And yet the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the intellectual engines which created the modern world and still chug along powering almost every debate, every advance, every technological development in the headlines today, did not happen in a vacuum.
The peoples of Europe, along with their hugely diverse political, economic, intellectual, biological, religious and technological systems, were under constant and sustained assault throughout this period, shaping the foundation and creating the circumstances - just the right circumstances - under which the Renaissance could blossom.
The earliest and perhaps most sustained assault (from 661AD to 1648) came from the south, southeast, and southwest as the advance guards out of Arabia, filled with the zeal of a new religion, pushed the highwater mark of Islam through Iberia into southern France. At Poitiers in 732, Charles the Hammer turned this tide; securing France and marking the 800 year effort to reclaim Iberia, the Reconquest. The year 1492 marked not only the (second re-)discovery of North America by Europeans but also the final expulsion of the last Arabs from their long hold-out in Granada in modern day Spain. The Conquistadors, the conquerors, were so named for their conquest of North America, but they were available for battles and discoveries in the Americas because they had just completed their conquest of the Arab invaders in Iberia.
In the south, Sicily and Southern Italy also fell to the new invaders from Arabia.
In the Balkans in the southeast, the tide rose the highest and stayed the longest with the armies of the Mehmet IV of the Ottoman Empire knocking at the gates of Vienna as late as 1683. The tragedies of the Balkans in the past fifteen years: Srebrenica, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and most emblematically, Kosovo are all the most recent echoes of this titanic collision of cultures.
In addition to this initial threat from Islam, out of the east came recurring waves of barbarians: Allans, Goths, Magyars, Slavs, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alamanni, Huns, Mongols, etc.
From the north from the 700's onwards, for two hundred years or so, came annual traders and raiders, the feared Norsemen/Vikings whose epic travels and conquests took them west to the Americas (the first European born in North America was not Virginia Dare in 1587 but rather Snorri Karlsefni in Newfoundland just after 1000AD), east into what is now Russia and south into Ireland, Scotland, England, Poland, and France. The traders made it even further afield, even establishing a known presence in the Golden Horn at the heart of Byzantium (in what is now Istanbul.)
This continual assault from all sides drove an array of developments in the science and sociology of warfare: defensive engineering, siegecraft, naval warfare tactics and strategies, military discipline, a code of martial honor and respect, basic concepts of logistics and supplies, the capacity to harness societal resources on short and unpredictable notice, a perspective of "us-versus-them" as well as an ethos of collective and communal service obligations which uneasily but crucially overlay a prickly sense of individualism in many European cultures.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman empire in 500 under the weight of the early waves of barbarian invasions, there were only fragments of the Empire; tattered, lost and isolated sons and daughters of a magnificent achievement - London, York, Aachen, Paris, Cologne - dwindling and ever more isolated, drifting back into subsistence and short brutish lives, some disappearing forever.
From 700AD or so onwards, the populations of Europe began to recover despite continued warfare and disease. In fact, population continued to rise through the millennium when it stabilized at a sustained concentration for the next 200-300 hundred years. Wealth, while massively concentrated among a select minority to a degree we struggle to comprehend, continued to grow - first by extending agricultural production to more marginal lands long since abandoned and later through trading.
One of the attributes of this period that I do no see much discussed, and which has little counterpart in most other regions of the world, is the singular and continuing outward expansion of traders and merchants (and settlers.) The Norsemen settled Iceland, then Greenland and famously, but only briefly, L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Though the latter settlement lasted less than a decade, Greenlander traders, loggers and fishermen kept returning to North America for another couple of hundred years.
Genoan and Venetian trading communities lay scattered not only across the Mediterranean, but along the coast of the Black Sea, the Crimea, and the Middle East. The most famous, but certainly not the singular, representative of this band of traders was Marco Polo who adventured to the far and magnificent ends of the earth.
There is a whole story to be told, and which is beyond the scope of this essay, about the political developments in these "Dark Ages", the most critical of which would be that famous meeting in 1215 in the meadows at Runnymede (the signing of the Magna Carta) when an old order of assumed rule by inherent right began to change into a broader polity where more and more members of society were assumed to have an inalienable right to participate in their own governance.
Following all this political turmoil came, in 1348, the first wave of what became known as the Black Death, a plague out of Asia, far deadlier and more extensive than any of the other diseases that had come before, scything its way along the trade routes, killing in its first purge, 25-50% of the population. Subsequent recurrences over the next several decades continued to exact a terrible toll. In some areas and towns, the mortality rate reached as high as 90%.
As calamitous and devastating as this was, the historian David Herlihy, sees the Black Death as a catalytic event that set Europe on to a new path of development and expansion with consequences that affected the whole rest of the world. The plague had two related but distinct consequences in Europe: a shift in power between the laborer and capital holders and because of that a far greater emphasis on technological development.
The massive depopulation meant that the balance among the three factors of productivity (land, labor, and capital) suddenly and markedly shifted in favor of labor. The lowest orders of social and economic society were especially hard hit by the plague. After the first wave of plague, fields were left unplowed, herds untended, work uncompleted simply from the absence of labor. There was no-one available to do what needed to be done. As with anything scarce, the cost of labor - wages - began to rise for the first time in centuries. This, in turn, provided a huge incentive and impetus for merchants, manufactures, and producers to examine how they produced things in order to identify how they could produce the same amounts as before, but with less labor. The boulder of technological development started rolling as a consequence of the Black Death. It is in this period, the late 1300s and the 1400s, that some of the earliest examples of "advanced technologies" made their appearance. Things like new ship designs requiring smaller crews, the printing press which obviated the need for individual scribes, etc.
Unlike other societies and groups that fall apart as a consequence of new diseases, the European nations bounced back within a hundred years; populations growing again, trading and settlements expanding and this time equipped with a vast range of new technologies. By the 1500s, Europe, as a consequence of centuries of biological and military assault, and as a consequence of sustained economic, technological and political evolution, was primed to engage with the world in a whole different fashion from earlier periods.
In 1000AD Europeans (Greenlanders) showed up on the shores of North America and immediately clashed with the native "Skraelings". Despite their best efforts and desire to exploit the new lands, between the climate and the hostile reception of the native peoples, the Greenlanders ended up retreating and abandoning their toe-hold on the new and unrecognized continent. Five centuries later the outcome was different.
In 1492 when they returned to the New World, the Europeans again quickly ended up clashing with the native people but this time, they came equipped with a range of technologies missing half a millennium prior. These technologies (guns, military discipline, sailing vessels, iron weapons, etc.), along with the basket of pathogens brought with them, made all the difference between the outcomes of the two encounters between Old World and New.
So yes, the Middle Ages, 500AD to 1500AD, were in many ways a Dark Age, but they were by no means an inconsequential Age. In the early days of children's literature the history and stories of the Middle Ages were extensively mined for stories to educate, instruct and serve as examples of right-behavior.
El Cid, the Icelandic Sagas, and the Niebelung Lied are obvious examples but also the stories of Alfred the Great, Robert the Bruce, King Canute, Barbarosa, and Charlemagne. What a wonderful treasure trove of stories there are - the names alone providing an irresistible trail of crumbs of interest; Pippin the Short, Charles the Hammer, Red Beard, Ethelred the Unready, Eirik Bloodaxe, Magnus Barefoot, and on and on.
This early fashion has seemed, sadly, to be in abeyance for many decades - perhaps at the risk of losing those lessons that have carried us so far. Why is this? Part of it is undoubtedly that fewer and fewer people receive anything approaching a classical education and therefore this is simply a smaller pool of knowledge and familiarity from which to draw. I can think of no equivalents of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at work today. Part of the explanation is the increasing diversity of America beyond its complex and diverse history out of Europe. The desire to incorporate stories of Native Americans, Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans into our childhood pantheon is a respectable one but as always, it is difficult to control the pendulum - it never balances on a happy medium but swings too far one way and then another.
Below are a host of books attempting to rescue that missing millennium from oblivion and from national consciousness. We hope that your children will find many stories to entertain and as critically to learn from. Let us know which stories you have enjoyed.
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Highly Recommended
Dick Whittington and His Cat by Marcia Brown Recommeneded
Chanticleer and the Fox by Geoffrey Chaucer and Barbara Cooney Recommended
Joan of Arc by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Robert Rayevsky Recommended
Ivanhoe by Marianne Mayer & Walter Scott and illustrated by A. John Rush Recommended
Saladin by Diane Stanley Recommended
A Medieval Feast by Aliki Suggested
Crispin by Avi Highly Recommended
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray and illustrated by Robert Lawson Highly Recommended
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Geraldine McCaughrean
The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland Recommended
The Adventures of Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by Walter Crane Recommended
Castle by David MacAulay Recommended
Cathedral by David MacAulay Recommended
Joan of Arc by Josephine Poole and illustrated by Angela Barrett Recommended
Men of Iron by Howard Pyle Recommended
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle and illustrated by Scott McKowen Recommended
Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle Recommended
The White Stag by Kate Seredy Recommended
Beowulf the Warrior by Ian Serraillier and illustrated by Severin Recommended
Rowan Hood by Nancy Springer Recommended
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart Recommended
The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff Recommended
The Shining Company by Rosemary Sutcliff Recommended
The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Recommended
The Kingfisher Atlas of the Medieval World by Simon Adams Suggested
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander Suggested
The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander Suggested
The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander Suggested
Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander Suggested
The High King by Lloyd Alexander Suggested
The Story of Siegfried by James Baldwin Suggested
Fire, Bed, And Bone by Henrietta Branford Suggested
Beyond the Myth by Polly Schoyer Brooks Suggested
The Apple and the Arrow by Conrad Buff and Mary Buff
The Book of the Lion by Michael Cadnum Suggested
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer & Barbara Cohen Suggested
The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman Suggested
Francis by Tomie dePaola Suggested
The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer Suggested
The Adventures of Marco Polo by Russell Freedman and Linas Alsenas and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline Suggested
Peregrine by Joan Elizabeth Goodman Suggested
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric Philbrook Kelly Suggested
Eyewitness Viking by Susan M. Margeson Suggested
The Knight at Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Sal Murdocca Suggested
Robin Hood by Neil Philip and illustrated by Nick Harris
Castle Diary by Richard Platt and illustrated by Chris Riddell Suggested
The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo Suggested
The Customs of the Kingdoms of India by Marco Polo and Ronald Latham Suggested
The Story Of King Arthur And His Knights by Howard Pyle and illustrated by Scott McKowen Suggested
Viking It and Liking It by Jon Scieszka and illustrated Adam McCauley Suggested
Lionclaw by Nancy Springer Suggested
Outlaw Princess of Sherwood by Nancy Springer Suggested
The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart Suggested
The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart Suggested
The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart Suggested
Sword Song by Rosemary Sutcliff Suggested
Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris
Distant Mirror by Barbara Wertheim Tuchman Highly Recommended
The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White and illustrated by Dennis Nolan Highly Recommended
The Fires of Merlin by T. A. Barron Recommended
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks Recommended
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill Recommended
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Recommended
The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger
King Arthur by Andrew Lang and illustrated by H. J. Ford
A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester Recommended
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott Recommended
The Once and Future King by T. H. White Recommended
The Lost Years of Merlin by T. A. Barron Suggested
Queen Eleanor by Polly Schoyer Brooks Suggested
1215 by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham Recommended
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Suggested
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe Suggested
The Quest for El Cid by Richard A. Fletcher Suggested
Peregrine by Joan Elizabeth Goodman Suggested
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg Suggested
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli Suggested
Medieval People by Eileen Power Suggested
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court by Mark Twain and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Suggested
The Book of Merlyn by T. H. White Suggested