A Few Words on the “Dark” Ages

Caveat: This won’t be news to a European.

When I first ventured into the “dark ages” I thought they were actually dark ages, but I was wrong. I soon learned what they really were, an age of urban expansion, technological development, and beautiful art. Before the Destruction of the Icons during the Reformation, churches were brilliantly painted inside with stories from the Bible. Back in the “dark ages,” houses were brightly painted on the outside, somewhat like the buildings in Stein am Rhein in Switzerland. The persistent danger of fires during the high Middle Ages led many cities to enact laws saying buildings had to be made of stone.

Many city buildings had indoor plumbing and the Roman baths were still frequented in cities where the Romans had settled. Bathing mattered to people during the high Middle Ages, the “dark ages.” You can learn about this in a lot of other places, including Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book, A Distant Mirror.

The years between 1000 ce and (maybe) 1400 ce were amazing. Of course the 14th century brought all kinds of fun to Europe in the form of the plague and the 100 years war, but why split hairs? And, during this long period — mostly during the 13th century — Genghis Khan was busy on his war of empire.

My journey began in Switzerland, just before my second visit. In 1996, I got a book I thought was a joke, How the Irish Saved Civilization. It wasn’t a joke. It was legitimate history about a world I didn’t know anything about. I was enthralled. Being Irish (ha ha) I was proud of “my people” who crossed the Channel in little round leather boats carrying books in to the benighted dark age wilderness of the Rhine Valley. So, in 1997, when I went to Switzerland for the second time I began looking for the Irishman who brought Christianity to the (I thought) backward people living in the Swiss forests. That led me to the town of St. Gallen, the library, to Basel to see the doors of the Cathedral on which is carved events in the life of St. Gall, an Irishman and the patron saint of Switzerland. That was my first peek into the complexity of western civilization and the beginning of my deep appreciation for my own ignorance.

The leader of this expedition was St. Columbanus for whom the publishing and missionary arm of the Catholic Church is named. To add coincidence to this whole amazing story the forest near my childhood home in Nebraska was — is — a community of Columban Fathers.

The adventures of St. Gall and St. Columbanus made me very very very curious about everything — and very amazed and impressed by their travels. St. Gall got sick — pneumonia apparently — and stayed in a spot that is now the beautiful town of St. Gallen. St. Columbanus and the rest of the troupe kept going over the Alps. A monastery was established in Bobbio, Italy.

Legend and fact are intertwined and researchers dispute a lot of what became the “life of St. Gall.” It’s kind of doubtful that Columbanus and his gang “saved civilization,” exactly, but still. St. Gall is said to have had a bear as a companion, legend says he tamed a bear that had been terrorizing the people all around. When St. Gall is depicted, it’s usually with a bear by his side. I relate to that, but my bear is white and is a dog. 😀

Waldemar Januzczak — a British art historian whose name has a superfluity of z’s — has done some wonderful videos for the BBC over the years. My favorite is “The Dark Ages; an Age of Light.” The best history book I know about life in Europe in the Middle Ages is Life in the Middle Ages by Hans-Werner Goetz. My point in this crepitated post is that we just don’t know much about much which is cool; we get to discover stuff, including the fact that it turns out my ancestry isn’t all that Irish. Still, St. Gall opened a whole world to me that I never would have sought. Bless him.

17 thoughts on “A Few Words on the “Dark” Ages

  1. That chart looks much like my genetic history. Oh, surprise. But all of my maternal side hailed from southern Sweden. My grandparents were both born there. My paternal side was U.K.–Irish, Welsh, English, and Scottish. My birth surname, Redman, has been in America since the 1600s. I never knew any of this until a couple years ago.

  2. Fascinating! I often realize what I don’t know and then I realize I will never know it all! The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has a word for what I’ve been feeling, Onism – the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience.

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