How did Western Civilization pull itself out of the Dark Ages and into early modern times?

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It should be noted that using the term "Dark Ages" to refer to the Middle Ages is a loaded term (implying that Europe moved backwards after the fall of Rome, falling into an age of suspicion and ignorance) and this narrative has been largely disputed by most scholars and Medievalists,...

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It should be noted that using the term "Dark Ages" to refer to the Middle Ages is a loaded term (implying that Europe moved backwards after the fall of Rome, falling into an age of suspicion and ignorance) and this narrative has been largely disputed by most scholars and Medievalists, debunked as a historical myth. There were evolutions within the Middle Ages which would further shape culture and society moving beyond that particular time period itself.

If we're looking at the intellectual climate, we'd largely be looking at Scholasticism, and the Medieval Era is actually quite important in the intellectual history of Western Europe. It's certainly true that Medieval Europe's intellectual climate was centered in the Church, with theology given pride of place. The Scholastics are most well known for recording and storing classical texts, but their work goes further than that. It was through Scholasticism and the Medieval Church that the first Universities were created. You could also discuss the rise of Aristotelianism, and with it empiricism, as represented by Scholastics like Albertus Magnus. Empirical thinking would later become the critical to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, with (we should not forget) were in large part reactions against the Scholastics, but these were critically important evolutions nonetheless.

Another critically important theme of the Middle Ages tends to be Feudalism and the deeply decentralized power structures that shaped that era. This too evolved across the Middle Ages themselves, and we see across the long timespan of Medieval Europe populations increasing, bringing with it a revival in trade and the growth of towns and cities. The Feudal System would be broken down further by the Bubonic Plague, which carried with it horrifying death tolls, altering the demographics which made Feudalism a functional system. Looking forwards towards the Early Modern Era, you would see a turn towards increased centralization under the Monarchies, culminating with the Absolutists.

To conclude, I think the history of the transition from the Middle Ages is far more complicated than the popular narrative assumes.

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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.

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