The "DARK AGES" is a historical periodization traditionally referring
Middle Ages . It emphasizes the demographic, cultural and
economic deterioration that supposedly occurred in Western Europe
following the decline of the
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
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
* 2 Modern academic use * 3 Modern popular use * 4 See also * 5 Notes * 6 External links
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 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.
Triumph of Christianity by 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 of Antiquity.
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 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
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,
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
Volumes of Patrologia Latina per century CENTURY MIGNE VOLUME NOS VOLUMES
7th 80–88 9
8th 89–96 8
9th 97–130 34
10th 131–138 8
11th 139–151 13
12th 152–191 40
13th 192–217 26
"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
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 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
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 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
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 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
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
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 idealized 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 book about the history of German literature published in 2007 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
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.
MODERN POPULAR USE
Medieval artistic illustration of the spherical Earth in a 14th-century copy of L\'Image du monde (c. 1246) Further information: Medievalism Further information: Science in the Middle Ages
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 , 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
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 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.
Conflict thesis and
* Crisis of the Late
* Fall of the Western
* ^ A B C D E Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989. a term sometimes applied to the period of the 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 written documents. * ^ A B "Dark age" in Merriam-Webster * ^ A B C Mommsen, Theodore (1942). "Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark Ages'". Speculum . Cambridge MA: Medieval Academy of America . 17 (2): 227–228. JSTOR 2856364 . doi :10.2307/2856364 . * ^ Thompson, Bard (1996). Humanists and Reformers: A History of the 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. JSTOR 2856364 . doi :10.2307/2856364 . * ^ 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, 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 Jordan, Chester William (2004). Dictionary of the Middle Ages , Supplement 1. Verdun, Kathleen, "Medievalism" pp. 389–397. Sections 'Victorian Medievalism', 'Nineteenth-Century Europe', ' 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 by 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. JSTOR 2856364 . doi :10.2307/2856364 . * ^ 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 . 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 1) * ^ 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 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 to transform." * ^ 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 3. * ^ Hay, Denys (1977). Annalists and Historians. London: Methuen, p. 50. * ^ 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 fifteenth centuries, the time between the Middle High German Blütezeit and the full blossoming of the Renaissance. it may be called a dark age, not because literary production waned in these decades, but because nineteenth-century aesthetics and twentieth-century university curricula allowed the achievements of that time to fade into obscurity." * ^ \'Digital Dark Age\' May Doom Some Data, Science Daily , October 29, 2008. * ^ Lemerle, Paul (1986). Byzantine Humanism, translated by Helen Lindsay and Ann Moffat. Canberra, pp. 81–82. * ^ Whitby, Michael (1992). "Greek historical writing after Procopius" in Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, ed. Averil Cameron and Lawrence I. Conrad, Princeton, pp. 25–80. * ^ Lemerle, Paul (1986). Byzantine Humanism, translated by Helen Lindsay and Ann Moffat. Canberra, p. 81-84. * ^ Project: Exploring the Early Holocene Occupation of North-Central Anatolia: New Approaches for Studying Archaeological Dark Ages Period of Project: 09/2007-09/2011 * ^ Cannon, John and Griffiths, Ralph (2000). The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy (Oxford Illustrated Histories), 2nd Revised edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, p. 1. The first chapter opens with the sentence: "In the darkest of the Dark Ages, the fifth and sixth centuries, there were many kings in Britain but no kingdoms." * ^ Welch, Martin (1993). Discovering Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: Penn State Press. * ^ Encyclopædia Britannica "It is now rarely used by historians because of the value judgment it implies. Though sometimes taken to derive its meaning from the fact that little was then known about the period, the term's more usual and pejorative sense is of a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity." * ^ David C. Lindberg, "The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor", in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, ed. When Science & Christianity Meet, (Chicago: University