Of all the grand historical narratives that have recently entered the political realm, the myth of medieval European “backwardness” and concurrent Islamic “progress” is perhaps the most egregious. The popular view of the Middle Ages holds that it was an era of immense suffering, religious fanaticism, oppression, and a time of cultural “backsliding”, in that European society lost the virtues and advancements of Greek and Roman civilization. At best this is a misconception, and at worst it is a lie upheld for political purposes.
Broadly, our concept of the past has always been in flux, changing alongside contemporary ideas and influences. In some ways, the academic study of history is nothing but present-day politics applied to past events; historians and politicians alike take our ancestors and cram them into modern moral frameworks, hoping to advance whatever idea to which they are subscribed. Most often this involves the omission of contradictory information, but in some cases it’s constructive – with the so-called Dark Ages, ideologues have built up a historical framework from pure subversion, aiming to create a founding mythos for postmodern materialist democracy. In fact, the “dark ages” interpretation is so counterfactual that it’s dying in the scholarly world, even with its strong left-wing dogma.
Despite this, it remains at the forefront of modern political discourse. Further, the image of medieval Europe as dark, grimy, and barbaric is cemented in the cultural milieu through media depictions of the era. The notion is used in the West as a potent weapon to advance rootlessness, self-hatred, cultural decay, and moral relativism. In particular, the notion that European culture, scholarship, and technology was suppressed by the Church is treated as fact and used as a cudgel against Christianity and Western culture.
But it’s simply untrue.
No foundation built on such blatant lies can last, and it is only the study of facts that can dispel weaponized slants about the past. So, let us examine the so-called “Dark Ages”, and give the era an unbiased treatment, for which it is long overdue.
The myth of the “Christian Dark Ages” is not a new one. In fact, the term’s first usage was during what is now thought of as the Dark Ages: in the early 14th century, Petrarch used the term to characterize scholarship in the post-Roman era. However, his usage of the terms “darkness” and “light” was far different from the modern connotation of peaceful, democratic progress vs. anti-intellectualism, barbarism, and decay. Rather, Petrarch used the traditional good-vs.-evil connotations of light and darkness to criticize the hubris of his age, and to oppose a contemporary form of historical revisionism – the notion that Greece and Rome were “dark” and therefore wicked due to their paganism. Rather, he lauded the cultural output of Antiquity, and cautioned contemporary scholars against discarding the achievements of the era. Essentially, he wanted scholars to avoid becoming so focused on the Current Thing of their era that they would disregard the expression of greatness found in Classical civilization.
Of course, this view is a world away from what we now think of regarding the “Dark Ages”. Petrarch was commenting on the particularities of scholarship in his era; he wasn’t claiming that Europe had fallen into disrepair and cultural backwardness due to the dominance of Christianity, which is the core tenet of the modern Dark Ages notion.
That insidious concept began later, during the Enlightenment. Secular philosophers of the era were the first to come to a now-common (though still equally ignorant) idea – that religion “holds society back” and “prevents progress”. This argument made extensive use of slanted historical arguments, and in some cases blatant revision. In fact, the first treatment of history as a subject for philosophical analysis rather than narrative recording arose out of this goal, and has characterized the study of the past ever since.
The primary force behind this historiographical shift was Edward Gibbon, who argued that Christianity caused the fall of Rome. He denounced the following centuries as “a triumph of barbarism and religion”  – a truly Dark Age. Of course, it was his view that Roman social progress was reignited by the Renaissance and more importantly, the Enlightenment – a rather self-centered view. However, French philosophes picked up on these arguments, using them to support their arguments against Christianity, the Church, and more. A few examples:
Note that they considered religiosity and “ignorance” to be one in the same, not unlike modern atheists. They conveniently ignored the fact that the Roman state they idolized was staunchly religious, or that religious motives had driven much of the innovation, scholarship, and organization in their own society. Despite these obvious fallacies, this argument is co-opted today by atheists, leftists, and people who aim to destroy the idea of Western Civilization. They have even less nuance than the philosophes, and proclaim that the whole West was built on ignorance and barbarism. Their destructive goals all stem from their revulsion to Christianity, supported by this oversimplified, slanted theory of historical “progress”.
Even outside of that anti-civilizational sect, we tend to lack a proper understanding of the European Middle Ages. As members of a secular Western culture, we find it difficult today to separate that secularization from our technological progress. We imagine that the progress we see today is exclusively the product of secularization, and lack a conceptual framework for a Western culture that advanced despite – or perhaps even due to – its religiosity. However, this seemingly contradictory society existed for centuries in Europe.
Despite the many polemics which have painted the Catholic Church as historically anti-science, the medieval era was a time of great technological and scientific advancement.
The monastic tradition saw massive efforts undertaken to preserve, copy, and proliferate important manuscripts. Though many of the works of Plato and Aristotle were lost in the West, thousands of other important writings were painstakingly hand-copied and catalogued. New manuscripts were penned en masse as well, including some of the foundational works of Christian philosophy (i.e. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica) and massive poetic chronicles (i.e. La Chanson de Roland). In fact, our notion of a dearth of written literature in this era is mostly because much of it has been destroyed. However, catalogues like the recently-discovered Libro de los Epítomes (a catalogue of hundreds of lost books, collected and summarized by Christopher Columbus’ son) give us tantalizing glimpses at a vast literary and philosophical tradition, reaching to the earliest days of the Middle Ages. This tradition included the writing and copying of religious works, philosophical treatises, fiction, poetry, geography, and work on the natural sciences. It must be restated that this work was undertaken in monasteries, under the direct supervision and control of the Church, supposedly the organization holding back the progression of knowledge. Monks were the primary scholars of the era, undertaking hundreds of experiments and observational studies. Consider the 12th-century monk Johannes de Sacrobosco, who in his work Tractatus de Sphaera accurately computed the size of the Earth by measuring the distance between the sun and the ground in two different cities. Many of these scientific inquiries arose out of monastic life and theological debate; for example, the problem of calculating the date of Easter catalyzed serious advancements in medieval astronomy.
Further, the study of alchemy among monks and nobles led to the foundations of modern experimental chemistry, with extensive writing devoted to isolating elements and creating new compounds or metals. In fact, empirical science itself has its roots in medieval scholasticism, and names like Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus are forever enshrined as pioneers of science. Admittedly, some sciences that had been pioneered in Greece and Rome were lost until the High Middle Ages – for example, early work on optics – but to say that the academic tradition died out in medieval Europe is to discredit the era’s flourishing scientific and investigative tradition.
Additionally, to revisit the tired comparison of “advanced Islamic science vs. backwards European superstition”, we must consider the differing concepts of education and study in each culture. Many point to the fact that the Islamic world built the first university as a demonstration of this point, but this ignores the differences between education between the cultures. Medieval European education was primarily tutor-based, and focused on practical matters – namely law and medicine. However, monasteries filled the role of modern university research departments; many great minds entered monastic life in order to devote themselves to study. The most extreme form of this devotion came in the form of cloisters – monks and nuns who were voluntarily sealed away in a small room, usually within a wall or tower. One such cloister was Hildegard von Bingen, who is singlehandedly responsible for writing over half of the surviving choral music from the era. She wasn’t an oddity, either – hundreds of monks and nuns sealed themselves away, sometimes literally, to advance their chosen field. Again, this was not an age of intellectual repression by the Church – quite the opposite.
There is also the matter of technological progress, which was perhaps the strongest area of advancement in medieval Europe. This was immediately obvious in the area of transportation; as the scattered kingdoms of the post-Roman fallout became more interconnected, trade routes became increasingly complex, requiring better technology. Complex wagons and harnesses were invented, allowing for a thriving trade network across Europe (and indeed all the way to East Asia, via the Silk Road). Within Europe, roads were established and maintained along important trade routes – sometimes restored from earlier Roman projects, sometimes entirely new.
Additionally, oceangoing trade in the Mediterranean made Venice the “center of the world”, and both shipbuilding and navigation technologies matured rapidly. Most notably, the compass and astrolabe entered common use, allowing for far more accurate navigation; and new methods of design and woodworking allowed for larger, faster ships. These industries advanced most particularly in Italy and Byzantium; shipbuilders and sailors from those regions were prized across both the European and Arab worlds. In fact, the navies of the Umayyad caliphate were built by imported Italian and Coptic shipwrights, manned by mercenaries from Byzantium or Egypt, and often captained by European naval commanders – all Christian.
Moreover, new inventions like the verge and foliot escapement mechanism (which allowed for the first true mechanical clocks) made commerce more efficient, and farming innovations (most notably the steel plow and the three-field system) allowed for vastly increased food production. These inventions, aimed at increasing efficiency and productivity, allowed for far greater per capita wealth and abundance, especially regarding food – meanwhile, the Arab world remained stagnant in that regard. As a result, medieval Europeans were taller, heavier, and healthier than their Arab counterparts, a factor that would play into their military clashes alongside technological advancement. This abundance would also eventually allow for the vast military prowess and world-spanning empire that arose out of Europe, while the Islamic empires never expanded overseas.
This was a common thread across medieval European innovations – they were neither adopted nor matched in the Arab world. Most notably, as European transportation technology improved exponentially, the Islamic sultanates built no such infrastructure. From Rodney Stark: “Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the rest of North Africa, and Spain, the WHEEL disappeared from the whole area!”  The wheel disappeared because wheels required roads, and the Islamic world was not interested in building such infrastructure. True to their Bedouin roots, the Arab world would remain reliant on camels and walking for centuries.
The Islamic Golden Age was a time characterized by such contradictions. In fact, the term is as ambiguous and hotly-debated as the “dark ages” of Europe, but is generally agreed to have been a time between the 7th and 14th centuries, or some subset thereof – usually beginning with the reign of caliph Harun al-Rashid in 786. Islamic intellectual life in this time was rather centralized and well-financed, leading to many of the scientific and literary advancements for which it is now known today. Archiving older texts was a major profession, and innovations in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and the natural sciences abounded. Additionally, scholars argue that because the Eastern world had access to the works of the Greeks, they were able to “pick up where Aristotle and Plato left off” in developing a comprehensive natural philosophy. Scholars in Islamic courts were the first to identify the cranial nerves, had the first inklings of Darwinism, significantly developed algebra and trigonometry, accurately predicted the motion of celestial bodies, and more – this is all true.
But unlike the standard applied to Europe, the implicit argument made by those who vaunt these achievements is that devoutly religious Islamic governance led to this advancement. Quietly extended from this argument is the idea that Christianity is an anti-intellectual religion, whereas Islam is inherently friendly to scientific pursuits.
This notion couldn’t be further from the truth. It is this specific notion – that Islamic religious predominance and governance allowed for a flourishing of intellectual culture, while the same circumstances in the Christian world led to intellectual decline – that is weaponized in modern discourse. The Islamic Golden Age of scientific discovery was certainly impressive, and a critical point in world history… but this was despite their religiosity, not because of it. Notably, Christian doctrine saw scientific study as a way to become closer in one’s understanding of God, whereas Islamic dogma was far stricter – to Muslim theologians, one’s understanding of the world should begin and end with the Quran. In fact, close study should more accurately frame the so-called “Islamic Golden Age” as the Near Eastern Golden Age, due to the diverse nature of the contributors, or perhaps even the Persian Golden Age, if we are to name it based on the group that made the largest single contribution.
Persian, Hindu, and Christian contributions to Islamic science are a touchy subject in Muslim scholarship, and as a result we in the West tend to get a watered-down picture of it. While the advances of the Islamic Golden Age were funded by Muslim caliphs and sultans, the actual scholars were more often Persian or Hindu dhimmis than Arab Muslims, and their study – particularly of astronomy – was moreso a continuation of ancient Zoroastrian tradition than a new movement. Persian scholars “claimed” by the Arabs include al-Khwarizmi, father of algebra; al-Kashani, whose estimate of pi was unsurpassed for centuries; Rhazes, a pioneer of experimental medicine and the most prolific physician of his era; and the Banu Musa brothers, who produced important work on physics, engineering, and geometry, as well as inventing the first programmable machine (a type of automated flute).
Similarly eclipsed by the name “Islamic Golden Age” are the contributions of Christians, particularly Nestorians. Christian influence was most visible in the medical field and in translation work, but Christians worked broadly on intellectual pursuits, including theological writing and scientific research. In fact, the first center of Eastern thought in Late Antiquity were the (Christian) Academies at Nisibis and Gondishapur; this shifted to the Baghdad House of Wisdom under Muslim rule, but drew its traditions (particularly its system of medical training, including the first hospital systems and an early analogue to modern residency programs) from Gondishapur and the Christian scholars who built it. The result was a robust contribution to “Islamic learning” by Christian scholars.
This catalogue, of non-Islamic contributions to science claimed retrospectively by Muslim scholars, could be expanded for pages. The so-called Arabic numerals are really Hindu, the geometrician and number theorist Thabit ibn Qurra was a pagan Sabian, Avicenna (“the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of the Islamic world” ) was Persian, many leading engineers and shipwrights were Copts, and a massive portion of the vaunted translation work attributed to Arab scholars was actually undertaken by Christians and Jews.
Clearly, the story of the Islamic Golden Age is more complex than we have been led to believe, including major contributions from both Persian, Christian, and Hindu scholars. But it isn’t just the makeup of the scholars themselves that presents a complication in the narrative; the entire notion of Islamic leaders being friendly to science and scholarship is based on faulty assumptions.
In fact, beginning with Mutawakkil in 847, caliphs were actively hostile to science and research. In many cases, they suppressed such efforts by force, burning manuscripts and imprisoning scholars – the exact charges of anti-intellectual persecution typically levied at Christendom! After Mutawakkil, the astronomical research that continued was a far smaller, shadowy continuation of Zoroastrian and Nestorian traditions among the dhimmis, as anything that might contradict the Qur’an was taboo amongst the Muslim nobility and, if discovered, would be banned and destroyed. This is most famously exemplified in a certain anecdote regarding the Library of Alexandria, widely recorded in Islamic histories from the 9th century on. After the conquest of Alexandria in 641 AD, it was said that military commander Amr ibn al-Asasked the caliph Umar what to do with the scrolls in the city’s immense library, the largest in the ancient world. According to this account, ‘Umar replied:
“If what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, then they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Therefore, destroy them.” 
And thus, the Library of Alexandria was burned. According to the Islamic chronicler Abdul Latif, the paper was used as fuel to keep the bathhouses of Alexandria continuously lit for over six months. The veracity of this account is debated, and it is very likely untrue. However, its inclusion in so many proud Islamic histories, for centuries after the fact, demonstrates an important cultural norm – that this hostility to science was a point of pride in the Islamic world!
Evidently, with any sort of in-depth study, the notion of a Christian “dark age” and a simultaneous Islamic “golden age” crumbles. However, as valuable as these cultural and intellectual comparisons are to understanding the differences between Islam and Christendom, there are more direct historical examples of comparisons between the cultures.
In fact, Islam and Christianity were quite deeply involved in a sort of comparison, throughout the medieval era and even into the Renaissance. They placed the best of their respective cultures against each other – people, technology, culture, and ideals – with nothing less than total annihilation on the line.
This is to say – they were engaged in war.
The armed conflict between Christendom and Islam was the longest war in human history. To see it as anything other than one, protracted conflict is to do it a disservice, to refuse to call it what it was: an existential struggle between the two religions. Beginning with the invasion of the Levant in 634 and ending with the Siege of Vienna in 1683, including conquests, reconquests, Crusades, jihad, piracy, and more, this war dwarfs all others in sheer scale.
Of course, it is necessary to examine this conflict if we are to evaluate the notion of “Islamic progress vs. Western backwardness” during the Middle Ages. The Iberian peninsula alone saw 760 years of brutal back-and-forth conquest, and the Crusades went off-and-on for two centuries. The Ottoman Empire extended to Vienna as late as the seventeenth century. To think of Western Christianity and Eastern Islam as two separate entities, or two divergent cultures uninterested in the affairs of the other, is ignorance. Rather, they were locked in a struggle of epic proportions for centuries, and this should inform our evaluation of the societal “merit” of each, if this is the frame to be applied to the period.
The first of these conflicts – the first jihad against Christians – was an invasion of the Holy Land itself. A mere two years after the death of Muhammad, the Rashidun Caliphate marched through Syria, burning churches and monasteries encountered along the way. In spite of modern secular retconning, this was immediately seen as a religious war by combatants and leaders on both sides. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “striking fear into the hearts of the infidels” abound in both Muslim and Christian chronicles, as do religious motifs and imagery – most particularly the imagery of the houris(women granted to jihadis in heaven) in Muslim chronicles. But the Christian Byzantines were no less fervent; during the Battle of Yarmuk, the right flank of the Byzantine formation – made up of particularly belligerent Slavs – was said by Muslim chronicles to have bound themselves together with chains, and to have sworn on “Christ and the Cross and the Four Churches!”  to fight to the death.
Fight to the death, they did – the Muslims took the day, and rampaged on through the Levant and into Northern Africa. So began a centuries-long project of Islamic expansion into Christian lands, setting the stage for the civilizational clash between Europe and Asia Minor.
As the Islamic armies advanced to the east and north, only to be repelled at last by Constantinople herself, news of the brutal persecution of Christians in now-Muslim territories reached mainland European ears. Sensational accounts of Christians burned alive, nuns taken as concubines, and brutal tortures designed to force conversion were a topic of endless debate and condemnation in the Church and nobility (these accounts, by the way, were completely accurate, and enshrined “gloriously” in Muslim chronicles).
Soon, though, the threat would become much more tangible, as the Muslim empire began its invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 709, under Umayyad warlord Musa Bin Nusayr. After rampaging through modern-day Spain, “destroying on their way all the churches, and breaking all the bells”,  Musa’s forces were unimpressed by the military might of mainland Europe, and aimed to raze the land straight through to Constantinople. As they crossed the Pyrenees, the mood among the jihadis was triumphant; they had marched through a land of fractured leadership and poorly-organized Visigoth resistance, and their bags were already laden with spoils.
But they had not yet encountered a serious, organized force – not until they reached the heart of Gaul. With a massive push of some 80,000 jihadi soldiers, none of whom had seen a single defeat in 20 years, the newest governor of the caliphate’s European conquests – Abdul Rahman – pushed toward Tours, aiming to sack the Basilica of Saint Martin. On the Frankish side, Charles Martel’s force lie waiting, though with vastly inferior numbers. After a week-long standoff in the woods of central France, the forces finally clashed.
It is in this battle that we see the first comparison of Western “backwardness” and Islamic “progress”, in the winner-takes-all realm of warfare. The Muslim forces were made up near-entirely of light cavalry, “depending on bravery and religious fervor to make up for their lack of armor or archery.”  Meanwhile, the Franks had developed and perfected a mixture of Roman and Gallic infantry tactics; they fought as a phalanx of heavy infantry, bearing massive interlocked shields interspersed with spears, and axes for both hurling and fighting. The Muslim cavalry relied on nomadic raider tactics and technology, outdated in Europe for centuries – dispersed cavalry charges aimed to break the enemy’s ranks, then a slaughter as they routed. But Martel’s men were cavalry-killers; already heavily armored, they formed human ramparts with their shields, relying on strict discipline and training to hold the line. When the Muslim horsemen tried their standard tactic – hitting the enemy line at a gallop and wreaking havoc within their ranks – they were unhorsed by a number of spears, then hacked and bashed to death with shields and axes. They simply couldn’t break the shield wall of the Franks. The battle was a story of hundreds of these charges, each small and dispersed; every time, the Franks cut the riders down and advanced their line, never breaking their tight formation.
After a full day of bloody struggle, the armies returned to camp. When the Franks reformed in the morning, they discovered that what remained of the Umayyad army had fled. Estimates of losses differ between chroniclers and historians, but most agree that the Muslim forces took losses of at least 50%, and Franks less than 20% - an impressive feat for a force outnumbered at least 2:1. As a result, the Muslim horde was rapidly pushed out of Gaul, the extent of their conquest limited to Iberia – a foothold which would be chipped away over the seven centuries that followed. Martel’s force, vastly outnumbered and fighting against an undefeated, widely-feared enemy, had in one battle halted the Islamization of Europe.
This battle echoes the story of almost every military contest between Islam and Christianity. For most of the Muslim imperial era, Eastern forces were consistently disorganized, self-interested, and fighting with technology and tactics that had long been outmoded in Europe. Meanwhile, European armies developed better technology, culminating in full plate armor, crossbows, and siege engines; as well as better tactics, which relied on group cohesion, the professionalization of fighting, and standardized equipment. Why was this?
In the period of strife after Western Rome fell, most of Europe was thrown into disarray as different groups rushed to fill the power vacuum. The entire continent waged war upon itself for nearly two centuries straight, with the only remaining semblance of central power in Rome unable to promote a unifying leader.
This meant that until (and during) the reign of Charlemagne, Europe served as a crucible: a testing-ground for military tactics and technology. The Early Middle Ages, or rather Late Antiquity, was a time of iron sharpening iron, and military technology, logistics, and strategy advanced far faster in Europe than they did in the Near East. When an enemy in the East rose to challenge European territory, this well-honed war machine turned outward and repelled their clumsy attacks.
The bottom line is this: in martial matters, Christendom surpassed Islam, a disparity which never saw any serious efforts at rectification by Islamic empires. This fact is conveniently omitted by those who promote the idea of a “Christian dark age”, not simply because it challenges the entire notion, but also because they are unwilling to accept the medieval era in Europe as being characterized by an existential threat from Islam. Also, many today are unwilling to accept martial excellence as an example of cultural advancement, even though it requires herculean feats of organization, production, and technological innovation.
This point is best exemplified by the Crusades, a time endlessly maligned by modern historians as an act of selfish Christian aggression against the peaceful, scientifically-minded Islamic caliphate. Evidently, the Crusades were not the “first act of aggression” between Islam and Christendom. However, there is something to be said about their methodology, and the success that they achieved.
While Muslim incursions into Europe resulted in nothing more than pillage and a “booty economy” – in that the invading force left a trail of nothing more than destruction, rape, forced converts, and pillaged churches – crusading knights engaged in state-building and the bolstering of city defenses. They were also hundreds of miles from support; indeed the wars for the Holy Land represent one of the earliest instances of a modern “foreign war”, in that significant territory controlled by both the enemy and other interests lay between the conflict area and the home front. This required an incredibly sophisticated supply chain, and the fact that certain Crusader kingdoms lasted for over a century while surrounded by Muslim-controlled land is a testament to their technological and strategic merit.
The disparity between Christian and Muslim militaries and logistics was immediately obvious to the Muslims who tried to repel the First Crusade. The entire undertaking baffled Muslim soldiers and commanders – tens of thousands of knights and soldiers, from different Western kingdoms, setting off through southeastern Europe and Constantinople to invade the Holy Land. Despite taking heavy losses along the way, the crusaders passed through Constantinople and achieved a shaky initial success at Nicaea. They then advanced toward the ruins of Dorylaeum, which would be the first true test of crusader mettle against the full force of the Muslim Turks.
This battle began with a surprise attack by the Turks. Despite the 350-year span between the decisive clash at Tours and this attack, Muslim military tactics had changed little – they still fought as light, disorganized, sword- and bow-wielding cavalry. The situation on that day was quite similar to Tours, actually – the force disparity heavily favored the Muslims, a group led by Turkish prince Kilij Arslan, with its ranks bolstered by other Turks as well as Persian and Albanian mercenaries. But despite their numbers, their tactics were even further outmoded than those of the Umayyads; Christendom had greatly improved in warfighting capability since then. After initial losses due to the surprise attack, the crusader army under Bohemond fell into formation, and Bohemond ordered the heavily-armored knights to dismount and reinforce the shield wall. In an echo of Tours, the light Turkish cavalry could not break this line, despite many attempts. Meanwhile, the hardest-hitting element of the crusader army was allowed to assemble behind Bohemond’s force: the heavy cavalry.
A mounted knight was a sight to behold, and a fearsome force on the battlefield – especially against an army unprepared for such a foe. Heavily-armored, with a large, similarly-armored warhorse, knights were essentially juggernauts. They didn’t use the hit-and-run raiding tactics of the Muslim light cavalry; rather, they rode in formation and attacked with heavy lances, swords, and maces. Critically, the invention of stirrups during the Middle Ages allowed for this amazing amount of force per horseman; additionally, a superior diet and full-time training made members of the knightly warrior caste much larger and more physically imposing than their Muslim counterparts, not to mention their huge, purpose-bred horses. With this fearsome charge, the tide of the battle quickly turned, and it became a rout. The crusader cavalry chased the fleeing Turks from the main force and past their camp for a full day, inflicting massive casualties and paving the way forward toward Jerusalem.
Despite much hardship, the crusaders continued this pattern on the road to Jerusalem, engaging in open battles and sieges until the Holy City finally fell in 1099. The city then remained a Christian kingdom until 1187, surrounded entirely by Muslim-controlled territory and far removed from direct European support. The knightly orders – the Templars, Knights Hospitaller, Teutonic Knights, and others – maintained the defense of Jerusalem and other so-called “crusader kingdoms” (or Outremer), successfully repelling forces ten times their size or more. They also dispatched knights with groups of pilgrims, who remained under constant threat of attack from Muslim bandits and raiders. In fact, thousands of pilgrims – including a vast number of peasants – made the trip to Jerusalem during this era, one of the earliest examples of broad at-will travel in the world. To maintain the security of this territory and passage, deep in the area controlled by enemies and without easy access to reinforcements, was a logistical and strategic feat unmatched in the Islamic world, and a testament to Christian advances in the fields of warfare and transportation, not to mention the economic excess required to make such a thing feasible.
It is clearly time to reconsider how we think about the Middle Ages, especially the tired and ahistorical comparison of “backwards Christendom vs. enlightened Islam”. Under any scrutiny, the idea of Christian repression of innovation and technology is clearly disproven; in fact, it was during the so-called “dark ages” that European cultures developed the technology and organization used to cement their later worldwide dominance. Also, the Islamic Golden Age proves to be something of a misnomer – a majority of the most important scientific and literary achievements under the caliphates were actually completed by Persian, Hindu, and yes, even Christian scholars, though eternally remembered by their Arabic names.
Today, when historians and politicians parrot myths about Islamic scientific dominance and simultaneous European squalor, they unwittingly repeat centuries-old Muslim propaganda, which still finds direct support today in the many Islamic terror groups of the Middle East, most namely the so-called Islamic State. Ideologues use this distinction to further their anti-Western goals (usually some form of leftism), unknowingly using arguments from the first serious enemy of the modern West – Islam.
If we are to characterize the age with such a limited framework – a comparison of Christianity and Islam – it should be through the lens of the thousand-year military struggle between the two religions. Of course, in that case, the pertinent question is this: who won? The culture whose borders and political centralization constantly fractured and reshuffled, never reaching the heights of power and technological progress seen in Europe? Or the culture that expanded across the world, making English the default lingua franca of the world, and Christianity its predominant religion? When we consider the arc of history from the Middle Ages onward, the answer becomes clear. This life-and-death struggle, fought over a thousand years, should serve as a writ-in-blood reminder that the “dark ages” weren’t quite so dark, and that Europe was no cultural backwater in comparison to the Near East – if that truly was the case, Islamic armies should have easily conquered it.
Often, when the “dark ages” myth is refuted in this manner, proponents will pretend that Islam and Christianity were never truly in an existential struggle, or that the Islamic world never had any interest in achieving dominance over Europe. They clearly forget the centuries-long struggle over Iberia, the battle of Tours, and most especially the Ottoman incursion into Europe as late as the 17th century. They certainly opt not to mention the heroic charge of the Polish winged hussars at Vienna in 1683 – led by Polish king Sobieski himself – which once and for all repelled the Islamic threat, “striking fear into the hearts of the Turks and their Tartar allies.” 
How we think about history is important, and the dark ages myth is a particularly critical element. If we believe that Western society and culture sprang from an impoverished age of ignorance and barbarism, how are we to take any pride in our principles, customs, or heritage? How are we supposed to appreciate and respect our historical roots, our cultural (and often literal) ancestors? Those who most strongly champion the idea of a Christian dark age in Europe understand the power of denying this pride, of bastardizing and subverting the past, and they take great delight in doing so. To let them win is a betrayal of one’s identity and history.
In revisiting the Middle Ages, we must evaluate it as it was, from the few sources that remain. These may give a partial or incomplete vision, but the vision they present is one of prosperity, honor, vitality, heroism! In reading them, one sees that the Middle Ages in Europe were not characterized by some superstitious return to hovel-life, but rather a Promethean drive toward greatness and improvement, even – no, especially – in the face of existential threats. Far from an age of poverty – it was an age of vitality, of strength in the face of destruction! The best texts of the era read as exhortation; exhortation to strive for uncompromising morality, earthly greatness, and eternal remembrance, with no less clarity than Homer or Virgil. We must not abandon the spirit of the Middle Ages, relegating it in our minds to a long-past age of backwardness and gloom.
Instead, we must embrace it.
This essay was included in Volume I of The Dissident Review, which is available in paperback on Amazon.
God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark
Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West by Raymond Ibrahim
The Devil’s Broker: Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy by Frances Stonor Saunders
The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science by Seb Falk
The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones
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