Light in All That Darkness

The Middle Ages weren’t as dark as we think.

I’m encouraged whenever I come across a report insisting the Middle Ages were not the benighted period Enlightenment thinkers have led us to believe. When I first began reading the literature from the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD), I was impressed with many aspects of the faith and life of those people. They were people of their time and place, of course, and so they practiced certain things that seem to us strange, simplistic, or silly. But still... I was beginning to think I might be reading too much into this “benighted” period.

But after I read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization – the title says it all – I was encouraged there might be other literature like this, willing to take a second look, not only at the period of Celtic Christ-ianity, but at the so-called Dark Ages as a whole. I was not disappointed.

Board Chairman Charlie Hammett and I read one such book together, Rodney Stark’s How the West Won. Stark insists that the Medieval period is the birthplace of reason, science, art, and technology – and therefore of modernity – and that we cannot really understand our own times apart from a more careful assessment of the Middle Ages.

A review of three new books on this period in the July 9, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books, offers additional rethinking about this important period in Western history (Eric Christiansen, “Two Cheers for the Middle Ages!”).

Mr. Christiansen does not avoid mentioning aspects of the Medieval period which are better left behind, but his review, and the books in his focus, contribute overall to a more favorable understanding of the period. For a thousand years a decidedly – albeit imperfect – Christian worldview dominated the most civilizing nations and peoples of the world.

We have much to learn from our forebears, including those Medieval believers who, it continues to be seen, were neither as “Dark” nor as “benighted” as we might think.

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