Update 20 August 2018: since publishing this post, some webpages linked here no longer exist.
Stop the Dark Ages! is perhaps an unlikely slogan, but it is one that caused a bit of a flurry among medievalists last week in response to English Heritage’s defence of the term in relation to interpretation of historic sites. #stopthedarkages has its roots in the recent reinterpretation of Tintagel as outlined by Dr Tehmina Goskar here. So why are medievalists, myself included, rather exasperated by its use?
At this point, it is necessary for me to declare that I am a member of English Heritage, I support the work of its staff in conserving, maintaining and interpreting sites for the public, and that I understand they operate in less than ideal circumstances. I cannot, however, get behind their use of the term dark ages as a valid descriptor and here’s why.
First, the term itself is value-laden in the sense that it carries with it negative and pejorative connotations. In its original use dark ages stood for that period where nothing much happened between the end of the Roman empire in the west and rebirth of classical learning in Italy during the fourteenth century that came to be known as the renaissance (itself a deeply problematic term). Within the UK, it was perhaps most famously used by Gibbon, author of the The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, writing from an enlightenment perspective (another deeply problematic term): that weird bit of history between Rome, brought to its knees by Christianity among other things, and later times was superstitious, unenlightened, violent, stupid and lacked reason. The implication is that nothing of much note happened other than ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion.’ There are nasty undertones as well with describing a period that saw a great amount of moving around as ‘dark’: migration does not equal dark unless you read the Daily Mail.
Second, the term is also used in the sense of unknowable. We cannot know what happened in the ‘dark ages’ as there is no evidence. Usually when people use the term in this way, they mean no written evidence, conveniently forgetting anything archaeological, architectural, or material. Undoubtedly there are periods for which we have less evidence than others, that is the way of things, but why do we call them dark? There is a great deal that we don’t know about twentieth-century Britain, for example, because of laws governing the release of documents (some are kept secret for a set period of time generally measured in decades), but no one would describe this period as the dark ages. Also, loss of evidence does not just occur in antiquity. Archives, libraries and heritage sites have been targeted in numerous conflicts across the world. To that end, if we used the term dark ages, we’d have dark age I, dark age II, etc.
Third, English Heritage defines the dark ages as the period from c.400-1066 and this is where things get particularly trying. This is a large period of historic time to characterise as one period with all that implies about (lack of) change over time. As a historian of the Normans, it also sets up some rather awkward divisions that don’t make much sense. For a start, the characterisation of the period up to 1066 as ‘dark’ implies the Normans brought light (Dr Kate Wiles also makes this point). No one is seriously going to argue that proposition. The ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, puts it succinctly at the end of the entry for 1066: ‘Always after that it grew much worse’. It also suggests that ‘England’ was divorced from ‘Europe’ until Duke William’s arrival on the Sussex shore. I can cite many examples of links, connections and networks between the two: trade, Vikings, marriages, scholarship, artistic influences, ideas etc. Also, linking back to the second point above, how anyone can suggest that the we don’t have much evidence for the latter half of the period c.400-1066 is beyond me.
Fourth, English Heritage also characterises written sources from the early period as ‘few, difficult to interpret, propagandist, or written long after the events they describe.’ The problem here is the implication that there are some sources that aren’t difficult to interpret or propagandist or that sources written at the time of the events described are somehow, in the term beloved of generations of students, more ‘reliable’. The fact that narrative such as Gildas’ De excidio are weird and wonderful is exactly what makes them interesting. A further worry here is the fact that dismissal of such documents can suggest that material remains and archaeology are somehow neutral, which is not the case at all. No one reads Gildas to find out what really happened (we don’t know what really happened yesterday, so to that end, it’s the wrong question), but as a way in to understanding how certain people might have thought about and constructed what were recent events to them, it is invaluable.
Fifth, English Heritage seems to think that the public is incapable of understanding nuance:
Early medieval’ or ‘early Middle Ages’ is perhaps the most suitable, but we have found that these terms are popularly associated with the period around 1066 and the Normans; potentially confusing at a site such as Tintagel which also has medieval buildings.
So what should we call this period instead? ‘Early middle ages’, as English Heritage acknowledges, will do quite nicely. It avoids ethnic or religious associations (Anglo-Saxon, Viking, early Christian, conversion) and is one that is widely understood in scholarship. I’d also like to make a plea that chronology becomes a little more site specific in interpretation (see Tehmina’s post on Tintagel). On the EH timeline, the period post-1066 is split into medieval part I and medieval part II, so there is no reason why the earlier period could not also be divided, or we could just opt for medieval parts I-IV. Whichever option you favour, it is certainly time to Stop the Dark Ages! Now!
I know there are more blog posts and letters in the offing, so I will be updating this page regularly. Indeed, here is Charles West, who was also up early this morning!
More on Tintagel from Edwin Hustwit
Alban Gautier argues for the Dark Ages based on lack of texts for 5-7thc.
A qualified defence of the dark ages providing you define your terms from Prof. Howard Williams, who looks very sinister there in his shades!