Middle Ages/Dark Ages

From Wikiversity
< Middle Ages(Redirected from Middle Ages/Week 1)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This is a paper I wrote for a class on the topic of, "Why the Dark Ages Weren't Dark". Though most of the material present happened during what scholars call the Dark Ages, some parts of the paper refer to the later parts which may or not be within the Dark Ages time span.

Were the Dark Ages Dark?[edit]

Were the Dark Ages Dark
by Gabriel Spiro
Prepared for Dr. Kurt Borkman
HS 151 – CRN:

The period of time between the fall of Rome and the Scientific Revolution is known as the Middle Ages, or more commonly, the Dark Ages (Barber 4). For many people, images of barbarians running around and helpless maidens being swept off their feet by fearless crusaders has become the stereotype of this period. In fact, Capital One has starred ruthless barbarians in their commercials, and in one of the commercials, the lead barbarian says, “life was good in the dark ages.” Life was getting better in the Middle Ages; the advances in technology, education, and government made the lives of the peasants better each century and it laid the ground work for later revolutions and scientific advances. If it wasn’t for the Medieval Age, Europe and a good part of the world would look very different.

Technological advances[edit]

One of the major reasons that the Dark Ages were not dark was through the technological advances. Although many influential inventions that affect us today come from the Industrial Revolution, a number of medieval inventors are responsible for many foundational inventions. Lucas says that many historians cite a number of important,

Mechanical innovations such as the cam, crank, and clockwork; administrative innovations such as double-entry bookkeeping, annual accounts, and audits; and agricultural innovations such as the horse harness, heavy plow, and three-field crop rotation. The effects of these technological changes were so profound, they argued, that a revolution in social and economic conditions took place in the second half of the Middle Ages. The most compelling evidence for a medieval technological revolution was, however, the rapid growth in the use of non-human sources of power from the tenth or eleventh century onward (3). Indeed the Dark Ages were not dark, through the invention of moveable type by Guttenberg, the introduction of the stirrups in Europe, the rise of Gothic architecture in Europe, and the widespread of crop rotation in medieval farming. Medieval Europe didn’t use all of its new inventions correctly, like gunpowder in battle, and the Renaissance scholars would overlook them; but they became foundational to modern Europe.

Barber says in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to European History that Luther’s attempts to debate the Catholic church wouldn’t have been as effective if it wasn’t for Guttenberg’s printing press (50). The printing press was not a new invention - it had been around for centuries - but it had limitations. Printing presses of that time used a solid block of wood or metal that reflected an entire sheet to be printed and discarded after use. Guttenberg was able to enhance the block printing with the moveable type. Now, printers would be able to make books for a lot less because they could reuse their printing blocks. This revolutionized the industry and allowed printers to publish more documents without the worry about wasting precious time creating the printing blocks.

Another influential invention that had actually been around quite some time was the stirrup. White says in Medieval Technology and Social Change, “Before the introduction of the stirrup, the seat of the rider was precarious. Bit and spur might help him control his mount; the simple saddle might confirm his seat… the stirrup made possible … a vastly more effective mode of attack” (1-2). Before the invention of the stirrup, knights were hindered in their movement on horseback. The stirrup, according to the Wikipedia, was “invented by the steppe nomads in what is today Mongolia and northern China in the 4th century and transmitted west. [It] Appeared in Byzantium in the 6th, in the Carolingian Empire in the 8th century. [The stirrup] Allowed [the] mounted knight to wield and strike from a distance with a lance, leading to a great advantage for mounted cavalry” (Medieval Technology). Cantor in The Civilization of the Middle Ages says that, “some historians have said that the stirrup made possible the emergence of the knights who were able to stand up in the stirrups and tilt a lance against his adversary… [and] the innovations in the control of horsepower were mainly used in improving transportation in [the] tenth-century” (228). Now medieval wars were fought with knights on horseback and this allowed the knights who were previously limited by their heavy armor could now become more mobile. This ushered in a new form of strategic fighting where a knight could move from each flank encouraging soldiers and fighting enemies at different points instead of being locked into only one spot due to their armor. At the home front, there were developments in how the spoils of war were being used.

Gothic architecture[edit]

Davies says, “Late medieval church style, which the nineteenth century was to dub ‘Gothic’, is widely thought to be essentially aesthetic in inspiration – soaring, as it were, toward Heaven” (440). Cantor agrees by discussing how the humanistic learning in the northern monastic schools brought more ‘non-platonic’ expressions of the human mind to light. “These other approaches helped make the intellectual expression of the twelfth century a more comprehensive and complex movement, affecting all important aspects of higher culture, and helped increase the variety and magnitude of the problems with which later generations of medieval thinkers had to deal” (321). Though many scholars would later try to deface the gothic style as being evil, it was meant to inspire worshipers to connect with their God in a new way. However, the real question is whether or not something grotesque is good or not. Should man look to what is evil and then emulate it in his architecture and especially church buildings, which happened to be the main building programs during this time. Fraser in The Dark Ages & the Age of Gold says,

Medieval man does not select and exclude, like man in the Renaissance. He is more accommodating and opportunistic. The opportunism that defines him is commended, not surprisingly, by Shakespeare, who is supreme opportunistic: There is some soul of goodness in things evil, would men observingly distill it out. (Fraser 185)

Gothic architecture helped improve man’s creative mind because he wasn’t confined by the old Roman and Greek aesthetic, now they were allowed to show life how they believed it to be. Therefore, during the Black Death, many artisans reflected the ‘darkness’ of this time through their art. As more and more people became artisans, there was a increase in the need to feed these people. It’s around this time that medieval farmers start to widely implement crop-rotation.


The Dictionary of the Middle Ages describes how Crop-rotation took place.

One field was left fallow, and merely plowed to put the weeds under the soil. A second, in the old style, was planted with grain in late autumn, and the harvest came in the late spring or early summer. The third field--which was the novelty--was planted with oats, barley, peas, or broad beans in the spring and reaped in the autumn. In the second year of the three-year cycle, the previous fallow field would be planted with winter crops, the previous winter-crop field would be used for summer crops, and the previous summer-crop field would remain fallow. In the third year the second year's fallow would go into winter crops, the winter-crop field into summer crops, and the summer-crop field would lie fallow. In the next year the cycle would start over again. (American Council of Learned Societies Par. 22)

Again the Dictionary of the Middle Age helps us see the four benefits to the crop rotation system.

First, the increased production of legumes not only improved the fertility of the soil--adequate fertilizer is always one of the major problems of a farmer--but also provided a better diet for the lower classes ….

Second, having two seasons of sowing and of harvest each year reduced the risk of famine: it was unlikely that both crops would fail.

Third, the new cycle of crops distributed the labor of plowing more evenly over the year, and kept men, plow animals, and costly plows from standing idle for long periods. This was advantageous not only to lords but also to peasants, who after paying the established manorial dues would keep for themselves much of the new surplus produced.

Fourth, the shift from biennial to triennial rotation enabled a group of peasants to cultivate considerably more hectares annually with the same labor. Modern scholars have generally stressed changes in production per unit of arable land, but the more realistic measure is production per peasant. (American Council of Learned Societies Par. 24)

Roland says in Once More in the Stirrups that the “three-field crop rotation allowed more and better crops to be produced with the same amount of land and labor, increasing not only the supply but the quality of food produced” (576). The introduction of crop rotation helped the European populations to live longer and healthier lives.


Walsh quotes Sir Charles Grant Robertson, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, as saying; “The greatest achievement of the Middle Ages, greater than even their Gothic cathedrals, if possible, was the foundation of the university” (83). During antiquity, much of the education of the public was limited to the nobility while most of the population was illiterate. With the invasion of the barbarians, education was even more limited to those in power and who could afford it. Education became more based in the church and it was through the church’s direction that monasteries started to educate more and more people. Walsh goes into great detail about the origins of common university terms like commencement, “our modern word, commencement, has reference to the fact that by their addresses they were beginning to teach. … The curriculum, examination, commencement, degrees, are all inherited from the Middle Ages, and in some form they go back to the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century ” (85). Scott writes about the mission of the universities from the medieval time to the post modern,

Teaching services were first provided during the later Middle Ages at the Universities of Bologna and Paris. Scholastic method was state-of the- art in Europe for both teaching and research; thus, these missions or ideals fused. For example, Roger Bacon taught classes as well as performed scientific experiments. The medieval university teaching mission embodied the undergraduate liberal education and graduate (professional) education missions. (4) Education also wasn’t limited to the rich and famous or mainly Christian peasants. Orme “disproved the notion that previous generations treated children as miniature adults. This one explodes some pervasive myths about their education. First, there was quite a lot of teaching available: it was not just confined to the rich and priestly. There were hundreds of schools in England, some in monasteries and cathedrals, others founded with individual charitable endowments, often with a large bunch of private pupils paying modest fees. Nor was education just for boys, though just how and where girls were taught is hard to trace” (1) Charlemagne was a great military and political figure in German and French history and some remember him as the Father of Europe (Charlemagne). Biel says that “in 787 Charlemagne ordered that ‘every cathedral and monastery in the kingdom establish schools’ so that even the poorest of his subjects of his subjects could become literate” (18). He also quotes Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, as saying that Charlemagne instructed his educators to “take care not to make no difference between the sons of serfs and of freemen, so that might come and sit on the same benches to study grammar, music, and arithmetic” (18).


Government has its roots dating back to the earliest communities that conquered or were conquered by others and became subservient to them. Some of the earliest empires that held great power were those empires who employed complex bureaucratic systems of government. Feudalism was foundational to the European governments after the Renaissance.

Strayer in Twelfth-Century Europe and the Foundations of Modern Society defines feudalism as, “a way of accomplishing certain essential political acts” (77). Feudalism was foundational to the political system such that European governments wouldn’t be the same today if it wasn’t for Feudalism. During the Middle Ages, we saw the struggles between the Church and the Kings/leader clashing on many issues but specifically, power. After the fall of Rome there was only one group that was able to survive the vacuum of leadership and lack of order and was able to provide people with the solution to their questions. Peasants disillusioned by the instability of the governments, wanted some security in their belief that there was something out there to live for. For the common peasant, they didn’t travel too far from their birthplace; in fact many European families can trace their heritages back to a single village (Borkman). This would be influential later on during the industrial revolution when the family unit was forced to move into cities where there were a million other issues pulling the family apart, but during the medieval age, this reflected in the family unit feeling a sense of loyalty (or bondage) to a certain knight or noble. As the king began to consolidate their powers, the peasants were called to work not only for the local noble but for the nation or people group.

Feudalism wasn’t a medieval concept, the Roman historian Tacitus studied the patterns of the barbarians and he wrote about in Germania. Biel in The Age of Feudalism quotes an English translation of Tacitus’s work.

It brings fame and glory to a leader not only in his own folk, but among neighboring people, if his warband is superior in number and courage. When they go to war it is a disgrace for the chief to be outdone in deeds of valor and for the followers not to equal the courage of their chief. Moreover, for a follower to survive his chief and come unharmed out of a battle is life-long infamy and fame …. The chief fights for victor, the men for their chief …. They depend on their chief for their war-horse, and their weapons; they consider their [minimum] pay to be the feasts [which he provides], but the real wealth [which attracts them] comes from war and plunder.” (11)

Government took great strides with Charlemagne as king of the Franks. Even before William the Conquer in England called the Curia Regis, Charlemagne had established a group that advised him to actions to take. Though feudalism reflected in different monarchies – an absolute ruler in France and a constitutional parliamentary govern king in England- but it was important in the development of government of nations worldwide.

As the feudal government became more and more secular with the succeeding years and the lack of many strong church members to combat it, resulted in the rise of political parties that called for the separation of church and state. Although, the church held little sway over the governments, that didn’t stop its members from trying to change the nation’s religion to reap the physical benefits of being loyal to one group versus the other. During the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was in the middle of trying to avoid any involvement in the Italian Wars. The Italian wars of 1535-38 were fought between the French and Spanish nations and this was tricky for Charles V who was the grandson of Spanish Queen Isabella (Italian Wars). Along with Muslims trying to penetrate into Christian Europe, Charles V had to worry about keeping his fractured empire from dissolving due to Catholic/Protestant rivalries. The Wikipedia talks about the First Diet of Speyer where,

The Diet came with the consent of [Archduke] Ferdinand to the unanimous conclusion, August 27, that a general or national council should be convened for the settlement of the church question, and that in the mean time, in matters concerning the Edict of Worms, "every State shall so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty." This action was not designed to annul the Edict of Worms, and to be a permanent law of religious liberty, which gave to each member of the Diet the right to act as he pleased. It was merely an armistice, or temporary suspension of the Edict of Worms until the meeting of a general council, and within the limits of obedience to the Catholic Emperor who had no plans to grant religious liberty, or even toleration, to Protestants. (Par. 3)

Encarta has this to say about the influence of Feudalism upon modern governments,

The fief was embedded in the customary law of western [sic] Europe, and the incidents of feudalism, such as wardship [sic] and marriage, escheat and forfeiture, continued to flourish after feudal military service died out. In England feudal tenures were abolished by statute in 1660, but they lingered on in parts of the Continent until the customary law was replaced by Roman law, a process completed by Napoleon. Roman law substituted other legal notions for feudal ones on the Continent, but in England the common law continued to be basically feudal law. Wherever English people settled in the modern era, they took their common law with them and thus established feudal principles all over the world. English constitutionalism is fundamentally feudal, based on the contract theory of government. When John Locke wrote his treatises on government in the 17th century, he was seeking to generalize for all persons the feudal contract that limited the rights of the suzerain over his vassals and retained for them the German warrior’s independence. The U.S. Declaration of Independence was a classic act of feudal defiance, as the Continental Congress enumerated the tyrannical acts of the king and declared the colonists no longer bound by their allegiance to him. Nineteenth-century liberalism and 20th-century libertarianism owe their basic premises to feudalism. In sum, feudal ideas were important to the political development of Western civilization, reconciling authority with liberty by way of contract. (Cazel)

The span of time that was labeled dark by Francesco Petrarca is a complete fallacy. During the Renaissance, secular humanists believed that the history of man was an ever evolving form and that each decade built upon the other. With the increase of material from antiquity being recovered and more scholars being educated, led to the belief that the civilizations of Persia, Greece, and Rome were worthy of repetition due to their pure aesthetics. They questioned how the centuries before them with the many ‘stupid’ crusades, the Black Death, and the ‘evil’ Catholic Church’s domination over European powers could be called constructive. They believed that these days were indeed dark. However, they didn’t look at what came out of those ‘dark’ days; the advances in technologies, education, and government were foundation to both the Renaissance and every following revolution.


American Council of Learned Societies. Agriculture and Nutrition: Northern Europe. Vol. 13. Farmington Hills, 1989.
Anasto, Milton V., et al. Twelfth-Century Europe and the Foundations of Mondern Society. Ed. Marshall Clagett, Gaine Post and Robert Reynolds. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.
Barber, Nathon. The Complete Idiot's Guide to European History. New York: Alpha Books, 2006.
Biel, Timothy L. The Age of Feudalism. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1994.
Borkman, Dr. Kurt. Peasants moving around ... Gabriel Spiro. 9 April 2007.
Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. 1st Edition. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
Cazel, Fred A. Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2002. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation, 2002.
Davies, Norman. Europe a History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Fraser, Russell. The Dark Ages & the Age of Gold. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Lucas, Adam Robert. "Industrial Milling in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds." Technology and Culture 46.1 (n.d.): 1-30.
Lynn White, Jr. Medieval technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Orme, Nicholas. "Not what it used to be; Education in medieval Britain." The Economist (US) (2006): 1.
Roland, Alex. "Once More into the Stirrups." Technology and Culture 44.3 (2003): 574-585.
Scott, John C. "The Mission of the University." The Journal of Higher Education 77.1 (2006): 1-39.
Walsh, James J., ed. High Points of Medieval Culture. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1937.
Wikipedia contributors. Charlemagne. 5 April 2007. 5 April 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Charlemagne&oldid=120384427>.
—. First Diet of Speyer. Vers. 120258732. 4 April 2007. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 11 April 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=First_Diet_of_Speyer&oldid=120258732>.
—. Italian Wars. Vers. 121854276. 9 April 2007. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 11 April 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Italian_Wars&oldid=121854276>.
—. Medieval Technology. 22 March 2007. 23 March 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_technology&oldid=117083455>.