How did Western Civilization pull itself out of the Dark Ages and into early modern times?
The Renaissance is popularly considered the event that pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages. While there is validity to this claim, other events occurred to modernize Europe. The Crusades, with their travels to Eastern Europe and Western Asia, brought back classical ideas, new technologies, and trade goods from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Demand for spices and silks from the east reinvigorated the stagnant economy.
The Crusaders also, unfortunately, brought back the bubonic plague, which wiped out about one-third of the population in many areas of Western Europe. Obviously, the plague was depressing, but it brought an end to feudalism as the disease disrupted the entire system. The plague also had the enlightening effect of making people question the power of God and the church in their lives. The Enlightenment philosophies of the time changed how people thought of the world around them and increased feelings of the potential of humanity. The invention of the printing press in Europe allowed these ideas to spread at a faster rate.
It is also important to note that climate change had an important effect on Europe. The warmer climates led to larger crop yields, population growth, and a larger demand for trade goods.