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Why the Dark Ages Were Not So Dark

September 1, 2017

Why the Dark Ages Were Not So Dark

A Research Report


Genevieve L.


The years from 500-1500 A.D. are referred to as The Medieval Era, Middle Ages, or “The Dark Ages.” While the Dark Ages might seem a fitting title to some, it is actually undeserved. The people during that time certainly did not think of themselves as a dark or low time at all. The idea of the “Dark Ages” came from later scholars who were heavily biased toward ancient Rome.1 The Italian scholar Petrarch coined the phrase “Dark Ages” to describe what he saw as a decline in the quality of Latin literature from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.2 Later, the term grew to refer to the supposed lack of cultural advancement from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. In later years, historians questioned the truth of this characterization and thought it to be a derogatory term. Despite this, many people continued to hold on to the belief that the Dark Ages were barbaric. Indeed, the time did see some practices that debatably could be considered barbaric, but life in the Middle Ages were not much “darker” or barbaric compared to other eras. Contrary to widespread belief, the Medieval Ages were actually not “Dark Ages;” the period saw great accomplishment within the Church; in science; and in art, literature, and music that prepared the world for the great Renaissance era.

When Rome fell, Europe lacked a kingdom or other political structure as a centralizing force, so the Church was able to grow into the most powerful institution in Europe by its many accomplishments during this time. The Church replaced the Roman Empire as the most powerful force in Europe, redefining the relationship between Church and State.3 Kings and other rulers received their authority and power from the Church with strong popes, beginning with Saint Gregory the Great.  From birth to burial, people’s lives were shaped almost solely by the Church and religious belief grew. The growth of religious belief truly made the Church the heart of the community.

An example of the growth of religious belief in the Middle Ages is shown in the increase of pilgrimages. The purpose of a pilgrimage is to stand where those that we reverence once stood, to see the very sites where they were born and toiled and died, gives us a feeling of mystical contact with them and is a practical expression of our homage.4 It is important to understand that the Church did not force people to go on pilgrimages; people undertook a pilgrimage because they wanted to. This shows that people loved God and the Church and even went out of their way to grow in their faith. Pilgrims followed trails across Europe and the Middle East to visit places where important religious events took place, traveled to a shrine that contained a relic of a saint, and gave money to the Church to touch the relic, sometimes hoping to be cured of an illness. Pilgrimages were important events that taught people not only to think about their sinfulness and their need of God’s merciful forgiveness, but also helped them to grow in their love of God.

An example of the enormous influence the Church had over the people is seen in the Crusades. Pope Urban II urged Christians to fight to take back the Holy Land from the Moslems. Eight main crusades took place from 1096 to 1291. Many people say that the Crusades were barbaric, accusing the Christians of making war just for war’s sake. This accusation helped contribute to the believed validity of the term “dark ages.” Indeed, many times, the Church has been attacked on the cause of the Crusades being unjust, but this was not so.  First, the Christians were not the aggressors; The Byzantine Emperor appealed to the pope for aid against the Moslems. At no point did the Christians attack the Moslem homeland, Arabia, but only the Christian territories the Moslems conquered. Second, it was appropriate for the Christians to defend and regain lands which the enemy had conquered. Third, there were certainly abuses during the Crusades, such as those which took place during the Sack of Jerusalem and the Sack of Constantinople, but an immoral action does not detract from the justice of the cause of the war. Therefore, the Crusades were a just war. Furthermore, as a result of the Crusades, the Christians’ contact with Arab civilization taught Europeans new things not only about building, warfare, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, but also introduced them to new goods such as carpets and sugar which became very useful to the rapidly growing civilization.

The Middle Ages saw many saints that helped bring about great accomplishments as well. Saint Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino. His Benedictine Rule spread across Europe and was the model for most Western monasteries. Oftentimes, such monasteries also served as inns for travelers, many of whom were on pilgrimage. Saint Ferdinand was another great saint of the Medieval Ages; he captured Cordoba and Seville and also established monasteries. Saint Francis of Assisi rebuilt the universal Church which was suffering from internal scandal and heresies. He gave up his wealth to live a life of prayer, penance, poverty, and service to others, and preached about a return to God and a strict obedience to the Church. Under the careful watch of these and many other saints, with the help of pilgrimages and the growing religious belief, medieval civilization flourished.

In the Medieval Era, there was a lot of accomplishment in the discoveries made in science and math that laid the foundations for modern science. It is important to note that in the Medieval Era, there were not many distinctions between math and science since they were so closely intertwined, and therefore, many who were scientists were mathematicians alike. It may be surprising that the Church helped provide the basics for modern-day scientists. Observations often revolved around the truth of Transubstantiation. The question, “What is the Eucharist?” was soon followed by natural philosophers (one day to be called scientists) with the question “What is matter?”5 Indeed it is true that the Catholic Eucharist acted as catalyst for the development of Western science.

The Persian astronomer and mathematician al-Khwarizmi introduced Europe to algebra. This included the first systematic solution to linear and quadratic equations. Notably, it was from the Latinized version of al-Khwarizmi’s name which the word algorithm was derived. Another thing that helped bring about great accomplishment in science and math was the study and discussions about dynamics. These studies eventually led to the development of kinematics, purely mathematical descriptions of motion, anticipating the work of Galileo, as well as the work of John Philoponus, which would later lead to Newton’s second law of motion. Another notable contribution in science during this time was the work of Roger Bacon. Bacon came up with the scientific method which consisted of observation and prediction called a hypothesis, which is still in use today by students and scientists alike.  These many new discoveries in science and math opened a certain new light into the Middle Ages.

Another light in the Middle Ages was the development of art, literature, and music. The roots of modern languages and literature and of all forms of later art and intellectual interest lie deep in the soil of the Middle Ages.6 For instance, Charlemagne, who was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Leo III, (which later turned into “Holy Roman Emperor”) fostered a rebirth of Roman-style architecture and preserved classic Latin texts, and revolutionized reading and writing and the production of books and other documents. He introduced handwriting script called Carolingian minuscule in which punctuation, cases, and spacing between words were invented. By all of these accomplishments, Charlemagne provided foundations for the Renaissance and other later cultural revivals.

For hundreds of years, monasteries were centers of art, literature and even science. Christian monasteries encouraged literacy and learning by the growing interest for the books the monks bound. Although many common people could not read or write, most religious figures could.  Monastic scribes preserved old Latin texts, and even those of Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Aristotle. Monks also taught students and made illuminated manuscripts. Without the monks, they would be lost forever.

Early Medieval Art up to the Renaissance period was quite different than art today. Early art subjects revolved around Pietistic painting, which was religious or Christian art. Medieval art is usually divided into two overlapping periods: Romanesque (1050-1880) and Gothic (1150-1550). These names describe the different creative styles and techniques used by artists during these times.7 Romanesque is massive, low, dark, and solid-looking. Gothic is ornate, delicate, more realistic, and light-filled. Although monks made many arts, common people called painters made arts too. Painters re-created scenes from the Bible on church walls. Two famous Medieval painters were Giotto and Dante. Giorgio Vasari, (Giotto) was a Florentine artist and architect. Though Assisi contains the work of Giotto best known to the world and Padua the crown of his achievement, Giotto left his charmed handiwork in other places as well: Rome, Rimini, Naples, Bologna, Arezzo, Florence, and Peruzzi.8 Dante was a poet as well as an artist who wrote The Divine Comedy, a poem on purgatory, heaven, and hell, which is considered the greatest work ever written in Italian and is still widely read today.  Tradesman also made many artistic contributions to society and the Church during this time. Besides sculpting statues, sculptors carved scenes on columns, walls, and doors. Metal workers made chalices, plates, and crosses. Glass workers made stained-glass windows. All of these people contributed to the beautiful churches of the Medieval Era and many of these churches still stand today.

The Medieval saw the emergence of great changes…including the music played during the Medieval times and era.9 Medieval Church music was very beautiful and was called Gregorian Chant, named after its founder, Saint Gregory the Great. At the beginning, monks were the sole chanters; later lay men were allowed to chant in the choir; not until very later were women allowed to join the choir. Church music was solely the human voice; instruments were hardly (if ever) played in church. Secular music was different, however. It was played by musicians and poets called troubadours, trouveres and minstrels, who often accompanied their songs with an instrument of some kind (such as a lute, viol, psaltery, hirtenschalmei, gemshorn, or bladder pipe) singing of chivalry, courtly love, and romance. Just as music is considered very important in our modern day, the music of the Middle Ages was very important to the listeners of that era, whether it was for a Mass, a holiday, special celebration, or something as commonplace as eating supper.

The great accomplishment the Medieval Ages saw within the Church; in science; and in art, literature, and music led the way for the “rebirth” of the Renaissance Era and truly proved that the “Dark Ages” were not really so dark after all. The Medieval Church was the centralizing force in Europe, which greatly influenced the people for the better, which is exemplified in the success of the Crusades and the vast amount of pilgrimages. Many saints helped bring about great accomplishments, and the monasteries which several of them founded flourished.  Discoveries and advancements in math and science played great roles in the Middle Ages which helped bring about much of our society today. Even works of art, literature, and music have had an impact lasting into the twenty-first century. Without the innumerable contributions from the Middle Ages, our modern world would indeed be quite different.

1 “Middle Ages,” (Accessed April 24, 2017).

2 Ibid.

3  “Middle Ages,” (Accessed April 24, 2017).

4 Kendall, Medieval Pilgrims (Great Britain: Wayland (Publishers) Ltd., 1970.)  11.

5  Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006.), 264.

6  Freely, Before Galileo The Birth of Modern Science in Medieval Europe. (New York: Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc., 2012.) 247.

7 Hodge, Medieval Europe. (Tunbridge Wells: Gareth Stevens, Inc., 2005.), 24.

8 Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006.), 269.

9 “Medieval Music.” Medieval Life and Times music/ (Accessed May 29, 2017).


Asimov, Isaac. The Dark Ages. London: Third Printing W, 1968.

Cahill, Thomas. Mysteries of the Middle Ages The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006.

Cheyney, Edward, P. The Dawn of a New Era 1250-1450. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1936.

Carroll, Anne, W. Christ the King Lord of History. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Coulton, G. G. Medieval Village, Manor, and Monastery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1925.

Freely, John. Before Galileo The Birth of Modern Science in Medieval Europe. New York: Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc., 2012.

Hodge, Susie. Medieval Europe. Tunbridge Wells: Gareth Stevens, Inc., 2005.

Kendall, Alan. Medieval Pilgrims. Great Britain: Wayland (Publishers) Ltd., 1970.

Levy, Patricia. Cathedrals and the Church. North Mankato: Smart Apple Media, 2005.

“Medieval  Music.” Medieval Life and Times music/ (Accessed May 29, 2017).

“Middle Ages.” (Accessed April 24, 2017).

“Monasticism in Western Medieval Europe.” hd/mona/hd_mona.htm (Accessed June 2, 2017).

Sweeney, Jon M. Light In The Dark Ages: The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007.



Genevieve L.

AGE: 16 GRADE: 11 HOBBIES: baking, cooking, cake decorating, writing, reading, painting, singing, photography, and playing the piano PATRON/FAVORITE SAINTS: The Blessed Mother, Saint Genevieve, Saint Therese of Lisieux FAVORITE SCHOOL SUBJECTS: English and Latin OTHER: I am the oldest of 7 children. I don’t really like math or history.