Why is the period known as ‘dark’?
The term ‘Dark Age’ was used by the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch in the 1330s to describe the decline in later Latin literature following the collapse of the Western Roman empire. In the 20th century, scholars used the term more specifically in relation to the 5th-10th centuries, but now it is largely seen as a derogatory term, concerned with contrasting periods of perceived enlightenment with cultural ignorance.
A very quick glance at the remarkable manuscripts, metalwork, texts, buildings and individuals that saturate the early medieval period reveals that ‘Dark Age’ is now very much an out-of-date term. It’s best used as a point of reference against which to show how vibrant the time in fact was.
Gold, garnet and glass shoulder clasps from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, c 625AD. (British Museum)
It was religiously diverse
The early medieval period was characterised by widespread adherence to Christianity. However, there was a great deal of religious variety, and even the Christian church itself was a diverse and complicated entity. In the north, Scandinavia and parts of Germany adhered to Germanic paganism, with Iceland converting to Christianity in 1000 AD. Folk religious practices continued. Late in the 8th century, an Anglo-Saxon monk called Alcuin questioned why heroic legend still fascinated Christians, asking: “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” Within the church there were many lines of divisions. For example, Monophysitism divided society and the church, arguing that Jesus had just one nature, rather than two: human and divine, which caused division to the level of emperors, states and nations.
The Franks Casket, carved on whale bone, with runic poetry and showing scenes of the nativity and Weland’s revenge, c700. (British Museum)
It was not a time of illiteracy and ignorance
The connection between illiteracy and ignorance is a relatively modern phenomenon. For most of the medieval period and beyond, the majority of information was transmitted orally and retained through memory. Societies such as that of the early Anglo-Saxons could recall everything from land deeds, marital associations and epic poetry. The ‘scop’ or minstrel could recite a single epic over many days, indicating hugely sophisticated mental retention. With the establishment of monasteries, literacy was largely confined within their walls. Yet in places like the holy community at Lindisfarne, the monks were able to create sophisticated theological texts, and extraordinary manuscripts.
Panels from the Ruthwell Cross showing Jesus with Mary Magdalene, and runic passages from ‘The Dream of the Rood’, 8th century, Ruthwell Church, Dumfriesshire.
This was a high point for British art
Far from a ‘dark’ time when all the lights went out, the early medieval period saw the creation of some of the nation’s finest artworks. The discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial on the eve of the Second World War redefined how the Anglo-Saxons were perceived. The incredible beauty of the jewellery, together with the sophisticated trade links indicated by the array of finds, revealed a court that was well connected and influential. After the arrival of Christian missionaries in 597 AD, Anglo-Saxons had to get to grips with completely new technologies. Although having never made books before, within a generation or two they were creating remarkable manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the earliest surviving single copy of the Vulgate Bible, the Codex Amiatinus. They also invented a new form of art: the standing stone high cross. Arguably the most expressive is the Ruthwell Cross, where the cross itself speaks of Christ’s passion, through the runic poetry carved on its sides.
Finds from the Staffordshire Hoard which was discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found. (Birmingham Museum)
There is still so much to discover
With many periods in history, it can be difficult to find something new to explore or write about. Not so with the early medieval period. There are relatively few early medievalists, and a wealth of research still to be done. What’s more, advances in archaeology are only recently bringing information to light about how people in this period lived. When societies build more in timber than in stone, it can be hard to find evidence in the archaeological record, but more is coming to light now than ever before. There are the surprise discoveries: manuscripts long hidden in archives, hoards concealed in fields, references only recently translated. There is still so much to be done, and this is a rich and rewarding period to immerse yourself in.
Dr Janina Ramirez is a British art and cultural historian and television presenter.
This article was first published by History Extra in January 2017