The "DARK AGES" is a historical period traditionally referring to the
Middle Ages , that asserts that a demographic, cultural, and economic
deterioration occurred in Western Europe following the decline of the
Roman Empire .
The term employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to
contrast the era's "darkness" with earlier and later periods of
"light". The concept of a "Dark Age" originated in the 1330s with the
Petrarch , who regarded the post-Roman centuries as
"dark" compared to the light of classical antiquity . The phrase
"Dark Age" itself derives from the
Latin saeculum obscurum ,
originally applied by
Caesar Baronius in 1602 to a tumultuous period
in the 10th and 11th centuries. The concept thus came to characterize
Middle Ages as a time of intellectual darkness between the
fall of Rome and the
Renaissance ; this became especially popular
during the 18th-century
Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment .
As the accomplishments of the era came to be better understood in the
19th and 20th centuries, scholars began restricting the "Dark Ages"
appellation to the Early
Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century). Many
modern scholars avoid the term altogether due to its negative
connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate. The original
definition remains in popular use, and popular culture often
employs it as a vehicle to depict the
Middle Ages as a time of
backwardness, extending its pejorative use and expanding its scope.
* 1 History
* 1.2 Reformation
* 1.4 Enlightenment
* 2 Modern academic use
* 3 Modern popular use
* 4 See also
* 5 Notes
* 6 External links
Late antiquity ,
Fall of the Roman Empire
Fall of the Roman Empire ,
Migration period , and Early
Middle Ages See also:
The term was originally intended to denote an intermediate period
Classical Antiquity and the
Modern era . In the 19th century
scholars began to recognize the accomplishments of the period, which
challenged the image of 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 periodization have come to the fore:
Late Antiquity ,
the Early Middle Ages, and the Great Migrations , depending on which
aspects of culture are being emphasized. 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.
Tommaso Laureti (1530–1602),
ceiling painting in the Sala di Constantino , Vatican Palace . Images
like this one celebrate the triumph of
Christianity over the paganism
The idea of a Dark Age originated with the Tuscan scholar
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,
Petrarch himself, had long used traditional metaphors of
'light versus darkness ' to describe 'good versus evil '.
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 peninsula,
Petrarch saw the Roman
and classical period as an expression of greatness. He spent much of
his time travelling through Europe, rediscovering and republishing
Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the
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,
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 institutionalized 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
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
Pope Clement II in 1046:
Patrologia Latina per century
MIGNE VOLUME NOS
"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)".
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. Medieval production of
manuscripts. The beginning of the
Middle Ages was also a period of
low activity in copying.
There is a sharp drop from 34 volumes in the 9th century to just 8 in
the 10th. The 11th century, with 13, evidences a certain recovery, and
the 12th century, with 40, surpasses the 9th, something the 13th, with
just 26, fails to do. There was indeed a 'dark age', in Baronius's
sense of a "lack of writers", between the Carolingian
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
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
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.
Age of Enlightenment
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
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
capitalized "Dark Ages" in the
Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary is a
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
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
Vandal " until a few self-confident mid-18th-century English
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.
Petrarch had twisted the meaning of light versus darkness, so
the Romantics had twisted the judgment of the Enlightenment. However,
the period they idealized was largely the High
Middle Ages , extending
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
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. The
Denys Hay spoke ironically of "the lively centuries which we
call dark". More forcefully, a book about the history of German
literature published in 2007 describes "the dark ages" as "a popular
if ignorant manner of speaking".
Most modern historians do not use the term "dark ages", preferring
terms such Early
Middle Ages . But when used by some historians today,
the term "Dark Ages" is meant to describe the economic, political, and
cultural problems of the era . For others, the term Dark Ages 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
Bronze Age collapse
Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent
Greek Dark Ages
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. 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
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
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 Christianized, 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 understand it so. Secondly, 20th-century scholarship has
increased understanding of the history and culture of the period, to
such an extent that it is no longer really 'dark' to us. To avoid the
value judgment implied by the expression, many historians now avoid it
MODERN POPULAR USE
Medieval artistic illustration of the spherical Earth in a
14th-century copy of L\'Image du monde (c. 1246)
The medieval period is frequently characterized as a time of
ignorance and superstition which placed the word of religious
authorities over personal experience and rational activity, an example
of which is illustrated by the condemnation of Galileo in 1633. The
historian of science,
Edward Grant , writes that "If revolutionary
rational thoughts were expressed , 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.
Another view of the period is reflected by more specific notions such
as the 19th-century claim 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 sphericity and even know its
approximate circumference". Other misconceptions such as: "the Church
prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the
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.
Conflict thesis and
* ^ A B C D E
Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Oxford, England:
Oxford University Press. 1989. a term sometimes applied to the period
Middle Ages to mark the intellectual darkness characteristic of
the time; often restricted to the early period of the Middle Ages,
between the time of the fall of Rome and the appearance of vernacular
* ^ A B "Dark age" in
* ^ A B C Mommsen, Theodore (1942). "Petrarch's Conception of the
'Dark Ages'". Speculum . Cambridge MA:
Medieval Academy of America .
17 (2): 227–228. doi :10.2307/2856364 .
JSTOR 2856364 .
* ^ Thompson, Bard (1996). Humanists and Reformers: A History of
Renaissance and Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans. p. 13.
ISBN 978-0-8028-6348-5 .
Petrarch was the very first to speak of the
Middle Ages as a 'dark age', one that separated him from the riches
and pleasures of classical antiquity and that broke the connection
between his own age and the civilization of the Greeks and the Romans.
* ^ Dwyer, John C., Church history: twenty centuries of Catholic
Christianity, (1998) p. 155.
Baronius , Caesar.
Annales Ecclesiastici , Vol. X. Roma, 1602, p. 647
* ^ Mommsen, Theodore (1942). "Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark
Ages'". Speculum . Cambridge MA:
Medieval Academy of America . 17 (2):
226–227. doi :10.2307/2856364 .
JSTOR 2856364 .
* ^ Ker, W. P. (1904). The dark ages. New York: C. Scribner's Sons,
p. 1. "The Dark Ages and the
Middle Ages — or the Middle Age —
used to be the same; two names for the same period. But they have come
to be distinguished, and the Dark Ages are now no more than the first
part of the Middle Age, while the term mediaeval is often restricted
to the later centuries, about 1100 to 1500, the age of chivalry, the
time between the first Crusade and the Renaissance. This was not the
old view, and it does not agree with the proper meaning of the name."
Syed Ziaur Rahman , Were the "Dark Ages" Really Dark? In: Grey
Matter. The Co-curricular Journal of Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College
Aligarh Muslim University
Aligarh Muslim University , Aligarh, 2003: 7-10.
* ^ Snyder, Christopher A. (1998). An Age of Tyrants: Britain and
the Britons A.D. 400–600. University Park: Pennsylvania State
University Press. pp. xiii–xiv. ISBN 0-271-01780-5 . . In explaining
his approach to writing the work, Snyder refers to the "so-called Dark
Ages", noting that "Historians and archaeologists have never liked the
label Dark Ages ... there are numerous indicators that these centuries
were neither 'dark' nor 'barbarous' in comparison with other eras."
* ^ A B C D E F G Jordan, Chester William (2004). Dictionary of the
Middle Ages , Supplement 1. Verdun, Kathleen, "Medievalism" pp.
389–397. Sections 'Victorian Medievalism', 'Nineteenth-Century
Medievalism in America 1500–1900', 'The 20th Century'.
Same volume, Freedman, Paul , "Medieval Studies", pp. 383–389.
* ^ Raico, Ralph . "The European Miracle". Retrieved 14 August
2011. "The stereotype of the
Middle Ages as 'the Dark Ages' fostered
Renaissance humanists and Enlightenment philosophes has, of course,
long since been abandoned by scholars."
* ^ A B C Franklin, James (1982). "The
Renaissance Myth". Quadrant.
26 (11): 51–60.
* ^ A B Tainter, Joseph A. (1999). "Post Collapse Societies". In
Barker, Graeme . Companion Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Abingdon,
England: Routledge. p. 988. ISBN 0-415-06448-1 .
* ^ Clark, Kenneth (1969), Civilisation (BBC Books)
* ^ A B C D Mommsen, Theodore (1942). "Petrarch's Conception of the
'Dark Ages'". Speculum . Cambridge MA:
Medieval Academy of America .
17 (2): 226–242. doi :10.2307/2856364 .
JSTOR 2856364 .
Petrarch (1367). Apologia cuiusdam anonymi Galli calumnias
(Defence against the calumnies of an anonymous Frenchman), in
Petrarch, Opera Omnia, Basel, 1554, p. 1195. This quotation comes from
the English translation of Mommsen's article, where the source is
given in a footnote. Cf. also Marsh, D, ed., (2003), Invectives,
Harvard University Press, p. 457.
Petrarch (1343). Africa , IX, 451-7. This quotation comes from
the English translation of Mommsen's article.
* ^ Albrow, Martin, The global age: state and society beyond
modernity (1997), p. 205.
* ^ F. Oakley, The medieval experience: foundations of Western
cultural singularity (University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 1-4.
* ^ Daileader, Philip (2001). The High Middle Ages. The Teaching
Company. ISBN 1-56585-827-1 . "Catholics living during the Protestant
Reformation were not going to take this assault lying down. They, too,
turned to the study of the Middle Ages, going back to prove that, far
from being a period of religious corruption, the
Middle Ages were
superior to the era of the Protestant Reformation, because the Middle
Ages were free of the religious schisms and religious wars that were
plaguing the 16th and 17th centuries."
Encyclopædia Britannica , 1911: "History"
* ^ Lord Acton (1906). Lectures on Modern History, p. 121.
* ^ Baronius's actual starting-point for the "dark age" was 900
(annus Redemptoris nongentesimus), but that was an arbitrary rounding
off due mainly to his strictly annalistic approach. Later historians,
e.g. Marco Porri in his Catholic History of the Church (Storia della
Chiesa) or the Lutheran Christian Cyclopedia ("Saeculum Obscurum"),
have tended to amend it to the more historically significant date of
888, often rounding it down further to 880. The first weeks of 888
witnessed both the final break-up of the
Carolingian Empire and the
death of its deposed ruler
Charles the Fat
Charles the Fat . Unlike the end of the
Carolingian Empire, however, the end of the Carolingian Renaissance
cannot be precisely dated, and it was the latter development that was
responsible for the "lack of writers" that Baronius, as a historian,
found so irksome.
* ^ Schaff, Philip (1882). History of the Christian Church, Vol.
IV: Mediaeval Christianity, A.D. 570–1073, Ch. XIII, §138.
"Prevailing Ignorance in the Western Church"
* ^ Baronius, Caesar (1602).
Annales Ecclesiastici , Vol. X. Roma,
p. 647. "Novum incohatur saeculum quod, sua asperitate ac boni
sterilitate ferreum, malique exudantis deformitate plumbeum, atque
inopia scriptorum, appellari consuevit obscurum."
* ^ Buringh, Eltjo; van Zanden, Jan Luiten: "Charting the "Rise of
the West": Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term
Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries", The Journal
of Economic History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2009), pp. 409–445 (416, table
* ^ Burnet, Gilbert (1679). The History of the Reformation of the
Church of England, Vol. I. Oxford, 1929, p. ii.
* ^ Burnet, Gilbert (1682). The History of the Reformation of the
Church of England, Vol. II. Oxford, 1829, p. 423. Burnet also uses the
term in 1682 in The Abridgement of the History of the Reformation of
the Church of England (2nd Edition, London, 1683, p. 52) and in 1687
in Travels through France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland (London,
1750, p. 257). The
Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary erroneously cites the
last of these as the earliest recorded use of the term in English.
* ^ Bartlett, Robert (2001). "Introduction: Perspectives on the
Medieval World", in Medieval Panorama. ISBN 0-89236-642-7 . "Disdain
about the medieval past was especially forthright amongst the critical
and rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment. For them the Middle
Ages epitomized the barbaric, priest-ridden world they were attempting
* ^ Gibbon, Edward (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire, Vol. 6, Ch. XXXVII, paragraph 619.
* ^ Alexander, Michael (2007). Medievalism: The
Middle Ages in
Modern England. Yale University Press.
* ^ Chandler, Alice K. (1971). A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal
in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. University of Nebraska
Press, p. 4.
* ^ Barber, John (2008). The Road from Eden: Studies in
Christianity and Culture. Palo Alto, CA: Academica Press, p. 148, fn
* ^ Hay, Denys (1977).
Annalists and Historians. London: Methuen,
* ^ Dunphy, Graeme (2007). "Literary Transitions, 1300–1500: From
Late Mediaeval to Early Modern" in: The Camden House History of German
Literature vol IV: "
Early Modern German Literature". The chapter
opens: "A popular if uninformed manner of speaking refers to the
medieval period as "the dark ages." If there is a dark age in the
literary history of Germany, however, it is the one that follows: the
fourteenth and early