Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Dark Ages (historiography)

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Dark Ages (historiography)

Dark Ages is a term of historical periodisation used to refer to a period of supposed cultural and economic deterioration, and scarcity of written record, usually being contrasted with the more recent times of the writer and with classical antiquity. Its original use referred to the Western European Middle Ages (roughly the 6th to 14th centuries), emphasising the perceived decline following the fall of the Roman Empire.


The term employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the 'darkness' of the period in question with earlier and later periods of 'light'. The concept of a 'Dark Age' originated from the Italian scholar Petrarch in the 1330s, and was originally intended as a sweeping criticism of Late Latin literature. Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as 'dark' compared to the 'light' of classical antiquity. The actual term derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th centuries.

This original definition is still sometimes found in popular use, but increased recognition of accomplishments during the Middle Ages has since the 20th century led to the appellation usually being restricted to the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century). However, many modern scholars of the era tend to avoid the term for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate. Popular culture has tended to use it more pejoratively to refer to a time of backwardness.


The term was originally intended to denote the entire period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, similarly to 'Middle Ages' and implying an intermediate period between Classical Antiquity and the Modern era. In the 19th century scholars began to recognise the accomplishments of the period, which challenged the image a time exclusively of darkness and decay. Nowadays the term is not used by scholars to refer to the entire medieval period; when used, it is generally restricted to the Early Middle Ages.

The rise of archaeology in the 20th century has shed light on the period, offering a more nuanced understanding of its achievements. Other terms of periodisation have come to the fore: Late Antiquity, the Early Middle Ages, and the Great Migrations, depending on which aspects of culture are being emphasised. Today, on the rare occasions when the term is used by historians, it is intended to be neutral and express the idea that the period often seems 'dark' from the scarcity of historical record, and artistic and cultural output.


The idea of a Dark Age originated with the Tuscan scholar Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of the past, he said: "Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom". Christian writers, including Petrarch himself, had long used traditional metaphors of 'light versus darkness' to describe 'good versus evil'. Petrarch was the first to give the metaphor secular meaning by reversing its application. He now saw Classical Antiquity, so long considered a 'dark' age for its lack of Christianity, in the 'light' of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch's own time, allegedly lacking such cultural achievements, was seen as the age of darkness.

From his perspective on the Italian peninsular, Petrarch saw the Roman and classical period as an expression of greatness. He spent much of his time travelling through Europe, rediscovering and republishing classic Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the Latin language to its former purity. Renaissance humanists saw the preceding 900 years as a time of stagnation, with history unfolding not along the religious outline of Saint Augustine's Six Ages of the World, but in cultural (or secular) terms through progressive development of classical ideals, literature, and art.

Petrarch wrote that history had two periods: the classic period of Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness in which he saw himself living. In around 1343, in the conclusion of his epic Africa, he wrote: "My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance." In the 15th century, historians Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo developed a three-tier outline of history. They used Petrarch's two ages, plus a modern, 'better age', which they believed the world had entered. Later the term 'Middle Ages' - Latin media tempestas (1469) or medium aevum (1604) - was used to describe the period of supposed decline.


During the Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants generally had a similar view to Renaissance Humanists such as Petrarch, but also added an Anti-Catholic perspective. They saw classical antiquity as a golden time, not only because of its Latin literature, but also because it witnessed the beginnings of Christianity. They promoted the idea that the 'Middle Age' was a time of darkness also because of corruption within the Roman Catholic Church, such as: Popes ruling as kings, veneration of saints relics, a celibate priesthood, and institutionalised moral hypocrisy.


In response to the Protestants, Catholics developed a counter-image to depict the High Middle Ages in particular as a period of social and religious harmony, and not 'dark' at all. The most important Catholic reply to the Magdeburg Centuries was the Annales Ecclesiastici by Cardinal Caesar Baronius. Baronius was a trained historian who produced a work that the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1911 described as "far surpassing anything before" and that Acton regarded as "the greatest history of the Church ever written". The Annales covered the first twelve centuries of Christianity to 1198, and was published in twelve volumes between 1588 and 1607. It was in Volume X that Baronius coined the term 'dark age' for the period between the end of the Carolingian Empire in 888 and the first stirrings of Gregorian Reform under Pope Clement II in 1046:

"The new age (saeculum) which was beginning, for its harshness and barrenness of good could well be called iron, for its baseness and abounding evil leaden, and moreover for its lack of writers (inopia scriptorum) dark (obscurum)".

Significantly, Baronius termed the age 'dark' because of the paucity of written records. The "lack of writers" he referred to may be illustrated by comparing the number of volumes in Migne's Patrologia Latina containing the work of Latin writers from the 10th century (the heart of the age he called 'dark') with the number containing the work of writers from the preceding and succeeding centuries. A minority of these writers were historians.

There is a sharp drop from 33 volumes in the 9th century to just 7 in the 10th. The 11th century, with 12, evidences a certain recovery, and the 12th century, with 39, surpasses the 9th, something the 13th, with just 25, fails to do. There was indeed a 'dark age', in Baronius's sense of a "lack of writers", between the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th century and the beginnings, some time in the 11th, of what has been called the Renaissance of the 12th century. Furthermore, there was an earlier period of "lack of writers" during the 7th and 8th centuries. So, in Western Europe, two 'dark ages' can be identified, separated by the brilliant but brief Carolingian Renaissance.

Baronius's 'dark age' seems to have struck historians, for it was in the 17th century that the term started to proliferate in various European languages, with his original Latin term 'saeculum obscurum' being reserved for the period he had applied it to. But while some, following Baronius, used 'dark age' neutrally to refer to a dearth of written records, others used it pejoratively, lapsing into that lack of objectivity that has discredited the term for many modern historians.

The first British historian to use the term was most likely Gilbert Burnet, in the form 'darker ages' which appears several times in his work during the later 17th century. The earliest reference seems to be in the "Epistle Dedicatory" to Volume I of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England of 1679, where he writes: "The design of the reformation was to restore Christianity to what it was at first, and to purge it of those corruptions, with which it was overrun in the later and darker ages." He uses it again in the 1682 Volume II, where he dismisses the story of "St George's fighting with the dragon" as "a legend formed in the darker ages to support the humour of chivalry". Burnet was a bishop chronicling how England became Protestant, and his use of the term is invariably pejorative.


During the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, many critical thinkers saw religion as antithetical to reason. For them the Middle Ages, or "Age of Faith", was therefore the opposite of the Age of Reason. Kant and Voltaire were vocal in attacking the Middle Ages as a period of social regress dominated by religion, while Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire expressed contempt for the "rubbish of the Dark Ages". Yet just as Petrarch, seeing himself at the cusp of a "new age", was criticising the centuries before his own time, so too were Enlightenment writers.

Consequently, an evolution had occurred in at least three ways. Petrarch's original metaphor of light versus dark has expanded over time, implicitly at least. Even if later humanists no longer saw themselves living in a dark age, their times were still not light enough for 18th-century writers who saw themselves as living in the real Age of Enlightenment, while the period to be condemned stretched to include what we now call Early Modern times. Additionally, Petrarch's metaphor of darkness, which he used mainly to deplore what he saw as a lack of secular achievement, was sharpened to take on a more explicitly anti-religious and anti-clerical meaning.

Nevertheless, the term 'Middle Ages', used by Biondo and other early humanists after Petrarch, was in general use before the 18th century to denote the period before the Renaissance. The earliest recorded use of the English word "medieval" was in 1827. The concept of the Dark Ages was also in use, but by the 18th century it tended to be confined to the earlier part of this period. The earliest entry for a capitalised "Dark Ages" in the Oxford English Dictionary is a reference in Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization in England in 1857. Starting and ending dates varied: the Dark Ages were considered by some to start in 410, by others in 476 when there was no longer an emperor in Rome, and to end about 800, at the time of the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne, or alternatively to extend through to the end of the 1st millennium.


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Romantics reversed the negative assessment of Enlightenment critics with a vogue for medievalism. The word "Gothic" had been a term of opprobrium akin to "Vandal" until a few self-confident mid-18th-century English "Goths" like Horace Walpole initiated the Gothic Revival in the arts. This stimulated interest in the Middle Ages, which for the following generation began to take on the idyllic image of an "Age of Faith". This, reacting to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism, expressed a romantic view of a Golden Age of chivalry. The Middle Ages were seen with nostalgia as a period of social and environmental harmony and spiritual inspiration, in contrast to the excesses of the French Revolution and, most of all, to the environmental and social upheavals and utilitarianism of the developing industrial revolution. The Romantics' view is still represented in modern-day fairs and festivals celebrating the period with 'merrie' costumes and events.

Just as Petrarch had twisted the meaning of light versus darkness, so the Romantics had twisted the judgment of the Enlightenment. However, the period they idealised was largely the High Middle Ages, extending into Early Modern times. In one respect, this negated the religious aspect of Petrarch's judgment, since these later centuries were those when the power and prestige of the Church were at their height. To many, the scope of the Dark Ages was becoming divorced from this period, denoting mainly the centuries immediately following the fall of Rome.

Modern academic use

The term was widely used by 19th century historians. In 1860, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt delineated the contrast between the medieval 'dark ages' and the more enlightened Renaissance, which had revived the cultural and intellectual achievements of antiquity. However, the early 20th century saw a radical re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, which called into question the terminology of darkness, or at least its more pejorative use. Historian Denys Hay spoke ironically of "the lively centuries which we call dark". More forcefully, a recently published history of German literature describes "the dark ages" as "a popular if ignorant manner of speaking".

When the term is used by historians today, therefore, it is intended to be neutral, expressing the idea that the events of the period seem 'dark' to us because of the paucity of historical record. The term is used in this sense (often in the singular) to reference the Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent Greek Dark Ages, the dark ages of Cambodia (c. 1450-1863), and also a hypothetical Digital Dark Age which would ensue if the electronic documents produced in the current period were to become unreadable at some point in the future. Some Byzantinists have used the term "Byzantine Dark Ages" to refer to the period from the earliest Muslim conquests to about 800, because there are no extant historical texts in Greek from this period, and thus the history of the Byzantine Empire and its territories that were conquered by the Muslims is poorly understood and must be reconstructed from other contemporaneous sources, such as religious texts. Very few Greek manuscripts were copied in this period, indicating that the 7th and 8th centuries, which were a period of crisis for the Byzantines because of Muslim conquest, were also less intellectually active. The term "dark age" is not restricted to the discipline of history. Since the archaeological evidence for some periods is abundant and for others scanty, there are also archaeological dark ages.

Since the Late Middle Ages significantly overlap with the Renaissance, the term 'Dark Ages' has become restricted to distinct times and places in medieval Europe. Thus the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, at the height of the Saxon invasions, have been called "the darkest of the Dark Ages", in view of the societal collapse of the period and the consequent lack of historical records. Further south and east, the same was true in the formerly Roman province of Dacia, where history after the Roman withdrawal went unrecorded for centuries as Slavs, Avars, Bulgars, and others struggled for supremacy in the Danube basin, and events there are still disputed. However, at this time the Arab Empire is often considered to have experienced its Golden Age rather than Dark Age; consequently, usage of the term must also specify a geography. While Petrarch's concept of a Dark Age corresponded to a mostly Christian period following pre-Christian Rome, today the term mainly applies to the cultures and periods in Europe that were least Christianised, and thus most sparsely covered by chronicles and other contemporary sources, at the time mostly written by Catholic clergy.

However, in the later 20th century other historians became critical even of this nonjudgmental use of the term, for two main reasons. Firstly, it is questionable whether it is ever possible to use the term in a neutral way: scholars may intend this, but ordinary readers may not so understand it. Secondly, 20th century scholarship has exploded understanding of the history and culture of the period, and so it no longer so 'dark' to us. To avoid the value judgment implied by the expression, many historians now avoid it altogether.

The medieval period is frequently caricatured as supposedly a "time of ignorance and superstition" which placed "the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity." However, rationality was increasingly held in high regard as the Middle Ages progressed. The historian of science Edward Grant writes that "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed [in the 18th century], they were made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities". Furthermore, David Lindberg says that, contrary to common belief, "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led". Lindberg recognizes, however, that the late medieval rejuvenation of science and scholarship was due in large part to the new availability of Latin translations of Aristotle during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The caricature of the period is also reflected by more specific notions, such as the mistaken claim first propagated in the 19th century, and still common in popular culture, that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. In fact, lecturers in medieval universities commonly advanced the idea that the Earth was a sphere. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write: "There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference". Other misconceptions such as: "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy", are cited by Numbers as examples of myths that still pass as historical truth, although unsupported by current research.


Dark Ages (historiography) Wikipedia