Why were the Dark Ages ‘dark’?

Contrary to popular belief the phrase ‘dark ages’ doesn’t refer to some kind of absence of spirituality or enlightenment, though it’s true there was a LOT of warring and starving going on and the people of those times may have been a little busy surviving to give a lot of time and thought to their gods, but 5th-9th century Britain appears to have rich in culture and faiths.

The Romans had moved on, freeing the original Britons up to revisit their more traditional Celtic beliefs, early Christianity washed over the country in its first wave, then came the Angles, Saxons and Jutes with their own traditions and gods, and the Vikings with their complicated belief systems, until, finally Christianity took hold. It was a crazy busy time for enlightenment.

Neither was the Dark Ages just about the paucity of intellectual and economic progression, though that was probably a little bit true as Britain tried to recover from the abandonment of Rome who’d ruled for four centuries with such an iron glove. We have the most fastidious note-takers and observers in history to thank for what we do know of the other cultures in Britain from the time the Romans first started sniffing around until the last one flung his red cloak over his shoulder and stepped into a vessel bound for home.

The Romano-Britains (like the Celts they probably wanted to go back to being) didn’t write much down, at least not on anything more historically enduring than toilet tissue. Their tradition probably went back to being oral. A bunch of monks were writing stuff down—and that’s not insignificant—but they weren’t really writing about the affairs of the day and it was taking them a lifetime to write just one glorious tome. And because they were writing for contemporaries and not for posterity, they quite often didn’t take the time to put everything in context. The capturing of knowledge suddenly came to a shuddering, if beautiful, halt.

So, yes, the Dark Ages section in the museum isn’t going to be as comprehensive as, say, the Greek or Roman floors.

But the Dark Ages may well have come to be known that because they were…well…dark! Pretty much across the world. There’s mounting evidence from multiple cultures (documentary, tree rings, ice core studies) of the decade-long effects of a climactic crisis mid-way through the sixth century—constant crop failures, earthquakes, tsunamis and rampant famine and plagues that wiped out entire communities and the political instability that followed—most likely caused by a massive volcanic eruption (ie: a ‘volcanic winter’). The event cast so much debris up into the stratosphere that it literally blocked the sun and cast darkness over everything for two years and cycles took nearly a decade to get back to normal. One number keeps coming up in records—535AD. And the years after it, too. Whatever it was that triggered this ‘armageddon winter’ it was massive and comprehensive and had flow on for decades. Temperatures dropped. Natural cycles stuttered and in some cases stopped entirely. Food ran out. People died. And for the longest time a bunch of atmospheric litter kept the sun from reaching Earth in the way Earth really, really needs it to.

My thoughts on that?

There but for the grace of a God-like deity.

I sit here practically on the doorstep of the most volcanically active region in the world (Indonesia). I can only imagine the devastation that a massive eruption would cause to our own ability to live. And eat. And breathe.

Not sure I’d be stopping to write things down in the years that followed, either.