The Light Ages

Nik Pontasch / Dr. Sarah Jane Murray / French Art & Architecture / 16 February 2011

Most people in this day and age are trained to look back to the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th centuries as a period of darkness (hence, the “Dark Ages,” coined many years later by Michelet, a French historian who said that “darkness had extended over Europe”). While many progresses have been made since then, humanity seems to have regressed in one area. In this age of computers and technology, the ability to handwrite legibly is something that has become taken for granted, if not completely obsolete. Clear, legible, Times New Roman size 12 font, and an unlimited supply of virtual paper, however, are not things that have existed forever. Before Charlemagne’s Serments de Strasbourg in 842, however, historical examples of writings that were legible, punctuated, and written in the vernacular are sparse.
Charlemagne, and subsequently the church, art and France, all played a major role in the development of legible and understandable script for the common people. In Europe, especially, it is an extremely important hinging point to have a written document which could be understood by all parties (an idea which hearkens back to the Middle East with Hammurabi’s code of laws several millennia prior). While that may seem to be obvious enough, it must also be stressed that the Serments de Strasbourg also simultaneously established the vernacular as an authoritative form. The notion of clarity was beginning to take precedence in Europe. It is only fitting then, that a more organized system of writing should also be established. With the birth of Carolingian miniscule, readable manuscripts were becoming a reality. Through the hard work of many scribes, mostly working in the monasteries, manuscripts began being developed which were not only clear but also well-adorned with highly ornate decorations and initial letters (historiated majuscule). Considering the high costs of obtaining the materials necessary for writing, mistakes could not be tolerated. Therefore, it was with great care and dedication that scribes gained the ability to write clearly – a skill intense enough to expand into an art form.
The conveniences of modernity ought not to be taken for granted when tracing the history of writing. Moreover, it is important to remember that the dovetailing of writing, politics, the church, and art developed in the heartland of France during the Dark Ages. The coalition of these various entities began what would be an explosion of culture, philosophy, art and literature.
With an illuminated page on my computer screen, I am beginning to realize something: the Dark Ages were not so dark after all.

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