The ‘dark ages’ as a faux description were once applied to the entire millennium from 500 AD to 1500 AD. The term is used as an attack on the Catholic Church and opprobrium directed at Faith. The ‘dark ages’ separated the ‘rich, classical’ slave based and largely poor-agrarian societies of antiquity with that of the Renaissance, the supposedly recreation of a glorious-pagan past. This vilification has largely been erased and now the ‘dark ages’ comprise perhaps the 5th to 8th centuries which would offend the great advances made in Gaul, Visigothic Spain before the Muslim invasion, or even Anglo-Saxon England. What is dark, is the fact that we have lost much of the material from that era in the form of lost manuscripts, rolls and whole libraries, many burnt by Vikings, Muslims, Magyars and Huns, or simply lost to accidents, fires, or lack of care in storage.
The era from 500-700 AD in Western Europe was indeed brutal and given the paucity of real information, seems rather dark. Will Durant, an agnostic historian, located the blame for a general decline in society not on the Church, which he viewed as the only civilising factor in Western Europe, but on the endless ‘barbarian invasions’, including migrations which dislocated much of post-Roman Europe. The Church was the only institution trying to hold society together.
‘The basic cause of cultural regression’, he writes, ‘was not Christianity but barbarism, not religion but war. The human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and made impossible the life of the scholar or the scientist. Perhaps the destruction would have been worse if the Church had not maintained some measure of order in a crumbling world.’
It would have been a colossal disaster for civilisation if the Church had not existed and had not arrested the rapid decline with the implosion of the massive Roman state, itself based on slave labour, military power and uber-taxation. Various Germanic tribes had migrated into the Roman empire staring in the 2nd century AD if not before. Hired as mercenaries they began to take over the Roman military and even civil administration long before 476 AD. Alaric the Goth sacked Athens in 390 AD and Rome in 410 AD and toured both cities as a tourist. The end of the empire was clearly in sight no later than the early 5th century. The Germans however, brought nothing of their own to add to the Roman empire. Literature, technology, engineering, legal codes, culture were barren within the Goths who took over Rome. They were attracted solely by the lifestyle and wealth of what Rome could offer. They were nomadic peoples, very pagan, with primitive ideas around cult worship of nature and the variegated objects of creation.
One aspect of Germanic ‘barbarism’ was the legal code. In Rome, there was some attempt at justice, notwithstanding how corrupt and unequal the system would have been, with the rich able to buy their own judgements and the poor being denied justice or even a hearing. For Germanic tribes a person accused of a crime might be subjected to a trial by ordeal with hot water, in which the person must reach into scalding hot water and retrieve a stone. If within 3 days the wounds were scabbing he was declared innocent. Or he might be tossed into a cold river, bound up, and if he floated was declared guilty. These are hardly edifying principles of a legal system.
The task for the Church in the face of the Germanic takeover of Rome was complicated and massive. As Christopher Dawson says, ‘The Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the Gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honourable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice.’ In 410 Saint Jerome lamented the loss of Rome to the Goths under Alaric, noting the brutality and uncivilised nature of the sack, and the end of his classical world. To deflect criticism away from the Church which had no role in the slow-moving implosion of the Roman state, Saint Augustine penned the ‘City of God’, showing the stark differences between the vanities of man’s projects and society; and that of God’s. Christianity had nothing to do with the rot of the slave-based empire of the Romans. Endless civil wars, over-taxation, the brutality of existence, the lack of technological progress, cultural and moral degradation, and the inability to manage its own army led to its inevitable demise.
The most significant German tribe was the Franks and the marriage of Clovis to the beautiful and Christian Catholic Clotilda, and his conversion to Catholicism around 496 A.D., was a turning point in history. Within 400 years all the former ‘barbarian’ tribes of Western Europe would be converted. It would take another 300 years to Christianise the Nordic and eastern European states and peoples. An important element in converting tribes was to convert the King and court, given the relationship and dependency of people upon their ruler. On-going guidance and education were often more difficult than the conversion process. Saint Gregory of Tour’s ‘History of the Franks’, and Venerable Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English-Speaking People’, make this apparent. Saint Boniface the great Anglo-Saxon evangeliser in Saxon Germany, both converted and established the infrastructure of the Church in Germany in the 740s, a herculean task rarely equalled in any history.
As with all man-made creations, by the end of the 7th century, much rot had set in the Church, including immorality, depravity, and corruption. The poor moral and intellectual condition of the priesthood by the end of the Merovingian period (the era of Boniface) was infamous. It was under the Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries that the Continental Church would be reformed during the 8th and 9th centuries. By the mid-8th-century the Papacy in Rome, in the face of an Islamic Jihad, pagan incursions into Italy and the weakening of Byzantium by the Persians and Muslims turned to the Franks for protection. Charles Martel’s colossal defeat of the Muslims at Tours in 732 A.D. saved most of Europe from Muslim domination (regardless of what revisionists now propose). The Church aided the transition of power from the corrupt Merovingians to the Carolingians or the family of Martel. A recrudescence of civilisation shone with the ascension and power of Charlemagne, must of it premised on the reign of his father Pepin. A central figure was the Anglo-Saxon monk from York, Alcuin, who build and created a school system for Charlemagne’s expanding empire, the collection and copying of ancient texts and the push for literacy across society. As art historian Kenneth Clark once wrote, ‘People don’t always realise that only three or four manuscripts of the Latin authors are still in existence: our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne, and almost any classical text that survived the eighth century has survived until today’.
One of the most remarkable features of the Medieval period is the salvation of ancient learning, all of it by monks in monasteries, painfully copying by hand onto parchment, ancient artifacts. The Roman education system was thus preserved and improved by the likes of Alcuin. Astronomy, music, arithmetic, geometry, logic, grammar and rhetoric were carefully conserved and elaborated upon. Writing was vastly simplified and innovated with the introduction of the Carolingian script, which used upper and lower cases, along with punctuation. The impact of this should not be under-estimated. The use of Carolingian miniscule as historians call it, was crucial to the development of civilisation.
This Carolingian renaissance in law, culture, art, writing, education, and Church reform, was assaulted by the Muslims, Vikings, Magyars, and Huns in an endless parade of invasions and assaults commencing in the early 8th century. It is a miracle that anything survived of the Catholic-Frankish civilisation. The unfailing and redoubtable strength of the Church, in spiritual, material and military affairs allowed Europe to survive and post the 9th century begin to thrive. This second wave of Barbarism from the Muslims to the Vikings and Avars, threatened to engulf and extinguish Europe. It was only the Church that kept civilisation alive, and in the monasteries, one finds the islands of intellectual life which kept alive learning, education, ancient texts and legal codes.
The end result of Catholic power and greatness can be seen in the rise of Pope Sylvester in 999-1003 AD. Sylvester was a polymath and the most learned man in Europe. He was fluent in maths, astronomy, Latin, Greek, philosophy, music, literature and technological innovation. He was responsible for sundry inventions in theology, science and astronomy. A man who practiced faith and the use of reason. Pope Sylvester is the icon who refutes and condemns the calumny of a dark age.