My January 24th post, "The Pernicious Myth of the 'Dark Ages'", caught the attention of many readers and generated some interesting comments, including some by Professor A.C. Grayling, whose recent column in The Guardian was the focus on my post. Medievalist Sandra Miesel (co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax), has now posted a response to several of Professor Grayling's claims about the medieval era:
Yes, Tertullian famously asked "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" but he ended up a heretic. Over the first millennium, churchmen wrestled with the question of how to reconcile the two, culminating in the Renaissance of the 12th C when full texts of Aristotle finally became available.
Medievalists restrict the term "Dark Ages" to the centuries 500-1000. The Middle Ages run 1000-1500, sometime subdivided into Early, High, and Late. The different regions of Europe move at a different pace and sweeping generalizations are tricky about either the Middle Ages or Renaissance.
Professor Grayling's idea of "art' seems to mean stand-alone painting and sculpture. He seems unacquainted with manuscript painting, the highest form of medieval pictorial art and by no means always religious. Sculpture in and around medieval churches isn't restricted to religious subjects either. The Church was the primary patron of medieval art, learning, and the preservation of the classical heritage.
Art requires some economic surplus and a market. Neither is available in the dangerous, economically depressed and depopulated Dark Ages except in Ireland and early Carolingian and Ottonian eras. 90% of all our classical Latin literature comes down via Carolingian copies funded by Charlemagne--so much for suppression of ancient pagan authors. Knowlege of Greek was almost entirely lost after the fall of Rome. And even the court of Charlemagne's grandson was home to the highly orginal philosopher John Scotus Erigena.
Once the new barbarians had been minimally Christianized and civilized, Western Europe pacified, and agricultural productivity increased by new devices after the year 1000, people had the means to support art, architecture, and learning. When there's no art market, art isn't produced and the market also determines what subjects will be depicted. (Low Countries genre painting is lovely but Rembrandt continued with religious subjects as did Titian, El Greco, and Rubens.)When major buildings are affordable, cathedrals, castles, bridges will be built--and built beautifully
Medieval prosperity rested on technical advances the Romans didn't apply or know such as wind and watermills. (There were 5,000 watermills in England before the Norman Conquest and they did more than grind grain.) See Lynn White's MEDIEVAL TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL CHANGE and Jean Gimpel's THE MEDIEVAL MACHINE. Clocks and eyeglasses are among medieval invention that quickly spread and became commonplace. The Middle Ages didn't do as much in science and medicine as the Renaissance but one of the things holding things back was an excessive reliance on classical authorities. Medieval thinkers and innovators made Renaissance progress possible through their technical skill and a fundamental Christian concept that the universe is an orderly place that's good to study.
All the national epics of Western Europe are medieval. Christians wrote down the pagan stories of Ireland and Scandanavia. Christians created vernacular literature, polyphonic music, printing (first by woodblock, then by moveable type), and universities with set programs of study and formal degrees. Because of Christian preference for Bibles in codex form, we use books rather than scrolls and read them in separated words, not runalltogether as in classical times. At least a million books were made in medieval Europe, many of these objects great beauty.
Ironically, one thing that the Church worked hard to suppress unmentioned by Professor Grayling was lending at interest. Her suspicion of the money economy would affect social teaching even after the Renaissance.
Professor Grayling really needs to chat with some medieval academics and update his knowledge of the period.
I'm also working on a short response to some of Professor Grayling's remarks, all in the spirit of healthy debate, which I think (based on his remarks) he appreciates. Stay tuned.