It is ordinary for people to think of the Middle Ages as the “Dark” Ages, and generally as a period of hundreds of years in which Western civilization stagnated. Media representations of the era have long presented it as a time of vast ignorance, lawlessness, and a kind of barbaric world where survival was in jeopardy at all times, and the powerful invariably exploited the multitudes of peasants. That this view is inherently biased, if not outright incorrect, is supported by the simple length of time of the era. Generally, the Middle Ages are classified as those years after the Roman Empire collapsed and before the European Renaissance. This then is a range of anywhere from 700 to 1000 years, depending on how the end of Roman power in the West is viewed. This is likely the longest expanse of human history to have a single classification, the breakdown into Early, Middle, and Late notwithstanding, and this in turn makes any single assessment of the era unreasonable. In plain terms, as life went on in many regions and over long centuries, it is irrational to assume that they all shared a single character or quality of any kind.
It is certainly true that Constantine’s transfer of the seat of Rome to the East was a consequence of the vast losses of Rome in the West, and that by 500 all Roman authority in Europe was essentially gone. In its place came the conquering barbarians, and the variety of populations within this term changed the face of the continent, and wiped out Roman civilization. This in itself partly explains why modern views of the Middle Ages are so negative; history has consistently glorified Rome, no matter it excesses and flaws, as the height of ancient civilization and intellectual achievement. Any culture following it, particularly one based on Northern tribes fiercely resistant to everything Rome stood for, would then be seen as savage. When it is noted that the Renaissance is the era following the period, and one also glorified as remarkable and brilliant, it is inevitable that the Middle Ages would be perceived as a time of darkness between two ages of light.
This factor of timing aside, there also exists a great deal of evidence affirming that the Middle Ages were centuries in which various kinds of societies emerged, with a great deal of complexity. The single element of clothing is important here. If modern ideas hold the era as one in which only peasants and lords existed, extensive illustrations reveal a sophisticated system of class in place. Then, the nature of specific clothing points to degrees of civilization. Scholars, for example, wore red cloaks, and the higher price of red dye then indicates that intellect and learning were in fact valued in these “barbaric” times. A person’s identity within the community or society was revealed in what they wore, and this is a trait of civilization still very much in place today. Adding to the achievement level of the era as well is the obvious fact that some expertise was needed to create the clothing for the upper classes, so there were clearly processes of commerce and skill developing in these centuries.
One of the usual ways in which the Middle Ages is categorized as grossly ignorant is in the assumptions of bloodletting as the only “medical” treatment known. This is absurd, of course, as it would rely on human thinking and investigation coming to a complete halt for seven to nine centuries. It is also incorrect because it is now established that draining the blood of a sick person was a last resort, and by no means a random treatment used frequently. Moreover, there was no ignorance or superstition behind it; it was based then, as it is known today, on the reasoning that something in the blood is infecting the body, as bloodletting also suggest that it was known in the Middle Ages that human beings create new blood. Then, and again confirmed by modern science, bloodletting done carefully offers many legitimate benefits; it not only sets in motion the making of fresh blood in the body, but it stimulates the surrounding tissue. It is unfortunate how one single idea such as bloodletting may be so taken out of its actual context that it helps to promote a wildly erroneous view of centuries of human effort.
As the Middle Ages are also typically seen as an era in which the Church exerted an awesome – and often corrupt – power over all of Western Europe, it is important to note other realities blatantly contradicting this. Modern history, on one level, certainly reveals that corruption and great power are not restricted to any age or region; Rome itself was notorious for a succession of emperors blind to the needs of the people, and concerned only with holding onto their greatness. Then, and critically, there is the documented thinking of Pope Innocent III of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. If there were popes interested only in preserving Church power, Innocent’s words powerfully affirm how, in the eyes of God, wealth and authority are meaningless. The Middle Ages were certainly marked by the majority of the people being subject to an elite rule and working for the profits of the few, but this is another reality by no means restricted to those centuries. Then, that Innocent would declare how in true Christianity there is equality was a bold and “modern” statement, and very removed from ideas of Church influence as unjust and corrupt. Even more modern was Innocent’s proclamation that no Christian should interfere with the worship of Jews. If it may be argued that this was only one pope’s expressing real Christian ethics, it remains true that this was a pope speaking out in a world perceived as dark, so the darkness itself is invalid.
A vast amount of other evidence affirms that the long years of the Middle Ages, by virtue of sheer logic, could not have been stagnant and dark. In plain terms, Columbus could not have made his voyages to the Americas had there not been an evolution in ship building and design. Hollister notes how churches and cathedrals of the Late Middle Ages reveal architectural craftsmanship far removed from those built centuries earlier, so advances must have been ongoing. Then, and critically, it is noted that entire systems of law evolved. Ancient and admittedly barbaric justice founded on superstition or the belief in divine will as creating justice gave way to legal codes and systems rooted in the realities of testimony and evidence. When all of this is noted, an enormous -and somewhat obvious – truth is seen. The Middle Ages were no strange centuries of unchanging barbarism, ending only with the sudden dawn of the Renaissance; rather, they were long years of human history in which humanity engaged in the processes essentially a part of it: reasoning, development, and change.