Thinking about the Dark Ages

Transformation in action

When I tell people that I work on the early Middle Ages, one of the most common questions I get, apart from ‘can you please go away now?’, is ‘is that the Dark Ages?’ I’ve never quite come up with an answer to that question that I’ve really liked, so this post is my effort to try to do that. In particular, I want to talk about some of the problems with the term as I see them. I’ve played around with ‘the Dark Ages’ in the past in my teaching and outreach, because I think it’s a dramatic name that grabs attention and is occasionally usefully provocative. What follows are the reasons that I would ultimately reject it in an academic context. Note that not all people who work on the early Middle Ages will agree with my reasoning, even if they also don’t like the term

Note on periodization

To misquote George Box, ‘all systems of periodization are wrong, but some are useful’. Speaking as someone with a PhD in the subject, history is big and there is much too much of it for us to cope with all in one go. We have to break the past down into convenient chunks to allow us to get some mental purchase on it. We do this in a number of ways, such as by date (nineteenth-century, second-millennium), technology (Bronze Age, Industrial Revolution), political regime (Roman empire, Tang China, Tudor England) and a wide range of others, with much overlap between them. What unites these diverse systems is that they are all in some way lacking or inadequate. Some are arbitrary, while others privilege one characteristic over a number of other salient factors. We use them because they are useful, not because they are perfect. They are tools that help us understand the past, and we almost all have a number of different methods of periodization in our toolkit that we shift between depending on the job at hand. These periods have to bear some relation to the past they are applied to, but after that we’re primarily interested in how useful a label is.

What is a Dark Age?

The important thing about the idea of a Dark Age is that it is always used in contrast to other periods. It doesn’t stand on its own, but is rather as a foil for other ages. Most people who talk about a Dark Age, including Petrarch, who stands at the origin of current discussion of the idea, are much more interested in the Golden or Light Ages that surround them, which shine all the brighter by means of this comparison.

Traditionally, Dark Age is a polemical term, denoting the period in question is uncivilised, undeveloped, chaotic and brutal. While there may be a certain romance to it, it’s generally an unpleasant, uncultured and probably immoral place. This is ‘Dark’ as in bad (Star Wars Dark). Most significantly, such a period is less civilised and developed than the era that preceded it, or those that followed it. It therefore goes hand in hand with ideas of decline and fall. It is defined by the features it lacks, which typically include widespread literacy, urbanism and large, intensively governed, political entities.

Another reading of Dark Age is as a period where there is a dramatic drop in evidence, particularly written sources, so we know a lot less than in previous and subsequent ages. This is ‘Dark’ as in hard to see. While in theory this is a value-neutral term, in practice this tends to meld with the more negative usage. Being generally bookish members of literate societies, people interested in the past tend to assume on some level that writing is a good thing, even if we don’t articulate that notion fully. 

Both ideas of the Dark Ages are normally applied to the same periods of time. There have been multiple periods thus identified, such as the Greek Dark Ages. The one we’re interested in today is the most famous one, the European Dark Ages that are placed after the end of the Roman Empire in the West, traditionally associated with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 for convenience.

Problem 1 – When and Where are the Dark Ages?

I think there are two ways in which describing this post-Roman period as a Dark Age is not useful. The first is that pinning it down in space and time is a little bit tricky. There are lots of places in Western Eurasia where the term ‘Dark Ages’ clearly doesn’t work at all. Applying it to the lands conquered and ruled by the Islamic Caliphate starts looking silly very quickly what with the booming cities, vibrant domestic and international trade and major centres of intellectual learning. For similar reasons, it seems quite hard to use it for Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire), which resolutely refuses to stop trucking on, although the sources for it do get decidedly threadbare in the seventh and eighth centuries. It’s worth noting that these two empires encompassed within their boundaries more than half of the provinces of the old Roman Empire, including the majority of its population and economic output, including key regions like Egypt, Syria and North Africa. For most of the Roman world, the Dark Ages never happened.

We also need to rule out places that were never ruled by the Romans in the first place, such as Ireland, Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe. While peoples here were no doubt affected by changes in the Roman world, it is not obvious that sixth-century Ireland belongs to a Dark Age in a way that first-century Ireland did not. 

What we’re then left with is mainland Europe west of the Rhine and Danube, and lowland Britain. This probably needs to be restricted to the centuries before the ninth century and the age of the Carolingians, from which thousands of written manuscripts survive. Although this is low compared to later centuries, the output of this Carolingian moment dwarfs the surviving material from Europe from all previous centuries combined, including that of the Roman period. Indeed, a huge proportion of Roman writing that survives today and which we continue to benefit from was preserved in this period. Given quite how massive the source base for the ninth century is, the term Dark Age comes across as really inadequate to describe it.

It is in western Europe in the sixth-eighth centuries(ish) where the strongest case for a Dark Age can be made (and yes, I am already pre-emptively ducking to avoid missiles from outraged Merovingianists). I don’t want to spend too much time here because it takes us into arguments about post-Roman decline which would need multiple blogposts to do justice to. This is very open to debate. Most academics would agree that a reduction in size and complexity takes place in this period, starting before the end of the Western Empire and continuing after then. Cities shrink and have fewer amenities. There is less trade, and industry gets smaller and more localised (embodied by much more homemade and frankly crappy ceramics). They are fewer specialists like engineers and lawyers. States get geographically smaller and less administratively sophisticated, with things like taxation slowly vanishing (death was still doing roaring business).

While I am more sympathetic to the view that on balance all of this was not a good thing than some, the overview I just gave flattens a huge amount of variance. The most dramatic change happens in a place like lowland Britain, where almost all the old Roman infrastructure seems to vanish in the course of a generation. South of the Loire in particular things are very different, and if we look at Italy in the early sixth century we might be forgiven for noticing very little change at all, although bigger alterations will come later.  Describing both of these moments as part of a period defined by a generic ‘darkness’ feels fundamentally misleading.

And that matters even if we don’t think that the changes that took place in western Europe after the fifth century amount to much or that they had only a limited impact on the lives of most people in those centuries. It matters because the ‘Dark Ages’ is part of the story we tell ourselves about humans and how they work, and therefore getting it right has an impact on how we understand ourselves. We see this in the tedious and misleading arguments among my fellow atheists about ‘how the adoption of Christianity destroyed civilisation’; in the pompous newspaper articles about how the ‘Dark Ages’ prove that migration leads to the inevitable annihilation of the host society; in the terrifying Mountain Dew-fuelled reddit posts about the inherent savagery of the Arabs and Islam. We deserve an accurate understanding of the past, our past. And we need it, desperately, because the past that we perceive are the stars by which we sail and the tracks by which we step.

Problem 2 – Seeing the darkness

The sceptical reader might want to interject here that even if ‘Dark Age’ doesn’t fully and accurately convey every single nuance of every region in the post-Roman west, it is close enough and is no more misleading than referring to ‘the Renaissance’ or ‘the Age of Enlightenment’. This is where, to my mind, the second problem comes in. Most period labels employed, such as the ones very conveniently named by my fictional disputant, are either neutral or vaguely positive in nature. The Dark Ages is neither of those things. Its name is the exact opposite of the Enlightenment and it represents the death the Renaissance is reborn out of.

This may seem a really petty thing to complain about, but it matters, because it translates into much less research into the period with the consequence that it is much less well understood than it might be. This is because at its best, the term ‘Dark Age’ implies an era with so little evidence remaining that nothing can ever be known about it. At its worst it suggests an age of such miserable brutality and squalor that nothing worth knowing could ever be retrieved by studying it.

Once a narrative like that has been set it is really hard to counteract it. Not only does such a periodization discourage enquiry, but it also distorts the way specialists of the era talk about it, because it forces them onto the back foot. Once you have to constantly defend the centuries you study, it limits the sorts of conversations you can have with non-specialists by making you into an advocate or a cheerleader. This means time spent talking up all the things that we find impressive today, making it harder to give a balanced view of the period. All historians need to find ways to communicate their work, but a scholar of the ‘Dark Ages’ has to highlight all the things that seem positive about their period to a modern audience in a way that someone talking about, say, the Romans or Georgian London doesn’t have to. Because it needs to be sold the actual period gets flattened and drained of what makes it special.

Worse than that, trying to defend the Dark Ages with reference to its art or culture often doesn’t work. Once your period has a reputation for savagery, everything gets interpreted in that light, or lack thereof. In the first episode of the classic television documentary Civilisation (1969), which holds up surprisingly well for a series now over half a century old, Kenneth Clark explained why he felt there was no true civilisation in Western Europe in the centuries after Rome, despite his familiarity with art from the period, because:

Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies, in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality.

Clark was a learned and thoughtful, if old-fashioned, art historian. If he could look at the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Gokstad and see no evidence of civilisation because he already knew they were the products of a time of barbarism, then it points to the challenges of getting anyone else interested in such a dark age.

And that’s a problem. Ranke’s injunction that ‘every epoch is immediate to God’, meaning that every period was equally worthy of examination on its own terms, remains as true now as it was when he said it. The lives and experiences of people in the past deserve to be studied not because they were beautiful or uplifting for us in the present (although sometimes, in every era, they were both of those things). They deserve to be studied because every one of those lives is another example of what it means to be human, another fragment of the human story. That means plunging into strange and difficult worlds to find the alien and the familiar uncomfortably and fascinatingly entwined. When we talk about the ‘Dark Ages’ we make it harder for us to understand our past and thus claim the historical inheritance that belongs to all of us. And that is why, on balance, the Dark Ages is probably not a useful historical term.  

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