The Middle Ages: Dark….or Brilliant?

Bookworm discovered and embedded a video by Professor Anthony Esolen, in which he challenges the common belief that the Middle Ages were a dark and dreary era with few redeeming attributes. Book adds thoughts of her own, and there is a good comment thread on the post.

Pseudodionysius posted the same video at Ricochet, resulting in an extensive discussion thread…192 comments so far…which includes significant pushback against the Esolen thesis. The thread became pretty contentious…unpleasantly so, at points, but it includes some worthwhile discussion and useful links, especially on the comparison of Medieval with Classical technologies.

11 thoughts on “The Middle Ages: Dark….or Brilliant?”

  1. Joel Mokyr’s books are a good source on this subject. There were lots of inventions in the Middle Ages, depending on how you define them. The moldboard plow is one, for example. The Romans and Greeks did not have it and the soil in the Mediterranean region was less dense than that in the northern European region.

    I’ll have to read that thread.

  2. What’s the point of saying that the Middle Ages were colourful? The great majority of people couldn’t afford glazed windows, nor much in the way of candles, so their indoors lives were indeed very dark for much of the year.

  3. Dark Ages and the Middle Ages are often conflated, and it’s usually willfully done by Protestants.

    Byzantium got vilified by Gibbon with same motive.

  4. “he great majority of people couldn’t afford glazed windows, nor much in the way of candles, so their indoors lives were indeed very dark for much of the year”…indeed–and the window situation wasn’t made any better by the Window Tax that existed in many places, although I’m not sure whether those taxes date from the Middle Ages or from later.

    OTOH, if you could make your way to your local cathedral, you’d like see some beautiful stained glass. See the image that Bookworm selected from the video at her post.

    Also, here’s another piece that I linked a while back on color and clothing in the Middle Ages:

    I have not researched this, but would think that the colorful clothing was pretty well restricted to the affluent classes….colors for the “common people” seem to date from the invention of coal-tar dyes in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

  5. “America 3.0” identifies some medieval factors contributing to the development of what would become the American political/social/economic system, including the Common Law and what the author’s call Medieval Constitutionalism, as embodied in the king’s coronation oath.

  6. “Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century” by Norman F. Cantor

    … focuses on the lives and works of twenty of the great medievalists of the 20th century, demonstrating how the events of their lives, and their spiritual and emotional outlooks, influenced their interpretations of the Middle Ages.

    “The Civilization of the Middle Ages” by Norman F. Cantor

  7. From the fall of Roman Empire in the west (`450AD) to the start of the Medieval Warming in about 1000 AD, things were certainly dark and deserve the title “Dark Ages.” A cooling trend started about 300 that reduced agricultural surpluses.

    From 1000 to 1350 the climate warmed considerably, food surpluses reappeared, and populations and cities grew. Western Civilization flourished once again. About 1350, the climate cooled once again, surpluses disappeared and plague hit. Hard times for another 150 years with cold temperatures and hot religious wars.

    In the video, the professor conflates the two periods and glosses over the dynamics.

  8. Yes, the Dark Ages were from the fall of Rome until the time of Charlemagne. Byzantium, which not enough people know the history of, was a continuing force until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.

    The earlier periods were times of famine which was finally solved by the three field crop rotation and the moldboard plow. It was also a time of great migrations of people, the Slavs and the Magyars, plus the Vikings a bit later.

    The Middle Ages I would put after 1350 or so, which was also the period of the Little Ice Age, no matter what Michael Mann says.

  9. I’m a protestant and even I know this dark ages dogma is bunk.

    Another good book on this subject is Rodney Stark’s “The Victory of Reason”.

    In Chapter two Mr. Stark eviscerates the notion of a “dark ages”. Among the subjects he views as vessels of medieval progress are music, art, literature, education and science.

    About education Stark writes: “When founded by the church early in the twelfth century, the university was something new under the sun-an institution devoted exclusively to higher learning. This Christian invention was quite unlike Chinese academies for training Mandarins or a Zen master’s school. The new universities were not primarily concerned with imparting received wisdom. Rather, just as is the case today, faculty gained fame through innovation. Consequently, medieval university professors gave their primary attention to the pursuit of knowledge. They did not settle for repeating the received wisdom of the Greeks but were fully prepared to criticize and correct the ancients.”

  10. The middle ages were a thousand years when the economy was run, from top to bottom, by rent seekers. Rent seekers have a local monopoly in providing a good or service. The price they charge and the amount they are expected to produce is fixed by law.

    In medieval times every person had his place in society and that place was ordained by God. The local lord held land from his lord, the serfs were part of the land and they could not be removed from the land nor could they leave it. They owed food and service to their lord and he owed them protection and justice. These obligations were a form of rent.

    In the cities each guild held a monopoly to provide a good or service. They provided goods and services to other guilds in the city as well as to their various lords in return for protection and justice. The law fixed the terms of all exchanges. No person could benefit by overproducing because whomever was the normal customer was entitled to over-production as well.

    The result is that compared to the US economy in the 1800s, there were virtually no inventioms in the middle ages, no improvement in the standrad of living, and populatiob growth was very low.

    A society in which every person has his place, and every place is well defined cannot grow. Indeed, survival is a major accomplishment.

    Medieval art is beautiful but the themes, the characters, the poses, the colors are fixed by law. The art is amazing because it glorifies God, as required.

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