Middle Ages - Modern Image

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Further information: Dark Ages (historiography)

The medieval period is frequently caricatured as supposedly a "time of ignorance and superstition" which placed "the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity." This is a legacy from both the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when scholars contrasted their intellectual cultures with the medieval period, with a negative attitude toward the Middle Ages. Renaissance scholars saw the Classical world as a time of high culture and civilization, and saw the Middle Ages as a decline from that culture. Enlightenment scholars saw reason as superior to faith, and thus viewed the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition.

Others argue that reason was generally held in high regard during the Middle Ages. Science historian Edward Grant writes, "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities". Also, contrary to common belief, David Lindberg writes, "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led".

The caricature of the period is also reflected in a number of more specific notions. For instance, a claim that was first propagated in the 19th century and is still very common in popular culture is the supposition that all people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. This claim is mistaken. In fact, lecturers in the medieval universities commonly advanced evidence in favor of the idea that the Earth was a sphere. Lindberg and Numbers write: "There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge sphericity and even know its approximate circumference".

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