In Europe, the 'Dark Ages' refers to the barriers to human intellectual and moral development thrown up by a Christianity which sought to control all aspects of morality, justice, education and power, violently ending progressive morality and tolerance wherever it had the power to do so1,2,3,4,5 especially from the 5th century6 to the 15th7. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church stood as the most stable centre of European power and under its dominant influence science and scholarship was all but destroyed, replaced with Church dogma and doctrine, violently enforced8. Philosophical works were burned and lost, medicine and psychology set back hundreds of years2,9,10. In some areas of knowledge, over one thousand years of Human development was lost and education became controlled by the clergy and was often limited to them alone3,11. The entire Middle Ages was subject to Christian superstitions, torture, violence, the loss of education and knowledge and the denial of basic human freedoms, specifically as a result of Christian doctrine11.
During this time, the Arab world carried the torch of knowledge and surpassed Europe in its understanding of philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences in general12,13. Europe slowly emerged from the dark age amidst continued widespread horror at the abuses of the Church, and a gradual trickle of intellectuals and early scientists emerged from the 12th century. Although they were mostly imprisoned and tortured by Christian institutions, they eventually lit the spark of the Reformation in the 16th century, which broke the power of the Catholic Church (after large scale civil wars between competing Christians14,15), and allowed the seeds of the 18th century Enlightenment to be sown8, whereupon religious organisations' power was curbed, worldly knowledge was sought and basic Human rights were proclaimed and valued.
The concept of the 'Dark Ages' is (now) treated with an air of distaste and historians have divided that era into less vulgar portions: from the 20th century the term 'Middle Ages' is used to describe the period from the 11th to 15th century, and 'the Dark Ages', if used at all, covers the 5th to the 11th6.
The modern western world, where almost every human endeavour is based on accumulated knowledge, only came into existence after a serious and prolonged setback. Later thinkers called this period the 'dark ages'. There is general agreement that this period began during or after the fall of the Roman Empire, either from the 4th or 5th century, and continued until the 15th century7.
“The age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system. There was more knowledge in the world before that period than for many centuries afterwards [and] we have now to look through a vast chasm of many hundred years to the respectable characters we call the ancients. Had the progression of knowledge gone on proportionably with that stock that before existed, that chasm would have been filled up with characters rising superior in knowledge.”
As Christian institutions took over all educational facilities, the ability to read and write declined until eventually it was only the clergy who could do so3. The concept of 'sola scriptura' held that scripture alone was all that anyone needed to learn from and all secular (non-religious) knowledge fell into a deep decline. Historian William Draper:
“The prevailing belief that the Scriptures contain the sum of all knowledge discouraged any investigation of Nature [and] so great was the preference given to sacred over profane learning that Christianity had been in existence fifteen hundred years, and had not produced a single astronomer.”
“The development of science was retarded by the Church's imposition of orthodoxy on all fields of thought. The Church claimed to speak in an unchanging and authoritative fashion not only on matters of behavior but also on the behavior of matter.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults"
Steve Bruce (1996)8
The stubborn stance against science and real-world knowledge in Christianity stems from the very founders of that religion. Take Tertullian, one of the great and powerful Christian speakers of very early Christianity, who in 200CE was defending Christianity against its critics. 'Before he closes his defense, Tertullian renews an assertion which, carried into practice, as it subsequently was, affected the intellectual development of all Europe. He declares that the Holy Scriptures are a treasure from which all the true wisdom in the world has been drawn; that every philosopher and every poet is indebted to them. He labors to show that they are the standard and measure of all truth, and that whatever is inconsistent with them must necessarily be false'16. And what a terrible legacy became of that mode of thought: it is only true if it says so in the Bible. The hallmark of ignorant, dangerous barbarianism and fundamentalism.
The great and momentous Alexandrian Library in Egypt had begun with the collection of Philadelphus 1,000 years before the Christian patriarchs rose to religious prominence; they began dismantling the library but progress was slow and many local curators simply did not want to comply. Pope Theophilus (died 412CE, the uncle of St. Cyril, got permission from the Christian Emperor Theodosius to finally destroy the library17.
“The losses in science were monumental. In some cases, the Christian church's burning of books and repression of intellectual pursuit set humanity back as much as two millennia in its scientific understanding. [...] The Church burned enormous amounts of literature. In 391 Christians burned down one of the world's greatest libraries in Alexandria, said to have housed 700,000 rolls. All the books of the Gnostic Basilides, Porphyry's 36 volumes, papyrus rolls of 27 schools of the Mysteries, and 270,000 ancient documents gathered by Ptolemy Philadelphus were burned. Ancient academies of learning were closed. Education for anyone outside of the Church came to an end. [...]
[Pope] Gregory the Great [590-604CE] also condemned education for all but the clergy as folly and wickedness. He forbade laymen to read even the Bible. He had the library of the Palatine Apollo burned 'lest its secular literature distract the faithful from the contemplation of heaven. The Fourth Council of Carthage in 398 forbade bishops to even read the books of the gentiles. Jerome, a Church Father and early monastic in the fourth century, rejoiced that the classical authors were being forgotten. And his younger monastic contemporaries were known to boast of their ignorance of everything except Christian literature. [...] Monastic libraries, the only libraries left, were composed of books of devotion. Even the most significant monastic libraries carried little aside from books about Christian theology.”
One of the last lights of Human knowledge was that of Hypatia in the 5th century CE, but this was extinguished by a Christian mob commanded by St Cyril to murder her, and burn her library. The following lengthy depiction dates from 1881:
“The bishopric thus held by Theophilus was in due time occupied by his nephew St. Cyril, who had commended himself to the approval of the Alexandrian congregations as a successful and fashionable preacher. It was he who had so much to do with the introduction of the worship of the Virgin Mary. His hold upon the audiences of the giddy city was, however, much weakened by Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, the mathematician, who not only distinguished herself by her expositions of the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle, but also by her comments on the writings of Apollonius and other geometers. Each day before her academy stood a long train of chariots; her lecture-room was crowded with the wealth and fashion of Alexandria. They came to listen to her discourses on those questions which man in all ages has asked, but which never yet have been answered: 'What am I? Where am I? What can I know?'
Hypatia and Cyril! Philosophy and bigotry. They cannot exist together. So Cyril felt, and on that feeling he acted.
As Hypatia repaired to her academy, she was assaulted by Cyril's mob--a mob of many monks. Stripped naked in the street, she was dragged into a church, and there killed by the club of Peter the Reader. The corpse was cut to pieces, the flesh was scraped from the bones with shells, and the remnants cast into a fire. For this frightful crime Cyril was never called to account. It seemed to be admitted that the end sanctified the means. So ended Greek philosophy in Alexandria, so came to an untimely close the learning that the Ptolemies had done so much to promote. The 'Daughter Library,' that of the Serapion, had been dispersed. The fate of Hypatia was a warning to all who would cultivate profane knowledge. Henceforth there was to be no freedom for human thought. Every one must think as the ecclesiastical authority ordered him, A.D. 414.”
After a period of vast improvements in medical practices, the Christian age became the...
“... Dark Ages for all medicine [...] Christian monasteries, through their missionary and educational work, replaced physicians as healers and authorities on mental disorder. [...] When monks cared for the mentally disordered, they prayed over them and touched them with relics or they concocted fantastic potions for them to drink in the waning phase of the moon.”
It all began with the plague; the terrible disease which finished off the Roman Empire, and for which Greek medicine was not yet ready. The early Christian church did not attempt to understand or fight the disease, but used it to their own advantage, to scare people into crowded church gatherings.
“People flocked to the Church in terror. The Church explained that the plague was an act of God, and disease a punishment for the sin of not obeying Church authority. [...] It declared the field of Greek and Roman medicine, useless in fighting the plague, to be heresy. While the plague assured the downfall of the Roman Empire, it strengthened the Christian church. [...]
The most common medical practice between the sixth and sixteenth centuries used for every malady became 'bleeding'. Christian monks taught that bleeding would prevent toxic imbalances, prevent sexual desire, and restore the humours. By the sixteenth century this practice would kill tens of thousands each year. Yet, when a person died during blood-letting, it was only lamented that treatment had not been started sooner and performed more aggressively. [...]
Orthodox Christians taught that all aspects of the flesh should be reviled and therefore discouraged washing as much as possible. Toilets and indoor plumbing disappeared. [Disease, poor sanitation, and hygiene deteriorated]. For hundreds of years, towns and villages were decimated by epidemics. [...]
Aqueducts and plumbing vanished, hygiene discouraged, washing made people too proud and encouraged sin, Roman central heating systems were abandoned, lying on hard floors was promoted as humble before God.”
By the 16th century, attitudes had improved and the medical dark ages of Europe had been so long and hard that there was universal acknowledgement that Christian doctrine on sin and health was faulty. When Cardinal Ximenes (Granada - Spain) collected and burnt 80,000 Arabic manuscripts and burnt them - many of them being translations of classical Greek and Latin authors20 - he saw fit to tell his mob not to burn medical notes, although it is reasonable to assume that most of them did not know the difference.
With the rise of Christianity and their forceful oppression of philosophical schools and non-Biblical teachings, Europe lost all of its moral rudders. Christian power games and theological disputes determined all moral issues, with no room for ethics or humanism. The Roman Catholic Church denied the very concept of human rights such as the freedom of thought and freedom of belief1 and "during the Middle Ages, as it grew powerful, it became increasingly intolerant and oppressive, emphasizing dogma and unquestioning obedience and using rather nasty means to squash dissent"1. Social theorist Jack Donnelly in "Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice" (2013)21 puts it very mildly when he says that as Biblical exegesis dominated Western through from the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity "supported inegalitarian social and political practices"5 with little movement away from moral barbarism right through to the 12th century. Any moral or progressive mass-movements "were throughout almost all of Christian history effectively (and usually ruthlessly) repressed in the name of Christianity"22.
As science and knowledge began to grow again in the West, Church authorities fought back with all their power.
Copernicus (1473-1543)23,24, Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642)25,26,27, Newton (1643-1727)28 and Laplace (1749-1827)29 all fought battles against the Church when they published scientific papers that enraged the Church by writing that the Earth might orbit the sun, rather than the idea that it sat at a central position in the Universe. These and other scientists suffered torture, imprisonment, forced recantations and death at the hands of Christians27,30. The source of the Church's confidence was the Bible. Joshua 10:12-13, 2 Kings 20:11, Psalms 93:1, 104:5, Ecclesiastes 1:5, Isaiah 30:26, Isaiah 38:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 and Habakkuk 3:10-11 all contradicted the astronomers. It was not until 1979 that the Vatican "officially concede[d] that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vica-versa"26.
Without interference from theists, science would have been a thousand years more advanced than it is now. Aristarchus of Samos taught that the earth moves, in the 3rd century BCE23. But Greek astronomical knowledge was condemned and hidden by Christians (Ptolemy et al) in the second century. The Ionians discovered the truth about the Sun, the Earth and the stars31, but their era ended when their last great scientist, Hypatia, was attacked by a mob of Christians and burnt in 415CE. The center of science, the Alexandrian Library, was also burnt and destroyed. Although the Church did eventually lose the battle against astronomy, it still went on to violently impose dogmatic errors in other arenas of knowledge, such as biology. Thankfully, today, most mainstream Christians accept scientific facts in many matters and Christian organisations have much reduced power to hinder research.
For a full discussion, see: Christianity v. Astronomy: The Earth Orbits the Sun!.
In 1200, three new centres of learning were formed at Bologna (Italy), Paris (France) and Oxford (UK), and these Universities obtained Greek knowledge about the world via Arab translations12,32, allowing a smattering of worldly knowledge to persist, marked by many as the slow beginning of the Renaissance (rebirth) of European intellectual development. But they had to walk a fine line to avoid irritating the Roman Catholic Church, which had eradicated so many centres of learning over the previous thousand years.
Some say that the Renaissance from the 14th century was the end of the Dark Ages, especially from 1453 when learnéd men fled Westwards from the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople, which began a period in which scholarship and learning "began to develop independently of the Church"33.
“A key date in the Renaissance was 1397, when Manuel Chrysoloras of Constantinople became the first professor of Greek at Florence University. Italian scholars quickly seized on the works of the ancient philosophers, which dealt with questions not answered by the Christian Church. From this came humanism, the belief that man, and not God, controlled his own fate.”
But as the Reformation began and the abuses of the Catholic Church were effectively resisted by the Protestant movement, the resulting bloodshed and wars bear the familiar stamp of Dark-Ages mentality on both sides of the conflict. It all began with Martin Luther:
“Martin Luther directly challenged the entire Catholic system on the 31st of October, 1517, when he famously nailed his 95 protestations to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This began a 150-year struggle that has been Europe's longest and bloodiest power shift, in which half of Europe left the Catholic Church.”
“Protestantism soon swept through Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, England, Scotland, the Scandinavian Kingdoms, as well as through parts of France, Hungary and Poland. The Catholic Church responded with its own Reformation, called the Counter Reformation, centered around the decisions and canons of the Council of Trent which met between 1545 and 1563. The animosity between Protestants and Catholics sparked a series of civil wars in France and England as well as the bloody Thirty Years War involving Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark, England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire represented by the Hapsburgs. That both sides considered themselves Christian did not temper the bloodshed. On August 24, 1572, for example, in what is known as the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in France. Pope Gregory XIII wrote to France's Charles IX, 'We rejoice with you that with the help of God you have relieved the world of these wretched heretics'.”
But Protestantism showed Europe that it is possible to forge in new directions, morally and in terms of worldly knowledge, and to hold-out against traditional Christian doctrine and power. The hope that led to the Enlightenment grew from this taste of volitional freedom.
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults"
Steve Bruce (1996)8
Thankfully the process of secularisation has diminished the strength of religion across the West, and since the Enlightenment, when religious institutions started to lose control of public life.
“After the many long centuries of the dark ages, by the 18th century there was a growing movement in a Europe that was learning from its past mistakes: religion was increasingly being seen as positively harmful35. The wave of change finally broke in France during the revolution, where "the total abolition of... everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion" took place36. The era of rationalism and secularism had dawned: policies, governance and equality were to be based on sensible thinking and citizens were to be treated fairly without prejudice based on a their religion.”
One of the most important lessons to learn from the Dark Ages is that we must never allow belief systems to go unquestioned and unchallenged. No matter how important the beliefs are, and how strong the instinct is to use the concept of 'blasphemy' or 'tradition' or 'them and us' in order to make our own situation seem stable, it is of greater value to ensure that we do not divide beliefs or behaviours off into a space where they can't be examined rationally.
“There is a constant need for us to question our own beliefs, and the beliefs of those around us. It creates a healthy atmosphere of skepticism and intelligence, and prevents people from coming to unreasonable conclusions. The way our brains work means that we frequently misinterpret events and data, and in particular, we always think there is more rationality and evidence for our beliefs than there is. One of Friedrich Nietzsche's longest-lasting declarations was that "we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions... are the most indispensable to us"37. This all matters because when beliefs become unquestioned, a community can become increasingly divorced from reality.
This is dangerous when individual leaders or belief-based authorities claim to be acting in accord with a divine principle, such as God's will. When it comes to disputes, religionists can come to deny any chance of compromise. In the adult world of democratic politics, compromise in disputes is what keeps things from breaking down: you give a little in one area, but have to give up in another. However, arguments based on differences in religion or belief often contain parties that believe the issue has universal, absolute and cosmic significance. They will not compromise on their position, and many ordinary believers state that they think that religious beliefs should be somehow beyond question38. Malise Ruthven in his book on fundamentalism warns that this is particularly dangerous39. It is how religious cults are formed. In extreme cases this leads to complete social rejection and the possibility of suicide cults, as has been seen many times in history for example with Charles Manson's followers and the 900 who died when the People's Temple suicided. These groups always start out with borderline, but common, beliefs and slowly become more delusional over time. Doctrinal intolerance based on faulty ideas led to the witch hunts and inquisition and the enduing massacres of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation as Christian movement warred against each other for supremacy, all sure of their own position to kill for it40. In all cases followers lacked an instinct to ask questions about the beliefs. It is religion that gains most when people cease asking deep questions about beliefs, and it is truth that suffers most. Thomas Paine famously remarked that "it is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry"41 and he argued that everything ought to be open to question as even prosaic beliefs can have negative consequences42. In the name of truth and common sense, do not let even trivial-seeming beliefs take hold without double-checking them, because once beliefs are trivialised, a slippery slope can take you down into madness!”