IVP - Andy Unedited - Busting the "Dark Ages" Myth

May 6, 2010

Busting the "Dark Ages" Myth

Recently a good friend mentioned “the Dark Ages,” and I nearly flew into a wild rage. Well, no, it was more like severe annoyance. Actually, now that I think of it, maybe it was just a mild depression.

The “Dark Ages” weren’t dark. Not only was there plenty of sunshine, but culture and civilization were merrily rowing along as well.

You want literature? You got Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Song of Roland, the Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), The Quest of the Holy Grail, Dante and a boatload more.

Theology? You got the three As (Anselm, Aquinas and Abelard), not to mention the five Bs (Boethius, Benedict of Nursia, Bede the Venerable, Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventure). The rest of the alphabet is there someplace too.

And let’s give it up for the women: Just a few were Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Sienna.

Great leaders? Lots such as Charlemagne, El Cid, William Wallace (for you Braveheart fans), Alexander Nevsky and Joan of Arc.

Inventions? You got the heavy plow (fifth century); the stirrup (sixth century); horseshoes and the hourglass (ninth century); the university (eleventh century); the blast furnace (twelfth century); and eyeglasses, the mechanical clock and the longbow (thirteenth century) and many more.

So why was it called the Dark Ages? Petrarch got it in his head that after the fall of Rome the continent descended into chaos until enlightened folks like himself and the rest of the Renaissance snobs arrived on the scene. It was just a myth invented to make themselves look good.

So Middle Ages? Sure. Medieval period? Of course. Dark Ages? Never.

Posted by Andy Le Peau at May 6, 2010 8:23 AM Bookmark and Share


Yes, but. While Dark Ages commonly used to refer to the entire Medieval period (and still is by some, against whom you rightly protest!), there is a more limited usage that I find in some historians, who use it to refer to the Early Middle Ages (say, from the fall of Rome to around 1,000). Perhaps this usage too is waning. I don't know.

But come to think of it, what's "middle" about the Middle Ages, particularly as time marches on (and global perspectives broaden)? Or how much light was there in the Enlightenment?

Comment by: Dan at May 6, 2010 11:33 AM

Right you are, Dan. (There's only so much subtlety possible in a blog. So, reader beware.) It is used by some for the Early Middle Ages. And perhaps there is more warrant for that than using it for the entire period. And yes, "middle" has some connotations with it that imply progress, etc. But it's certainly an improvement on "dark."

Comment by: Andy Le Peau at May 6, 2010 1:08 PM

What was the book written a while back called, "A World Lit Only by Fire"? I cannot remember the author (just googled - William Manchester). He certainly would favor the phrase "Dark Ages" describing as he does the darkness of mind and spirit. But yes, I agree with Andy completely. I've always had a passion for the Middle Ages. They rebounded from the Viking invasions, the Bubonic Plagues of 1348-52 (ish), and build cathedrals all the while! At least from the 12th Century. lots going on in Europe! We must remember that the darkest age could be called the 20th Century with the Armenian Genocide, HaShoah, and even the recent slaughter in Rwanda and the Sudan.

Comment by: Joel Allen at May 7, 2010 3:59 PM

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