Is it time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’?

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The ‘Dark Ages’: barbaric, primitive, brutal, murderous? People illiterate, uncivilised. Tribes of Angles and Saxons marauding, hacking their way across Britain and cruelly wiping out the native Britons and Celts, slaying all in their path? Dark dangerous days after the Romans left; everything crumbled, decayed, ruined.

In the first of my Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, one thread in Viv’s narrative is the notion that the ‘dark ages’ tend to be misconstrued as primitive, that the ‘dark ages’ are only dark because we know little about them from the relative paucity of surviving evidence and artefacts. As a specialist in early medieval language, literature and history, I am excited by the idea that this historical period wasn’t primitive and barbaric, but in fact refined with a rich culture from its Roman, Briton and Celtic heritage – and indeed from rich foreign trade. Gold, jewelry, embroideries, tapestry wall hangings, crafted utensils, glass: the feasting halls of the chieftains would have glowed with wealth.

Let’s look at the more recent discoveries about the world of late fifth century Britain, for example the site near Lyminge in Kent, where an early feasting hall has been unearthed and evidence revealed of a good and settled domestic life. The Romans left us with not only an engineering and building heritage but also a cultural one. I am also intrigued by the exploration of the bronze age settlement at Must Farm in the fens, dating from long before the setting of my story, yet revealing a sophistication of crafts, utensils, clothing, domesticity and foreign trade all of which I am convinced would have become a surviving part of the British psyche. Both Lyminge and Must Farm discoveries are mentioned in my story.

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So, archaeological evidence is at last beginning to emerge and we have new and exciting tools to discover more. Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than a period of decline and sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t any bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, and between local chieftains for power supremacy, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Angles and Saxons by the native Britons and Celts.

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But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with Romans who remained after the Roman troop withdrawals, and a similar intermingling between Britons and the immigrant Angles and Saxons.

This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies and her emerging view is that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark, barbaric and brutal as we had previously imagined.

West Stowe Anglo Saxon village

So perhaps it’s time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’ title. So what can we call this post-Roman pre-Anglo-Saxon period instead? Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?

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