Notre Dame: "Dark" Architecture from a "Dark" Age
Now that we’ve dispensed with the mythical images of the Barbarian-Knight and Scientist-Martyr, we can actually start to look at the Middle Ages.
Let’s start with technology. In the Middle Ages, the plow, advanced crop rotation, the horseshoe, the draft horse, the harness led Europe to the first Green Revolution, making European lower classes the best fed in the history of the world. Written music, the wagon brake (very useful on hills), and the flexible front wagon axle (which helps a lot with wagon turning), and the stern-mounted rudder were all medieval inventions.
Military technology made great strides. The crossbow was invented (which was so deadly, there was a time when one could be excommunicated for using it). And, as I have previously alluded to the knight came about, and he became legendary partly because of his technology. Improvements in genetics (animal husbandry) led to monstrous 1200 lb horses which could bear armored knights on a full charge. The high-backed saddle and the stirrup were developed, allowing the full force of charging horse and rider to be projected through a spear-point. The knight was a powerful new thing on the battlefield. It was like the introduction of tanks to warfare. What could be done against a thundering horse and rider, spear advanced out in front? Even the previous style of cavalry, with light armor, a shorter horse, no ability to use a spear or lance, and no ability to use get leverage in swinging a weapon, had no chance against these new knights. An infantryman could barely even reach a vital part of his enemy, let alone do any damage.
How about architecture? The Renaissance may be aptly named as it was a re-awakening, a new breath in dead things. Dead Greeks and Romans were dug up and their works mimicked. But in the Middle Ages, something truly New was made. One can critique Gothic architecture, but one cannot say that it was simply a copy of Roman architecture; it was something wholly new. Notre Dame, if you have ever been there, is an incredible testament to the Word made stone; it is an expression of Christian thought and soul of the age. The work of building a Cathedral itself was infused with the great philosophy of the age. Consider the description by GK Chesterton:
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support; every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced.They were not, like the terrible splendor of the pyramids, built for the great name of one man by many nameless slaves. Nor were they, like the efficient power of a skyscraper, built for the profit of a corporation by wage slaves. They were built by freemen, artisans, working together but individually for the glory of God. Each gargoyle was the individual work of an individual artist, not the prescribed plan of another, or the artless repetition in a pattern. Each gargoyle has a story, as each man has a story, as the universe and everything in it has a story. The theology of the Medievals was so vivacious, it grew up into a tree of stone with leaves of stained glass.
So the Middle Ages were an age of innovation and great leaps forward in art and architecture, in technology and teaching. But perhaps the greatest inventions of the Middle Ages were innovations that allowed for innovation: the Printing Press in the Fifteenth Century and the University in the Thirteenth Century. When books were made cheap, when knowledge became available, it accelerated the process of learning. It allowed the learned class to be larger than those few monks who could live near hand-copied libraries. And the University became an institution that remains to this day, committed to the idea that there was One Truth that could be known. These institutions were differentiated in being separate from the existing hierarchy; while students were still legally considered ‘clergy’, the University began to allow for more freedom in thinking and pursuing the Truth. These two things, the Printing Press and the University, set the stage for the explosion in knowledge and understanding that would come towards the end of the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the Modern era: the Scientific Revolution.
Far from being a time of darkness, the Middle Ages were a time of great leaps forward in technology, in art, and perhaps most importantly, in catalyzing the acquisition and distribution of knowledge. But the term “Dark Ages” is sometimes directed at the Philosophy of the age: darkened by the dark theology, by morbid restrictions on thinking, by a focus on un-thinking Biblical literalism. But is this truly the character, or is the Dark Philosophy as fictitious as the Barbarian-Knight?
Chesterton, GK. "Orthodoxy" http://www.freefictionbooks.org/books/o/11814-orthodoxy-by-g-k-chesterton?start=54