Apostasy and the Dark Ages

Do these concepts have anything to do with each other? Apparently some Mormons think they do, hence Davis Bitton’s corrective essay “How Dark Were the Dark Ages?” (conveniently reposted at Meridian Magazine).

As I noted in an earlier post discussing several recent LDS books on the topic, there is renewed discussion in LDS scholarly circles of “the Great Apostasy,” generally adopting a softer tone and a more informed viewpoint than an earlier generation of scholarship. It’s unclear how much of the new discussion has trickled down to the general membership, however. Bitton’s short essay helps move the general reader in the right direction, emphasizing that the “Dark Ages” weren’t half as dark as previously portrayed and arguing that the term is so misleading it should probably be dropped.

The essay also tries to shed some positive light on the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire (in the West) and the Reformation. It is a corrective to the simplified LDS view of history that goes like this: Apostasy, Reformation, Restoration. It seems like there should be some positive social or religious developments that can be dropped into that usual 1300-year gap between Apostasy (shortly after the death of the original apostles) and Reformation (Martin Luther in the 16th century).

Maybe we should devote a few Sunday School lessons each year to religious history and comparative religion? That would help most of us fill in those gaps.

69 comments for “Apostasy and the Dark Ages

  1. CraigH
    May 12, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Bitton briefly mentions Petrarch (or Petrarca) as the inventor of the labels “middle ages” and “dark ages.” It’s important to stress this in order to understand the origins of the terms, and how they were used. Petrarch called the period after Rome until his own day in the 14th century “middle” because they lay between the ancient Roman world and his own day, a day of revival and renewal or rebirth—Renaissance in French. Medieval means the same thing. He called the period “dark” because it had corrupted Roman (Latin) letters. He didn’t mean it in a religious sense. Protestants and Mormons picked up on the terms later and used them as they pleased, giving them different connotations. I’m not sure how many any of these labels help when they stop people from investigating any further, including Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and so on. None of them are as neat as the labels suggest, and are simple rough conveniences which may or may not be true. Many historians of the Renaissance don’t use the term when it prevents them from understanding the period–just as using any other label can stop inquiry (like “Mormon”).

  2. CraigH
    May 12, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Sorry, I should clarify: Medieval means the same thing as Middle Ages. And they are “middle” because they lay between the ancient world, and Petrarch’s world. I’ll edit more carefully next time before posting!

  3. Dan
    May 12, 2008 at 10:02 am

    It’s kinda hard not to think of the Medieval period as a dark time when the corrupted church of God was led by some really reprehensible Popes who had no business being the Lord’s representative to the Christian world.

  4. Frank McIntyre
    May 12, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Well, the black plague and the mini-ice age were both pretty bleak.

    “Maybe we should devote a few Sunday School lessons each year to religious history and comparative religion?”

    I can’t help but think that would be a rather cruel thing to do to the 35th percentile Gospel Doctrine teacher. How about some Ensign articles instead?

  5. May 12, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Yeah, except everyone forgets Ensign articles within about 3 years of their publication.

  6. CraigH
    May 12, 2008 at 11:12 am

    If you’re looking for dark, you’ll find it–in any period of time, including our own and yes in measures that are quite comparable. If you’re looking for light, you’ll also find it, in any age. Probably more helpful, however, is to approach any age on its own terms, rather than according to one’s particular preferences. Once that age is understood as deeply as possible in its terms, then one is of course free to start judging it according to one’s preferences, but if you don’t get it right in the first place then those judgments are usually not very helpful in gaining insight into the past, or the present. if you start with your preferences, you miss too much; and starting with a label, as Davis Bitton points out, usually doesn’t get you much further than the label, as somehow one no longer feels a need to investigate seriously—the thinking has already been done.

    Before Kepler and Galileo, one looked at the universe through the label “earth-centered.” It was the foundation of everything else, and it’s always hard to think twice about a foundation; its truth is simply assumed. Once the foundation was questioned, a better understanding of the universe emerged. Sure, “sun-centered” universe is a label as well, and there may be a better label than that to understand how things go. Perhaps the same can be true of our theological and philosophical assumptions; we may need to rethink them in the same way, not to cause havoc or to bring down condemnations of disbelief (as occurred with Galileo, who didn’t disbelieve at all but was instead reinterpreting scripture in what turned out to be a more accurate way than had been practiced) and find better (but always limited and tentative) labels than “dark ages” or even “apostacy.” The last label tends to color, in an unflattering way, any aspect of Christian history after the ancient world, and keeps us from looking more closely and empathetically. The label “reformation” does something similar, and prevents, among other things, Mormons from understanding that they actually (nowadays at least) have more in common with Catholics than with Protestants.

  7. queuno
    May 12, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Yeah, except everyone forgets Ensign articles within about 3 years of their publication.

    That’s about the average half-life of a Church publication article outside of conference, right?

  8. dangermom
    May 12, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    I’ve always been inordinately fond of the Middle Ages, so the LDS view of history rankles a bit and I’ve been kind of happy to see a re-examination of former ideas. There’s a lot to appreciate about those folks, and many of them were doing the best they could in extremely difficult circumstances.

    A few years ago I taught a YW lesson about the beginnings of the Restoration and brought in Hus, Tyndale, and all those people who were searching for more light for so long. The girls seemed interested, so I hope they got something out of it.

    One of my very favorite books ever about the way medieval people looked at the universe is C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, which describes the “earth-centered” universe in detail.

  9. Adam Greenwood
    May 12, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    My guess? 800 lumens.

  10. Adam Greenwood
    May 12, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    And I still am of the opinion that the 7th and 8th centuries were pretty dark in the west, though not necessarily from a religious point of view.

  11. Doc
    May 12, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    This quote by John Taylor in the Journal of Discourses gives a little food for thought,

    “I have a great many misgivings about the intelligence that men boast so much of in this enlightened day. There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world[,] . . . have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness, and deliver me from the light and intelligence that prevail in our day”

    It seems even in the early days of the Church, the prophet himself did not take the dim view of the dark ages that many have taken for granted with the apostasy.

  12. May 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Yeah, except everyone forgets Ensign articles within about 3 years of their publication.

    Yeah, but everyone forgets Sunday School lessons within three hours of their end.

  13. May 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Yeah, except everyone forgets Ensign articles within about 3 years of their publication.

    Yeah, but everyone forgets Sunday School lessons within three hours of their end.

  14. Dan
    May 12, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Was there not a massive population decline with the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe? Was there not a degradation of organized society on a large scale? These declines have a profound effect on the production of a society, as well as its contributions to the less essential aspects of life: i.e. the studies of the world around you. More important was mere survival. Compared to the Roman Empire and the latter era of the Medieval Age, the period between 400 and 1000 AD was of low quality in Europe.

  15. Bob
    May 12, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I would welcome a re-examination. Bur for the Mormon Church, how would you think it could come about ? From the bottom up (as in these Blogs and comments)? From the Top down, (GAs *too old*)? From BYU, as the out-sourced think tank (and Farms/Fair)?, From the outside (The Western World rethinking itself)? Signature Books, etc.? To me, all these are too bias to carry the load.(?)

  16. Dan
    May 12, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Furthermore, as we read in Jacob 5, in the allegory of the olive tree, most of the focus of that allegory is on the period of decline, where all the wild fruit took over and no good fruit was left, forcing the Lord of the vineyard to consider burning it all.

  17. Jonathan Green
    May 12, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Of course, the medievals did think of themselves as living in the in-between period. Not in between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, of course, but in between the Crucifixion and the Second Coming.

    Dave, Mormon fixation on the Dark Ages are probably on average no worse than the rest of the American population, unfortunately.

    Frank, I think the 14th century gets bad PR, but society recovered within a few decades. It may even compare favorably with 1914-1945.

  18. Bob
    May 12, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    #14: Dan, I was at a symposium of Margaret Mead, in the late 60s. (she was old and would pound her cane on the floor when she heard something she did not agree to). She was very strong in that she felt the Western World was not so right that it had the best Culture. She felt many of the Island Cultures she lived with, worked better. No Wars, more in balance with their environments, more capable of survival for hundreds of years in such balances, etc. I do think you are right that large Organizations do fall apart,while small ones (Marriage or family), seen to live on.

  19. May 12, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    >>small ones (Marriage or family), seen to live on.

    Have you checked the divorce rate lately? :-(

  20. Frank McIntyre
    May 12, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    JG, I heard a claim that the black plague killed a third of Europe or a third of parts of Europe. What do you know, if anything, about the death rates?

  21. TMD
    May 12, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    I despise the term dark ages. And I particularly dislike the mental conjunction between dark ages and apostacy. First, the dark ages were in fact times of fascinating people and ideas and produced some fascinating literature and even theology–just look at Bernard, Beowulf, and Aquinas, to start. Second, of late I’ve become increasing of the belief that much of the apostacy was the product of efforts to ‘Helenize’ the gospel–to read Greek and Roman philosophy into it (incidentally, this is the main source, so far as I can tell, for the Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant reading of the trinity). And it’s certainly the case that the people of Alexandria, Constantanople, and Rome were far more corrupt and corrupted than a great many people in the middle ages. So, the apostacy should logically start far earlier than the medieval period.

  22. mmiles
    May 12, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I agree with #17. This isn’t a strange Mormon view. It’s pretty mainstream. That’s where we got it from.

  23. John Mansfield
    May 12, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    “With the fall of the Roman Empire, although some of the aqueducts were deliberately cut by enemies, many more fell into disuse from the lack of an organized maintenance system. The decline of functioning aqueducts to deliver water had a large practical impact in reducing the population of the city of Rome from its high of over 1 million in ancient times to considerably less in the medieval era, reaching as low as 30,000.”–Wikipedia

  24. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    May 12, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Sociologist Rodney Stark (known for his successful, optimistic forecasts of LDS Church growth) has criticized the concept of “the Dark Ages” as a polemic that came out of the 19th Century conflict between secularism and religious belief, with an entire mythos of “anti-rational religion” being created to support that polemic. Stark argues that the Middle Ages were in fact periods of scientific and technological advance, with new inventions in transportation and printing that were advanced beyond the Roman Empire, and that modern democracy, commerce, and science are based on the intellectual disciplines engendered by Christianity. Two of his books that advance this thesis are For the Glory of God: How Monotheims Led to Reformaitons, Science, Witch Hunts and the End of Slavery, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.

    The favorite and almost sole example of the mytho of enmity between science and religion is the trail of Galileo over his publication of a book supporting the Copernican theory over the cosmology of Ptolemy. The first point that is glossed over in telling that story is that Ptolemy was not a Christian nor a theological authority but simply a Greco-Roman scholar who lived in Alexandria circa 83 AD to 165 AD. Because his system of predicting the movements of celestial bodies actually worked as a matter of prediction, there was no particular reason to question it. It was simply the conventional science of its day. That some scriptural interpretations were created over the ensuing years that relied on Ptolemy’s theory was a silly reason for Cardinal Bellarmine to be defensive of a pagan’s theory of the heavens as opposed to one developed by two Christians, Copernicus and Galileo. There seem to have been no actual theological problems adapting to the changed perception of the heavens after the Copernican theory, as updated by Kepler, came to prevail. It should also be noted that an earlier Greek scholar, Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC to 230 BC), proposed the theory that the sun was in fact at the center of the visible universe, and that the earth revolved around it.

    The loyalty to the earth-centered Ptolemaic universe is usually depicted by materialist scientists as being a concern by the Roman Catholic Church to protect the status of the earth, and of mankind, as the “center of creation” and thus the most important place in the universe. But that is completely backward. As anyone familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy knows, the concept of the Middle Ages was that the earth was the LOWEST point in the universe, and that going down into the earthy were successive levels of Hell, until at the very center of the earth, and thus the center of the universe, was Satan, frozen in a block of ice as he eternally chewed on Judas. The physics of the time classified earthly matter as distinct from celestial matter, the earthly matter naturally falling to the lowest point in the universe (e.g. the garbage pit, AKA the earth) and celestial matter naturally rising to the heavens. To the extent that any issue of status was affected by the Copernicus vs. Ptolemy issue, the new theory was in effect PROMOTING the earth to the status of a celestial body, not demoting it.

    This false mythos has so much currency among scientists that they have even dubbed a “Copernican principle” that the earth is “mediocre” on the scale first of the solar system, then the galaxy, then the universe as a whole, meaning that mankind is not special and has no obvious teleological value for the universe as a whole. But the fact that the earth is the only home that science knows of for intelligent creatures makes it extremely unique, and in fact its “mediocre” position in an orbit halfway out on one of the spiral arms means it is in the ideal “Goldilocks zone” for the long term development of life, since planets closer to the great black hole at the galactic center are subject to regular sterilization by supernovae and gamma ray burtst, while solar systems farther out lack sufficient heavy elements forged in the nuclear fusion furnaces of supernova to have rocky planets like ours.

    The prevailing circa 1900 anti-Catholic mythos of the Dark Ages followed by the Renaissance and Reformation was all to easy for Mormons to adopt, since the mythos asserted that Catholicism had become “fallen” as an expression of Christianity. The mythos ignores the fact that Roman Catholicism was only one strain of Christianity, and that the Greek Orthodox and Coptic and other scattered churches of the East had just as ancient a genealogy as the Roman Church.

    The recent book “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola (not the baseball player) and George Barna argues that almost all of the forms of organization and worship use din both Catholicism and Protestantism owe their source to secular and even pagan practices of the early Roman Empire, and that the original Christianity of the New Testament was abandoned circa 100 AD. It argues for Protestants to embrace what they assert is a model of the New Testament church, with small groups meeting in homes in unstructured worship and no hierarchy. Their view is that the Reformation did not really “reform” very much at all.

  25. John Mansfield
    May 12, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    “For the formerly Roman area, there was another 20 percent decline in population between 400 and 600, or a one third decline for 150-600. In the eighth century, the volume of trade reached its lowest level since the Bronze Age. The very small number of shipwrecks found that dated from the 8th century supports this (which represents less than 2% of the number of shipwrecks dated from the first century CE). There was also reforestation and a retreat of agriculture that centred around 500. This phenomenon coincided with a period of rapid cooling, according to tree ring data. The Romans had practised two-field agriculture, with a crop grown in one field and the other left fallow and ploughed under to eliminate weeds. With the gradual breakup of the institutions of the empire, owners were unable to stop their slaves from running away and the plantation system broke down. Systematic agriculture largely disappeared and yields declined to subsistence level.”–more Wikipedia

  26. John Mansfield
    May 12, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    “Thomas Homer-Dixon demonstrates that a falling energy return on energy invested in the Later Roman Empire was one of the reasons for the “‘ark Age’ collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century CE. In “‘The Upside of Down’ he suggests that EROEI analysis provides a basis for the analysis of the rise and fall of civilisations. Looking at the maximum extent of the Roman Empire, (60 million) and its technological base the agrarian base of Rome, the energy return on energy invested was about 1:12 per hectare for wheat and 1:27 for alfalfa (giving a 1:2.7 production for oxen). One can then use this to calculate the population of the Roman Empire required at its height, on the basis of about 2,500-3,000 calories per day per person. It comes out roughly equal to the area of food production at its height. But ecological damage (deforestation, soil fertility loss particularly in southern Spain, southern Italy, Sicily and especially north Africa) saw a collapse in the system beginning in the 2nd century, as EROEI began to fall. It bottomed in 1084 when Rome’s population, which had peaked under Trajan at 1.5 million, was only 15,000.”–Wikipedia, again

  27. Jonathan Green
    May 12, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Frank, if I actually looked up the statistics, I might find that you were right and I was wrong, and we can’t have that!

  28. Frank McIntyre
    May 12, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Jonathan, I’ll take what I can get.

  29. Jonathan Green
    May 12, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    John Mansfield, the decline of the city of Rome, and even of the Roman empire, is not the same as a continent-wide dark age. Or was there some other point you were making with those citations?

  30. John Mansfield
    May 12, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    My point was that the civil engineering practiced by the Romans (aqueducts, roads, agricultural practices, and the social institutions that maintained them) did go into serious decline for many centuries. The land and the cities could no longer support the populations they had previously. I find an estimated European population of 163 million for 1750, which I suppose is greater than Europe’s population in the first millenium, so a decline in a Roman Empire 60 million people strong sounds like a major problem for Europe as a whole.

  31. John Mansfield
    May 12, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Ah, the source that estimates Europe’s 1750 population at 163 million also gives worldwide population estimates of 791 million in 1750 AD, 310 million in 1000 AD and 200 million in 1 AD, but without a breakdown by continent before 1750 AD.

  32. Bob
    May 12, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    The cause/effect debate as outlined by John Mansfield in #26,30.31, has gone on in both Politics (Rome, USSR) and biology (Tyrannosaurus Rex) . The coined term is “gigatism”. That is, becoming too big to support itself in a chanced environment . Or, it’s very strength and biggest caused it to decline or fall. ( a causationary tale for The USA).
    But, did Greece or Rome, ever really leave us? Or, still a big part of our Cultural DNA ?

  33. May 12, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    Europe scmeurope. The world was a much bigger place than just Europe from the 4th to 14th centuries just as it is a much bigger place than the US and Europe today. Islam was in the midst of its golden age of knowledge and commerce (including in its European gem, Al-Andalus or Islamic Spain), empires were rising and falling in the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, China, Africa, the Americas, etc. Knowledge was being gained, agriculture and social systems flourishing and falling in a complex weave generally far more interesting outside of Europe than inside (though I am a fan of viking history). If we want to label this era from the perspective of what we purport to be the universal gospel, we must label it from a global perspective. Past first presidency statements about the inspiration other enlightened religious leaders have received (Muhammad, Buddha, Socrates, etc.) give a starting point. The key is to get off the euro-fixation (which for all the far more complex picture europe really faced in the era was viewed by outsiders such as the Arabs writing at home and in their travelogues as a dark backwater) and look upon a world and the hundreds of millions of souls whose histories were being lived and written overwhelmingly in places outside of Europe. Europe gets its due, but doesn’t deserve the extra scoop or three we give it in our attention.

    Some might argue it is was the ultimate source of the restoration and so deserving of all the extra attention. But Asia was/is the source of most of humanity and incredible riches of scientific/economic/bureaucratic/cultural gains, the Middle East the source of most of the known prophets and of Christ himself to say nothing of its crucial role in the apostasy era in passing light and knowledge from east to west (and vice versa) and from past to present generations, the Americas the source of “the most correct of any book on earth” and uncounted now-hidden civilizations that provided now mostly-hidden scientific and philosophical gains and the foodstuffs (from the humble potato to the flavorful tomato and pepper if memory serves right) that allowed so many other civilizations to flourish post-1492 (while they were destroyed and Africans enslaved to replace their labor), the Islamic and Byzantine Med the protective cradle of Greek and Roman knowledge (as well as the schools of criticism and research which began moving knowledge beyond them) which eventually were passed on to a rejuvenated Europe, etc, etc. The world is and was too big to center millenium or two of the apostasy (with all its light ala John Taylor quote above) on Europe so exclusively. God made a big world.

  34. Ray
    May 12, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    #33 – NAA said essentially what I was going to say.

  35. Hans Hansen
    May 12, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Ah, but it was a good time to be a Viking! Plant the crop, take a spring trip onj the long ship and raid France, come back and harvest the crop, then go on a fall trip on the long ship and raid England. Those were the days! :-)

  36. Agellius
    May 12, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    CraigH, as a Catholic, I enjoyed your comments. Well said. Also the OP.

  37. Dan
    May 12, 2008 at 8:45 pm



    I don’t think anyone here is arguing that there weren’t any advances during the Medieval Ages, but that there was indeed a significant decline, and a comparison between the Roman period and the latter part of the Medieval period shows that the centuries between 400 AD and 1000 AD were “dark” in comparison. Advancements were made (as in any period in history) but their rate and frequency were of much lower number. It is a natural consequence of a significant decline in population as we saw occurred after the fall of the Roman Empire.

  38. Dan
    May 12, 2008 at 8:52 pm


    You mention a few revered figures from history. But only one of them comes from the period we are discussing – Mohammed. Siddhartha and Socrates were pre-Christ figures in their respective cultures.

    For my part, the only time that I consider “dark” in the history of the world is from about 400 AD to 1000 AD. I do believe we regressed generally speaking during that period (regression being defined as not progressing at the same, or above, level as previous).

  39. May 12, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Europe regressed in that period, much of the rest of the world was moving forward quite nicely. Since I am most familiar with the Middle East: The Umayyads in Damascus and then Spain, the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Fatimids and Ayyubids then Mamelukes in Egypt, the Ottoman Turks all fluorished or arose in that era. Commerce spread from the Atlantic to China on Islamic traderoutes, science progressed, the Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists were studied, critiqued, and improved upon in Islamic realms, mathematics was greatly advanced as were navigation technologies and maps and travelogues, Roman irrigation was restored improved and expanded, agriculture greatly expanded, etc. None of which is to say there weren’t plenty of setbacks in the Islamic world, there were, but in general they fluorished and had a golden age while Europe in comparison languished in relative darkness. Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, Ibn Sina, Al-Khawarizmi, Al-Jawhari, al-Idrisi and many others too numerous to mention (I am picking names from an entire world of geography and progress most in the west are unfamiliar with that stretched over a millenium) belong in the pantheon of great minds without whom our world today (east and west) would be far poorer and perhaps quite different. Perhaps we have Sinophiles or Indian historians who could comment more on those corners of the world in the centuries in question? To say nothing of the Americas, Africa, Southeast Asia, etc. The world was quite a bit more pleasant in those centuries for many people than it was for Europeans or even for many (most?) under Rome’s rule.

  40. Dan
    May 12, 2008 at 10:40 pm


    I don’t know, Arabs gave us Algebra. I don’t think I can ever forgive them for that. :P

  41. Bob
    May 12, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I guess I am having a problem because of who is setting the “standards” here (and in the past) , for what was the ‘good life’ In Greece, (over statement), everyone read good books and had a PhD.. Therefore, they lived an enlightened life. (So writes our Scholars). The Romans, likewise, Then we had 500 or 1000 years (Europe) that appears very simple and in balance, and it’s called a ‘Dark Age’. I guess because no one wrote good books, or had good wars (?)

  42. May 13, 2008 at 5:48 am

    I seem to recall somewhere that something like 80% of people in the Roman empire lived in abject poverty (correct me if I’m wrong, I think that’s a Discovery or History channel factoid). Certainly slavery was widespread and key to the economic lifeblood of the empire, conquest to expand the empire was bloody and brutal, political dissent was often met with the sword, entertaining the masses (with live death in the arena) was seen as a soma to keep them out of real decision-making. The Lord wasn’t the only one crucified, he was one of thousands (even millions over a millenium of Roman rule???) to face that brutal death at the hands of this supposedly enlightened civilization. Not to paint an entirely one-way picture the other way, but a truly rounded picture of the Roman era isn’t nearly as pretty as it is sometimes idealized.

  43. May 13, 2008 at 5:50 am

    The middle ages make me think of Caliphates in Spain and primitive heathen kings in western Europe and all the slides in art history that made me think my own drawing skills aren’t half bad after all. Then the crusades, ice ages, and massive plagues — at least the 19th and early 20th centuries had steam engines and growing populations. Meanwhile, the Greeks and Romans (and Egyptians, etc.) had societies which, though decidedly unpleasant, had all those nifty social and philosophical features that everyone in the 18th and 19th centuries really wanted to copy. Look at the Mall in DC, or the entire Art Deco movement.

    I mean, you know, the sun rose and the Holy Ghost spoke to people and the rest of it: God didn’t actually turn off the lights for over a thousand years, and I think everyone will agree if you put the question in that way. But dismissing the entire concept of the “the Dark Ages” because it’s insufficiently complex and open-minded doesn’t strike me as either useful or persuasive to a general audience.

    (I reply here to what I’m reading in some of the comments rather than the original post.)

  44. Dan
    May 13, 2008 at 6:03 am


    It doesn’t just appear “simple and in balance.” There was a regression. There were significant population declines throughout Europe. Centralized governance whittled. And in terms of spirituality, just take a look at the history of the Popes of the Catholic church, specifically in the Tenth century.

  45. Dan
    May 13, 2008 at 6:21 am


    While it is true that most of the people in the Roman empire didn’t benefit from the advances in science and education, population actually increased during the rule of the Romans throughout the empire. I think the most important statistic of a comparison of the two eras is the population decline/increase. During the Roman rule, population increased. With the fall of the Roman empire, population dropped dramatically.

  46. John Mansfield
    May 13, 2008 at 8:15 am

    Bob, it wasn’t just a drop in the ability to read or write good books that declined. It was also the ability to grow food and supply clean water that declined, the kind of thing that always hits hardest those at the bottom of society.

    Bitton starts out the linked article conceeding that Western Europe declined before finding the silver lining that “even during these discouraging times, stretching roughly from AD 500 to 1000, Europeans came up with some inventions that proved extremely important in the long run.” So, I guess there were no Dark Ages, just five centuries of “discouraging times.”

    I also love this highlight of Middle Age culture: “Monasteries were often little islands or oases of order within the larger landscape.” Shouldn’t the brightness of those little cloistered candles be an indication of how dark the continent was? Then Bitton gets to developments after the late 11th Century, when Europe started climbing out of the hole it was in, which is great but doesn’t change the idea that Europe was in hole before that.

  47. May 13, 2008 at 10:08 am

    “There were significant population declines throughout Europe”

    I repeat, Europe schmeurope. What about the rest of the world? You know, the places where the *vast majority* of people lived and live.

  48. Western Dave
    May 13, 2008 at 10:29 am

    2nd try on this. You have to remember that you are talking about the Western Roman Empire that was always poorer than the Eastern part. In places where the Eastern Roman Empire remained, or was replaced by the Caliphate (modern day North Africa, Near East, Middle East) there really wasn’t any decline at all. We are basically talking about Central and Northern Italy and France and maybe Britain, The Romans didn’t actually make anything in Rome and the cities were supplied by grain grown primarily in Egypt.

    And for my money the Western Roman Empire fell because of their trade deficit with China.

  49. Wilfried
    May 13, 2008 at 10:42 am

    I concur with most that has been said. In any age, as CraigH mentioned from the onset, you can find dark and light. And yes, it would be simplistic to relate apostasy to “dark ages”. However, our understanding of the apostasy deals with doctrine and authority. By correctly doubting the validity of the term “dark ages”, we should not start doubting the apostasy. And that seems the risk of this line of reasoning. It is not because a civilization is great that it possesses true doctrine and true authority.

    With all due respect for our friends from Catholic or other Christian churches that trace their lineage back to the apostles, present-day Mormonism is not on a path of relativism. The core message of the Restoration cannot allow it. Looking back since the first century A.D., we must recognize that the complex developments and controversies in doctrines, the fundamental changes they underwent, underscore our belief in the need for new revelation. The patent misuses of ecclesiastical authority from Rome over the centuries, the bloody persecutions and wars against non-Catholic Christians (think only of the Albigenses), the horrific trials and executions of tens of thousands of “heretics” — there is no way one could honestly assume such leaders still had divinely sanctioned authority. Which does not exclude that millions of Christians during those centuries were honest, faithful, and dedicated to ideals. Good people can be saints under corrupt leaders. During Christ’s ministry, the life of humble fishermen, of Joseph and Mary, of the good Samaritans did not justify what their appointed religious leaders did, those who nailed Jesus to the cross.

  50. comet
    May 13, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Dark ages is a relative term. I’m sure future generations will look back and see the contemporary church now as “dark” compared to what the gospel will have wrought in generations to come, let alone the millenium.

    I didn’t see this discussion heading down the line of apostasy denial (though, caution noted).

    “The patent misuses of ecclesiastical authority from Rome over the centuries, the bloody persecutions and wars against non-Catholic Christians (think only of the Albigenses), the horrific trials and executions of “heretics” — there is no way one could honestly assume such leaders still had divinely sanctioned authority.”

    Except for the relatively short Utah period, the LDS church has had the (inspired?) luxury of not having to get it’s hands messy in the politics of temporal kingdoms and states. The church has not really held the kind of power that could really get it into trouble, as did earlier Christian churches. If that kind of power ever does devolve onto the LDS church, I hope we’re ready.

  51. Ray
    May 13, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Very well said, Wilfried.

  52. John Mansfield
    May 13, 2008 at 11:42 am

    For worldwide darkness, the Plague of Justinian looks fairly impressive: “Justinian was in the process of rebuilding the Roman empire and reconquering its land when the plague arrived in 542. It killed 40% of the people in Constantinople, where it was described as ‘a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.’ From Constantinople, the plague spread through Italy to Spain, France, the Rhine Valley, Britain, Denmark, and finally to China in 610. This pandemic was perhaps the most devastating in the history of the world. It is estimated that it killed 100 million people across the world, or 50% of the human population.”

  53. Bob
    May 13, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Many here in LA consider the city in a Dark Age because we have no NFL team. Yes, yes. we have USC and UCLA football. But the debate continues and compares well with the one above. An answer never seems to be agreed on. ( But it’s not because we lost population).
    Civilization is a two headed beast, that both Feeds and Consumes that which gives it life. It’s like a Nova, it grows very bright, then blows itself out. It is seldom in balance, though at time seems able to do whatever it wants. It’s a Human phenomena that seems to die in one place/time, only to show up again elsewhere.
    For me, I think you can have apostasy, as a group or individual, in times of light or darkness. I think the rich and the poor are both open targets. Golden Ages, or Dark Ages, are fertile time for losing one’s way.

  54. Dan
    May 13, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Non Arab Arab,


    I repeat, Europe schmeurope. What about the rest of the world? You know, the places where the *vast majority* of people lived and live.

    The “Dark Ages” label really only applies to Europe. I know I included other parts of the world in my assessment of decline in the years 400-1000 AD, but really, it is only Europe.

  55. May 13, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    I’m afraid that I don’t quite understand how population decline, or even technological decline, necessarily equates “dark ages.” Even before 1000, you find such artistic genius as the Book of Kells (along with the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Beatus Apocalypse, and numerous others; if any of you can draw like that, I’d like to know so that I can commission various things from you), the spirituality and humility of dedicated believers as varied as Pseudo-Dionysius and the Venerable Bede, and the social and educational reforms of Charlemagne (help with the latter from Alcuin). Even in the midst of the plague, one finds the brilliance of Boccaccio.

    Noting the fact of the Apostasy and the living conditions in much of Western Europe, Latter-Day Saints (in particular, though everyone else as well) could gain gain much intellectually and spiritually if they would banish the idea of the “dark ages” and open up my minds. Every semester, my students at the Y are surprised by how much they gain from moving beyond the idea that during the Dark Ages, nothing happened except the despotism of corrupt popes and the invention of the button (a student did tell me that a Sunday School teacher told her class the latter).

  56. May 13, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Cross out one of those “gains” in my above comment. Grading has destroyed my mind.

  57. May 13, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Great comments, everyone. I think Bitton was trying to defend the Middle Ages, but obviously there’s a lot more to the story than a short essay can accommodate. For a general LDS audience, the best starting point might be to differentiate two distinct historical episodes: (1) “the Apostasy,” which in the LDS view of religious history is closely tied to the death of the original apostles so should be dated to the early second century; and (2) “the Dark Ages,” which is closely tied to the fall of the Roman Empire and the consequent fall in trade and reversion to self-sufficient communities, best dated (if at all) to the 5th through the 8th centuries.

    The High Middle Ages (the 12th and 13th centuries) were certainly not dark, and although the 14th century was a time of troubles in Europe (the Thirty Years War and the arrival of the plague in mid-century) it did not compare to the changes accompanying the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. So I don’t think the plague or the events of the 14th century really apply to the Apostasy vs. Dark Ages contrast.

  58. Bob
    May 13, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Some of this wishing to label EVERYTHING, can to placed at the feet of Modern Science, ( think Linnaeus. and all the rest!). Add to this, Modern Empires, ( think Britain, German, etc.) who wanted to lay claim to be the New Rome, and needed a background setting into which to place themselves, resulting in Gibbons, Toynbee, and the German Social thinkers, etc.

  59. Adam Greenwood
    May 13, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    In places where the Eastern Roman Empire remained, or was replaced by the Caliphate (modern day North Africa, Near East, Middle East) there really wasn’t any decline at all.

    It wasnt’ as much, and it mostly happened later than in the West, but there was a decline there too. In some ways North Africa never completely recovered.

    I’m with Wilfried D.

  60. David Clark
    May 13, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    The patent misuses of ecclesiastical authority from Rome over the centuries, the bloody persecutions and wars against non-Catholic Christians (think only of the Albigenses), the horrific trials and executions of tens of thousands of “heretics” — there is no way one could honestly assume such leaders still had divinely sanctioned authority.

    I am very uncomfortable in saying that bad behavior equals loss of divinely sanctioned authority. It looks suspiciously like arguments for Joseph Smith being a fallen prophet. I won’t rehearse the laundry list here because it’s not the place. The bottom line is that one can honestly assume that Catholic leaders still had divinely sanctioned authority (assuming one is Catholic), just like we Mormons honestly assume that our leaders have divinely sanctioned authority.

  61. Buckley's Ghost
    May 14, 2008 at 2:02 am

    When the term “Dark Ages” are used by missionaries during teaching or members in a talk we should not be so quick to grind our teeth. The Age of Enlightenment was a radical political change whose foundation was in reason antithetical to certain religious perspectives . Let us not get hung up too much on the language and a simple misunderstaning of details. Locke, Voltaire, Kant,Hobbes, Hume, Rossaeu and a host of others believed that the “Dark Ages” were just that, dark. The Golden Age of Islam is a term like the “Dark Ages” whose name implies a reality that quite frankly didn’t occur even though people desperatley want it to be true.

  62. Wilfried
    May 14, 2008 at 8:56 am

    David (60), I think it is kind of difficult to compare as “bad behavior” on the one hand centuries of historically proven horrors, perpetrated by scores of religious leaders on various levels, up to the top, to torture and murder tens of thousands, and on the other hand controversial allegations of personal misconduct — even the full “laundry list” — told about Joseph Smith. Still it is everyone’s right to draw his own conclusions as to divinely sanctioned authority in the one or the other case. It’s part of faith and we recognize the right of every person to believe according to his conscience. I drew my own conclusions.

  63. Ugly Mahana
    May 14, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Wilifried (#49), well stated.

  64. Bob
    May 14, 2008 at 10:11 am

    #61:The difference I sense between #60 &#61, is that David takes ‘facts’, and come to his ‘conclusion’, (or non-conclusion ) statement, that is not meant to take us anywhere. But you take ‘facts’, and come to an assumption. ( a leadership lost), which is to set groundwork to move us to somewhere, ( a Restoration of leadership), or your ‘conclusion statement.

  65. Jeremiah J.
    May 14, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I’m not sure how many people checked out the Bitton piece, but I haven’t seen anyone notice that Bitton seems to want to abandon not just the idea that the period between 500-1000 was in some sense “dark”, but the whole idea of making evaluative judgments of different cultures and different time periods within the same culture:

    “But a period of darkness? Please. That designation helps not at all in understanding. If I am not mistaken, anthropologists studiously avoid such value judgments as they study different tribal societies.”

    It’s also kind of silly to assert that by calling some part of the Middle Ages dark we are therefore “defaming millions of people”.

    This is a kind parochialism contemporary academics are especially prone to. The particular subject we happen to study can’t possibly be in any sense unsophisticated, suspect, or worse than any other and no one who hasn’t taken college courses and read academic books in our discipline is going to imply otherwise, or they’ll get a rude awakening.

  66. May 14, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    I find it interesting that the Middle Ages are written off as the Dark Ages when that period gave us Abbot Suger and his development of the theology and architecture of light. The essence of Gothic Architecture was how to make bigger windows in buildings. The ulitimate goal was to practically disolve the walls and turn them into maginifenct stained glass windows. Dark Ages! Huh? Anyone who has ever stood in Chartres Cathedral or visited Mount St. Michele would probably not use the term “Dark Ages.”

    During the mision of B.Y. and Wilford Woodruff to England (c.1840) they visited the Gothic Catherdral of Worchester. Wilford wrote about the experience in his diary. “Today we visited the noted splendor of the Worchester Catherdral. It surpasses anything mine eyes have ever beheld. It is so superior to the architecture of the present generation.” Not surprizingly, the temples of pioneer Utah that were built by B.Y., John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, all contain many Medieval architectural elements. Also note the Lion House. It comes complete with Medieval battlements!

    The short message? According to the architecture “built” by early Church leaders who actually saw some examples of Medieval culture, the Middle Ages had something to teach us. Copying is the sincerist form of compliment.
    Richard O. (sorry about the many spelling errors. I’m doomed without a spell checker.)

  67. Dan
    May 14, 2008 at 10:19 pm


    Abbot Suger was in the High Middle Ages, in the 12th century. The “dark” period goes from about 400 AD to 1000 AD. Abbot Suger comes after that time.

  68. John Mansfield
    May 15, 2008 at 10:26 am

    It’s like a magic act. Watch carefully as some cultural marvel from the 12th Century is waived before your eyes, and “Presto!” The “discouraging times” from 500-1000 A.D. disappear!

  69. Richard O.
    May 15, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Technically and academically in the strictest sense, you are correct.
    But among many LDS as well as many Protestants, the term “Dark Ages” is sometimes used to refer to the period from the end of the classical period until the beginning of the Renaisance.
    In terms of earlier (pre-12th century) cultural achievements, try the Book of Kells created by Celtic monks (from an area that hadn’t been part of the Roman Empire), the various churches in Ravenna, Italy, Haiga Sophia in Constantinople, the Bayeaux Tapistry, the magnificent sculptural and jewelry designs of the Celts and Vikings (for example, the Sutton Ho collection in the British Museum), Caroligian and Merovingian manuscripts, etc.
    Was all beauty and light from 500 to 1,000 AD? No. But then are contemporary strip malls high points of world class civilization? Many places in the world were pretty amazing for their creations during this period (500-1000), and the West had some significant achievements as well.

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