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READ: The “Dark Ages” Debate

Images in popular culture often refer to Europe during the Middle Ages as a “dark” time period. Many scholars from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries would have agreed. But is the term “Dark Ages” one that most historians today would reject?
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Who first described Europe after the fall of Rome as being “dark” or backward?
  2. What was Edward Gibbon’s contribution to the idea of a “dark age?”
  3. How might English Heritage’s description of Tintagel Castle provide evidence against the idea of a “dark age?”
  4. What does Alban Gautier think of the term “Dark Ages?” What two limits does he think it has?
  5. How were the views of eighteenth-century authors, like Edward Gibbon, shaped by the times they lived in? How did this compare to nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century views?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. This article references ways that scholars have used the idea of a European dark age to suit their own views and goals. Can you think of any ways that people today might use the idea of a dark age (or golden age) to suit their own agendas?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The “Dark Ages” Debate

An eerie, paneled painting. In the center, a human skeleton rides on a horse skeleton, and below them, several lay dead. In the corners, people crowd around a fountain and look over the dead.
By Bridgette Byrd O'Connor
Images in popular culture often refer to Europe during the Middle Ages as a "dark" time period. The idea of the European "Dark Ages" is over 500 years old. More recently, historians have challenged the idea.

The debate

Take a look at the images below and put them in chronological order based on the technique, level of realism, and skill of the artist. Which one is the oldest?
Painting shows several men, seated at a long table, conversing and feasting.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Public domain.
A painting of a woman, holding a tablet that looks similar to a notebook or book. She holds a pen-like stylus to her lips.
“Woman with wax tablets and stylus (Sappho)”. By Naples National Archaeological Museum, public domain.
“Augustine of Hippo Refuting a Heretic.” By home.wlu.edu, CC BY 2.5.
I'm guessing many of you said that "Augustine of Hippo" is the oldest. However, the oldest one (by 12 centuries) is "Woman with wax tablets and stylus." It's a painting from the Roman town of Pompeii that dates to the first century CE. "Augustine of Hippo," on the other hand, is from the thirteenth century CE. The top image is the "Last Supper," a painting by Leonardo da Vinci from the late fifteenth century CE.
Do these three paintings tell us anything about the European Middle Ages?start superscript, 1, end superscript Do they show us that the Middle Ages were "Dark Ages"? Obviously, these are only three paintings, and I might have chosen only these three to make you believe the Middle Ages were backwards. But historians do this all the time, choosing evidence that supports their claim or worldview. Over the last five hundred years, historians have debated whether Europe entered a dark age after the fall of Rome and how long it lasted. Let's look at some examples of this debate from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the modern period.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment view of the Middle Ages

You probably don't enjoy everything your parents or teachers do. You might roll your eyes at their music or laugh at their outfits in old photos. Surely, they came from a strange, backwards time. This generational eye-rolling is pretty common, and scholars of new generations often try to separate themselves from those who came before. As European learning and art flourished during the Renaissance, scholars looked back at the funny pictures and bad music of the Middle Ages and thought, "I'm better than that."
The Renaissance—which means "rebirth"—was a period of European history after the Middle Ages. During this period, scholars sought to revitalize science and the arts. Francesco Petrarca, usually known as "Petrarch", was a fourteenth-century humanistsquared. He wrote about the accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome. Petrarch believed that his society was moving backwards from the achievements of the Greeks and Romans. Petrarch was the first to describe Europe after the fall of Rome as "dark".
Portrait of a young-looking person standing amongst tall branches with golden leaves hanging off of them.
Portrait of Petrarch shown with laurel leaves symbolizing ancient Rome, c. 1480 CE. By Bartolomeo Sanvito, public domain.
Petrarch and other scholars argued that the Greeks and Romans of the classical era might have lacked the "light" of Christianity, but their intellectual achievements were still brilliant. However, he was less complimentary of the Middle Ages. In 1343 he wrote, "for you, if you should long outlive me…there is perhaps a better age in store; this slumber of forgetfulness will not last for ever. After the darkness has been dispelled, our grandsons will be able to walk back into the pure radiance of the past" (Petrarch 453-7). Petrarch believed that the "darkness" of the Middle Ages was coming to an end—Europeans would soon progress into the future by learning from the past greatness of Greece and Rome.
Many later scholars shared Petrarch's views. One of the most well-known Enlightenmentcubed historians was British author Edward Gibbon. Gibbon agreed with Petrarch, believing that Europe declined after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He wrote a multi-volume work titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1789. In it, Gibbon blamed the rise of Christianity for the fall of Rome. He claimed that "the triumph of barbarism [lack of culture] and religion" were to blame. Like Petrarch, Gibbon argued that it was not Germanic tribes who toppled the mighty Roman Empire. Rather, "the reproach [blame] may be transferred to the Catholics of Rome." He believed that, in their efforts to erase the "pagan" history of Rome, they also lost the greatness of the Roman Empire.

Modern views of the Middle Ages

During the nineteenth century, historians still clung to this idea of the "Dark Ages". But by the twentieth century, some historians began to argue that the Dark Ages weren't really that dark for too long. By the mid-twentieth century, more and more historians, scholars, and journalists argued that there were no Dark Ages at all. Yet, the term has not disappeared. English Heritage is an organization the British government established in the 1980s to manage historic properties in the UK. In 2016 they published a history of Tintagel Castle, an English ruin from the Middle Ages. In their history, the authors repeatedly referenced the "Dark Ages of Britain." They defined the time period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the year of the Norman Conquest (c. 400-1066 CE).
The use of "Dark Age" to describe Tintagel fanned the flames of the debate. Some writers and historians criticized the use of "Dark Ages" as outdated and wrong. But others came to the defense of English Heritage. The historian Alban Gautier wrote that "Dark Ages" can be a useful term. He argued that, despite the debate about the term, historians should continue to use it, but only under two conditions: "The first is to limit the use of 'Dark Ages' to those two centuries only [c. 410-610 CE]…The other condition is not to understand the phrase in a negative way. If we talk of 'Dark Ages', we must be clear that it is a purely descriptive label, by which we refer to a very poorly documented period. For historians who work primarily from texts, those centuries are indeed, and are most likely to remain, 'lost centuries.'" In other words, the Dark Ages weren't dark because they were bad, but because our knowledge of them is limited.

The debate continues

So why does this debate still rage? Scholars in every era have different motives. Renaissance scholars wanted to periodize history and shape how future generations would remember them. They hoped to be remembered as the people who brought forth a "rebirth" of the classical world. They wrote about Greco-Roman society as the bright light of art, literature, and culture. By combining the knowledge of the Greco-Roman world with Christianity, they believed they could create a brighter future. By contrast, Enlightenment scholars tended to be anti-Catholic. The Enlightenment celebrated reason and science, and many authors were skeptical of organized religion. Edward Gibbon blamed the fall of Rome on the Catholic church.
Photo of remains of a stone castle on a green hillside. A long, winding staircase leads up to the castle.
Ruins of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, England. By Robert Linsdell, CC BY 2.0.
Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars like Petrarch and Gibbon were influential. Because of this, later nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars often accepted their arguments and continued to romanticize the Romans and Greeks. Many modern scholars continued to portray the Middle Ages as unrefined and violent, without any cultural achievements. Today, the debate continues, but more and more scholars are starting to argue that the past wasn't so simple. They argue that, if there was a period that deserves the "Dark Ages" label, it was pretty short, and it was not truly "dark"—we just don't have enough historical sources to light the way.
What do you think? Was there ever a "dark age" of medieval history? Or do you think that the older Roman networks and communities were simply changing into something new during the Middle Ages?
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, Bridgette has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course world history and US history curricula.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user abner-torresvasquez
    Who first described Europe after the fall of Rome as being “dark” or

    What was Edward Gibbon’s contribution to the idea of a “dark age?”

    How might English Heritage’s description of Tintagel Castle provide
    evidence against the idea of a “dark age?”

    What does Alban Gautier think of the term “Dark Ages?” What two
    limits does he think it has?

    How were the views of eighteenth-century authors, like Edward
    Gibbon, shaped by the times they lived in? How did this compare to
    nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century views?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Jane Petrovykh
    Ward-Perkins in his "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization" (2005) describes a significant decrease in quality of life for lower class people after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Goods like roof tiles or ceramics that was mass-produced in Rome became a rare luxury after the collapse. The local artisans that would produce similar goods simply didn't exist because for centuries prior it was easy and cheap to buy the mass produced goods on the local market. And even after artisans evolved anew, the quality of their work couldn't compare to the imperial one.

    Other factors of collapse were transport structures (bridges, roads, docks) falling in disrepair; safety decreasing significantly on the routes beyond local; big orders from Rome that supported the regional economy stopping completely.

    This is supported by archeological evidence: we find much more material evidence when excavating an ancient Roman village than an early Middle Age town.

    How does the idea of "Dark Ages never existed" reconcile with these evidence of significant decrease of the life of lower class people (who made up most of the population at the time)?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user