The "Dark Ages" is a term for the Early Middle Ages or Middle Ages in the area of the Roman Empire in Europe, after its fall in the fifth century, characterizing it as marked by economic, intellectual and cultural decline.
The concept of a "Dark Age" originated in the 1330s with the Italian scholar Petrarch, who regarded the post-Roman centuries as "dark" compared to the "light" of classical antiquity. The term employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the era's "darkness" (lack of records) with earlier and later periods of "light" (abundance of records). The phrase "Dark Age" itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 when he referred to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th centuries. The concept thus came to characterize the entire Middle Ages as a time of intellectual darkness in Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. This became especially popular during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment.
As the accomplishments of the era came to be better understood in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars began restricting the "Dark Ages" appellation to the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th-10th century), and now scholars also reject its usage in this period. The majority of modern scholars avoid the term altogether owing to its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate. Petrarch's pejorative meaning remains in use, typically in popular culture which often mischaracterises the Middle Ages as a time of violence and backwardness.
The idea of a Dark Age originated with the Tuscan scholar Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of the past, he said: "Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom". Christian writers, including Petrarch himself, had long used traditional metaphors of 'light versus darkness' to describe 'good versus evil'. Petrarch was the first to give the metaphor secular meaning by reversing its application. He now saw classical antiquity, so long considered a 'dark' age for its lack of Christianity, in the 'light' of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch's own time, allegedly lacking such cultural achievements, was seen as the age of darkness.
From his perspective on the Italian peninsula, Petrarch saw the Roman period and classical antiquity as an expression of greatness. He spent much of his time traveling through Europe, rediscovering and republishing classic Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the Latin language to its former purity. Renaissance humanists saw the preceding 900 years as a time of stagnation, with history unfolding not along the religious outline of Saint Augustine's Six Ages of the World, but in cultural (or secular) terms through progressive development of classical ideals, literature, and art.
Petrarch wrote that history had two periods: the classic period of Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness in which he saw himself living. In around 1343, in the conclusion of 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 forever. 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. Later the term 'Middle Ages' - Latin media tempestas (1469) or medium aevum (1604) - was used to describe the period of supposed decline.
During the Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants generally had a similar view to Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch, but also added an Anti-Catholic perspective. They saw classical antiquity as a golden time, not only because of its Latin literature, but also because it witnessed the beginnings of Christianity. They promoted the idea that the 'Middle Age' was a time of darkness also because of corruption within the Catholic Church, such as: popes ruling as kings, veneration of saints' relics, a licentious priesthood, and institutionalized moral hypocrisy.
In response to the Protestants, Catholics developed a counter-image to depict 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 produced a work that the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1911 described as "far surpassing anything before" and that Acton regarded as "the greatest history of the Church ever written". The Annales covered the first twelve centuries of Christianity to 1198, and 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 stirrings of Gregorian Reform under Pope Clement II in 1046:
"The new age (saeculum) that 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. 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 containing the work of writers from the preceding and succeeding centuries. A minority of these writers were historians.
There is a sharp drop from 34 volumes in the 9th century to just 8 in the 10th. The 11th century, with 13, evidences a certain recovery, and the 12th century, with 40, surpasses the 9th, something the 13th, with just 26, fails to do. There was indeed a 'dark age', in Baronius's sense of a "lack of writers", between the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th century and the beginnings, some time in the 11th, of what has been called the Renaissance of the 12th century. Furthermore, there was an earlier period of "lack of writers" during the 7th and 8th centuries. So, in Western Europe, two 'dark ages' can be identified, separated by the brilliant but brief Carolingian Renaissance.
Baronius' 'dark age' seems to have struck historians, for it was in the 17th century that the term started to spread to various European languages, with his original Latin term saeculum obscurum being reserved for the period he had applied it to. But while some, following Baronius, used 'dark age' neutrally to refer to a dearth of written records, others used it pejoratively, lapsing into that lack of objectivity that has discredited 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 during the later 17th century. The earliest reference seems to be in the "Epistle Dedicatory" to Volume I of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England of 1679, 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 the 1682 Volume II, 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 bishop chronicling how England became Protestant, and his use of the term is invariably pejorative.
During the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, many critical thinkers saw religion as antithetical to reason. For them the Middle Ages, or "Age of Faith", was therefore the opposite of the Age of Reason. Baruch Spinoza, Bernard Fontenelle, Kant, Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Marquis De Sade and Rousseau were vocal in attacking the Middle Ages as a period of social regress dominated by religion, 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 at the cusp of a "new age", was criticising the centuries before his own time, so too were Enlightenment writers.
Consequently, an evolution had occurred in at least three ways. Petrarch's original metaphor of light versus dark has expanded over time, implicitly at least. Even if later humanists 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 to be condemned 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 achievement, was sharpened to take on a more explicitly anti-religious and anti-clerical meaning.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Romantics reversed the negative assessment of Enlightenment critics with 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 stimulated interest in the Middle Ages, which for the following generation began to take on the idyllic image of an "Age of Faith". This, reacting to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism, expressed a romantic view of a Golden Age of chivalry. The Middle Ages were seen with 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 utilitarianism of the developing Industrial Revolution. The Romantics' view is still represented in modern-day fairs and festivals celebrating the period with 'merrie' costumes and events.
Just as Petrarch had twisted the meaning of light versus darkness, so the Romantics had twisted the judgment of the Enlightenment. However, the period they idealized was largely the High Middle Ages, extending into Early Modern times. In one respect, this negated the religious aspect of Petrarch's judgment, since these later centuries were those when the power and prestige of the Church were at their height. To many, the scope of the Dark Ages was becoming divorced from this period, denoting mainly the centuries immediately following the fall of Rome.
The term was widely used by 19th-century historians. In 1860, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt delineated the contrast between the medieval 'dark ages' and the more enlightened Renaissance, which had revived the cultural and intellectual achievements of antiquity. The earliest entry for a capitalized "Dark Ages" in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a reference in Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization in England in 1857, who wrote: "During these, which are rightly called the Dark Ages, the clergy were supreme." The OED in 1894 defined an uncapitalised "dark ages" as "a term sometimes applied to the period of the Middle Ages to mark the intellectual darkness characteristic of the time".
However, the early 20th century saw a radical re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, which called into question the terminology of darkness, or at least its more pejorative use. The historian Denys Hay spoke ironically of "the lively centuries which we call dark". More forcefully, a book about the history of German literature published in 2007 describes "the dark ages" as "a popular if uninformed manner of speaking".
Most modern historians do not use the term "dark ages", preferring terms such as Early Middle Ages. But when used by some historians today, the term "Dark Ages" is meant to describe the economic, political, and cultural problems of the era. For others, the term Dark Ages is intended to be neutral, expressing the idea that the events of the period seem 'dark' to us because of the paucity of the historical record. For example Robert Sallares, commenting on the lack of sources to establish whether the plague pandemic of 541 to 750 reached northern Europe, opines "the epithet Dark Ages is surely still an appropriate description of this period". The term is also used in this sense (often in the singular) to reference the Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent Greek Dark Ages, the brief Parthian Dark Age (1st century BC), the dark ages of Cambodia (c. 1450-1863 AD), and also a hypothetical Digital Dark Age which would ensue if the electronic documents produced in the current period were to become unreadable at some point in the future. Some Byzantinists have used the term Byzantine Dark Ages to refer to the period from the earliest Muslim conquests to about 800, because there are no extant historical texts in Greek from this period, and thus the history of the Byzantine Empire and its territories that were conquered by the Muslims is poorly understood and must be reconstructed from other contemporaneous sources, such as religious texts. The term "dark age" is not restricted to the discipline of history. Since the archaeological evidence for some periods is abundant and for others scanty, there are also archaeological dark ages.
Since the Late Middle Ages significantly overlap with the Renaissance, the term 'Dark Ages' became restricted to distinct times and places in medieval Europe. Thus the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, at the height of the Saxon invasions, have been called "the darkest of the Dark Ages", in view of the societal collapse of the period and the consequent lack of historical records. Further south and east, the same was true in the former Roman province of Dacia, where history after the Roman withdrawal went unrecorded for centuries as Slavs, Avars, Bulgars, and others struggled for supremacy in the Danube basin, and events there are still disputed. However, at this time the Abbasid Caliphate is often considered to have experienced its Golden Age rather than Dark Age; consequently, usage of the term must also specify a geography. While Petrarch's concept of a Dark Age corresponded to a mostly Christian period following pre-Christian Rome, today the term mainly applies to the cultures and periods in Europe that were least Christianized, and thus most sparsely covered by chronicles and other contemporary sources, at the time mostly written by Catholic clergy.
However, from the later 20th century onward, other historians became critical even of this nonjudgmental use of the term, for two main reasons. Firstly, it is questionable whether it is ever possible to use the term in a neutral way: scholars may intend this, but ordinary readers may not understand it so. Secondly, 20th-century scholarship had increased understanding of the history and culture of the period, to such an extent that it is no longer really 'dark' to us. To avoid the value judgment implied by the expression, many historians now avoid it altogether. it was occasionally used up to the 1990s by historians of early medieval Britain, for example in the title of the 1991 book by Ann Williams, Alfred Smyth and D. P. Kirby, A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain, England, Scotland and Wales, c.500-c.1050, and in the comment by Richard Abels in 1998 that the greatness of Alfred the Great "was the greatness of a Dark Age king". In 1999, Patrick Wormald referred to "barbarian legislators, including Alfred". In 2020, John Blair, Stephen Rippon and Christopher Smart observed that: "The days when archaeologists and historians referred to the fifth to the tenth centuries as the 'Dark Ages' are long gone, and the material culture produced during that period demonstrates a high degree of sophistication."
Science historian David C. Lindberg criticised the public use of 'dark ages' to describe the entire Middle Ages as "a time of ignorance, barbarism and superstition" for which "blame is most often laid at the feet of the Christian church, which is alleged to have placed religious authority over personal experience and rational activity". Historian of science Edward Grant writes that "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities". Furthermore, Lindberg says that, contrary to common belief, "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led". Because of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire due to the Migration Period a lot of classical Greek texts were lost there, but part of these texts survived and they were studied widely in the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. Around the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the High Middle Ages stronger monarchies emerged; borders were restored after the invasions of Vikings and Magyars; technological developments and agricultural innovations were made which increased the food supply and population. And the rejuvenation of science and scholarship in the West was due in large part to the new availability of Latin translations of Aristotle.
Another view of the period is reflected by more specific notions such as the 19th-century claim that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. In fact, lecturers in medieval universities commonly advanced the idea that the Earth was a sphere. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write: "There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference". Other misconceptions such as: "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy", are cited by Numbers as examples of myths that still pass as historical truth, although unsupported by current research.
Petrarch was the very first to speak of the Middle Ages as a 'dark age', one that separated him from the riches and pleasures of classical antiquity and that broke the connection between his own age and the civilization of the Greeks and the Romans.
The Dark Ages and the Middle Ages -- or the Middle Age -- used to be the same; two names for the same period. But they have come to be distinguished, and the Dark Ages are now no more than the first part of the Middle Age, while the term mediaeval is often restricted to the later centuries, about 1100 to 1500, the age of chivalry, the time between the first Crusade and the Renaissance. This was not the old view, and it does not agree with the proper meaning of the name.
In terms of the sources of information available, this is most certainly not a Dark Age... Over the last century, the sources of evidence have increased dramatically, and the remit of the historian (broadly defined as a student of the past) has expanded correspondingly.
These used to be called the Dark Ages. That label is best set aside. It is hopelessly redolent of Renaissance and Enlightenment prejudices. It altogether underestimates the impressive cultural vitality and enduring spiritual legacy of the entire period that has come to be known as "late antiquity". At the same time we do not have to euphemize the realities of imperial disintegration, economic collapse and societal disintegration.