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the Dark Ages

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« on: February 19, 2007, 12:33:03 am »

Modern academic use

When modern scholarly study of the Middle Ages arose in the 19th century, the term "Dark Ages" was at first kept, with all its critical overtones. Although it was never the more formal term (universities named their departments "medieval history", not "dark age history"), it was widely used, including in such classics as Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where it expressed the author's contempt for "priest-ridden", superstitious, dark times. However the early 20th century saw a radical re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, and with it a calling into question of the terminology of darkness. A.T. Hatto, translator of many medieval works for the Penguin Classics series, exemplified this when he spoke ironically of "the lively centuries which we call dark". It became clear that serious scholars would either have to redefine the term or abandon it.

When the term "Dark Ages" is used by historians today, it is intended to be neutral, namely to express the idea that the events of the period often seem "dark" to us, due to the paucity of historical records compared with later times. The darkness is ours, not theirs. However, since there is no shortage of information on the High and Late Middle Ages this required a narrowing of the reference to the Early Middle Ages. Late 5th and 6th century Britain for instance, at the height of the Saxon invasions, might well be numbered among "the darkest of the Dark Ages," with the equivalent of a near-total news blackout, in terms of historical records, compared with either the Roman era before or the centuries that followed. Further east, the same was true in the formerly Roman province of Dacia, where history after the Roman withdrawal went unrecorded for centuries as Slavs, Avars, Bulgars and others struggled for supremacy in the Danube basin, and events there are still disputed. However, at this time the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate experienced Ages that were Golden rather than Dark; consequently, this usage of the term must also differentiate geographically. Ironically, while Petrarch's concept of a "Dark Age" corresponded to a mostly "Christian" period following pagan Rome, the neutral use of the term today applies mainly to those cultures least Christianized, and thus most sparsely covered by the Church's historians.

However, from the mid-20th century onwards an increasing number of scholars began to critique even this non-judgmental use of the term. There are two main criticisms. Firstly, it is questionable whether it is possible to use the term "dark ages" effectively in a neutral way; scholars may intend it that way, but this does not mean that ordinary readers will understand it so. Secondly, the explosion of new knowledge and insight into the history and culture of the Early Middle Ages which 20th-century scholarship has achieved means that these centuries are no longer dark even in the sense of "unknown to us". Consequently, many academic writers prefer not to use the phrase at all.


Modern popular use

In modern times, the term "Dark Ages" is still used in popular culture. Petrarch's ideological campaign to paint the Middle Ages in a negative light worked so well that "Dark Ages" is still in popular use nearly 700 years later. The humanists' goal of reviving and revering the classics of antiquity was institutionalized in the newly forming Universities at the time, and the schools over the centuries have remained true to their humanist roots. Students of education systems today are familiar with the canon of Greek authors, but few are ever exposed to the great thinkers of the Middle Ages such as Peter Abelard or Sigerus of Brabant. While the classics programs remain strong, students of the Middle Ages are not nearly as common: for example the first medieval historian in the United States, Charles Haskins, was not recognized until the early 20th century, and the number of students of the Middle Ages remains to this day very small compared to the classics. Film and novels often use the term Dark Age with its implied meaning of a time less civilized than our own. The movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail humorously portrays knights and chivalry, following the tradition begun with Don Quixote.

Historians today consider the negative connotations of the word "dark" in "Dark Ages" negates its usefulness as a description of history. Yet Petrarch's concept of it, like that of other early humanists after him, as a discrete period distinct from our "Modern" age, has endured, and the term still finds use, through various definitions, both in popular culture and academic discourse.

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