9/27/10 - the dark ages

In today's excerpt - the dark ages:

"The decline and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire in the West during the fifth century CE plunged the world into centuries of doom and gloom, wherein humanity became a collection of dull-witted, superstition-ridden dolts who accomplished next to nothing and waited around for the Renaissance to begin.

"Or not.

"Actually, the 'Dark Ages'—the term used to describe the first half of what is traditionally described as the 'Middle Ages'—is something of a misnomer. So is the 'Middle Ages' for that matter. The idea that there was a thousand-year period between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Renaissance where nothing much happened was fostered mainly by intellectuals starting in the fifteenth century, especially in Italy. These bright lights wanted to believe—and wanted others to believe—that they had much more in common with the Classical Age than they did with the centuries that had just preceded them. By creating, and then denigrating, the Dark, or Middle, Ages, the 'humanists' also sought to separate themselves from the very real decline in the quality of life in most of the European continent after the Roman system fell apart.

"It was a pretty Eurocentric view of things. In reality, there were a lot of places in the world where mankind was making strides. Centered on what is now Turkey, the Byzantine Empire was a direct link to the culture and learning of ancient Greece and Rome. In the deserts of what is now Saudi Arabia, an empire centered on the new religion of Islam was spreading with lightning speed, and carrying with it not only new beliefs but also new ways of looking at medicine, math, and the stars. In the North Atlantic, Scandinavian ships were exploring the fringes of a New World, while in the Pacific, the Polynesians were pushing across even more vast aquatic distances to settle in virtually every inhabitable island they could find.

"In the jungles of Central America, the Maya were reaching the peak of a fairly impressive civilization. In the jungles of Southeast Asia, the Khmer were setting up an equally impressive cultural and trade center. Even in Europe, which admittedly was pretty much a mess, devoted monks were doing their best to keep the flame of learning burning. ... [and] there was progress. Stone and wooden tools were replaced with metal implements. The water-powered mill became commonplace. Farmers learned to rotate their crops in order to rejuvenate soil. And the harness was redesigned so that it fell across a horse's shoulders rather than its throat, thus increasing its proficiency in pulling a plow.

"There were astounding feats of human endeavor, such as the construction of the Grand Canal in China, which stretched more than 1,200 miles and connected the farmlands of the Yangtze Valley with the markets of Luoyang and Chang-an. ... And there were equally astounding feats of individual endeavor, such as the founding of a major world religion by a comfortably fixed middle-aged Arab trader who became known as the Prophet Muhammad...."


Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur


The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverant Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2008 by Mental Floss LLC


127-128, 137
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