Dark Age or Dark Ages is a term in European historiography referring to the Middle Ages, or more specifically to the Early Middle Ages. Most commonly it is taken to run from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to 1000.
The concept of a Dark Age was created by the Italian scholar Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) in the 1330s and was originally intended as a sweeping criticism of the character of Late Latin literature. Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Classical Roman Antiquity and the High Middle Ages, including not only the lack of Latin literature, but also a lack of contemporary written history, general demographic decline, limited building activity and material cultural achievements in general. Popular culture has further expanded on the term as a vehicle to depict the Middle Ages as a time of backwardness, extending its pejorative use and expanding its scope.
The rise of archaeology and other specialties in the 20th century has shed much light on the period and offered a more nuanced understanding of its positive developments. Other terms of periodization have come to the fore: Late Antiquity, the Early Middle Ages, and the Great Migrations, depending on which aspects of culture are being emphasized.
When modern scholarly study of the Middle Ages arose in the 19th century, the term "Dark Ages" was at first kept, with all its critical overtones. On the rare occasions when the term "Dark Ages" is used by historians today, it is intended to be neutral, namely, to express the idea that the events of the period often seem "dark" to us only because of the paucity of artistic and cultural output, including historical records, when compared with later times.
It is generally accepted that the concept was created by Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of those who had come before him, he said, "Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius, no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom." Christian writers had traditional metaphors of "light versus darkness" to describe "good versus evil". Petrarch was the first to co-opt the metaphor and give it secular meaning by reversing its application. Classical Antiquity, so long considered the "dark" age for its lack of Christianity, was now seen by Petrarch as the age of "light" because of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch's time, lacking such cultural achievements, was seen as the age of darkness.
As an Italian, Petrarch saw the Roman Empire and the classical period as expressions of Italian greatness. He spent much of his time traveling through Europe rediscovering and republishing the classic Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the classical Latin language to its former purity. Humanists saw the preceding 900-year period as a time of stagnation. They saw history unfolding, not along the religious outline of St. Augustine's Six Ages of the World, but in cultural (or secular) terms through the progressive developments of classical ideals, literature, and art.
Petrarch wrote that history had had two periods: the classic period of the Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness, in which he saw himself as still living. Humanists believed one day the Roman Empire would rise again and restore classic cultural purity, and so by the late 14th and early 15th century, humanists such as Leonardo Bruni believed they had attained this new age, and that a third, Modern Age had begun. The age before their own, which Petrarch had labeled dark, thus became a "middle" age between the classic and the modern. The first use of the term "Middle Age" appeared with Flavio Biondo around 1439.
Historians prior to the 20th century wrote about the Middle Ages from a mix of perspectives. Most of them expressed negative sentiments. According to the OED, "the darker ages" in 1667 is the earliest use recorded in English, and they do not record a capitalised "Dark Ages" until 1857.
Consequently, an evolution had occurred in at least three ways. Petrarch's original metaphor of light versus dark had been expanded in time, implicitly, at least. Even if the early humanists after him no longer saw themselves living in a dark age, their times were still not light enough for 18th-century writers who saw themselves as living in the real Age of Enlightenment, while the period covered by their own condemnation had been extended and was focused also on what we now call Early Modern times. Additionally, Petrarch's metaphor of darkness, which he used mainly to deplore what he saw as a lack of secular achievements, was sharpened to take on a more explicitly antireligious meaning in light of the draconian tactics of the Catholic and Orthodox clergy.
In spite of this, the term "Middle Ages", used by Biondo and other early humanists after Petrarch, was the name in general use before the 18th century to denote the period up until the Renaissance. The earliest recorded use of the English word "medieval" was in 1827. The term "Dark Ages" was also in use, but by the 18th century, it tended to be confined to the earlier part of this medieval period. Starting and ending dates varied: the Dark Ages were considered by some to start in 410, by others in 476 when there was no longer an emperor in Rome, and to end about 800, at the time of the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne, or to extend through the rest of the 1st millennium up until about the year 1000.
Just as Petrarch had turned the meaning of light versus darkness, so had the Romantics turned the judgment of Enlightenment critics. However, the period idealized by the Romantics focused largely on what is now known as the High Middle Ages, extending into Early Modern times. In one respect, this was a reversal of the religious aspect of Petrarch's judgment, since these later centuries were those when the universal power and prestige of the Church was at its height. To many users of the term, the scope of the Dark Ages was becoming divorced from this period, denoting mainly the earlier centuries after the fall of Rome.
When the term "Dark Ages" is used by historians today, it is intended to be neutral, namely, to express the idea that the events of the period often seem "dark" to us only because of the paucity of historical records compared with later times. The darkness is ours, not theirs. The term is used in this sense in reference to the Bronze Age collapse and the Greek Dark Ages.
However, since there is no shortage of information on the High and Late Middle Ages, this required a narrowing of the reference to the Early Middle Ages. Late 5th- and 6th-century Britain, for instance, at the height of the Saxon invasions, might well be numbered among "the darkest of the Dark Ages", with the equivalent of a near-total news blackout in terms 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 Byzantine Empire and especially the Arab Empire experienced Golden Ages rather than Dark Ages; 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 neutral use of the term today applies mainly to those cultures least Christianized and thus most sparsely covered by the Catholic Church's historians.
However, from the mid-20th century onwards, other scholars began to critique even this nonjudgmental use of the term. There are two main criticisms. 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". Consequently, many academic writers prefer not to use the expression at all, and a recently published history of German literature describes the term as "a popular if ignorant manner of speaking"..
Films and novels often use the term "Dark Age" with its implied meaning of a time of backwardness. The movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail humorously portrays knights and chivalry, following the tradition begun with Don Quixote. A 2007 television show on The History Channel called the Dark Ages "600 years of degenerate, godless, inhuman behavior.
The public idea of the Middle Ages as a supposed "Dark Age" is also reflected in misconceptions regarding the study of nature during this period. The contemporary historians of science David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers discuss the widespread popular belief that the Middle Ages was a "time of ignorance and superstition", the blame for which is to be laid on the Christian Church for allegedly "placing the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity", and emphasize that this view is essentially a caricature. For instance, a claim that was first propagated in the 19th century and is still very common in popular culture is the supposition that the people from the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. According to Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, this claim was mistaken, as "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference. Ronald Numbers states that misconceptions such as "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy", are examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though he says that they are not supported by current historical research.