Lights On!

Shedding Modern Light on the Dark Ages

Calling something by its proper name is a service to truth, if not convenient for political ambitions or evil designs. Of course, ambitions abide and creating labels to advance an idea or promote your agenda is nothing new. If I am a “Progressive” and you are not with me, then you must be against Progress. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just denounce you as “on the wrong of history.”

History itself has been manipulated by labels. There’s the Age of Reason, suggesting that Reason was discovered where there had been none before. Then there’s the Enlightenment, implying the darkness before the dawn.

The Dark Ages, a useful label, attributed to Petrarch (d. 1374), got stuck on the period after the decline of the Roman Empire, which contrasted with an earlier period of classical antiquity—Imperial Rome—which boasted learning and literacy.

Initially, the term “dark” was suggested by the scarcity of (or unfamiliarity with) written records after c. 500. As texts from the classical era were being rediscovered, the classical light was reappearing, while writings from the intervening “dark” period were not known.

But “dark” soon came to mean backward, ignorant, and barbarian. It’s true that multiple barbarian invasions did impact literate cultures. The Angle and Saxon invasions of the southern part of Britain required that a new Christian mission be started up in 597 by Pope Gregory the Great. But Christianity was already in the British Isles, thriving in many places, especially in what are today Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern England.

The notion of the Dark Ages, a subset of the dreary Middle Ages, lingers on in popular culture and public ignorance. But modern historians have abandoned the Dark Age label as research has brought to light the rich scholarship and thought of those not-so-dark times.

For starters, look at the Book of Kells. It’s a late 8th-century 680-page illuminated manuscript, the most famous of many from the British Isles produced from the 6th to the 9th century. It was likely produced on Iona, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland. It has features of “insular art”—from the islands of Greater Britain. Such art is not only found in monastic books and writing, but in decorative arts and crafts.

Consider another literary example of Dark Age intelligence, Gildas the Wise, born c. 500 just when the lights had supposedly been turned off. He was born near the northernmost extent of the Roman Empire near the River Clyde in Scotland. Surely it had to be dark up there!

Gildas was formally schooled in Wales and became a monk who traveled in the British Isles, Brittany, and even to Rome. Gildas composed in Latin a three-part history and commentary, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in response to the dire straits of much of Britain, which had suffered barbarian invasions. He recounted the history, cited causes for the invasions, and criticized rulers by name.

Modern analysis of Gildas’s Latin reveals that he had “first-hand knowledge of Latin as a living language.” He used multiple technical terms precisely; it is likely he was formally schooled by a Roman grammaticus. His writing shows familiarity with Cicero, Virgil’s Aeneid, Jerome, and other writers. The “choice, manipulation, and control of this structure [of Excidio] would have come most naturally to someone who had been trained in declamation by a rhetor.” Keen knowledge of Roman legal and technical terms, of rhetoric, grammar, and even poetic meter—not bad for a sixth-century Dark Age writer, a hundred years after the Romans had abandoned Britain!

Was he alone? Who would even read such a book? One scholar summed it up:

“A century seems a long time for Roman institutions to have survived; but here too our picture of Romano-British society has perhaps been unduly influenced by the picture of Dark-Age Wales gained from mediaeval sources. In any case, Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae implies an audience literate enough in Latin to take the point of his criticisms. There are no grounds for imagining Gildas as a lone voice speaking to an uncomprehending audience of illiterate barbarians. His work is highly polished and sophisticated and implies an audience (no matter how great or how small) of similar sophistication.” (Michael Lapidge, “Gildas’s Education and the Latin Culture of Sub-Roman Britain,” Studies in Celtic History V: Gildas: New Approaches)

So it’s not likely that Gildas wrote the manuscript of De Excidio and then carried it around in case he might bump into someone who would be able to understand it. It must have been copied for distribution and for reading by others. Sixty years after it was written, Columbanus, an Irish monk living in Gaul (modern France), refers to Gildas’s book in a letter to Pope Gregory I. We know of separate manuscript copies of De Excidio from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Examples of Dark Age literature could be multiplied to the point that it would take much time to read them all, which is why those historians who have spent time studying the Dark Ages no longer call them dark. No one else should either.

is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

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