Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Dark Ages: Who Turned Out the Lights?

Among the literature of those who make it their main business to vilify the Christians, perhaps no concept has served a more useful purpose than the idea of “the Dark Ages”.  The Dark Ages, according to this reading of history, were those centuries in which the Church was culturally ascendant, with the inevitable result that civilization sunk into superstition, ignorance, obscurantism, and moral decadence.  Here everything that was bad about the world is laid at the Church’s door, especially the decline of Science (with a capital “S”), which apparently had been going great guns until the Church took over.  As evidence of the Church’s war against Science, enlightenment, tolerance, and reason in general, the name of Galileo is usually bandied about, along with the notion that everyone in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat.  It was from this ecclesiastical abyss that Science eventually pulled us all out, saving the world from the Church and restoring civilization.  But as we talk about the Dark Ages, it is worth asking how the Roman Empire of the west came to be so dark in the first place?  (Of the Roman Empire in the east, usually known as Byzantium, the vilifiers seem to know precious little.  Their world is a western world.)  In other words, who turned out the lights in the west?
            Your average person who delights in blaming the Church for the Dark Ages presumably thinks that it was the Church which was responsible for turning out the lights.  It is hard to argue with the sort of person who knows only this sort of history.  C.S. Lewis in his day lamented that for this sort of person, “History” was “that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man…a land of shadows, the home of wraiths like Primitive Man or the Renaissance or the Ancient-Greeks-and-Romans” (from his essay Historicism).  Things have not changed much since Lewis’ time, and for your average person today, “History” is often what you get from popular talk around the water-cooler, or perhaps from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail.    
Polemicists who comment on blogs often blame the Church for the Dark Ages.  Actual historians know that the Dark Ages, insofar as they were dark, were darkened by the barbarian invasions that inundated the western Roman Empire, and that it was only in the Church (and in its monasteries in particular) that any light was preserved.  It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest (as Thomas Cahill did in his book of similar name) that “the Irish (i.e. the Irish monks) saved civilization”, but it is certain that whatever vestiges of earlier Roman civilization managed to be saved were saved by the Church.  It was the pagan Gothic tribes sweeping down from the north and east that submerged classical Roman and Christian culture in a sea of barbarism.  It was the Church that tried to preserve what learning it could, and which strove valiantly to convert them.  After centuries of work it did a passable job, and it was only thanks to this that classic learning was preserved to become the foundation for later progress.  On that foundation the west has built many things, including modern democracy, modern science, and the concept of human rights.  But the foundation upon which they were built was a Christian one, one laid painfully and laboriously by the Church in the so-called Dark Ages.  In short:  it was the pagans who turned out the lights.  It was the Church who kept a lamp burning, and eventually turned the lights back on again.
            It is difficult and perhaps fruitless (unless one is paid by the word) to argue the case point by point, but a couple of examples may serve to illustrate the project as a whole.  Concerning the view that Christians in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat, and that everyone remained a prisoner of this delusion until Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved that it was round:  as a matter of historical fact, thinkers in the Dark Ages knew that the world was round.  All the writers of the high Middle Ages agreed that the earth was a sphere.  Vincent of Beauvais (born 1190) wrote that that if a hole were somehow drilled through the globe of earth so that a stone dropping down could pass freely from one sky to the other, it could come to rest at the center.  In other words, all thinking men knew well before our modern age that the earth was round.  The denial of this historical fact may be dated from the seventeenth century as part of the campaign of Protestants against Catholicism, a denial which gained currency in the nineteenth century.  (See Jeffrey Russell’s book Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.)
            Concerning the struggle of Galileo, supposedly the lone and lonely champion of Science in its valiant struggle against the Church’s dogmatism and blind ignorance:  Galileo himself was actually championed by a churchman, the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII.  Galileo got himself into trouble not by advocating his scientific theory, but because he antagonized his former supporters by his polemics (his book A Dialogue Concerning the Two Great World Systems, featured a debate between a Copernican of overwhelming learning and an all but moronic Aristotelian, named “Simplicio” (i.e. “simpleton”).  His crude and rude polemics were real problem, not his scientific theory.  Christians in his day stood on both sides of the debate.  But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?  Myths like this are too useful, and hard to come by.
            In all these debates about the Church and the Dark Ages, the real disagreement is not between the Church and the secularists, but between real scholars and ignoramuses who just love to blog.  Real historical scholars know that the concept of “the Dark Ages” is an historical construct of fairly recent vintage, and that the Church of that period was the defender of learning and the arts.  In every age there have been true scholars, and people who care little for learning.  The two have often tangled and argued.  Blogs with their comment sections prove that this continues to be true today.



  1. Were the Gothic tribes necessarily "pagan"? My understanding is that at least some of them, such as the Ostrogoths, were Arian, and thus Christian, albeit of a heretical sort. (And if Wikipedia is to be believed, the Ostrogoth king Theoderic conquered Italy with the semi-approval of the Byzantine emperor Zeno, who has himself a Monophysite, or at least sympathetic to the Monophysites, and was thus perhaps a Christian heretic himself.)

  2. The tribes were sweeping down on the west for centuries, and were mostly pagan--especially before the fourth century. Being a brief blog post, the piece necessarily deals with all the invasions with broad strokes.