Is It Still OK to Refer to the Dark Ages?

Historians/History
tags: Dark Ages



Max Adams is the author of Admiral Collingwood (2005), The Prometheans (2009) and the bestselling The King in the North (2013). His latest book is In the Land of Giants (2015). He is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Classics, History and Archaeology at Newcastle University.


Dark Ages: What Dark Ages? It is not a term used at academic conferences and research seminars or in journal articles. So can we still get away with using ‘Dark Ages’? After all, the period between the end of the Roman Empire in the early 400s and the reign of Alfred the Great in the late 800s gave us the venerable Bede, Charlemagne, the Book of Kells and the magnificent technology of the Viking longship; the fabulous art and metalwork of the Sutton Hoo treasure and the Hunterston brooch. An obscure period, in many respects, but hardly a cultural black hole. And if we are talking narrative history, the 4th century in Roman Britain is much harder to reconstruct than the tumultuous 7th.

In academia the half millennium after 400 is generally called the Early Medieval (capital E, capital M). Not perfect; but as a shorthand it is alright. Where it blends into Late Antiquity (capital L, capital A) is another matter; and when it becomes just plain medieval (small m) depends on your point of view, or your geography: in England 1066 is the key date, thanks to its dramatic conquest by William of Normandy. In Ireland the Norman invasion came a hundred years later. In Scandinavia, the conversion to Christianity after the late 10th century marks the end of the Viking Age; West Francia becomes France after the end of the Carolingian Age in 987. Confusing; but does it matter?

In 2014 I set off on a series of journeys through what I chose to call the Dark Ages of Britain and Ireland. The aim was to trace our Early Medieval geography on the ground by traveling through it, mostly on foot. It was not just about visiting the sites of ancient battles, Early Christian (capital E, capital C) memorials and the crumbling remains of Roman walls, which the Anglo-Saxon poets believed to have been built by a lost race of giants. I wanted to experience the landscape, that extraordinary palimpsest of human activities laid one above the other and visible to the trained eye, at the right pace. Like the song lines of Australian aborigines, our landscape is a cultural history embedded in folktale, field and hedgerow, ford and village, church and standing stone that opens a window on the obscurities of the deep past.

My argument for using ‘Dark Ages’ in the title goes as follows. For most people, the period is deeply obscure. The names of its historical protagonists (King Arthur aside) are little known and tricky to mentally assimilate—all those Æðelfriths and Cenél nÉogains. An understanding of the archaeology—heavily detailed excavation reports, maps with shifting names and boundaries; the quicksand of place-name studies—requires technical expertise. The languages—Old Irish, Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Goidelic—are mystifying to most. We tend to look at the period after the Roman Empire, with its apparent peak of civilizing language and literature, as if through a glass darkly. To the layperson, then, this is a relatively inaccessible period in European history: it requires some illuminating.

And then, there is that evocative opening entry in the Annales Cambriae, a 9th-century British-Latin text originally compiled from a set of Easter Annals (the calculation of the correct date of Easter, being an obsession of literate monks, came to be a convenient means of noting memorable events against particular years). The first entry, whose Anno Domini equivalent would be the year 447, is this bald statement: dies tenebrosa sicut nox. A day as dark as night. Whether that refers to some legendary volcanic eruption or a year of terror, or reflects the dim memory of plague or famine, we cannot say. But it kicks off the narrative history of the period with a bang, and the 440s are the decade which Bede, looking back from the comfort of his monastery at Jarrow in the year 731, associated with the conquest of Britain by the tribes of the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

We live in an age in which almost all the surviving contemporary texts written between the Fall of Rome in 410 and the Domesday Book of 1086 have been translated into modern, accessible English (and French and German). The internet allows academics to publish their work online, and often for free. The past is democratic, as never before. The 21st century is superabundant in information about Early Medieval obscurity; and that is a nice irony. I wanted to provide for the general reading public a modern, accessible translation of the language of landscape so that, Bede or Nennius or the Ulster Annals in hand, people might begin to explore familiar landscapes of woodland and mountain, river and coast with the historical equivalent of a Baedeker, a sort of DIY lifting of the veil of darkness that clouds our view of the formative centuries of our modern cultures and identities.

But there is another thing. I am a 21st-century traveller. I might be walking through a landscape broadly familiar to the poet of the Ruin or the Táin Bó Cúailnge; but Ihave to cross busy roads, shop at supermarkets and catch ferries along the way. I listen to the nightly news while I am far from home. And after a while I can’t help making comparisons between the forebodings of the ancient scribes and my own. As I ended my series of journeys, appropriately enough on Midwinter’s day 2014, the news was full of evil men bearing an apocalyptic message terrorizing our cities; a passenger plane had gone down, unexplained, somewhere in the vast ocean; I saw a fight break out in a bar; and soup kitchens were opening on the streets of Britain’s towns. The price of oil had plummeted. One might almost believe that we are witnessing our own dies tenebrosa sicut nox. But through that darkness also shines a light: a peace treaty is signed; a new medicine is discovered; on board the International Space Station a badly needed tool is emailed from Earth (capital E) and 3D-printed. Similarly, the apparent chaos and obscurity of the Early Medieval period is illuminated by its brilliant art and by its outstanding scholars, by the emergence of a rational idea of Christian kingship; and above all, by Latin, the language of literate priests, which gave the new nations of Europe a shared intellectual culture. Not utterly dark, then; more light and shade. Perhaps the Dark Ages should really be called the Chiaroscuro Ages (Capital C, capital A).



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