A couple of books out there are hopefully making some headway toward disabusing secularists of their cherished myth that Rome was the height of ancient civilization, while the period after was some dismal “dark” age of ignorance and cruelty. Of course, to add insult to this historiographical injury, the blame for this “darkness” is always laid at the foot of the Church.
The first book is Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter S. Wells, who is an archaeologist at the University of Minnesota. From a review of the book we read:
Revisionist argument that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire was not an epoch of barbarian savagery, war, chaos and cultural bleakness. On the contrary, it was “a time of brilliant cultural activity” in Europe, writes Wells…
The so-called “Dark Ages” (400 to 800 CE) gave rise to new ideas, urban centers and political structures, as well as major developments in the arts, architecture and learning.
The second book is Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths by Régine Pernoud, translated by Anne Englund Nash.
From Carl E. Olson’s review on Amazon we read:
Her [Pernoud] major concern is that what passes for an education in history within public schools is often little more than a string of stereotypes held together by the glue of gullibility: “The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or generalized underdevelopment, even if this was the only period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!”
Yet the facts show again and again that the Middle Ages, far from being completely ignorant or dim-witted, produced scholars of astounding learning such as Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours and Hildegarde of Bingen. The latter, a woman, is not, as Pernoud demonstrates, an exception…
I have not read these books, so I cannot vouch for everything that might be written therein, but I most certainly am happy to agree with the general theme of each and the efforts to remove at least some of the fog of prejudice which seems to cloud the minds of so many on this subject.
A related theme in this area is the false linear historical line and simplistic labels many hold to that goes something like this, “Rome (good) and then ‘barbarians’ (bad) who are then made even worse by the Church (very bad) and then a reaction to all the badness, ‘Renaissance’ (good) which leads to the ‘Enlightenment’ (very good) and so forth and so on. Scholars have isolated those moments in both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (of course, even prior to) where moves were made philosophically/theologically that imagined a non-sacred space—something just “there,” a neutral surface, moves where we can discern the mostly negative turns birthing that which we have come to name ‘modernity.’ However, rather than a reaction to the Middle Ages, more accurately, it was the Christian narrative that helped give rise to both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (of course there were many ‘Enlightenments’).
Even references such as Wikipedia pick up on the connections:
The Renaissance was so called because it was a “rebirth” of certain classical ideas that had long been lost to Western Europe. It has been argued that the fuel for this rebirth was the rediscovery of ancient texts that had been forgotten by Western civilization, but were preserved in the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world, and some monastic libraries; and the translations of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin.
But notice, those classical ideas and texts had not been lost to Byzantium. And guess who introduced the Islamic world (and the West) to these “ancient” texts and classical ideas? Right, Byzantium. And guess who translated those Greek and Arabic texts into Latin? Right, Byzantine scholars. In fact, it was the Church in many places, not only the east (Ireland for instance), that preserved and copied the ancient texts of the classical world. Here is more from Wiki:
It should be emphasized that the new ideals of humanism, although more secular in some aspects, developed against an unquestioned Christian backdrop, especially in the Northern Renaissance. Indeed, much (if not most) of the new art was commissioned by or in dedication to the Church.
As to the Enlightenment, it is possible to interpret that time (although “which” time is more like it) as a heretical theological sensibility masquerading as something “scientific” or “rational” but really the culmination of theological moves that introduced the final imagination of a space called the “secular” that had heretofore been the designation of a ‘time’, like the dash on a tombstone between two dates. In this case the dates standing for, not birth and death, but rather the Ascension and the Parousia.
Those figures who articulated what we normally have come to think of as the Enlightenment could only have done so out of the world-view, language, and concepts bequeathed to them by the Church, regardless of where they took those concepts. What we have then, as noted in an earlier post, is the grandchildren living off the borrowed capital they never produced. Either way, both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment flowed from rivers fed by Christian springs, no matter how polluted they might have become once down stream.
However, the secularist should ponder this: If one wanted to designate a “Dark Age” he need look no further than the 20th Century. What if we were to measure an age, not by technological and scientific advancement, but by its violence and destruction of people. As alluded to in an earlier post, if we were to take the millions killed by the “scientific” materialism of Soviet Communism, Chinese communism, Pol-Pot in Cambodia, the millions killed by the Nazi State, the Holocaust, and the millions killed by western states in the pursuit of their goals (liberal democracy and free markets), the 20th Century could well be considered the darkest of all known ages.