Why Was 900 Years of European History Labelled ‘the Dark Ages’?

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

01 Nov 2018

The term ‘The Dark Ages’ refers to the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance: the 5th – 14th centuries. It has been suggested that this period saw little scientific and cultural advancement. However, the term doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny – and many medieval historians have dismissed it.

The coining of ‘the Dark Ages’

The first person to coin the term ‘Dark Ages’ was believed to be Francesco Petrarca (known as Petrarch), an Italian scholar of the 14th century. He bestowed this label upon the period in which he lived as he was dismayed at the lack of good literature at that time.

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The classical era was rich with apparent cultural advancement. Both Roman and Greek civilisations had provided the world with contributions to art, science, philosophy, architecture and political systems.

Granted, there were aspects of Roman and Greek society and culture that were very unsavoury (Gladiatorial combat and slavery to name a few), but after Rome’s fall and subsequent withdrawal from power, European history is portrayed as taking a ‘wrong turn’. 

After Petrarch’s disparagement of the ‘dark age’ of literature, other thinkers of the time expanded this term to encompass this perceived dearth of culture in general across Europe between 500 to 1400. These dates are under constant scrutiny by historians as there is a degree of overlap in dates, cultural and regional variations and many other factors. The time is often referred to with terms like the Middle-Ages or Feudal Period (another term that is now contentious amongst medievalists).

Later on, as more evidence came to light after the 18th century, scholars started to restrict the term ‘Dark Ages’ to the period between the 5th and 10th centuries. This period came to be referred to as the Early Middle Ages.

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Busting the ‘Dark Ages’ myth

Labelling this large period of history as a time of little cultural advancement and its peoples as unsophisticated is, however, a sweeping generalisation and regularly considered to be incorrect. Indeed, many argue that ‘the Dark Ages’ never truly happened.

In a time epitomised by extensive increases in Christian missionary activity, it appears Early Middle Age kingdoms lived in a very interconnected world.

The early English Church for instance relied heavily on priests and bishops who had trained abroad. In the late 7th century, the archbishop Theodore founded a school at Canterbury that would go on to become a key centre of scholarly learning in Anglo-Saxon England. Theodore himself had originated from Tarsus in south-eastern Asia Minor (now south-central Turkey) and had trained in Constantinople.

People were not just travelling to Anglo-Saxon England however. Anglo-Saxon men and women were also regular sights in mainland Europe. Nobles and commoners went on frequent and often perilous pilgrimages to Rome and even further afield. A record even survives of Frankish observers complaining about a monastery in Charlemagne’s kingdom that was run by an English abbot called Alcuin:

“O God, deliver this monastery from these Britons who come swarming around this countryman of theirs like bees returning to their queen.”

A statue of Alcuin. Credit: Hubertl / Commons.

International trade

Trade too reached far and wide during the Early Middle Ages. Certain Anglo-Saxon coins have European influences, visible in two gold Mercian coins. One coin dates to the reign of King Offa (r. 757–796). It is inscribed with both Latin and Arabic and is a direct copy of coinage minted by the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad.

The other coin portrays Coenwulf (r. 796–821), Offa’s successor, as a Roman emperor. Mediterranean-influenced gold coins such as these probably reflect extensive international trade.

The early Middle Age kingdoms thus lived in a very interconnected world and from this sprung many cultural, religious and economic developments.

The Early Middle Age renaissance of literature and learning

Developments in learning and literature did not disappear during the Early Middle Ages. In fact, it appears it was quite the opposite: literature and learning was highly valued and encouraged in many Early Middle Age kingdoms.

During the late eighth and early ninth centuries for instance, the Emperor Charlemagne’s court became the centre for a renaissance of learning that ensured the survival of many classical Latin texts as well as generating much that was new and distinctive.

A painting of the Emperor Charlemagne and the English scholar and clergyman Alcuin.

Across the Channel in England, around 1300 manuscripts survive dating to before 1100. These manuscripts focus on a wide array of topics: religious texts, medicinal remedies, estate management, scientific discoveries, travels to the continent, prose texts and verse texts to name a few.

Monasteries were centres of production for most of these manuscripts during the Early Middle Ages. They were created by either priests, abbots, archbishops, monks, nuns or abbesses.

It is notable that women had a significant role in literature and learning at this time. An eighth century abbess of Minster-in-Thanet called Eadburh taught and produced poetry in her own verse, while an English nun called Hygeburg recorded a pilgrimage to Jerusalem made by a West-Saxon monk called Willibald at the beginning of the eighth century.

Many well-off women who were not members of a religious community also had well-documented interests in literature, such as Queen Emma of Normandy, the wife of King Cnut.

The will of a rich, Mercian widow called Wynflaed. In the will she leaves her books to her daughter. © British Library Board.

It appears literature and learning did suffer upon the arrival of the Vikings during the ninth century (something which King Alfred the Great famously bemoaned). But this lull was temporary and it was followed by a resurgence in learning.

The painstaking work required to create these manuscripts meant that they were highly-cherished by the elite class in Early Middle Age Christian Europe; owning literature became a symbol of power and wealth.

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There is plenty of evidence to negate Petrarch’s view that the Early Middle Ages was a dark age of literature and learning. In fact, it was a time where literature was encouraged and highly-valued, especially by the upper-echelons of Early Middle Age society.

The British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War (curated by Dr Claire Breay and Dr Alison Hudson) is open until Tuesday 19 February 2019.