History Fact Friday – “The Dark Ages”

It might surprise you to know that the supposed ‘Dark Ages’ between the fall of Rome (476 CE) and the Renaissance (c. 1500) were not all that dark.

The term “Dark Ages” was first used by the Italian poet Petrarch to describe the poor quality of medieval Latin literature. In that point, Petrarch was correct. Latin evolved extensively during the Middle Ages, becoming the Romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. But written Latin remained stagnant and somewhat anachronistic. As a result, the Latin literature of this period was not vibrant and moving as the Classic Latin literature had been because it was no longer the language of the people writing it. They spoke a very different form of Latin – the proto-Romance languages – so it is not surprising that literature failed miserably.

It was not until the Renaissance that literature in Latin’s child languages really flourished. Latin took centuries to be displaced in academic circles, even after French had become essentially ‘the’ language of Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages did not produce much in the way of great literature, but they were not scientifically void. Between the years 1000 and 1300, the population of continental Europe tripled due to the technological and agricultural advances of that period. Among them were the development of the iron plow, the horse collar and the chimney. Additionally, the Basques of the Middle Ages made significant advances in sailing technology which, when finally provided to the other Europeans, gave birth to the age of exploration.

People often think of the Middle Ages as a violent, barbaric period but in fact, it was no less barbaric than the Modern Age that followed it. Considering the fact that the Romans (those great civilizers) routinely threw people to the floor of the coliseums to be torn apart by wild animals and that the modern age has seen battles where more soldiers died in a single day than in the entire Hundred Years’ War, one has to wonder whose definition of violent and barbaric we should use.

In short, the Middle Ages might have been a bit dirtier and slightly less hygienic than our modern world. They might not have been the most literate period in Europe (less than 5% of the population could read), but they were not really all that dark. We see them that way because we’ve always been told it was that way; but in reality, the Middle Ages were the time when our modern world was born. The modern nations of France, England, Germany and Spain were born from the events of the Middle Ages. Their languages were forged during this period. In short, we should be calling them the ‘Birthing Ages’ rather than the Dark Ages.

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3 thoughts on “History Fact Friday – “The Dark Ages”

  1. I wouldn’t say that invention of new technologies and language would mean that the dark ages were not scientifically stagnant. I see what you are saying, but I think one main reason that many today refer to that time as the dark ages is the attitude towards education, which is connected to the literature and literacy that you referred to. A lack of education and literacy resulted in extreme superstitions. That doesn’t mean that some people weren’t innovative or that new technologies and advancements weren’t made, but invention is not evidence of scientific understanding. I think the distinction between the dark ages and the modern age of the renaissance was the value placed on learning, science, and art. Also, there may have been some growth in those areas, but for the most part they stayed unchanged during that time. The advancement of mathematics after the dark ages was the catalyst to the advancement of science.

    • I would encourage you to check out Barbarians to Angels by Peter S. Wells and the works of Thomas Madden. There is a lot of evidence that the medieval period was not nearly as ‘dark’ as the extant literary output evidences. The idea of a ‘dark age’ is something that the Enlightenment thinkers came up with. If you had lived in the medieval period, you would not have perceived it as ‘dark.’

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