Were The Dark Ages Really That Dark?

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Podcast Transcript

The term Dark Ages has been used to refer to a period in European history when culture supposedly regressed and civilization was in decline.

The idea of a Dark Ages is one that was prevalent amongst historians for centuries.

But lately, historians have been reconsidering the idea of a Dark Age and questioning if there really was a Dark Age.

Learn more about the Dark Ages and if they were really that dark, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


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The term the Dark Ages is one that isn’t actually used that much anymore by academic historians. However, it is one that was used for centuries, and one that is still in colloquial use today. 

The period which is referred to as the Dark Ages can vary, but it usually refers to the early Middle Ages, which is the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  

There are no exact dates for the Dark Ages, but it is roughly given as the 5th to the 10th centuries. There are some people that might extend it out centuries further.

The starting point would be the end of the western Roman empire, which is usually given as 476. This was when the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus abdicated. 

Remember back to my very first episode of this podcast, that the Roman Empire didn’t end in 476. It only ended in the west. It kept going for almost 1,000 years in the East using the city of Constinapole as its capital. Today we call it the Byzantine Empire, 

Even then, the end of the western empire wasn’t a sudden thing that happened overnight. If they had newspapers back then, there never would have been a headline one day that read, “Roman Empire Collapses!”

The idea of a dark age actually didn’t develop until the 14th century with the Italian scholar Petrarch. 

The 13th and 14th centuries saw a rediscovery of classical authors and a renewed respect for the classical Greek and Roman periods.

For centuries after the rise of Christianity, most Europeans thought of the classical period as the dark ages. This was the pre-Christian era when paganism was the dominant religion. Pangan authors and thinkers were looked down upon by European Christians. 

However, near the end of the Middle Ages, many of the Classical books which fell out of favor with the Church came back into popularity. The option of the classical period changed. No longer was it a dark period, but it became a period of enlightenment.

Petrarch wrote of the classical period, “Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom”.

Petrarch basically viewed history as being in two ages: the age of light which was the classical period, and the age of darkness, which he lived in. 

He viewed ancient Rome and Greece as eras of greatness. 

The actual phrase “dark ages” came from an Italian cardinal named Caesar Baronius in 1602. He used the Latin phrase saeculum obscurum, which more literally translates to “an age of darkness”. 

So, was Petrarch right? Did Europe sink into a dark age after the fall of the Roman Empire? 

The fall of the Roman empire in the west did in fact lead to some large scale changes and many of them were not for the better.

For starters, without a large, expansive government, trade became much more difficult. During the height of Rome, it was common for people to have items that were transported from distant corners of the empire. There is archeological evidence of ceramics from the Middle East which were found in Britain

A decrease in trade did result in a lower standard of living. Not only that, because there was no central authority, safety and security became a major concern for everyone. Resources now had to go into defense and protection that otherwise could have gone into the economy. 

Mass migrations also became a hallmark of the era. Vandals and Goths moved into areas that before were part of Rome. Spain and North Africa became the new home of the Vandals. 

The lack of a central authority also led to the division of the former empire into separate linguistic blocks. Because travel and trade were reduced, regional dialects and languages developed. This is why Romance languages such as Spanish and French evolved to be so different. 

However, the biggest thing was the rise of the Catholic Church. 

When the empire fell, the Church filled the vacuum left by the empire, at least in part. 

The Church at the local level became the center of society and the focus of culture. It also created the structure upon which education and learning were based for centuries, mostly through monasteries. 

So I think its safe to say that the material conditions and the standard of living for many people within the former Roman empire probably did decrease after the empire fell. 

But was this period intellectually backward? Was it a time of darkness?

This all assumes that before the fall of Rome that it wasn’t a time of intellectual darkness. 

The fact is, Rome really wasn’t a hotbed of technical or philosophical innovation. Yes, Greece and Rome had philosophers and there were several philosophical schools that came out of the classical period. 

However, during the Middle Ages, philosophy mostly got channeled into theology. People were still considering the same big questions about how to live a good life, but it was being done through a Christian lens instead of a Pagan one. 

With respect to technology and science, the Romans really did very little. They were great engineers to be sure, and so much of what they built survives to this day. Beyond Roman concrete, the discovery of which was really an accident, there wasn’t much that was innovative. The aqueduct, the arch all came from other cultures, even if the Romans did implement them better. 

The middle ages did see some advancements, including the greater use of windmills for grain processing, improvements in sailing, the horse collar, and the heavy plow.

Moreover, there were several minor renaissances that most people overlook. After the rise of King Charlemagne, an event that historians call the Carolingian Renaissance took place in the 8th and 9th centuries. This was a revival in literature, art, and architecture. 

Even the Vandal Kings encouraged literature and funded architectural projects. 

Likewise, if you want to compare architecture with the Romans, I think you can pit the great Romanesque cathedrals of the Dark Ages against anything built by the Romans. 

There is one other thing I have to address because it always comes up in any discussion about the dark ages: Islam.

One common reply to the idea of if there was a dark age is that it was only dark in Europe. In the Islamic Caliphate, it was their golden age. 

I would say that this is partially true. 

Progress in science and mathematics certainly did advance faster under Islam during this period. This wasn’t so much that it was suppressed in Europe, but rather the Caliphate had more money to spend to sponsor these academic pursuits. 

The Caliphate had the same benefits that the Roman empire had. A large single trading market, a rather large mass of land with no internal strife, and a common language in Arabic.  

Also, the Caliphate brought in scholars from all over, not just from Islamic-controlled lands, and they were able to do that with power and money.

So, I think it’s pretty clear that there wasn’t in fact a dark age in Europe. The idea of a dark age comes from a collapse in trade and government after the fall of the Roman empire, which did exist, and over romanticizing the classical world by later European scholars. 

While the Islamic world did advance further during this period, that doesn’t mean that Europe regressed during this period.

So instead of calling it the Dark Ages, we can probably just stick to the Middle Ages.