I'm a big History Channel fan, but the promo for tonight's special on The Dark Ages irks me to no end. The program is being billed as "600 Years of Degenerate, Godless, Inhuman Behavior."
Now, there remains great historical debate about just how "degenerate" and "inhuman" the Dark Ages actually were, with a significant school of revisionists who would argue that the period between the fall of the Western Empire in 476 CE and the turn of the first millennium has gotten an undeserved bad rap.
But that's not my concern here. It's the "godless" part that rankles me. Let's take a brief tour through the historical highlights of that period, shall we?
- Leo I becomes the first emperor to receive the crown from the Patriarch of Constantinople. (457 CE)
- Clovis conquers France and Belgium and converts the territories to Western Catholicism. (500 CE)
- The debate between monophysitism (one nature of Christ) and Chalcedonianism (two natures of Christ) leads to civil unrest in Byzantium during the reign of Justinian I. (527 CE)
- Justinian orders construction of the Hagia Sophia (532 CE)
- Pope Gregory fuses the papacy with Benedictine monasticism and creates the Latin church to break with the Eastern emperors. Drawing from Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose, introduces the concepts of penance and purgatory, which form the foundation of distinctly Western Christianity. (590 CE)
- Boniface III becomes the first Bishop of Rome to officially use the title "pope." (607 CE)
- The Byzantines conquer Persia to retrieve the Jerusalem cross. (614 CE)
- Umar I, the second caliph, conquers Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq in the 630s, forcibly converting most of the Byzantine peoples to Islam and submission to the Caliphate state. Uthman follows by doing the same to Egypt and North Africa (645 CE)
- Pepin of Heristal unites his Frankish forces with the Benedictine missionaries in unifying the Frankish territories of the Rhine and converting the Arian Christians (and a few remaining pagans) of the German territories to Western Catholicism. (687 CE)
- The Benedictines complete the conversion of England. (700 CE)
- The Moors, under Tariq ibn Ziyad, conquer the Iberian peninsula from the Visigoths (hence, white as I am, somewhere in my Portuguese ancestry, I've likely got a little black in me) and convert the Spanish and Portuguese to Islam. (711 CE) Their march northward into France is stopped by the Christians at the Battle of Tours. (732 CE)
- The Anglo-Saxon monk Venerable Bede writes the Latin treatise The History of the English Church. (735 CE)
- Emperor Leo the Assaurian and his son, Constantine V, begins the first of what would be several Iconoclastic movements in Byzantium, ordering the removal and destruction of religious avatars as paganistic heresy. (740 CE)
- Beowulf is written, fusing Anglo-Saxon culture with Old Testament traditions. (750 CE)
- Irish monks produce the Book of Kells (750 CE)
- St. Boniface anoints Pepin the Short a "divinely sanctioned" king, and the Frankish monarchy is fused into the papal order. Pepin, in turn, grants huge swaths of Frankish territory to the Holy See, which would become the "Papal States."
- The Iconoclastic controversy erupts again in the 8th Century, when Emperor Leo III reinstates the ban on icons. The Second Council of Nicaea is called, under pressure from Empress Irene, to declare that icons may be venerated but not worshiped. (787 CE)
- Charlemagne is crowned emperor in Rome. All monasteries are brought under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. (800 CE)
- Bulgaria adopts Christianity in 864 CE. Subsequently, under Tsar Simeon I, it becomes the largest state in Europe. (893 CE)
- Monastic reform begins in Cluny, bringing the monasteries under direct subjugation of the Pope. (910 CE)
- The Bulgarian Orthodox Church becomes the first to declare independence and its own patriarch. (927 CE)
- Otto the Great is crowned king in Germany, and cements the German alliance with the Church. (936 CE)
- Iceland becomes the last outpost in Western Europe to be converted from paganism to Christianity (1000 CE) (also bringing about the beginning of the end to the anarcho-capitalist period that David Friedman has written of glowingly, and that Jared Diamond considers, more or less, the worst society in human history.)
The Dark Ages were many things, but "godless" is certainly not one of them. Tremendous evils were perpetrated by Christians, by Muslims and by pagans, although that last category is far, far smaller than popular treatments of the time generally present. Most of the Barbarians were fully Christianized by the time of the sack of Rome, and among the marauding hordes, only the Vikings maintained paganism for a significant length of time.
The godless can't be blamed for any of it.