To Catholic apologists, they were the good old days,
between a bloodthirsty and spiritually empty ancient Graeco-Roman world and a modern West which has "lost its way." I don't know how anyone who is not a Catholic who really believes that Jesus Christ is the salvation of the world and that the Pope is his represenative on Earth, that is to say: a particularly conservative Catholic, can have studied the Middle Ages and come to such a positive assessment of them. To these apologists, such as Thomas F Madden, the fact that ancient civilization was not yet Catholic means that it was "bloodthirsty and spiritually empty," and our world today has "lost its way" because it is no longer monolithically Catholic. And the Crusaders were knights in shining armor on white horses saving damsels from the clutches of the minions of Satan.
Perhaps the academic study of the Middle Ages has usually been dominated by such idiotic notions, and the work of Gibbon and Runciman,
with its attempt at a somewhat higher level of realism, is an anomaly amid the academic study of the Middle Ages as a whole. After all, Medieval Europe is Catholic Europe, and it shouldn't be surprising if scholar with strong pre-dispositions to regard Catholicism favorably dominate the field. It's actually hard to find people who have specialized in the study of Medieval Europe who haven't taken potshots at Gibbon and Runciman, although they generally begin by acknowledging that both of them wrote very well. If they didn't acknowledge at least that much, they'd seem even more ridiculous to even more people than they already do. If you interested in the reactions of medieval historians in general to Gibbon and Runciman, look at the indexes of volumes on subjects to do with medieval history for references to the two of them. I daresay that few of those references will completely lack some harsh criticism, but that they will almost all lack actual specific treatments of specific passages in Gibbon or Runciman; in other words, you will read that Gibbon and/or Runciman has distorted this or that aspect of the Medieval world in a way completely unfair to Catholic Christianity, but you will not be given examples of how either one of them distorted what is in the the primary texts or in other evidence. for instance, you will not be shown evidence to refute what Runciman says about Armenian and Syriac Christians saying they were better off being ruled by Muslims than by either Orthodox Greeks or Catholic Crusaders. Which is what the primary documents record them as saying. You will not be shown refutations of what Gibbon and Runciman wrote about the Crusaders often having been much less than heroes on white knights. Because the two of them wrote such things not because of anti-Catholic axes they were grinding, but because that's what the evidence shows.
AS I mentioned in a previous Wrong Monkey blog post, alternative history is not history, but fiction. So when the apologists say that the Catholic Church gave us universities and science, implying that without the Church things would have been much worse, they're not writing history, but fiction. And we would also be writing fiction if we replied that if so and so had been different, then this and that would have resulted. That's all alternative-reality fiction. If we really want to discuss history, we must stick as closely as possible to what we know.
Yes, universities sprang up in Medieval Europe beginning in the 12th century. But ancient schools, from Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, down to the most modest of institutions, were all closed down by the Christian authorities by the 6th century. Because they were "heathen," dontcha know. So should we see the Church as an institution which promoted learning, or one which restricted literacy for six centuries almost exclusively to its clergy? Well, it did restrict literacy in exactly that way. Literacy rates went down when the Christians took over, and did not begin to rise again for hundreds of years. I think a sober and realistic study must conclude that scholarship survived in Western Europe despite Christianity, rather than flourishing with its help.
Take a specific sub-set of learning, my special favorite, the ancient Classics. Catholic apologists love to point out that almost all of the texts of the ancient Latin classics which we now possess have survived because they were copied out by Catholic monks. And they're right, we have very few manuscripts of those texts which are exception to that rule: a few very old manuscripts copied out by "pagans" before the Christians wiped out "paganism;" and then some manuscripts made by non-monks in the early Renaissance before printing replaced handwriting as the dominant means of preserving these old texts.
But in addition to the Classical texts which Catholic monks preserved, many works of Classical literature disappeared during the Middle Ages. For every Medieval Catholic clergyman who was an enthusiastic fan of the ancients, it's easy to identify several who were ignorant of the Classics or even condemned them as wicked. A very poignant and much more concrete demonstration of how Medieval Europe destroyed the ancient Classics instead of preserving them are the many palimpsests of Classical texts discovered since the 18th century: Classical texts which were scraped off of pieces of parchment and written over with Christian texts. Modern science has allowed us to recover some of these ancient texts by reading the indentations they left in the parchment. There are few leading Classical authors who didn't write works we know of only by mentions in surviving texts, which went missing in the Middle Ages. Very many of the surviving works have survived with large gaps. There are very many ancient Greek and Latin authors who were very well thought of by their contemporaries, whom we know only by the praise of those contemporaries. We have no idea how many works of classical antiquity are now lost because Church authorities ordered them to be destroyed, how many because they were scraped away to make room for other writing, or how many because worn out parchments were used as fuel in stoves or two stuff furniture or to make book bindings or for some other purpose other than preserving the ancient texts. And until and unless we learn much more about how those texts were lost, we should be reserved in our praise of the Medieval clergy for saving what they did.
But the largest reservation I have about praising the Medieval world for its promotion of culture and learning comes from how intolerant it was. In pre-Christian Europe, one could openly express skepticism of all religions. In the Medieval world one was compelled, as least as far as public statements were concerned, to reject all religions but one and to believe in that one. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn't kill people for philosophical speculations. It wasn't dangerous to assert that the Earth orbited the Sun and not vice-versa. Galileo was threatened with torture and confined to his house for the last years of his life, not for rejecting Christianity -- he didn't -- and not for questioning whether Jesus was the savior of the world -- he never did any such thing -- and not for questioning the authority of the Pope -- he didn't do that either. He was threatened with torture and confined to his house for the last years of his life for looking through a telescope and writing about what he saw. It never would have occurred to any pre-Christian Greek or Roman to punish anyone for something like that. That drastic restriction of freedom of expression is the biggest reason I have to be disinclined to think of the Medieval world as having been wonderful.
But yes, the cathedrals and the Byzantine mosaics and other Medieval artworks are very beautiful.