“The Century of Iron” (a.k.a., “The Dark Ages”)

Frequently in our era of Enlightenment the entire period of the Middle Ages is unjustly slandered as “the Dark Ages.” The term “the Dark Ages” was coined by the enemies of the Christian Religion in the eighteenth century to describe the period of over a thousand years when the whole of society was permeated by distinctly Christian ideals, however imperfectly worked out. Enlightenment thinkers were driven by an obsession to consign the “Age of Faith” to the dustbin of history so that they themselves could inaugurate the “Age of Reason.” Accordingly, they felt it necessary to rhetorically delegitimize the many centuries that elapsed between Christianity’s conquest of the pagan ideals espoused by the ancient Greeks and Romans and their own “Modern” era.

The slanders of unbelief aside, however, there was a period within the Middle Ages which may justly be termed “the Dark Age.” This is most of the tenth century and the first decade or two of the eleventh. Born from the ruination of the Carolingian Empire throughout the ninth century, the political situation then saw rulers with surnames not like “the Great,” but like “the Bald,” “the Fat,” “the Stammerer,” “the Simple,” “the Lazy,” and “the Child.” Debauchery and dissipation of the grossest kinds often characterized the temporal sphere’s rulers, and the incessant, bloody warfare ensured that no one, layman or priest, was safe. Some of the darkest episodes of the Church’s history are located in this century, among them the period of the papacy known as “the Pornocracy,” or “the Rule of Harlots.”

Furthermore, harried on three sides by invasions of Muslims, Magyars, and Vikings, the societas Christiana of the tenth century was not in a wonderful position to work on reforming the deep problems that existed. It is by contrast with the renaissance of the Carolingian Age, which did so much for Christian cultural advance, that the tenth century is sometimes called “the Century of Iron”.:”(Joseph McCabe, Crises in the History of the Papacy: A Study of Twenty Famous Popes Whose Careers and Whose Influence Were Important in the Development of the Church and in the History of the World [New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916], pp. 124-126.)”: The metaphor comes in part from the old Greek view that human civilization traverses a spectrum of decreasing quality, from “Golden” to “Silver” to “Bronze” to “Iron.” Another influence on the terminology, especially for Christians, would be Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 2 of the devolution of human empires. The tenth century certainly deserves the epithet “Iron Age,” for as one scholar expresses it the period

was an age in which only the strong could survive but wherein a career was open to any man who possessed the simple and barbarous talents of the chieftain and war leader. Western society seemed to be returning to a state of barbarism in which the fundamental institutions of civilized society—the State, the law, and private property—seemed to have practically disappeared. Nevertheless, we must remember that the political system which had collapsed was not a civilized state like the Roman Empire or the modern national state but a rickety and insecure superstructure which hid but did not change the fundamentally barbarous character of Western society. The true “state” of the Dark Ages was not the ambitious pseudo-Roman Empire of the Carolingians, which owed all its positive cultural achievements to the Church, but the semi-tribal society of barbarian Europe, as it existed in northern Germany and Scandinavia and in Anglo-Saxon England.:”(Christopher Dawson, “The Feudal Society and the Christian Epic”, in Medieval Essays [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954], pg. 188.)”:

In this age centralized authority broke down nearly everywhere, and was replaced by the governmental system of feudalism. One unintended consequence of the feudal transformation was that the conceptual distinction between spiritual and temporal powers ensconced in Christian political discourse in the fifth century deteriorated, leading to the temporal power controlling the spiritual power. Throughout this dull iron century the Holy Roman Empire fought to free the Church from excessive temporal control, yet managed to subject the Church to temporal control in a different way. This would lead to the backlash of the Investiture Contest during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, and the rise of the Papal Monarchy system of government.

Nevertheless, God was not without illuminating witness in this dark century. For all the corruption, other elements were stirring which would be able to mollify society’s ills. Among these forces for good were the Peace of God and Truce of God, and the Cluniac monastic movement. The success of such reforming lights as these may be aptly summed up by the words of a chronicler writing about the onset of the year 1000:

Just as the third year after the aforementioned millennium was at hand, it transpired throughout the whole world—but particularly in Italy and Gaul—that ecclesiastical buildings were renovated, although most of the existing ones were in beautiful condition and not lacking the least thing. Nonetheless each tribe of Christians strove against the other to have the use of a more beautiful church. It was as if the whole world were shaking itself, shrugging off the past, and swathing itself all over in a shining mantle of churches. The faithful at that time remade almost all episcopal basilicas, as well as monastic churches dedicated to various saints…:”(Rudolph Glaber, a French monk writing of the onset of the eleventh century in The Five Books of Histories, 3.4.13, as cited in the introduction to “The Cult of Relics in the Eleventh Century”, in Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, ed. Thomas Head [New York and London: Routledge, 2001], pg. 273. The original text of The Five Books of Histories can be found in PL 142:611C-698C.
)”:

Other examples may be found, such as the monk-scholar Gerbert (ca. 940-1003), who revitalized the educational system in the Empire by following and expanding upon the classical Christian ideals of Boethius and Cassiodorus. A passionate educator devoted to seeking first the kingdom of God, Gerbert’s personal intellectual talents extended from theology to rhetoric to logic to arithmetic to astronomy. He introduced the West to the nine Arabic numerals (less the zero) and elaborated upon their use, transforming calculation work even at this early date. He helped to prepare a new generation of theologians to handle Scripture and the Fathers by teaching them to do theology upon the foundation of the seven liberal arts. This was an emphasis that would be brought to perfection several centuries later by such worthies as Hugh of St. Victor.

Moved by men of faith like Gerbert (who would later become Pope Sylvester II) and the Cluniacs, the dark “Century of Iron” at last gave way to the progress of the Gospel and the advance of Christ’s kingdom. The spectacular cultural achievements of the next several centuries stand as eloquent testimony against pessimism when we look at dark times in the Church’s history. We should never forget that no matter how dark it gets, when God’s people humble themselves before Him and pray, He heals their land. Compared to this promise and its outworkings in history, it is the Enlightenment which is the true “Dark Age.”

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3 Responses to “The Century of Iron” (a.k.a., “The Dark Ages”)

  1. Dale Price says:

    A decent survey, but one criticism: it’s incomplete without a reference to Byzantium, which was undergoing its own “Macedonian Renaissance” during this time. Indeed, Nova Roma was near the apex of her political power at the turn of the 11th Century.

    Yes, Byzantium is a hobbyhorse of mine, but it is unfortunate that this crucial civilization is more often than not left unmentioned during discussions of Western civilization and Christendom. Undoubtedly, the Byzantines shaped and were part of both.

    Far and away the best single volume survey of the Empire and her culture is Warren Treadgold’s History of the Byzantine State and Society (1997). In addition, Treadgold takes care to emphasize the positive contributions of the Church upon Byzantine civilization. You won’t be disappointed.

  2. Other examples may be found, such as the monk-scholar Gerbert (ca. 940-1003), who revitalized the educational system in the Empire by following and expanding upon the classical Christian ideals of Boethius and Cassiodorus. A passionate educator devoted to seeking first the kingdom of God, Gerbert’s personal intellectual talents extended from theology to rhetoric to logic to arithmetic to astronomy. He introduced the West to the nine Arabic numerals (less the zero) and elaborated upon their use, transforming calculation work even at this early date. He helped to prepare a new generation of theologians to handle Scripture and the Fathers by teaching them to do theology upon the foundation of the seven liberal arts, an emphasis that would be brought to perfection several centuries later by such worthies as Hugh of St. Victor.

    I am curious to know why you did not mention that the last four years of Gerbert’s life were spent as Pope Sylvester II.

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Shawn, there was no deliberate, conscious reason for not mentioning that fact (of which I am certainly aware). I’ve changed the article to reflect that Gerbert became Pope Sylvester II.

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