In 314, the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan assured the Christian hegemony over several competitors. You’d think the anxieties and melancholia present during the Roman Empire’s decline would be partially alleviated with the official sanction of Christianity. Hardly!
With the dominance of Christianity, physical existence was perceived to be a period of trial and error, a test made extreme with ubiquitous demons hellbent on trapping souls and dragging them off to eternal torture. This attitude brought a clear boom in pessimism and encouraged an atmosphere of melancholy. The sculptural design of Romanesque cathedrals reinforced such anxieties by depicting souls of the damned squirming grotesquely in the inferno.
On top of the perceived threat of eternal damnation, people were plagued with actual physical threats from armed oppression, natural catastrophes, grotesque diseases, and frightening hysteria. It was a dark time of abnormally high anxiety.
While Christianity imposed an enormous deal of emotional stress for believers, its impact on the intellectuals was also disastrous. Even the earliest Christians felt that rational analyses were unreliable in matters of faith.
For instance, Tertullian rejected reason altogether, and soberly argued that the most persuasive evidence for belief was its patent absurdity. Eventually the all-encompassing Church became the unquestioned, final authority on both ecclesiastical concerns and secular affairs. Some of the adverse repercussions of this development included a bloodthirsty Inquisition, the contorted and unintelligible logic of the scholastic philosophers, and centuries of intellectual intolerance and stagnation.
The works of Augustine helped to highlight the morose tone of the millennium. Utilizing biblical principles, he promoted a starkly pessimistic view of man as a fallen creature, naturally evil and depraved. It was no wonder that the Book of Revelations was of such great interest to believers who were anxiously anticipating the destruction of this miserable world.
As early as the 8th century, pessimistic resignation was extensively institutionalized in Gnostic and ascetic societies where thousands of the miserable could escape life by numbing their bodies and minds in work and prayer. Although in other ages, people sought for the truth, the Dark Ages is unique in that it was universally accepted that the Truth had been settled, and for centuries what was left of Western civilization was mired in superstition and fear.
Nietzsche was the first to suggest that nihilism had deep roots in Christianity, and, in retrospect, the bellicose other-worldliness and oppressive piety of the medieval world, following on Rome’s collapse, can be interpreted as the collision of authoritarianism and skepticism, the confrontation of the desire to find meaning and utter meaninglessness. While a belligerent dogmatism proved victorious, it was a cure as terrifying as the disease.