Periods in history are so much easier to remember if they are given names instead of numbers, even if those names are cruel and wrong. The term Dark Ages suggests ignorance, decay and depression. That was the intention: a bleak, unrecorded time between the Romans’ departure and the emergence of the Renaissance. Numerically this is the fifth to the fifteenth century. During the last century the dating of the Dark Ages was changed to encompass the end of the Roman Empire and the Norman conquest in 1066 in Britain. It is now classed as a section within the Middle Ages or the Medieval Period although the term has fallen out of favour with modern historians, who prefer the label Migration Period. The migrants were Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings. At the moment I am focusing on the Angles, Saxons and a couple of Jutes. Vikings may come later.
Unlike the Romans, the Britons were not writers. What we know is based on scant archaeological evidence and the writings of a small number of Christian monks. The general view was that the people lacked the intellect of the Romans of classical antiquity and were a backward people in terms of culture and civilisation. The concept of light versus dark, ignorance versus knowledge, superstition versus science all contributed to the caricature of this time.
However, with the development of technology and some very exciting discoveries (such as the Sutton Hoo burial and the Staffordshire Hoard) it is now accepted that the Anglo-Saxons were more sophisticated than originally thought. Their intricate crafts and elaborate burials indicate quite an evolved society. We still don’t know about their motivations, plans or ideas though.
My favourite quote about the period comes from the Italian philosopher who formed the idea of a Dark Ages in Europe: Petrarch. He said, in the 1330s, of those who had gone before him: “Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom”
The Dark Ages to me is a time of mystery – in a good way. It is a blank canvas for a writer’s imagination.