In Defense of the Dark Ages

When I was in the process of editing my new book Life Inc., my copyeditor pulled a paragraph out, in which I had explained that the so-called “Dark Ages” didn’t exist – that the ten centuries between the fall of Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance had many good ones among them. And that, in fact, the Late Medieval Era – the 10th through 13th Centuries – were a great age of prosperity and economic development.

She yanked the paragraph because, in her words, no one used the term Dark Ages anymore, and everyone was well aware they were a fiction.

Not so, it seems. The main critique I’m getting these days to my suggestion of reviving some pre-Renaissance media like complementary currency or local banking, is the argument that I’m asking for “a return to the Dark Ages.”

I plan to address that on The MediaSquat tonight. But here’s my two main points:

First off, the Dark Ages were not dark. The Late Middle Ages, in particular, were extremely prosperous. Population and wealth went up, work hours went down. Height and health went up, death and taxes went down. This is when the cathedrals were built, with local profits generated by local economies.

The notion of a “dark ages” is really Renaissance disinformation. It’s an effort to make Renaissance innovations to banking, manufacturing, and corporate law look like modernity instead of the extraction of wealth by the few. It was only after the invention of monopoly centralized currency that the economy in Europe began to tank, common lands were fenced in, farming and grazing became impossible for peasants, sustainable land became speculative property, food supplies diminished, jobs required going to workshops in the city, health deteriorated and, you guessed it, the plague began.

That’s right: the plague didn’t happen during the Middle Ages – it was the direct result of centralized monetary and business policy in Europe at the beginning of the Renaissance. Once the plague killed off more than half of Europe, people got healthier and wealthier again, because the crippled, centralized economy could support that few.

Finally, retrieving technologies and ideas from the past doesn’t mean we have to go back to living the way they did in the ancient past. For example, we might choose to reinstate Sabbath – a day off – as a priority in our always-on culture. Turns out (I really promise) we can do this without all moving back to the desert and living in tents like they did in Bible when this idea first surfaced.

Likewise, we can reinstate some of the social and economic institutions outlawed during the Renaissance (and unrevived to this day) as a way forward rather than a leap backwards. To shun the lessons of history because they happened a long time ago is to remain always a baby.