English Heritage responded to my last post with an invitation to discuss alternatives to the Dark Ages as a term to describe the period 400-1066. Here is the text of the letter I sent co-signed by some of my lovely colleagues who have contributed to this debate.
Thank you for responding to the recent discussion surrounding the use of the term dark ages by English Heritage to describe the period 400-1066. This response focuses on alternative terms and their potential and problems, rather then reiterating the concerns expressed through social media and blog posts regarding the dark ages.
Early medieval/early middle ages emerged as the favoured term in discussions with medievalists, school teachers and heritage professionals. It is a term that is used broadly in scholarship as evidenced by some of the state-of-the-art revisionist works by Chris Wickham (Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800), Julia Smith (Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History, 500-1000) and Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy, 450-1000). A quick survey of archaeological works reveals greater use of particular dates, or a broad use of the term ‘medieval’.
In addition ‘early medieval/early middle ages’ is seen as the most neutral term in discussions of periodisation and chronology. It encompasses a large time span without the value judgement implied by ‘dark ages’. It is also widely understood both in the UK and contintental Europe. Indeed, EH’s sister organisation, Historic Scotland, uses this term. A tripartite division of early, central and late middle ages found favour as it would allow for nuance and discussion of continuity and change.
Late antique was something you asked about in particular. This term is far more problematic suggesting continuity with the Roman past that we do not find in England. It is a term particularly associated with the Byzantinists (which might explain Ken Dark’s use of the term ‘dark ages’ to distinguish the west from the heirs of Rome in the east). From a schools’ point of view, late antique does not help the understanding of those with little or no knowledge of the period (both teachers and pupils) as it perhaps conjures up images of imperial Rome.
Colleagues suggested that if EH wanted to draw a sharp distinction between the period 400-600 and the rest of the early middle ages, then post-Roman might be a possible alternative and would fit well into a timeline. The problem here, as with all ethnic identifiers, is that the impact of Rome across the area under EH’s remit was not universal or uniform. There was no support for splitting up the period into ‘Saxon’, ‘viking’ etc. It was also felt that terms such as ‘early Christian’ were misleading.
With regard to dark ages, an interesting point emerged from discussions with a school-teacher colleague. Children at KS2 where pre-1066 history is taught have no concept of what constitutes a ‘dark age’. This is a term far more familiar to their grandparents’ generation. In this colleague’s survey of 64 teachers, there was no agreement on when the dark ages were: answers included 1665-66 for instance.
We note that comparison with previous years’ handbooks shows that ‘dark ages’ is a recent adoption by English Heritage. This use goes against the grain of current scholarship. As one of the leading heritage organisations in the country, other institutions, notably the BBC, look to EH to shape the way the past is more widely received and interpreted. It also has a role to play in challenging our understanding.
There is, of course, a broader issue here. The past does not divide easily and simply into neat definable chunks. An overarching timeline is useful in placing sites in relation to each other, but there needs to be space for more site-specific chronologies in their interpretation. Here other identifiers such as post-Roman or viking might be appropriate. Dr Tehmina Goskar has written on this issue specifically and will be contacting you separately.
In summary, early medieval/early middle ages is the least obscurantist, most neutral and easily understood term that links English history with other areas and reflects current professional practice in terms of research and teaching at all levels.
Dr Leonie Hicks, Canterbury Christ Church University
Dr Michael Bintley, Canterbury Christ Church University
Dr Tehmina Goskar, Consultant heritage interpreter, Cornwall
Dr Ewan Johnson, Coopers Edge School
Dr Andrew Seaman ,Canterbury Christ Church University
Dr Charles West, University of Sheffield
The signatories acknowledge the lively debate among many medievalists, heritage professionals, teachers and interested others on social media and various blogs that has informed this response.