How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization
Chapter 2 Summary “A light in the Darkness”
The author begins this chapter explicitly stating that the term “dark ages” was once applied to the time stretching from roughly 500 AD to 1500 AD. However this is no longer the case, as the more research is done over that time frame the more historians adjust the date of the “dark ages.”
According to the author there was a “cultural and intellectual retrogression” that occurred during the dark ages. Thus the darkening was no a luminescence but instead a darkening of the mind. However, contrary to popular belief, the cause of the darkening was not the on the result of the spread of Christianity. Quoting Historian Will Durant, the author writes, “The basic cause of cultural retrogression . . . was not Christianity but barbarism, not religion but war” (9). The author spends much of the rest of the chapter laying out how it was the Catholic Church that acted as a light during dark times, and How it had the task of civilizing a savage world.
The invading barbarian tribes/hordes were little interested in the life of the mind; therefore, they were a very illiterate and learned people who did not care much for literature, sciences, justice, and art. The barbarians were a very superstitious people who in many cases did not have much of a true system of belief as was the case with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Therefore, when the church set out to convert the barbarians, they had a much easier time for “It is a fact of missionary history that the Church has found it immensely easier to convert people directly from primitive paganism or animism that to convert them once they have adopted another faith like Arianism or Islam” (12).
The main groups of Barbarians the author mentions are the Goths, the Vandals, and the Franks. There are two main tribes or families that were of great importance to the Church during this period of time: the Merovingians and the Carolingians. The Merovingians entered into an unspoken relationship with the Catholic Church in which the Gaul’s would protect the Church. This occurred with the conversion of their King, Clovis. This relationship remained till about the 8th century.
Once the Merovingians declined in power, the Church was left in want of protection; She the turned to the Franks, specifically the Carolingians, and more specifically Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charles the Great (Charlemange). The Church peacefully managed the transfer of power from the Merovingians to the Carolingians (16). During the Carolingian period, Charlemagne “had been so persuaded of the beauty, truth, and superiority of the Catholic religion that he did everything possible to establish the new post-imperial Europe on the basis of Catholicism” (11). He “strongly encouraged education and the arts, calling upon the bishops to organize schools around their cathedrals” (16).
During the Carolingian education there was a resurgence in classical education with an emphasis on the quadrivium (astronomy, music, arithmetic and geometry) and the Trivium (logic, grammar, rhetoric). A uniform system of writing was developed by monks called “Carolingian minuscule.” This script introduced “lowercase letter, spacing between words “ and proved “crucial to building the literacy of Western civilization” (18). Moreover, as Europe’s collective intellect plummeted into darkness “The Church, as the Educator of Europe, was the one life that survived repeated barbarian invasions” (20). It was the unwavering determination of the Catholic Church that kept Europe from falling into an even darker age (21). Even when monasteries were destroyed and libraries burned and monks killed by the barbarians, a new group of monks could be moved in and learning restored.
Lastly, Pope Sylvester II, “The most learned man in Europe of his day,” sought out ancient manuscripts. Pope Sylvester commented on the importance of learning and not simply having blind faith we he said “The Divinity made a great gift to men in giving them faith while not denying them knowledge . . . those who do not posse it are called fools” (23). The pope’s views on knowledge and learning would go on to influence much of the schooling in Europe for ages to follow (23).