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Those awful Dark Ages

In the Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 16, 2007, a review of two books on the Middle Ages begins:

"The Middle Ages never happened; they were just imagined later. From the seventeenth century onwards, historians have had the idea that the period between the death of the last Roman Emperor in 476 and Renaissance was somehow different from the eras that preceded and followed it. But the Fall of Rome did not change everything, or at best did not change everything straight away. Many of the thoughts and modes of operation that had existed under the Empire persisted after it had gone. Likewise, the scholars and rulers whose territories were carved out of Roman provinces frequently revived and restored what they perceived to be Roman ways, inspiring many renaissances before the Renaissance itself.

" Looked at like this, the Middle Ages are not so intermediate after all. They blur into the surrounding centuries and cease to be a useful unit of time."

Rodney Stark, in The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success, has this: "The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by anti religious, and bitterly anti-Catholic eighteenth-century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time and who boasted their claim by denigrating previous centuries asin the words of Voltairea time when barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world. Views such as these were repeated so often and so unanimously that, until very recently, even dictionaries and encyclopedias accepted the Dark Ages as an historical fact. Some writers even seemed to suggest that people living in, say, the ninth century described their own time as one of backwardness and superstititon.

"Fortunately, in the past few years these views have been so completely discredited that even some dictionaries and encyclopedias have begun to refer to the notion of Dark Ages as mythical. Unfiortuately, the myth has so deeply penetrated our culture that even most scholars continue to take if for granted thatin the words of Edward Gibbonafter Rome fell came the triumph of barbarism and religion.'"

This coming Sunday The History Channel, of all places, begins showing a program entitled "The Dark Ages," for which one of the promotional lines is: "600 Years of Degenerate, Godless, Inhuman Behavior."

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While history occasionally slips into the History Channel's offering, it deals largely with entertaining fictions.

Yeah, yeah. "600 years ofdegenerate, godless and inhuman behavior"--good thing we don't have to contend with THAT anymore, eh?Terry Jones et. al. has written a wonderful book, "Medieval Lives" that offers a funny and enlightening discussion of what life was really like, what people thought, and what we have to learn from them. Scholars dislike "popularizing" medieval history, believing that it distorts or romanticizes it. Sadly, though, scholars often so emphasize the differences between now and then that they distort it the other way.I think I'd have enjoyed living in the Middle Ages if I'd been able to bring indoor plumbing and antibiotics with me.

I thought that the church was a heroic figure in the Dark Ages, where the Irish monks kept the Word alive.I would guess that with Gutenberg and on, as information became more dissseminated, there was surely "a new world," cross fertilzed by the learnings from the East brought back from the Crusades.That did cause a problem -big problems- for the Church:-the Bible in the vernacular and the Reformation; and,-the rise of modern science and Galileo and onward (didn't we just apologize to him recently?)It's easy to romanticize or condemn the Church for those years, but I wouldn't want to go back to a time or time before when life was "nasty, brutish and short."In nomine rosa. Amen

Actually antibiotics are a very recent invention and indoor plumbing, for many people, scarcely existed before the 19th century. The world has changed so much and is changing so rapidly in our time that it is difficult to imagine living in a time when nothing much changed for many people except the weather.

Bob, have you been reading Cahill?

When I spoke of change in the post above I was thinking of technological change.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.