Why It’s Called the “Dark Ages”

Triumph of Christianity
Triumph of Christianity
Tommaso Laureti

Academics now refer to it as the “Middle Ages,” because the term “Dark Ages” is biased. It’s not considered politically correct to refer to this millennium-long period of Western Civilization as “Dark” because it suggests the culture of this period was culturally backward and characterized by ignorance. According to extreme notions of multiculturalism, where all cultural practices have value and worth, it is wrong to disparage 600AD-1000AD (the narrowest definition of the age) as a dark time in Western history, because theological cultures flourished during it.

I recently discovered a copy of the New York Public Library Science Desk Reference, compiling the world of common scientific facts as they were known in 1995 (and much has changed since then, I assure you). Each chapter summarizes a different subject, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and medical science, with key figures, discoveries, and facts pertinent to it. There is also a timeline within each chapter, and there is a glaring gap within the three-millennia timelines.

I took four discoveries or achievements that occurred in Western Civilization from each timeline1 (more in some subjects), starting from the Dark ages and sampling outward. Here’s what I found:

Year Subject Discovery
650-300 BC Astronomy Greeks developed ideas in astronomy, such as the Earth is the center of the universe, and predicted events based on astrology
570 BC Meteorology Greek philosopher Anaximenes of Miletus, suggested that air was primary substance, and that it changed to create wind, clouds, and rain
~450 BC Physics Leucippus of Miletus introduced the idea of the atom
430 BC Chemistry Democritus of Abdera (Greece), student of Leucippus, expanded teh concept of atoms, asserting that they explain the nature of all matter
350 BC Biology Aristotle grouped 500 known species of animals into eight classes
340 BC Chemistry Aristotle taught that space is always filled with matter and the four elements undergo change when combined
330 BC Earth Science Pytheas Proposed tides are caused by the moon
300 BC Biology Theophrastus of Eresus (Aristotle’s student) described more than 550 plants
~300 BC Mathematics Euclid’s Elements summarized three centuries of Greek mathematical knowledge; teh book would be the basic mathematical text for the next 2,000 years.
~300 BC Biomedical First anatomy book written by Greek physician Diocles, a student of Aristotle
240 BC Astronomy Eratosthenes first to calculate the Earth’s circumference
~180 BC Mathematics The 360-degree circle introduced to Greek mathematics by Hypicles
~180 BC Biomedical Galen accumulates all known medical knowledge of the time in a treatise; it was used until the end of the Middle Ages
~170 BC Biomedical Pulse first used as a diagnostic aid by Galen
20 AD Environmental Science Strabo’s Geography was teh first collection of all geographic knowledge
20 AD Earth Science Stabo’s Geography collected all known geographical information
40 AD Biology The medical properties of about 600 plants was included in De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus
50 AD Biology Pliny the Elder wrote Naturalis Historia, describing all that was known about zoology (and other facets of science) at that time
140 AD Astronomy Ptolemy defined the universe
~500 AD Mathematics First abacus used in Europe, though boards based on the same system were used by ancient Greeks and Romans a thousand years earlier.
~1000 AD Biomedical Canon of Medicine written by Avicenna; itwas a five-volume compilation of Greek and Arabic medicine that was until the seventeenth century
1298 AD Earth Science Marco Polo described coal and asbestos in Europe
1300 AD Chemistry Alum discovered in Rocca, Spain
1304 AD Meteorology Theodoric of Freibourg, investigated the rainbow, correctly concluding that water is responsible
1333 AD Biology First Botanical garden founded in Venice, Italy
1460 AD Biomedical First book on surgery written by Heinrich von Pfolspeundt
1464 AD Mathematics First major summary of trigonometry given by Johan Muller, but it would not be published until 1533
1473 AD Chemistry Atomic theory of Democritus became known to European scholars when Lucretiu’s On the Nature of Things was translated into Latin
1492 AD Physics Christopher Columbus noticed that a magnetic compass points in different directions at different longitudes
1517 AD Biology Naturalist Pierre Belon was first to note similarities between certain bones from fish and mammals.
1517 AD Earth Science Girolamo Fracastoro described teh remains of ancient organisms (now called fossils)
1543 AD Astronomy Nicolaus Copernicus published Concerning Revolutions, which stated that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun
1581 AD Physics Galileo Galilei studied swinging hanging lamps, which eventually led to the pendulum and accurate clocks
1608 AD Astronomy Dutchman Hans Lippershey applied for the first patent of a telescope
1789 AD Environmental Science Gilbert White wrote the first book on ecology, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne

If I were to plot all the years of discoveries into a spreadsheet and plot them on a graph, we would see the plot line bottom-out between 100 and 1300 AD, a black hole of cultural stagnation for Western Civilization.

For Christianity and Islam this thousand years without scientific progress was a triumph of light. It was the scholar Petrarch who turned this idea on its head, arguing that Christianity was the darkness destroying the wealth of knowledge and achievements of the previous millennia, contributing nothing to civilization in return.

What did Christianity and Islam accomplish during their 1,000-year reign? They took turns destroying the Library of Alexandria, burned the mathematician Hypatia alive, and waged perpetual war with one another. Who knows how many more achievements would be listed before the Dark Ages, if they had not worked so tirelessly to eradicate all evidence of the accomplishments that preceded them?

To me, this great big gap, spanning a thousand years, is a cultural wasteland because science is culture. It outrages me the wealth of cultural knowledge burned to the ground in religious fervor. We’ll never know how advanced the Classical world was in understanding our universe, because those advances were lost to ideological extremism.

1There were many accomplishments in Eastern civilization during this time period, and I did leave one Dark Age accomplishment off the timeline because–and this may be my personal bias–I don’t consider the Bubonic Plague an accomplishment.

Note: Without a hint of irony, one of my sources argues on the Internet that we are currently living in the Dark Ages.






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