Apparently this is something which is in contention? Like, I keep hearing people say that the Dark Ages definitely did exist, but I haven’t had any contact with the people who claim that they didn’t. I guess I’m not moving in the right insufferably stupid circles.
Anyway, the Dark Ages were indeed a thing, although the vague idea of the Dark Ages most people have in their head isn’t really an accurate picture of the time period. That’s neither surprising nor alarming. People generally speaking only have a vague overview of subjects not directly relevant to their work or whatever they studied in university, and it’s not like people can be reasonably expected to have in-depth knowledge of all fields.
In the interests of making this blog post long enough to actually maybe be interesting, though, let’s actually talk about the Dark Ages.
So the Dark Ages are generally taken to start after the fall of Rome in 476 AD. It’s worth noting that the latter Roman Empire had kind of gone to Hell already, though. By the 3rd century, Rome was coming apart at the seams, with repeated civil wars and the position of Emperor transitioning from allegedly being the first among equals in the Senate to openly having supreme executive, legislative, and judicial power over everything. While the Emperor had effectively ruled Rome with an iron fist since Augustus in 27 BC, the transition to openly ruling with an iron fist marked an era of significant decline in personal freedom and dignity for the Roman underclass, who effectively became serfs. This was kind of a big deal, as Romans had traditionally been fiercely independent people who hated the very thought of being ruled over by any kind of tyrant. There’s a reason Augustus claimed to still be subject to the Senate even after he seized total control of the Republic. After fifty years of civil war, though, Romans were apparently perfectly willing to have an openly autocratic ruler if it meant reducing the salt content of their fields. So, if you wanted to peg the start of the Dark Ages to the 284 ascent of Emperor Diocletian to the throne, that wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable, or even as far back as 235, when the civil wars began.
So even though Diocletian (and his predecessor Aurelius) managed to keep the Empire in one piece and momentarily halt the decline, things still decayed to the point where assorted barbarian tribes fleeing from the Huns like wildlings fleeing from White Walkers were able to overwhelm the whole Empire and conquer over half the place. Franks settled into Gaul, Vandals took most of North Africa, the Angles and Saxons captured the Empire’s British holdings, and various flavors of Goths went all over the damn place. This churning chaos ramped up slowly over time, so it doesn’t have a decisive start point. Wikipedia gives it starting in 375, so we’ll go with that, which is yet another place you could start the Dark Ages if you particularly wanted. Rome itself fell in 476, but barbarians kept fighting one another and Roman rump states for supremacy clear up until the Lombards captured Italy in 568. The Byzantines had managed to reclaim the peninsula and their empire’s former capital since the original 476 fall to the Goths, but in 568 the Lombards took Italy and it would never be ruled by Romans again. The period between 375 and 568 is the nadir of the Dark Ages, when the chaos and destruction was at its height.
The barbarian tribe who ended up in charge of Gaul were the Franks. They’d actually been invited into the Empire to help defend its border, and depending on what perspective you want to take they either installed their king as ruler to fill the power vacuum when everything went to Hell or they threw a coup as soon as Rome was too weak to do anything about it and seized the whole region for themselves. Either way, it’s these guys who give us Charlemagne, who creates a Frankish empire called Francia that covers not only modern day France but also Germany and northern Italy. The Pope crowns him the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 on the dot. Much like how the beginning of the Dark Age is variable, exactly how fully recovered things have to be before we’re calling the Dark Age over isn’t really set in stone, but the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 is a decent candidate. During the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemange set out to make his empire like the old Roman Empire had been, and to a large extent he succeeded, with the caveat that he’s mainly harkening back to the period of autocratic stability that Diocletian ushered in. Art and culture experienced a revival, and war was once again contained to the frontier.
Problem is, medieval succession was a mess. Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious mostly inherited the entire empire due to the convenient deaths without heirs of most of his brothers, but Louis’ own kids ripped the Empire apart in civil war starting as early as 817 and the Empire was divided permanently into three in 843 (technically they were very briefly reunited from 884-888, but in historical terms that’s blink and you’ll miss it). At around the same time as the Carolingian Empire was collapsing, vikings were all over the goddamn place.
Vikings had been launching major attacks on the British Isles (still divided up between a bunch of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms left over from the barbarian invasions of Roman territory) since 793, and would continue ripping England apart until Alfred the Great started fighting back hard in 878…which was ultimately probably not that great for peasants’ quality of life, because Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex was the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom on the island and had it fallen the wars would have been over. Instead, they continued until Alfred conquered York in 927, bringing about a peace that lasted for fifty years. Back on the mainland, the fragment of the Carolingian Empire that roughly coincided with Gaul had become West Francia and later just France, had given the duchy of Normandy to the vikings in 911, the idea being that since Normandy was so well positioned for viking pillaging being on the northern coast of France and all, if the French king just gave it to the Norsemen (later shortened slightly to Normans) as one of his dukes, they’d probably stop pillaging altogether and just collect taxes. This mostly worked out. Germany ran out of Charlemagne’s descendants in 888, didn’t want to borrow one from France, and instead started bickering with themselves over who would be next “Holy” “Roman” “Emperor,” a fight that concluded in 936, when the Ottonian dynasty took the throne. With lots of powerful, mostly unified kingdoms scattered across western Europe, while the eastern territories of Rome were either still retained by the Byzantines or else had been lost to the Abbasid Caliphate, which was in most ways an improvement.
There’s a lot more medieval history left to get to, but it’s pretty hard to claim that the Dark Ages meaningfully lasted much longer than the 936 ascension of the Ottonian dynasty in the Holy Roman Empire. Just like 476 is the standard start date, the standard end date is actually the 1066 Norman invasion of England. I don’t know why, since that actually brings to an end a long period of relative peace and prosperity in both France and especially England while also introducing the more rigid and autocratic French feudalism to Britain. Not that English monarchy was a citizen-run republic or anything, but they had more yeomen and fewer peasants. There’s a spectrum for these kinds of things, and France was further towards authoritarianism than England was (something which would continue to be a trend until the French Revolution).
Now, the recovery from the Dark Ages took a long-ass time. It wasn’t until at least the 15th century that any part of Europe really reached the flourishing of art and culture that typified the heights of Classical antiquity. Classical antiquity was an unusual high point in flourishing art and culture for the entire pre-modern world, though, so it’s unfair to say that all of medieval Europe counts as the Dark Ages just because Rome was more awesome during the late Republic and early Empire. By the same reasoning, the early Republic would also be a Dark Age, and Greece from the 8th to 6th century BC, and pretty much the entire Bronze Age, which spanned thousands of years. If the only non-Dark periods of all European/Middle-Eastern history are from 400 BC to 200 AD and then from 1500 AD to the present, the definition of “Dark Age” is clearly too broad.
That said, things went to absolute Hell in western Europe starting from somewhere in the 3rd century and lasting at least until Charlemagne started piecing things back together in the 8th, and you can make a strong argument that things didn’t really get back to normal (though far below the magnificence of Rome at its height) until the 10th century, when Charlemagne’s descendants finally sorted themselves out into mostly stable kingdoms and figured out what to do about the vikings. So. Dark Ages. Definitely real. Which is a point of contention, apparently.