How dark were the Dark Ages?

Many scholars reject the term ‘Dark Ages’ – but it could still be the best fit for an era shrouded in obscurity. Thomas Williams considers the shadowy allure of one of history's most obscure eras…

One of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo

All ages of the past are dark because the past is a grave. It is a void that historians and archaeologists seek to fill with knowledge – with things made by long-dead hands and the ghosts of buildings long demolished, the uncanny traces of people and their lost lives, poignant in their mundanity: a used bowl, a broken glass, a clay pipe, a worn shoe, the pieces of a game scattered and abandoned. The more we find to fill that void, the better illuminated the past appears. It takes on three-dimensional form in standing buildings and tangible artefacts, in detailed reconstructions of costume and paraphernalia. Film and TV provide illusory glimpses of the irrecoverable, while historical fiction and immersive histories promise time-travel to places we feel we might inhabit. And by and large, the closer a historical period sits relative to our own lives, the more vital and vibrant it feels.

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But what happens when there is so little to fill that void that the darkness becomes the defining characteristic? When knowledge is so hard-won, and so easily contested, that a state of ‘not knowing’ is the most respectable position for a historian to adopt?

To those who study late antiquity and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, the period between c400 and c600 AD in Britain is just such a void. These centuries are a time when not only historical narrative fails, but also our capacity to interpret the archaeological remains with much conviction. Fundamental questions about the end of Roman governance, the nature and scale of migration into Britain, the origins of kingdoms, the continuity of Christian belief and organisation, even the fate and whereabouts of the Romano-British population, remain essentially unanswerable. And yet, to describe this period as a ‘dark age’ has become deeply unfashionable in academic circles. This is, in part, due to the way that the term has been lazily applied to the whole of the period between 400 and 1066; and certainly the idea that the 10th and early 11th centuries can legitimately be conceived of as ‘dark’ in comparison with the later 11th and 12th centuries is, by any index, quite ridiculous.

In 2016, the adoption of the term ‘Dark Ages’ by English Heritage for the whole of the pre-Conquest period sparked a furious backlash from academic historians and archaeologists. Despite some notable dissenters, the orthodox view – and one that seems now to have been adopted by English Heritage – is that the terms ‘early medieval’ and ‘early Middle Ages’ are adequate to describe the 650 years or so prior to the Norman conquest. There is no need, the argument runs, to insult public intelligence by supposing that people are incapable of differentiating the ‘early’ from the ‘late’ medieval period. That, I suppose, is fair enough (though the supposed simplicity of this argument is undermined by the fact that medieval historians frequently distinguish the ‘late Middle Ages’ from the ‘high’ or ‘central’ Middle Ages). Most academics, however, will concede that the first 200 years of the ‘early medieval period’ are markedly dissimilar to those that followed; and no one wants to write, let alone read, about the ‘early early medieval period’. In any case, there is little about those two centuries that anyone would really think of as ‘medieval’ at all.

A shrine to water nymphs at Chedworth Roman villa
A shrine to water nymphs at Chedworth Roman villa near Cirencester. Archaeology suggests that, following the collapse of Roman authority, public buildings were left to decay, rubble accumulated in houses and towns lay in ruins. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If ever an age could be rightly described as ‘dark’ it would be the two centuries that followed the collapse of Roman authority in Britain at the beginning of the fifth century. The historical record for these years is practically non-existent. The best surviving source is an excoriating sermon – ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ (On the Ruin of Britain) – written by the British monk Gildas sometime between the late fifth century and c530. It is not a historical work, but a rhetorical barracking of Romano-British leaders, both prior to and in Gildas’s own time, whom he blamed for the ruin of Britain in the twilight of Roman rule. Most of the few places Gildas mentioned cannot be identified. The majority of the people he lambasted cannot be named. The dates of the events he described – even the date at which he wrote – remain controversial. Nevertheless, it is the best we have, and it provides the traditional narrative of post-Roman Britain from which all others are ultimately derived. The only other (local) sources of any note include a couple of letters written by St Patrick in the fifth century, one describing how he was taken from his home by Irish slave raiders and the other castigating a bloke called Coroticus for raiding and looting a Christian settlement and dragging the men and women into slavery.

Gildas – supported to some degree by the gloomy vignettes that Patrick conjures up – presents a world that has spun rapidly out of control. As the Roman empire in the west fell into disorder, Britain was left weakened and exposed. Militarily diminished and politically mismanaged, weakened by famine and plague, the British elites – led by an unidentified “proud tyrant” – devised a strategy. They would invite Saxons from continental Europe to act as a shield against raids by Scots (from Ireland) and Picts (from Scotland). This plan swiftly backfired. The Saxons, using disputes over pay and rations as a pretext, turned against the Britons and began to wreak havoc. Britain was left in ruins, a place where, Gildas tells us, “in the middle of the squares the foundation-stones of high walls and towers that had been torn from their lofty bases, holy altars, fragments of corpses – covered (as it were) with a purple crust of congealed blood – looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press”. In this land of nightmares there “was no burial to be had except in the ruins of houses or the bellies of beasts and birds”.

The grave of plague victims from the mid-sixth century, in an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Edix Hill near Cambridge.
The grave of plague victims from the mid-sixth century, in an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Edix Hill near Cambridge. (Image courtesy of Cambridgeshire County Council)

Gildas’s account cannot be relied upon to provide a complete or very accurate picture of the end of Roman Britain. Nevertheless, archaeology confirms the reality of rapid urban collapse. At Cirencester, the number of rooms occupied in the town declined dramatically: from more than 140 in AD 375, to around 10 by 425. Grand homes and public buildings were abandoned. Rubble and junk accumulated in houses and courtyards – the rubbish of empire piling up or rotting away, to form layers of debris and dark earth, largely devoid of artefacts to betoken anything approaching urban life. Human corpses rotted in ditches beside roads already crumbling under the onslaught of weeds and weather. At Lincoln, dead dogs were dumped in the ruins and owls took up residence in the gate towers. In the countryside, once-magnificent villas were abandoned in whole or in part, and standards of living declined precipitously.

It has been argued, quite rightly, that for many ordinary people – those who had never had access to the luxuries of Roman civic life – things carried on through the fifth and sixth centuries much as they always had. But this does not change the fact that we know precious little about these people: indeed, across large parts of the country, evidence for the Romano-British population is so limited that their existence is often surmised on the basis of a lack of evidence: blank spaces on the archaeological map serving as a paradoxical indicator of the ‘continuity’ of indigenous British populations.

These ‘blank spaces’ are defined in relation to the abundance of evidence for new communities in the east of England, whose culture was pagan, rural and indebted to the traditions of the northern European Iron Age. The archaeology of these people and the testimony of later writers, such as the eighth-century monk Bede, identify their origins in migrations from the Low Countries, northern Germany and southern Scandinavia (or, in Bede’s terms, the lands of the ‘Angles’, ‘Saxons’ and ‘Jutes’).

Across large parts of the country, evidence for the Romano-British population is so limited that their existence is surmised on the basis of a lack of evidence

The story of the early ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in Britain is one of a long journey from obscurity into light. Their cemeteries and settlements initially reflected a world in which social stratification was only apparent at the local and familial level, with little apparent inequality between individual communities. But from the end of the sixth century things began to change. The seventh century was the age of Sutton Hoo and other graves like it, the burials of men and woman interred beneath barrows, surrounded by the treasures of the age. These burials – their contents an amalgam of Roman and barbarian, Christian and pagan, exotic and provincial – were monuments to a newfound sense of power and prestige, the working through of a social and religious landscape in flux. It all points towards a new image of power fit to rule in the world that was emerging. The birth, perhaps, of medieval kingship as we have come to recognise it.

By the middle of the seventh century, Christianity had triumphed in lowland Britain. The last great pagan king, Penda of Mercia, was slain in battle in 655. From that point onward, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingship became effectively indivisible from Christianity, the temporal claims of rulers validated by a divine seal of approval and supported by the infrastructure of the church. Monasticism – protected with royal patronage – gave the technology of the written word to the rulers of Britain, granting them efficient new tools: law codes, legal documents, written lineages, chronicles. From the seventh century on, lowland Britain was becoming a more recognisably ‘medieval’ world.

For the western and northern parts of Britain – those which had lain outside or only loosely within the Roman empire, and which had much longer traditions of Christianity – the obscurity persists for longer. But the little evidence we have suggests that these regions were also slowly drawn into a world that no longer looked so explicitly to the antique past for expressions of authority.

By the seventh century, then, the age of ‘not knowing’ was drawing to an end. But what about the preceding 200 years? How are they best described? If referring to the fifth and sixth centuries as the ‘early early medieval period’ feels wrong, what other words can we reach for?

The objections to the term ‘Dark Ages’ coalesce around two main themes. The first is that ‘dark’ is a pejorative term that overlooks the accomplishments of the era, and casts unwonted shade on aspects of its social, cultural or economic history. The other is that to level accusations of obscurity at this period is to unfairly single it out and exoticise its supposed mystery. I have no great sympathy for either of these arguments. If we accept that ‘dark’ in this context equates to ‘bad’, it is clear that the most heavily Romanised parts of Britain underwent a socioeconomic collapse of unusual suddenness and severity at the beginning of these centuries. That this was accompanied by civil war and a long period of chronic instability is almost certain. For the people who lived through this and were affected by it, these must have been grim days indeed. The fact that other periods may have been more unpleasant, and therefore more deserving of the adjective ‘dark’, is neither here nor there. Nobody wants to play ‘bad times’ poker (“I’ll see your Dark Ages and raise you a Black Death”).

More troubling are the unthinking assumptions that underlie this criticism. The idea of a ‘dark age’ was first used by Petrarch in the 14th century to describe the whole of the Middle Ages, as a period of backwardness between the twin lights of the Roman empire and his own time. But regardless of the historical intent behind the original coinage, we should be able to recognise that ‘darkness’ doesn’t automatically equate to ‘badness’: obscurity is a far more accurate definition. And one of the least controversial things that can be said about the years between c400 and c600 is that they are indeed obscured by a marked lack of evidence. Yes, people in that time did and wrought wondrous things. But few of them are known to us – far fewer than in most other historical periods. The Dark Ages may not be darker in this sense than the long ages of prehistory, but they are very dark indeed in comparison with the periods that precede and follow them.

These must have been grim days indeed. The fact that other periods may have been worse is neither here nor there. No one wants to play ‘bad times’ poker

In any case, the existing alternative terms are all pretty dismal. Controversy over the use of the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has recently flared up on both sides of the Atlantic, and whatever the merits of the argument for discontinuing its use, recourse to the ‘early Anglo-Saxon’ period (or ‘late’ or ‘middle’) is deeply undesirable. Not only is the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ of suspect utility and freighted with unfortunate racist baggage, it is also clearly wrongheaded to define a chronological period by using the label of one ethnic group on an island that was populated by several.

‘Migration period’ is just as bad. Any label that purports to define what a period was ‘about’ – in this case population movements – can only ever be partial and prejudicial. Certainly there was migration in the centuries between c400 and c600, and perhaps an unusually large amount (though that is debatable). But a lot of other social and economic changes were going on at the same time, many of them arguably more important to the future shape of Britain and Europe than migration. The ‘late antique’ period (c300–c650) is not much better. This label attempts to carve out a time span that straddles the collapse of the Roman empire in the west by reference to the changed but enduring classical civilisation of the Mediterranean. While it rightly emphasises the fact that Rome didn’t fall in a day (and the eastern empire didn’t fall until 1453), it is built on arguments that have only limited relevance to most of Britain and none at all to some of it.

And so, unless we really want to torture ourselves with lengthy circumlocutions or default to the dry and unwieldy recital of dates, we find ourselves back in the Dark Ages. Not because it is a perfect term, but because it suffers from fewer faults than the alternatives and is, when taken as a description of the available evidence, pretty accurate. It also has the considerable benefit of being vague enough to encompass an elastic date range that can respond to the vagaries of regional circumstance and doesn’t commit itself to favouring one ethnic identity over any other. Finally, it has one other important quality in its favour: the power to inspire the imagination.

As a historian, I’ve always been drawn to the darker spaces of history – like an explorer drawn to the blank spaces on the map. It’s one of the reasons why the pre-Conquest period drew me in as an undergraduate, and has held me ever since. Some historians seem frightened of the dark, as though the ‘not knowing’ admits to a flaw in the discipline or a deficiency in training. But for me, the many mysteries of obscured periods have an allure unmatched by the most voluminous archive. The struggle to understand scattered and difficult sources, the possibility of genuine discovery in a world where nothing can be taken for granted, represent an endless quest where everything is on the table to be interpreted afresh, and the deepest secrets still lie locked within the earth.

The idea of the Dark Ages spoke to me and still does, and it seems unfair to deny its allure to others – to those who might be drawn in by the shadowed corners of history, willing to take a journey in the dark to see what treasures might be found. For those who seek it, the glimmer of gold in the torchlight can be worth a thousand sun-drenched spires.

Thomas Williams is an archaeologist and historian. His books include Viking Britain (William Collins, 2017) and Viking London (William Collins, 2019)

Should we still use the term ‘Dark Ages’? Email us at historymagazine@historyextra.com, tweet us @historyextra or post at facebook.com/historyextra

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This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine