We have an awful lot of fiction out there set in something not entirely unlike our Middle Ages. Almost every cookie-cutter fantasy world is faux-medieval, and that’s only the ones that aren’t trying to be. The Renaissance and early Industrial Era also get plenty of love, and Roman antiquity even comes up from time to time. But there’s one time period in our history that seems a bit…left out. I’m talking about those centuries after Rome fell to the barbarian hordes, but before William crossed the Channel to give England the same fate. I’m talking about the Dark Ages.
A brighter shade of dark
Now, as we know today, what previous generations called the Dark Ages weren’t really all that dark. Sure, there were Vikings and Vandals, barbarians and Britons, Goths and Gauls, but it wasn’t a complete disaster. The reason we speak of the “Dark Ages”, though, is contrast. Rome was a magnificent empire by any account, and the first to coin the “Dark Age” moniker on its fallen children were living in the equally “shining” Enlightenment. By comparison, the time between wasn’t exactly grand.
Even in our modern knowledge, the notion of a Dark Age is still useful, even if it doesn’t quite mean what we think it means. In general, we can use it to refer to any period of technological, social, and political stagnation and regression. That’s not to say there wasn’t progress in the Dark Ages. One great book about the period is titled Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, and that’s a pretty good indication of some of the advancement that did happen.
Compared to what came before—the Roman empire, with its Colosseum and aqueducts and roads—there’s a huge difference, especially at the start of the Dark Ages. In some parts of Europe, particularly those farthest from the imperial center, general conditions fell to their lowest levels in hundreds of years. While the Empire itself actually did survive in the east in the form of the Byzantines (who were even considered the “true” emperors by the first generations of barbarian kings), the west was shattered, and it showed. But they dug themselves out of that hole, as we know.
So, even granting our more limited definition of “Dark Ages”, what caused them? Well, there are a lot of theories. Rome was sacked in 476, of course, and that’s usually considered a primary cause. A serious cold snap starting around 536 couldn’t have helped matters. Plagues around the same time combined with the war and famine to cause even greater death, completing the quartet of the Horsemen.
But all that together shouldn’t have been enough to devastate the society of western Europe, should it? If it happened today, it wouldn’t, because our world is so connected, so small, relative to Roman times. If the whole host of apocalyptic horror visited the EU today, hundreds of millions of people would die, but we wouldn’t have a new Dark Age. The reason can be summed up in one word: continuity.
Yes, half of the Roman Empire survived. In a way, it was the stronger half, but it was also the more distant half. When Rome fell, when all the other catastrophes visited its remnants, the effect was to cause a cultural break. Many parts of the empire were already more or less autonomous, growing ever more apart, and the loss of the “center of gravity” that was Rome merely hastened the process.
A look at Britain illustrates this. After Rome all but gave up on its island colony, England all but gave up on it. Outside of the monasteries, Rome was practically forgotten within a few generations, once the Saxons and their other Germanic friends rolled in. The Danes that started vacationing there in the ninth century cared even less for news from four hundred years ago. By the time William came conquering, Anglo-Saxon England was a far cry from Roman Britannia. This is an extreme example, though, because there was almost no continuity in Britain to start with, so there wasn’t much to lose. However, similar stories appear throughout Europe.
Although Europe’s Dark Ages are a thousand years past, they aren’t the only example of the kind of discontinuity of a Dark Age. Something of the same sort happened in Greece two thousand years before that. The native peoples of America can be considered to have a Dark Age that started circa 1500, as the mighty empires of Mexico and Peru fell to Spanish invaders.
In every case, though, it’s more than just the fall of a civilization. A Dark Age needs a prolonged period of destruction, probably at least two generations long. To make an age go Dark requires severe population loss, a total breakdown of government, and the forcing of a kind of “siege mentality” on a society. Climatic shifts are just a bonus. In all, a Dark Age results from a perfect storm of causes, all of which combine to break the people. Eventually, due to the death, destruction, and constant need to be on guard, everything else falls by the wayside. There simply aren’t enough people to keep things going. Once those that are left start dying off, the noose closes. The circle is broken, and darkness settles in.
That naturally leads to another question: could we have a new Dark Age? It’s hard to imagine, in our present time of progress, something ever causing it to stop, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Indeed, almost the entire sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction hinges on this very event. It can happen, but—thankfully—it won’t be easy.
What would it take, then? Well, like the Dark Ages that have come before, it would be a combination of factors. Something causing death on a massive, unprecedented scale. Something to put humanity on the back foot, to disrupt the flow of society so completely that it would take more than a lifetime to recover. In that case, it would never recover, because there would be no one left who remembered the “old days”. There would be no more continuity.
I can think of a few ways that could work. The ever-popular asteroid or comet impact is an easy one, and it even has the knock-on effect of a severe climate shock. Nuclear war never really seemed likely in my lifetime, but I was born in 1983, so I missed the darker days of the Cold War. I did watch WarGames, though, and I remember seeing those world maps lighting up at the end. Two hundred years after that, and I don’t think we’re looking at a Fallout game.
Other options all have their problems. An incredibly virulent outbreak (Plague, Inc. or your favorite zombie movie) might work, but it would have to be so bad that it makes the 1918 flu look like the common cold. Zika is in the news right now, but it simply won’t cut it, nor would Ebola. You need something highly infectious, but with a long incubation period and a massive mortality rate. It’s hard to find a virus that fits all three of those, for evolutionary reasons. The other forms of infectious agents—bacteria, fungi, prions—all have their own disadvantages.
Climate change is the watchword of the day, but it won’t cause a Dark Age by itself. It’s too slow, and even the most alarming predictions don’t take us to temperatures much higher than a few thousand years ago, and that’s assuming that nobody ever does anything about it. No matter what you believe about global warming, you can’t make it enough to break us without some help.
Terminator-style AI is another possibility, one looking increasingly likely these days. It has some potential for catastrophe, but I’m not sure about using it as the continuity-breaker. The same goes for nanotech bots and the like. Maybe they’ll enslave us, but they won’t beat us down so badly that we lose everything.
And then there’s aliens. (Insert History Channel guy here.) An alien-imposed destruction of civilization would be the logical extension of the Roman hordes into the global future. Their attacks would likely be massive enough to influence the planet’s climate. They would cause us to huddle together for mutual defense, assuming they left any of us alive and alone. Yeah, that could work. It needs a lot of ifs, but it’s plausible enough to make for a good story.
The light returns
The Dark Age has to come to an end. It can’t last forever. But there’s no easy signal that it’s over. Instead, it’s a gradual thing. The key point here, though, is that what comes out of the Dark Age won’t be the same as what went in. Look again at Europe. After Rome fell, some of its advances—concrete is a good example—were lost to its descendants for a thousand years. Yet the continent did finally surpass the empire.
Over time, the natural course of progress will lift the Dark Age area to a level that is near enough where it left off, and things can proceed from there. It will be a different place, and that’s because of the discontinuity that caused the darkness in the first place. The old ways become lost, yes, but once we discover the new ways, they’ll be even better.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton said. Those giants are our ancestors, whether physically or culturally. Sometimes they fall, and sometimes the fall is bad enough that it breaks them. Then we must stand on our own and become our own giants. The Dark Age is that time when we’re standing alone.