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Intellectual Thought And The Dark Ages

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The lower Middle Ages, generally accepted as the time period between 500 and 800 C.E., is a section of history that has been argued to be a dark age of human thought. This Dark Age, which was ushered in by the fall of Rome in the late 5th century, is not widely viewed as a time period where intellectualism was highly valued. However, there are several examples to the contrary of this notion that show despite the barbarism of the time period there was a value placed on human learning.

As Rome fell in the 5th century, the lack of a centralized authority over the vast territory previously controlled by the Roman Emperors created an enormous power vacuum within the whole of the western empire. As a result of this power vacuum, war became a part of daily life. Wars were fought incessantly to establish legitimate claims to power over a land without an authority figure. In time authority would be reestablished as the less powerful rulers fell by the wayside and their lands were usurped by stronger leaders. However, simply writing off the importance of human thought because of a period of what amounted to necessary barbarism to reestablish authority in Western Europe is wrong. That equates to stating that the United States does not currently care about education since we are fighting campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. War and human thought are able to coexist with one another, and a good example of this comes from the rule of Charlemagne.

While Charlemagne was the ruler of the Carolingian empire, which was the largest empire in Western Europe at the time, he was still a lover of human thought. Despite the brutality he was forced to carry out against his enemies to expand his empire and assert his claim to power as legitimate, his actions outside of warfare encouraged the expansion of human thought. There are several examples of Charlemagne’s fostering of human thought within his empire.

The first example of this is found in Charlemagne himself. As Einhard wrote in his biography of Charlemagne, The Life of Charlemagne, Charlemagne “spoke easily and fluently, and could express with great clarity whatever he had to say. He was not content with his own mother tongue, but took the trouble to learn foreign languages” (79). A ruler not concerned with human knowledge certainly would not put forth the effort to learn a language other than his own. The fact that he expended his time to this end shows Charlemagne as a ruler with a deep respect for the intellectual achievements of not only the Franks, but also the other cultures he found himself surrounded by.

A second example of Charlemagne’s reverence for human knowledge was the fact that he took advantage of human architectural knowledge at the time to erect a great cathedral to God. The cathedral at Aachen was, according to Einhardt, decorated “with gold and silver, with lamps, and with lattices and doors of solid bronze. He [Charlemagne] was unable to find marble columns for his construction anywhere else, and so he had them brought from Rome and Ravenna” (79). The fact that Charlemagne incorporated Roman building materials along with such intricate decoration shows that he appreciated the technological achievements of the men of the day. To employ what amounted to master craftsmen in goldsmiths and silversmiths to decorate the cathedral and sculptors to shape the marble columns, Charlemagne is not disregarding the human knowledgebase of the centuries past, but embracing and utilizing it. Certainly, if this time period were actually a dark age of human thought, one would only seek to create the basest structures.

Thirdly, Charlemagne’s treatment of the poor does not fall in line with the concept of the lower middle ages being a dark age. According to Einhard, “He [Charlemagne] was most active in relieving the poor and in that form of really disinterested charity which the Greeks call eleemosyna. He gave alms not only in his own country and in the kingdom over which he reigned, but also across the sea in Syria, Egypt, Africa, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage” (80). This early form of foreign aid certainly could not have existed in an age where intellectualism was merely an afterthought. This benevolent giving shines through as a sign that human thought was not dead, and barbarous actions, while prevalent, were not the only ones taking place at this time.

As the final piece of evidence from Einhard, one might look to Charlemagne’s revision of the Frankish legal code. According to Einhard, “Now that he [Charlemagne] was emperor, he discovered that there were many defects in the legal system of his own people, for the Franks have two separate codes of law which differ from each other in many points…[Charlemagne] collected together and committed to writing the laws of all the nations under his jurisdiction which still remained unrecorded” (81). For Charlemagne to care enough about uniformity to record all the laws and attempt to reconcile the discrepancies among them show that there was a great deal of thought put into the idea of fairness in the eyes of the law. While this project may not have been completed, the fact that it was attempted shows that intellectual thought was not dead at this



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