To start with, if the Carolingians (around 800, under Charlemagne and Alcuin) count as “Dark Ages” I’ll eat my hat. Huge number of new monasteries (outstanding ones, too-- plan of St. Gall etc) and scriptoria founded, more manuscripts copied than ever before, handwriting reform (spaces between words! Lower case letters! Punctuation!), simple bronze casting rediscovered, some great architecture (Palatine Chapel in Aachen? Oratory of Theodulf? Corvey an der Weser?). A lot of contact with the Byzantines also brought in a lot of very high tech and sophisticated stuff. The Coronation Gospels!
I’m in love with the Carolingians.
Usually, the Middle Ages are divided into the Early Middle Ages (a.k.a. the Dark Ages) from 500 to 1000 A.D., the High Middle Ages from 1000 to 1300 A.D., and the Late Middle Ages (from 1300 to 1500 A.D.). The book I would recommend to you to learn how the Middle Ages weren’t really as bad as usually is claimed is Those Terrible Middle Ages!: Debunking the Myths by Regine Pernoud. Another good introductory book about the period is The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis.
Ugh. I wrote a very large post in response, and I closed the window. Well, at least you get the short version:
Yes, almost all of the popular conception is wrong. There was quite a bit of intellectualism, it was just in a different form. There was little science, but only because science is a pretty modern invention. The experiment was a radical new idea in the 1600s - before that, scientists were often “natural philosophers,” and there was a lot of intuition, logic, and deduction thrown into the scientific process. Check out the Venerable Bede, Averroes, Avicenna, and Thomas Aquinas for more on that.
Women had more of a role than you think; Hildegard of Bingen comes to mind. Politics was alive and well, but it was often concerned with different things. The Papacy occasionally ruled nearly all of Europe, but sometimes strong kings pushed back.
Not that I buy into the idea of the Dark Ages, but Averroes and Avicenna weren’t Europeans; as far as I know, no one suggests the Dark Ages extended even outside Europe, do they? Indeed, I seem to recall often hearing of how the European Dark Ages were in contrast to the contemporary flourishing of Islamic culture and science elsewhere.
My technical errors continue! I posted too quickly. To continue:
There wasn’t a lot of engineering development outside of military technology that would look very impressive to modern eyes, but a lot of it was a big deal at the time. Thatched roofing was used for literally thousands of years; the Ordinance of 1212 that outlawed construction of thatched roofs in London and ordered shingled roofs was hugely important in reducing the number of fires. That was a pretty big deal at the time, but looking back it doesn’t look as impressive, I’m sure.
Cathedrals are breathtaking feats of engineering - take a look at Notre Dame. Water mills and windmills were monumentally important developments. There was a huge influx of technology coming in from the east as well like gunpowder that obviously had pretty large effects.
I can recommend lots of academic literature on this topic, but I’m not great at popular history. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is pretty good, if a bit strained at times, rigorously academically speaking.
Yes, Indistinguishable, Averroes and Avicenna were both Muslim, but they were still major figures in the European intellectual world. Averroes was referred to by many contemporary European authors as “The Great Philosopher” for his commentaries on Aristotle, and Avicenna was known simply as “the Doctor” in almost all European writings. I agree that the view of the “dark ages” is usually confined to Europe, but that itself is one of its errors - Europe, of course, is not at all a self-contained region, and maintained quite a bit of contact with the Muslim world and even China. Marco Polo practically set up an embassy in China in the 1200s, right in the middle of these “dark” ages.
Are there any good popular history books about the Early Middle Ages? I’m really enjoying A World Lit Only By Fire but it’s very focused on the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. (Wonderful stories about Luther and the collapse of the Universal Church, though.) Does Tuchman go back far enough? I know Huizinga focuses on the wrong era, but is his book still countenanced?
Water mills saw a huge burst in usage in the medieval era. The Domesday book lists 5,624 mills in England in 1086, while a century earlier there were fewer than 100. This is certainly the extreme case in Europe, but French and German records show similar growth. Tidal mills were also a new creation and saw some usage along the coast.
Wind power was developed in Persia first in a sense, yes, but it wasn’t really brought to its full potential until various Northern Europeans built horizontal-axis mills. Your standard Persian mill had a vertical shaft with five or six sails connected to it, and they would spin in a circle around that middle shaft. Europeans introduced the horizontal-axis, which has the windmill’s sails spinning perpendicular to the mill’s main shaft and parallel to the earth. This has the advantage of using all of the mill’s blades to harness the wind, rather than just two or three as in earlier Persian designs. The obvious problem is that the mill can only receive wind power from one direction, so medieval engineers designed the buildings on a swivel: the entire windmill could be turned to face the wind from whatever direction it came.
This had pretty significant effects on the economy of the 12th and 13th century in Europe.
I wish I could help you more, but I don’t know pop history well at all. If you want articles from Speculum, I’m your guy, though. Tuchman explicitly focuses on just the 14th century. Huizinga is a very good writer, but much of his work has been heavily criticized. I don’t think of him as a pop history writer, really. If you want to read him, there are two main translations; the 1996 translation is very close to the actual text of the work, while the 1924 Hopman translation is much more forgiving to various Dutch expressions and idioms.
Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750 is a very readable look into the what is considered the very dark ages, starting with the fall of Rome. (And I agree that calling anything after Charlemange “Dark” is problematic) Peter Brown is awesome: I met him when he came to give a talk at my university, and I knew a guy who went to Princeton to study under him. The book’s a bit out of date and far from his most academic work, but it really does capture the feel of the period.