Certain critics tell us that we wish to return to the Dark Ages about which they themselves are entirely in the dark. They are in the dark, not only about what the phrase ought to mean, but even about what they mean by it. At the best it is an abusive term for the Middle Ages. More often it is a jumble of everything and anything from the Stone Age to the Victorian Age. A man spoke the other day of the mediaeval idea that our own nation must be supported against any other nation; evidently unaware that when Europe was mediaeval it was far less national. Somebody else spoke of the mediaeval notion of a different morality for men and women; the mediaeval morality being one of the few that applied almost equally to both.
If they talk thus ignorantly of the Middle Ages, of which even historians are beginning to know something, they naturally know even less about the Dark Ages, of which nobody knows very much. The Dark Ages, properly understood, were that period during which cultural continuity is almost broken between the fall of Rome and the rise of mediaeval society; the time of the barbarian wars and the first beginnings of feudalism. Naturally these critics know very little about the period; they know so little about it as to say that we want to bring it back. And yet the strangest thing, in all the strange things they say, is the fact that there is some truth in what they say. In a sense quite different from what they intend, there really is a parallel between our position and that of people in the Dark Ages.
One way of putting it is that both are faced with a possible triumph of the barbarians. As in their time a new and disproportionate military power arose among provincials, so in our case a new and disproportionate money power has arisen among colonials. Then Rome was sometimes weaker than the Transalpine legions; now Europe is sometimes weaker than the Transatlantic banks. The streets of London are altered, if not destroyed, by tribes that may legitimately be called the Vandals; and for the anarchy beyond the Roman Wall we have the anarchy of Wall Street. But though we might work some such fanciful parallel for the fun of the thing, it would really be very unfair to America, which has inherited some Roman traditions more clearly than we; for instance, the tradition of the Republic. A much truer way of stating the parallel is this; that history is here repeating itself, for once in a way, in connection with a certain idea, which can best be described as the idea of Sanctuary. In the Dark Ages the arts and sciences went into sanctuary. This was true then in a special and technical sense; because they went into the monastery. Because we praise the only thing that saved anything from the wreck, we are actually accused of praising the wreck. We are charged with desiring the Dark Ages, because we praise the few scattered candles that were lit to dispel the darkness. We are charged with desiring the deluge, because we are grateful to the Ark. But the immediate question here is historical rather than religious; and it is a fact attested by all historians that what culture could be found in that barbarous transition was mostly to be found in the shelter of the monastic institutions. We may regret or admire the form which that culture took in that shelter; but nobody denies the storm from which it was sheltered. Nobody denies that St. Dunstan was more cultivated than a Danish pirate or that there is more art in Gothic arches than in Gothic raids. And it is in this sense, of science and art going into sanctuary, that there seems to me to be a real parallel between the barbarian anarchy and the progress that we are enjoying just now.