The Dark Ages – it is a term that evokes images of war, destruction and death. How did the term ‘Dark Ages’ become synonymous with the Middle Ages, and why do we still refer to it like that?
History is full of people talking about how they are living in a ‘dark time’ or in an ‘age of light’ – it is an easy metaphor to explain that you are living in good or bad times. It was a metaphor used by the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, who was a great admirer of the ancient Romans and Greeks. He would compare those times with his own and found that he wasn’t very happy with the present-day situation. In one of his works he writes,
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.
Petrarch’s views would be taken up by other Italian scholars – by the late 14th and 15th centuries they were having an intellectual and artistic flowering, and began seeing themselves as following in the footsteps of the ancients. Janet Nelson explains that, at least in their minds, they were “confidently believing theirs was a time of reborn classical culture, they rescued Greek from near-oblivion, removed errors from Latin, cleared fog from philosophy, crassness from theology, crudeness from art.”
These writers began to see history as divided into three phases – there was the Classical Age, a time of Greek wisdom, Roman power, and when Jesus Christ walked in this world; and their own time, a Renaissance when things were getting better. Meanwhile, there were all those centuries in between – from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century to just before their own time. After a little while it got the name ‘Middle Ages’ (or Medium Aevum in Latin). The Italian writers viewed it as an era when everything was in decline, when the great buildings of Rome like the Colosseum were slowly crumbling and when no one was producing great works of literature.
The idea of the ‘Middle Ages’ would spread to other historians around Europe. However, the term ‘Dark Ages’ is something usually found in just English writing. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries you have writers like Edward Gibbon referring to this time as “the darkness of the middle ages” and portraying life during this time as full of either uncultured barbarians, evil tyrants or superstitious peasants. By the nineteenth century the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages meant the same thing.
Since then historians have become more positive about the medieval period and its achievements – and the idea that people were living in the Dark Ages is getting used less and less, at least in academic circles.
Some English historians will still say if there is any kind of ‘Dark Ages’ in medieval history, it is during the earliest part of the Middle Ages, right after the fall of Roman power in Britain around the fifth and sixth centuries. This is mostly because it is a period that has few surviving written sources, so historians have largely been left in the dark about what happened at that time.
While medievalists might roll their eyes when they hear the term the ‘Dark Ages’, this idea is probably going to survive in the public’s mind for a while longer. However, we should be glad that the other names given to the Middle Ages – including the Barbarous Ages, the Obscure Ages, the Leaden Ages, the Monkish Ages and the Muddy Ages – did not get as popular!
Janet L. Nelson, ‘The Dark Ages,’ History Workshop Journal, Vol.63:1 (2007)