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It Rather Depends On Why We Call It The Dark Ages

Opinion can be divided upon why we call the period just after the Western Roman Empire the Dark Ages. It could be because that fall of that western empire meant that civilisation collapsed and everything, erm, went dark. Which is what this historian would like to tell us isn’t quite what did happen. But there’s another meaning too, the one I’ve always assumed was the correct one:

Stop referring to Middle Ages as ‘Dark Ages’ because it was an ‘enlightened era’, British Library expert says

Well, that’s the headline writer getting it wrong. Middle Ages and Dark Ages aren’t quite the same thing, not colloquially at least. But more than that:

It is popularly held as a period when Britain and the rest of the world fell into a deep decline.

But according to the British Library, the Dark Ages were anything but.

The curator of a new exhibition has suggested the term unfairly maligns a time of great creativity and enlightened thinking.

Dr Claire Breay said that objects in the “once-in-a-generation” exhibition, which opens on Friday, show that Britain was sophisticated and pioneering.

She told The Telegraph: “I think people always think of this time as the Dark Ages.

“We are trying to show the public and encourage them to engage with the literary and artistic evidence of the [Anglo-Saxon peoples’] complex and sophisticated lives.”

That other meaning still being appropriate. Indeed, being proven by this very complaint by the historian. They’re dark ages simply because we don’t know that much about them. Literacy most certainly declined, therefore we’ve not all that much in the way of written records. Thus we peer back at this time through a glass darkly.

They’re the Dark Ages because we’ve not got much illumination of them.

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Hallowed Be
Hallowed Be
5 years ago

Yes- and it produces that weird feeling that the Arthurian legends seem further back in time than the punic wars.

5 years ago

Reminds me of the bizarre habit of Americans to dress up in medieval dress (10th-15th centuries) and call it a Renaissance Fair (15th-17th centuries).

Hector Drummond
5 years ago

Most people, rightly or wrongly, understand the term ‘Dark Ages’ to mean a time when ignorance, fear and superstition ruled, and life was universally horrible except for the nobs. While this isn’t 100% wrong, it’s mostly not true, and needs correcting, as long as the other meaning is also made clear. This was the bit that struck me, though: ‘”We are trying to show the public and encourage them to engage with the literary and artistic evidence of the [Anglo-Saxon peoples’] complex and sophisticated lives.” At the time, she said, Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, shown… Read more »

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
5 years ago

Britain lead the world
Someone at the ‘Graph thinks the past participle of the verb ‘to lead’ is spelt ‘lead’. You just can’t get the subs these days.

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