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the Dark Ages

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« on: February 19, 2007, 12:32:02 am »

Petrarch and the "Dark Ages"


 
"Triumph of Christianity" by Tommaso Laureti (1530-1602), ceiling painting in the Sala di Constantino, Vatican Palace. Images like this one celebrate the destruction of ancient pagan culture and the victory of Christianity. See also iconoclasmIt is generally accepted that the concept was created by Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of those who had come before him, he said that "amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius, no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom"[1]. Christian writers had traditional metaphors of "light versus darkness" to describe "good versus evil." Petrarch was the first to co-opt the metaphor and give it secular meaning by reversing its application. Classical Antiquity, so long considered the "dark age" for its lack of Christianity, was now seen by Petrarch as the age of "light" because of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch's time, lacking such cultural achievements, was now seen as the age of darkness.

Why did Petrarch call it an age of darkness? An Italian, Petrarch saw the Roman Empire and the classical period as expressions of Italian greatness.[2]. He spent much of his time traveling through Europe rediscovering and republishing the classic Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the classical Latin language to its former purity. Humanists saw the preceding 900-year period as a time of stagnation. They saw history unfolding not along the religious outline of St. Augustine's Six Ages of the World, but in cultural (or secular) terms, through the progressive developments of Classical ideals, literature and art.

Petrarch wrote that history had had two periods: the Classic period of the Romans and Greeks, followed by a time of darkness, in which he saw himself as still living. Humanists believed one day the Roman Empire would rise again and restore Classic cultural purity. The concept of the European Dark Ages thus began as an ideological campaign by humanists to promote Classical culture, and was therefore not a neutral historical analysis. It was invented to express disapproval of one period in time, and the promotion of another.

By the late 14th and early 15th century, humanists such as Leonardo Bruni believed they had attained this new age, and a third, Modern Age had begun. The age before their own, which Petrarch had labeled "Dark," had thus become a "Middle" Age between the Classic and the Modern. The first use of the term "Middle Age" appears with Flavio Biondo around 1439.
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