Bede asks, "How dark were the Dark Ages?" and because he is a Medieval historian, he finds some surprisingly bright shafts of light piercing that supposedly benighted era. Not surprisingly, classical historians take a dimmer view of the Middle Ages.
I suppose that my own view of the Middle Ages is that of a night sky. The darkness was pretty dark: a combination of the "Bring out your dead," and "She's a witch; burn her!" scenes from Monty Python's The Holy Grail. But even the night sky has the lovely moon, twinkling stars and the Milky Way. These would be the studious monks in their cells, chivalrous knights in their castles, and damsels if, not in distress, then certainly fetching in their pointy hats and silk scarves.
Rather than comparing Medieval Europe to Rome, why not ask, "How did Medieval Europe compare to its contemporaries, especially the Muslims that conquered the southern rim of the Mediterranean?" That's more of an apples to apples comparison, and in that respect, Europe looks rather backward.
It could be argued that the Islamic caliphate was the true successor to the Roman Empire. Certainly it's borders more nearly approximated ancient Rome's than Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire--Italy being, of course, a glaring exception. Baghdad and Cairo boasted hundreds of thousands of people when London and Paris were barely bigger than Salisbury (meaning my hometown, Salisbury NC). The Arabs gave the world the number zero, and thus rendered obsolete the crazy Roman numerical system. And most importantly, Greek philosophy, science and medicine were never forgotten in the Caliphate like they were in Europe. "We" had to learn that stuff all over again, from the Arabs.
Or, as my church history professor put it, "In this clash of civilizations, one boasts an excess of raw materials for powering the economy; the other boasts highly advanced arts, sciences and technology." Only, she was talking about the Crusades, not our post-9/11 world, and the raw material was the wood in European forests, not the oil under the sands of Arabia.
What if we taught "World Civilization" as the story of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Caliphate, rather than tacking on the less-than-civilized European feudal states at the end of that progression? It would go against the grain. There's a Western Civ. video series in our public library. The host is a Brit, an unreconstructed imperialist. His take on the Middle Ages is the traditional one: Rome fell apart, only to rise in a new form in Medieval Europe, though sorely beset by a new generation of barbarian invaders, the Vikings out of the north, and the "Moslems" in the South.
Now you can say Alfred the Great and Charles Martel are equally heroic, but it's quite unfair to compare the raping, looting and pillaging of the pagan Danes and Norsemen to the monotheistic, religiously tolerant, and intellectual (albeit expansionist) Arabs.
Just how tolerant some of them were is the point of the book I'm currently reading (see sidebar). The reviews at Amazon seem to turn on whether or not the author's presentation of Medieval Span is too optimistic, and in a sense, I'm sure it is. A wicked chamberlain slaying the goose that laid the golden egg of ancient Andalusia is too bad, but just think of the poetry! she writes.
The back cover of the book contains a quote by someone saying that The Ornament of the World has important lessons for today. But what lessons? Rather than cultivating an appreciation for Islamic culture, the book seems to have done just the opposite for this National Review writer. In short, "Too bad the Muslims went all intolerant on us. And bully for the Christian West that we outgrew our religious intolerance."
Really, we live in a world where facts are simply ink blot tests. People see what they're predisposed to see.
Might learning that the coming of the Muslims to the Iberian peninsula was actually good for the Jews chasten our self-congratulatory posture via the Islamic world? Might knowing that the Muslim Umayyad dynasty in Spain once had a Jewish foreign minister torpedo the cynical conventional wisdom that says, "They've always been fightin' each other; always will be"--the "wisdom" that underlies the hands-off approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations our foreign policy has embodied these last six and one-half years?
I'm only halfway through the book. But thus far the point seems to be that, while the three monotheistic religions seem to be at each other's throats today, it hasn't always been that way, and therefore it doesn't have to be that way. Pluralism can enrich all parties in a society while not necessarily diluting the core convictions of the various religious and ethnic groups that compose that society. At the same time, pluralistic societies are fragile. If we value what we have in 21st century America, then we need to work to sustain it. And, the neocon comparisons of bin Laden to Hitler notwithstanding, I think that the real threats to tolerance are from within, not without.