P8BGCH Genseric's Vandals in Italy. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION.

In defence of the Dark Ages

The early medieval period really was “dark” both in terms of the historical record and in contrast to the sophistication of Rome

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Last month, the economist Tyler Cowen interviewed the writer and investor Paul Graham on his podcast. There he asked one of those classic interview questions: if you had a time machine, where would you go? Graham confessed that he struggled to resist the “obvious answer”, ancient Athens. But in the end, he opted for somewhere less conventional. “Provence in 600 — I would be very interested to see that.” He was compelled by “morbid curiosity” to find out “what the hell was going on in Dark-Age Europe”; he was “deliberately using” that term, he added, “because they’re trying to outlaw it”.

Who’s trying to outlaw the “Dark Ages”? The campaign is led mainly by academics who, having devoted much of their lives to illuminating the period, have developed a natural sympathy towards it, and hope to rescue it from the condescension of posterity. In 2017 the medieval historian Eleanor Janega wrote a punchy article called “There’s no such thing as the Dark Ages, but OK”. “If you take the time to actually, you know, study the medieval period,” she informs us, “it becomes very apparent very quickly that there was a tremendous amount of intensive thought happening” — epitomised by Thomas Aquinas, a “badass philosopher who will think you under the fucking table”. 

Janega’s view is shared by many. The Twitter account “Fake History Hunter”, boasting over 250,000 followers, spends a great deal of time enlightening those who, in their benighted ignorance, deploy the term.

 In America, where the public function of the historian seems to have morphed into that of the “myth-buster”, the charge has been led by Matthew Gabriele. In 2016 Gabriele wrote an article for the Washington Post on “five myths about the Middle Ages”. Here are the first four: “Christianity and Islam were constantly in conflict”; “everyone deferred to religious authority”; “Europeans in the Middle Ages were white and Christian”; “everyone thought the earth was flat”. Using words like “everyone” and “constantly” is a cunning strategy. With the bar set so low, whatever the fundamental truth of any of these claims (only the fourth, I think, can reasonably be called a “myth”), all our “debunker” has to do is find a single counter- example. And then comes the fifth “myth”: “these were the ‘Dark Ages’”. Here Gabriele is making a category error. To call them the “Dark Ages” is a rhetorical manoeuvre; it is even, as Lucie Varga wrote in 1932, a “battle-cry”. It is not the sort of evidential claim that can be “debunked”.

Janega is wrong that the term would only be used by someone ignorant of medieval history. Using what I call the “Gabriele method” of myth-debunking, I can unravel her claim simply by pointing at an exception. Fortunately for my purposes, some of the giants of medieval history, upon whose shoulders Janega and Gabriele squat like dwarves, used the term. 

F.W. Maitland used it a few times in his essays. Sir Frank Stenton used it in his magnum opus, Anglo-Saxon England (1943). It can even be found in the work of Peter Brown, who has done more than any living historian to brighten up the period. Those scholars tended to use it in a careful, circumscribed way; but that they have used it at all should dispel the idea that it denotes historical ignorance.

For good or for ill, the darkness of those centuries retains its hold over the popular imagination

For good or for ill, the darkness of those centuries retains its hold over the popular imagination. Michael Wood’s In Search of the Dark Ages (1979–81) remains one of the BBC’s best historical documentaries. Slapping the “Dark Ages” onto a book probably makes it sell better (as the American publishers of Christopher Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome seem to have surmised, when they gave it the subtitle “Illuminating the Dark Ages”). It is easy to feel a kneejerk impulse to defend popular ideas from those who would quibble or “outlaw” them. But there is a good case to be made in defence of the “Dark Ages”. The Dark Age debunkers have spent long enough tilting at straw men; it is high time that we erect a steel man for them to swipe at in its stead. 

It is difficult to say who came up with the “Dark Ages”. Theodor Ernst Mommsen found traces of it in Petrarch, though these are not sufficient to assert, as Tristan Hughes of Dan Snow’s History Hit does, that Petrarch “coined” the term. What is certain is that Petrarch and other Renaissance humanists held the recent past in low esteem when compared to the glories of ancient Rome; indeed, this is the same idea that gave rise to the (less-contested) “Middle Ages”. 

Their perspective was later shared, albeit for different reasons, by Protestant polemicists such as Gilbert Burnet, who, in turn, carried it forth into the Enlightenment. Perhaps because it was most definitively articulated by Edward Gibbon, it is mainly an English term, lacking immediate equivalents in other languages. And it is hardly surprising that its earliest critics were Catholics: Christopher Dawson wrote in 1932 that the Dark Ages “are not dark as much as ages of dawn, for they witnessed the conversion of the West, the foundation of Christian civilisation, and the creation of Christian art and Catholic liturgy”.

The meaning of the “Dark Ages” has never been fixed

The meaning of the “Dark Ages” has never been fixed. Janega and Gabriele seem to follow the definition offered by the 1883 American Cyclopaedia: that it refers to “that period of intellectual depression in the history of Europe from the establishment of barbarian supremacy in the fifth century to the revival of learning about the beginning of the fifteenth”. By this definition, the Dark Ages are roughly coeval with the Middle Ages.

There is, however, another interpretation — which Wikipedia, for all it’s worth, holds to be the more mainstream. A spate of books from fin-de-siècle writers like Samuel R. Maitland, W.P. Ker and Charles Oman bore the “Dark Ages” on their covers. All are specifically concerned with the early Middle Ages (and its overlap with what is now popularly known as “late antiquity”). The encyclopaedias caught up with them. In 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica defined the “Dark Ages” as running from the “fifth to the tenth centuries”, and Americana defined it as the “period extending from the fall of the Roman Empire” to the “revival of literature on the discovery of the Pandects at Amalfi” in the twelfth century.

The first of these bookends, the Fall of Rome, is standard; the second is more eccentric. But it can be swapped for pretty much any other intellectual watershed: the foundation of the first university at Bologna; the translation of Aristotle’s Politics into Latin; even any of the much-hyped Carolingian, Ottonian, or twelfth-century “renaissances” (which, like the capital-R Renaissance, implies some degree of prior darkness). 

Catholic scholars, such as cardinal Caesar Baronius at the beginning of the seventeenth century, determined the crucial moment to be the Gregorian reforms in the middle of the eleventh century, heralding the end of the papacy’s saeculum obscurum (“Dark Age”). More fundamentally, as ten-fingered primates, there are aesthetic reasons to latch on to the years between c.500 and c.1000. Any of these definitions ought to allay Janega’s anxieties about categorising Thomas Aquinas (1225–174) as a “Dark Age” thinker.

A further complication arises. Aside from its chronological scope, there is ambiguity about the nature of the Age’s “darkness”. Its original sense was a value judgement: the Dark Ages were a time of violence and barbarism, ignorance and upheaval. Sometimes, however, it is applied in a more superficially neutral sense, referring to a relative paucity of sources that leave us “in the dark”. The two are not necessarily distinct from one another. Those who subscribe to the first will point to the second as further proof of intellectual sterility and decline.

It does seem fair to say that scholars of the “Dark Ages” must rely more on conjecture than scholars of practically anything else. European manuscript production was substantially lower between c.500 and c.1000 than between c.1000 and c.1500. According to the estimations of Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten van Zanden, the rate of manuscript production increased around 150-fold between the sixth century and the thirteenth. 

Moreover, what early literary sources we do have — hagiographies, liturgies, Biblical exegesis, and suchlike — are often derivative and repetitive, and can only tell us so much. For the outsider, the astonishing thing about this period must surely be how much is unknown. Dates, names, places, the basic stuff of historical narrative that would be taken for granted by historians of almost any other place and period, are so often out of reach.

As for the value judgement, the traditional view of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages has much to recommend it. The fashion for emphasising its “vibrancy” has led some historians to underestimate its less pleasant features, like the scale and impact of the Justinianic Plague (AD 541–9). But the darkness of the Dark Ages is relative. It is dark only insofar as what came before it was “light”. Its end point may be moot, but what really matters is its starting point. Thus the controversy over the “Dark Ages” is, in some respects, a proxy for an even greater historical controversy: how bad was the Fall of Rome? 

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Once upon a time, everyone would have answered “very”; but nothing is so sacred that historians will not try to subvert it. Parallel to the demise of the “Dark Ages”, a new approach to the collapse of the Western empire in the fifth century has gained ground. Once the story was “decline and fall”; now, as Roger Collins ironically put it, it is one of “disaggregation and terminal thinning-out”. “Fall” and “crisis” have become passé; “transition” and “transformation” are the mots du jour. 

Indeed, it is no coincidence, as Bryan Ward-Perkins pointed out in 2005, that the European Science Foundation’s research project on this period was called “The Transformation of the Roman World”. It played to the gallery in Brussels to have Romans and Germans coming together in comradeship rather than battle to pave the way for a Romano-German “Father of Europe”, Charlemagne. This had a profound impact on the notion of the “Dark Ages”: it is much easier to imagine Europe “falling” into a Dark Age than “transforming” into one.

If we got a faint whiff of politics from Janega and Gabriele, here at last the beast rears its head. The central question about the Fall of Rome is whether it was brought about by barbarian migrations. It is not hard to imagine how this has become sensitive. Those who support the view that barbarian migrations did play a decisive role, such as Ward-Perkins and his Oxford colleague Peter Heather, are accused of writing their accounts “sufficiently carelessly as to provide succour to far-right extremists”. 

To his credit, their accuser is bracingly honest about what he is up to. “There is no attempt here to escape or deny the political dimension”, Guy Halsall wrote in the introduction to a 2014 essay on the Fall of Rome; “my aim is partly to provide a basis for a more politically and ethically responsible intervention by historians in modern political debate about migration”.

So the rise of the “tea party” theory of the Fall of Rome, as Ward-Perkins calls it, aided the demise of the “Dark Ages”. If Rome’s fall wasn’t so calamitous, if the barbarians were just friendly foreigners, if their successor kingdoms kept the Roman flame alight rather than snuffing it out, then it makes no sense to speak of the “Dark Ages” at all. 

But the problem is that things did get worse. After the Fall of Rome, there is simply less of everything — less coinage and pottery to excavate, less graffiti on the walls. People at all levels became less literate. Buildings became smaller. Cattle became even smaller than they were during the Iron Age. Things were dark in both senses.

Of course, some reject the term for different reasons. Dame Janet Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest living historians, did so because she found tremendous luminosity in the writings of a handful of early-medieval intellectuals. But she rightly acknowledges such characters only illuminate their own “micro-worlds”. In my view, the genius of Bede, say, or Boethius, is all the more remarkable because it belongs to such an age. A candle in a dark room appears intensely bright when you stare at it closely; only when you zoom out does its relative dimness emerge.

All this has made me think of my guiltiest literary pleasure, Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1991). After pages of speculation about C.S. Lewis’s sexual masochism and David Knowles’s “retarded Oedipal maturation”, Cantor makes a serious point, highlighting an important divide among the twentieth-century medievalists he surveys. Most were characterised by “positive identification with one or other facet of medieval civilisation”. But there was a minority tradition of “Outriders”, who “bore an essentially negative attitude to the Middle Ages, rather than being in one way or another enthusiasts for it”.

The Outriders have been outmanoeuvred; they have even been deprived of their battle-cry. The “enthusiasts” are in the ascendant. Janega admires its “badass” philosophy; Halsall admires the lessons it can teach us about contemporary immigration policy; Gabriele co-wrote a book called The Bright Ages which, as though to rub salt in the wound, joins Seb Falk’s The Light Ages on the medieval history shelves at Waterstones. 

If they get to make value judgements, why should we not do the same? There are plenty of reasons to agree with Paul Graham that, “if the term ‘Dark Ages’ hadn’t been invented already, it would be a fabulous invention to describe that period”. 

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