So there are a lot of people who say that the Dark Ages, lasting about 1,000 years, set humans back technologically.

However, some say that since the Dark Ages really only affected Western Europe, and not the Middle East or Asia, it wouldn't make a difference.

Is there research to backup either claim?

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    The "what if" parts of the question are somewhat off-topic, they invite too much speculation. I'd focus the question on investigating the claim that there was no significant technological progress happening in the dark ages in europe.
    – Mad Scientist
    May 4, 2011 at 18:26
  • Even if that was true, @Fabian, the Moors did make significant advances that we eventually inherited, for example in mathematics...
    – Sklivvz
    May 4, 2011 at 19:25
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    Another problem that makes this question vague is that it is impossible to know what knowledge was lost in the dark ages, because otherwise it wouldn't have been lost...
    – Lagerbaer
    May 4, 2011 at 19:33
  • @James:Can you define 'us' and 'we'?
    – apoorv020
    May 6, 2011 at 10:39
  • @Lagerbaer: Actually, some knowledge has been recovered from palimpsests and the like, and some was preserved by Arabs and others. It's all complicated, and from what I've seen there was plenty of progress in technology in Europe. May 7, 2011 at 18:54

2 Answers 2


The 'Dark Ages' (used here to describe approximately a thousand years following the fall of the Roman Empire) is a huge misnomer. It's often thought of as a time of stagnation between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, but in actual fact it was a time of rapid technological progress. The later period was particularly rapid. From Wikipedia:

During the 12th and 13th century in Europe, there was a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the invention of cannon, spectacles, and artesian wells, and the cross-cultural introduction of gunpowder, silk, the compass, and the astrolabe from the east. One major agricultural innovation during this period was the development of a 3-field rotation system for planting crops (as opposed the 2-field system that was being used). Further, the development of the heavy plow allowed for a rise in communal agriculture as most individuals could not afford to do it by themselves. As a result, medieval villages had formed a type of collective ownership and communal agriculture where the use of horses allowed villages to grow.

Other inventions made during the Middle Ages included: the clock, the windmill,horseshoes, the rudder, and various navigation instruments. Some of them are adoptions from other places, such as Arabic numerals.

So Western Europe was unquestionably more advanced in the 15th Century than it was in the 5th Century. Elsewhere in the world, where progress was continuous and just as rapid, there isn't even a question. We can safely say that the fall of the Roman Empire had minimal effect on technological progress in China and India.

Would Western Europe have been even more advanced if Rome hadn't fallen? That's more difficult. Rome was in many ways hidebound and bureaucratic. The renowned "Roman roads", for example, were specifically designed to move troops and were not suitable for Medieval waggons, meaning that traders preferred to use other routes, even when the Roman roads were still in good repair. It's possible that a continued Roman Empire would have progressed as rapidly as the 'Dark Ages' in fact did, and starting from a more advanced base reached further - but it's also possible that they wouldn't.

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    What about the time between the 5th century BC (perhaps even before) and ca. the 12th? History lessons gave the distinct impression that “not much interesting happened” in that time. Like, at all. A few dynasties rose and fell. But almost no technological progress. And even the sociopolitical progress was slow, if I remember correctly. Of course, that’s completely unsubstantiated but it fed my personal impression that the “dark ages” (even if the time frame is a bit skewed) is an apt description, and the teachers actually said as much. May 4, 2011 at 21:25
  • 5th C BC to 5th C AD, in Europe, was dominated by the Greek and Roman empires. Most of Europe went from very primitive societies to sophisticated Roman society. May 5, 2011 at 14:40
  • @DJClayworth This is after the fall both of the Greek and (Western) Roman empire … May 5, 2011 at 14:45
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    You wrote 5th century BC. I'll assume you meant 5th C AD. May 5, 2011 at 16:59
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    And I have to admit I don't really know the answer to the question about 5thC AD-12thC AD. May 27, 2011 at 1:21

No, your question reminds me of everything they taught in public school which I unlearned when I started to read Chesterton. Here's his answer, from Orthodoxy. Quoted from this website

...the idea that Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations.

If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.

It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived under the load of waters; after being buried under the debris of dynasties and clans, we arose and remembered Rome.

If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag.

But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new. She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch.

In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.

Suffice it to say, all the Christian institutions which do so much good in the world today, arose in the 'dark ages' and are the firmament which western civilization is built and without which, western civilization would not be possible.

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    Your answer subtly answers a different question. The question is not: Did Christinaity arise in the Dark ages; the question is: During what is called the dark ages, Christianity was a dominant power; did this have a stifling effect on scientific advancement? This is a different question.
    – Lagerbaer
    Jun 2, 2011 at 4:44
  • I'm not sure the question whether or not Christianity arose in the dark ages is a question one can be sceptical about. You might as well give me the benefit of the doubt. The cause of the darkness is not Christianity, but the fall of Rome. And as St. Augustine points out, the cause of the fall of Rome is not Christianity, but Rome itself. So my (and Chesterton's) answer is that, without the Christianity loosely knitting together the Holy Roman Empire, there would be no western civilization. Maybe the real question a sceptic should ask is 'is western civ really all that great?' Jun 2, 2011 at 13:56
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    The original question doesn't appear to contain any reference to Christianity. Jun 3, 2011 at 13:17
  • @DJ Dark Ages = Height of Medieval Christendom, you disagree? Jun 3, 2011 at 13:26
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    Dark Ages=Medieval, so the height of "Medieval Christianity" is bound to be in the "Dark Ages". As I said, if someone wants to ask the question about "the church stifling progress" I'll be happy to answer. Jun 6, 2011 at 21:04

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