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Dark Ages

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The "Dark Ages" is a concept invented in the early 14th Century by the poet Petrarch who used it to describe the preceding 900 years in Europe, beginning with the fall of the western Roman Empire in 410 through to the renewal embodied in the Renaissance. Before the conceptual term was invented, contemporaries did not see themselves as part of a Dark Age, and to understand why the period is called "Dark", with its negative connotations, it is helpful to know when, how and why the term was invented, how the term has been variously used in the 700 years since its creation.

Note: For other labels of the Dark Ages see also Late Antiquity, Early Middle Ages, Great Migrations, Middle Ages and the "Other labels for the Dark Ages" section below. For a general discussion of attempts to categorize or divide historical time into discrete named blocks, see Periodization.


Origin and history of Dark Ages concept

"Triumph of Christianity" by Tommaso Laureti (1530-1602), ceiling painting in the Sala di Constantino, Vatican Palace. Images like this one symbolize the destruction of ancient pagan culture and the "victory" of Christianity.
"Triumph of Christianity" by Tommaso Laureti (1530-1602), ceiling painting in the Sala di Constantino, Vatican Palace. Images like this one symbolize the destruction of ancient pagan culture and the "victory" of Christianity.

In order to understand the origin of the concept of the Dark Ages it is helpful to understand how the people of the time saw their own place in history. Most scholars of Late Antiquity followed St. Augustine (5th Century) who believed history had 6 stages and that they were living in the sixth and final phase of history in which the end of earthly man was coming after Christ returned to earth, and that the events of Revelation and the end of the world could happen at any time. This idea was prevalent for nearly 900 years.

Origin of the Dark Ages concept

How did the concept of the "Dark Ages" come about and why? It is generally accepted that the term was invented by the 14th Century Italian Renaissance humanist Petrarch in the 1330s. He spoke of the men who had come before him, that "admist the errors there shone forth men of genius, no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom; therefore they ought not so much to be hated for their error but pitied for their ill fate" (Petrarch, De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia). For the first time the metaphor of light versus darkness, which for so long had strong religious value, now came to have literary connotation. Humanists seized on this co-opted religious metaphor; antiquity, so long considered the "dark age", had now become the time of "light".

Why did Petrarch call it a period of darkness? Petrarch spent much of his time traveling through Europe rediscovering and re-publishing the classic Latin and Greek texts. He desired to restore the classic Latin language, art and culture to the original Roman ways, because any changes that had happened since the fall of Rome in 410, as humanists believed, was not worth studying. Humanists saw the 900 year period of Classics stagnation as a time of stagnation. Humanists saw history not on the religious terms of St. Augustine, but along social (or secular) ones, through the progressive developments of Classical culture, literature and art. Petrarch wrote history has two periods: the Classic period of the Romans and Greeks, and an "Age of Darkness", in which he thought he was still living. Humanists believed one day the Roman Empire would rise again and restore the Classical cultural purity. Later in the late 14th and early 15th Century humanists such as Leonardo Bruni believed they had achieved this new age. A 3rd Modern Age had started and a "Middle Age" logically created. The first use of the term "Middle Age" appears with Flavio Biondo around 1439.

The concept of the Dark Ages was an ideological campaign by humanists to promote Classical culture and was therefore not a neutral historical analysis. It was invented to express a disaproval of a period in time, and the promotion of another.

History of the Dark Ages concept

Historians prior to the 19th century wrote about the Middle Ages with a mix of positive and negative but mostly negative sentiment. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th Century, Protestants wrote about it as a period of Catholic corruption. In response to these attacks Catholic reformers developed a counterimage, depicting it as a period of social and religious harmony, and not "dark" at all.

During the 17th and 18th Century, in the age of Enlightenment, religion was seen as against reason. Because the Middle Ages was an "Age of Faith" when religion reigned, it was seen as a period contrary to reason, and thus contrary to the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant and Voltaire were two enlightenment writers who were vocal in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social decline. Many modern negative conceptions of the "Dark Ages" come from the Enlightenment authors.

In the early 19th Century, the Romantics reversed this negative assessment. The term "Gothic" was 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, which for the following Romantic generation began to take on an idyllic image of the "Age of Faith". This image was in reaction to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism in which reason trumped emotion, expressing a romantic view of a Golden Age of chivalry. The Middle Ages was seen as a period of social and environmental harmony, a romantic nostalgia in light of the environmental and social upheavals of the emerging industrial revolution. The Romantics view of the Dark Ages can still be seen in modern-day fairs and festivals that celebrate the period with costumes and events (see "Renaissance fair").

After the Romantics there have been advancements in archaeology and a flowering of archival research and interest, starting in the later half of the 19th century, which have made available additional material not available to previous scholars.

Other labels for the Dark Ages

Historians today use the terms "Late Antiquity" and "Early Middle Ages" or "Great Migrations" specifically, or Middle Ages generally, to characterize this passage in European history. The negative connotations of the word "dark" in Dark Ages have made it a less popular working term among modern professional historians. In the English-speaking world, the Sutton Hoo treasure of c. 625, which was uncovered in 1939, as well as advancements by medieval scholars such as Charles Haskins, made the darkness of a "Dark Ages" seem inappropriate. After the Second World War, "Dark Ages" faded from professional discourse in English.

There are no internationally accepted starting or ending points for the Dark Ages, though in most English speaking countries historians consider the roughly half-millennium period from the Visigoth sack of Rome (AD 410) to the year AD 1000 as commonly accepted. Some consider Charlemagne in 800 to represent the end of the Dark Ages, while others take it up to the start of the Modern Age in 1500. Historically, the concept as created by Petrarch covers the entire Middle Age period.

Depending on country of origin, historians will call the Dark Ages different things. For example in English, Russian and Icelandic speaking countries it is called the Middle Ages (plural), meaning there are sub-groups such as the Late Middle Ages, High Middle Ages and Early Middle Ages. By contrast in most major European languages -- French, German, Spanish, Italian -- where a large majority of research of the period originates, it is spoken of in the singular, Middle Age, and not broken into sub-groups. This creates confusion on what the timeline of the period is, so it is often safe to assume, without other context, it means the entire period from the fall of Rome in 410 through to the start of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century. In a 3-period view of history (Antiquity, Middle, Modern) the period would end in 1500.

Other Dark Ages

In the Ancient Near East there are consistent gaps in structures, writing or works of art at many urban sites between 1200s BC and 850s BC, known as the "Dark Ages" of the Ancient Near East. More specifically, the term 'Greek_Dark_Ages" title ="Greek Dark Ages">Greek Dark Ages'History_of_Ancient_Greece" title ="History of Ancient Greece">history of Ancient Greece between the 12th century BC and 9th century BC from which no records, and only scant archaeological evidence, survive.

In cosmology'Big_Bang" title ="Big Bang">Big Bang theory, the term dark ages refers to periods of comparatively little starlight emission, during the early formation of the universe. This would have occurred after decoupling and before the first burst of star formation.

Further reading

  • Theodore E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark Ages'",Speculum, Vol.17, No 2. (Apr.,1942), pp.226-242.

fr:Si├Ęcles obscurs ja:暗黒時代 zh:黑暗时代

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