Dark Ages (historiography)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Dark Ages" is a historical periodization emphasizing the cultural and economic deterioration that supposedly occurred in Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire. The label employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the "darkness" of the period with earlier and later periods of "light". The period was characterized by a paucity of historical and other written records for much of the period, rendering it obscure to historians. The term "Dark Age" itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th century.
Originally, the term characterized the bulk of the Middle Ages (c. 5th–15th century) as a period of intellectual darkness between the extinguishing of the light of Rome and the Renaissance or rebirth from the 14th century onwards. This definition is still found in popular usage but increased recognition of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages since the 19th century has led to the label being restricted in application. Since the 20th century, it is frequently applied only to the earlier part of the era, the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century). However, many modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.
The concept of a Dark Age originated with the Italian scholar Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) in the 1330s, and was originally intended as a sweeping criticism of the character of Late Latin literature. Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as "dark" compared to the light of classical antiquity. Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the High Middle Ages (c. 11th–13th century), including not only the lack of Latin literature, but also a lack of contemporary written history, general demographic decline, limited building activity and material cultural achievements in general. Later historians and writers picked up the concept, and popular culture has further expanded on it as a vehicle to depict the Middle Ages as a time of backwardness, extending its pejorative use and expanding its scope.
Modern popular use
Films and novels often use the term "Dark Age" with its implied meaning of a time of backwardness. For instance, the popular movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail humorously portrays knights and chivalry, following in a tradition begun with Don Quixote. The 2007 television show The Dark Ages from The History Channel called the Dark Ages "600 years of degenerate, godless, inhuman behavior".
The public idea of the Middle Ages as a supposed "Dark Age" is also reflected in misconceptions regarding the study of nature during this period. The contemporary historians of science David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers discuss the widespread popular belief that the Middle Ages were a "time of ignorance and superstition", the blame for which is to be laid on the Christian Church for allegedly "placing the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity", and emphasize that this view is essentially a caricature. For instance, a claim that was first propagated in the 19th century and is still very common in popular culture is the supposition that all people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. According to Lindberg and Numbers, this claim was mistaken: "There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference". Ronald Numbers states that misconceptions such as "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy" are examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, although they are not supported by current historical research.
- Fall of Rome
- Plague of Justinian
- Migration Period
- Middle Ages in history
- Islamic Golden Age
- Muslim conquests
- Carolingian Renaissance
- Holy Roman Empire
- Little Ice Age
- Medieval demography
- Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
- Great Apostasy