Were the Dark Ages really so dark?

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Dear Cecil: After watching a movie about the crusades (Kingdom of Heaven), a friend and I got into a debate about how bad the Dark Ages really were. My friend seemed convinced that during the Dark Ages all scientific knowledge regressed to basically nothing, life was generally horrible, people were completely ignorant and blindly faithful to the Catholic Church, and the Church of that era was the worst thing in the history of the world. I tend to think that most people’s perception of the Dark Ages is uninformed and they weren’t as bad as they’re made out to be. Were they? Dylan, Phoenix


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Yes and no.

Opinions about the Dark Ages have evolved quite a bit over the centuries. The standard view once upon a time was that Europe descended into barbarism with the collapse of Rome in the fifth century and didn’t get its act together till the Renaissance. Historians long ago showed that was an exaggeration, and argued that the really backward period was the early Middle Ages, concluding around 1000. In the last few decades some researchers have disputed even that, painting an almost rosy view of medieval folk leading the wholesome pastoral life.

I’m not going that far. Sure, you can make a case that with the appearance of Charlemagne in the eighth century, western Europe began a slow but steady climb out of the gutter. Before that, though … well, it’s fair to say the machinery of civilization had almost completely broken down. Here’s a famous passage written circa 593 by the man we know as Gregory the Great, pope from 590 to 604:

Cities plundered, camps destroyed, churches burned, male and female monasteries demolished. Houses abandoned by their inhabitants and land left empty by farmers. The owners are nowhere to be seen. Beasts have occupied those places previously populated by multitudes of people. What is happening elsewhere I do not know; I know that, in this region in which we live, the end of the world is not only foreseeable, but by now, evident.

Gregory then was living in Rome, which had reached its post-imperial rock bottom. Disease played a greater role in this than is generally appreciated. Starting in 542, the (bubonic) Plague of Justinian had killed off something like a third of the population in the former empire, emptying out the countryside and leading to famine.

The plague wasn’t brought about by the fall of Rome; it was worse in the east, where the empire remained intact, governed by Constantinople. But the collapse of civil authority made things worse. The great public works that had been Rome’s signature achievement, such as roads and aqueducts, were no longer maintained. Channels used to drain swamps silted up, leading to an expansion of marshland and an increase in malaria. Due largely to epidemics, the population of Italy stagnated or declined.

What didn’t decay was destroyed by war. The Ostrogoths, battling with the Byzantines for control of the Italian peninsula, sacked Rome and chased out the residents. After a protracted struggle the Byzantines succeeded in defeating the Ostrogoths but were too weakened by plague and battlefield losses to re-establish the western empire; after 568 they were largely, but not entirely, shoved aside by the invading Lombards. Much of Italy was in ruins.

Things didn’t improve appreciably over the ensuing couple centuries. At the empire’s height, the city of Rome probably had a population of more than a million; though it stayed empty only briefly, it had fewer than 50,000 people until the Renaissance. (It didn’t hit a million again till the 1930s.) Setting aside Islamic capitals such as Cordoba, western Europe in general built no cities of consequence till after 1000.

So yeah, the Dark Ages were pretty dark. I don’t mean to suggest the sun never shone. We don’t know much about daily life; few records survive and probably few were made. Analysis of bones in cemeteries and such suggests that for some, say in small hilltop communities away from the swamps, life wasn’t so bad; the lack of population pressure possibly meant more resources for those remaining. Diet for one thing may have been more varied. But those same bones also suggest not all that many lived past age 50. Women in particular died much younger.

Plague last broke out in 750 and thereafter subsided till the 14th century. Perhaps not coincidentally, by 800 Charlemagne had sufficiently expanded Frankish control of Europe that Pope Leo III crowned him emperor of the Romans. From that point forward there was noticeable progress. Production of books rose sharply; technology improved. Crop rotation was introduced in the eighth century; the modern horse collar, the tandem harness, and the horseshoe by the ninth or tenth.

As for the Catholic Church, no doubt it harbored its share of wicked individuals. But let’s have some perspective. Through its monasteries and schools, it preserved much of what remained of Western culture, and for that matter basic literacy, during a 300-year period when the non-Byzantine portion of Europe was otherwise inert.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.