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Were the Middle Ages Actually Dark?

Updated on November 4, 2016

Introduction

A massive empire has just collapsed. Chaos and violence ensues throughout the region. Barbaric tribes from the north loot and plunder freely, and despotic rulers vie for control. This was the state of affairs of Western Europe during the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages are defined as the time period from 476 A.D. to roughly 1000 A.D, following the collapse of the Roman Empire due to a variety of internal and external pressures. It is characterized by intellectual stagnation and endemic conflict and poverty (Guralnik 359). Germanic tribes such as the Franks, Visigoths, Vandals, and Saxons swept in and seized control of various fragments of territory. The economy of Western Europe disintegrated, as did the infrastructure of the region. Europe was unable to restructure itself into a highly centralized state, instead transitioning into feudalism: a highly decentralized system based on the land holdings of lords and vassals, and the resulting relations between them and the king. The new Feudal society lead to the lack of widespread taxation in many states, which had severe detrimental effects. Thus this time period was truly a Dark Age due to the loss of widespread taxation, which had a massive impact on the economy, literacy, architecture, and the creation of a feudal society, and due to the endemic conflict within Western Europe at the time, which sapped Western Europe’s resources and prevented economic recovery: all despite the argument that Christianity served as a major unifying factor and medium for progress at the time.

Systemic Collapse

The Early Medieval age in Western Europe was a Dark Age due to the collapse of widespread taxation. Under the Roman Empire, widespread taxation was justified mainly by the fact that it paid for the military and defenses (Heather n.pag). After the Roman Empire’s collapse, warfare became endemic to Western Europe. Many successor states vied for control of the region. This forced many new kings to call up landowners and their forces to fight alongside them in battle. Having to both fight and pay taxes was deeply resented by the landowners, leading to situations such as the hanging of Frankish King Chilperic's chief tax collector. This lead to many kings cancelling tax obligations for the landowners, in order to increase their popularity. The Kings could do this as they no longer needed the money for a professional military force; however, "in the longer term, it was precisely this process which created the new Europe of powerful local landowners and relatively powerless states, which lacked both tax revenues and professional armies," (Heather n.pag). In other words, the loss of widespread centralized taxation contributed to the rise of feudalism. As a result of the loss of widespread taxation, the importance of the city, which was the administrative structure which raised taxes under the Roman Empire, also faded, in some cased disappearing entirely (Dutch n.pag).

Economic Collapse

This loss of tax revenue also had a severe detrimental effect on the economy. Tax revenue had been used to fund the creation and upkeep of Rome’s many roads and other economic and transportation infrastructure. Without taxes, the aforementioned infrastructure crumbled. This hurt the economy, as many traders depended on these roads for transport; thus, the loss of infrastructure contributed to the decrease in long-distance trade (Heather n.pag). The loss of widespread taxation also contributed to the sharp decline in literacy during the Dark Ages. The Roman upper class made their children learn how to read and write Latin at highly expensive private schools in order for them to get a job in Rome's vast bureaucracy, which was maintained with tax revenue. Without widespread taxation, these careers no longer existed; thus, “elite parents quickly realized that spending so much money on learning Latin was now a waste of time. As a result, advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for the next 500 years,” (Heather n.pag). The lack of widespread taxation also meant the lack of any new major civil infrastructure construction. The deterioration of civil infrastructure in Western Europe caused a real decline in quality of life, (Dutch n.pag). Therefore, the decrease in widespread taxation was a major reason that the Early Medieval ages should be considered a Dark Age.

Increased Militarization

Another reason that the Early Medieval age was a Dark Age is the fighting and militarization that occurred during this time. The collapse of Rome left a sizable power vacuum, which was often filled by a variety of barbaric warlords and violent despots. Immediately after the fall of Rome, the concept of one man rule over the region remained. This led the various lords and Germanic tribes to battle each other for as much land as possible in the beginning of the Dark Ages. This consistent fighting lasted for hundreds of years, and acted as “a constant drain of resources and a standstill in cultural growth,” (All Things Medieval n.pag). However, this bout of violence did end. By 793 A.D, Europe appeared to be finally recovering from the Dark Ages. Charlemagne was unifying large portions of Europe, and Christianity was providing an additional cohesive factor. However, this was also the year in which Vikings began to conduct raids: the first being on the island of Lindisfarne. Subsequent raids caused extensive damage throughout Western Europe, essentially negating the economic recovery process that had been occurring (Keko n.pag). The Viking raiders would attack areas that they knew specifically contained wealth. This was specifically damaging because much wealth was drained from Western Europe, falling instead into the hands of these Viking raiders: this set the recovery process for Western Europe back by centuries (Keko n.pag). Soon, the Vikings were “operating on every coast in Western Europe. It was not only the Franks who were suffering from their inroads: the English Kingdoms and the Celts of Scotland and Ireland were faring even worse,” (Oman 417). The drain of wealth caused by the raids was exacerbated further by the fact that many areas were forced to pay tribute to the Vikings, in order for their town to be spared. Thus, Medieval Europe should be considered a Dark Age due to the endemic violence that occurred.

Opposing Argument and Rebuttal

My opposition may argue that Christianity was a powerful factor in the Early Medieval period of Europe, as it acted both as a unifying agent and an educated force that provided progress during this time. The first major point supporting this is that Christianity was a single, common religion lead by a central authority; thus, it was able to maintain unity during the dark ages. However, in the beginning of the Dark Ages, the church was a mainly urban establishment at the time. It had neither the capability to control rural areas, nor the motivation to do so. Many church officials had grown adept to the lifestyle of the Roman elite, and did not want to leave their more luxurious urban lifestyle to spread to rural areas (Dutch n.pag). After a while, the Church did begin to spread more rapidly throughout Western Europe. However, they often were in conflict with various Kings and Lords, which led to political disunity, and occasional violence. Their second major point may be that the Church acted as an enlightening force during the Dark ages. While it is true that the Church was literate, this represented a minority, as almost no one else was. After the collapse of Rome “advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for the next 500 years,” due to the loss of widespread taxation, as stated above (Heather, n.pag). This presented an additional problem, as no one actually knew what was going on at sermons. Everyone from the serfs to the noblemen would go to church, where the priests would read from the Bible in Latin, which no one present could understand. In Rome, on the other hand, much of the secular elite and bureaucracy was literate; thus, the literacy rate suffered a considerable drop during the Dark Ages. It is also true that the church was responsible for much of the new, impressive architecture that was built during the Early Medieval age. The prevailing architectural style, Romanesque architecture, was very similar to Roman architecture (Guralnik 1234). Therefore, there was little real architectural progress made by the Church during the Dark Ages. Finally, it is true that many works of literature and art were preserved by monasteries during the Dark Ages, until many of them became the prime targets of Viking raiders. Especially in the beginning, these raiders preferred to pillage rather than fight; thus, they would “plunder some rich undefended port or monastery and then put out to sea,” (Oman 417). Many monasteries were looted and destroyed during this time, with the works of literature and art that they preserved being destroyed with it. Thus, Christianity was unable to make any significant progress comparable to the Roman Empire, and was not a major enough unifying factor during this time.

Conclusion

The Early Medieval ages of Western Europe should certainly be considered Dark Ages. The collapse of widespread taxation in the post Roman west caused the infrastructure to crumble, as there was no tax revenue to repair it. This hurt trade which depended on this infrastructure, and contributed to the economic collapse. It also caused a decline in literacy due to the lack of incentive to receive an education, as bureaucratic jobs were no longer available. Endemic conflict was also a major contributing factor. The conflict drained the resources during the beginning of the Dark Ages, and further prevented Western Europe’s recovery during the Viking raids that began around 793 A.D. The oppositions claim that Christianity was a strong unifying factor and a medium for progress during the Dark Ages is largely untrue. Christianity was unable to act as a strong enough cohesive factor, and did not make any significant achievements relative to the Roman Empire. The works of art and literature that monasteries attempted to preserve were often plundered or destroyed during the aforementioned Viking raids. This topic is relevant to the modern day for two major reasons. First, it is important to understand how significantly the Dark Ages impacted the course of modern Europe’s history. Second, it allows us to attempt to envision how the collapse of a modern world power, such as the United States, would affect the people living here.

PLEASE NOTE:

You may notice that i have in text citations throughout this work. I apologize, but I have long since lost the Work's Cited for this piece. You may certainly look up the authors names to learn more about them.

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