The Zombie Dark Ages Myth
We can't defend the humanities or freedom to learn without better history
Last week, the story broke of a charter school principal forced to resign because she didn’t alert parents that an art history teacher — in a Renaissance art class — would be showing students a picture of Michelangelo’s famous nude sculpture of David.
There’s an interview over at Slate with that district’s School Board president that’s worth a read. He touts “Western Civilization” and reveals, as is true in most cases from people like him, that he doesn’t really know anything about European history and culture. He just likes saying “white history” without saying it.
There’s of course plenty to say here about this incident and the what it signifies for the role history plays in the ongoing American fascist attempt to control education. And many have indeed pointed out how absolutely ridiculous the School Board’s actions were. But one prominent vein of this defense is a bit problematic, relying upon a defense of the statue itself and a myth of the the “Dark Ages” and “Renaissance” that’s not only wrong, not only not helpful, but ultimately harmful.
Here’s Rick Steves, the legendary American travel writer, widely recognized as a great stylist, and someone whose impact over how people encounter the world cannot be underestimated. He tweeted:
But Rick, this isn’t, in fact, about the triumph of humanism over superstition. David is not about to walk out of the Dark Ages.
We obviously wrote a whole book about this (and were criticized by a few colleagues in medieval studies for wasting time, because “everyone knows” that there were no Dark Ages). But this is continuing evidence for the importance of this work, and particularly notable here is how spongy chronology works for people like Steves. His thread continues:
Certainly, the Inquisition can be understood as medieval, with its roots in the anti-heresy panic of the 13th century. But for generations, historians have made it clear - and yet no one still expects - that the Spanish Inquisition was an entirely different animal, created in different circumstances and serving different purposes than the papal inquisition that preceded it.
And this is important because the Spanish Inquisition, and indeed Titian, are not medieval, but more or less contemporary to Michelangelo. Notice how Steves insists that Europe has “long since moved on” even though this particular image by Titian was created 70 years after Michelangelo’s David!
How, then, can the hyper-modern 21st century takeover of education by American fascists be somehow regressive, be medieval?
And Steves continues to get his history wrong in the rest of his thread.
Savonarola and his book burning were in Florence in 1497, literally just a few years before “David stepped out of the Dark Ages.” Because the thing is that medievals burned books, yes. But burning books is also as much a part of the story of the Renaissance as the soaring beauty of David. One cannot be considered without the other.
This, perhaps, is the most significant problem with Steves’ eloquent and unfortunately popular view that medieval = bad (especially religious repression and violence) and modern = good (science and sexy naked old testament kings and goddesses). This view distorts the past into binaries and leaves us more ignorant of the past, rather than illuminating it.
As we’ve written before, fetishizing the so-called “Renaissance” is nostalgia, not history. It’s an attempt to over-simplify, to say that this one thing in the past connects directly to the present - a rainbow connection ignores the messiness of that time period (in this case, that Savanarola was burning books and that the Spanish Inquisition was in full effect at the same time Michelangelo was chiseling) in order to sell something.
But we need to tell that whole story and students need to hear that whole story to understand for real the genius of Michelangelo as well as the forces that were actively at work to stop that genius.
Excellent correction, sad to see Steves getting it so wrong.
Thought about y’all a lot as I watched this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Ages:_An_Age_of_Light
While your colleagues in medieval studies seem to think that "everyone knows" that there were no "Dark Ages" it is, unfortunately, a myth that continues to prevail in popular culture, including by people such as Rick Steves (shame on you Rick!). Your work actively dispels this myth and should have greater circulation.