Dark Ages (historiography)
The term once characterized the bulk of the Middle Ages, or roughly the 6th to 13th centuries, as a period of intellectual darkness between extinguishing the “light of Rome” after the end of Late Antiquity, and the rise of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century. This definition is still found in popular use, but increased recognition of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages has led to the label being restricted in application. Since the 20th century, it is frequently applied to the earlier part of the era, the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century). However, many modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.
The concept of a Dark Age originated with the Italian scholar Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) in the 1330s, and was originally intended as a sweeping criticism of the character of Late Latin literature. Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as “dark” compared to the light of classical antiquity. Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the High Middle Ages (c. 11th–13th century), including the lack of Latin literature, and a lack of contemporary written history, general demographic decline, limited building activity and material cultural achievements in general. Later historians and writers picked up the concept, and popular culture has further expanded on it as a vehicle to depict the early Middle Ages as a time of backwardness, extending its pejorative use and expanding its scope.
The term “Dark Ages” originally was intended to denote the entire period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance; the term “Middle Ages” has a similar motivation, implying an intermediate period between Classical Antiquity and the Modern era. In the 19th century scholars began to recognize the accomplishments made during the period, thereby challenging the image of the Middle Ages as a time of darkness and decay. Now 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 and other specialties in the 20th century has shed much light on the period and offered a more nuanced understanding of its positive developments. 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. When modern scholarly study of the Middle Ages arose in the 19th century, the term “Dark Ages” was at first kept, with all its critical overtones. On the rare occasions when the term “Dark Ages” is used by historians today, it is intended to be neutral, namely, to express the idea that the events of the period often seem “dark” because of the scarcity of artistic and cultural output, including historical records, when compared with both earlier and later times.
As an Italian, Petrarch saw the Roman Empire and the classical period as expressions of Italian greatness. He spent much of his time travelling through Europe rediscovering and republishing classic Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the classical Latin language to its former purity. Humanists saw the preceding 900-year period as a time of stagnation. They saw history unfolding, not along the religious outline of Saint Augustine‘s Six Ages of the World, but in cultural (or secular) terms through the progressive developments of classical ideals, literature, and art.
Petrarch wrote that history had two periods: the classic period of the Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness, in which he saw himself as still living. In around 1343, in the conclusion to 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. The term “Middle Ages,” in Latin media tempestas (1469) or medium aevum (1604), was later used to describe the period of supposed decline.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants wrote of the Middle Ages as a period of Catholic corruption. Just as Petrarch’s writing was not an attack on Christianity per se — along with his humanism, he was deeply occupied with the search for God — neither was this an attack on Christianity: it was a drive to restore what Protestants saw as biblical Christianity.
The Magdeburg Centuries was a work of ecclesiastical history compiled by Lutheran scholars and published between 1559 and 1574. Devoting a volume to each century, it covered the first thirteen centuries of Christianity up to 1298. The work was virulently anti-Catholic. Identifying the Papacy as the Antichrist, it painted a “dark” picture of church history after the 5th century, characterizing it as “increments of errors and their corrupting influences”.
In response to the Protestants, Roman Catholics developed a counter-image, depicting 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 kept theology in the background and produced a work that the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1911 described as “far surpassing anything before his day” and that Acton regarded as “the greatest history of the Church ever written”. The Annales, covering the first twelve centuries of Christianity up to 1198, 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 inklings of the 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 capable of throwing light on it for the historian. 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 of volumes containing the work of writers from the preceding and succeeding centuries. A minority of these writers were historians.
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Baronius’s “dark age” seems to have struck historians as something they could use, for it was in the 17th century that the terms “dark age” and “dark ages” started to proliferate in the various European languages, with his original Latin term, “saeculum obscurum”, being reserved for the period he had applied it to. But while some historians, following Baronius’s lead, used “dark age” neutrally to refer to a dearth of written records, others, in the manner of the early humanists and Protestants (and later the Enlightenment writers and their successors right up to the present day) used it pejoratively, lapsing into that lack of neutrality and objectivity that has quite spoilt 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 in the last quarter of the 17th century. His earliest use of it seems to have been in 1679 in the “Epistle Dedicatory” to Volume I of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, 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 1682 in Volume II of the History, 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 Protestant bishop chronicling how England became Protestant and his use of the term is invariably pejorative.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, in the Age of Enlightenment, many critical thinkers saw religion as antithetical to reason. For them the Middle Ages, or “Age of Faith”, was therefore the polar opposite of the Age of Reason. Kant and Voltaire, among others, were vocal in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social regress, 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 on the threshold of a “new age”, was criticizing the centuries until his own time, so too were the Enlightenment writers criticizing the centuries until their own. These extended well after Petrarch’s time, since religious domination and conflict were still common into the 17th century and beyond, albeit diminished in scope.
Consequently, an evolution had occurred in at least three ways. Petrarch’s original metaphor of light versus dark had been expanded in time, implicitly at least. Even if the early humanists after him 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 covered by their own condemnation had been 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 achievements, was sharpened to take on a more explicitly anti-religious and anti-clerical meaning.
In spite of this, the term “Middle Ages”, used by Biondo and other early humanists after Petrarch, was the name in general use before the 18th century to denote the period until 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 medieval 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 to extend through the rest of the 1st millennium.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Romantics reversed the negative assessment of Enlightenment critics and launched 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 sparked off an interest in the Middle Ages, which for the following Romantic generation began to take on an idyllic image of the “Age of Faith”. This image, in reaction to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism in which reason trumped emotion, expressed a romantic view of a Golden Age of chivalry. The Middle Ages were seen with romantic 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 sterile utilitarianism of the emerging industrial revolution. The Romantics’ view of these earlier centuries can still be seen in modern-day fairs and festivals celebrating the period with costumes and events.
Just as Petrarch had turned the meaning of light versus darkness, so had the Romantics turned the judgment of Enlightenment critics. However, the period idealized by the Romantics focused largely on what is now known as the High Middle Ages, extending into Early Modern times. In one respect, this was a reversal of the religious aspect of Petrarch’s judgment, since these later centuries were those when the universal power and prestige of the Church was at its height. To many users of the term, the scope of the Dark Ages was becoming divorced from this period, denoting mainly the earlier centuries after the fall of Rome.