Forget about the “Dark Ages”

By Maeve Maddox

Movie makers and many writers are fond of using the terms “Dark Ages” and “medieval” to denote ignorance, intolerance and unspeakable violence.

For example, a character in Pulp Fiction threatens his captive this way:

I’ma get medieval on your ass.

Some writers who use the terms Dark Ages, Middle Ages and medieval have a very vague idea of the historical time periods designated by them.

A common misconception is that “Dark Ages” and “Middle Ages” mean the same thing.

So far as “the Dark Ages” can be acknowledged to be a meaningful term at all, it signifies that time between the breakdown of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, and the establishment of more stable European governments by the end of the tenth century. The “Dark Ages” were marked by raiding and pillaging. The “Middle Ages” were a time of architectural, artistic, and literary achievement.

The blurb at the beginning of Christian Duguay’s 1999 film about Joan of Arc is a perfect example of the confusion that exists regarding these terms:

Once in a time known as the Dark Ages
There lived a legend whose coming had been foretold
by the great prophet Merlin.

The “legend” referred to here is Joan of Arc (1412-1431).

When Joan died in 1431, the Renaissance had already begun in Italy. Joan’s mother and brothers were still alive when Leonardo de Vinci, “Italian High Renaissance Painter and Inventor,” was born in 1452.

Historians don’t use the term “Dark Ages” anymore. It was a term invented by the Italian poet Petrarch in the 1330s to convey his feeling that the culture of ancient Greece and Rome had been superior to everything that succeeded it.

The expression “Middle Age” for the period between classical civilization and the “present” came into use in the fifteenth century. The term “Middle Ages” was first used systematically by a German historian, Christoph (Keller) Cellarius (1638–1707).

The historical period designated by the term spans a thousand years. Modern historians divide the Middle Ages into three periods:

Early Middle Ages: 500 -1000 C.E. The last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476. This was a time of great unrest during which Visigoths sacked Rome, Vikings pillaged France and England, and the energetic expansion of the new religion of Islam threatened the existence of Christianity.

High Middle Ages: 1000-1300 C.E. Former rovers and raiders settled down. This is the age of great European cathedrals and Islamic centers of classical and scientific study. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was begun in 1160 and completed in 1345. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) wrote one of the first scientific encyclopedias during this time.

Late Middle Ages: 1300-1499 C.E. The age of renewed interest in classical texts in Europe, and the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. The two precipitated the Protestant Reformation and catapulted the world into the modern period.

Like the term “Dark Ages,” the term “Middle Ages” was coined as a kind of put-down. The idea is that nothing much of value existed between the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome and the “re-birth” of the classical ideal in the Renaissance.

Writers may wish to take another look at the terms Middle Ages and medieval. They don’t deserve to be used haphazardly as synonyms for ignorance and brutality.

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4 Responses to “Forget about the “Dark Ages””

  • Bill Graney

    Thank you for this interesting readable article. It is much needed in a time when most people seem to think civilization started in about 1960.

  • Peter

    The last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476.

    Of course, Constantine IX of Constantinople would tell you he was the last Roman emperor, in 1453 (actually, there were putative Byzantine emperors even after Constantinople fell to the Turks; and the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire would claim the title until after 1800…with rather less validity)

    Writers may wish to take another look at the terms Middle Ages and medieval. They don’t deserve to be used haphazardly as synonyms for ignorance and brutality.

    I take “get mediæval on your ass” as a reference to the rather imaginatively sickening methods of torture commonly used in Europe at the time…which seems to me not at all unfair.

  • Andy Knoedler

    What bothers me is the 2-syllable pronunciation of the word as “mid-evil”, rather than “med-i-eval”.

  • Peter

    Andy: I suspect that’s ‘cos Americans misspell it without the “a”; it looks rather like “med-evil” (“i” is such a narrow little easily-ignored letter) 🙂

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