| "The Dark Ages" where in many ways very "dark" compared to today, but not so dark as they are at time presented as being. |
"Dark Ages" is a term referring to the perceived period of both cultural and economic deterioration as well as disruption that took place in Western Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire. David Keys, Ken Wohletz, and others have postulated that a violent volcanic eruption in 535 may have been responsible for global climate changes about 535–536 which disrupted agriculture leading to the breakdown of social order. See main article about Krakatoa for more information, references and biblography.
The word is derived from Latin saeculum obscurum (dark age), a phrase first recorded in 1602. The label employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the "darkness" of the period with earlier and later periods of "light". Originally, the term characterized the bulk of the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual darkness between the extinguishing of the light of Rome, and the Renaissance or rebirth from the 14th century onwards. This definition is still found in popular usage, but increased recognition of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages since the 19th century has led to the label being restricted in application. Today it is frequently applied only to the earlier part of the era, the Early Middle Ages. However, most modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.
When modern scholarly study of the Middle Ages arose in the 19th century, the term "Dark Ages" was widely used by historians. In 1860, as John Barber notes, Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy "formulated the classic contrast between the medieval period as the 'dark ages' and the achievements of the Renaissance as a period of revived antiquity that included literature, elegance and erudition". However, the early 20th century saw a radical re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, and with it a calling into question of the terminology of darkness, or at least of its pejorative use. Historiographer Denys Hay exemplified this when he spoke ironically of "the lively centuries which we call dark".
When the term "Dark Ages" is used by historians today, therefore, it is intended to be neutral, namely, to express the idea that the events of the period often seem "dark" to us because of the paucity of historical records compared with both earlier and later times. The term is used in this sense (often in the singular) to reference the Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent Greek Dark Ages, the dark ages of Cambodia (c. 1450-1863), and also a hypothetical Digital Dark Age which would ensue if the electronic documents produced in the current period were to become unreadable at some point in the future. Some Byzantinists have used the term "Byzantine Dark Ages" to refer to the period from the earliest Muslim conquests to about 800 AD, because there are no extant historical texts in Greek from this period, and thus the history of the Byzantine Empire and formerly Byzantine territories that were conquered by the Muslims is poorly understood and must be reconstructed from other types of contemporaneous sources, such as religious texts. It is also known that very few Greek manuscripts were copied in this period, indicating that the seventh and eighth centuries, which were a period of crisis for the Byzantines because of the Muslim conquests, were also less intellectually active than other periods. The term "dark age" is not restricted to the discipline of history. Since the archaeological evidence for some periods is abundant and for others scanty, there are also archaeological dark ages.
Since the Late Middle Ages significantly overlap with the Renaissance, the term "Dark Ages" has become restricted to distinct times and places in medieval Europe. Thus the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain, at the height of the Saxon invasions, have been called "the darkest of the Dark Ages", in view of the societal collapse that characterized the period and the consequent lack of historical records compared with either the Roman era before or the centuries that followed. Further south and east, the same was true in the formerly Roman province of Dacia, where history after the Roman withdrawal went unrecorded for centuries as Slavs, Avars, Bulgars, and others struggled for supremacy in the Danube basin, and events there are still disputed. However, at this time the Arab Empire is often considered to have experienced its Golden Age rather than Dark Age; consequently, this usage of the term must also differentiate geographically. While Petrarch's concept of a Dark Age corresponded to a mostly Christian period following pre-Christian Rome, the use of the term today applies mainly to those cultures and periods in Europe least Christianized and thus most sparsely covered by chronicles and other contemporary sources, nearly all written by Catholic clergy at this date.
However, from the mid-20th century onwards, other historians became critical of even this nonjudgmental use of the term for two main reasons. First, it is questionable whether it is possible to use the term "Dark Ages" effectively in a neutral way; scholars may intend this, but it does not mean that ordinary readers will so understand it. Second, the explosion of new knowledge and insight into the history and culture of the Early Middle Ages, which 20th-century scholarship has achieved, means that these centuries are no longer dark even in the sense of "unknown to us". To avoid the value judgment implied by the expression, many historians avoid it altogether.
Other writers, however, while acknowledging these concerns, continue to use the term. A recently published history of German literature describes "the dark ages" as "a popular if ignorant manner of speaking" about "the mediaeval period", but then immediately (in the next sentence) goes on to use the term "dark age" in a carefully neutral sense for "the 14th and early 15th centuries" with specific reference to German literature. This suggests that the term, when used neutrally and with precision, can still have a place in good historical writing, not least because there does not appear to be any alternative term with its particular technical meaning.