On the Dark Ages

Nick Spencer paints the period between Rome and the Middle Ages in broad brushstrokes.



Nick Spencer paints the period between Rome and the Middle Ages in broad brushstrokes.


Well, the first thing to say is you can understand the “dark” in Dark Ages in two different ways. One way of understanding it is that it’s a period of civilisational darkness in which we embraced barbarism, or had barbarism thrust upon us. The other way, which is equally valid, is it’s dark because we don’t know very much about it. Historical record-keeping, and certainly the records we have of that period, are much poorer than certainly subsequent periods.

Actually, the two are linked. One of the reasons why we don’t know so much about it is because there wasn’t so much writing of what we would later call historical texts. There are various reasons for it; obviously supreme amongst those is the collapse of civic authority in the Roman West at least (less so in the East), accompanied or caused by barbarian invasions from the north and the west. It bred a period of profound uncertainty. What we would call today the state and its legitimate authority disappeared, and when that happens, economic operations shrink – and when that happens, you move back to a much more unstable subsistence economy in which people are too busy surviving to allow themselves time to sculpt or write poetry.

So in one sense it was a period of barbarism. But we also have glimpses of the fact that the classical learning didn’t die out completely, it just existed in much more isolated islands of civilisation – which actually you can almost associate with monasteries. If you want the vessels that carried the learning and many of the ideas of the classical world from the end of the fourth, fifth century through to the first European Reformation, the Carolingian Reformation in the eighth century, it’s the monasteries you’ll turn to.