The expression “dark ages” refers to the period of time after the fall of Rome in the fourth century A.D. until the resurgence of learning in Western Europe that started in about the eighth century. We call it “dark” because the light of learning that had been ignited by the Greeks and carried on by the Romans was all but extinguished.
Art, literature, and education were nearly eliminated in most parts of Western Europe. It was only with the later rise of the Carolingian empire that learning began to make a comeback.
During this time, as Thomas Cahill tells us in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, a few bands of medieval monks, sequestered in remote monasteries on the lonely cliffs and crags of Ireland, worked in obscurity, copying and recopying manuscripts. The manuscripts they copied out by hand included not only the Bible and their own biblical commentaries, but the great works of antiquity that had almost entirely disappeared from the outside world. They pursued their task with diligence and with little hope that their copies would ever be read or appreciated by anyone other than their fellow monks.
Late in the last two centuries of the first millennium, these works were rediscovered by the larger world and their recovery brought about a renaissance of learning.
Once rediscovered, medieval scholars took these works, many of them long forgotten to the West, and poured over them, trying to understand their implications for the way people think and act. Today, we know little about the monks who copied these manuscripts other than a few funny remarks scrawled in the margins: “Thank God, it will soon be dark.” We know much more about the later medieval doctors who discovered and read them, thought about them, and incorporated them in their own thinking—Peter Abelard, St. Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham—the fathers of education as we know it today.
It took a lot of work to stoke the smoldering embers of civilization. Our culture today seems to be entering a new dark age. While our time is marked by methods of communication that the cloistered monk could never have conceived, we have failed to use them to ensure the passing on of the accumulated learning of the Christian West. The past three or four generations of children know less and less of their history, their art, and their literature.
But the seeds of renewal are already being sown. The classical Christian education movement might seem small, but through it more and more educators are coming to understand the importance of teaching our children the tradition of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful that was once passed on to every new generation.
We, too, are preserving the embers of Western civilization and livening the fires of learning. Someday someone will write a book: How Classical Christian Education Saved Civilization.