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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Darkness before the Renaissance?

Before the Renaissance – Was it Dark?

The “Dark Ages” – sounds so melodramatic, like a cheesy romance novel. The period prior to the Renaissance is often erroneously referred to as the Dark Ages. Scholars no longer use that term but instead call it Medieval or the Middle Ages – although the Dark Ages sound so much more exciting when compared to the Renaissance. It is a catchy Rick Steves-type soundbite to contrast the two historical periods. The Dark Ages repressed intellectualism and artists didn’t know how to paint perspective until they saw the light of the Renaissance! If only it was that simple.

Although the Renaissance is a relatively well-known period, many travelers skip the Middle Ages and go directly to the Renaissance. To help us understand the Middle Ages, Virginia Tech’s Medieval Studies Professor Matthew Gabriele dispels some Middle Ages Myths.

Intellectually the Middle Ages, spanning about 1,000 years, was not dark. Sure, there was repression and not a whole lot of free will, but it saw the birth of the university, architectural wonders in the cathedrals of Europe, as well as scientific and literature breakthroughs. Artistic and intellectual endeavors did not go dormant. And there weren’t any dragons.

The Middle Ages did not lose Greco-Roman learning and art. It was all around them. The Renaissance may have re-discovered ancient art, but mostly in how they viewed and interpreted the art and re-purposed it. It was difficult to ignore the Roman coliseums, aqueducts, sculptures, mosaics, temples reconstructed into churches, and numerous other artifacts so commonplace in Europe. And no, the world was not flat in the Middle Ages. It was commonly understood that the earth was a sphere, just as the Romans and Greek had thought.

Catholic religious authority played a prominent role in politics and everyday life during the Middle Ages but that didn’t stop people from thinking about one thing: sex. As Gabriele points out, the punch line of a thirteenth century poem about a naughty priest was “one hole satisfies many fools.” Criticism of the church and authorities was not unheard of. Reform was often a hot topic. The great monasteries produced beautiful manuscripts and the church built stunning cathedrals.

Europe was not all white. North Africans and Middle Eastern peoples lived in France in England and depictions of black saints or Madonnas were not uncommon. Different races and religions co-existed, not always peacefully. Christian kings hired Muslims to fight against their Christian rivals. There was war and conflict – but what period doesn’t?

I can’t say the Renaissance was less conflict ridden than the Middle Ages. It was not a love-in during the Italian Renaissance. War, struggles for power, and pestilence were common to both time periods.

Sources: Gabriele, Matthew. “Myths.” Washington Post Weekly, Sunday October 2, 2016, p. 23.

Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy (4th ed.). London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011.

Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art (7th ed.). New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. and Prentice Hall, 2011.

Medieval Scupture, possibly John the Evangelist, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

Pieve di San Pietro a Cascia, near Reggello, late 12th century

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