What is the proper way to conceive of that long span of time between the classical Greco-Roman World and the Italian Rinascimento (Renaissance)? Recent decades have seen a spike in academic literature claiming the period as an age of light, an age of innovation, and regarding with derision those who still see it as a period of darkness and gloom. I am of two minds on this issue. I sympathize with this more optimistic perspective to a certain extent for two major reasons:
1. It highlights important innovations of the period (canals, eye glasses, windmills, rise of merchants in the port cities, etc.)
2. It serves as a much-needed critique of those condescending French philosophes who looked on the period with sanctimonious derision (most notably Voltaire). The Age of Enlightenment was, in part, an age of superficiality. This is true more so for the French Enlightenment (as opposed to the much more practical and down-to-Earth Scottish Enlightenment). Those French philosophes looked upon history only as a tool to advance their political agendas.
With all of that being said, I must confess that I am far more convinced by the older argument: that the Dark Ages really does deserve the title. While I sympathize with the attempts to reclaim the Dark Ages to a certain extent (for the reasons above), a solid case can be made for perceiving the period from the death of Hypatia (by a gang of Christian zealots) through the mid-fourteenth century as a period in which darkness and gloom were quite prevalent.
Before delving into the relevant historiography to justify my position, I must address an important point with which historians grapple. There is a great problem in viewing a previous period totally through the lens of one’s own values to the exclusion of those values of the society being studied. Voltaire and the French philosophes looked upon previous ages as if they were ahistorical omnipotent figures staring down in eternal judgment of what came before. This same narrow-minded, sanctimonious attitude can be observed among radical social justice warriors of today. Values dominant in the particular period and society must be taken into account in any genuine historical analysis.
In the mid-fourteenth century, Tuscan poet Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) conceived of the idea of a ‘dark age.’ Petrarch coined this term in reference to the post-Classical world. Unlike the later French philosophes, Petrarch’s characterization was not for advancing a political agenda. Instead, it was born of a humanist lament toward what was lost with the fall of Rome. Additionally, Petrarch was inverting the traditional religious light versus dark metaphor. The ancient Roman world, Petrarch argued, was an age of light. Petrarch’s condemnation of a millennium, though significantly flawed, was a necessary sacrifice in his greater vision of promoting the value of the classical Roman World. Petrarch was laying the foundations for what would become the Rinascimento (Italian Renaissance), at least in terms of the philosophic vision: advancing the excellence of the individual through knowledge of the ancient world.
“I marvel and revere Cicero himself, not as a god but as a man of divine intellect” -Petrarch, from his letter to Crotus concerning Cicero’s Tusculan Investigations
Petrarch was a genius, an unparalleled genius. Renaissance Humanism was a revolutionary, practical philosophic outlook which gave birth to the modern world in that it promoted individual excellence like nothing that came before. The incandescent culture of the Rinascimento, built on the cultural legacy of Petrarch (philosophy and poetry) and Giotto (painting) as well as the financial legacy of the merchants (the great patrons and nascent capitalists), represents the true beginning of modernity. This is modernity as a process, not a single moment or even movement. Whether one does or does not buy into the utility of the Dark Ages as a concept, it remains. Indeed, succeeding historians such as Leonardo Bruni (c.1370–1444) and Flavio Biondo (1392–1463) have expanded upon it. They crafted a three-tiered view of history: ancient, medieval, and modern.
I should close by noting that accepting the utility of the Dark Ages is not a mere denial of significant changes of the period nor the subscription to a sanctimonious and superficial view of inevitable progress. One can respect and appreciate developments in this period while also recognizing that, from a practical perspective, the preceding and succeeding periods are of greater importance to posterity. While the historian must take period values and attitudes into account, he must also make judgments on what matters and what does not. A genuine historian, one well-read in the great works and with a deep understanding of human nature, should be able to do this (in contrast to a ideologue who only wants to advance a political agenda).