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Were The Dark Ages Really Dark?

The Dark Ages. When you hear something like that, you often think of a bad time. A time that no one wants to think about, that people assume to be terrible and wrong. But is that really true? Do we think no good came out of the Dark Ages? Not necessarily.

Let’s go back to the first time the term “Dark Ages” was used to describe a time period. An Italian scholar named Petrarch, came up with the term in the 1330’s to illustrate what he thought was the deterioration in the quality of Latin literature from the period of ancient Greeks and Romans. 

When the Germanic people conquered the former Roman Empire, which Petrarch was loyal to, they eliminated ancient Roman traditions to favor their own. Petrarch believed that the teachings of the ancient Romans and Greek was the apex of human achievement. He considered the era that came after to be dark and chaotic because, to him, there were no great leaders present, no scientific accomplishments made and no great art works produced.  His definition of the Dark Ages, later became the basis for others interpretations of what the Dark Ages meant to them. 

Were The Dark Ages Really Dark?

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Dubbing the Early Middle Ages The Dark Ages not only referred to what Petrarch claimed as dark but the term later evolved to refer to a lack of cultural advancement in Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance, aka the Early Middle Ages. 

Many historians argued that the Early Middle Ages were actually not much darker than any other time period. Instead, this era evolved with its own political, social, economic and religious change. There are a couple of reasons why the Dark Ages should not be labeled dark, but have a name reflecting the enlightenment brought to humanity in that time.

After the fall of the most powerful force in Europe, the Roman Empire, the relationship between the church and the people completely changed, which later influenced the basis of our constitution.  The collapse of the Roman Empire lead to a lack of a kingdom or any political structure which caused the churches of the time to take control and they became the most powerful institution in Europe. As a result, the church had a strong influence over the Early Middle Ages. 

Before the church had such a strong influence, Kings and Queens had limitless power. They did not have to consult with anyone or answer to anyone regarding the decisions that they make. But, since a relationship formed between the people and the church, the church acted as an advocate for the people. As a result, the amount of power Kings and Queens could yield was limited and they no longer held a monopoly over power as they have the church controlling their decisions. 

This restriction of power had influenced legal documents that still impact us today, like the Magna Carta, which was written with the help of the church. The Magna Carta stated that the power of the King could be limited by a written allowance. This charter created a foundation for the constitution that we have today, that gives certain power to the government and gives individuals a set of their own. 

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The Early Middle Ages also brought a different take on agriculture. Prior to this time, agriculture was limited to Southern Europe, as the land there was soft and light. People could use scratch ploughs to perform their farming duties. Later on, a heavy plough was invented for fertile clay soil deep in the earth, which would stimulate the agriculture of Northern Europe by the 10th century. 

Were The Dark Ages Really Dark?

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Another agricultural invention of the Early Middle Ages was the horse collar placed around a horse’s neck and shoulders to distribute the weight and protect the horse while it pulled the plough or wagon. It was through this invention when farmers realized that horses proved to be much more powerful and useful than oxen. The horse collar not only benefited agriculture but revolutionized the transportation industry. 

One of the other advances that the Early Middles Ages brought were the advances made in science and math in the Islamic world. Progress in the maths and sciences, using Greek and many other ancient texts, laid a foundation for future progress in these studies. The Islamic world introduced Europe to algebra and gave the world algorithms, which we still use today. The algebra and algorithms that they taught contributed greatly to the technology and knowledge that we have now.

In the end, the Dark Ages did not seem to cast a dark shadow but rather provided a brighter pathway to the future. Without going through the “dark times” we may not have made the advances that brought us here today.

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Were The Dark Ages Really Dark?