Thursday, July 17, 2014

How the Dark Ages Weren't Dark

A replica of the Sutton Hoo Helmet
We’ve all been taught about the Dark Ages and how a shroud of ignorance and superstition was cast over the western world by the fall of the Roman Empire. We even know how, after the Dark Ages were over, Europe slowly struggled into the Middle Ages; a dark, strict and unpleasant time, dominated by a Church that religiously kept the Bible away from starving peasants. In fact, we might even recall how, after much learning finally filtered over from the Far East, Europe managed to claw itself into the Renaissance, a rebirth of enlightenment and learning.
The Imperial Gate of the Hagia Sofia
showing 9th century mosaics over the door
All of this is a myth built up over time. In reality, the Dark Ages weren’t dark, the Middle Ages weren’t backwards and the Renaissance never happened (there were so many mini renaissances during the Middle Ages it's hard to tell when one ended and a new one began). You might as well forget everything you ever learned about the Middle Ages, because it probably isn’t true.
To start out, the Dark Ages weren’t dark.

When the Visigoths sacked Rome, the empire didn’t fall into a heap of ashes. It was re-allotted and
earliest known icon of Jesus
from Saint Catherine's Monastery
in the Sinai, c. 6th - 7th centuries
renamed, but Rome lived on in the East in the form of the Byzantine Empire. One need only to look at the beautiful architecture of the churches built in Constantinople to know that the Dark Ages were anything but dark. The HagiaSofia and the Hagia Irene are two churches that have remained standing through fifteen hundred years of earthquakes, fires and conquests. Recent restoration work has uncovered exquisite mosaics and paintings; gold leaf would have dazzled in the interior of these churches. They seem almost weightless and a little more than a hundred years after they were built, the architecture was copied in the Dome of the Rock.
Over in England, things weren’t going quite as well at first. When Rome removed her legions, England fell prey first to the Saxons, then the Vikings. The native Britons intermarried with the newcomers, or withdrew into the perimeters; into Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Here, missionary work was staged in an attempt to convert the invaders. It wasn’t unsuccessful.
Elaborate buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial
6th - 7th century
If you’d happened to walk near the wharfs in London, or Southampton during the Dark Ages, you would have seen a bustling seaport with merchant ships sailing as far afield as the Red Sea to bring back precious dyes, silks and spices. We know the Vikings traded with India and perhaps even China, bringing back statues of Buddha and silk. In fact, there’s Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sofia.
In this shoulder clasp from the Sutton Hoo burial
                each inlaid garnet was backed with carefully worked
gold foil to scatter the light, 6th - 7th century

The art from the Dark Ages is breath-taking. Pieces recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial mound
The filigree work on the Alfred Jewel
9th century
are so intricate they would have required four times magnification to create. Alfred the Great, one of England’s greatest kings was a world traveller (he went as far afield as Rome) and his court flocked with scholars. Admittedly, he learned to read and write in later adulthood, but he spent quite a bit of his time translating the Bible. He encouraged education and reformed the legal system and was really the first King of All England (that excludes Scotland, Wales and the Danelaw). He even started the Navy.
Things were going along splendidly during the Dark Ages, until, at the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th, misplaced Vikings, named Normans, busied themselves in conquering much of France and Italy. One, named William the Conqueror, even dropped in on England. Things would never be the same again.
Anglo-Saxon claw beaker
6th - 7th centuries
When the Normans happened to Europe, learning took a major setback. Art and culture suddenly seemed on hold as Norman regimentation moved in with massive stone castles and suppression by annihilation. Anyone who could, built a castle and huddled down to weather the storm. But despite the battles and bloodshed, our old friend Enlightenment didn't stay long in the background. 
Stay tuned for how the Middle Ages weren't backwards...

Note: In nearly all my posts, I've included links to pages with more information on the subjects I've mentioned. I hope you have been finding these helpful. :)


  1. Oh, yes, very helpful! I've now read the whole Wikipedia article on Sutton Hoo, and it's very fascinating. I'd love to visit all these places and see the artifacts in person :D

    1. Oh I'm so glad! And I think the Sutton Hoo burial is absolutely amazing! They're are also many hoards that are worth looking up, like the Staffordshire Hoard, which shows Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship.