From the Dark Ages to the Renaissance
Following the slow decline of the Roman Empire, Europe began its spiraling descent into the Dark Ages. Technological marvels of Rome’s glory had fallen into disrepair and quickly became artifacts of a lost era. Statues and monuments celebrating great political and military heroes were now thought to be built by mysterious giants long gone from the land. Ignorance of sanitation, irrigation, and proper road construction made the daily lives of Europeans far grimmer than just a thousand years before. While the philosophies debated by the ancient Greeks were being studied by scholars of the well-cultured Islamic world, their European neighbors to the West were illiterate and sleeping in barns with their livestock. It would take a rediscovering of the lessons of the past to break this trend of unreason, uncertainty, and lost civility. With time and the influence of a minority of individuals, the backwater continent of Europe did just that: growing out of its intellectual malaise and into the period known as the Renaissance. This synthesis of medieval life, Christian ideals, and lessons from the Ancient worlds would push the continent and eventually the entire western world into a brighter, better future.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres was marvelous both in construction and inspiration. With its enormous spires, the Cathedral lorded over town and countryside becoming a beacon for Christian culture in the region. Within its walls were housed some of the most intricately complex stained glass windows ever engineered. The sheer size of the structure and elegance of the windows would not have been possible if not for the reintroduction of ancient Roman building techniques. The Roman arch was further perfected with the introduction of the pointed arch, allowing the building to reach new heights. Columns were present within the Cathedral, providing the support needed to lift the ceiling to higher elevations. The utilization of the flying buttress made the building both structurally sound and provided a visually pleasing aesthetic to the exterior. These reinventions freed up weight, allowing the stained glass windows to be the spiritual main attraction. Through these windows flowed another ancient idea: the idea of light as the physical and material manifestation of the divine spirit. As the ancient Greek philosopher Plato had proclaimed in his “Allegory of the Cave” and “Metaphor of the Sun”, the sun’s illumination is a representation of the illumination of one’s mind through the form of the good. Essentially, that the sun’s light is that of God. By fusing the construction techniques of the ancient Romans with the philosophies of the ancient Greeks, this spiritual and intellectual illumination within the walls of The Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres was able to take place for a new age of Europeans.
In 1245, a 20-year old Dominican monk from Italy, named Thomas Aquinas, began his study of theology at the University of Paris. He became entwined in a theological debate regarding the study of God: should the almighty be found within the Christian heart, within the Christian mind, or in both? Through his studies of rational and intuitive beliefs, reason and God, and knowledge and divinity he changed the importance of education in Christianity. His unique approach to theological inspection was to be known as scholasticism. This scholasticism relies on asking questions and searching for the most reasonable answers. It was stated that God gave man free will, and it would therefore be the responsibility of every man to use this gift to reason to make choices in his life. Aquinas’s studies of the ancient Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates directly influenced this new school of Christian thought. He presented in his “Articles of Faith” that although Christians cannot rationally know the essence of God, through faith they can know its divinity. Of equal weight was Aquinas’s beliefs that some objects of faith and God are entirely beyond the grasp of mortal men and could not possibly be understood in this life. This compatibility and cohesion of classical Greek philosophy and current Christian religious beliefs gave strength to the church and to the people of Europe, better enabling them to become educated both in Christian theology and the ever changing world they now inhabited.
In Florence, Italy in 1308, Dante Alighieri began his work on the “Divine Comedy”. This epic poem tells the tale of the Christian souls as they enter Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in three sections: the “Inferno”, “Purgatorio”, and “Paradiso”. In the poem, Dante plays the protagonist travelling through these otherworld places with the ancient Roman poet Virgil as his guide. In the poem, Dante is denied access to Heaven and must travel through the depths of Hell in order to reach salvation. Throughout his traverses through Hell’s depths, he encounters historic celebrities of the ancient world, including the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle, the great Roman emperor Caesar, and ancient Greek and fellow poet, Homer. These meetings are informational to Dante as he is allowed to speak to the souls of the dead, often with the aid of his guide Virgil. Although there are a great many current souls encountered in Hell (a combination of Dante’s blacklist and enemy list), the majority are legendary thinkers, generals, politicians and villains of the ancient world. Dante records his lesson of the absolute justice of God’s wrath against sin with sinners of both modern and ancient times. The tiered systems of both Heaven and Hell laid out by Dante was for medieval Europe a reintroduction to the structure and finite rule of ancient Roman law. In a largely unincorporated European continent, the Christian church and Dante’s writings were able to reorganize the lawless masses into a semblance of civility. If both eternal punishment and unearthly delight is spelled out to the letter, the common man is far less likely to lead a life of ambiguous morality. This reconnection to ancient Roman law and order was a synthesis vital to the prosperity of Europe.
Befallen by a loss of ancient technologies, a lack of intellectuality and reason, a weakened Christian church and a lack of central governance, the European Dark Ages were a millennium of chaos. It would take the efforts of living individuals like Saint Thomas of Aquinas and the poet Dante, as well as those long departed like Caesar, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates to reinvent this chaos into order. It was through scholarly research of the successes of the ancient world that Europe was able to reemerge in its Renaissance, bringing forth great accomplishments in science, philosophy and theology. It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun. Therefore, Europe needed only look into the past in order to see the path to its prosperous future.