Dark Ages (historiography)


The Dark Ages is a historiographical term referring to the period of European history from the sixth to the tenth century. A characteristic feature of this time is said to be the lagging of the western region behind Byzantium, the Muslim world, and China.

The sources on the “Dark Ages” are notable for their scarcity, which defines the name of the era. Of greatest value are the chronicles of Gregory of Tours, Bede the Venerable, Fredegar, the successors of Fredegar, Paul Deacon, and Einhardt. Besides the West”s own writers, the Byzantines, especially Agathius of Myra, who left an apologia for the social order of the Franks, and the Arabs were also interested in European history.

Letters Patents, by means of which property relations were regulated, constitute the largest part of the act material of the early Middle Ages. Researchers have counted more than 1,000 letters that have been discovered. When studying letters, one must remember that not all of them are authentic.Some letters represent early (IX, X century) forgeries, fabricated for the sake of justifying the inheritance right to a monastery or a villa.

Since the eighteenth century, the “Dark Ages” have been regarded in historical literature as the “golden age of hagiography. In fact, it is often very difficult to separate Merovingian from Carolingian hagiographies, and many Merovingian ones were probably rewritten during the Carolingian Renaissance.

The material remains of early medieval civilization are also scarce. Until the seventh century Europe knew no independent coinage, and the lack of coinage was replaced by the use of Byzantine money (bezantes). Buildings of the early Middle Ages have not survived for the most part: often wood was used as their material, and many early structures have been rebuilt.

The central theme in the discussion of the Dark Ages by historians remains the question of the predominance of the slave-owning or feudal mode of production in this era.

The most widespread view in modern scholarship is that the early Middle Ages was a period of diverse, multiform economy in which elements of the decaying barbarian tribal system, the declining ancient slave-holding system and the emerging feudal system existed side by side, intricately intertwined, in very different proportions depending on the region.

In this period there were still large slave-holding latifundia (lat. villa) – most of these were still old estates inherited by the barbarian nobility from the provincial Roman aristocracy. However, their presence is not yet a reason to classify the Dark Ages as a slave era. Apparently, these were no longer classical slave-holding estates, the effective management of which in the absence of educated people was greatly complicated in the Late Roman era. It is in this connection that, long before the fall of the Empire, the most important step towards feudalism was taken – the appearance of the colony and the transfer to this form of personal dependence of a considerable part of the Servians. Obviously, the development of these relations continued in the Middle Ages, with a gradual transition from slavery in its classical form and the colonate to serf dependence of the peasants on the lord. Along with these large households, but quite independently of them, there continued to exist among the barbarians free peasant-commons whose way of life at first changed little in comparison with that led by their distant ancestors.

The thesis of the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who argued that the invasion of the barbarians did not lead to the final collapse of the Roman world, is of interest in European historiography. According to Pirenne, the Germanic states remained closely tied economically to Byzantium, forming the zone of influence of the empire of Constantinople. The historian argued that the West remained in a “Dark Ages” situation until it was cut off from Byzantine trade by Arab conquests, prompting a forced transformation. The political centers of the European world shifted to the North, paganism was eradicated, the role of the papacy increased, slavery was finally supplanted by serfdom, the Empire was restored; the classical medieval feudal system began to replace the late-antique world.

The West of the early Middle Ages was experiencing a decline of cities, a symptom of which was the move of barbarian monarchs from cities to latifundia residences.Most early medieval letters were signed by kings there. In rural residences monarchs preferred to store their treasures. Bypassing the cities, Germanic aristocrats traveled in the countryside between villas, staying in each one until their supplies were exhausted.

The West of the Dark Ages acts as the economic periphery of the Eastern Roman Empire. Amid the decline of the cities, the barbarian monarchs buy handicraft goods from the East, imitate Roman (Byzantine) fashions, and keep their treasures in Byzantine coinage.

The era of the Dark Ages saw a weakening of the influence of the popes. As a result of the barbarian invasions, parts of the West revert to paganism, especially the Western Balkan regions and Britain. At the same time Byzantine Christianity makes impressive gains in Ireland, but the Irish Church retains its independence from the papacy.

In the seventh century Rome succeeded in eliminating Irish as well as Welsh ecclesiastical independence and abolishing Celtic ecclesiastical practices that challenged the common church standard. The Irish placed the abbot above the bishop, conducted services with portable altars, and, according to legend, ordained women as bishops. In spite of this, the spiritual mission of Irish monks on the continent contributed significantly to the Christianization of the West in the sixth and seventh centuries.

The Vth, VIth, and VIIth Ecumenical Councils fall during the Dark Ages. Unlike the Eastern patriarchs, at all of them the Roman pontiff upheld a position that was later recognized as orthodox. In the 19th century, this gave rise to the doctrine of the infallibility of the Roman pope acting “ex cathedra,” that is, interpreting Christian teaching. Nevertheless, Pope Honorius I spoke out in favor of the heresy of monothelitism. According to medieval popular legend, the pope went to hell, according to the Roman Curia, for committing an error due to his lack of knowledge of the Greek language.

The most significant heresy of the Dark Ages was Arianism. The Arian kingdoms of the Visigoths, Ostgotians, Burgundians, and Vandals occupied most of the West by the year 500. The sixth century was the time of the collapse of Arianism. The states of the Ostgotians and Vandals were destroyed by the orthodox Byzantines, the Burgundians by the orthodox Franks, and the Visigoths, under King Reckared, adopted the Catholic faith. The reason for the collapse of the Arian statehood was that most of the inhabitants of the barbarian states remained faithful to the religion of the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope, which Byzantium and the Franks took advantage of to destabilize neighboring regions from within.

The “Dark Ages” include the first signs of the awakening of popular heresy. In the eighth century, the peasant heretic Aldebert (Eng.) (rus.) preached that he had been directed by Jesus Christ and distributed pieces of his clothing to believing women. Followers followed Aldebert in droves, and he himself composed a prayer to unknown Christian angels, whose names are presumably of Gnostic origin. After Aldebert”s trial, the Roman church forbade prayers to any angels other than those mentioned in the Bible.

As a result of Justinian”s conquests, the Byzantine Empire regains control of the former West Roman lands of West Africa, Italy, the southern provinces of Spain, and the Balearic Islands, but an unexpected invasion by the Lombards forces the Byzantines to retreat. Byzantium establishes a tight guardianship over the Roman pope, who, once elected, had to obtain the approval of the Byzantine emperor and pay him a reward. Because of the difficulty of travel, the popes often obtained approval from the Byzantine viceroy, who after the Lombard invasion settled to the east, in Ravenna, and bore the title of exarch.

The Arab conquests led to the mass flight of Greeks from the Byzantine provinces to Italy. From the seventh to the eighth century the papal throne was occupied mainly by Greeks, and the spiritual life of Italy was strongly influenced by the Byzantine Empire. The Greeks play an important role in Rome”s missionary policy. One of the emigrants, Theodore, took part in the baptism of England, asserting priority among its prelates for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, the “Greek” popes, as well as others, gravitated toward Byzantine power and its inability to deal with the Lombard danger. Beginning with Pope Gregory III (741) the pontiffs sought an alliance with the orthodox Franks to the detriment of Byzantium.

Under the influence of barbarian invasions the weak diocesan organization of some regions collapses. Britain, which had sent delegates to the First Ecumenical Council, becomes almost entirely pagan after the conquest by the Anglo-Saxons. The degree of Christianization of the rural population by the time of the barbarian invasions remains a largely unexplored question. In one way or another, in the early seventh century St. Amand baptized pagans in the vicinity of the major Gallic cities, some of those baptized he bought back from slavery.

The conversion of Britain begins with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent, connected by its commercial relations with Gaul (late sixth century). The remaining Anglo-Saxon states of Britain are baptized during the seventh century. At the same time, the Celtic states of Wales and the Irish colonies in Scotland retained the Christian faith, influenced by paganism due to isolation.

The baptism of Germany opens with the events of the eighth century, in which St. Winfried played a decisive role, and ends with the forcible conversion of the Saxons by the soldiers of Charlemagne. In the eighth century the first Slavs, the Alpine Slavs (related to the present-day Slovenes), begin to be converted to Christianity.

The lack of centralized proselytism (and state religious policy) markedly distinguished the Dark Ages from the Carolingian period.

Queen Radegunda was remembered against the background of the licentiousness of her husband, the Frankish monarch Chlothar I. After Chlothar killed her brother, Radegunda retired to a monastery. Clothilde, although a Burgundian of Arianism, was an orthodox believer. Clotilde I was believed to have adopted the orthodox faith through her incessant persuasion. The queen had to undergo disgrace after the king”s baptized son died suddenly. St. Bathilda, a former slave in an Anglo-Saxon state, became the consort of King Chlodwig II and regent after his death. The queen, founder of many monasteries, was revered for her piety as a saint.

Barbary kings of bad temper rarely achieved canonization. Almost the only exception, the Frankish monarch Guntramnus, who was compared in wisdom to Solomon, was never canonized. Nevertheless, King Sigibert III was revered in the Frankish state.

The most popular of all the saints in the West was St. Martin of Tours. According to legend, one day the saint met a beggar, and the beggar begged him to give him something of his clothes to cover his rags. Martin cut his cloak into two pieces and gave one to the beggar. The next night the bishop had a dream that on that day Jesus Christ appeared to him as a beggar. The second part of St. Martin of Tours” cloak became a relic of the Merovingians and was called a “cape.” The kings of the Franks took the cape on military campaigns, where it was supposed to protect them from danger. The priest who went with the army eventually became known as a chaplain, that is, “keeper of the mouthpiece.

St. Martin”s Abbey was one of the richest monasteries in the West. To save it from plunder, Charles Martel led his troops onto the road between Tours and Poitiers, which was used by the troops of the Islamic conquerors of ”Abd al-Rahman.

The early Middle Ages are the era of the emergence of local cults. Bishops transported the relics of Christian saints to the interior of barbarian kingdoms, and veneration of local saints, most often from the bishops themselves, emerged.

Throughout the Dark Ages, scientific knowledge is in deep decline in the West. Thus Isidore of Seville”s Etymologies, compiled in the seventh century, is one of the most fantastic works of the medieval period. Isidore ventures to describe basilisks and dragons and is generally convinced of the flatness of the earth, although he gives the opposite view.

The decline of scientific knowledge in the West can be attributed in part to the reduction of contacts with Byzantium and, in particular, to the neglect of the Greek language, which continued in the West until the time of the humanists.

Nevertheless, Bede the Venerable, writing in the eighth century, argued that the Earth was spherical in shape, citing natural scientific arguments in favor of it. According to Bede, only a spherical Earth could explain the correlation between the position of the stars in the sky and geographic coordinates. The eighth-century Lombard historian Paul Deacon proposed an original theory of the origin of the tides. In his opinion, the tides owed their origin to two giant whirlpools in the Atlantic Ocean at a considerable distance from land.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the political space of the West suddenly expands because barbarian states arise both inside and outside the empire.

The kingdoms of the Thuringians and Allemans, the Duchy of the Bavars, the Kingdom of the Rugians in the Transalpine region, the Christian states in Ireland, the Irish colony of Dal Riada in Scotland, and the northern and southern kingdoms of the Picts appear in the territory of Germany. Beginning in the seventh century, the Avar Kaganate became of great importance.

Within the empire, the Frankish kingdom reaches a prominent position. Having been the last to fight for the Roman heritage, the Franks achieve victory over the Visigoths on the plains of Vuille (507). After Byzantium declares war on the Ostgoths, the latter, under threats, cede Provence to the Franks. Earlier, the sons of Clovis conquered Burgundy.After the reunification of the space of Roman Gaul under the Merovingians, the Frankish expansion goes to Germany, where the Duchy of Bavaria is formed under their supremacy.

The kingdom of the Visigoths, having survived the catastrophe of Vuia, turns to the unification of the Spanish lands, where in the second half of the 6th century the Svevian kingdom and the independent Roman territories that probably existed in this region disappear. The continental conquests of the Byzantines in southern Spain prove to be short-lived, but the lack of a fleet never allows the barbarians to regain the Balearic Islands.

The barbarian monarchs form an alliance with the Church and the Roman senate aristocracy. In places allocated to the Germans for settlement, especially in northern Gaul, the Roman aristocracy retains some property, but is Germanized. In southern Gaul, where there was no settlement, it remains Roman until the eighth century. The virtual absence of conflict over land between barbarians and Romans is explained by the depopulation of the region during the Great Migration.

The French historiography of the twentieth century accepts the view that the Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Aquitaine made three attempts at independence from the Frankish state. The first of these is connected with the rebellion of Crumne, the son of King Chlothar I. The second was the rebellion of the impostor Gundovald, supported by Byzantium, which intervened in the affairs of the Frankish state. In the second half of the seventh century, under the patrician Felix and his successor Lupe I, Aquitaine became independent of the Franks. At the time of the Arab invasion, the ruler of Aquitaine was Duke Ed, whose kinship with Felix and Loup is not clear because of the lack of sources. Caught between the Arabs in the south and the Franks in the north, Aquitaine finally lost its independence during the reign of Pepin the Short. It may be noted that some towns on the Mediterranean coast of France chose between Frankish and Arab subjection, notably Arles and Marseilles. The differences between the South and the North lead to the wars of the second half of the ninth century and remain significant until the Albigoy Crusades.

In the state of the Ostgoths during the reign of Theodoric the Great, the alliance between the king and the Roman aristocracy was shattered by the intrigues of Byzantium. The barbarian monarch, replacing mercy with anger, proceeds to reprisals against Italo-Romans who professed not Arian, but Orthodox (orthodox) faith. The victim of persecution is the philosopher Boetius, whom Theodoric imprisoned.

During the Dark Ages, barbarian kings assume the right to appoint bishops in their states, popes lose control of their patriarchate, and metropolitans lose control of their subordinate bishoprics. The bishops had a unique power in the city, which remained, after the weakening of trade relations, predominantly a center of worship. Gallo-Roman and Germanic aristocrats were appointed as bishops; bishops often had children and wives. During the crisis of the Merovingian state (7th century), the prelates acted as rulers of semi-independent territories, where their power increased to such an extent that it exceeded that of the count. Unlike most Merovingian aristocrats, the bishops were closely tied to the city because the city was home to the main diocesan church. The prelates relied on the centuries-old financial and land resources of their diocese.

The influence of the bishops was not equally great everywhere. In some cities of the Frankish state the lists of bishops contain perennial lacunae, which scholars see as a sign of a partial return to paganism.

Kings summoned bishops to councils. The best known are the Councils of Toledo in the Visigothic state (there were 18 of them). During one of the Toledo Councils the first version of the doctrine of the Philoctrine was formulated, which later caused the division of the united Catholic Orthodox Church into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches. Another of the councils of Toledo approved the scandalous proposal to sell the Jews into slavery.

The bishops of the early Middle Ages were known to wage war. Some of them took part in the war themselves: for example, Bishop Milon is one of three (along with Charles Martel and his brother Hildebrand) to have participated in the battle of Poitiers, information about which has survived to this day.

Under the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire, the tradition of solitary monasticism spread in the Barbary states. The hermits may have borrowed the psycho-techniques of Byzantine monasticism, some of them practicing hermitage. According to the hagiographies, the hermits initiated the Christianization of the rural world.

In the places where the anachoretist monks settled, they were joined by disciples, leading to the formation of monasteries. Rejecting the principle of community as insufficient for monastic life, the hermits were often unpredictable: they left the deserts, where the emergence of monasteries was inevitable, and went off in search of a new retreat. The uneasy fate of abandoned communities and the uncontrollability of the hermits irritated the diocesan authorities. The Lombard Wulfilaich faced the destruction of his pillar at the bishop”s command.Archbishop Gregory of Tours opposed hermitage. He toured anachoretes known to him, persuading them to join one monastery or another. The charter of Benedict of Nursia, issued in the first third of the sixth century, forbade monks to settle at a considerable distance from monasteries.

The phenomenon of monastic colonization is associated with the economic revival of the West after the Great Migration.


  1. Тёмные века европейской истории
  2. Dark Ages (historiography)