So just how dark were the Early Middle Ages (c. 400AD – c. AD1000)? There are two schools of thought found in the academy roughly corresponding to whether the historian in question is a medievalist or classicist.
Most historians of the Early Middle Ages, typified by Roger Collins, take the view that they were not dark at all. They cite the wonderful objects found at Sutton Hoo, the mosaics of Ravenna’s churches, the Cathedral at Aachen, the numerous law codes, the spread of literacy and the formation of the people who would one day become Europe’s nation states. They can also point to the apogee of Byzantine civilisation under Basil II in the ninth century; the fact that it was a Frankish warlord, Charles Martel, who finally stopped the Muslim advance; and the rapid assimilation of new technology such as the heavy plough, stirrup, horse collar, horse shoe and mill.
Classical historians, like Bryan Ward-Perkins, tend to claim that the Early Middle Ages were dark, at least compared to the Roman Empire. They cite the collapse of central control in the west under the barbarian onslaught, the decline of literacy and loss of Greek, the reduction of trade, sharp falls in population density and the sheer amount of senseless destruction by the various tribes that fell on the Empire. The Vandals did not give their name for nothing.
Neither side follows Gibbon and blames Christianity for the ‘Dark Ages’. Indeed, Christianity is seen as the most important framework within which late-antique culture survived. It was also an essential factor in the spread of that culture into north-eastern Europe where the Romans had never taken it.
Both sides have part of the truth. The Roman Empire did fall in the West and this did lead to a serious reduction of material and intellectual culture. But the Empire had to fall for modern Europe to rise. Roman society was sclerotic, despotic and highly conservative. Innovation was rarely taken up. Much of the technology that revolutionised European agriculture in the fifth to thirteenth centuries was available to the Romans but they hardly used it. They had no desire to expand their borders and bring civilisation to the Germans and Scandinavians. Much of the pressure on the imperial borders was due to tribes wanting to join the Empire.
So the early Middle Ages started off dark with the great plagues, barbarian incursions and loss of elite culture. But they then took off at a far faster rate than the Romans had managed for centuries. You could call the Fall of the Roman Empire an episode in creative destruction.
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