The Dark Ages Conspiracy

Medievalists tend to go a bit twitchy when we hear the term “the Dark Ages.” Frankly, “Middle Ages” isn’t great either–a whole time period defined for eternity as “the boring bit between those two nifty eras, the Classical Age and the Renaissance.” It’s as if it was just a centuries-long place holder between great flowerings of culture. The “Dark Ages” is worse still, suggesting that the whole period (whether the term is used to refer to the entire medieval period or only the early Middle Ages) was dreary, dreadful and intellectually and culturally bereft. Many medievalists avoid the term and prefer terms such as “the early Middle Ages” and “the High Middle Ages.” Fortunately, there is no middle Middle Ages.

As I have mentioned previously, I have been reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail. As a result, I have been almost entirely drained of the will to live. Occasionally, I will read a sentence which almost makes sense, but generally the authors snatch nonsense from the jaws of sense. A case in point: at the beginning of their discussion of the Merovingian dynasty, they note that this was “probably the most impenetrable period of what are now called the Dark Ages. But the Dark Ages, we discovered, had not been truly dark.” Aha! I thought, at least they have the sense to realize that characterizations of the early Middle Ages are unfair and inaccurate. “On the contrary,” they continue, “it quickly became apparent to us that somebody had deliberately obscured them” (234).

Wait, what? There was a conspiracy against the Dark Ages? I knew it! I’ll bet it was those filthy, stinking Renaissancers (and really, they were just as unwashed and smelly as medieval folk). Probably it was originally called the Bright, Shiny Happy Ages until those fops in ruffs showed up and “deliberately obscured them.” Oh, and by the way, the Black Death? Really just an outbreak of sniffles.

3 Responses to The Dark Ages Conspiracy

  1. Pacal says:

    Its been almost 30 years since I’ve read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and it has got to be one of the most flagrant examples pseudo-scholarship ever. What is remarkable is that its bibliography is actually pretty good, but the main purpose of it is to support massive woo. What I found esspecially annoying was one page they would introduce, tentatively some far out speculation and then pages later treat that speculation as a “fact” and use it to support some even more far our speculation and then pages later use….. I think you get the picture.

    The pseudo-scholarship is used to give a aura of respectibility to fantasy and conspiratorial thinking, which has no evidence to support it. What i esspecially loved was how our authors danced the fact that there is NO early evidence that Jesus married Mary Magdalane at all. There is plenty of early evidence, from Gnostic sources, about Mary Magdalane being regarded as a Disciple of Jesus; but being narried to him, not a sliver. In fact the earliest evidence I know of the belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalane is from anti-Cathar writings of the 13 century that attributed this belief to the Cathars. I note this is c. 1200 years after Jesus’ death! None of the Church fathers seem to know of such a belief and believe me they accused the Gnostics of believing all sorts of stuff they found offensive. I would think they would have included this one if it had existed.

    If you found Holy Blood, Holy Grail destroying your will to live then don’t read The Jesus Papers by one of the same authors. All about the author asking us to take seriously papers which he has seen, but which he can’t read, (their in Aramaic), but which he assures us with rock the foundations of Christianity. Oh and the owner won’t let them be examined by scholars or studied. But we must take them seriously. ORLY?

    Oh and the Dark Ages are an interesting period. There is this bias that goes back to the Renissance that regards THe Greeks and the Romans as “like us” and in a sense our contemporaries and regards the period between as an age of obscurantist darkness. Well in many ways this is just nonsense. The foundations of modern Europe were laid in the “Middle Ages”, and frankly it is careful and in my opinion distorted thinking / writing that leads people to think that the Greeks and the Romans were “like us”.

    I have found, for example, it a lot easier to get into the mind of Thomas Aquinas, despite the fact I’m a secularist and Agnostic, than the mind of Cicero despite the fact that I share many of Cicero’s beliefs.

    The Classicalist M.I. Finley wrote a brillant essay called Desperately Foreign, (Its in a collection of essays he wrote called Aspects of Antiquity), that describes the world of the Greeks and the Romans as only superficially like our own and in the end “Desperately Foreign”. In fact in many ways the European world of the “Middle Ages” is less “Foreign” than the world of the Greeks and the Romans. To cite just one example the pervasive influence of the Bible, given that our society is still in many respects Bible saturated, makes the “Middle Ages” more comprehensible to us, or me at least.

    As an interesting side note it appears likely that for the mass of the population their standard of living may have improved(!) with the fall of the Roman Empire. So that this great disaster which is still seen has a great retreat of civilization may have benefited most people.

    Thank you for bringing back memories of this collection of “scholarship” as cow muck.

  2. Eve says:

    Bob and I will be writing more about HB,HG and The Da Vinci Code fairly soon, but yes, I noticed how wild speculation quickly becomes fact. The book is full of “IFs”: “IF blah blah blah and IF yada yada yada, then it is perfectly plausible that….” And I’m screaming, “No it isn’t! You’re just telling stories now.” It’s stunning.

    I haven’t read The Jesus Papers, but I saw Baigent bibbling about it on some television show: “This will completely change everything we know about Christianity. No, you can’t SEE it, but trust me.”

    Since my degrees are in English, I’m more used to hearing about the Middle Ages vs. the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages vs. the classical age. I’ve sat in Renaissance lit classes and heard the students and the professor make sweeping generalizations about how things changed in the Renaissance. And I’d say, “well, actually, you can see [whatever was being discussed] in medieval literature too.”

    In an essay from 1977, Joan Kelly posed the question “Did women have a Renaissance?” A number of scholars have argued that, while a few women had great power and stellar educations and while technically women had more rights than in the Middle Ages, in practice women were often better off in the Middle Ages than in the Renaissance.

  3. Nicole says:

    I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail after the Da Vinci Code came out.

    It was… certainly an interesting experience. I think I survived with my reason intact because I spent most of my adolescence immersed in big Tolkienesque epics, and was therefore accustomed to fantasy. With the alternate history thing, I’m also fairly sure Dinotopia helped.

    It did do one good thing, mind. It got me thinking about the Bible, and Christianity as a whole, and other religions by extension, and eventually something clicked and I realised that really, it’s all just make-believe. I do still sometimes wish that I’d never heard the name Michael Baigent, though.

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