Dark Ages - A term worth using?

Mar 2018
329
UK
#1
Traditionally, the dark ages refer to the medieval world in Europe, which can roughly be taken to be from 500 - 1500 AD. The general notion being that between the fall of Rome and the recovered knowledge of the Renaissance, Europe was not a great place. This view is probably not widely held now as we know of lots of technological innovations that happened during the high middle ages (in machinery, metallurgy and shipbuilding for starters), as well as the development of learned institutions in monasteries and universities.

A narrower definition of the dark ages would be the period immediately after the fall of Rome, let's define that as 476 - 800 AD (the crowning of Charlemagne seems like a reasonable place to define the start of the middle ages). Is it fair to call those centuries dark compared to i.e. 284 - 476 AD? The reason to compare it to a period of a few centuries is to not get into the problem that things didn't change much between 475 and 477 AD. By dark I mean was there a loss of knowledge, quality of life, social cohesion, economic activity and general sophistication of civilisation during the dark ages compared to the period before? This, of course, only applies to Europe and the Mediterranean basin.

I've heard arguments both ways on this and was curious if there was some sort of consensus. This article is what prompted me to start this thread:
https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/why-536-was-worst-year-be-alive
 
Aug 2010
14,670
Welsh Marches
#2
It is stupid in all kinds of ways to refer to the high Middle Ages as a dark age; best to restrict the term to about 500-1000 if one is going to use it at all. On the whole it's best not use value judegements as descriptive terms (although one remembers that the tem Gothic, as applied to perhaps the finest architecture ever to have been achieved in Europe, was once intended as a term of contempt.
 
Likes: Ario
Nov 2010
6,999
Cornwall
#5
But the article is about volcano eruptions, so sort of tongue in cheek on 'dark age'. And to be honest you don't need to do a huge amount of 'research' to deduce that an 18 month dark period was caused by a volcano eruption with what we know these days.

Roman imperial cohesion was long gone by 476. I'd put it around 409 in Hispania and, not unrelated, around 410 in Britannia and a mixture of a mess in Gaul. The Vandals took Carthage in 439. There wouldn't be many people around in 476 who witnessed the Barbarians crossing the Rhine in 406. For those around in 476, the subsequent Ostrogothic kingdom of Theodoric the Great would have given them a (temporary) stability they had never known in their lives.
 
Mar 2018
329
UK
#6
But the article is about volcano eruptions, so sort of tongue in cheek on 'dark age'. And to be honest you don't need to do a huge amount of 'research' to deduce that an 18 month dark period was caused by a volcano eruption with what we know these days.
Sure, the volcano is mostly unrelated, but it brought the question back to mind.

Roman imperial cohesion was long gone by 476. I'd put it around 409 in Hispania and, not unrelated, around 410 in Britannia and a mixture of a mess in Gaul. The Vandals took Carthage in 439. There wouldn't be many people around in 476 who witnessed the Barbarians crossing the Rhine in 406. For those around in 476, the subsequent Ostrogothic kingdom of Theodoric the Great would have given them a (temporary) stability they had never known in their lives.
Yes, which is why I'm not so interested in comparing 476AD with 439AD, but rather the whole late-classical period with the whole 476-800AD period.


It has become politically incorrect to talk about a Dark Ages, but there was a period where there was a sharp decline in Classical Knowledge in Western Europe, a Dark Age.
So politically incorrect, but factually correct?

I'm also interested in what exactly was declining. Would the average farmer have noticed much? Or did it mostly affect the elite/merchant classes?
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,064
Dispargum
#7
I'm also interested in what exactly was declining. Would the average farmer have noticed much? Or did it mostly affect the elite/merchant classes?
What exactly declined? - the building trades generally declined. Romanesque architecture is generally considered to be a failure. It got its name because builders were trying to duplicate Roman building techniques and styles but usually fell short. The building trades, more so than most other fields of human endeavor, were highly dependent upon experience rather than book learning. Whenever there was a 20 or 30 year stretch without any major building projects, the older generation of builders began dying off without passing their skills onto the next generation of builders.
Roads and bridges ceased to be maintained so transportation took a hit. An often told but perhaps apocryphal story is of paving stones being torn up for building materials. This would seem to contradict the previous point but not really. The roads could have been torn up at one time while the building trades declined at another. We are after all talking about a period of centuries.
Availability of education declined. If you could find a good teacher, it was still possible to get a good education in the Dark Ages, but there were fewer good teachers. Increasingly, education was taken over by the Church, and they were not interested in preserving or perpetuating all classical knowledge. We see this today in the work 'clerk' which comes from cleric because in the Dark Ages most people who could process paperwork were clergymen.

Would the average farmer have noticed? Probably not. Change was so gradual that it probably wasn't noticed in a single life span. If change was noticed it was impossible to tell the difference between short term aberration and long term trend. If an old man ever said, "Times were better when I was a boy," he still didn't know if the good times would return shortly after he died or if the bad times were permanent. This is a real risk in Medieval Studies. We tend to compress 500 or 1,000 years into just a few minutes so that we can see rapid change that in reality occurred very slowly. Most of the decline occurred very early. Already by 700 CE there were already some signs of recovery. Things were still much worse than they had been circa 375 but they were better than they had been circa 500. If you asked a random Dark Age old man if during his lifetime things had gotten better or worse, he might say they had gotten better.

Did it mostly effect the elites? This is another risk of history. Most of what we know about the past comes from written records. In Ancient and Medieval times only the elites were literate. It's difficult to understand life as experienced by the illiterate masses since they left no written records for us to study. The term 'Dark Ages' comes from this lack of records that resulted from a decline in education and literacy. Was it really a time of ignorance or is it just a time of few surviving records for historians to study? Probably a little a both.
 
Sep 2012
1,587
London, centre of my world
#8
It has become politically incorrect to talk about a Dark Ages, but there was a period where there was a sharp decline in Classical Knowledge in Western Europe, a Dark Age.
The period of sharp decline can be attributed to the spread of Christianity. I'm nearly finished reading this book below, and in it Catherine Nixey argues (quite conclusively imo) that in becoming Christian, the intellectual culture of the Classical world was discarded either by choice or force to make way for the new religion.
The barbarian invasions didn't help either.

The-Darkening-Age.jpg
 
Oct 2016
54
Ashland
#9
For the 'Dark Ages' mentioned so far in this Thread: 450-100(or so) is appropriate.
Yeah, the folks alive noticed they were in such. They did not forget Rome and sought to rebuild and emulate it for a Millennium thereafter.
As for the term 'Dark Ages' in general: many Civilizations have experienced them, though not all have recovered.
The Mayan Collapse around the year 1000, (our calendar); the Mississippian Decline around 1200; the Mediterranean Collapse circa -1200...take your pick. The lights were all going out around...wherever.
When I was about 10, I read a High School History Text which detailed the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Sent a chill down me spine. Still does.
Whatever rises, shall fall.
 
Aug 2010
14,670
Welsh Marches
#10
Oh goodness me, I'm a classicist I suppose I should be horrified that classical culture was displaced, and see that as an unequivocal 'decline', as though it had marked the height of human culture; but the classical world was very limited in its outlook in many ways, and also thoroughly barbarous in many ways, and the culture of the modern world world that sprang from Chritian culture is infinitely richer, and in no small degree as a result of its Christian roots. At the time of the time of its displacement, classical culture was largely fossilized and in terminal decline in any rate, the idea that we might have got stuck with that for centuries is a nightmare. Hurrah for the destruction that marked the beginnig of the birth-pangs of our own world.
 

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