Considering the Dark Ages

I saw this post earlier this morning and rather than merely respond (in agreement) I figured it warranted a post of its own. The study of the ‘Dark Ages’ have been subject to all sorts of abuse. (It is necessary to mention that I do not entirely agree with abtwixt’s definition of ‘Dark Age’; this term more properly refers to the badly sourced period between the end of the Roman Empire in the west and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. This is what I refer to when I use the term ‘Dark Age’.) It is also necessary to mention my own lack of expertise in this particular area. I am, first and foremost, a Byzantinist. Most of my experience and knowledge is in the eastern half of the Mediterranean during this period. Someone much more informed than I on this topic is Curt Emanuel, whose blog you should be reading.

The study of the ‘Dark Ages’ only now seems to be crawling out of the mess that Petrarch left. The advent of late antique and early medieval studies has not only made study of this period acceptable, it is almost becoming popular. When making my decision about whether to go to Oxford or not, I looked at current academic job postings. There’s a grand total of nothing in classics, and about as much in Byzantine Studies. However, there were a number of jobs open for those in the area of late antiquity and the early middle ages. It’s a good thing that this field is expanding and that there are academic jobs out there, because a:) This is a misrepresented period of history, and b:) I intend to find employment in it one day. Much of the bias towards this period seems to be a holdover from Enlightenment thinking that despised the Dark Ages because of its perceptions of a period of pervasive Christianity. This view still seems to be held today, along with claims of almighty popes, witch-burnings, inquisitions, and crusades. The fact that these seem to be most commonly-cited claims as why the Dark Ages were just horrible goes a long way to explaining the ideas that people have about the Dark Ages, since two of those (witch burning and inquisitions) belong entirely to the late middle ages/Renaissance, and we don’t actually see any crusades or extremely powerful popes during the early middle ages! Both of those belong to the high middle ages, and this really says a lot about the state of education on the medieval period in general.

Petrarch’s comparison of the Dark Ages to Rome does not seem to have died away either. A cultural value judgement is in place here, but one that is more accepted in our society because the Big Bad Evil Thing that caused the Dark Ages was Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire. One can almost hear Gibbon weeping in the background. If one were to denigrate Sassanid Persian society and history because they were Zoroastrian, one would be a bigot. However, the same label isn’t applied to those who despise the Dark Ages, simply because it is an accepted cultural ‘fact’ that it was a horrid time and religion and violence had a lot to do with that. Yet religion and violence were an ongoing part of the Roman Empire, too. Is decentralized early medieval violence any less barbaric than the state-sponsored repression and terror of the Roman Empire?

Late last term a friend of mine was bemoaning the loss of learning that occurred with the end of the Roman Empire. I asked her why she thought this was the case, and I recall hearing something about church oppression and illiteracy. It is important to point out that the vast majority of people who lived in the Roman Empire were illiterate rural peasants and who were no more learned than their early medieval (or late medieval, or early modern) counterparts. Learning was an elite activity, and even then one must wonder what centuries of trivium and quadrivum education in the Roman Empire seem to have really accomplished. This education was tied tightly up with social status, and its goal was focused on rhetoric and rote recitation. This does not mean that there were not real intellectuals in the Roman period, but like today, the majority of the literate class produced nothing of real intellectual worth. To suppose that the Roman system was in some way superior to learning in the early middle ages (where this same system appears to have continued on, just on a more limited scale as one no longer needed it to interact with the Roman government; witness the relative of Gregory of Tours who preferred to access local power by taking a Frankish name) comes right back to the cultural value judgement.

Some have tried to return to early medieval period to earlier notions of a catastrophic collapse following the end of the Roman Empire in the west. For example, Bryan Ward-Perkins has attempted to do this by arguing for a dramatic drop in living standards following the end of the Roman Empire. If he’s right, he’s going to have to try a whole lot harder. His two examples are Britain and Italy. Britain is a mysterious case, and not one I am qualified to discuss in any depth. It does appear that many of the Roman amenities in daily living were just abandoned in favour of more primitive means of living, but why is unknown. Italy, on the other hand, is a lousy example because of two centuries of endemic warfare and destruction. Visigoths, Huns,Ostrogoths, Franks, Lombards, Vandals, and East Romans all had their go at the peninsula in a period of less than two centuries. The war between the Eastern Romans and the Ostrogothic Kingdom raged for almost two decades and seems to have inflicted significant damage to the peninsula. It is not surprising in the least that Italy experienced a drop in living standards. What is surprising is that Ward-Perkins never talks about Gaul, Africa, or Spain, and especially not the Mediterranean coast on the south of Gaul that seems to still have been quite developed when the revolution of the high middle ages took place.

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