In retrospect | Pakistan Today

In retrospect

Historians periodise history on the basis of their interpretation and perspective to understand its importance. Compared to their own time, they refer to the past periods sometime as either dark or enlightened .Such periodisation can also be challenged by the coming generations of historians who look to the same past with quite different outlook and interpret it according to their own time frame. This dialectic keeps history moving from one point of view to other,

In the case of European history, the Middle Ages at one stage have been called the Dark Ages. This was the perspective of the humanists of the Renaissance period who, as a matter of fact, were the product of the Middle Ages .What they experienced and learnt from their recent past was not pleasant. To them, it was the period when church, as an institution, dominated the whole life of any person from their birth to their death. Knowledge was completely under its control and it monopolised the production and instruction of knowledge. Art, music, literature, and sculpture produced nothing but religion-oriented themes. There was intellectual suffocation, and no space for creative and innovative thinking. Politically, the church was so powerful that even the rulers were afraid of its power. Keeping in view these circumstances, the concern of the humanists was to get rid of the situation. They sought to liberate themselves and society from its domination by discontinuing its traditions and changing its values.

Petrarch, a poet of the Latin language and a humanist, deviated from the religious division of history which was based on the Biblical concept and in its place introduced the cultural periodisation. According to him, the glorious period of history was the rise of Rome which produced a high and refined culture surpassing that of all ages. It declined in 410 AD when Rome was conquered by the Goths. This ended the process of Roman civilization. On the heels of its decay emerged Christianity which weakened the Roman Empire by challenging its pagan culture which sustained the civilisation. Edward Gibbon, the author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire accuses the spread of Christianity as one of the reasons of the collapse of the Roman Empire because its followers were more concerned with the otherworld to resist and defend the empire.

To the humanists, the Middle Ages had nothing to offer them or guide them under the changing circumstances. Therefore, in their view, it was waste of time to study its literature and art. On the other hand, they believed, the rich material was in the antiquity or ancient past which could enlighten and guide them. The same views continued by the enlightened intellectuals who argued that the Middle Ages promoted superstitions, religious extremism, and suppressed rationality. It was further argued that it was the period when dogma ruled over society by controlling the beliefs of people.

Interestingly, the whole concept of the Middle Ages changes during the Romantic Movement. It was the time when society was facing political, social, and economic problems. Under these circumstances, the intellectuals wanted to take refuge in the past where they could find solace and peace. As a result of this desire, the Middle Ages were rediscovered and reconstructed positively. Its spiritual milieu provided them comfort. The period was romanticised and a picturesque image was made which mesmerized the people. This shows that how the concept of history changes in the light of contemporary situation. Many societies have retrospectively reconstructed their historical narrative by revisiting them at different points in their own time.

In 1830, Hegel, the German philosopher, delivered a lecture on the philosophy of history and declared that India had no history and that Africa was a Dark Continent. Such was the impact of him that later historians and writers repeated and regurgitated this idea without analysing it and questioning its underlying prejudices. Although, the Indian historians responded to its argument and proved that his point of view was not correct. Similarly, the European and African historians, by constructing the history of Africa, proved him wrong. His views are critically examined by the historians who rejected the Eurocentric view of history.

It is argued that if you do not know the history of any age or country and continent, it is not fair to refer to it as dark and refuse to recognise its historical significance. In the modern period, even politically insignificant small nations are discovering their history and bringing their contribution to the world civilisation to light. The concept of the Dark Ages has come to an end.

The writer is one of the pioneers of alternate history in the country.