The Dark Ages is generally considered as the early medieval period of the European history. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe faced a drastic political, economic and social set back. The Dark Ages reflects the ill-consequences of this set back. This dark period started when the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was defeated and deposed in 476 AD by a barbarian Odoacer. However, modern historians have renounced using this term because of its negative implications.
Later historians started mentioning this period of history as “dark:” and they did so because of the backward and depleting ways, customs and practices that prevailed after the fall of Roman Empire. With this huge political collapse, the European society was forced to fall in clutches of feudalism. The continuous struggles between barbarians, Vikings and various feudal nobles devastated the peace of common men while the common men were forced to lead their life as serfs. Life during the serfdom was typically difficult for peasants and lower class people.
Many historians used the term to denote this period just because of the reason that very little information about this period was available. No written historical records were available. However, recent discoveries have revealed a number of new facts about this time and hence, modern historians prefer not to use this term.
The term Dark Ages was first used by Italian scholar and historian, Francesco Petrarca who was also known as Petrarch. Being an Italian, he was influenced by the greatness of the ancient Roman Empire. In order to denounce the Latin literature, he coined this phrase. However, even he didn’t mean to say that the rise of Christianity caused drastic set back. Nowadays, nobody use this term, yet, it can be used to represent the period following the fall of Roman Empire in the Western World. Some historians consider it as the period from 400 to 1000 AD.
The State of the Church: Darkness through the perception of Church
After the fall of Roman Empire, the European people faced a political disintegration and various new and small kingdoms evolved and tried to capture power over common people and capital. While the fall of Roman Empire was considered as the fall of an Imperial despotic power, it was subsequently replaced by various tyrants and despots. It was the period of wars and struggles between the barbarians, the Vikings, members of nobility, the Germanic powers and the old Greece.
During this tumultuous period of political struggles, Christianity evolved as a strong religious movement that tried to unite the people of Europe. Obviously, it was a period of religious struggles. There were two centers of power of Christianity, the Orthodox or Eastern Church situated at Constantinople, and the Catholic Western Roman Church based in Rome. Orthodox Christians and Catholics had directly opposite views about the situations. According to orthodox Christians, this period represented Catholic corruption.
hey were directly against the increasing power of the Catholic Church and repudiated its ways and its Papal doctrines and hierarchy. Orthodox Christians tried to recreate the magic of pure Christianity where there won’t be any corrupt methods of Catholic Church. Orthodox Christians stressed for Church reforms which later came as Protestant reform. Lutheran scholars produced a book of ecclesiastical history which was named as Magdeburg centuries. This book was published in between 1559 and 1574. This book was clearly anti-Catholic and it expressed the Papacy as the anti-Christ.
Catholics on the other hand never recognized this period as “dark.” Rather, they considered that this period was a harmonious, peaceful and productive religious era. In order to defend themselves against the Orthodox Christians, they published another book named, Annales Ecclesiastici which was written by cardinal Caesar Baronius. Even he used the term ‘Dark Ages’ to express the period between the collapse of Carolingian Empire in 888 and the initiation of first Gregorian Empire during the reign of Pope Clement II in 1406.
This ‘dark’ medieval period was also the period of vast Muslim conquests while people also faced invasions from Vikings, barbarians and horse and camel warriors. The Muslims fought and defeated kingdoms and gave way for intellectual and social heresy behind them. Muslim invasions were a serious and continuous issue until the period of the Crusades. However, this age old conflict between Christianity and Islam never stopped and it is present until this day.
Faith, Enlightenment and Science
This dark medieval period was a tumultuous time when small kingdoms fought for their existence and expansion. Apart from political struggles, people were also struggling for religious movements. Because of these struggles and a general environment of insecurity, people were forced to accept the tyrannical feudal system and serfdom.
During these political and religious conflicts, barbarians and Muslims invaded and conquered lands and devastated kingdoms. Because of all these serious issues, this period faced drastic reduction in literature, arts and cultural developments. During these religious conflicts, common men and women were ultimately drawn towards faith and beliefs and they sought after God. Many people opted for harsh rituals of the Catholic Church, cathedrals and monasteries, while other people opted for Orthodox forms of worship. Many intellectuals claim that the overall triumph of religion over reason itself suggests that this period was dark as it is a type of ‘darkness.’
According to these intellectuals, those people who followed religious beliefs were driven by organized lies and deceit. They were trapped in a false reality and were dominated by emotions and whims of papacy. They weren’t leading their lives based on logic, reason and fact. Gradually, people started to move away from religion towards the Age of Enlightenment when they opted for science and reason and gained progress. Various intellectuals like Kant and Voltaire vehemently criticized the religious periods of Middle Ages and claimed that it was a period of social regress.
The dark medieval period is called so, to express the idea that the situations and event of this particular period of history of Europe often seem to be ‘dark’ because of the paucity and lack of historical records which are in plenty for the earlier and later times.