The Dark Ages: Definition, History & Timeline

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  • 0:02 Introduction to the Dark Ages
  • 1:14 Dark Past of the Middle Ages
  • 3:02 Controversy Over Dark Ages
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the period of time commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. We will learn why this period is called the Dark Ages and discuss why some historians are now shying away from this term.

Introduction to the Dark Ages

The Dark Ages is a term often used synonymously with the Middle Ages. It refers to the period of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. Many textbooks list the Dark Ages as extending from 500-1500 AD, although it should be noted these are approximations.

The term 'Dark Ages' was coined by an Italian scholar named Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, used this label to describe what he perceived as a lack of quality in the Latin literature of his day. Other thinkers came along and expanded this designation to include not only literature, but also culture in general. The term thus evolved as a designation for the supposed lack of culture and advancement in Europe during the medieval period.

The term generally has a negative connotation. Debate continues to rage among historians over whether the Middle Ages were, indeed, dark or not. Increasingly, many scholars are questioning whether the term Dark Ages is an accurate description or not.

Dark Past of the Middle Ages

The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were remarkably advanced for their time. Both civilizations made a number of contributions to human progress, notably in the areas of science, government, philosophy, and architecture. Some scholars perceive Europe as having been plunged into darkness when the Roman Empire fell in around 500 AD. The Middle Ages are often said to be dark because of a supposed lack of scientific and cultural advancement.

During this time, feudalism was the dominant political system. The feudal system of labor hindered upward social mobility, which basically means that poor people had very little opportunity to improve their condition in life. Religious superstition was also widespread during this time. The Catholic Church was extremely institutionalized and often opposed the scientific and cultural advancements the Greeks and Romans had pioneered.

The Dark Ages were a difficult time in which to live: famine and disease were common. The Black Death Bubonic Plague devastated Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s, killing an estimated 100 to 200 million people. Warfare was also a part of everyday life. The Europeans and the Muslims of the Arab world fought numerous conflicts. These conflicts, called the Crusades, began in 1095 and ended in 1291. The Dark Ages have often been described as a backwards time in human history. The Dark Ages came to a close around 1500 AD, as the Italian Renaissance and the Age of Discovery dawned.

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