The Human Story – The Dark Ages

What were the Dark Ages and just how dark were they?

Historians typically regard the Early Middle Ages (or Early Medieval Period), often referred to as the Dark Ages, as lasting from the fifth or sixth century and ending in the tenth or eleventh century. They were the opening phase of what is known as the European Middle Ages as they came between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of the Modern Age with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Early Middle Ages are often referred to, rather pejoratively, as the Dark Ages as they were purportedly a period of mass unenlightenment.

In the western world we tend to take a very Eurocentric view on history and the labelling of the Early Middle Ages as the Dark Ages is perhaps one of the most egregious examples. So, how dark were they then? Well that really depends.

If you enjoy studying classical poetry and the great cities of history then the Dark Ages were, in fact, fairly dark in Europe. That being said, wars were less common compared to earlier times and disease and famine was rather scarce (until the Black Death arrived in the fourteenth century). If, however, you happened to live anywhere outside of Europe then the chances are that you were living through an age of enlightenment.

Europe’s Dark Age

When we last left Western Europe the Western Roman Empire had imploded under the weight of migrating tribes and this trend continued for a while until the Europe that we know today began to take shape around 1,200 years ago. This is when the great migrations across Europe began to taper out and states began to form along natural frontiers and familiar European languages began to evolve as the continent divided between Germanic, Slavonic and Romantic speakers. A couple more invasions of Germanic and Scandinavian Vikings and Hungarian Magyars brought new cultures to France, Britain, Sicily and Central Europe.

As a consequence of these migrations and invasions Medieval Europe had fewer cities, reduced trade and less cultural output than the original Roman Empire. London and Paris were filthy fire-traps with none of the civic planning or sewage management of places 5,000 years older like Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley Civilisation, let alone Rome.

Nonetheless, with fewer powerful governments, the wars of the period were at least smaller and less deadly, which is one of the reasons the average lifespan actually increased during this time.

Instead of centralised governments, Europe in the Middle Ages was governed by an arrangement known as Feudalism: a political system based on reciprocal relationships between lords, who owned lots of land, and vassals, who protected this land. These vassals are more commonly known as knights and they pledged loyalty to their lords. The lords, in turn, were also vassals of more important lords with the most important lord of all being the king. Below the knights were the peasants who did the actual work on the land in exchange for protection from bandits and other threats.

Feudalism also acted as the economic model for Medieval Europeans with the peasants working the land and keeping some of the produce to feed themselves and their families whilst giving the rest to the land owner whose land they worked. The small, local nature of the Feudal system was ideal for a time and place where the threats to people’s safety were also small and local. From a modern social justice point of view the Feudal system did have one major drawback and that is that it enforced social stratification and presented little freedoms and absolutely no chance of social mobility. Peasants could never work their way up to a lordship and almost never even had the chance to travel further than their local village.

As a side note, one interesting point from a historical perspective to acknowledge is that the devolution from empire to localism has happened many times and in numerous locations throughout history during times of extreme political stress. When this occurs power very often falls into the hands of local lords who are in a better position to protect the peasants than the crumbling state is. We hear a lot about this in Chinese history, even as recently as the twentieth century, and in contemporary Afghanistan. These lords outside of the Western hemisphere are never called Feudal Lords, however, but rather Warlords; Eurocentrism striking again perhaps?

Aside from the transient tribes leading to reduced urbanisation and poor quality of life for the bottom of society (a recurring theme of history) the other, and perhaps principal, reason that these were known as the Dark Ages is because Europe was dominated by superstition and pointless theological debate about the gender of demons and angels. Nothing was written down and recorded unless it was Holy in nature and medical advancements all but ground to a halt as many people simply placed their hopes in the Church and God to heal their ailments. Thinking in these grounds took a large step backwards as the origin and cure of disease were not purely secular, but based on the world view that aspects such as destiny and sin played an integral part in the causes.

While there is some criticism to be made about the feudalism, superstition and heavy reliance upon and domination of Christian doctrine within society there was one feudal lord who used it to his advantage. The Holy Roman Empire began in 800 as a marriage of convenience between the Germanic feudal lord Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. Charlemagne shrewdly recognised that the Church’s mainly literate hierarchy and command of tradition were his best possible instruments for governing the feudal lords under himself. So he struck a deal with the pope in which the head of the Church would bestow upon Charlemagne the authority and tradition of the Caesars while Charlemagne would acknowledge that the Church had spiritual superiority over his secular power. The name for the agreement reflected the terms of the deal:

  • Holy – The Church demanded top billing
  • Roman – This provided Charlemagne maximum prestige amongst his feudal subjects
  • Empire – Because all parties involved really wanted their new hybrid creation to be an empire

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Of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted in varying territorial sizes across Central Europe, for over one thousand years, the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire later said that “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Voltaire may have been correct in his observation but no one can play down the importance of the Holy Roman Empire. This confederacy served as the ruling government for much of Europe for the majority of medieval history and the church-state alliance massively shaped European history for centuries.

Islam’s Enlightened Age

While Christianity was holding back progress in Western Europe, things were certainly looking a lot brighter in the Islamic world.

When we last left Islam the Islamic Caliphate had left its Arabian homeland and conquered the wealthy Egyptian provinces of the Byzantines and its flags flew throughout the whole of the once powerful Sasanian Persian Empire. The Muslims had achieved all of this in the alarmingly shocking time of around one century; the Blitzkrieg of its day. The Umayyad dynasty then expanded the Empire even further west across Northern Africa and up through the Iberian peninsula, stopped only at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, who confined the religion south of the Pyrenees.

The Umayyad also relocated their capital to the ancient city of Damascus because it was closer to the action (following the example set by the Roman Emperor Constantine) whilst still technically being in Arabia. This last point was vitally important to the Umayyad as they had established a hierarchy with the Arabs, like themselves, at the top and even made attempts to keep Arabs from fraternising with non-Arabs throughout their empire. This of course annoyed the non-Arab Muslims. After all, the Qur’an does state that all of the Ummah were equal in the eyes of God. With the rapid expansion of the empire it did not take long before the majority of Muslims were not ethnically Arabian which made it pretty easy to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty… which of course happened in 750.

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The Umayyad replacements, the Abbasid family, claimed to have descended from al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. The Abbasid Revolution marked the end of the Arab empire and the beginning of a more inclusive, multi-ethnic state in the Middle East which was far more welcoming of non-Arabs than the previous regime had been. Remembered as one of the most well organised revolutions of this period of history, the Abbasid dynasty reoriented the focus of the Islamic World to the east.

The Abbasid rulers kept the idea of hereditary monarchy but wanted their own capital from which they could rule and chose a site a little north of where the ancient city of Babylon had once stood. The Caliph Al-Mansur believed that this was the perfect location to be the capital of the Abbasid Empire and loved the city so much that he said: “This is indeed the city that I am to found, where I am to live, and where my descendants will reign afterward.” The city that Al-Mansur founded in 762 was Baghdad.

Under the Abbasids the Islamic world began to take on a distinctively Persian caste that it has never really lost. At the highest levels of government, the Caliph began to style himself as the “King of Kings” just as the original Persian rulers, the Achaemenids, had done and pretty soon the Caliphs rule was a lot more indirect, just as the Persian one had been with their satrapies. Naturally, this meant that the Caliphs control became much weaker and by around 1000 CE the Islamic Caliphate which looked very impressive on a map had really devolved into a series of smaller kingdoms, each paying tribute to the Caliph in Baghdad. This arrangement of governance occurred partly because the Islamic Empire was beginning to rely more and more on soldiers from the frontiers, in this case the Turks, and slaves pressed into military service as the backbone of the army; a strategy that has been tried throughout history and has rarely worked.

More importantly to Abbasid culture than the adoption of the Persian style of monarchy and governance was their openness to foreigners and their ideas. This tolerance and curiosity ushered in a golden age of Islamic learning and enlightenment centred in the vibrant city of Baghdad. The Abbasid Caliphate oversaw an explosion of culture unlike anything seen since the Classical Greek Age with Arabic replacing Greek, not only as the language of commerce and religion but also of culture, philosophy, medicine and poetry. Baghdad became the world centre of scholarship with its ‘House of Wisdom’ which was either an immense library or an academic institution. Muslim scholars translated works of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, scientific works by Archimedes and Hippocrates and even translated Buddhist and Hindu manuscripts that may otherwise have been lost to time. They also adopted mathematical concepts from India, including the idea of the number zero.

Baghdad was not the only centre of learning in the Islamic world. Cordoba, in Spain, became a centre for the arts, especially architecture and one of the finest examples of Moorish building prowess is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the earliest parts of which were built between 784 and 786. The Muslims in Spain also had engineers that rivalled those of ancient Rome who erected aqueducts that brought drinkable water into the towns and cities. Muslim scholars also took the lead in agricultural science improving the yield of all kinds of crops, allowing Spanish lives to be longer and less hungry.

This whirlwind of scientific and mathematical development and cultural growth was brought on a by a mix of factors. Mainly a religious motivation to search for knowledge, a cultural desire to integrate information from conquered societies, substantial government sponsorship of scholarly research and the discovery of paper helped fuel this incredible methodical empire. Here is a quick rundown of some of the achievements of the Abbasid Caliphate and how they still impact our modern world:

  • The Aristotelian philosophy that we have today is thanks to Muslim scholars who loved to translate him into Arabic. This was very important as the European scholars of the time had little interest in recording anything unless it was about Christ or Christian theology.
  • Algebra, sine waves and Arabic numerals were all Islamic innovations. The Muslims put these new mathematical concepts to good use in their architecture: a prime example being the beautiful Alhambra palace in Spain.
  • The poet Rumi created beautiful Persian poetry while Islamic art was at the top of its game. Some of the finest glassware, lusterware, metalwork, textiles, woodwork and manuscript of the era were coming out of Islamic Persia.
  • Early iterations of the scientific method stemmed from Islamic medical scientists of the era. There is even a suggestion that one brave polymath, Abbas ibn Firna, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers and jumping from height… unsurprisingly he found that it did not work particularly well.
  • Islamic scientists had a basic understanding of why evolution was a thing and how the heart and the nervous system worked.
  • Some of the first proper hospitals, as we know them today, began to spring up across the Islamic world during this Golden Age. Similarly the Islamic world gave us some of the first universities and the oldest continually operating university, the University of Karueein, was founded in 859 in Morocco.

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China’s Golden Age

As all of this was happening in the western world, China too was experiencing something of a Golden Age of its own. The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) made China’s government more meritocratic and ruled over 80,000,000 people across a vast 4,000,000 square miles. They may have went on to conquer all of Central Asia too if they had not been stopped at the Battle of the Talas River by the Abbasid Empire and their Tibetan allies in 751. This largely unknown (in the west at least) battle was a huge deal in the eighth century and marked the end of Tang westward expansion and defined who had cultural influence in the area. Control of the region was economically beneficial for the Abbasids because it lay on the Silk Road.

Despite this minor setback in the west of their empire, the Tang were still able to produce incredible artwork that was traded all throughout Asia. Many of the more famous sculptures from the Tang period of Chinese history feature figures who are distinctly not Chinese demonstrating the diversity of their Empire.

The Tang Empire also provided the sufficient conditions to produce the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry” with the likes of Du Fu and Li Bai, who it is said took traditional poetic forms to new heights.

Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilisation and a Golden Age for cosmopolitan culture; the Tang capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was the most populous city in the world in its heyday. Like all good things though, the Tang Dynasty came to an end. A series of natural disasters, upstart military governors and agrarian rebellions finally saw to it that the Tang Dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven in 907.

The Tang were followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and it was just as messy as it sounds! Thankfully this period of political upheaval did not last too long (around a generation) before the Song Dynasty (960 – 1258) restored order. By the eleventh century, Chinese metalworkers were producing as much iron as the whole of Europe would be able to produce in the eighteenth century. Some of this iron was put to use in the new ploughs which enabled agriculture to boom and therefore support further population growth: the good times had returned.

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Porcelain was of such high quality during the Song Dynasty that it was shipped throughout the world and that is why in the west we call it China. The manufacture of porcelain became so highly organised that some kilns excavated from this period were able to fire over 100,000 pieces at one time. There was so much trade occurring during this time that the Chinese actually ran out of metal for coins which led to yet another innovation: paper money. If the volume of porcelain being created is representative of the booming economy of Song Dynasty China then it is no wonder that they were forced to be innovative on the money front.

By the eleventh century the Chinese were writing down recipes for a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal that we now know as gunpowder, paving the way for modern warfare and fireworks to light up the night sky. So, perhaps the Dark Ages were not that that dark after all.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam

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