In a nutshell: the Dark Ages

Historians are in the dark about a great swathe of western European history, for which there is limited written record. History Revealed magazine investigates..

In a nutshell: the Dark Ages © Wikimedia Commons

What were the Dark Ages?


The Dark Ages is a widely-used expression that normally refers to the period after the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire in AD 476. Modern historians don’t always like to use this phrase because of its negative connotations.

How did the expression come about?

It seems to have originated in the writings of Italian scholar Francesco Petrarch. He lived in the 14th century, when Greek and Roman learning were being rediscovered in Europe during the Renaissance. He wrote about the ‘Dark Ages’ to refer to the time between the light of classical culture and the renewed light of his own time. In subsequent centuries, writers continued to use Petrarch’s phrase, although the exact timespan could vary significantly. Generally, though, they were talking about the medieval period, particularly the years before AD 1000.

How do the Dark Ages fit into British history?

For Britain the Dark Ages began in AD 410, when Roman forces withdrew from the parts of the country they controlled, ending 350 years of occupation. There is no agreed date for the conclusion of the Dark Ages in Britain, but nowadays the phrase is often used to specifically describe the fifth and sixth centuries. That’s because our historical sources for those 200 years are so limited that it’s difficult to shine a light on the events that took place then.

Why are there so few sources for Britain at that time?

When Britain was under Roman rule, it was part of a literate, interconnected empire. However, after the Roman legions departed, they were replaced by groups of migrants and invaders from Germany and surrounding areas (the Anglo-Saxons, as we call them today) who were largely illiterate. This means we have just a handful of written accounts of this time – nothing like enough to draw a comprehensive picture, although archaeology has added to our knowledge.

So what do we know about Dark Age Britain?

From the limited evidence, it seems this was a period of change and turmoil. Once the Romans left, the country broke up into smaller territories where Romanised British elites continued to function for a while. The Anglo-Saxons arrived and began to establish themselves in what is now England, introducing their own pagan culture. Christianity, though, survived on the fringes of Britain and would return to England following a mission sent by the Pope in AD 597. Scotland, as in Wales and parts of south-west England, was not part of the Anglo-Saxon region and it was in these places that the original ‘British’ were able to cling on.

Where does King Arthur fit in?

He was a hero of the Dark Ages: a British leader fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons in around the fifth century. Sadly, there is no clear evidence for him or his court at Camelot having existed at all. He is not even mentioned by name until a ninth-century history book and most of the modern legend is based on the 12th-century writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although most of the stories surrounding the king are sure to be false, it is not impossible that they did have some basis in a real man, perhaps Ambrosius Aurelanius who is described, in one of the very few contemporary sources, as having battled the invaders.

Is it fair to describe the Dark Ages as ‘Dark’?


In terms of our lack of sources for this period it probably is, but it’s not true this was a time of backwardness. The western Roman Empire may have collapsed but classical knowledge was kept alive in the eastern half as well as in the Middle East. As for Britain, you only have to admire the amazing seventh-century artefacts, found at Sutton Hoo in 1939, to appreciate how advanced early Anglo-Saxon England must have been.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of History Revealed.