Christianity and the Middle Ages

It is "common knowledge" that the reason that Europe suffered through the "Dark Ages" was because of the control of the Roman Catholic Church and its anti-scientific views and strict moral codes that kept the intellectual movements that were given birth during the Greco-Roman period from flourishing, right? Well, sometimes common knowledge isn't always right.

First, let me say something about the use of the term "Dark Ages." Dr. John Mark Reynolds, Philosophy Professor at Biola University and author of the very fine blog Eidos, has noted that the term "dark ages" is no longer used among those in history studies because the period following the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance was anything but a static period of non-development. Rather, while it was not the greatest time for achievements due to a large number of factors, it was a time of growth that was necessary in order for the Renaissance to arrive.

Consider the following from the description page for the Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature: "Often misleadingly called the Dark Ages, the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance was a time of great creativity." Or consider the notes (here and here) by Raymond J. Jirran, Ph.D., to The Western Experience, 5th ed. by Mortimer Chambers, Raymond Grew, David Herlihy, Theodore K. Rabb, and Isser Woloch:

"Fifty years ago scholars demonstrated that the Middle Ages were not Dark Ages. The term Dark Ages is a pejorative term used against the Church."


"The professor does not like to see "Dark Ages" used at all because what made the Dark Ages dark in the understanding of that scholarship which gave the age that name was antipathy for the Church. Later scholarship continues to show that that antipathy is not justified by the facts.

Thus, I think it is safe to say that when someone uses the phrase "dark ages," they are not showing objectivity, but rather prejudice.

Having said that, is it true that Christianity burdened society during this time causing a long, drawn out period of stagnation? The answer, generally, is "no." It is certainly true that the church did focus on philosophy and theology in the universities, and science itself was lacking. But was this the result of a Christian bias against science? Hardly. The reason that the universities (which were set up by the Roman Catholic Church) did not advance further in the sciences was because they lacked the mathematical tools to do so. Consider the following from The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era by Norman F. Cantor, Emeritus Professor of History Sociology and Comparitive Literature at New York University:

There was an intellectual base in the university for what would become the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. There was interest and some progress in physics, but the development of the natural sciences was kept back by a limited knowledge of algebra -- a limitation that was not overcome until the sixteenth century.

But even with this limitation on scientific advancement, learning during the Middle Ages was not static. Given the other limitations of continual threats from the barbarian lands of the north, the plagues that swept Europe, the threat from the Muslim Turks to the east, the poor education of the mass of the population who lived in "physically crowded, medically unhealthy and poorly sanitized" medieval towns that fostered "anger, jealously and paranoia," (Cantor, p. 30), and the constant feudal wars for power and ambition (which wars were actually reduced by the influence of the church [Cantor, p. 18]), it is not surprising that the increase in knowledge was limited. Yet, despite all of this, progress did continue. Consider the following from the on-line essay by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett entitled Christianity and Progress", where, after discussing the viewpoint that Christianity stood in the way of progress, they state:

Yet there is a quite different possibility: that the Middle Ages were the incubator for some of our most cherished modern values and institutions, and that the origins of those values and institutions may often be found in an earlier age of the church.

"Both slave and free must equally philosophize, whether male or female in sex ... whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman.... And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue." These remarks by Clement of Alexandria (c. 200) cannot be confused with the views of most educated citizens of the Roman Empire in the third century. The sentiments they express would have been equally unusual, or more so, in the other great civilizations of the time: the various empires stretching across Asia, as well as those in the Americas and in Africa south of the Sahara. Clement spoke with the distinctively universalist tone of a Christian. "I would ask you," he declared, "does it not seem monstrous that you -- human beings who are God's own handiwork -- should be subjected to another master, and, even worse, serve a tyrant instead of God, the true king?"

The essay continues by pointing out how Christian ethics transformed the pagan world, how the church/state rivalry prevented the domination by either, how Christianity both preserved civilization and extended it and how Christianity set the stage for the rule of law. A truly fascinating read.

Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church was behind some bad things that happened during the Middle Ages, and regardless of whether we are Catholics or Protestants, it is incumbent upon us to accept responsibility for where the church (the only church that spoke for Christianity at the time other than the Eastern Orthodox Church ) made errors. After all, we don't claim the church to be perfect -- only God is perfect. But we must be careful to accept responsibility for imagined wrongs that did not occur.

For more reading on the broader topic of the alleged conflict between science and religion, I suggest The Mythical Conflict between Science and Religion by historian James Hannam (author of the fine Bede's Journal), and if you are interested on how Christian Europe made vast improvements to the ethics held by the pagan world, I recommend both "Pagans, Christianity, and Infanticide" and "Pagans, Christianity, and Charity" by Christopher Price.


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