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Top 10 Reasons The Dark Ages Were Not Dark

Published on June 9, 2008 - 103 Comments

I believe that we can safely say that the period of man's history from 476 AD to 1000 AD is the most maligned of all. This period, known to historians as the Early Middle Ages, is still referred to by most laymen as the Dark Ages. In fact the term "dark ages" is almost as ancient as the period itself - it was coined in the 1330s by Petrarch, the Italian scholar, to refer to the decline of Latin literature. It was later taken by the protestant reformers (16th century) and then the members of the Englightenment (18th century) as a derogatory term with much broader implications, because they saw their own "enlightenment" as absent from the earlier period. Hardly a fair judgement on the past. Fortunately for modern students of history, the term is now officially known as the Early Middle Ages - a name which has no connotations at all. So, having given you the background on the terms, here are ten reasons that the dark ages were, in fact, a period of great progress and light.

10 Universities Are Born It's a really interesting read, it's good to get a clear view of a time, rather than clouded by myths and assumptions.

The Classical Education (still used today in some schools) was the system used by the Universities which were created in the Early Middle Ages (the first in history). The universities taught the arts, law, medicine, and theology (the study of religion). The University of Bologna (founded in 1088) was the first ever to grant degrees. In addition to the classical structure (based on Ancient Greek education), these medieval universities were heavily influenced by Islamic education which was thriving at the time. While women were not admitted to Universities in the early days, the education of women did exist. The convents of the day educated the young women who would often enter at a very young age. One such women (Hildegard Von Bingen) is one of the most celebrated women of the Medieval era who had great influence over the men in power at the time.

9 Scientific Foundations Laid

While progress in Science was slow during this period in the West, the progress was steady and of a very high quality. The foundation was laid here for the wonderful blossoming of science that was to occur in the High Middle Ages to come. It can be safely said, that without the study of Science in the Early Middle Ages, we would be considerably behind in our scientific knowledge today. Ronald Numbers (professor at Cambridge University) has said: 'Notions such as: "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", "the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences", "the medieval Christians thought that the world was flat", and "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages" [are] examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by historical research.' [Source: Video or audio Lecture]

8 Carolingian Renaissance

The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of advancements in literature, writing, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, liturgical and scriptural studies which occurred in the late eighth and ninth centuries. The Carolingians were Franks and the most well known is Charlemagne. The Carolingian empire was considered a rebirth of the culture of the Roman Empire. At the time, Vulgar Latin was beginning to be replaced by various dialects as the main spoken languages in Europe, so the creation of schools was vital to spread knowledge further amongst the common people. It was also this period which gave us the foundation of Western Classical Music.

7 Byzantine Golden Age

Under Justinian this period gave us the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil law) - an enormous compendium of Roman Law. Literacy was high,elementary education was widespread (even in the countryside), middle education was available to many people, and higher education (as discussed above) was also widely accessible. In the Byzantine empire during this period we saw a massive outpouring of books - encyclopedias, lexicons, and anthologies. While they did not create a lot of new thinking, they solidified and protected for the future much of what was already known.

6 Religious Unity

This is a sticky topic, but the fact is, during the Early Middle Ages, Europe had a united Church, an agreed upon canon of the Bible, and a well developed philosophical tradition. This led (as one would expect) to a great period of peace within the Western nations. While Islam was not in agreement with the doctrines of the West, much mutual sharing of information happened and the Islamic contribution to the West is still felt today. This union of beliefs allowed for intellectual progress unseen since the Roman Empire at its heyday. In a sense you might consider this period as the calm before the storm, as it was merely a hundred years later that the first Crusade would be called to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims - an event which ended the flow of knowledge between groups.

Just paying the bills...


5 Algebra Arrived

Thanks to the learning of the Islamic people in the East, the world received its first book on algebra. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing was written by Al-Khwārizmī (790-840) and the Arabic title of the book gave us the word "algebra". The word algorithm comes from al-Khwārizmī's name. This book gave us the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations. Later translations of his books also gave us the decimal positional number system we use today. Al-Khwārizmī, along with Diophantas, is considered the Father of algebra.

4 Art and Architecture

During the Early Middle Ages, architecture was diverse and innovative. It introduced the idea of realistic images in art and it laid the groundwork for the Romanesque period which was to come in the High Middle Ages. The period also included the introduction and absorption of classical forms and concepts in architecture. It can safely be said that this period was the first period of high art - with previous styles (Migration period) being much more functional and less "artistic". In the Early Middle Ages we witness the birth of an astonishing and beautiful history of art and building.

3 Fantastic Weather

Trivial as it may seem, the weather played a much greater part in the lives of the average people during the Middle Ages and beyond. When we think of the "Dark Ages" we tend to see images of snow storms, rain, thunder, and darkness - such as we see in films like "The Name of the Rose". The fact is, in the Early Middle Ages, the North Atlantic region was warming up - so much so that at the opening of the High Middle Ages (1100 AD), the region was 100 years into an event now known as the Medieval Warm Period. This warm period thawed much ice and enabled the Vikings to begin their colonization of Greenland and other northern nations. Ironically, the Protestant reformation (16th century) up until the 19th century suffered the Little Ice Age - the period of "enlightenment" was literally darker and colder than the "dark" ages. During this period, reforms and better knowledge of agriculture provided a boost to food supplies.

2 Law Becomes Fair

The Early Middle Ages had a complex system of laws which were often not connected, but they were effective and fair for the most part. For merchants traveling around the world, there was the Lex Mercatoria (Law Merchant) which had evolved over time, rather than being created. This law included arbitration and promoted good practice amongst traders. At the same time, Anglo Saxon Law was formed with a focus on keeping peace in the land. While this eventually lead to some very tough laws, living under the legal system in the Early Middle Ages was probably the best time to live - as it was still flexible and fair for the majority. The third important legal system was the the Early Germanic Law which allowed each person to be tried by his own people - so as to not be disadvantaged by ignorance or major cultural differences.

1 Agricultural Boom

If you were wanting to die a martyr by starvation, the Early Middle Ages were not the time to do it! As a consequence of the excellent weather and greater agricultural knowledge, the West did extremely well. Iron tools were in wide use in the Byzantine empire, feudalism in other parts of the world introduced efficient management of land, and massive surpluses were created so that animals were fed on grains and not grass. Public safety was also guaranteed under the feudal system and so peace and prosperity



This list has 103 comments

1. manashiori - June 9th, 2008 at 6:26 am how ironic really. such a boom in man's life and they call it that way

great list! something to add during convos. [image]

2. someone - June 9th, 2008 at 6:29 am


3. dangorironhide - June 9th, 2008 at 6:30 am

Great list J! Though I thought you said this was going to be Tuesdays one? [image]It's a really interesting read, it's good to get a clear view of a time, rather than clouded by myths and assumptions.

4. SlickWilly - June 9th, 2008 at 6:39 am

someone: For future info any "first" posts automatically go into moderation and will be deleted by an admin. You're better off not even trying to play that game.

As for the list, very interesting. This actually dispells some misconceptions I had about the Middle Ages. I always had the impression that it was a fearful, strenuous, oppresive period in history, not one of fairness and growth. Didn't the Spanish Inquisition take place in the Middle Ages? The auto-de-fe? Didn't the Middle Ages spawn an rebirth in torture technology?

5. Sharki - June 9th, 2008 at 6:39 am

Great list! It's always good when someone strives to correct the historical record.

6. Bob - June 9th, 2008 at 6:48 am

Wonderful list. I'm curious, though, why it would be a bad thing to prevent people from cutting up human bodies. What must it take for one person to treat another as non-human? Our own age has the answer. 

7. EricB - June 9th, 2008 at 6:57 am

very nice.

8. dangorironhide - June 9th, 2008 at 7:06 am

SlickWilly: The Spanish Inquisition was set up in 1478, which is quite a while after the time period this list is referring to, from 476 AD to 1000 AD.).

So 'beautiful times' they were not. For that, go to a Medieval Faire or something.

41. MPW - June 9th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

what about when people discuss the good and bad aspects of something

for example my family is taking a trip to the mountains

pro- we will have fun and spend quality time together

con- it might be freezing

good and bad are opposites so why cant pro and con be opposite if they mean the same thing?

some words have multiple meanings

how would the latin version of pro have anything to do with the pro in professional or protagonist?

42. Lewis_RATM - June 9th, 2008 at 1:56 pm

Al-Khwārizmī just failed me my Junior cert!
But seriously, where did algebra come from, as in, why create maths with X's and Y's?

43. kiwiboi - June 9th, 2008 at 1:57 pm

MPW - reasonable question. Remember that there can be more than one definition/usage for a prefix or suffix.

But the examples you gave earlier (congress/progress) are not opposites despite their prefixes.

I cannot answer each case you could raise. Aside from time/effort, I am no expert on this.

If you are really interested (and it is a very interesting topic, IMHO), try this site (I have started you on the derivation of "professional") :

44. MPW - June 9th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

it was supposed to be a joke but since you're not from the states its understandable

45. kiwiboi - June 9th, 2008 at 2:02 pm

Lewis - wiki has a good article on algebra. But, basically, we need to be able to express general rules and concepts; and to apply them. The use of a standardised symbolic framework allows this.

46. kiwiboi - June 9th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

MPW - what part of it was a joke? The progress/congress thing?

If so, it's because you are from the states I thought you were not joking [image]

47. GB2626 - June 9th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

Great list. It's funny that you refer to it as "Fantastic Weather" for #3. I thought a slight warming meant the end of the world that justified destroying economies to stop it. Obviously they were driving around in gas guzzling carts and not offsetting their environmental impact by buying carbon credits. Truly the dark ages.

48. MPW - June 9th, 2008 at 2:14 pm

you see kiwiboi in the USA Congress is the most powerful branch of government and they never seem to get anything done

and since progress means to be productive and to solve problems and such

do you see where im headed with this?:)

congress and progress- total opposites.


"do you ever notice how men always leave the toilet seat up(silence) that's the joke"

"you suck Mcbain"

49. kiwiboi - June 9th, 2008 at 2:22 pm

you see kiwiboi in the USA Congress is the most powerful branch of government and they never seem to get anything done

MPW - gee thanks. I'd never heard of this "congress" thingy, not being from the states 'n all.

56. kiwiboi - June 9th, 2008 at 2:48 pm


65. Troy - June 9th, 2008 at 4:58 pm

Just for the info, a great book by William Manchester titled "A World Lit Only by Fire" really touches on the Dark Ages (among other things). A wonderful read for those interested in the topic.

66. Vera Lynn - June 9th, 2008 at 5:43 pm

Laura: I like the slope-intercept form better y = mx + b

MPW: Sweet! Congrats!!!! Well done. I'm impressed. I like oxymorons, too. My fave "pretty ugly"

Kiwiboi: I knew that too!

Lewis_RATM: I can prove why when 2 negative numbers are multiplied they must equal a positive number. Also I like imaginary numbers which most people don't know about or understand.

67. JB - June 9th, 2008 at 6:17 pm

To 33 Crimanon:

Maybe we're talking from different points of view. I mean, of course something happened in those ages. And in fact the decay was in the lasting Rome Empire. But it really was still a dark age.

I don't know what you mean with "enough excess food to support cities and the creation of entire classes of people that sat around thinking all day".

Cities were almost abandoned after Rome collapsed.
Those classes of thinking people were monks, and most of them e had a sufficient selfproduction in monasteries. Of course there was an intelectual progress there. But comparing to the ancient civilizations was nothing.

Food doesn't fall from sky. Or at least in those days didn't. By fatige I ment long working hours, everyday, even in the worst conditions and strong diseases, from your childwood to your death in 30 years(if you were lucky). Those who survived could eat. Those who didn't work so hard, couldn't. So there wasn't starving at all.

What I ment about Islam is that some items in this list doesn't belong to the European Dark Ages but Muslim Golden Ages. (university and algebra)

Maybe you think those were a good time for women rights. You're wrong. Egyptian women had better ones, and also most of the ancient civilizations. Unfortunately Roman nor greek didn't, and those were the ones that cames to us.

I have to add that feudal lords protected them… If the case was worse to go castle and spend there the day waiting for your turn and hoping your lord justice to be fair. Feudal laws were compleatly arbitrary.
And they went to war if necesary… Yes, they did as good knights. But they went after the hordes of peasants to be massacrated while tiring the enemy.

I totally agree that life wasn't as bad as in low middle ages (let me doubt about cultural development). And maybe it was better -or equal- than in lasting Roman Empire. But comparing to the Old ages there was a cultural fallout, without doubting. There come the Dark Ages term. (used also in many others times in history)

The dark ages were the fundation of our society. But grew from the bottom. A tabula rasa forgetting about the past better times.
¿will anybody say that we're better than Egyptians, for instance?

algebra rocks!!!!

76. MPW - June 9th, 2008 at 7:14 pm

i kid because i love…

77. MPW - June 9th, 2008 at 7:16 pm

wowzers! really?

my pops used to watch his show when i was little

i used to call him crusty limbaugh

78. WarningDontReadThis - June 9th, 2008 at 7:19 pm

Jfrater: there you are! I was wondering what happend to you.. I am starting to get settled in now so my posts should increase as my time does

97. robneiderman - June 10th, 2008 at 8:01 am

As for the Medieval Warming Period. Your text and graph show it starting at about 1000, when the period being discussed ends. Can this be one of the top 10 reasons, then?
Also, commenters seem to be blending the entire medieval period into one homogenous block, kind of like the movie A Knight's Tale. You have to remember that from the deposition of Romulus Augustulus to the Battle of Bosworth (common bookends to the Middle Ages, though debated) was longer than from then to now. The Inquisition, the Black Death, the Investiture Controversy, even the monarchial papacy, don't come until after 1000.
The comment about religious unity holds true, at least in an official context. There were East/West schisms, but they remained short term until the 1054 one (and even then it wasn't assumed to last as long as it has).
The problem with using old terms like Middle Ages, Early Middle Ages, or Dark Ages, is that they imply homogeneity, which isn't accurate. The 6th century was different from the 11th in a great many respects.
Oh, and algebra sucks.

98. Lewis_RATM - June 10th, 2008 at 8:56 am

Kiwiboi: I was studying it there and the only reason it works is because you're denying the normal fact of multiplication that when you multiply by 10, you add a zero. I think that's why it works anyway.

Vera Lynn: Square root of -x, and the like, right?

99. Lewis_RATM - June 10th, 2008 at 9:08 am

Kiwiboi: So yeah, it isn't false logic, but it is pretty sneaky, :p

Anyway, cool list.

100. Diog - June 10th, 2008 at 9:45 am

Although Ted Turner has spoken about his attempts in purchasing Notre-Dame de Chartres (as far back as the early 90's) and to have it "updated", a final price is still being negotiated. He said that if all went according to plan, the "coatings" would be similiar to that of auto paint, protecting the shape of the architecture for centuries to come and "popularizing the past" with a vibrant intensity. Along with other additions, such as a swimming pool and squash court, Turner has stated that his "New Chartres" may include glitter.

reply to #52. dgsinclair:
I was being silly.

101. JB - June 10th, 2008 at 12:45 pm

to Crimanon girlfriend

sorry for my last post length and my bad wrigting (I was sleppy)

feudalism appeared in the IX century. I presumed you reffered to that when you talked about those medieval laws…
Here're the anglosaxon laws. No mention to women. Just say that they're allowed to recive a part his husband testament:
Most of the points are refered to the King rights, not people ones.
I don't know about germanic ones, but I presume will be more of the same.

The late Western Roman Empire (from c. II to V) was a dark age. I was just saying that I agree: maybe High Middle Ages were better times.

Point 10: "In addition to the classical structure (based on Ancient Greek education), these medieval universities were heavily influenced by Islamic education which was thriving at the time."
And something more. The first universities were founded in XII century, so not in high middle ages.

The trade routes were the remains of the ancient Mediterranian cultures. I don't understand your thesis in that point. They weren't as travelled as in Old Ages.

Very few European scholars had acces to algebra. And in most places was considered an heretic knowledgment. It was in low middle ages, in XII century, when that knowlegdment came to us. 

Have you ever been in Europe? If you have the opportunity, do it and go see as much museums as you can. You will really enjoy it if you like Medieval.

Is just that seems like your education comes from a kind of Opus Dei or evangelist studies. And I think it doesn't. Isn't it?

PD: that final words were just for your own fun, Crimanon

102. spinks - June 10th, 2008 at 4:16 pm

On top of all that, the Dark Ages probably weren't as putrid and filthy as modern portrayals make out. The again, if I went for a visit I still think I'd take some disinfectant and a spray bottle of Febreeze, just to be on the safe side.

103. MPW - June 10th, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Slickwilly, all kidding aside you seem really smart. 

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