If you are not yet familiar with Oxford’s Very Short Introduction Series you should check it out. It is a phenomenal collection of works written on a wide variety of topics—from Accounting to Teeth to 19th Century Russian Literature to Planets, to The Middle Ages, and seemingly everything in between. The very short introductions are written by respected scholars in each field of interest who are selected to write a detailed overview of the topic within a quite small book-size (sextodecimo technically), and quite a short book-length (usually less than 150 pages, often just over 100 pages)—therefore making the central or key knowledge of each topic highly consumable.
I’ve been drooling over many titles in this series for a while now, just dying to become a superficial polymath as soon as I possibly can. Recently, I was able to read one of the few I’ve purchased; I enjoyed it quite a lot. Lucky for me, and for you I suppose, Oxford has also produced a number of brief video interviews for this series including one with Miri Rubin, the author of “The Middle Ages” which is embedded below. (Unfortunately the audio quality is sub-par so you have to turn the volume way up to hear what she is saying.)
I had been somewhat disabused, thanks to some other readings and some history-buff friends, of the idea that the “middle ages” or “dark ages” (~500-1500 CE) was a unique period exhibiting regression in human flourishing and thought compared to the time before (Late Antiquity and after it (The Renaissance). In fact, it is just another historical period that is in continuity with the events and changes that preceded and followed it. The reason that we think of the Middle Ages or Medieval Period as different comes from the way history has been written by a select few Italian historians of the Renaissance; who were simply elevating their time above the one the preceded it through polemic and rhetorical language.
Names like Martin Luther, Issac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Shakespeare are associated with progress, enlightenment, reason, and reform. These fellows didn’t do their work in spite of entrenched religious oppression and certainly didn’t rise out of the dark medieval swamps of dogma as un-caused causers bringing light and truth to the world like angels sent from God. Rather, like almost every other historical figure that made contributions to human history, they stood on the developments of the of the time that preceded their own—the Middle Ages.
The beginning of the era, commonly referred to as a the fall of the Roman empire could be perhaps thought of rather as freedom from Roman oppression. Rome did not fall in a day or a year but over a long period of time, as it’s authority was subsumed to by local “barbarians” (which as you might guess by now is a historical pejorative term for anyone of that time that was simply not Roman, Greek or Christian). Throughout the era progress was made in improving infrastructure (often facilitated by religion via monasteries rather than through the wealth of the dynasty building local lords), theological development, making law (in particular marriage laws regarding consanguinity), and the use of rational thought. Historian of science Edward Grant said “If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed [in the 18th century], they were made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.” Reason and rationality was incubating and growing during the Middle Ages and applied to scripture, law, and the natural world.
The Middle Ages included periods of strife and stunted progress as well. Just like in any other historical time political upheaval, changing climate, and disease can have serious negative impacts on the potential progress to be made. (The plague was a severely limiting factor that likely entered into the consciousness of early Renaissance writers as a defining feature of what in reality was a long and complex historical period.)
Normally I would go on and insert smart quotes from the book, but I cannot. My children, I believe, have ensured that this book with all my marginalia in it has gone missing (probably hidden in some small dark space never to be found until we pack up to move, which I don’t imagine happening anytime soon). Though, I am currently reading The Scientific Revolution-A Very Short Introduction by Lawrence Principe. It is very enjoyable so far and has been doing a fantastic job of characterizing the Middle Ages with historical accuracy as well as making the connections between the Medieval Period and the enlightenment. A review of it will be included shortly.
Edward Grant. God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge 2001, p. 9.