For nearly five hundred years, scholars and historians have referred to anything backward and primitive as coming from the “Dark Ages.” The term was created to refer to medieval times, which some say were mired in darkness and backwardness.
Typical of this misconception is the 2020 introduction of the book: World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right by Matthew Rose. He begins his book by asking, “What comes after liberalism? We know what came before it: oppression, ignorance, violence, and superstition.”
Thus, many think everything was dark and oppressive before modernity, but everything afterward was full of freedom and light. This dark image of the past is so widespread that many assume it to be true without questioning its origins.
However, modern scholars looking at the historical facts now conclude that the Dark Ages were anything but dark. In recent years, they have shed new light upon this great epoch that contributed so much to history.
The Term ‘Dark Ages’ Was Meant to Slander the Church
The history of the term Dark Ages first emerged from Protestant writers in the seventeenth century as a means to criticize the Roman Catholic Church. The outlandish claim was that the institution of the papacy concealed Christian truth for a thousand years starting in 500 A. D., when all human progress supposedly stopped.
Only with the Renaissance and Protestant Revolt did the world break out of these stagnant times. In 1624, English Protestant writers like George Abbott labeled what was once known as merry ole England as “the gloomy dark Ages before Luther.”
For this reason, the term is much more popular in England and Protestant northern Europe than in the Catholic south. Indeed, it was practically unknown in Catholic countries like France or Italy. Its usage was always much more sectarian than historical.
Following the Science to Truth
Modern scholars no longer have the old biases of times past. They now dismiss the thousand-year reign of ignorance as unscientific. Those who do “follow the science” find a much different narrative.
Most historians will acknowledge a short period of chaos after the Ostrogoth Odoacer ousted the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476. Waves of invasions and confusion followed while the Church worked to establish order. If there was a dark period, it was limited to the two-hundred-year period after the fall of Rome. This transition time is now more accurately called “Late Antiquity,” “Migration Period” and “Early Middle Ages.”
The Regeneration of Europe in 800
However, as the year 800 dawned, Europe was already developing rapidly. Led by the monks, agriculture started to flourish, and nations formed. New technology appeared that changed society radically for the better.
By the twelfth century, an explosion of energy and progress brought forth Gothic architecture, universities, hospitals, chivalry and legal systems. Scholar Charles Homer Haskins referred to this burst of light in his 1927 classic work, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.
In his book, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Jean Gimpel claimed that men in medieval times “introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known.”
The Darkness of the Enlightenment and the Reply of Romanticism
Despite the historical evidence of progress, the Middle Ages continued to be slandered even after the Protestant Revolt. The Enlightenment only heaped more darkness on the Dark Ages as its philosophers shared the Protestant hatred for the Catholic Church.
The dark message was the same, although the focus had changed. Its narrative claimed that the progress and wisdom of the medieval world came from the philosophers and artists of an idealized ancient Rome. These scholars dismissed the Middle Ages as the product of barbarian Goths and Vandals.
The nineteenth-century Romantics rehabilitated the medieval past by idealizing chivalry and reviving Gothic architecture. It retained something of the dark atmosphere because it served as a contrast to medieval heroic figures. This favorable though sentimental vision of medieval times had the advantage of creating interest in the epoch. It later prompted scholars to analyze the facts, contradicting the Dark Age label.
A Modern Vindication of the Middle Ages
Modern scholarship has done much to clear the medieval name.
Encyclopædia Britannica reports that “The term ‘Dark Ages’ is now rarely used by historians because of the value judgment it implies.” Scholars claim the decline in living standards in the post-Roman world between the fifth to seventh centuries would more appropriately be called a “transition,” “change” and “transformation” rather than a crisis.
Peter Kauffner, in his article on the site, Medievalists.net, claims that “today’s historians often treat the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ as a slur.” He claims dozens of “debunkings” have appeared over the years. One recent example is the book, The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, which comments on the early medievalss advance in knowledge and science.
Kauffner cites a 2021 book review in the New York Times that states, “Modern scholars cringe at any reference to the term ‘Dark Ages.’”
Indeed, the truth about the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church’s positive influence over the period has been vindicated. However, the reason is not any religious conversion. Postmodernity’s break with Western civilization is so complete that its agnostic scholars look at the facts, not the old biases. Ironically, the new generation of researchers makes no judgments of values because they are told not to be judgmental of anything.
While academia has abandoned the notion of the “Dark Ages,” today’s decadent popular culture has not seen the light. Hollywood, video games and other sources of medieval imagery keep the Middle Ages dark. Distorting history serves to distort the moral values that existed in the past.
Like in the past, the continued use of the “Dark Ages” is not a historical debate but a moral one. It prolongs the animosity toward the Church that began with the Protestant Revolt. The left, in general, insists upon ignoring historical reality, even when its educational institutions present these facts. The real darkness is upon those who are blinded by their ideological hatred.