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The So-Called Dark Ages

Updated on December 13, 2017

Modern Misconception

When most people think about the Medieval period they think of the Dark Ages, a time of chaos and uncertainty. They believe it to be a period of barbarity, violence, and tyranny. Rome had fallen, and without it humanity reverted to living in huts scraping together a living. These ideas run contrary to the truth and historical fact.

Sack of Rome by the Vandals
Sack of Rome by the Vandals

Reasons for Modern Misunderstanding

Several groups throughout history have intentionally molded society to believe that the Dark Ages were terrible. Some wanted to link themselves to a more noble cause, and had to create a break in the timeline to make themselves seem better. Others wanted to create propaganda to control public opinion.

Renaissance thinkers were the first to attack the Middle Ages. They wanted to be seen as carrying on the philosophical work of the Classical thinkers. In order to achieve this they created a bleak picture of the Middle Ages. This was not difficult at the time because Europe was recovering from the Great Famine.

Protestant Reformers were the next group to dub the Early Medieval Period the Dark Ages. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church had attained several temporal dominions and had greatly deviated from it's original course. The Protestants tried to make it look like the Church had been corrupt since the Bishop of Rome had assumed the Papacy.

Finally western historians in the early 20th century also reinforced the dark age theory. They were out to turn public opinion against the Germans. Germany was expanding and the western world wanted to create fear of the "barbarian hordes" from Germany.

Triumph of Christianity over Paganism
Triumph of Christianity over Paganism

Achievements of the Middle Ages

In some ways the Middle Ages was a sharp change from the Roman Empire. Government was lost for a short time, but quickly resumed under various successor states. Architecture changed, but it did not disappear. The Church rapidly expanded, but that is not bad in itself. The world did not end with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it simply changed.

Germanic Kingdoms were established in the former territory of the Western Roman Empire relatively easily. Italy became a Lombard Kingdom, France was taken by the Franks, while the Visigoths thrived in Spain. These kingdoms became established during the Roman Empire as the tribal groups moved in to Roman territory as allies, occupying Roman land, but ultimately answering to Rome. They had semi-independence before the fall of Rome, but afterwards ruled as sovereigns.

The nobility in many German kingdoms were highly Romanized. Latin was kept as the language of the court, but it became Vulgar Latin, a mixture of Latin and the local tongue. Many of the law codes that have been found were written in Latin, but had clear Germanic ideals to them, such as favoring blood payment and trial by combat.

Architecture changed with the fall of Rome. Many engineering projects, such as the aqueducts and roads, fell in to disrepair. The Romans had valued wide, round buildings, but the Germans constructed their buildings to represent their piety. Gothic architecture was designed to make visitors look up towards the heavens. They had huge ceilings which were much taller than they were wide.

Many of the Church's ideas were developed in the Early Middle Ages. Early thinkers helped to convert the European world by marrying Greek philosophy with Christian morals. They applied the legal language of the Romans to operating the Church. This was necessary to help people survive the regime changes that occurred more frequently after the fall of Rome.

Legal Judgement of Childeric II, king of the Franks
Legal Judgement of Childeric II, king of the Franks
Salisbury Cathedral, a Gothic Church
Salisbury Cathedral, a Gothic Church

Reassessment

Historians and academics have reassessed the Middle Ages. Very few serious scholars would look at the Middle Ages as a dark period anymore, but it is still a common view among non-historians. There are many interesting things about the early Medieval period, such as Gothic architecture or theological works, that people could benefit from if they were able to move past the public idea of the Dark Ages.

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    • profile image

      Maryglo 

      3 years ago

      Boy that relaly helps me the heck out.

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR

      ata1515 

      6 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Nell Rose,

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Once again history tried to change well, history! I remember thinking this as I was watching Time Team, an English Archaeology program, it showed so many beautiful jewelry made from gold, and old mosaics that showed the Dark ages actually were a continuation and expansion of what the Romans started. After they left England for example we carried on by building etc, not as we were meant to believe, great hub, cheers nell

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR

      ata1515 

      6 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      phdast7,

      Thanks for stopping by and for the comment!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Well written and interesting Hub. Good work.

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR

      ata1515 

      6 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      UnnamedHarald,

      Thanks for the comment, it is sad to see that naming propaganda still causes such confusion among the masses.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very interesting article. It's amazing what a simple thing like a name can do. As you indicated, some think that people went from living in marble estates to mud and wattle huts in the shade of trees that took over roads. In reality, when the "dark ages" started, those in marble stayed in marble and those in mud stayed in mud. Ah, the power of a label-- the Dark Ages, the Patriot Act, the Right to Work...Voted up and interesting.

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR

      ata1515 

      6 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Rmcleve,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Clairemy,

      Thanks for the vote up and comment.

      Trish_M,

      The Middle Ages are one of my favorite periods too, as you could tell from my article selection! Thanks for the comments and for stopping by.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      The Middle Ages is one of my favourite periods in History. The Black Death era was a dark age, but, overall, it wasn't so bad, I don't think :)

    • clairemy profile image

      Claire 

      6 years ago

      very well written, with clear information and , yes, it reminded me of why I enjoyed history so much. No it was not the Dark ages. Voted up and interesting

    • profile image

      rmcleve 

      6 years ago

      This is a good look into the contested naming of the Dark Ages and is very clearly written. I always like to think of the Dark Ages as the time of rumination. Teachers like to say that "nothing happened," but much of the bigger changes happened under the surface.

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