In this lesson, we will examine the period of time commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. We will learn why this period is called the Dark Ages and discuss why some historians are now shying away from this term.
Introduction to the Dark Ages
The Dark Ages is a term often used synonymously with the Middle Ages. It refers to the period of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. Many textbooks list the Dark Ages as extending from 500-1500 AD, although it should be noted these are approximations.The term ‘Dark Ages’ was coined by an Italian scholar named Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, used this label to describe what he perceived as a lack of quality in the Latin literature of his day.
Other thinkers came along and expanded this designation to include not only literature, but also culture in general. The term thus evolved as a designation for the supposed lack of culture and advancement in Europe during the medieval period.The term generally has a negative connotation. Debate continues to rage among historians over whether the Middle Ages were, indeed, dark or not. Increasingly, many scholars are questioning whether the term Dark Ages is an accurate description or not.
Dark Past of the Middle Ages
The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were remarkably advanced for their time.
Both civilizations made a number of contributions to human progress, notably in the areas of science, government, philosophy, and architecture. Some scholars perceive Europe as having been plunged into darkness when the Roman Empire fell in around 500 AD. The Middle Ages are often said to be dark because of a supposed lack of scientific and cultural advancement.During this time, feudalism was the dominant political system.
The feudal system of labor hindered upward social mobility, which basically means that poor people had very little opportunity to improve their condition in life. Religious superstition was also widespread during this time. The Catholic Church was extremely institutionalized and often opposed the scientific and cultural advancements the Greeks and Romans had pioneered.The Dark Ages were a difficult time in which to live: famine and disease were common. The Black Death Bubonic Plague devastated Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s, killing an estimated 100 to 200 million people. Warfare was also a part of everyday life. The Europeans and the Muslims of the Arab world fought numerous conflicts.
These conflicts, called the Crusades, began in 1095 and ended in 1291. The Dark Ages have often been described as a backwards time in human history. The Dark Ages came to a close around 1500 AD, as the Italian Renaissance and the Age of Discovery dawned.Another reason why the Middle Ages are often called the Dark Ages is because, compared with other eras, historians don’t know as much about this time. In some ways, this period of time has been lost to history.
Many important records from this time have not survived.
Controversy Over Dark Ages
Increasingly, historians are refraining from using the term ‘Dark Ages.’ Many historians now regard the darkness of the Dark Ages as a common misconception.
Recent scholarship has brought to light the scientific and cultural contributions of the Arab world. Historians also recognize the intellectual strength of the medieval scholastics.
The Dark Ages is a categorization commonly used to describe the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. Roughly speaking, the Dark Ages corresponds to the Middle Ages, or from 500 to 1500 AD.
This period has traditionally been thought of as dark, in the sense of having very little scientific and cultural advancement.During this time, feudalism prevented upward social mobility, and the Catholic Church held a firm grip over which worldviews should or should not be espoused. Superstition was widespread. That said, historians are increasingly rethinking the Dark Ages.
Many no longer use the term because new scholarship is showing that this era may not have been as dark as had previously been thought.
Dark Ages Terms
- Dark Ages: Another term for the middle ages; the period of time between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance
- Feudalism: A system of labor that hindered upward social mobility
- Bubonic Plague: A plague that devastated Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s
The purpose of this lesson on the Dark Ages is to prepare you to:
- Characterize the period of time known as the Dark Ages
- Understand why this period of time was called the Dark Ages
- Discuss the controversy surrounding the use of the title ‘Dark Ages’