No period of history is more misunderstood or under-appreciated than the Middle Ages, the ten centuries from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century to the start of the Renaissance in the fifteenth.
Let's take a close look at these years. We'll make a good start by dispelling some nonsense. The people of the Middle Ages did not believe the earth was flat. They knew it was round: the ancients said it was round; the Fathers of the Church said it was round. They saw its shadow during an eclipse of the moon, and the shadow was round. They saw masts of ships sinking below the horizon. Round.
More nonsense: the Middle Ages were cheerless. Quite the reverse. They were full of colour. Of celebrations involving everybody in town. They invented the carnival. They revived popular drama, which had lain dormant for a thousand years. Whatever they did, whether it was sinning or fighting or repenting or falling in love, or traveling thousands of miles to Rome or to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they did it with energy and gusto.
What do we owe to the Middle Ages? How about the university? Medieval man invented it. For the first time in the history of the world, you could go to Paris or Bologna or Padua or Oxford or Prague or Cologne and study under masters of law, medicine, philosophy and theology, and your degree designating you as a Master or a Doctor would hold good anywhere in Europe. It was an international community of scholars. A young Thomas Aquinas, born in southern Italy at the beginning of the thirteenth century, would travel to Cologne to study philosophy under the philosopher-biologist Albert the Great, then to Paris, where he taught theology and philosophy, then to Rome, and back to France. And this sort of thing was the rule among scholars, not the exception.
How about architecture? If the Middle Ages were dark and ignorant, how come ordinary people — masons, carpenters, painters, sculptors, glazers — erected the most beautiful and majestic buildings to grace the earth: the gothic cathedrals. Without power tools — with pulleys and winches and scaffolding and their bare hands — they built up lacework in stone and glass, flooding vast interior spaces with colour and light. We have nothing to match their complexity and beauty.
And art? Studying the ancients, medieval man produced whole genres of art that the world had never seen. There had never been anything like Dante's Divine Comedy, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or the Arthurian legends of Chrétien de Troyes, or the paintings of Giotto, or the astonishingly beautiful and precise work of the illuminators of manuscripts.
What else do we owe to them? Western music. They invented our musical notation, and Western harmony, not to mention the humble carols we enjoy at Christmastime. A tradition of local self-government. Witness the chartered towns all over Europe. Free associations of men united for the common good. Friars, guildsmen, members of lay orders devoted to good works. People who established schools, orphanages and hospitals.
Far from the Dark Ages, which it is popularly called, the Middle Ages might better be described as The Brilliant Ages. A startling epic of progress, from science to art, from philosophy to medicine. Indeed, in one crucial way we are less civilized than those who enhanced human existence over a thousand years ago: we dismiss the achievements of our ancestors and fall short of them. They honoured their ancestors, and surpassed them.
I'm Anthony Esolen of Providence College, for Prager University.
Were the Middle Ages Dark? by Anthony Esolen
Undoing the damage of the University ... five minutes at a time.
Prager University is an entirely new concept in education. Our courses, taught by some of the finest, most original thinkers in the world, are five minutes long, visually stimulating and rich in practical content. Each seeks to enhance the student's understanding and appreciation for the core ideas that support Western Civilization such as freedom, personal responsibility and capitalism.
Support Prager University with a donation here.
Copyright © 2013 Prager University
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.