It is an irony of history that the first person to use the phrase “Dark Ages” was a Catholic clergyman who meant nothing pejorative by the term.
Caesar Baronius (1538-1607) was an Italian cardinal and the most renowned Catholic historian of the Counter-Reformation. At the time, Protestants were fond of characterizing the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and barbarism. Baronius, wanting to counter these accusations, composed a masterpiece called Annales Ecclesiastici. First published in 1588, this tome covered the history of the first twelve centuries of Christianity, intending to highlight the harmony and beauty of the medieval world. When he got to the 10th-11th centuries, Baronius lamented the scarcity of written documents relative to earlier periods. He referred to these two centuries as a saeculum obscurum (“dark age”) because of the difficulty he had reconstructing an accurate chronology from extant sources.
We can see that Baronius’s comment referred not to the entire medieval period but only two centuries of it—and that saeculum obscurum was in no sense a moral judgment. Nevertheless, by the early modern period the term had caught on as a designation for the entire medieval period, especially the first millennium of the Christian era. This stereotype passed into the American school system, fitting well with the narrative of the United States republic as a beacon of reason, liberty, and individualism against the superstition, tyranny, and collectivism of old Europe.
When I was pursuing my teaching certification a decade ago, I remember shadowing a public high school teacher whose lesson on the Middle Ages consisted entirely of disproven old canards—that medieval people didn’t bathe, that women were locked in chastity belts, that people drank beer because the water was so polluted, and so on. Unable to tolerate this, I approached the teacher and asked if I could finish the lesson plan for the rest of the week. He readily agreed, relieved to be freed from teaching on a topic of which he clearly knew nothing. I took over and introduced the students to the art of the 14th century. The students’ minds lit up; their enthusiasm for an authentic presentation of the cultural beauty of the period was palpable. A few came up to me afterwards and told me it was the most interesting lesson they’d had all semester.
Today, most mainstream historians (even secular ones) eschew the phrase “Dark Ages” as biased and inaccurate. It lives on among the ignorant or those who have a polemical axe to grind against the period. Usually, this axe is ground against the Catholic religion, which is taken to be the cause of all humanity’s woes during the medieval period. But as Catholics, these centuries offer us much to be proud of. The founding of the Order of St. Benedict, which was instrumental in forming the spirituality of the Latin west; inventions such as the mould-board plow, padded chest harness, and water-wheel, which improved the standard of living for millions of Europeans; the stately Romanesque architecture which blossomed into the Gothic cathedrals of the high Middle Ages; the gradual abolition of slavery; the patient translation of texts in monastic libraries all over Europe, ensuring the continued diffusion of knowledge across the continent. Or, if you prefer to think of the smaller niceties of life, imagine how sadder life would be without parmesan cheese. This delightful topping that graces our pasta was a monastic creation, invented by Benedictine monks in the Italian region of Parma-Reggio as a means of extending the shelf-life of the large quantities of milk their cows produced. However you look at it, the so-called “Dark Ages” were a period of profound intellectual curiosity and social progress.
That’s not to say everything about the era was glorious; I’ll take modern dentistry over 7th century dentistry any day, thank you very much. We do not need to have a knee-jerk defensiveness over anything related to the medieval world. What we do need—what we all need—is more education about this rich historical period. Rather than pass judgment upon what we think medieval people did and believed, we need to learn to see the world as they saw it, understanding their motivations and concerns on their own terms. And we need to repudiate biased narratives wielded by those whose primary interest is not historical but ideological.
If you’d like to begin a deeper study of the early Middle Ages, I recently wrote an entire book on the history of this fascinating period. The Church and the Dark Ages (Ave Maria Press, 2021) guides you through the entire period, from the Fall of Rome to the dawn of the Crusades. We meet secular characters like Clovis, Charlemagne, and Otto the Great, as well as giants of the ecclesiastical world, like Hilary of Poitiers, the St. Benedicts (that’s right, two of them!), and St. Odo of Cluny. We learn a bit about the politics of the age and a lot about the growth of Christianity, including the development of the sacraments and the spread of the Roman rite throughout the West. The Church and the Dark Ages is a great place to begin your study of these formative centuries of history, to help bring the light of knowledge to the darkness of society.
Image: Paris, France – May 25, 2019: The Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral in Paris France. Shutterstock: Craig Hastings