Why the Dark Ages Aren't a Real Thing

Updated on July 5, 2020
Joey Dykes profile image

Joey is an undergrad at the University of Alabama studying History and Economics. He has many interests including the History of Science.

"Battle Between Carnival and Lent," Painted by Jan Miense Molenaer  1633~1634
"Battle Between Carnival and Lent," Painted by Jan Miense Molenaer 1633~1634

To many people, the Middle Ages, the Medieval Ages, and the Dark Ages are interchangeable terms. This is very wrong, however, as a "dark age" is used to describe a time in which no achievement or advancements were made or a time that lacked enlightenment.

During the Middle Ages, however, great improvements in philosophy, science, and engineering were being made every single day. The only reason that the term "dark ages" became so pervasive is that many early historians only focused on Europe's lack of advancements, while the world outside of Europe grew and became more scientifically advanced.

Whilst Europe was suffering from the fall of the Roman Empire and was plunged into a time of constant warfare and lacked education and cultural refinements, the lands east of Europe were all flourishing and growing into the basis of modern science.

Houses of Wisdom

In roughly 800 CE, during the middle of the dark ages, the caliph built his famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad. While barbarians and wars in Europe were destroying the knowledge that was discovered and collected by the ancient Greeks and Romans, people in the Middle East were preserving that knowledge and improving upon it.

From these Houses of Wisdom came many scientific and mathematical theories that we still use today. In fact, many modern universities mimic the teaching styles of these Houses of Wisdom from long ago.

A mural from within the House of Wisdom's walls.
A mural from within the House of Wisdom's walls.

Algebra

Persian mathematician Al-Jabr built upon the simple mathematics of Greeks and Hindi systems and developed algebra in roughly 800 CE. With this new system of mathematics, others later in history could think of and prove more complex scientific theories and advance the world.

Al-Jabr invented and introduced the ideas of rational and irrational numbers, geometrical magnitudes, and raising numbers to powers. Without Al-Jabr's invention of algebra, complicated physics and calculus would not exist.

Optics

In these Houses of Wisdom, Al-Haitham created his theory of optics that is still used to this day. Optics, for those who do not know, is the way we see the world and how our eyes interact with light to enable us to see.

Ancient Greeks Elucid and Ptolemy both speculated that light came out directly from our eyes and allowed us to see the world around us. Through dissection of the eye and philosophical thought, however, Al-Haitham concluded that the eyes instead received light.

These dissections were made possible by the brilliant surgeons that learned from these Houses of Wisdom. As medicine and understanding of the human body improved, more could be learned about the inner mechanisms of man.

These discoveries lead to the development of the Camera Obscura Theory that explains how we see things upright even though the lenses in our eyes are upside down.

The Sun and the Earth

Many credit Nicolaus Copernicus with the idea of heliocentrism, or the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun. However, Copernicus was not the first one the publicly publish this.

Roughly 400 years before Copernicus, a Muslim named Al-Biruni—using his algebra and geometry—figured out the distance between the sun, Earth, and all the planets. He also discovered the Earth's axis, which ultimately led to the discovery of the longitudes and latitudes of the Earth.

However, Al-Biruni's greatest discovery is his idea that the Earth revolved around the sun. He figured this out by observing the orbits of Venus as well as lunar and solar eclipses. Many critics at the time found Al-Biruni's claims ridiculous, and he even retracted his own idea later in life. But Al- Biruni was still the first man to say that the Earth revolved around the sun.

Sketches from Al-Biruni's notebooks.
Sketches from Al-Biruni's notebooks.

The Far East

These inventions and advancements were not limited to the Middle East, however. China, Japan, and all of Asia were in the middle of their peak of scientific advancements, as they supplied trade and wealth to the whole world through their Silk Road.

Moveable Type Printing

One of the staples of the European Renaissance was Gutenberg's movable-type printing press. In fact, the Chinese had been using movable type for over 600 years before Gutenberg had presented it to Europeans.

With their movable type, China and other parts of Asia had been printing books and manuscripts on paper for hundreds of years while Europe still had people hand-copying books and messages.

Abacus

With the Chinese invention of the abacus, mathematical computations were much easier to demonstrate and prove. Many Muslim thinkers in the Houses of Wisdom used Chinese abacuses to figure out their theories and to spread the knowledge all across the world.

Europe, however, never accepted these gifts. Even though the Greeks had an early form of an abacus, this was lost to Europe until roughly 1000 CE, when the people of Europe rediscovered the abacus.

Ancient Chinese Abacus
Ancient Chinese Abacus

Gunpowder

In roughly 800 CE, Chinese alchemists created gunpowder. With it, they created powerful military items, including the first guns, bombs, mines, cannons, and even rockets.

Of course, they also used it for recreational purposes like fireworks, which has become a staple of Chinese culture.

In the 1400s, Europe finally began to produce its own gunpowder, roughly 600 years after China had first discovered it. With this, Europe also began copying Chinese weapons like cannons and explosives so that they could fight wars more effectively.

Looking Beyond Europe

All of these spectacular inventions and ideas were all created and widespread throughout the so-called dark ages. Because of close-minded historians of the past who only saw Europe as the center of the world, people have been taught that nothing great had ever come out of this time. But if you look past Europe this time after the fall of Rome until the Italian Renaissance, it was the golden age of philosophy—where Greek ideas were expanded upon and new inventions were coming out every day.

There was no so such thing as the dark ages, just a few hundred years where Europe fell behind everybody else.

© 2020 Joey Dykes

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