In 1980, famed astronomer Carl Sagan released ‘Cosmos,’ a book designed to guide the reader through the entwined history of science and civilization. Despite its stated goal, however, ‘Cosmos’ rejected an entire era of human progress as a “millennium gap … a poignant lost opportunity for the human species.” This interval was AD 415 to AD 1500, the entirety of the Middle Ages. The “millennium gap” myth has a long history; the very name of the period—The “Middle” Ages—implies it is nothing more than a gap between the glories of Rome and ingenuity of the Renaissance.
This myth was perfected, weaponized, and widely disseminated by Revolution-era French philosophers. Bitterly anti-Catholic, these philosophers sought to link the rise of Christianity to the decline of society and science. To Voltaire, the Medieval Period was “A time when barbarism, superstition, and ignorance covered the whole face of the world.” For Rousseau, it was a time when “Europe had fallen back into the barbarity of the first ages… a state worse than ignorance.”
Today, academia has moved on from this simplified, politicized view. But the millennium gap myth continues to control common conceptions and vocabulary surrounding the Middle Ages—to the detriment of us all. Scholarly consensus can scarcely make a dent in the “Monty Python,” entertainment-driven image of the Middle Ages, where witless peasants wallow in filthy, disease-infested huts. This image is reinforced by internet culture, where accidental medieval misinformation is memified and travels at unprecedented speeds. The result? A monolithic, unified picture of “medieval times,” less a historical period, and more a soupy collection of imagery and themes—knights, castles, and the plague. This medieval stew indiscriminately mixes periods and countries, removing any conception of advancement or evolution between the 400s and 1400s and rejecting any diversity of thought or culture.
The Medieval Myth may be a source of consternation for historians, but why, beyond the generic “pursuit of truth,” ought it to matter to society at large? Historical imagery can be a dangerous thing, especially when it is as broadly appealing as that of the Middle Ages. Too often, a skeleton of modern political ideas is outfitted with medieval trappings to give them an air of “authenticity.” The Middle Ages are reduced to a tool with which to elucidate personal opinions on race, gender, nationality, and most commonly, religion.
Here’s an extreme example: In 2020, a shooter in New Zealand killed 51 people in a mosque. What inspired him? His manifesto, which quoted Pope Urban I, and the Crusader references written over his gun make it clear—a racialized, glorified, twisted interpretation of the Crusades. So, on the far Right, we get the glorified myth of European superiority and conquest. But the far Left is not exempt either; a fictional image of the Middle Ages makes it appear that “Europeans have always been oppressors,” and that “Western culture is built on barbarism and bloodshed.” If the Middle Ages remain the “Dark Ages,” we can imagine anything we want in the darkness, shining a narrow beam of light onto whatever figures and events best fit our modern views.
It is of particular importance that Christians reject this myth. In Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he argues that after the Fall of Rome came “the triumph of barbarity and religion,” equating religion and primitiveness. In the Medieval myth, the decline of civilization is intrinsically tied to the rise of the church. Science and Religion are eternally in conflict, an idea that, unfortunately, many religious people today seem to partially accept. Who has not heard Christians apologizing for the Church’s anti-intellectualism, swearing that “Christianity is different now?” The medieval monastic intellectual tradition, of little use to politicians or radicals, is obscured, to the detriment of all Christians.
In rhetoric, the Classical Christian educational philosophy recognizes the value of the Medieval period. In practice, however, its courses often present a narrow slice of ideological history— the “greatest hits” of Augustine and Aquinas, perhaps with a few Cantos of Dante along the way—detached from all context. The deep roots of the rejection of the Middle Ages has led to an inherent paucity of teaching materials and integration of Medieval history, literature, and philosophy into curricula.
For far too long, historians and the populace have disregarded the Middle Ages, and in doing so, disregarded the foundation of much of modern Western politics, culture, technology, science, art, and religion. Christians, and all who respect political honesty and historical truth, should strive to learn more about the period, change their vocabulary and assumptions surrounding it, and look for opportunities to respectfully educate others. It’s past time to disregard the stigmas of the past and open our eyes to the light of the “Dark Ages.”