HOW DARK WERE THE MIDDLE AGES?
Scholars are revelling in categorizing knowledge for pragmatic reasons. In addition, it has been customary to divide history into different periods according to various criteria. According to this, they called the millennium after 476, when the Western Roman Empire was destroyed by the barbarians, as the Middle Ages (Qurun-e Wusta).
The end of the Middle Ages, however, is controversial. The collapse of Eastern Rome that shook the Christian world (1453), the discovery of America (1492), which brought forth the new world economy centered on the Atlantic Ocean with great geographical discoveries, the Protestant reform that gave birth to people, money and nation-states (1517) are dates considered to be the end of the Middle Ages.
The Medieval Inferiority Complex
There is no doubt that the people of this period did not have a "Medieval" concept. Even as late as the 12th and 13th centuries, only a few intellectuals like Petrarch thought that they were living in a bad time. He believed that the darkness that fell on them with the collapse of Rome could have been lifted when Rome had begun to recognize itself and return to its origins.
Later Italian humanists also regarded Ancient Greece and Rome as the cradles of civilization and despised the "medieval" as the era between this unique brilliance and their own renaissance (rebirth). Finally, in the 18th century, a German scholar named Jacob Keller coined the Latin phrase "medium aevum" for the pre-Renaissance, and put it into a concise form shared by most educated people.
The contempt of the Middle Ages did not end there. Apart from Enlightenment philosophers, this situation continued with names such as the famous British historian Edward Gibbon and the liberal economist Adam Smith. They seemed unaware of the fact that the bourgeois class they represented, after slowly taking shape in the midst of the Middle Ages, attempted to overthrow this age. They denied the Middle Ages because they were the generation of a revolutionary era.
Peoples Without History
For this reason, when the Middle Ages are mentioned, dark, gloomy and stifling images began to come to mind. “Dark Ages” and “Medieval Mindset” have become common phrases. So much so that the "Medieval" has become a criterion that reveals the true identity of people who are incapable of examining a subject scientifically and seriously, who see things in a simplistic black-and-white view, and who want to feed their ideologies instead of seeking the truth.
The fact that the European civilization, which came to the forefront with the development of capitalism, became the center of the new world system, was also reflected in the consciousness of people. In the 19th century, a western-centered science of history emerged, which saw the colonized or on the verge of colonization of the world as “peoples without history”. Ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary definitions were always shaped within this framework.
The collapse or transformation of colonialism after the Second World War also paved the way for peoples dehistoricized by Western hegemony to discover their own history. Contemporary socio-economic historiography, anthropology and sociology, which has passed through this stage, revealed that, unlike the Mediterranean basin, the division of antiquity and medievalism should be handled in a completely different way in Asia, where a period in which the slave production style was at the forefront, perhaps never existed.
The Seeds of Light
The obvious characteristics of the Middle Ages were feudalism and deeply divided political authority; an agrarian economy and a society made up of military nobility and an enslaved peasant class who cultivated the land, the only real source of wealth; a system in which the church and religious rituals dominate every aspect of life.
Despite all the negative portrayals, the Middle Ages is an era in which vast social, political, cultural and aesthetic changes gradually accumulated, and the seeds of the major transformations that brought about Humanism and the Renaissance were sown.
It can be seen that the decentralized structure of feudalism in Western Europe, which initially seemed like a great weakness, turned into an advantage over time. After the 11th and 12th centuries, the cities that were nourished by the surplus of production became the cradle of capitalism.
These material developments gave rise to the high medieval culture, which found expression in gothic art in the 12th and 13th centuries. Finally, the intellectual reaction against the dogmas of the church gave birth to Humanism and the Renaissance.
The Most Significant Event of the Middle Ages
The Mediterranean-Roman civilization, which left a bright page in the history of humanity, was destroyed by the Barbarian tribes from the east. This marauding horde, which ravaged Europe, swept away the traces of civilization where they passed. The legacy of the Romans, who loved to spend time at bathhouses, was seized by uncivilized people who did not even know what a toilet was. Europe was plunged in utter darkness at the beginning of this era.
Europe emerged from this darkness, and the Middle Ages were freed from the shadow of a dark age, thanks to a powerful light from the East but coming from a little further away. In contrast to this situation in Europe, both art and science had reached their highest level, especially in the near east. Greek and Roman domination in Antiquity had passed to the Arabs in the Middle Ages.
One of the most significant events of the Middle Ages is the birth of Islam. For this reason, Muslims see the Middle Ages not as a dark but a bright age. Muslims united under the umbrella of a brand new religion and ensured the spread of this culture through the empire they established.
With the conversion of the masses to this new religion, a Muslim nation and civilization emerged. Traveling from the north of Africa to Spain and Sicily, they succeeded in introducing this civilization to Europe. The number of religious and scientific scholars, judges, artists, historians, etc. who lived in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages is incomparably greater than those in Europe in the same era.
The Golden Age
This civilization was not the work of the Arabs alone, but was also a synthesis of Chinese, Indian and Iranian culture. Many inventions such as paper, printing press, gunpowder and clocks passed to Europe through the Arabs. Europeans learned from the Arabs and embraced the most important of these inventions, the university where free thought emerged.
The Middle Ages were perhaps dark for Europe. However, free thought, science and knowledge were at the highest level for those who lived in the golden age of civilization in the east at that time. Critical thinking and objective view of nature awakened and enlightened Europe in this age, thanks to Muslim scholars, through the Islamic universities in Andalusia and Sicily. Pope Sylvester II was educated at the University of Cordoba, the first university in Europe.
This led to the emergence of a very fruitful scientific and aesthetic movement, the Renaissance. Many previously unknown inventions spread to Europe through the Crusades. The Mongol invasion, one of the greatest disasters in history, extinguished the shining star of the east, while the star of the west continued to shine brightly.
Despite all the wars, chronic diseases, and economic misery, the Middle Ages became a vibrant and bright period, in which various scientific, philosophical, social and aesthetic currents flourished. The French writer Gustave Cohen (1879-1958) vividly described this in his work La Grande Clarté du Moyen Âge (The Great Clarity of the Middle Ages).
The Greatest Discovery of the Middle Ages
Considering that the bright and remarkable Renaissance, which is described in such glowing terms even today and considered one of the greatest steps of humanity, did not happen suddenly, it is understood that the Middle Ages were not a very dark period after all.
The Middle Ages was a period of various and important inventions and advances, such as the rib vault, commercial documents, dialectics, and astronomy. Years ago, in the academic community, the question "What is the most important scientific development or invention that left its mark on civilization?" was answered by almost everyone as “the emergence of universities”. The greatest discovery of the Middle Ages was the establishment of universities.
Empirical information was classified with the establishment of universities. Thus, knowledge turned into science. Therefore, science in the modern sense was born in the Middle Ages. Since the search for correct information in antiquity was replaced by the search for correct behavior, scientific activities may have slowed down a bit, but they never stopped. The knowledge of ancient Greece, especially the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) courses were taught in schools.
The Middle Ages in the Movies
When the Middle Ages are mentioned, everyone thinks of an environment in which dirty, wild, sickly, disgraced and ignorant people lived, as in the movies. However, universities such as Bologna, Pavia, Oxford, Cambridge and philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon and Dante are the products of this age.
The brutality of the Middle Ages was no more than the brutality of the two world wars of the 20th century, and the struggles for religion in this age did not constitute even one percent of the unspiritual wars that have led to carnage in human history.
Yes, there was no technology that made life easier for people, but it did not prevent happiness either. It would be wrong to say that the medieval peasant lived less comfortably, while it is not easy to live under political, economic and social pressure even in civilized countries today. The villagers knew how to have fun and take time for themselves back then, too.
Medieval cutlery in museums proves that not everyone ate with their hands. The average of those who did not wash themselves was not much higher than it is today. A medieval French proverb says: “To hunt, to play, to bathe, to drink. This is life!"
Famines and contagious diseases were experienced from time to time, of course, but as in any period of history. The average life expectancy of people was not as long as it is now, but aside from those who overcame the odds and lived long, there were not few people who did a lot of work in their short lives and made history.
The church was authoritarian; however, many inventions and free flow of ideas also grew grew out of the dark cloisters of churches and monasteries. The most cultured, most compassionate and free-minded people of the society were clergy.
In the last century, republicans have dominated everything from science and art to fairy tales and movies, portraying the symbols of the monarchy as inferior and the aristocrats as cruel and selfish. The positivists also described the Middle Ages in this way. A dark and frightening medieval vision has emerged, as large audiences mistook what they saw in movies and novels as historical facts.
Since the present situation of Muslims is in front of their eyes, Westerners have difficulty in visualizing the medieval Islamic civilization as the most fundamental element of Western civilization.
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