In the title of this post, “last” means “previous” rather than “final”, for I truly believe we are on the precipice of a new Dark Age. With that in mind, it’s not that bad an idea to look back at the one that came before.
Defining the moment
A lot of modern academics don’t even like talking about the Dark Ages. They prefer the bland descriptor “Early Middle Ages” instead. But that line of thinking is faulty in multiple respects.
First, the given reasoning for referring to the Dark Ages as something else is because the “darkness” of the times was a localized concept. Outside of Europe, it wasn’t all that dark. Islam, for instance, had a bit of a renaissance around the same time, and China barely noticed the troubles of the West at all.
However, this same logic should dictate that the Middle Ages are no less localized. After all, the term comes from post-medieval sources who placed that time between their modern era and the classical period of the Greeks and Romans. Similarly, is referring to the Iron Age (which began around the time of the Greek Dark Ages, starting in 1177 BC) any less patronizing? Iron tools were never developed by natives in the Americas or Australia; what was the Iron Age in Anatolia would have been nothing more than the later Stone Age in Mesoamerica. The Middle Ages aren’t “middle” at all, except through the same lens that gives us the Dark Ages.
The second reason why it’s an error to conflate the Dark Ages with the Middle Ages is character, and it’s the subject of this post.
Beginning and ending
Before we can get to that, though, we need to define the limits of the period. The beginning is fairly easy, because Europe’s decline can be traced directly to the fall of Rome in 476 AD. This event was the culmination of decades of barbarian activity, with the entire empire facing threats from waves of migrant Vandals, Goths, Huns, and others. Those peoples slowly encroached upon Roman territory, nipping away at the borders, until they were able to reach the capital itself. Rome was sacked, and the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fled into exile. Or was sent there. Conflicting tales exist, but the gist is clear: Europe no longer bowed to Rome.
Things didn’t change overnight, of course. The barbarian kings often paid homage to the Byzantine emperor who continued to style himself Roman all the way to the 15th century. For a time, they considered themselves successors to the western throne, or at least to the provinces it had once controlled.
No, the Dark Ages only truly began once continuity was lost. That was a slow breakdown over years, decades, generations. The barbarian hordes lacked Roman culture. Without an imperial presence in Europe, that culture began to disappear, fading into memory as those who continued to consider themselves Roman aged and died. Later in the post, we’ll look at what that entailed.
As for when the Dark Ages ended, that’s a tougher question. Some might point to the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Indeed, this did rejuvenate Europe for a time, bringing about the Carolingian Renaissance, and the 9th century gave us a few technological advances; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, by Joseph and Frances Gies, details some of these, including the three in the book’s title.
Another date might be 927, marking the defeat of the Vikings by Æthelstan, first King of England. This was significant from both a political and religious standpoint, as England became a unified Christian kingdom for the first time in its history; Spain, for instance, wouldn’t manage that for nearly 600 years. And Æthelstan’s victory over the Danes did begin to bring about the changes that define the Middle Ages, such as the feudal system.
Still others would argue that the Dark Ages didn’t really end until William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. By this point, all the pieces of the Middle Ages were in place, from the manorial society to the schism of Catholic and Orthodox. The Reconquista had begun in Spain, Turks were overrunning Byzantine lands, and the Crusades were about to begin. Clearly, the world had moved on from the Fall of Rome.
Personally, I think that’s too late, while the Charlemagne date of 800 seems a bit too early. But it may be that there is no single date we can point to and say, “The Dark Ages ended here.” Rather, there’s a continuum. The period ended at different times in different places throughout Europe, as connections to the past were rediscovered, and connections among those in the present were strengthened.
When the period began, the results were devastating. As Roman rule fell, so too did Roman institutions. The roads, so famous that we enshrine them in aphorisms, began to succumb to the ravages of time. Likewise for the bath, the forum, the legal framework, and the educational system.
The replacements weren’t always up to par, either. One of the reasons the Dark Ages are, well, dark is because of the relative lack of written works from the time. We have tons of Roman-era books: Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Ovid’s masterpieces, the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and even the New Testament of the Bible all come from the Roman world. By contrast, the best-known writings to come from the period 476-1066 are histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, religious texts such as those by Bede, and Beowulf.
That’s not to say that people in the Dark Ages were stupid. Far from it. Instead, they had different priorities. They lived in a different world, one that didn’t have much opportunity for philosophy. Even when it did, that was almost exclusively the domain of the Church, one of the few institutions that retained some measure of continuity with the previous age.
With the breakdown of Roman society came a change in the way people saw themselves. While the barbarians did become civilized, they didn’t become Romanized. Gone were the trappings of republic and the scholastic zeal we associate with Late Antiquity. Dark Age society focused more on tribal identity, family honor, and individual heroism. The world, in a sense, shrank for the average person. Some of the changes came from the pagan background of the Gauls, Goths, and others, but they retained them even after converting to Christianity.
The unifying power of the Church may have helped usher in the end of the Dark Ages, in that it created the backdrop for the centralization of secular power, turning petty kingdoms into nation-states. Seven English kingdoms became a single England. Vast swathes of Europe fell under the rule of the emperor in Aachen. And this could be seen as lifting the continent out of the mire. A powerful nation can build bigger than a small tribe; the grand cathedrals begun in the ninth and tenth centuries are evidence of that.
But that didn’t change the fact that so much had been lost. In some places, particularly rural Britain, standards of living (which weren’t all that high in Roman times, to be fair) dropped to a level not seen since the Bronze Age, some 2000 years before. With Roman construction and sanitation forgotten, life expectancies fell, as did urban population. This was the Dark Ages in a nutshell. When Hobbes describes early man’s life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” he’s also talking about post-Roman, pre-medieval Europe. A life without even the most basic trappings of civilization, with little hope for advancement except through heroic deeds, with the specter of death lurking around every corner…that’s not much of a life at all.
The Dark Ages did, however, come to an end. As I said above, the ninth century brought about the Carolingian Renaissance, a small uplifting. Much later came the 12th-century version, which brought about the High Middle Ages. Bits of darkness lingered all the way to 1453, when the last vestige of ancient Rome fell to the Ottoman Empire.
Odoacer’s sack of the imperial capital in 476 brought about, in a sense, the end of the world. When Mehmed II did the same thing to the other Roman capital, Constantinople, a millennium later, the effect was quite different. Instead of a new Dark Age, the end of the Byzantines fanned the flames of the Renaissance. The true Renaissance, the one which deserves this name. By then, so much of classical times had been forgotten by Europe at large, but it was now rediscovered, the bonds reforged.
Dark Ages end when light shines through. Or when enough people decide that they are destined for greater things. In Europe, the three centuries after 476 were a period of stasis, even regression. What little of our modern media touches on this period tends to focus on heroes real or invented: Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and so on. That’s understandable, as the life of the ordinary Saxon in Winchester, the Frank in Paris, or the Lombard in Pavia is relatively dull and uninspiring. The ones whose names we remember are those who rose above that. Heroes exist in every age, no matter what the society around them looks like.
Darkness, in this sense, can be defeated. This is a darkness of ignorance, of barbarism, of tribal infighting. Knowledge is the light that washes it away. To this day, we still can’t recreate some of the progress of Antiquity: we don’t know precisely how the Romans made their concrete, the composition of Greek fire, or the purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism.
Those secrets were lost because continuity was lost. The passing of culture from one generation to the next stopped, breaking a chain that had endured for centuries. With our interconnected world of today, it’s easy to think that can’t happen anymore. After all, we can call up an entire library on our phones. But what happens when that chain is sabotaged? What happens when culture and history are intentionally altered or buried? The result would be a new Dark Age.
Culture and history forgotten. Waves of migrants. Cities sacked. The loss of classical education and scholasticism. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?