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THE DARK AGES.
The Dark Ages and the Middle Ages—or the Middle Age—used to be the same; two names for the same period. But they have come to be distinguished, and the Dark Ages are now no more than the first part of the Middle Age, while the term mediæval is often restricted to the later centuries, about 1100 to 1500, the age of chivalry, the time between the first Crusade and the Renaissance. This was not the old view, and it does not agree with the proper meaning of the name. The Middle Age, however lax the interpretation might be, distinctly meant at first the time between ancient and modern civilisation. It was a large comprehensive name that covered everything between Romulus Augustulus and the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, or between Claudian and the revival of Learning; it might include any
thing in past history that was too late to be classical and not yet modern. “The Monks finished what the Goths begun” is Pope's summary of the matter : and again in the Prologue to Thomson's tragedy of Sophonisba (1730)—
“When Learning, after the long Gothic night,
Fair o'er the Western world renew'd his light,
Or, in other words, the darkness of the Dark Ages comes to an end about the time when Italian scholars reproduce the forms of classical poetry in their modern tongue. Trissino's Sophonisba, the first Italian tragedy in regular form, was an historical beacon marking the limit. Over the Gothic centuries the historian travels quickly till he comes to “at length Erasmus." It is all dark, and it is all “middle.” The biographer of Dryden's friend, Mr Walter Moyle, expresses the common opinion: “From Ann. Dom. 440 to 1440 was a long but dark Period of Time, and he aimed only to preserve a Thread of the History of that Middle Age.”
Goldsmith was heretical and original in his Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning (1759) when he ended his chapter on the Obscure Ages much earlier, and began the new world of polite learning with Dante, “who first followed Nature, and was persecuted by the critics as long as he lived.” Goldsmith also tried to correct the ordinary opinions about the want of learning in the Obscure Ages. “The most barbarous times had men of learning, if commentators, compilers, polemic divines, and intricate metaphysicians deserve the title.” But GoldSmith does not recognise what has now come to be the commonplace arrangement among most historians, separating the Dark Ages from the “Mediaeval Period properly so called,” which is really improperly so called, by a rather violent wresting of the term “mediaeval.” The old division was much more logical, a consistent and definite refusal to see anything worth the attention of a scholar in the period between the fifth and the fifteenth century. All was “Gothic,” all was “Dark”; “dans la cloaque des siècles caligineux et dans la Sentine des nations apedeftes,” as it is expressed with unusual levity by the poet Chapelain, in his most honourable defence of Lancelot and the old romances. This old reckoning of “the long night of the Middle Ages,” which Goldsmith had begun to criticise, is preserved in full force by one modern historian, in terms that express a very distinct opinion, not merely a traditional commonplace: “The GraecoRoman world had descended into the great hollow which is roughly called the Middle Ages, extending from the fifth to the fifteenth century, a hollow in which many great, beautiful, and heroic things were done and created, but in which knowledge, as we understand it, and as Aristotle understood it, had no place. The revival of learning and the Renaissance are memorable as the first sturdy breasting by humanity of the hither slope of the great hollow which lies between us and the ancient world. The