This paper examines the Dark Ages with the intention of showing the significance that this period had in the scientific and technological development of humanity. It discusses the dark ages and highlights the cultural, political, and economic deterioration that made many historians regard this period as the “dark age”.
The paper then provides evidence that many significant scientific discoveries and inventions were made in this era. As such, the dark ages were in actual sense the golden ages since major accomplishment that continue to serve the human civilization occurred in this era.
Historical Overview of the Dark Ages
The Dark Ages is the period of time from the fall of the Roman Empire until the rebirth of knowledge during the Renaissance period. Chronologically, this era is the millennium that stretches from 500CE to 1500CE. The era of the Roman Empire is referred to as the classical period and this period contributed significantly to the advancement of Western civilization. Many significant achievements in science trace their roots to this era.
Wigelsworth (2006) states that the modern writing system, the system of government, engineering, and architecture is developed from the works of the Romans and the Greeks in the classical era. The eventual collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 signaled the end of the classical period in Europe.
The term “Dark Ages” was first applied to the Middle Ages by Renaissance thinkers. For this class of scholars, this was an age of “intellectual stagnation situated between the lost riches of classical antiquity and the rebirth of knowledge during the Renaissance” (Wigelsworth, 2006, p.11).
To the Renaissance thinkers, the Dark Ages were a period characterized by retrogression in Western Civilization, as the gains of the classical era were undone. Some realities of this era buttressed the opinion that this period was indeed a “Dark Age”.
Reasons why the Era is referred to as the “Dark Ages”
The first major feature of the Dark Ages was a marked retrogression in governance as the Roman Empire fell into ruins. During the reign of the Roman Empire, the Emperor ruled over Rome and conquered territories. There was political order as the Emperor ruled through appointed officials. There was a centralized form of governance, and people paid taxes in exchange for services and protection from the State.
Following the collapse of the Empire, wars broke out as various warlords fought for power. The Roman Empire dissolved into multiple small states that were ruled over by different warlords. The political chaos of the Middle Ages was a sharp contrast from the great order that characterized the Roman Empires. The Dark Ages experienced a reversal of political progress as Europe abandoned the Empire model and slipped into Feudalism.
Lindberg (1978) describes feudalism as a rigid social structure based on loyalties and protections between inferiors and superiors. The inferiors swore an oath of fidelity to the superiors who in return, promised protection or offered land. Feudalism occurred in hierarchical order with the King at the top, followed by powerful noble families, lesser nobles, and the serfs who were essentially peasants
The lack of specialization by a large segment of the population during the Middle Ages further added to the perception that this was an era of technological stagnation. The classical period had witnessed the growth of specialization in Europe. The Roman Empire had been characterized by significant urbanization of the population. However, as the empire underwent a steady decline from 395CE, there was a massive de-urbanization phenomenon.
This phenomenon was caused by the high inflation experienced during the decline of the Roman Empire. High inflation led to a significant decline in food supplies to the urban centers, and the city dwellers were forced to return to the countryside due to these conditions.
Wigelsworth (2006) documents that during the early Dark Ages, up to 90 percent of the European population made their livelihood in the villages through agriculture, farming, and its associated jobs.
During the Roman Empire rule, impressive artifacts and buildings were made. During its prime years, the Roman Empire enjoyed great economic prosperity. It was, therefore, able to commission great public works such as the building of magnificent temples, Coliseums, and aqueducts. Infrastructures such as expansive roads were developed in Europe to facilitate trade in the continent.
In contrast to this, the Dark Ages were characterized by a lack of development in artifacts and buildings. The infrastructure collapsed, leading to a retrogression in the society. As Europeans reverted to living in villages, the famous Roman Engineering works, and magnificent structures were ruined (Lindberg, 1978). In many cases, these impressive structures were stripped down and used as sources of stone and iron by the villages.
Another reason for the perception of the 500CE to 1500CE period as a Dark Age is the scarcity of historical material on the period. The lack of sufficient written material from the Middle Age makes it hard for historians to accurately reconstruct the period.
Wigelsworth (2006) admits that the Middle Ages are the subject of difficult research since there are few written records and most are written in languages no longer spoken or written. This makes it hard to study the artifacts and rare texts from this era. The lack of primary source material about the Dark Ages made early historians conclude that this period was devoid of literary and scientific output.
The Dark Age as an Age of Progress
Modern historical analysis of the Dark Ages has shown that many important contributions to science, technology, and literature were made during this period. The Dark Ages were accompanied by major developments in art and architecture. The advances in art and architecture were largely connected to the church. Religion played a crucial role in the lives of people in the Middle Ages.
Christianity was the religion of Europe, and there were many churches all over the continent. By the 9th century, towns began to dedicate resources to the construction of grand churches called cathedrals. In the bid to build larger and more impressive cathedrals, new architectural techniques had to be invented.
Carlisle (2005) reveals that the challenges of building churches that are more imposing stimulated architects to develop new forms, including buttressed walls and peaked domes. Engineers came up with innovative ways of supporting the heavy cathedral roofs while still making provisions for large doors and windows.
The Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages are considered major architectural achievements (Lindberg, 1978). Cathedrals were often embellished with impressive artworks. The church commissioned skilled artists to make paintings or sculptures for the cathedrals. Most of the art had religious connotations. Even so, this led to the emergence of a class of skilled artists who made world-famous works.
Modern cities can trace their origins to the progress achieved during the Dark Ages. Specifically, transformations that took place in the agricultural sector during the Dark Ages led to the formation of towns. By the 9th century, technical inventions and discoveries in agriculture had led to great improvements in crop yields (Carlisle, 2005).
Improvements in agriculture led to increased food production, and the serfs in the Feudal system produced more food than they needed. The surpluses could be traded for other commodities. This led to the creation of markets and the development of trade as infrastructure was developed to facilitate the trade. The development of towns contributed to the development of intellectual pursuits in society.
Emphasis on learning and intellectual life became more pronounced and prevalent in Europe during the dark ages. In the classical era, learning was mostly confined to the aristocratic class in society. The majority of the population remained illiterate, and there was no impetus to promote formal learning in society. The Dark Ages were a time of great intellectual development.
Unlike in previous eras, where education was reserved for the rich, a new emphasis on promoting learning was developed. This era saw the rise of the University, which was an institution that was created to promote intellectual progress in an atmosphere of academic freedom (Lindberg, 1978). The Catholic Church was responsible for establishing some of the earliest universities in Europe.
In these universities, scholars were able to engage in academic pursuits without interferences. The institutes offered scholars with the resources needed to engage in research in philosophy, mathematics, and science. Universities also acted as intellectual hubs where researchers would meet and engage in collaborative works (Lindberg, 1978).
Through collaboration and consultation, scientists were able to come up with new ideas that promoted scientific development. The institutes were also repositories of knowledge, and they helped preserve works that would otherwise have disappeared.
These institutes therefore contributed to the preservation of ancient knowledge that would otherwise have become extinct. Our current knowledge of ancient civilization is, therefore, a function of the preservation efforts carried out by scholars in the Dark Ages.
The Islamic Golden Age, which was a period of Islamic exploits in scholarship, took place during the Dark Ages. This Golden age lasted from the mid-eighth century to the eleventh century, and it was a period characterized by an increase in knowledge and innovation within the Arab World. Islamic scholars studied the past research of great civilizations such as the Egyptians and came up with their impressive achievements.
The scientific and scholarly works produced by Muslims spread to Europe, and it was used to further scientific developments. By the ninth century, Arab learning had seeped into Christian Europe through Catholic Priests and monks. Europeans were therefore exposed to Arab science and Mathematics, and they made use of this information to further their studies.
One Muslim pioneer whose work promoted Western science in the Dark Ages is Az-Zahrawi. This Dark Age Muslim pioneer is referred to as the father of surgery due to the revolutionary nature of his work in medicine (Falagas, Zarkadoulia & Samonis (2006). Az-Zahrawi engaged in many experiments in human surgery, and he performed a successful tracheotomy on his patients.
He is also credited as being one of the first doctors to introduce methods for diagnosing breast cancer. Az-Zahrawi’s work increased the interest of Western scholars in medicine. Physicians in the Dark Ages were able to adapt his work and come up with more efficient ways to perform surgery.
Great developments were made in physics during the Dark Ages. As has been noted, the Dark Ages were characterized by many military confrontations. Various Kings fought to preserve their power or protect their subjects. Technological advances in military equipment helped reinforce the position of rulers. Many universities, therefore, engaged in research work into weaponry often after being commissioned by kings.
Using their mathematical skills, scholars increased their knowledge of projectile motion (Carlisle, 2005). This knowledge was then used in military appliances such as crossbows and trebuchets, which could throw missiles for great distances. Progress in physics was greatly assisted by one of the greatest accomplishments of the Middle Ages, which was the invention of the mechanical clock in the twelfth century.
This invention essentially invented time and made it possible for people to represent the previously abstract concept of time in a tangible manner (Carlisle, 2005). By quantifying time, it was possible to measure speed and other concepts that had a relationship with time.
Physics also benefited from the development of many arts and crafts during the Dark Ages. Refinement of crafts in glassware led to significant advances in science. At the onset, glass craftsmen used their skills to make devices such as clocks and watches. With time, glassmakers’ skills were used to produce lenses.
The lenses were initially used as eyeglasses by the aristocrats. However, these same lenses were later used to make telescopes and microscopes (Carlisle, 2005). Telescopes are the single most important instruments in astronomy studies. Microscopes have played a crucial role in biology and medicine by making it possible to study microscopic organisms.
Many significant advances in Mathematics were made during the Dark Ages. Mathematicians, in this era, believed that it was possible to use mathematics symbols to represent physical realities. An emphasis was placed on understanding traditional theorems and developing new ones. Krebs (2004) states that these scholars were able to “invent new ways of mathematically representing physical realities” (p.102).
The Muslim Mathematician Al-Khwarizmi introduced the algebraic system that was taken up by European scholars in the Dark Ages and used to solve practical problems (Falagas et al., 2006). These scholars were able to come up with the algebraic symbols that are still used today.
Modern chemistry has benefited greatly from the efforts of individuals in the Dark Ages. During this age, there was a great fascination with alchemy, which is a craft that aims to produce gold from base metals. European alchemy was prevalent in the Middle Ages as alchemists sort to create gold.
In their attempt to do this, they contributed to chemistry by discovering new chemical elements and coming up with methods of classifying elements based on their physical properties and reactions (Krebs, 2004). Scholars from the Dark Ages started showing an interest in understanding the composition and properties of matter, and this paved the way for modern chemistry studies.
The Dark Ages also contributed to the establishment of important scientific principles. Specifically, the principle of objective reality was developed and perpetuated during this era. This principle was first proposed by the Catholic theologian and Scholar, Thomas Aquinas, who declared that “things that can be observed are indeed real” (Krebs, 2004, p. 154). This principle emphasized on the importance of objectivity when making scientific inquiries.
Scientists today continue using this principle in their experiments. The scientific method, which played a major role in the advancement of science and technology, was developed the Franciscan priest, Roger Bacon during the Dark Ages. This method emphasizes experimental work and the ability to reproduce the findings of an experiment.
Conclusion and Suggestions
The purpose of this paper was to discuss the dark ages to show the significance of this era to the development of human civilization. It provided a history of the Dark Ages and showed how the fall of the Roman Empire ushered the start of the era. Focus on the numerous political wrangles that took place in this era, and the lack of evident advancement in material cultural achievements contributed to the period being called the Dark Age.
This paper has shown that while historians in the 18th and early 19th century regarded the Dark Era as a barren period in which no progress was made in science, philosophy or music, modern authorities have discovered otherwise. Modern scholars have acknowledged the importance of the dark ages to the development of modern science and technology.
This research has documented some of the achievements made in science, philosophy, and art during this period. It is suggested that modern historians should altogether avoid using the term “Dark Ages” when referring to the Middle Ages in European history. This would help dispel the popular assumption that this age was characterized by stagnation in scientific and intellectual development in Europe.
In addition to this, greater efforts should be made to publicize the many significant discoveries and inventions made by scholars in this era. By doing this, modern civilization will give proper tribute to an era that made some of the most important contributions to human civilization.
Carlisle, R. (2005). Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries: All the Milestones in Ingenuity – From the Discovery of Fire to the Invention of the Microwave Oven. Boston: John Wiley & Sons.
Falagas, M., Zarkadoulia, E., & Samonis, G. (2006). Arab science in the golden age (750-1258 C.E.) and today. FASEB Journal, 20(10), 1581-1586.
Krebs, R. (2004). Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. NY: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Lindberg, D. C. (1978). Science in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wigelsworth, J. R. (2006). Science and Technology in Medieval European Life. NY: Greenwood Publishing Group.