Around 410, most of the Roman troops left Britain, never to return, and the island ceased to be a part of the Roman empire. The period of about two centuries that followed is probably one of the most problematic in the island’s history. The extreme scarcity of written sources means that we can almost never associate the increasingly abundant archaeological data with named individuals. In English-speaking historiography and popular use, those two centuries have sometimes (most recently, and controversially, by English Heritage) been called the ‘Dark Ages’.
Despite the potentially stigmatising overtones of the label, I don’t think it should necessarily be dropped; but only on two conditions. The first is to limit the use of ‘Dark Ages’ to those two centuries only. The ‘Dark Ages’ that historian and journalist Michael Wood was ‘in search of’ in a famous 1980s TV series began with Boudicca and ended with William the Conqueror. Such an understanding of the ‘Dark Ages’ just waters down its potential relevance.
The other condition is not to understand the phrase in a negative way. If we talk of ‘Dark Ages’, we must be clear that it is a purely descriptive label, by which we refer to a very poorly documented period. For historians who work primarily from texts, those centuries are indeed, and are most likely to remain, ‘lost centuries’.
Unfortunately — and this is precisely the problem which has rightly been pointed out by critics of the current English Heritage practice — many have also described those ‘Dark Ages’ as ‘dark times’, a time of invasions and insecurity, a ‘barbaric’ age characterised by the decline of ‘civilisation’. In fact, those two centuries were probably no more ‘dark’ than other periods in the history of the island. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had plague, famine, revolts and civil war. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were probably not very happy times if you happened to work in one of the new industrial cities and their ‘dark satanic mills’.
Both periods may indeed have been considerably ‘darker’ for a large part of the population than the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, when it does not seem that agricultural production collapsed in any way. Like those two periods, which have both been reassessed in recent historiography, the ‘Dark Ages’ we are speaking of should be treated evenly, and there is no reason to stress only the difficulties against all other aspects.
But the real reason for advocating a prudent use of the label ‘Dark Ages’ is that, if we choose to consider those two centuries only, most other potential names are at least equally unsatisfying. There is a plurality of alternative labels for the period, largely because these two centuries have often been seen as a transition from ancient to medieval times. 1 But a two-centuries transition is rather meaningless. If we want to address that period in its own right, it should have a name, and not one that depends on an earlier or later one.
For that reason, ‘post-Roman’ and ‘post-imperial’ will not do, and ‘sub-Roman’ is even worse: it is potentially as derogatory as ‘Dark Ages’, since Britons of those times were not ‘sub-’ anything! 2 All labels that include ‘Middle Ages’ are to be rejected for the same reason. There is not much that is ‘medieval’ in what we know of Britain in that period – little Christianity in the eastern half of it, for example.
Labels with ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in them are even worse, since they only apply to part of the island. No serious historian would write today of an ‘Anglo-Saxon Britain’. But even in eastern Britain, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ labels may not be the best, because we actually know very little of ethnic identities in Britain in those early times. Applied to the fifth century, they are just a lazy reflection of an outdated historiography. 3 For the same reason, ‘Brittonic Age’ is potentially misleading.
As for ‘Age of Arthur’: even though I very much enjoy the stories of King Arthur, I think most people will agree that a character whose very existence is uncertain cannot serve as the defining name to which we should peg the description of a period. ‘Heroic Age’ has a romantic tone, and of course it evokes nicer images than ‘Dark Ages’, however, it refers to a vision of those centuries that depends on a literature which was probably composed much later. 4
‘Migration age’ and ‘Age of settlements’ are both partly valid, and partly unsatisfactory. Migrations were less prominent before and after those centuries, and the settlement of ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Scots’ may reasonably be seen as very important features of the age. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that written accounts of migration and invasion probably exaggerate the scale and impact of the phenomenon. 5
‘Late Antiquity’ is a phrase which has been used since the 1970s to describe in more neutral terms the period between 300 and 700, insisting on the unity of the period and the permanence of many phenomena over the traditional border between ‘Antiquity’ and the ‘Middle Ages’. For about 15 years historians have applied the same label to British history as a way to stress the resemblance between what happened in Britain and in other western provinces such as Gaul or Spain at the same time.
I am not sure such a parallel is wise. As far as we know, in economic, religious, political or cultural terms, Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries was not like Gaul. 6 It was more like marginal provinces such as Mauretania or Noricum.
And so we are left with the ‘Dark Ages’. It’s not perfect, of course! But it is still a valid name as long as we don’t use it as a way to suggest that ‘all went wrong’ after the Romans left. I think it is wrong to suggest that it was ‘the end of civilisation’ in the words of the historian Ward-Perkins. As likely as not, those ages were not particularly ‘dark’ for the people who lived then; but indeed they are ‘dark’ to those historians who try to understand them.
Alban Gautier lectures at the Université du Littoral Côte d’Opale (Boulogne-sur-Mer, France), and is a member of the Institut Universitaire de France. His recent work includes ‘Dark Ages: les siècles perdus de l’histoire britannique?’, in Jean-François Dunyach and Aude Mairey (eds), Les âges de Britannia. Repenser l’histoire des mondes britanniques, Moyen Âge-XXIe siècle (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015), pp. 17‑31.
Image: West Stow Anglo-Saxon village (photo taken by Charles West).
- A look at the Bibliography of British and Irish History, compiled by the Institute of Historical Research, gave (in May 2013) the following results: English-speaking writers use the phrases ‘Dark Age Britain’ (15 examples, often going into the seventh century), ‘post-Roman Britain’ (16 examples), ‘post-imperial Britain’ (I could not count the numbers, since of course most of them refer to contemporary Britain), ‘sub-Roman Britain’ (6 examples), ‘migration period’ (I could not count them, since the label may refer to many other periods), ‘Age of Arthur’ (2 examples) and ‘Heroic Age’ (again, an unspecific label that precludes counting). To all those I should add ‘Brittonic Age’ and ‘Age of the settlements’, both used in publications though not as titles. The period has also been included in longer ones beginning earlier, such as ‘Late Antique Britain’ (3 examples), ‘early Anglo-Saxon England’ (182 examples, mainly for publications on the sixth and seventh centuries), ‘Anglo-Saxon England’, ‘early Middle Ages’ and ‘Middle Ages’ (all three impossible to count). In France we sometimes speak of a ‘très haut Moyen Âge’ (‘very early Middle Ages’, a label often used by Stéphane Lebecq for instance). ↩
- Moreover, ‘their’ archaeological layers are found above Roman ones, not below. ↩
- And even for the sixth century I think we should be more careful than we sometimes are. ↩
- Such as Beowulf and the poetry of ‘Aneirin’. ↩
- It is becoming more and more evident that most of the people did not move very far, and it is certain that there was no wholesale ‘replacement’ of population, even in what became England: the vast majority of the inhabitants of Britain in 600 were descendants of those who lived on the island in 400. ↩
- I have tried to argue this elsewhere – see Alban Gautier, ‘Dark Ages: les siècles perdus de l’histoire britannique?’, in Jean-François Dunyach and Aude Mairey eds., Les âges de Britannia. Repenser l’histoire des mondes britanniques, Moyen Âge-XXIe siècle (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015), pp. 17‑31. ↩