May 12, 2008

Glimmers of Light in the Dark Ages

by Joyce DiPastena

While I was answering a question for Faith St. Clair last week about games children played in the Middle Ages, I ran across two comments in one of my research books, Childhood in the Middle Ages, by Shulamith Shahar, that caused me to stop and reflect a bit on the so-called “Dark Ages”. I’ve always been a bit annoyed at how freely that phrase is tossed around to describe the period of the Middle Ages. As if the people of that time were empty-eyed, ignorant creatures frozen in the “darkness” of their ignorance. A time when nothing important happened. A time without progression.

Of course, I could argue at great length against the fallacy of this idea, but I’ll spare you that discourse here. And I confess that even I have acknowledged the possible validity of the term “Dark Ages” in relation to the fact that the full light of the gospel was not then currently on the earth. (But neither was it during the “Golden Ages” of Greece and Rome, or even during the Renaissance, and no one ever refers to those ages as “dark”.)

In any event, two suggestions regarding children in the Middle Ages struck me deeply as I researched Faith’s question, and caused me to ponder how, even without the fullness of the gospel, there were people who were sufficiently touched by the Spirit to offer the following counsel to medieval parents:

According to Shulamith Shahar, a man named “Giovanni Dominici…acknowledged children’s predilection for imitation and the importance of play for the child…. He proposed methods of exploiting [this] as an educational tool. He suggests that parents playing with children deliberately lose the game and then hasten to the household chapel to pray. In this way, the child would learn to appeal to God when in distress, and would also realize that God also loves the losers.”

What modern parent has not “deliberately” lost a game he or she was playing with a child? But do we think to turn such a common adult tactic of “letting the child win” into a teaching experience, by showing them that God still loves us (the parent/adult) even when we lose? Or is it much more common to wait until the child loses an important game at school, and then try to “cheer them up” with reassurances that God still “loves the loser”? I, myself, admit I am guilty of the latter. I’m not suggesting that any of us run and kneel by our beds and offer some sort of “pretend” prayer to the Lord. Yet I found something touching in the image Giovanni suggests. Just maybe Giovanni had a point that “example” (seeing his parent’s confidence that God loves him/her, i.e., the parent, when he/she loses) might truly speak louder than belated words after a child’s first loss?

Another of Giovanni’s suggestions should strike home with any Latter-day Saint. According to Shahar, he also counseled that “a child should deliver a sermon to the household (to which all would listen attentively without laughing), and on the next occasion the parent would preach.”

A Medieval family home evening, anyone?

So often we think these kinds of concepts are new, modern, enlightened by the restoration of the gospel. But from these two examples, we can see that there was, indeed, enlightenment in the Middle Ages, too. God loves his children in all ages of the world, and even in the darkest of times, He does not leave them without light and guidance from above.

How many people adhered to Giovanni’s counsel is anyone’s guess. But how many people follow the counsel of the Lord’s prophets today? In turning a deaf ear to such counsel, perhaps in some of the most basic aspects of life, the raising of children, some have not progressed so far as we would like to think from those long ago “Dark Ages”.


  1. Joyce, that was very interesting! I have often wondered about that concept...that people of all ages must have had some light and guidance from above since God loves all of his children and does not change. And I agree...people have been "people" throughout the ages. Thanks for your great post!

  2. Joyce,
    I'm with you. Think about St. Patrick in Ireland and how he and his monks kept the flame of Christianity burning. Or, read the verse to "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee" and look at when it was written. There's someone bearing this testimony across almost a millenium.
    Great post!


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