The Middle Ages and the periods before and after

We all have in our minds short histories of how knowledge grew and a popular one is that there was a period of scientific and philosophical growth that began more than a couple of millennia ago with the ancient Greek, Arabic, and Chinese civilizations that slowed down sometime during the early second millennium where there were no real advances and indeed a regression with a loss of knowledge. That was then followed by the period we now call the Age of Enlightenment with its associated scientific revolution that began in the 17th century around the time of Galileo. Scholars of the much-maligned middle period that has come to be down as the Middle Ages (or more pejoratively the Dark Ages) take umbrage with characterizations that compare that period unfavorably with what existed before and what came after.

For example, Edward Grant, a professor of history at the University of Indiana in his book Science and Religion 400 BC-1550 AD: From Aristotle to Copernicus challenges the idea that almost nothing happened during the Middle Ages. After going through some critiques of the Middle Ages as a period when creativity was stifled, Grant begins his defense.

Despite all the anti-medieval passages cited to this point, the Middle Ages was one of the most innovative periods in human history. Significant advances were made in commerce and numerous fields. Among the innovations in technology were eyeglasses, the magnetic compass, the mechanical clock, firearms and the cannon ship rudders, cranks to convert continuous rotary motion to reciprocating motion, and the printing press. Higher education saw creation of the university. For the first time in banking, there were bills of exchange, checks, and marine insurance. These advances in commerce were supplemented by the development of codes of maritime law and the formation of joint stock companies. In medicine, human cadavers were dissected for the first time for teaching purposes in medical schools. Government changed with the rise of the nation state and the creation of the Magna Carta as well as the English parliament, the first representative government. The Middle Ages furthermore laid the basis for the modern corporation, and in law, the foundation for the Western legal system. Polyphonic music is a product of the Middle Ages, and it was during this period that the Arabic number system was first adopted by the West. Medieval explorers expanded the horizons of Europe as never before. The Vikings reached the shores of Newfoundland around 1000. Before 1500, European explorers Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama reached India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, followed a few years later by Christopher Columbus, who reached the New World and began the long period of European imperialism and colonization. Finally, and most relevant for this volume, the Middle Ages, for the first time in the history of civilization, became a society in which innumerable questions about nature were raised and then resolved almost exclusively by the use of reason. That extraordinary achievement laid the foundation for the advancement of science, which depends upon reasoned analysis.

Taken collectively, these are extraordinary achievements. Many other contributions could be cited, but enough have been mentioned to show that the Middle Ages were a fertile and inventive period during which the foundations of Western civilization were laid and the way prepared for uninterrupted advancements over the next 500 years. (p. 12-13)

One of the goals Grant is seeking to achieve in his book is to defend Christianity from the charge that during the Middle Ages, critical thinking and reason were suppressed because the dominant scholastic thinking of religious institutions suppressed as heresies any ideas that were contrary to Aristotle.

Professor of philosophy Henry Martin Lloyd takes aim at the period that succeeded the Middle Ages and argues that the Age of Enlightenment (a period that he defines as beginning with the scientific revolution in the mid-17th century, and culminating in the French Revolution at the end of the 18th) was not necessarily one in which cool reason reigned supreme and overcame the forces of dogma and obscurantism and passions that existed in the Middle Ages period that it succeeded, and warns against over-romanticizing the Enlightenment.

On either side of the Atlantic, groups of public intellectuals have issued a call to arms. The besieged citadel in need of defending, they say, is the one that safeguards science, facts and evidence-based policy. These white knights of progress – such as the psychologist Steven Pinker and the neuroscientist Sam Harris – condemn the apparent resurgence of passion, emotion and superstition in politics. The bedrock of modernity, they tell us, is the human capacity to curb disruptive forces with cool-headed reason. What we need is a reboot of the Enlightenment, now.

[To] say that the Enlightenment was a movement of rationalism against passion, of science against superstition, of progressive politics against conservative tribalism is to be deeply mistaken. These claims don’t reflect the rich texture of the Enlightenment itself, which placed a remarkably high value on the role of sensibility, feeling and desire.

That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature.

Generalising about intellectual movements is always a dangerous business. The Enlightenment did have distinct national characteristics, and even within a single nation it was not monolithic. Some thinkers did invoke a strict dichotomy of reason and the passions, and privilege the a priori over sensation – Kant, most famously. But in this respect Kant was isolated from many, if not most, of his era’s major themes. Particularly in France, rationality was not opposed to sensibility but was predicated on and continuous with it. Romanticism was largely a continuation of Enlightenment themes, not a break or rupture from them.

If we are to heal the divides of the contemporary historical moment, we should give away the fiction that reason alone has ever held the day. The present warrants criticism, but it will do no good if it’s based on a myth about some glorious, dispassionate past that never was.

History is complex and like all complex subjects prone to simplified versions of it for general consumption. A similar phenomenon occurs with scientific discoveries where we put a name and a date to a discovery but that masks the fact that the actual process took a long time and involved many people and the label that was given to it only arose in retrospect.

It is useful to have truncated versions of complex event with labels thrown in as easily identifiable markers but we should be wary of taking them as the complete story.


  1. Dunc says

    the Middle Ages (or more pejoratively the Dark Ages)

    I don’t know if this is some weird American usage or a matter of genuine confusion, but I see it all the time and it winds me up no end… The two terms haven’t been interchangeable in anything like academic discourse since the 18th century, and the term “Dark Ages” has long since fallen out of favour entirely. In non-academic usage, the “Dark Ages” are generally understood to refer to the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire, to the beginning of the “Middle Ages” around 900 -- 1000CE (with some geographic variation). I realise that from the typical American perspective anything before a week last Tuesday is all ancient history, but seriously… It’s like mixing up the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

    Is it just me?

    Having said all that, the idea of “the Middle Ages as a period when creativity was stifled” pretty much died in the 18th century too, so maybe it’s just that US perceptions of non-US history are largely still stuck where they were when the country was founded…

    It’s not like I’m a historian. But you wouldn’t have to be a physicist to find it strange if people were still publicly talking about phlogiston or the luminiferous aether, and people were having to publish books trying to dispel these ideas.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the Age of Enlightenment (a period that he defines as beginning with the scientific revolution in the mid-17th century, and culminating in the French Revolution at the end of the 18th) was not necessarily one in which cool reason reigned supreme …

    Somebody out there claims that the time period between the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars (that is, including the English Civil War, the Ottoman invasions of central Europe, countless witchhunts, the bloodshed of the Reformation, the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty in China, the multi-generation Dutch-Spanish war, the Wars of Religion, the Great Northern War, Louis XIV’s rampages from Spain to Germany, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War [known in the US as the French-Indian War, and to my mind the actual First World War], the subjugation of Native Americans north and south, the rebellions for Greek independence, the centuries of African slave-raids, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the American colonial rebellion, and countless other alarums and excursions I won’t take time to look up now) was an interlude of calm calculation and polite negotiation?

    Oh, a psycho-linguist and degreed-but-never-practiced neuroscientist? Shut up and start taking notes, mere historians!

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dunc @1:

    Is it just me?

    No. My vague non-academic understanding was about the same as yours: Dark Ages from about 400 to 1000 CE, Middle Ages following.

  4. anat says

    In Israel in the 1980s I was taught the entire 400-1500 era was ‘Middle Ages’, subdivided to ‘Low Middle Ages’, ‘High Middle Ages’. (Oh, looks like there is also ‘Late Middle Ages’ See wiki) The beginning point could be placed anywhere from the adoption of Christianity as state religion by the Roman Empire to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

  5. Dunc says

    @anat: I believe that’s pretty much in line with modern usage, although I think most people would use “Early Middle Ages” (or “Early Medieval Period”) rather than “Low Middle Ages”.

  6. mnb0 says

    “slowed down sometime during the early second millennium where there were no real advances and indeed a regression with a loss of knowledge.”
    This is simply wrong. Toledo was conquered in 1085 CE, with its library intact. The first non-islamic university was founded only three years later in Bologna.
    But above all this idea of regression ignores that up to 1000 CE western Europe always had been backward. Up to 400 CE literally nobody went to Londinium, Lutetia or some Hispanic city to study. The went to Athena, Alexandria or some other city in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. As a result in the west-european kingdoms after the desintegration of the Western-Roman Empire there simply was nothing for christianity to suppress. The exception of course is Rome (which belongs to Southern Europe). That city was destroyed by the Gothic-Byzantine wars of the 6th centuries.

  7. consciousness razor says

    My vague non-academic understanding was about the same as yours: Dark Ages from about 400 to 1000 CE, Middle Ages following.

    A lot depends on the subject matter, as well as the location.

    If we were discussing European music history, there wouldn’t be much point in making a cut like that at all. Of course, the fall of the Western empire was a big deal in general, but there was still a fair amount of continuity after that (with respect to music). Things continued to revolve mainly around the Christian liturgy, and earlier theorists like Ptolemy, Augustine, etc., were still read. The raging barbarian hordes seem to have appreciated fine arts and music, as much as the Romans if not more, so none of that was in much danger.
    Nothing very dramatic was changing around 1000 either… more or less the same old shit. There were lots of minor developments happening all the time of course, but nothing that pops out and makes me feel like I should draw a sharp dividing line.

  8. mnb0 says

    The only useful definition for Dark Ages in history is interim period about which we do not have written sources. Three easy examples are Greece between Homeros and Thales; the Low Lands (nowadays Netherlands, Belgium, Picardy, Artois and Luxembourg) in the 5th and 6h Century CE; England between 410 CE and 550 CE.
    What happened in France, Spain and Italy between 400 CE and 1000 CE is documented; not as well as before and after, but enough to have a good idea. The same for England (Gildas) and the Low Lands (Frankish sources) after 550 and 600 CE. Again, in these areas knowledge wasn’t any worse than before, simply because they never had intellectual centers in the first place.

  9. William Sierichs says

    Professor Grant gives credit to the Middle Ages for a lot of things that were not invented then. The Greek academies were basically universities, taught by philosophers -- who were the Greco-Roman world’s natural scientists, moral teachers, logic teachers etc. The law codes were a mix of Roman law and pagan barbarian tribal laws. Medieval jurists tried -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- to merge and rationalize them. The printing press and gunpowder almost certainly were brought from China; they might have just been the ideas rather than actual gunpowder and presses, per se, but they were not Western inventions. The compass might also have been an Asian import -- not sure what historians have said recently. The modern numerical system was invented in India -- where mathematicians recognized that “zero” was useful as a number -- and brought to Europe via Islam. Representative government came from the Greeks and Romans. It also developed out of the barbarian tribes that had leaders elected by an assembly, usually of warriors, which practice survived in some form over the centuries.

    Scientific figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Giordano Bruno had to defy political and religious restrictions in order to make their cases to the public. Bruno was burned, of course, and Galileo threatened. The Catholic Church put Copernicus’ and Kepler’s books on its Index of books that Catholics were forbidden to read or teach; this censorship did not officially end until the 19th century (although Catholic teachers had been ignoring this ban for quite a while, Catholic students learned about heliocentrism and the math of planetary orbits despite their religion.)

    The idea of the “Dark Ages” and “Renaissance” developed from early Renaissance thinkers who claimed that there was a rebirth of civilization after centuries of barbarism. They weren’t totally wrong. The Renaissance was inspired by the revival of pagan Geek and Roman ideas, from newly published sources. Previously, Christianity had suppressed all of the Graeco-Roman civilization writings except those, such as Plato and Aristotle, that were seen as offering some value to Christianity. (Some Christians copied and preserved some other ancient writings, but they did not become widespread until the later Middle Ages.) It was also Christians who shut down the Greek academies -- universities -- and mandated that all education had to conform to the limited knowledge of Christianity and the “good pagans.” The Renaissance -- to the anger of conservative Christians -- broke those chains on knowledge and education. The destruction of the academies and Greco-Roman libraries were, in my opinion, the start of several centuries of “Dark Ages,” which only began lifting in the Middle Ages and not fully until the Renaissance.

    I don’t say that the Dark Ages and Middle Ages were completely backward and unproductive, but much of what they did was built off of older or other civilizations, such as China. For example, the Byzantines preserved far more of the Greco-Roman writings than survived in the West, and the Crusades were one factor in bringing those writings to Europe, but it was a long process.

  10. Oggie. My Favourite Colour is MediOchre says

    Another great invention of the late (high) middle ages was the invention of the idea of individuals as unique beings rather than archetypes. Prior to Abelard, histories of kings, popes, princes, lords, bishops, and saints, not to mention the histories of blasphemers, heretics, and other assorted bad people, were couched entirely in the conventions of archetypal symbolism. Abelard, in his personal autobiographical writings, especially those concerning Heloise, presented himself as an individual with idiosyncrasies. Hell, he reveled in his idiosyncrasies. And the cognoscenti of the time ate them up.

    Since the early to mid 12th century, biographies, even hagiographies, have tried to show historical figures as full humans rather than a platonic ideal. And thus was born a whole new form of literature which, to me, also made possible the transition from medieval chanson, the lyric poetry and/or song of heroic deeds chansons de geste or heroic conquests of the heart chansons courtoise into the earliest fictional writings of Chaucer, Boccaccio, and others.

    Additional advances in the realm of thought included the development of the idea of personal piety (the Gregorian revolution) and the evolution from holy kings to absolutist kings. I do not pretend to be an expert in the middle ages, but understanding certain events, such as the German Investiture crisis under Gregory VII*, help me to unravel modern European history.

    There is no question that education, political theory and practice, life expectancy, trade, diet, and other experiences fell precipitously through the period 300 to 800 CE in Western and Central Europe. However, even during that time, advances were made in both education and political theory which set the stage for the mini-Renaissance of the Franks, as well as the creation of universities, during the late stages of the middle ages. I always have to remind myself that what happened in the middle ages made the Italian Renaissance (with all the positives and negatives) possible.

    Keep in mind, my degree is in modern military history, and my current job as a public historian deals with labour and industrial history, so any mistakes in this wall-o’-text are mine and mine alone.

    * I wish to hell I had known more about this when I was in college. I could have done a really good paper tracing the Gregorian Papal revolution, especially as it dealt with lay investiture, through Henry IV civil wars and his humiliation before Matilda’s castle in Canossa, coupled with his attempts to retain his throne against the prohibitions of Gregory VII, lead to political dissolution in the Germanies which has, of course, led to such wonderful things as the 30 Years War, the Autsro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II. Could have been a good paper.


  11. springa73 says

    Dunc @1

    In general, I think most people in the US who consider the matter at all use “Dark Ages” as a synonym for the early Middle Ages in Europe, roughly 500 -- 1000 ce. Occasionally it does get used as a term for the entire 1000 years or so between the fall of the western Roman Empire and the Renaissance, but that’s usually by people who either have very little historical knowledge or people who have a specific reason to want to denigrate the entire period.

    Those groups of people would likely also confuse the Bronze Age and the Iron Age!

  12. Marja Erwin says


    I think White Wolf, game publishers, used to use “Dark Ages” to refer to very late medieval. *facepalm*

    I tried to work out population estimates a few years ago, and found it helpful to divide things according to catastrophic epidemics. Of course the Ancient Mediterranean was already in decline, due to soil erosion and depletion, before the Plague of Justinian. But the Medieval Mediterranean and Medieval Europe end with the Plague of Kaffa, the Black Death.

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