of Enlightenment when philosophers such as Kant and writers such as Voltaire referred to the period as the “Dark Ages” also. The reason they did so, however, was different than the reason Petrarch did. They regarded religion as the antithesis of reason and because religion had been so prevalent during those years, to them, the period was dark.
This attitude changed during the Romantic period of the 1800s. The reason for this was because of the advancements in the industrial revolution and the awful conditions that many people found themselves in. The Romantic writers idealised the mediaeval period as a time of innocence when man was at one with nature. So, while Petrarch and the others thought of the people of that time as illiterate savages, the Romantics thought of them as carefree, hippies. And, of course, they were both wrong.
There are a number of myths about the “Dark Ages” that are simply incorrect. The main myth is that the Middle Ages were a time of superstition when people valued religion over reason. While this might have been the case to a certain extent, the fact is, rationality was a dominant force in the Middle Ages. Historian of science, Edward Grant:
“If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed [in the 18th century], they were made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities”.
One perfect example of this is the myth that everyone in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. This was not the case. Many lecturers in the mediaeval universities often put forward evidence to support the idea that the earth was round. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write:
“There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference”.
Of course, the very fact that there were mediaeval universities at all puts paid to the idea that people in the Middle Ages were crawling around in the dirt. It is true that most of these universities were set up by the Catholic churches, but the simple fact of the matter is that without the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, we wouldn’t have many of the classical written works that they preserved. Not that that excuses the whole inquisition thing and all, but that’s a post for another day.
Another myth connected to the church is the idea of religion’s suppression of science. This myth probably came about because of the Church’s treatment of Copernicus and Galileo. But again, this is not true. David Lindberg says that:
“The late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led”.
As Richard Swan points out in an article in The Independent newspaper:
“Modern law and parliamentary democracy depend on Magna Carta and the development of the parliamentary system in the 13 and 14 centuries. Modern philosophy builds on the work on many great medieval thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas. Universities are a medieval creation, and scientific and technological innovations were numerous. Such is the continuity of change that historians now identify at least three medieval ‘renaissances’: the Carolingian, the Ottonian and one in the 12 century.”
And, of course, the Middle Ages gave us the Knights who say Ni
So, all in all, the “Dark Ages” weren’t as primitive and intellectually-lacking as some would have us believe. Of course, they didn’t have shows like “X-Factor” and “Dancing on the Stars with Ice” so … Eh, yeah, what I just said!
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