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The Confederate Lawyer
June 29, 2011

The “Dark Ages” That Never Were
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — Most people believe that when Rome fell to the barbarians in 476 A.D., cultural darkness descended on Europe and lasted at least until the time of Charlemagne, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. They also believe that what culture existed during those “Dark Ages” was confined to monasteries. All of this is untrue. Scholarship continued. Modern poetry gradually emerged. Scholars moved freely among monasteries, royal courts, and episcopal courts.

The generation before the fall of Rome was that of Saint Augustine (354-430), Saint Jerome (347-420), Saint John Cassian (360-436), and the historian Sulpicius Severus (363-426). The generation before that was that of Saint Ambrose (d. 397) and the poet Prudentius (348-c. 405). It hardly seems likely that these great men would be followed almost immediately by the disappearance of culture; in fact, no such disappearance occurred.

One common myth is that Europe lost knowledge of the works of Aristotle during the “Dark Ages.” Actually, Anicius Manilus Severinus Boethius (480-524) translated a number of Aristotle’s works into Latin, and these translations were well known. In the Middle Ages, there was a cult of Boethius as a saint, but today the Church has approved that cult only in the Diocese of Pavia. Boethius was a statesman at the court of the emperor Theodoric, who eventually had him killed. Scholars throughout the Middle Ages relied on his books on theology, philosophy, mathematics, logic, and music -- as well as his translations of Aristotle and Euclid.

The 50 years after the fall of Rome certainly were not dark in any sense of the word.

Boethius was also a poet. His poetry was classical and sophisticated Latin poetry, but there is at least one hint of something new. In his poem about Orpheus and Eurydice, he wrote:

“Heu notis prope terminus
Orpheus Eurydicen suam
Vidit, perdidir. occidit.”

The last three words of this stanza rhyme, although rhyme was not an element of classical Latin or Greek poetry.

Three years before Boethius died, Saint Columba (521-597) was born. He wrote a “Dies Irae” similar in poetic techniques to the famous later medieval one. It contained a primitive attempt at rhyming in which the final vowel and letter of each part of the couplets matched. The entire final syllable, however, did not match for the most part.

A contemporary of Saint Columba was Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-c.603). He and Saint Radegunde exchanged poems about each other, and both men were friends of the historian Gregory, Bishop of Tours. Venantius had earlier been at court writing poetry for the royal family. He joined the clergy, entered the abbey that Radegunde had founded at Poitiers, and eventually became Bishop of Poitiers. Some of his poetry was religious, but much of it was secular; he wrote about such topics as love, flowers, and classical antiquity.

There is as manuscript poem from the generation after Saint Columba and Venantius Fortunatus, sometimes (probably incorrectly) attributed to Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmsbury (675-705) and Bishop of Sherborne (705-709). There are a number of true rhymes in this poem and a few near-rhymes like those of Saint Columba. The rhyme is almost completely developed in this poem. At this point it can be fairly said that the “Dark Ages” had developed a crucial part of the poetry of a millennium and one of the greatest developments in literary history -- rhyming poetry.

Alcuin (735-804) lived in the last generation before the emergence of the Carolingian empire. For many years, he was the librarian of York Cathedral and a teacher. From 785-796, he was in charge of education at the court of Charlemagne in Aachen. His most famous poetry was secular (a lament for a cuckoo and one for a nightingale, and a poem on the conflict between spring and winter). But some of his poetry was liturgical (“A Sequence for Saint Michael”) and spiritual (his own epitaph).

Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in Saint Peter’s Basilica in 800, bringing an end to the “Dark Ages” as most narrowly defined. The centuries preceding his coronation were the age of Gregory the Great and the Venerable Bede. They were also the age of generations of poets who moved freely among monastery and cathedral and royal court. These poets created a poetic age that gave us the rhyme as well as more flexible meter patterns than antiquity. They knew or read each other’s works. This was far more an age of enlightenment than one of darkness.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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