As a very serious adult, with a respectable career and life, and a healthy ability to let petty shit slide, I spent much too much time last week arguing with strangers on the internet who believe in the myth of the Dark Ages.
The arguments in question focused on a massively inaccurate meme, which some observers of the group pointed out was originally supposed to be about knowledge loss after the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but which some very cool EDGE LORD had changed to be about ‘The Christian Dark Ages’. Please feast your eyes on it in all it’s massive wrongness:
This is, pretty obviously, a bunch of honkey bullshit and also massively incorrect, as many important scholars have noted. As a result, I spent hours of my life – which I will never get back – pointing out repeatedly that the ‘graph’ in question has nothing to do with reality, and arguing with non-experts about the medieval period.
For the most part – these people were well-meaning. Many pointed out that this was a very Euro-centric world view, and that Asia, Africa, and the Arab world were all making huge advancements in scientific and medical theory at this time. That is absolutely true. White people have never been the entire world. The Chinese had a massively advanced scientific culture by this time, for example, and had been holding it down with hermetically sealed research laboratories since the third century BCE. The Arab world, meanwhile was compiling treatises on eye surgery. Scientific advancement was something that was happening in this period. Europe is not the centre of the world.
Having said that, while it is important to acknowledge that the-rest-of-the-world was making huge strides in scientific advancement during this time, and that Europe and white people are not the entire world, nor responsible for all of human advancement, there was no such thing as the Dark Ages in Europe either.
While everything about the idea of the Dark Ages is incorrect, lets start off with the way the term was meant to be used. The totally ignorant graph above, unsurprisingly, is completely fucking off. Hilariously, the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’ actually originated in the medieval period itself. Petrarch – the poet laureate of fourteenth-century Rome – was actually the originator of the idea that there was a period of stagnation that Europe was moving out of. Petrarch had a political axe to grind. He considered that any point at which Rome – where he lived and worked and had considerable sway – did not completely dominate the world was a BAD TIME. This is not an unbiased assessment of world history.
The actual phrase ‘Dark Ages’ itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, which Caesar Baronius – a cardinal and Church historian – came up with around 1602. He applied the term exclusively to the tenth and eleventh centuries. However, and very significantly in his use of the term, Baronius was not decrying a state of scientific malaise, or a particularly turbulent political period – he’s talking about a lack of sources surviving from that time. Indeed, Baronius sees the cut off point for the dark ages to be the Gregorian reforms of 1046, following which we see a massive increase in surviving documentation. Witness an actual useful chart:
When we move into a period where there are more texts to be considered, Baronius argues, Europe moved out of the period of darkness and into a ‘new age’.*
Now this is some real talk. As you can tell from that graph, during the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century, we see a flurry of Latin writers emerge, and a lot of text copying. This drops off again until what we term the Twelfth-Century Renaissance – home to this blog’s favourite philosopher/proto-Kanye – Abelard. (Shout out to my boy.) However, when people use the term ‘Dark Ages’ now, they usually use it to talk about the entire millennium of the Medieval period, and they aren’t talking about source survival. They aren’t thinking ‘dark’ as in ‘occluded’, they are thinking ‘dark’ as in pejorative.
We can thank the Enlightenment historiography for the expansion of the idea that the medieval period was a bad dark time. Kant and Voltaire in particular liked to see themselves as a part of an ‘Age of Reason’ as opposed to what they saw as the ‘Age of Faith’ of the medieval period. To their way of thinking, any time that the Church was in power was a time of regressive thinking. The Middle Ages, then, was a dark time because it was so dominated by religion.
The first push back against the term dark ages began with the Romantics. After the, um, unpleasantness of the Reign of Terror, and the major cultural and environmental upheavals of the Industrial Revolution it became fashionable to look at the medieval period as a time of spiritual focus, and environmental purity. Obviously this is a super-biased way of looking at the period – just like it was biased for Enlightenment thinkers to take one look at the primacy of the Church and declare an entire millennium to be bad. I mean, really what the Romantics were doing was just casting shade on the Enlightenment historiography because they felt like it inevitably led to the guillotine. But what can you do?
By the twentieth century historians had moved on from the idea pretty much completely. If you take the time to actually, you know, study the medieval period, it becomes very apparent very quickly that there was a tremendous amount of intensive thought happening. This is the era of Thomas Aquinas – a bad ass philosopher who will think you under the fucking table. Of Hildegard of Bingen – who basically founded scientific natural history in the German speaking lands. Hell, like we talked about last week Rogerius and Giles of Corbeil were throwing it down for major medical advancement. There was a lot going on. On the real, without the contributions of medieval thinkers you would not get Galileo, Newton, or the Scientific Revolution. The medieval period was not a period of stagnation, it was a time of progress.
But it’s not just that the idea of a ‘Dark Ages’ makes no sense when you look at what incredible advancement was happening at the time, it also makes no sense because it implies that stuff was going really well under the Romans. We estimate that somewhere between thirty to forty percent of the population of Italian Rome were slaves. The Romans had total bans on human dissection, meaning that there was no real way for medicine to progress any further than it had by the time of collapse – a problem that medieval people didn’t have. I mean even if you just want to make it about religion – the Roman Empire was Christian at the time of its collapse and had its heads of state worshipped as LITERAL GODS during the pagan era. Somehow every edgy motherfucker with a fedora is totally cool with this and thinks it is super reasonable though. Because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The Romans were not a bunch of really awesome people living a life of idealised rationality any more than medieval people were all ignorant savages living in fear of God.
Is there a time that historians use the term ‘Dark Ages’? Yeah, we do use it to talk about source survival rates. It’s not a term we use as a value judgment, however. We just mean that we don’t have a lot of evidence to go off of. By the same token – if we somehow move on to another electronic format without converting the way things are stored now, we could be moving into a theoretical Digital Dark Age, where historians in the future won’t be able to study what we are writing now. (And that would be a tragedy, because legit, I would kill to be a historian working on Donald Trump’s tweets in the year 2717.)
We’re now moving away from using the term Dark Ages at all, however, because of the frequency with which it is misinterpreted. I mean, if every basic motherfucker out there who never bothered to read God’s Philosophers (hat tip to James Hamman – this book is amazing) will insist on willfully misinterpreting us, we just ain’t gonna give them the ammo.
What it comes down to is that the medieval period was as vibrant as any other period of history. If you’re going to player hate, go ahead, but please don’t act like you know anything about either medieval or ancient history when you do. There is no period of rational supermen followed by ignorant monsters. There are just people doing their best in the circumstances.
* Caesar Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici Vol. X. (Rome, 1602), p. 647. “Novum incohatur saeculum quod, sua asperitate ac boni sterilitate ferreum, malique exudantis deformitate plumbeum, atque inopia scriptorum, appellari consuevit obscurum.”
If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!
For more on myths about the medieval period and ignorance, see:
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing
14 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK”
Sigh. It seems like I am spending the second half of my life correcting my school text-learning of history from the first half of my life. And not just MINOR errors either. So now I begin again correcting another gigantic fairy tale if western civilization. I hope the future schools do better!
Now, given that you and other professional historians seem to have a consensus that there was no Dark Age, I assume there are probably fairly good reasons for this consensus.But I feel this is attacking only the weakest version of the ‘popular’ view that there was. I don’t mean that it’s a straw man, in the sense that no one holds it. I believe you when you say you’ve met people with these views. I don’t even mean the view you’re attacking here is uncommon. But the more moderate picture I had thought better informed people who believed in something like ‘the Dark Ages’ had was something like this:
The transition between antiquity and the Early Middle Ages was a time of very high political disruption and warfare (even by the dismal standards of European history pre-1945). This (perhaps along with other causes) lead to something of an economic collapse in what became the former Western Roman Empire, leading to weakened standards of governance, less trade, and consequently less ability to use an economic surplus to support the maintenance and dissemination of knowledge. As a result, we see a poorer, less organized, less knowledgeable, less bureaucratic society during the Early Middle Ages, in what’s now England, France, Italy and Spain pre-Islam (post-Islam things got much richer again.) Eventually things, recover, especially after the 12th century, when the economy booms, towns grow, universities are founded etc. As far as I can tell, this is all totally consistent with everything you say in the post: i.e. the whole Medieval period contained considerable intellectual achievements (as someone with a philosophy PhD I can tell you that the Scholastics actually knew some things about logic that were mostly lost in Early Modernity, some of which were not re-discovered until the 20th century), Roman slavery was horrible, people were not inherently more rational in antiquity than in the medieval period. After all, Hildegard and Aquinas are not *early* Medieval, and indeed, there are not many now famous philosophers in France/Italy/England before the 11th century. Do historians reject this narrative when they reject the term ‘Dark Ages’. Or just the caricature view you’re describing here?
The short answer. Medieval scholars, and in particular early medieval scholars, today now reject this view as it hinges on the idea that a Roman-style slave state and cities are inherently superior to localised systems of rule and economies within a largely agrarian society. It’s a narrative that hinges on Whiggish sensibilities and as a whole one that is difficult to defend without assuming that one MUST have a bureaucratic system to be worthwhile. Also whilst I am pleased you find the view I am arguing against here a caricature I have no idea how you haven’t encountered it, as medieval historians are inundated with it daily.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Something this discussion leaves out is the loss of sources, as opposed to the nonexistence of them. The blog post mentions that we might be living in what will turn out to be a digital dark age. We don’t know whether the texts we produce, particularly the digital ones, will be preserved for posterity. Will future historians assume that we spent our time outdoors enjoying our lives rather than doomscrolling through endless digital content on the sofa? Will they assume that we were an illiterate society? I’m reminded of the Merovingians, who used fancy imported papyrus to write their charters. Papyrus is of course less durable than parchment, so relatively few of these survive, giving the false impression that the Merovingians lacked bureaucratic sophistication. In the Muslim world there’s the example of Umayyad Córdoba and the great library of the caliph al-Hakam II. That empire fell and most of the texts were lost. Warfare and instability can prevent the production of texts, but it can also destroy texts that were written during times of peace and prosperity. An irony about the classification of the early Middle Ages as a “Dark Age” is that it was during this period that classical texts were copied onto parchment, ensuring their survival into the present day. We dismiss the period as unlearned because we value bureaucracy and creativity over preservation and command of the classics. Without the work of literate early medieval people, though, we would have far fewer texts attesting the literacy and creativity of the Romans. Which brings me to a final point, which is that much of the textual evidence we have for the Romans is clustered in a few centuries. We have very little from much of the Republican period. You can read pretty much the entire corpus of Ancient Greek authors on Perseus. As an early medieval historian, I relate to ancient historians who rely on a relatively small number of texts, generally preserved in fragments and later copies. I recognize that there was an explosion of text production from the twelfth century on, but that does not render the period directly before that exceptionally illiterate. It makes no sense to me that the early Middle Ages are seen as a Dark Age in comparison to the ancient world.
Yes this is absolutely key. Just because we don’t have extant sources now does not mean they never exited. For example, we have higher rates of survival from, say, some eighth century manuscripts than we do some printed twentieth century books which were pulped. That doesn’t mean there weren’t more copies. Survival is predicated on a lot of things, and has nothing to do with whether or not something was ever extant.
Look for a book called The Victory of Reason. It’s an excellent read, and I’m not even halfway through it!
I was lead here by a twitter link from a friend and have this become more enlightened (smirk).
I can’t say I’m much of a history student but I very much enjoyed unlearning another thing my early schooling misinformed me about. Thanks for your words, I’ll be coming back for more.
Awww thanks Stephen. Happy to have you.
The version of the ‘Dark Ages’ that got lodged in my head is from the Fall of Rome until the Christianization of Scandinavia ends the Viking Age, ‘dark’ because too much warfare. Knowing of “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (without reading it) reinforced this. Unlearning is hard.
I suggest everyone interested in the so-called ‘dark ages’ do not over-historicise it or lean too heavily on the opinions from the ‘enlightenment’ where as usual any received views , existing culture, like the baby get chucked out with the bath water to make way for the ‘great minds’ the revelations of the New, ‘‘twas ever this. A lovely, non-dramatic, balanced view of life in Europe between the 8th and 11/12th centuries, between Iona monks and Chartes cathedral sculptors and builders can be understood beautifully in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series no. 1 By the Skin of our Teeth. Enjoy!
About the output of manuscripts between 500-1500, do we know how many of them were scientific? And is there more context about the output of scientific manuscripts across the world, to see how much of a dent the Middle Ages made in Europe?
So there are absolutely tonnes of what we call “natural philosophy” texts in the middle ages and they have a survival rate that is one of the largest of any group of manuscripts. There was no such thing as “science” either in the ancient period or the medieval period. Medieval thought on the natural world is almost completely based upon ancient thought. There is, quite literally, observably, and extensively proven no “dent” made to “scientific thinking” in the medieval period.
Manuscripts also don’t necessarily survive across the world. For example, in what is now Indonesia we lose manuscripts because of the environmental conditions which erode natural materials.
The closest thing you could do is look at China which was massively more advanced than Europe in the ancient period and remains massively more advanced in the medieval period. It has nothing to do with a “dent” it just always was further along.
Thanks for your reply. 🙂 It was surprising at first to learn about no such thing as “science” in those periods, so I went to look for anything to confirm that.
Initially, I found that the first scientific journal was published in March 1665. Google “first scientific journal lithoguru”
Then I found this collection of “ancient and medieval scientists, such as Bede, Isidore of Seville, Martianus Capella and Pliny the Elder. The manuscripts deal with astrology, astronomy, the computus, mathematics, natural history and medicine, among other subjects.” Google “first science manuscripts published british library”
Obviously, this doesn’t give me the perspective I was looking for, but it confirms that science was done and published in the Middle Ages. That collection includes manuscripts from England, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, and they invalidate that dumb chart. Also obvious is the fact that Europe could’ve done better without having scientists executed. So although I’m out of my depth on this topic, I think it’s fair to say that there was a “dent”.
Sorry for (and ignore) the link on top. 🙂 I had that saved in a text file along with the comment, so I can re-post if it doesn’t show up. Apparently it was ignored when I also added links to the things that now I recommended to be googled. I wasn’t sure if it would go into an approval queue or it was blasted by the spam filter, so I saved my comment to be able to repost it after “enough time” had passed.