What Were the Dark Ages?

Mandi Rogier
Mandi Rogier
Petrarch first used the term "Dark Ages" to describe the lack of cultural achievements of the time.
Petrarch first used the term "Dark Ages" to describe the lack of cultural achievements of the time.

The Dark Ages is a time period generally thought to have begun in 476 AD when Romulus Augustulus, the last Western emperor, was deposed and the Western Roman Empire fell. This is a matter of some debate, however, as some scholars believe the period began when Alaric sacked Rome in 410 and others contend the period began later in 500 AD. The term once referred to the Middle Ages as a whole, which lasted until 1485 AD when the Renaissance Period began. Scholars of the 19th century restricted the term to the Early Middle Ages, a period which ends about 1000 AD. Today, the phrase "Dark Ages" is rarely used by scholars due to its negative connotations.

The Italian scholar and poet Petrarch first coined the term "Dark Ages" in reference to the period's lack of cultural achievements. To others, this phrase seemed a fitting description of a tumultuous period of history marked by religious struggle between Catholics and other Christians as well as Muslim conquests throughout the fallen empire. Scholars of the time found "dark" to be an appropriate description of the era because it was deeply shrouded in mystery due to a lack of historical documents, literature, art, and music from the period.

This period of time is sandwiched between two higher points of history. The classical cultures of Greece and Rome preceded it, while the 14th century cultural revival was to follow. In contrast to the cultural achievements of these periods, the Early Middles Ages can indeed seem dark.

The Dark Ages refer mainly to Western Europe. Here, the European population was in decline while the migration of Goth and Vandal invaders was on the rise. This multitude of cultures struggled with one another throughout the period until they emerged at the end as more a singular European culture. The economy of the period focused on small, self-sufficient localities. As the Early Middle Ages transitioned into the High Middle Ages, inter-town commerce grew.

Despite conflicts within the Christian religion, Christianity as a whole served to unite the peoples of Western Europe during the Dark Ages. The Catholic Church likely viewed this as a time of great strength and prosperity for their faith, as the papacy established its authority over the church. Meanwhile, Christians were outraged by a growing corruption that they saw in the Catholic faith. Regardless, Christianity as a whole gained great strength during this time.

The Dark Ages were followed by the High Middle Ages, from 1000 to 1300 AD, and the Late Middle Ages, from 1300 to 1400 AD. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, society and nobility increased in strength, and the feudal system emerged. The church also continued to grow.

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Discussion Comments


I have heard that the dark ages were literally dark due to huge volcanic eruptions of Vesuvius. Is this true?


@ PelesTears- I also believe that the unquestioning faith in religion had a large influence on the times. What I understand about this period in history is that religion was the basis of rationale. People injected religion into the meaning of everything, even if it was illogical to do so. The birth of fantasy came from the dark ages simply because people believed in their church so much that they did not take it upon themselves to question their existence. It almost seems like the religions of the time were so powerful, that civilizations of the time were created based on their beliefs. This caused people to isolate himself or herself form those who were different, thus impeding progress.

I find religious history to be very interesting, and I think that the dark ages of Europe and the Middle East are loaded with some of the most important events in religious history. The corruption of the churches showed that people, no matter how hard they try, could not be gods. It shows that there must be balance, or the world goes dark. When there is science to balance religion there is less chance for abuse of power and corruption.


@ Georgesplane- That is an interesting point of view. I think that the European dark ages and medieval times are very interesting as well. The Gothic architecture, the castles and citadels of the period and the morbid tales of mythical beasts make for great story telling. The stories of these backward times have inspired numerous other modern stories. The dark ages are the basis for many high fantasy stories, games, and even modern fantasy movies. The lack of understanding of the world contributed to the mythical tales of the times.


Some say the dark ages of Europe were devoid of historical meaning, but I think they are completely relevant to the evolution of human beings. I think that the dark ages show how selfish and scared of progress humans can be. The period shows that our species is still capable of regression, even after great societal advances. Sciences, the arts, industriousness, and political prowess can all be lost. To me, the fact that there was such a time in history, and that it lasted so long is very interesting. Some of histories best stories and strangest mysteries have come from the dark ages.

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    • Petrarch first used the term "Dark Ages" to describe the lack of cultural achievements of the time.
      Petrarch first used the term "Dark Ages" to describe the lack of cultural achievements of the time.