In the latest issue of National Review (February 27, 06), there's an interesting review by Christopher Levenick of Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.
I haven't read this book. What caught my eye was the reviewer's use of the term Late Antiquity to refer to the Dark Ages.
If you think about it, "the Dark Ages" is a pretty tendentious way of characterizing a historical era. I suppose the term derives from the widespread illiteracy of the period, which has left historians somewhat "in the dark" about exactly what happened then. But the term also implies that this was a particularly backward and uninteresting time, when nothing of note happened. Was it?
Levenick writes that Stark
... recounts in considerable detail the evolution of humble business enterprises run by medieval monks into the thriving commercial city-states of Renaissance Italy. More suggestively, he traces these developments back to the so-called “Dark Ages.”
Along with a growing number of historians, Stark is inclined to view Late Antiquity as a period of remarkable commercial expansion and technical ingenuity. Measured against the Parthenon or the Coliseum, things like windmills, horseshoes, chimneys, water-wheels, stirrups, compasses, eyeglasses, swivel-point axles, and mechanical clocks may not seem particularly impressive. Nonetheless, such was the era’s humbler, but ultimately more consequential, scale of invention. The absence of large states may have invited external invasion, but it also spurred competition and fostered creativity, setting the stage for the global predominance that first became apparent in the 16th century.
Let's take another look at that list:
Not bad for the "Dark" Ages, huh? I hope the more neutral - and more accurate - term Late Antiquity catches on.