The dark Ages

The Dark Ages

Italian scholar Francesco Petrarch looking back on the last 900 years of stagnation in Western European civilisation first coined the term Dark Ages in the 1330’s. Later historians used the phrase to describe the entire period from the Fall of Rome on 4th September 476 to the traditional end of the Middle Ages; the Fall of Constantinople on the 29th May 1453. Modern historians now divide these centuries into the Dark Ages which extend into the 13th Century and then the Middle Ages which extend to the Renaissance. 

The Roman Empire was won to Christianity with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I and the legalisation of Christianity in 313AD. The ideals, law, language and prosperity of Rome were absorbed by the Catholic Church however the zeal and strength of Rome had peaked. The Roman Empire was divided into two, with capitals in Milan and Constantinople and the Western Roman Empire crumbled following a series of invasions from the 390’s to the Fall of Rome in 476.

What had been the Western Roman Empire became a patchwork of kingdom’s and fiefdoms often without a centralised administration or appreciation for the rule of law or culture. Many parts of the empire were taken over by non-Christians and reverted to pagan faiths. The light of learning and Roman culture retreated to the monasteries and churches where Latin was preserved and intellectual thought and discussion became stifled. Progress, both economic and intellectual ceased, then retreated.

Western Europe was also ravaged by Viking raids for 250 years from the 790’s with monasteries, churches and ecclesiastical property providing rich pickings for plunder. From the south ‘infidel’ Muslims crossed from Morocco into Spain and Portugal before being stopped by Charles Martel in France in 721. In retaliation Western Christendom organised a series of Religious Crusades from 1095-1291 to recapture the Holy Lands. This period became a time of intense superstition with ignorance spreading to intellectual life. The Church cruelly hunted down deviation in doctrine, heretics and witchcraft; burning many at the stake and torturing mercilessly.

Francesco Petrarch writing in the 1330’s believed he was at the crossroads with a new and better age about to dawn. The darkest hour is just before the dawn and sure enough Western Europe began to culturally and intellectually revive during the time we now call the Middle Ages.