They say that when Rome fell, civilized society fell with it. Following the fall of Rome civilization took steps backward in cultural and intellectual advancements and the quality of life in Europe decreased significantly. It is commonly believed that the Catholic Church kept an iron death grip on the people and held Europe in a constant state of decline throughout the period which was dubbed the Dark Ages. It was only when the Church’s influence waned in a few Italian cities that culture returned to the people and people were once again free to pursue intellectual achievements. This period was called the Enlightenment and put an end to “The Dark Ages.” However, it seems that this telling of history has become propaganda perpetuated to discriminate against the Church and to hide its achievements.
After the Barbarians sacked Rome and the Empire fell, the Church was the only societal structure that remained in the west. This enabled the Church greater access to the continent of Europe and so began the second great wave of evangelization. The church sent out monks and missionaries all over this new land to convert the barbarian tribes to Catholicism. The monks established themselves in small communities and monasteries throughout these new lands where they lived their lives in Christ. Their day would consist of prayer, meals and rest, and work. The monks were self-sustaining, growing their own food and getting their own water while selling the excess to their neighbors. They would spend their days cleaning up the monastery, sowing the fields, tending to the cattle, and cutting wood. This was a form of manual labor that was very uncommon at the time, as formerly in Rome labor was seen as uncivilised and reserved only to slaves. But Christianity had not only spread to the common folk but to slaves as well. Jesus teaches us that all men should be treated equally and no man is above another. This rhetoric caused a decline in slave ownership as owners would free their slaves, treating them not as property but instead as brothers. The lack of slaves and the hardworking morals of the monks brought back the ideals of hard work and manual labor.
In all facts of life, there exists a need for innovation to improve one’s quality of life and the world which surrounds us. In Europe, the monks were at the forefront of this new movement. Not for a long time would we again see such a technological boom when it came to the development of new technologies. Monks perfected techniques when it came to breeding cattle and growing vegetation. They taught people how to drain swamps and cut down forests to make way for new fields while still planting new trees that would keep the environment healthy. They began to raise bees and harvest their honey to sell in the market. When it comes to more technological aspects, they invented the first watermills and they utilized water power as a way to crush grains, harvest iron from ore, and to manufacture other items. The monks created the first clocks and one monk even invented the first glider. Recent discoveries have uncovered blueprints and prototypes of a pseudo-furnace. Technology like this would eventually start the manufacturing boom a few hundred years later.
The monks were also known for their kindness and hospitality. They would dispense alms to the poor and give refuge to anyone that needed it. Setting up hospitals and providing food to the hungry. Those who walked in all facets of life were welcomed with open arms no matter their race, wealth, or beliefs. The monks are also the reason we have a vast amount of texts from ancient Rome and Greece because they would collect, transcribe, and store any ancient texts they could get their hands on. The monks put a lot of value into the written word. The monasteries became places of education and learning as the monks would teach the people how to read and write, while also teaching them the value of hard work and the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord. This was the origin of the modern-day university. If it wasn’t for the monks, Europe may have never been converted to Catholicism and civilized, remaining primitive and uneducated. We would have also lost much of the culture and history of the previous world. It is hard to imagine a history where Europe was never civilised, as without that we wouldn’t have many of the technologies we have today, and the Americas as we know them would be totally different.
“The Dark Ages” are classified as a time void of culture of any sort and that the church restrained the likes of art, music, and theater. But it seems that is much the opposite, and these are just the beliefs of those who were at the forefront of the Enlightenment, believing that only what they made and what the Romans and ancient Greeks made to be of high enough quality to even be considered art. Roman music consisted of a single musical line performed by one or more singers or instruments. It wasn’t until the Dark Ages until harmonies in music were developed, where multiple different lines of music are played at one time. This was also the time when an adequate system of musical notation was written allowing musicians to play a song even if they had never heard it before.
The artistic era during the Dark Ages was titled Romanesque, even when the art produced during this time looked nothing of the sort. Professors believed that Europe recovered by returning to the art of the Romans and anything before that must have just been a poor imitation, hence the term Romanesque. Following this was the Gothic era best known for its iconic architectural style. As before the movement was scorned by those of the Enlightenment for not conforming to the standards of classical Greek or Rome. The pagan religions of yesteryear festered fear of the natural world to its believers. But after being freed by Christianity, people could begin to explore this beautiful earth we inhabit creating a wave of art and literature depicting the natural world. Many people would come together to build great and large cathedrals as to gather in a community. What was previously the work of slaves was now the work of a community bringing people together no matter their position in life. The community would come together to celebrate feast days and holy days in massive festivals, with floats being built, decorations being put out and food being served. Plays would be put on based around stories from the bible, filled with love, drama, and intense action.
It is largely believed that the Dark Ages were a time of intellectual repression. However, many monks themselves were scientists following and studying chemistry and biology. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers taught that we learn the world from our senses. But new medieval thinkers proposed a deeper inspection to the world and what we cannot perceive just by utilizing our senses. By becoming illuminated by the word and light of the Lord, many ventured out to pursue intellectual pursuits apart from the church and then beyond.
So if we are to consider the Dark Ages being a myth, then so must have been the Enlightenment. The story is that when a few Italian cities broke away from the church there was a rebirth of classical culture and knowledge. If this was in reality a true statement, then Europe would have declined as they had already surpassed many aspects of classical life in almost every way. What is ironic is that the Enlightenment was hailed as a scientific revolution, while those that praised it were manly literary men who did not do much to contribute to this growth. The concept of Enlightenment ignores all of the Church’s and the people’s accomplishments during the Dark Ages and represses new budding cultures and ideas.
In truth, the Dark Ages were not as commonly told, but rather a time of advancement and innovation in both the arts and technology. But it is a slippery slope and you cannot go as far to say that things were perfect. As it is when any great empire falls, it was a time of strife, as new warlords popped up to gain land and power before falling as quickly as they came. Many still lived in squalor and suffered great poverty as trade and travel were not as accessible as before when the lands were united. There was disease and thousands died because of it. When you discuss the Dark Ages, you must be able to identify both the great expansion that survived the incredible decline, to see that things were not as dark as you may have thought before.