A Christian Eye on Politics

The Misleading Myth of the "Middle Ages"

Secular History's "Middle Ages" Misnomer

December 3rd-10th, 2016.

T he writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has recently made an interesting claim. In The Week magazine (source:, he refers to a view which I have long held, that is, that the period of history which we commonly call "the Middle Ages" is very badly named. He sees the term as a secularist, anti-theistic slant. How I agree!

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

Gobry writes this:

Today, we are told a very simple story about the grand sweep of European history. It goes something like this: There was once the Roman Empire, technologically advanced and sophisticated; after the Roman Empire fell, Europe fell into a millennium of darkness, poverty, and religious superstition; then came the Renaissance, when the West recovered the glories of Greco-Roman thought and science, and the wheel of progress started turning again, leading to the "Enlightenment" when philosophers threw off the fetters of irrational religion to advocate for free inquiry, human rights, and so on.

Gobry is correct in his assessment, historians like to lump Christianity together with superstition in general, viewing it all as sheer ignorance just waiting for the "renaissance," then the "enlightenment" to finally clear away some of the ignorance and superstition as man started to take confidence in his own talents and abilities, increasingly beginning to feel that he didn't need God. This, of course, is lop-sided and refuses to acknowledge the huge influence of Christianity, I have always thought this, now I appear to have an ally in Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Gobry writes this:

But I would like to make a modest proposal: Let's retire the phrase "Middle Ages." It's not just misleading and ideologically biased, it's also, on its own terms, entirely meaningless. We can do better.

The very expression "Middle Ages" speaks of an era "in-between," when essentially nothing interesting happened. But the Middle Ages was actually an enormously momentous and inventive era. Early Medieval innovations in agriculture such as the iron plow, water and wind milling, and the three-field system enabled Europe to break out of the Malthusian trap that Rome had been stuck in for centuries, empowering it to withstand invasions that had felled its supposedly advanced predecessors. Everything we commonly associate with the Renaissance and the early Modern era, such as international trade and its handmaid of capitalist finance, scientific tinkering, classical culture, and philosophical inquiry, was in fact already present in the Middle Ages.

As an alternative, I propose that we say that after Antiquity, begins Christendom, or the Christian period. For more than a thousand years, across what we now call the West, Christianity was recognized and (largely) accepted, if only in theory or in word in many cases, as the dominant organizing principle of metaphysical, political, social, and moral reality. As such, our start date for this era has to be 380, the date of the Edict of Thessalonica, where Emperor Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the State Church and only officially recognized religion of the Roman Empire.

Elsewhere in his article it is true that Gobry, as a Catholic, makes some statements which I would not wholly support, for example, he suggests that the Christian Age concluded in 1555 with 'the Peace of Augsburg,' this agreement sought to end continual strife between Catholics and Protestants. This started to greatly reduce the power of the Catholic Church, however, I think it's a far stronger view to say that Protestantism led to a further refining and purifying of Christian doctrine and that the Christian Age continued on long after then. The rise of Protestantism was about people wanting more of Christianity - not less! Though I think I can see why a Catholic might view it differently.

Gobry further suggests that we now live in "the Era of the State." The old city states have now gone, of course, today we have nations which are often large; I would therefore suggest that our present age might be more accurately called "the Age of Science and the Nation State." Both have their roots in the 'enlightenment,' of course (often dated to the period around 1750), Darwin arrived not long after that and the age of "science" could then really be said to be getting into full swing. This is where we now live. For myself, I think that the Christian Age concluded and 'the Age of Science and the Nation State' pretty much immediately took over from a Christian golden age circa 1750 or thereabouts. However, my use of the word "science" is partly sardonic since modern science has so much philosophy embedded within it. So science, originally established by Christian believers, at length became 'modern science,'and has sadly become an enterprise of agnostics and atheists.

So Gobry has written some excellent and really thought-provoking points though I would certainly take issue with his belief that the rise of Protestantism saw the end of the Christian Age. Nevertheless it is absolutely correct to say that the "Middle Ages" is really a very bad term and it is a term which is very biased against organised religion, especially Christianity. Yes, I must admit that I myself have used the term because one wants to be as clear as possible and using accepted generally terminologies assists this, but it is a bad and certainly inaccurate term. The usual slant in the use of this term suggests that nothing of any importance happened in the world and superstition held sway until the enlightenment, this cuts out the huge influence of Christianity and Christian thought in numerous areas of life including in the consideration of ethics and acceptable standards of conduct, in music, art, literature, architecture, yes, also in reducing ignorance and superstition in many areas of life. Far from being in the realm of superstition, Christianity always held a massive agenda to educate ordinary people. This is by far the most major thing which happened in the world during the period secularism loves to call "the middle ages" - moreover, it was an incredibly momentous and influential thing; we should openly acknowledge it! Why pretend it never happened?

I suggest that all of us who consider ourselves to be Christian writers should start to refuse to use the term 'Middle Ages' and be bold in substituting the term 'Christian Age' or 'Age of Christendom' for the period connecting antiquity to our modern age, or, to 'The Age of Science and the Nation State' which we now live in.

The Christian Hawk, December 3rd-10th, 2016.