The popular notion is that the Middle Ages were really just the Dark Ages, and that (in Europe, at least) rulers and peasants alike slogged around in the Black Plague-infected mud with bags and bags of superstition and religious oppression tied around their malnourished necks. There's some truth to those notions, but not as much as left-wing historians would have us believe.
A lot of the confusion has arisen from the goofiness of satire like Don Quixote and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It sounds ridiculous (and it is ridiculous), but it's true: popular attitudes are often shaped by popular culture, largely because audiences are often incapable of separating the satire from the reality.
Also, the Middle Ages were pretty foreign in comparison with our own times. People back then thought differently, their worldview was closer to that of the ancients, while containing the seeds of what would become Modern thought. Their world was full of symbolism but was also more straightforward, perhaps one reason later thinkers considered them so backward.
Western Christianity came into its own during this period. A lot of missionary work was accomplished during the barbarian invasions, so that by the time nations began to assume some sort of regular shape, Christianity had largely replaced the animism and occultism of the Celts, Saxons, Gauls, Vikings, etc. By the time of the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church ruled supreme in matters of religion, and to a great extent in secular politics.
The two were inextricably entwined, really—Church and State were not the disparate entities they are now. Kings and princes were subject to popes and cardinals in ways that would make most modern Americans squirm, and would provide enough work to keep the ACLU busy for millennia. This is yet another reason the Middle Ages are frequently considered a blighted time awash in ignorance.
To be sure, there was plenty of ignorance and superstition. "Scientists" tried to make gold from other metals (working, of course, from the theories of the Greek physicist Democritus), peasants feared ghosts and devils at every turn, and medicine had not yet progressed beyond the gory practice of bleeding to release disease and evil spirits from the ailing. The Church often overstepped its bounds, as well, and there was widespread corruption reaching as high (at times) as the Papacy itself.
But that wasn't the whole picture. There was plenty of genuine Christianity at work, plenty of great art, some important philosophical strides, and even some real scientific advancement (particularly in the realms of technology, astronomy, and cartography). The Church, though not without problems, was largely unified, and produced some of its greatest scholars and theologians during this period, like St. Anselm and Jan Hus.
Of course, it was also the Middle Ages that produced Thomas Aquinas, who should have been more of a polarizing figure than he was. His efforts to integrate Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology, and especially his idea that the Bible was the standard for spiritual and theological knowledge while human reason covered the rest (kind of like an intellectual MasterCard), laid the foundation for the Enlightenment and theological liberalism.
There were also plenty of wars, a certain Great Schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, explorations, lots of poetry, painting and music and sculpture; the usual cultural elements in any historical period. What's important to remember is that the Middle Ages weren't some epoch cut off from the rest of history, that there is a clear progression from the Classical world to the early modern period bridged by the Medieval era, and that there isn't some massive disconnect between the "dark" Middle Ages and the "enlightened" modern times.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
The Middle Ages (approximately 450-1450 A.D.) is often divided into "dark ages" and "middle" ages, but we prefer organizing it into three periods:
1. Early Middle Ages (approximately 450-1066)
- defined by invasions and migrations
- key elements include barbarians, monasteries, feudalism, Vikings
- key personalities: Mohammed, Charlemagne, and others
Note: This is the period when the Arabs conquered Palestine and controlled Jerusalem.
2. High Middle Ages (approximately 1066-1300)
- defined by growth
- key elements include the supremacy of the Church, the Crusades, cathedrals, development of the merchant class, trade/cities (1100's), universities (1200's), castles, the Magna Charta (1215)
- key personalities: Canute, William the Conqueror, and others
3. Late Middle Ages (approximately 1300-1450)
- defined by turmoil
- key elements include the development of the nation states (as opposed to city states), the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the Western Schism
- key personalities: Marco Polo, Joan of Arc, and others
Note: This period coincides with the Renaissance
—Our thanks to Allison for this breakdown.
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