A Few Words on the “Dark” Ages

Caveat: This won’t be news to a European.

When I first ventured into the “dark ages” I thought they were actually dark ages, but I was wrong. I soon learned what they really were, an age of urban expansion, technological development, and beautiful art. Before the Destruction of the Icons during the Reformation, churches were brilliantly painted inside with stories from the Bible. Back in the “dark ages,” houses were brightly painted on the outside, somewhat like the buildings in Stein am Rhein in Switzerland. The persistent danger of fires during the high Middle Ages led many cities to enact laws saying buildings had to be made of stone.

Many city buildings had indoor plumbing and the Roman baths were still frequented in cities where the Romans had settled. Bathing mattered to people during the high Middle Ages, the “dark ages.” You can learn about this in a lot of other places, including Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book, A Distant Mirror.

The years between 1000 ce and (maybe) 1400 ce were amazing. Of course the 14th century brought all kinds of fun to Europe in the form of the plague and the 100 years war, but why split hairs? And, during this long period — mostly during the 13th century — Genghis Khan was busy on his war of empire.

My journey began in Switzerland, just before my second visit. In 1996, I got a book I thought was a joke, How the Irish Saved Civilization. It wasn’t a joke. It was legitimate history about a world I didn’t know anything about. I was enthralled. Being Irish (ha ha) I was proud of “my people” who crossed the Channel in little round leather boats carrying books in to the benighted dark age wilderness of the Rhine Valley. So, in 1997, when I went to Switzerland for the second time I began looking for the Irishman who brought Christianity to the (I thought) backward people living in the Swiss forests. That led me to the town of St. Gallen, the library, to Basel to see the doors of the Cathedral on which is carved events in the life of St. Gall, an Irishman and the patron saint of Switzerland. That was my first peek into the complexity of western civilization and the beginning of my deep appreciation for my own ignorance.

The leader of this expedition was St. Columbanus for whom the publishing and missionary arm of the Catholic Church is named. To add coincidence to this whole amazing story the forest near my childhood home in Nebraska was — is — a community of Columban Fathers.

The adventures of St. Gall and St. Columbanus made me very very very curious about everything — and very amazed and impressed by their travels. St. Gall got sick — pneumonia apparently — and stayed in a spot that is now the beautiful town of St. Gallen. St. Columbanus and the rest of the troupe kept going over the Alps. A monastery was established in Bobbio, Italy.

Legend and fact are intertwined and researchers dispute a lot of what became the “life of St. Gall.” It’s kind of doubtful that Columbanus and his gang “saved civilization,” exactly, but still. St. Gall is said to have had a bear as a companion, legend says he tamed a bear that had been terrorizing the people all around. When St. Gall is depicted, it’s usually with a bear by his side. I relate to that, but my bear is white and is a dog. 😀

Waldemar Januzczak — a British art historian whose name has a superfluity of z’s — has done some wonderful videos for the BBC over the years. My favorite is “The Dark Ages; an Age of Light.” The best history book I know about life in Europe in the Middle Ages is Life in the Middle Ages by Hans-Werner Goetz. My point in this crepitated post is that we just don’t know much about much which is cool; we get to discover stuff, including the fact that it turns out my ancestry isn’t all that Irish. Still, St. Gall opened a whole world to me that I never would have sought. Bless him.

The Best Library of My Life — St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek

On a winter’s day in a deep and dark December in 1997 I opened a door way that led into a gaudy rococo structure that housing thousands of books I could never read.

It was the Library at the Abbey of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I had just dipped a toe into my personal medieval period. I’d recently read How the Irish Saved Civilization (which I’d bought because I thought it would be funny…) by Thomas Cahill, and I was excited to learn that a couple of Irish monks — Columbanus and Gall — had crossed the channel in little round boats and carried the Bible (and other books) up the Rhine. Gall got pneumonia at what is now St. Gallen and left Columbanus on his own to journey to Italy. Apparently Columbanus was a irritated with Gall for being such a sissy, but pneumonia is no joke…

Columbanus and Gall on Lake Constanz (dem Bodensee)


Gall set up a hermitage and a small library with a few books and he gathered followers and saved souls. He is the patron Saint of Switzerland. His animal friend is a bear. The story is:

… that once he was travelling in the woods of what is now Switzerland. One evening he was sitting down warming his hands at a fire. A bear emerged from the woods and charged. The holy man rebuked the bear, so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off to the trees. There it gathered firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

At first, the library itself disappointed me. I guess I wanted to open the door and enter the 8th century or something. The current library was built in the 18th century. I find it very difficult to see anything in a baroque room, and the Abbey Library is one step beyond baroque — it’s rococo. It’s so full of embellishments and ornaments that my mind becomes confused.

Main hall of the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall

But once I got used to it — and librarian came to talk to us (we were the only people there) — I stopped trying to see through the gold and stucco and began to see and understand where I was. He showed me a medieval map of the world.

8th or 9th century CE map of the world

You can see that it’s oriented (ha ha) to the East, the rising sun — Christ. All the three continents are surrounded by sea. The map is less for navigating physical space as it is for navigating spiritual space. This is a somewhat unusual medieval map of the world because it doesn’t SAY Jerusalem is the center, but it is. I saw a couple other maps on which cities were drawn, and Jerusalem was always depicted as the largest city and had tall, shining towers. Although I didn’t understand at that moment, having only at that point dipped one toe into the medieval world, that the physical and spiritual worlds overlaid each other and that the physical world was but a metaphor for spiritual space.

Of all the amazing things this man explained about the books in the glass cases, other books on the library’s locked shelves, and books too old and fragile to be touched at all was that there are some written in languages people don’t know any more. Apparently researchers are working on that, but I thought at the time that it is incredibly sad. Here are words written in very difficult circumstances, with oak-gall ink on parchment with quill pens, stories, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, knowledge and experiences that their writers were desperate to transmit to the future. And there the three of us stood — my friend, the librarian and I — discussing how no one could read them.

He took us into a hallway behind the main room — it was modern, gray and white — with doors along it. “All these rooms have people working on this problem.” Just then a young woman wearing white cotton gloves came out of one of the doors and greeted the librarian. I got a vision of busy young people in white gloves behind all those doors struggling to decode old words. I wondered what they would find.

Of all the wonders in the library, though, for me one of the most wonderful was the inscription written in Greek over the entrance which, thanks to Michael J. Preston, I could read on my own.

Medicine Chest for the Soul

I continued to pursue St. Gall in various places in Switzerland that winter, including a trip to Basel to see the Gallus Portal at the cathedral. I learned a lot — not the least of which that ignorance is a wonderful wonderful wonderful thing because once curiosity is awakened, and you chase knowledge, you will get more than you possibly could have imagined.

I didn’t know HALF of what I was looking at that winter, but on my second to last day, my friend’s mom told him to take me to visit a little medieval church near where they lived. The church is in the village of Gfenn, outside Dubendorf, both north of Zürich. And the rest? It’s historical fiction. ❤

Lazariter Kirche im Gfenn

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