Were The Dark Ages Really That Dark?

Picture of By Aidan O’Reilly

By Aidan O’Reilly

When I say the words “the Dark Ages” or “the Medieval Era”, what image comes to your mind? I would guess something out of “Game of Thrones”, or “The Witcher”. A period of castles and knights. Of monarchs and tyranny. Of churches and oppression. Like all good lies ever told to us, there is an element of truth to that image. Those were things of that time, and I am not here to dispute that. But that is not the entire truth, as the media has led us to believe, and that is what I intend to share with you today. The truth about what these times were really like and how the media misled us. Discussing the origins of the myth, why our perception of that era matters, and a discussion of why the “Dark Ages” were really not that dark.


What have the Romans ever done for us?

As with all paths, we are led to Rome. However, this is not the Ancient Rome you are probably thinking of, but that of 14th century Italy and the Italian poet Petrarch. It is through him that the myth of the “Dark Ages” begins. Through his eyes, he saw the cultural achievements of the ancient Roman age as superior to the age of darkness and gloom he considered himself to be a part of. The past was regarded as a time of unsurpassed greatness that could, at best, be poorly mimicked by the society of his time.

This idea would later be expanded upon by historian Giorgio Vasari, who would adapt Petrarch’s two ages to include another age. The age of a modern, better Italy at the height of the Renaissance. Cast into the shadows created by the two cultural beacons of ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy, nearly 1,000 years of history are resigned to a state of regression and oppression.

That is where the myth can be said to begin, and it has largely been perpetuated right up to the modern day. That is not to say that this myth is without critics, with many academic historians rejecting the lie of the “Dark Ages”. But those are the academics, the professionals. What about your normal person who has not read “The Illiad” back to front in Ancient Greek? These are the people who get most of their information from the ever reliable media. That is a different story, as the myth of the “Dark Ages” continues to remain a popular narrative or framing device within the media when discussing things that are cruel, primitive, or otherwise “medieval”.

Being A Bit Less “Medieval” & Getting Our Facts Straight

As a consequence of the narrative we have been fed, down to the everyday language we use, it is no wonder we do not regard the people and culture of that time highly. There is an appeal in believing ourselves to be that much different, that much better, than the people of the past. It is not as if they are able to disagree with us. And, while the “Medieval Era” was no paradise, it was hardly the bottom of human history as we have been led to believe.

The idea of a “Dark Age” itself is rather funny when you think about it. Who was it a dark age for? And what may be a dark age for one group may be a golden age for another. Ireland in the 1840s regards that period of history very differently than, say, England during that same time. That is to say, the idea of a dark age is largely dependent on one’s perspective and where the story is being told from. With the perspective we have been given being the European one.

This limits our understanding of history and places constraints on how we understand the big picture. Even just ignoring places like India, China, and the Middle East at that time, Europe itself was far from the unenlightened backwater we consider it to have become in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Why, the Eastern Roman Empire persisted and would do so for the next 1,000 years. To the northwest, you will find Charlemagne and the monastic traditions. And in Spain, then Al-Andalus, you found some of the best and brightest of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths working together to further their understanding of science.

It is a common narrative that without Rome’s influence Europe had descended into a state of barbarism that it would remain in until the Renaissance. But when you begin to really look at history and what actually happened, a different, but far more interesting picture begins to emerge. The collapse of Roman authority and the loss of knowledge that followed is a tragedy. It took precedence above what had been preserved and what came after. Europe, and the world at large, were far more interesting and dynamic during this time than we give them credit for their accomplishments and get our facts straight. Perhaps being medieval was not as bad as we were led to believe.

Why The ‘Dark Ages’ Were Not That Dark

When summarised, history is this thing that can be followed along easily, with things happening sequentially in nice tidy lines. Rome collapsed, and knowledge was lost. Without knowledge, people fell into a time of darkness. This darkness ended when the knowledge of Rome was rediscovered. It makes for a compelling, albeit simple, narrative. It fails to credit or even recognise the people and ideas that came from that time and what they have done for our modern world. From mathematics, to clockwork, to gunpowder.

All of these ideas find some origin in the so-called “Dark Ages”. And ideas do not come from nowhere. The Renaissance was not simply the rediscovery of Antiquity, but rather the reinvention of those ideas that had been preserved or transformed over 1,000 years by innumerable people. Bringing those ideas to even greater heights. Yet, the idea of the “Dark Ages” persists. So, think about it yourself, ask questions, and challenge the authority of what you have been told within the media. Even mine. And by adopting a more “medieval” mindset, the truth that you are looking for may surprise you. It most certainly did for me.


Cover Image: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction

Editor: Hana Maurer

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