Weird History

How The Dark Ages Were Actually Rich In Culture And Crucial To Modern Society

Every amateur historian knows the term "Dark Ages." It conjures up images of political upheaval, filthy living conditions, and widespread ignorance. But were the Dark Ages really dark? Not so much. Throughout the Mediterranean, into Europe and the British Isles, and from the expanse of the Byzantine Empire, the period from roughly 300 CE to about 1500 CE brought plenty of beauty and wisdom to the world.

Myths about the Dark Ages may lead you to believe that people didn't value art or culture during this time. But that's not the case - consider the painstaking work that went into the period's illuminated manuscripts, or the increasingly complex music that was being made and shared. Society underwent massive changes during the time period as well, arguably for the better. New systems of law, the social work of religious groups, and universities all sought to protect the public and enrich their lives.

It's entertaining to imagine all the cool things you wish were true about the Middle Ages; a time period full of disease and decay is certainly eye-catching. But once you discover that the Dark Ages weren't so dark, you'll want to give the medieval world the respect it deserves and rescue it from that demeaning moniker.

  • Illuminated Manuscripts Are Artistic Masterpieces

    Illuminated Manuscripts Are Artistic Masterpieces
    Photo: Meister des Book of Lindisfarne / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    From the Book of Kells to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the illuminated manuscripts made by the Irish monks during the Middle Ages contain some breathtaking art. Constantinople, Italian cities, Paris, and other locales also produced illuminated works, and illumination varied according to geographic location. From the ninth to the 16th centuries, monks copied biblical, theological, and philosophical works in the scriptoria of monasteries and, as they wrote, they supplemented text with elaborate and colorful designs, letters, and images.

    The technique used to produce illuminated manuscripts consisted of several steps. The monks would write the text on vellum (animal hide) or parchment first, and then the illustrator would get to work. The illustrator would use paints made from plant dyes, chemical compounds, and flakes of metals after penning symbols, borders, alphabetic letters, or other images that was appropriate for the work. Once the work was complete, the pages would be bound using leather, and kept either in the monastery itself or given to a wealthy patron.

  • Universities Started Thanks To A Bar Fight

    Universities Started Thanks To A Bar Fight
    Photo: Hans Kaspar Lang / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Education was alive and well during the Middle Ages. By the late 11th and 12th centuries, there were cathedral and monastery schools all over Europe. Because the schools were an extension of the Catholic Church, students and teachers were both considered clergymen. Cities such as Paris, Bologna, Montpellier, and Cambridge attracted more and more students and the struggle between town-and-gown grew increasingly intense. To add to this, in the Île de la Cité of Paris, there was competition amongst teachers - who needed the approval of the chancellor to be a "master" - and growing resentment of the chancellor who controlled their fates. The response to the chancellor of Notre Dame in Paris, in part, was a shift in educational activity to the Latin Quarter.

    Paris was full of students, masters, wannabe masters, and townspeople by 1200. The tension amongst those groups hit a boiling point when a German student sent a young boy to buy him wine for a party. The boy was sold sour wine, and when he complained, the Parisian barkeep and some of his friends beat him up. In response, the German student and some of his friends went down to the bar and started a brawl with the local men who had hurt the boy. The barkeep asked for the students to be punished, marched on the Latin Quarter, and barricaded the streets.

    The students and masters decided to form a union, or universitas, to protect their rights, and presented their idea to the King of France a few days later. The King agreed to give the masters and students protections under church law and no arrests were made. From that point on, the universitas was an autonomous guild of learners and teachers.

  • The Magna Carta Laid The Groundwork For Modern Democracy

    The Magna Carta Laid The Groundwork For Modern Democracy
    Photo: Uploaded by Earthsound / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    King John of England (r. 1199-1216) had a lot of problems during his reign, including unhappy barons. King John taxed the barons in his wars with the French in a failed attempt to keep Normandy and his other land possessions on the continent, and seized lands according to what he considered his royal right. In order to prevent an all-out rebellion, he entered into negotiations with English barons in 1215, but those collapsed, and civil war broke out.

    After his defeat at Runnymede in June of 1215, John accepted the precursor to the Magna Carta, called the "Articles of the Barons." The Magna Carta itself, signed by the King and his barons shortly thereafter, limited royal power and reinstated English law. Disagreements between the King and the barons continued, and the document was reissued in 1217 and 1225.  

    Concepts contained in the Magna Carta - due process, resisting oppression, equitable justice and liberty - inspired many modern democratic systems.

  • Flying Buttresses Helped Cathedrals Soar Skyward

    Flying Buttresses Helped Cathedrals Soar Skyward
    Photo: Cornell University Library / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    "Flying buttress" is fun to say - but more importantly, it's an architectural marvel. These structures were a feature of Gothic architecture during the medieval period. Cathedrals used buttresses to shift weight away from their walls, opening up the ability to include more windows and higher dimensions.

    The early medieval church structure was typically Romanesque, with a basilica structure bordered by heavy walls and pillars, rounded arches, and minimal light. Gothic architecture, which developed in the 12th century, featured pointed arches, higher ceilings, and, thanks to buttresses, elaborate stained glass windows allowing light into the cathedral. As the cathedral reached higher to the heavens and more light shone in, the structure took on added spiritual aspects.

    Some of the most famous Gothic cathedrals were constructed in France at Chartres, Reims, and Saint-Denis.