What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase The Dark Ages?
Hordes of barbarians descending from the mountainside, laying waste to an enlightened and ordered society, leaving only violence and lawlessness in their wake?
The utter disintegration of art, learning, science and culture for nearly 400 years?
Unrelenting war, pestilence, savagery, ignorance and barbarity?
The suppression of reason in favor of faith?
The “Dark Ages” (enough of the scare quotes…) are probably one of the most misunderstood periods of history, (an irony, of course, about an age supposedly characterized by ignorance) and often function as a sort of trump card to demonstrate the supposedly disastrous consequences of the age of faith over an age of reason. After all, who wants to be stuck in the Dark Ages?
But were the Dark Ages really all that dark? Edward Gibbon, who is best known for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, describes what amounts to a veritable Paradisio in the late Roman Empire:
In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman Senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than four-score years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines.[1. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, pg. 1]
Of course, such a rosy picture is hardly an accurate assessment of this period. Unfortunately, this is the sort of idea that is generally juxtaposed with the intervening period when the Roman Empire as it was (or at least as it was conceived to be- more on this later) would be no more. Europe would descend into a black hole of cultural, intellectual and civil disorder, only to scrape itself out 400 years later with the Carolingian Renaissance, the last gasp effort to bring the Roman ideal back to life.
Or perhaps the light never went out.
The Dark Ages as PR Disaster
If there is one ubiquity of history, it is that there are no lack of social commentators. From current events to politics to religion, no aspect of culture or society is immune from its critique. One of the interesting phenomenon of social commentary is the tendency of some to point back to preceding historical eras with a sort of nostalgia, as if some period in the past represented a golden age of sorts, juxtaposed with whatever contemporary problem may be in view, whether moral, political, religious, societal, etc.
The period in question was no different, and had no lack of its own social commentators. For many of them, the picture that Gibbons draws of the Roman Empire was an ideal, a golden age that seemed to be fading away, even though none of them had ever experienced it and only had sketchy and fragmented source material. In this manner, the Dark Ages get some bad PR, since most of the source texts we have for the period were written by authors who were doing exactly what many modern social commentators do- juxtaposing what they perceive to be the problems and maladies of their society with some ideal from a bygone era.
A quick thought experiment. Imagine that one perceived the time period surrounding the founding of the United States as a sort of golden age of brotherhood, morality, religion, etc. Now imagine that one is commenting on contemporary society in 2012 in relation to this perceived ideal, the contrast being made that something has been lost, some things are worse now, there are problems we didn’t use to have back then, etc. Now imagine that a thousand years from now this commentary is one of the sole written texts about society in 2012. It is easy to see that one could easily get the impression that in only about 200 years society had regressed to a point of barbarity, amorality and whatever else one might attribute to it.
In many ways, this is the state of the documentation from the Dark Ages. Firstly, the texts themselves are scarce. Secondly, what texts do remain are primarily the works of authors who maintained a sort of Roman ideal in their minds. As such, textual evidence alone can give a very biased picture of the world of the Dark Ages, and thus it requires a more archaeological tack to truly get behind the words and discover the immense cultural activity and vivacity that actually made the Dark Ages not so dark, but in reality the path to the development of the cultural and spiritual heritage of Europe.
Double the taxes! Triple the taxes!
The Roman Empire was nothing if not a tax machine. After all, it had a lot to pay for. Its massive borders required large amounts of troops to defend and stock the garrisons, and they needed to be paid in gold. It had to feed all the citizens of Rome, and of course pay for all the civic projects and architectural embellishments that made Roman cities the jewels of the Mediterranean. All these things take money, and Rome was good at taking money. The tax system stretched far and wide and was a staple component of the bureaucracy.
Taxes can only be stretched so far, and in many ways the western empire overextended itself. Borders were consolidated or left undefended, Britannia was told to fend for itself, construction projects ground to a halt in many places, soldiers couldn’t be paid. Yet even in the midst of such economic uncertainty, life went on.
While the ‘collapse’ of the Roman Empire conjures up images of a sudden instability, the real truth is that the empire lingered for quite some time before it could actually be said to be defunct. It was more of a gradual decentralization of power as various sections of the empire gradually succumbed to mounting pressure by ‘barbarian’ invaders. The interesting aspect of these ‘barbarians’ is that many of them could be considered at least as Roman as any Romans in the provinces. Many had served in the legions, followed Roman codes of law, etc. While the sacking of Rome was a traumatic experience, (prompting St. Augustine to write his City of God) for most people life pretty much went on as normal. Historical hindsight tends to overemphasize particular events, making an entire time period seem more dramatic than it actually was. For most people in this transitional phase from centralization to decentralization, there was not the sense of immanent collapse. Instead, it was the steady movement of everyday life from one political power to another along with all its concomitant changes.
That is not to say that there were not significant changes taking place. One of the most notable involves the shift from the importance of taxes to the importance of land. As the centralization of Roman power in the West gradually declined, new power centers emerged from and within people groups who, while perhaps quasi-Romanized, did not necessarily do everything the way the Romans did. Since taxation often requires a strong centralization, which many of these new emerging power centers lacked, land holdings became a far more utilized way of paying for armies. Whereas the Roman legions were a professional army paid in gold, soldiers now were being compensated with land. Thus, the holding of lands became the means to status and power.
In the supposed golden era of Rome, the elite were characterized by their familial status, abilities in rhetoric and law, (never mind the dirty little secret that many of them had the credentials without the actual acuity…) and a whole complex host of other characteristics that secured a place in civil or governmental employment. Now all these rules were changing as the cultural and political shift from the centralized governmental bureaucracies to other areas of power. The systems of taxation that had sustained this in the old paradigm, although they were not entirely done away with, were shifting in importance, and thus society would undergo subsequent shifts.
We Can Plow Better Than the Romans!
The Dark Ages are often conceived of as a time of cultural and technological bankruptcy, but the archaeological evidence actually demonstrates a period of innovation and creativity. Interestingly, as advanced as the Romans had become at building aqueducts and architectural masterpieces, they seemed to have little taste for technological innovation. At some point (and this is a bit of an over-generalization) they had decided that rhetoric and law were the highest points of human capacity and activity.
In regards to agriculture, the Romans were still going about it basically the same way their Etruscan progenitors had, with the standard ard that was basically a stick that dragged a furrow in the top layer of the soil into which the farmer would then sow the seeds. This process of farming was extremely inefficient and tedious. During the Dark Ages new agricultural developments were taking place, most notably the moldboard plow:
The new plow had an iron coulter, shaped like a knife, that sliced through the topsoil; a metal-tipped share that cut underneath the earth that had been sliced by the coulter; and a moldboard, mounted obliquely behind the share, that turned over the chances of earth as the plow moved along. The most complex plows had a pair of wheels in front of the coulter to ease the passage of the machine across the field.[2. Peter S. Wells, Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered, p. 131]
The upshot of this, of course, is that not only were farmers able to substantially increase their yields, but that the time saved allowed far greater food production. Higher rates of food production bring farming above subsistence and allow for trade, the freeing of resources to produce crafts and other items for sale, and host of other intangible results from a simple innovation in a plow. During the Dark Ages, horses began to be used instead of oxen since they were faster, and crop rotation was also employed as a means of increasing yields.
NOMS! and Laws
Along with increased food production revolutionized by these agricultural innovations, many of the people of the Dark Ages may have actually found their lives better off than under the Roman Empire. Skeletal remains from Britain and continental grave sites demonstrate that the populace of this time period enjoyed a wide ranging selection of nutritional choices, including those high in protein. Even between the haves and the have-nots, regular protein intake seems to have been a fact of life in many parts of Europe during the Dark Ages, something that may not have been the case during the declining years of the empire.
It is also interesting to note that the height of the people from this time period didn’t reach similar levels until the modern era. (People in the later Middle Ages were shorter.) As stature is often a good indication of overall health and nutrition, in many respects the people living in the Dark Ages might not have had as harsh an existence as the label we assign to their era supposedly reduced them. That is not to say that existence was not a struggle or that there was some homogenous standard of living throughout Europe; rather, things probably went along like they had during the empire’s decline and may have even gotten a little better for some.
While the Dark Ages are often characterized as a period of barbarity and lawlessness, the fact is that as the new emerging centers of power and influence grew, they not did not descend into utter lawlessness but in many respects built upon the shared connections that already existed between cities and villages. It is a mistake to view the ‘barbarians’ as distinct and homogenous people groups who suddenly migrated into the remnants of the Romans Empire and set up their own cultural and societal structures. (Centuries before some of the Roman emperors, facing population decline, had even tried to entice these people groups to settle.) As aforementioned, in many respects these people groups were quasi-Romanized, and thus as the cultural and political centers shifted, they often drew upon Roman jurisprudence as a basis for their own, while making localized adjustments. Thus, rather than a descent into lawlessness, the Dark Ages saw the creative application of law early on, which in turn enabled the immense cultural production that would follow.
One of the common narratives that seems to be bandied about is that the Renaissance marks the gradual emergence of Europe from its Medieval stupor, when the light of science and reason finally began to dawn upon the minds of Europeans again. This is, of course, entirely fictitious, but seems a common enough theme. In many ways, the Renaissance shares a commonality with the Dark Ages, in that many of its writers and thinkers shared many of the same biases- that the classical heritage of some supposed golden era of Rome was superior to the cultural legacy of the Dark Ages.
For many in the Renaissance period (and I am painting with a large brush here) the Greco-Roman models of sculpture, painting, law, art, and whatever other cultural marker one may draw upon represented a sort of apex to re-attain. For them, the artistic and cultural artifacts of the Dark Ages and even the subsequent Middle Ages represented a regression to barbarity of sorts, a fall from the pure form that was represented in the classical heritage of Roman cultural production.
However, if one is not predisposed to this perception, the period of the Dark Ages represented nothing if not a robust and vivacious period of cultural expression and production. Following the decline of the empire, the production of jewelry, pottery, fine crafts, ornaments and the like did not simply cease, but simply underwent the same sorts of cultural shifts that were happening in society.
For example, brooches (fibulae) were common to Romans and non-Romans alike. For the Romans, brooches often served a more pragmatic function, although they had their own style of decoration. Later brooches from our period in question took on a far more ornamental function, with broad flat surfaces that could be elaborately decorated.
Like all jewelry, fibulae were designed to be seen and have specific effects on the observer. They were worn in places on the body where they were highly visible- on the chest or on the front of the shoulder. Studies by cognitive psychologists have shown that the ornamental patterns and motifs that jewelers created on Dark Ages fibulae were designed especially to grab and hold the viewer’s attention.[3. ibid., p.149]
Creativity was also full on display in the Dark Ages. Whereas classical Roman approaches to figures tended toward a more realistic depiction of a subject, artisans during the Dark Ages explored more abstract visualizations. Animals especially were stylized in many different ways across a wide variety of mediums. One only need to glance at one carpet page of the Book of Kells to appreciate the immense amount of creativity that was being employed during this supposed period of barbarity and cultural bankruptcy.
Chaos! War! Destruction!
But weren’t the Dark Ages simply an unending series of battles and bloodshed? Didn’t Western Europe descend into a black night of chaos and pestilence?
It is easy to hear phrases like ‘the collapse of the Roman Empire’ and imagine a singular point in time where everything changes overnight, where the world comes to an end. But history is rarely given to the dramatic. Much less so a period spanning hundreds of years.
One important indicator of the political and societal stability of western Europe during the Dark Ages is trade. During the height of the Roman Empire trade was enabled by the tax system, the protection of the armies and roads and shipping routes. However, as the western empire decentralized, trade didn’t simply stop. Rather, there are indications that the production and transport of goods actually began to ramp up from the fifth century onward. This was not simply characterized by a more localized form of trading, as goods and products from the Mediterranean were still being imported and exported. Robust trade speaks to a couple of things.
Firstly, it betokens relative political stability, as constant warfare does not make for good trade. That is not to imply the absence of conflicts (as there were many, especially in places such as Italy which had devastating effects for decades) but rather that the amount of conflict does not seem to be inflated above what might have existed under the Roman Empire.
Secondly, it points to the effect of jurisprudence being developed during this period. For trade to happen efficiently and effectively requires some measure of assurance that the effort is worthwhile and has some legal protection behind it. Kings and other leaders obviously had a vested interest in ensuring a robust trade network, as it meant more revenue as a result. As a result, the political rulers were involved in making sure circulation systems were not disrupted.[4. ibid., p.169] This would of course speak to protection offered both militarily and legally.
Ignorance is Bliss
Of course, the most notable thing about the Dark Ages was the sheer amount of ignorance. Literacy virtually disappeared, western Europe fell into a black hole of intellectual prowess and only managed to scrape itself out hundreds of years later. Or so the story goes.
Literacy as a whole was never particularly high even during the height of the Roman Empire, and usually converged in political and intellectual centers such as Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and the like. (One would even have to distinguish between varying levels of literacy, from that practiced in rhetoric, law and the reading of the classics and that employed for more common purposes.) Books were expensive and rare, being the provenance of the wealthy elite. This of course did not change following the decline of the empire.
One of the difficulties for the western half of the empire is that much of the intellectual centers were concentrated around the Mediterranean basin, and as the eastern and western empires grew apart, so the centers of learning and literacy shifted as well. Churches and monasteries began to take up this function, and while the primary focus was the copying of the scriptures, patristic texts, commentaries and such, the classics of antiquity were copied and as well. Robust and protected trade routes meant that texts of all kinds were making their way as far away as Ireland from the continent, Greece and beyond.
In 672 the monastery at Wearmouth had a library of over 500 books, one of the largest in Europe at the time.[5. ibid., p. 196] The extensive networks that the church was able to develop also allowed for a fairly regular exchange of books, so that one monastery or church could request a certain book from another to be copied, the implicit assumption being that the network of exchange is stable and robust enough to assure such a treasured commodity could be traded. By the beginning of the millennium books were being sought and imported from Muslims in Spain and beyond.
It is true that many of the non-Roman people groups of this time period were illiterate, at least by Roman standards. (Many actually had systems of runic writing which was a crude form of the Roman alphabet, but which would probably not be considered a literate form of writing.) It was the shifting of intellectual and educational centers to the churches and monasteries that in many ways introduced a greater expansion of literacy into these populations. The Irish were especially adept at this, not only in Ireland itself but also in their missional activities beyond. Monasteries became the centers of learning, teaching and scholarship. Eventually educational processes began to be developed in a more systematized way, perhaps best exemplified in the efforts of Alcuin, who was eventually recruited by Charlemagne to direct his palace school.
As education become more systematized, it was eventually broken out into various fields of study- rhetoric, music, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, grammar and dialectic- which had to be mastered before one could be admitted into studying theology.
These efforts laid the foundations and eventually culminated in more formalized education in western Europe in the later Middle Ages.
Of course, one could get the impression that the Dark Ages were thus a time of a revitalization of interest in learning, that superstition and ignorance and the like did not exist. As with anything, the truth is somewhere in between. For the majority of the population, the primary stuff of life was to plow the field and put food on the table. The subtleties of a Plutarch or the nuances of a Livy were so far off the radar as to not even register. (One wonders if things are substantially different today…) For many, their primary exposure to learning and education would be within the church.
Even among the converted people groups there often still existed a fair amount of syncretization with their former beliefs and practices which would persist for decades or even centuries. For example, the Carmina Gaedelica is replete with Irish Christian charms and spells that invoke the saints in one breath and warn against the witching-woman and the evil eye in the next. Christian graves from this time period also demonstrate a mixed bag of Christian and pre-Christian objects for burial.
History is rarely a clean break from one thing to another, but ebbs and flows in all its myriad ways.
The End of The Beginning
In any post like this, it is easy to go from one extreme to the other, painting with such broad strokes as to completely repaint the picture. My goal has been to simply bring a (hopefully) more balanced perspective to the period known as the Dark Ages, showing that perhaps they were not as dark as popular conception contends.
The challenge anyone faces when looking back at an unfamiliar and far off period of history is to evaluate the lives, thinking and beliefs of people through the matrix of one’s own preconceptions about what is worthwhile, valuable, etc. For the modern person, science and technology tend to dominate the way we perceive reality, and thus a period like the Dark Ages can seem backward and ignorant, especially when evaluated in light of these very particular criteria. As I mentioned in the first section, even some of the people who lived through the Dark Ages had the same sorts of biases, simply focused in different directions. Thus, as they perceived their surrounding world, they could feel a sense of loss of the past and the oh-so-terrible-ness of the present, even while simultaneously experiencing it.
In many ways we are no different, for we all have our prejudices and preconceptions about how things should be, how things should have been. No doubt 1000 years from now people will look back upon us and wonder how we could have been so ignorant, how we could have actually thought that, and any host of other miscellany that will become the popular misconceptions of our age. (Just watch an episode of Star Trek:TNG to see how 24th century humans perceive 21st century humans…)
One can only hope that as with the so-called Dark Ages, the light never really went out.