PC Attacks the Dark Ages

What exactly is meant by the Dark Ages? It seems the term has fallen out of favor as non-PC and judgmental. Some refer to it as the entire Middle Ages period from the Fall of Rome in 450 to the Renaissance in 1500. That seems ridiculous. A more sensible judgment seems to be to say that the Early Middle Ages, from 450 to 1000, are the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages are dark because much of the knowledge accumulated under Rome and Greece was simply lost. Urban life in Europe was more or less abandoned with the fall of the Roman Empire, and people just went back to the rural living that they were used to. With all of the imperial drawbacks of Rome, at least they brought civilization. With the end of Rome, things just went entropic. Another problem is that little survives from the Dark Ages. Classic architecture vanished; it was not until the 800’s and 900’s that neo-Romanesque starts to appear. There seems to have been little art. Little was written down, or at least very little has survived. There is approximately a 100 year period of British history about which we know almost nothing. Nothing survives from the period, and all we have is people writing later about it. This was before Xerox machines, and people hadn’t figured out a way to make books survive very long, so once books started falling apart, they had to be recopied word for word by hand. This was usually done by monks in monasteries, but they often got the translations wrong such that some surviving documents are so mangled and multiply mistranslated that we hardly know what to make of them. Even the history of this period is often difficult, and it gets difficult to sort fact from fiction. The Legend of King Arthur may be a fable. Robin Hood may have been little more than a common criminal. And on and on. There were endless wars during the period, often over religion, typically over idiotic trivial questions of religion. It was a time of backwardsness, stupidity and barbarism. Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, set in Britain in the early 500’s, ridicules the backwardsness, stupidity and barbarism of Dark Ages Britain. Urbanization basically vanished, and most cities simply fell apart. Centralized authority also collapsed. Although Kings and Empires supposedly ruled, they often didn’t have much power. After the Dark Ages comes the High Middle Ages. This lasts from 1000-1300 and is a much more sensible and civilized time. Wars seem to lessen, there are the first efforts at separation of church and state and the first stabs at trial by jury, and a great deal of written matter survives. The next period is the Late Middle Ages, and things seem to get even better. This period actually leads into the Renaissance. True,  there was an insane error3

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6 thoughts on “PC Attacks the Dark Ages”

  1. I don’t know why anyone would object to the use of the term “Dark Ages” to describe the situation in Western Europe from about 400 to 1000, as it seems to accurately describe what happened to European civ at the time, and certainly describes what we know about it.
    I think the problem occurs when historically illiterate ppl–esp. influential ppl in the media, religion, etc.–use it imprecisely to describe everything before the Renaissance or Reformation, for example. A lot of fundamentalist Protestants consider the dark ages to be everything before Martin Luther, basically a slam against religions other than (their type) of Protestantism. Other people just use it to describe the historical periods they know little or nothing about. So I could see how professional historians might see the term as perpetuating ignorance, but it seems to me that ignorance does pretty well just being perpetuated by the ignorant.

  2. Dear Robert
    About 85% of people in the Roman Empire were peasants. What is called Roman “civilization” was essentially urban and consisted of no more than 15% of the people witihin the Empire. Cities in the Roman Empire were essentially parasitic. They were centers of power, not centers of production. Cities in the Roman Empire were like aristocratic mansions, products of the exploitation of peasants.
    As to the much-vaunted Roman roads, they were used essentially for the movement of troops, government officials and luxury goods for the elite. Building roads is one thing, building efficient means of transportation is another thing. To the rural masses in the Roman Empire, it was bad news if they were living near a Roman road. That increased the probability that Roman soldiers would come near them. If you were a peasant, free or slave, would you relish the prspect of having lots of heavily armed soldiers near you?
    Since the Roman Empire was essentially a peasant society, as were all societies that no longer consisted of hunter-gatherers but were still pre-industrial, nearly all its capital was land. It is important to ask who owns the land in a peasant society. It turns out that land ownership in the Roman Empire was highly concentrated, which of course meant that the landlord class, which lived in cities, appropriated part of the production of the peasantry without giving anything in return.
    If Max Weber can be believed, most rural workers in the Roman Empire were slaves. Since these slaves did not have much of a family life, they failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers. This created a steady need for new slaves. When the Romans ran out of places to conquer, their economy started to decline. For Romans, conquests were also slave hunts.
    It is simply not true that the entire Roman Empire disappeared. The Eastern Roman Empire survived till 1453, when it was finished off by the Turks. Very well, is there any evidence that from 400 to 1400 AD the masses in the former Western Roman Empire lived worse than the masses in the surviving Eastern Roman Empire? What is certain is that by 1400 the Western part was technologivcally much more advanced than the Eastern part. It wasn’t in the East that windmills, haying, crop rotation, horse traction etc were invented. I’m not in the least convinced that the fall of the Western Roman Emoire was bad news for the masses living in it.
    Generations of Europeans have had a classical miseducation in which, among other things, they were told to admire the Greek pederasts and the Roman slave drivers and to despise their Germanic and Celtic ancestors. At least the entertainment of the Germans and Celts did not consist of watching people tearing each other to pieces or being torn to pieces by wild animals.
    When people think of Sparta, they think of warriors, but the Spartans were only 10% of the people of Sparta. The other 90% were Helots, who of course did all the useful work. Warriors don’t produce anything and are essentially parasites. Without te Helots, the Spartans would have starved to death pretty quickly. The Spartans needed the Helots, but the Helots didn’t need the Spartans.
    If you want to find out whether the Romans were technologically advanced, you should look at heir farms. Since 85% of people in the Roman Empire were needed to produce food and other necessities, we can safely assume that Roman productive technology was quite primitive.
    For the time being, I’ll refrain from admiring the Romans.
    Regards. James

    1. Great post – civilisation is so often connected and fuelled by exploitation or the many by the few.
      The ruling elite were as you put it – parasites. Farming and agriculture, inevitably lead to warloads and peasants.
      Admiring the Romans is in many respects absurd. Likewise Ancient Egypt. The pyramids were great – but remember they were also a colossak waste of effort (tombs for the king – great concept unless you were made to work on one for say 30 years).
      Prior to the industrial revolution wealth seems to have always came from ownership of the land and exploitation of those compelled to settle on it.

  3. Hey, that’s very interesting James. I’m something of a Romanophile, as you and LS may have noticed, but it’s nice to hear about the other side of the coin for once. The Roman Empire surely had its downside, no?

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