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When, late last year, I was reading The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry, I was very discontented with the book, as I said in my summary of the year’s reading. I felt I was being shortchanged: it was poorly written and it felt poorly argued. For instance, it was obvious, from the title onwards, that the book had been written in opposition to the notion of the Dark Ages, yet it never once discussed the idea of the Dark Ages. So it was only today, reading a book about the interwar years (The Morbid Age by Richard Overy), that I discovered that The Dark Ages as a name for the late-classical and early-medieval period is only common in anglophone historiography. The term was, apparently, first used in Henry Hallam’s History of England in 1837, but it only really became a commonplace at the end of that century when it was used as the title of two popular works, one by Oxford professor Sir Charles Oman in 1893, and one by the philologist William Ker in 1904. Overy does not (at least so far as I have got) make the connection, but I wonder if this apocalyptic sense that the end of a civilisation is marked by a descent into darkness lay behind Sir Edward Grey’s famous remark to the journalist, John Alfred Spender, on the evening of 3rd August 1914, the day before war was declared: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Overy also notes something that you would look for in vain in Gabriele and Perry’s book: that most historians today have been trying to “consign the Dark Ages to the historical waste-paper basket”. After all, one wouldn’t want to get the impression that Gabriele and Perry aren’t actually breaking new ground.

My problem with all this is that, at no point, is it clear what is meant by “Dark”, or, indeed, what is meant by “Bright”. In fact, The Bright Ages opens with an account of a church at Ravenna which is lovingly described in terms of the way gold and mosaics are used in such a way as to catch and refract the light, so you might be forgiven for thinking that “Bright Ages” means they had light. Wow, I’d never have guessed. Were the dark ages dark because, in Edward Grey’s terms, someone had turned out all the lamps?

But Overy’s account of the origins of the term “Dark Ages” sheds light on the question (if you’ll pardon the expression). The way British historians, or more precisely English historians, who grew up in the great days of Victoria’s empire regarded the matter, the dark ages began when the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain. From the perspective of one great empire looking back upon another. the retreat from Britain was the end of empire. The fact that the Roman Empire, in one form or another, continued for more than 1,000 years after this moment is irrelevant. To the Victorian imperialists, Britain’s empire was the natural and inevitable successor to Rome. The two empires were seen in the same light: as the bringers of civilisation, as the guarantors of order and rationality, as the creators of laws and mighty buildings and great armies. All who fall under the sway of such an empire should be grateful for all the glories that it brings to them. And so the retreat of that empire could only mean an end to glory, an end to civilisation.

Oh the imperialists knew – for they had all read Gibbon – that the Roman empire had survived long after the retreat from Britain. But they also knew, thanks to Gibbon, that those long ages were a decline, a fall. Besides, how could an empire truly be great if it had abandoned Britain? And because they looked at the Roman Empire and saw Britain, just as they looked at the British Empire and saw Rome, so they shuddered at the thought of all the glories of empire being lost. Surely that must be the end of civilisation, for without the wise rule, the imperial might, the laws and arts and social organisation imposed by empire how could civilisation survive? There could only be darkness.

And so we believed, right up through my school years and beyond. I remember when my own doubts about this dominant narrative first began to develop. It was in 1969, when I was watching the first episode of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. Here was the period of darkness, of the uncivilised, between the death of one civilisation and the (literal) rebirth of civilisation with the renaissance. And yet, we were seeing exquisite carvings in wood and ivory, complex narratives carved into stone monoliths, gloriously illustrated manuscripts, magnificent buildings that employed extraordinary technological innovations like arches, spires and flying buttresses, all the invention of these supposedly uncivilised ages. It seemed to me that to dismiss the makers of these artworks as uncivilised was stupid. And wasn’t this also the age of Beowulf, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which I read not long after) and the medieval Mystery Plays which fed directly into the theatrical flowering of the later Tudor period. Maybe Gabriele and Perry weren’t too wide of the mark by beginning with that church in Ravenna.

By what measure, then, was this a “dark” age? Was it dark in the same way that a black hole is black, that light could not escape from it. But that late-classical, early-medieval period is not exactly a mystery, and wasn’t even when Hallam coined the term “Dark Ages”. For goodness sake, between 1776 and 1789 Edward Gibbon had published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes, the vast majority of which is concerned precisely with this period of supposed darkness. There is plenty of light flooding out from those centuries in the form of chronicles and sagas and romances and church records and manor rolls and accounts left by travellers and inscriptions and all sorts of other ways that people found to tell the story of their lives and times. There is plenty of primary material to draw upon, enough at least for us to relate the lives of named individuals with at least as much detail and reliability as we relate the lives of figures from classical history.

Well then, is “dark” perhaps a moral judgement? Was this just a particularly nasty and brutish time? Perhaps, but then, when isn’t? “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire and in the time of Henry David Thoreau just as much as they did under the Anglo-Saxon kings or under Charlemagne. Life is as likely to be “nasty, brutish and short”, in Thomas Hobbes’s term, in medieval Italy or in Victorian London. And yes, the so-called dark ages were times of frequent and brutal warfare, but again, when isn’t? The century and a bit of the Hundred Years War probably had fewer casualties in total than the four years of the Great War. And while early medieval war leaders weren’t particularly careful with the lives of non-combatants that got in their way, and there were plenty of massacres of Moslems during the various crusades, and of Jews in, for instance, medieval York, you’d still have to go a bit to match the sheer brutality of the Armenian genocide, the holocaust, the Soviet famines, or China’s Cultural Revolution in our so much more civilised 20th century.

Dark, then, in the sense of a lack of learning? Not really. The Athenian age of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle didn’t really survive the emergence of the Roman Empire, but that doesn’t mean that philosophy disappeared. In the same way, the early-modern philosophical flowering of Descartes and Hobbes and Locke didn’t continue at the same intensity as the 17th century reached its end. There was learning during the early-medieval, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon, so it was no more an intellectual wasteland than any other period. The influence of the church was stultifying, but there have always been orthodoxies (Stalinist Russia, Maoist China) to there is nothing uniquely “dark” in that. And besides, the ideas of Greek science and philosophy survived and were developed in the Moslem world, and filtered through into Christian Europe throughout the period; it wasn’t a sudden flood of new learning that came in with the Renaissance.

Or does “dark” just represent the absence of empire? So it would seem.