Dark Ages

Understanding the Dark Ages of European History

The 900-year-long ‘Dark Ages’ occurred between the 5th and 14th centuries. The timeline begins with the fall of the Roman Empire and ends with the Renaissance. The Dark Ages were traditionally a period of minimal cultural growth and scientific discoveries. Although many experts disagree with the title “Dark Ages,” it may still be the best match for a period steeped in mystery. The period’s name relates to the invasion of so-called barbarian peoples into what had been the Western Roman Empire. 

Western Europe had a crucial era throughout the Middle Ages. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the “Dark Ages” were an era of instability and poverty. During this era there was no strong central government to protect the peace. Roman roads and water delivery infrastructure deteriorated during this time. Farming and mining have all but disappeared. Travel was dangerous, and trade routes were hardly in use. Disease and illnesses destroyed undernourished human and animal populations, lowering birth rates.

Except for what was safeguarded by Christian monks and missionaries, Western art and culture were almost non-existent. The clergy adhered to reading, writing, manuscript illumination, and panel painting practices to keep the Christian religion alive. Monasteries were the only remaining cultural, educational, and intellectual institutions, and as a result, they were looted. Following consecutive Viking and Norse invasions in Ireland, treasured books were forced to be removed from their original locations. The hiding and preserving of the books had to happen. The Book of Durrow, the Lindesfarne Gospels, and the Book of Kells are some of the best examples of Christian art and skill that have survived.

Coining of the Term Dark Ages

Francesco Petrarch, an Italian scholar, originated the phrase “Dark Ages”. Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, used this term to characterize a shortage of quality in Latin writing. Other intellectuals followed suit, expanding the definition to embrace literature and all forms of culture. As a result, the phrase described Europe’s purported lack of culture and progress during the Middle Ages.

Apparently, cultural progress marks the classical period. Both the Roman and Greek civilizations contributed to art, science, philosophy, architecture, and political systems worldwide.

Granted, certain features of Roman and Greek society and culture were despicable, for example, gladiatorial fighting and slavery. Still, European history took a ‘wrong turn’ following Rome’s demise and subsequent withdrawal from dominance.

Following Petrarch’s dismissal of the “dark age” of literature, other intellectuals of the period enlarged the phrase. This happened to cover the lack of civilization in Europe from 500 to 1400. However, historians constantly scrutinize these dates because of the overlap in dates, cultural and geographical variances, and many other considerations. As a result, reference is made to the period, sometimes like the Middle Ages or the Feudal Period.

Scholars began to limit the term ‘Dark Ages’ to the era between the 5th and 10th centuries once additional evidence became available in the 18th century. The Early Middle Ages was the name given to this time.

The phrase has a bad meaning in general. Historians are still debating whether the Middle Ages were truly gloomy. Many experts are now debating whether the title “Dark Ages” is appropriate.

Comparing the Dark Ages to the Empires

The phrase “Dark Ages” has a hazy history. Still, its common usage was in contrast to the acclaim lavished on the bright cultural achievements of the Greek and Roman empires with the knowledge and civilization that existed following their decline and demise.

This idea was carried through into the Age of Enlightenment. During this time, many experts likened the Romans’ tremendous architectural achievements to a return to simpler wood construction. However, in contrast to 19th-century civilizations in Europe and America, mentioning of the concept of a dark, barbaric past has happened.

The roots of this term is in the 19th-century Western European belief that some civilizations are superior to others, which is difficult to hear today. However, the usage of the phrase is purely academic, notably by historians. While the Romans were superb record keepers, historical books and papers were sparse from the 5th century and for several centuries afterwards.

The First Two Centuries

Gildas
Credit: AnaStpaul

The two centuries after the fall of Roman control in Britain at the beginning of the fifth century aptly describe the term “dark”. For these years, there is virtually no historical record. The finest surviving source is an excoriating sermon titled ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ written by the British monk Gildas probably between the late fifth century and 530 AD.

It is a rhetorical barracking of Romano-British leaders, both before and after Gildas’ time, whom he blamed for the downfall of Britain in the latter days of Roman control. Unfortunately, the majority of the few sites Gildas named are unknown. The vast majority of those he chastised remain anonymous. The dates of the events he detailed and even the date he wrote are still debatable. It is, however, the finest we have, and it gives the conventional post-Roman British story from which all others are drawn.

St. Patrick wrote two letters in the fifth century. One describes how Irish slave raiders kidnapped him. The other criticizes a bloke named Coroticus for raiding and looting a Christian settlement. As the western Roman empire crumbled, Britain was left vulnerable and weaker. The British elites, weakened by hunger and pestilence and militarily depleted and politically mishandled, developed a strategy led by an anonymous “proud tyrant.” They would call Saxons from Europe to protect them from Scots and Picts assaults. This strategy quickly backfired. The Saxons turned against the Britons and began wreaking havoc, citing conflicts about pay and food as a pretext.

Archaeology, on the other hand, verifies the fact of rapid urban collapse. The number of rooms occupied in Cirencester fell substantially from more than 140 in AD 375 to roughly 10 by 425. Demolishing of grand mansions and government buildings happened during this time.

Dark Ages of Art

Dark Ages of Art
Credit: Khan Academy

The Catholic Church stepped in to provide some learning and study in many regions of Europe after the Roman Empire crumbled, bringing many of its institutions, such as secular schools.

The Church becomes the most stable factor in western Europe and all territories north of the Mediterranean. Monks attempted to replicate most of the Roman period’s literature and scientific books and some of the Greek period’s. Meanwhile, the absence of many notable works of writing from this period in England does not imply that civilization remained dormant. Indeed, some of England’s most enduring legendary figures developed during this time. The oldest recorded allusion to England’s most renowned heroic ruler comes in the form of a comparison, according to a 6th-century Welsh poet. While the first recorded poem by warrior Beowulf dates from the 10th century, other experts think the epic was based on oral traditions dating back far further.

Economy during the Dark Ages

Another prevalent feature linked with the Dark Ages is the scarcity of massive buildings. Cities and towns no longer constructed enormous stone buildings. The gradual degradation of the Roman infrastructure, like aqueducts, also impacted the city’s quality of life.

During this time, the populations of large cities such as Rome and Constantinople declined. Farmers would have had to pay monthly taxes to maintain the empire and local cities during the Roman era. However, once the administration crumbled, there was a reduction in the tax burden. The villages and cities were smaller. Farmers didn’t have to produce as much or work as hard to feed the city.

Archaeological evidence suggests that common people had a lack of resources and products. For example, simple everyday commodities like fresh coinage, pottery, and roof tiles had entirely vanished by 450 in various regions of Europe and were not discovered again until around 700.

Technology during the Dark Ages

It is true that western Europe did not have as many technological or scientific advances in the Dark Ages as it would later. However, these shortfalls offset an explosion in culture and learning in the southern Mediterranean, with the first few Islamic caliphates.

Watermills, for example, remained a feasible technology in Europe. In terms of learning, Isidore of Seville, an archbishop and scholar, established an encyclopedia of classical knowledge. The British Isles’ relative isolation also allowed for the development of distinctive jewellery and beautiful masks. Some discoveries happened at the archaeological excavation of Sutton Hoo’s tombs in eastern Anglia, including a Viking ship burial.

While the Dark Ages may have begun with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Medieval era began with the advent of leaders such as Charlemagne in France, whose rule unified much of Europe. It provided continuity under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire.

Spread of Christianity during the Dark Ages

Christianity during the Dark Ages
Credit: Wikipedia

Christian observance was marking the early medieval period extensively. However, a wide range of religious beliefs existed, and even the Christian Church was a complex and diverse body. Scandinavia and portions of Germany practiced Germanic paganism in the north, with Iceland becoming Christian about 1000 AD. Traditional religious activities persisted. Late in the eighth century, Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon monk, questioned why Christians were still enamoured by heroic tales, asking, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” There were several divisions within the Church. Monophysitism, for example, split society and the Church by claiming that Jesus had just one nature rather than two: human and divine, causing disagreement at the level of emperors, states, and nations.

Literacy during the Dark Ages

The link between illiteracy and ignorance is a very recent development. The majority of knowledge was oral communication and memory during the duration of the medieval period and beyond. Early Anglo-Saxon societies could remember anything from property titles to marriage relationships to epic poetry. The ‘scop’ or minstrel could recite an epic over several days, demonstrating extremely high memory recollection. During this period, limiting of literacy was generally happening behind the walls of monasteries after their creation. However, monks in places like Lindisfarne could produce intricate theological tracts and exceptional manuscripts.

Debating the Term Dark Ages

The arguments against the name “Dark Ages” revolve around two basic points. The first is that “dark” is a derogatory adjective obscures the era’s achievements and throws unwelcome light on parts of its social, cultural, and economic history. The other is that accusing this time of obscurity unduly singles it out and exoticizes its apparent mystery. For example, suppose we assume that ‘black’ equals ‘evil’ in this context. In that case, Britain’s most strongly Romanized portions saw a social collapse of unprecedented suddenness and severity at the turn of these centuries.

It’s almost clear that this was accompanied by civil war and a protracted period of chronic instability. These must have been dark days for those who lived through it and were touched by it. The idea that other times may have been more painful and hence more worthy of the epithet “dark” is irrelevant.

The unquestioning assumptions that underpin this critique are far more disturbing. However, regardless of the historical meaning behind the original coinage, we should be able to see that ‘darkness’ does not always imply ‘badness’ and that obscurity is a far more realistic term. And one of the least contentious aspects of the period between 400 and 600 AD is that a significant absence of evidence characterizes it. Yes, people back then did and created amazing things. However, we know very little about them, significantly less than most historic times. So the Dark Ages are not necessarily darker than the long ages of prehistory, but they are darker than the centuries that came before and after them.

Charlemagne and the Rise of the Holy Roman Empire

Charlemagne
Credit: ThoughtCo

When Charlemagne, the son of a great warrior who controlled huge regions in what is now Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, and the Netherlands, became the head of the Franks, Europe’s biggest tribe, light began to infiltrate the Dark Ages in the late 700s. He and his family fought and conquered territory for decades, establishing a powerful central government and a stabilizing control structure—a feudal system—that protected the poorest population through regional land-lords with private militias. This governance brought most of Western Europe together for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Pope Leo made Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D., seeing a chance to restore the Western Church. But Charlemagne’s objectives were more than just political. Despite his inability to read and write, he appreciated the culture and initiated several initiatives to promote it. From the Eastern Roman Empire, the transfer of monk-scribes and lay artisans happened to the West and began to construct books. Scholars worked to develop writing standards in Latin so that it might become the realm’s unifying official language. The new “Carolingian” painting reintroduced Roman realism while incorporating modern stylization. All of this earned Charlemagne (Charles the Great) the title of “Father of Europe.”

During this time, international trade resumed in Europe. Art was no longer solely the realm of Christian priests by the 1200s. Artists organized guilds, created studios, and sought commissions to create murals, panel paintings, and illuminated prayer books from the Church, government, aristocracy, and the newly affluent merchant class. For example, the Crusader Bible (Morgan Bible), an illuminated book published in Northern France in 1240, depicts action scenes replete with inflicted combat wounds and meticulous realism with specific weapons, spurs, armour, and other realistic clothes.

Conclusion

It might be challenging to develop new topics to research or write about when there are so many times in history. This reason was not the case throughout the early medieval period. There are few early medievalists, and there are still a lot of studies to be done. Furthermore, breakthroughs in archaeology have recently revealed knowledge of how humans lived throughout this period. It can be difficult to locate evidence in the archaeological record when people constructed with wood rather than stone, but more is being discovered now. Finally, there are the unexpected finds: manuscripts buried in archives for decades, hoard hidden in fields, and allusions just recently translated.

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