A thousand years ago, our forebears were said to have lived in a “Dark Age.” They themselves did not think it was dark, and they were only half wrong…
All those years ago. Some say that a new Dark Age is at hand. They may be right, of course, for history displays a succession of dark ages and bright, and we have enjoyed nearly a millennium of brightness, give or take, which is bound to fade some time. If the prophets of despair speak sooth, we might do well to look back to the last Dark Age, which beclouded Europe from the fall of Rome, whenever that exactly was, to the beginning of the brilliant Middle Age in, more or less, the eleventh century. Let us then, fix our gaze on the sate of western Europe around A.D. 1000, a convenient thousand years ago. The Year 1 K. What was our world like? And what were its inhabitants, the forefathers of most of us, like?
Look first to the east, to the Russian steppes. There the Slavs dwelt, and thence they pushed ever westward. They are still pushing. Their flourishing towns, Kiev and Novgorod, rivaled the best in western Europe. The Bulgarians moved into their Bulgaria. The Poles thrust out of Russia to their present home. There, in 966, their duke, Mieszko, was baptised a Roman Catholic, and all his people, by order, were converted overnight.
The Hungarians, a people from beyond the Urals, appeared in the West at the end of the ninth century. They ravaged and looted as far as Burgundy; but, defeated by the German Otto the Great in 955, they settled down in their new homeland and became peaceful farmers and devout Roman Catholics. Their was the last serious barbarian invasion of Europe, for the rampaging fourteenth-century Turks were hardly barbarians. Henceforth, the barbarous foe was to come not from beyond eastern borders, but from underneath.
Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Empire, a centralized state with an efficient standing army, a competent bureaucracy, subsidized schools and hospitals, a sophisticated art and literature fostered by the Orthodox Eastern Church. A Western envoy to Constantinople in 949 was bedazzled by the emperor, richly jeweled, sitting on a golden throne beside a bronze tree with twittering bronze-gilt birds. He was guarded by gigantic lions, lashing their tails and roaring; and at a signal his throne could be elevated on high like a garage greasing-rack.
Islam ruled from India to Spain. It long threatened the whole Western world, but by the tenth century it lost its expansive impetus and settled down to the enjoyment of its culture, to gracious living. In Spain, under the Omiad dynasty, living could be gracious indeed. The land, scientifically irrigated, bloomed gardenlike, yielding rice, sugar cane, cotton, citrus fruits, as well as wheat and olives. Innumerable workshops produced arms, leather and silk goods, carpets, textiles, and pottery for export as far as China. The capital, Cordoba, boasted a half-million population, seven hundred mosques, many Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, three hundred public baths, a 400,000-volume library, and a university with curriculums in mathematics, astronomy, theology,philosophy, medicine, and law, when they were yet no universities in Latin Christendom.