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Bakewell crosses

“In the Dark Ages”, wrote Henry Thomas Buckle in 1857, “men were credulous and ignorant”. Buckle is the historian often credited with coining the phrase “Dark Ages” as a label for a period of English history. These days, historians avoid the Victorian moralising and instead talk about the “early Middle Ages”. Yet for some reason, English Heritage – the national agency tasked by the government with preserving England’s architectural inheritance – prefers to stick with Mr Buckle’s view.

The historian Tehmina Goskar recently drew attention on her blog to the agency’s extraordinary decision to label parts of the important site at Tintagel as “Dark Age” buildings. As if that were not bad enough, she also pointed out that English Heritage’s public-facing website, the Story of England, uses the term “Dark Ages” to refer to all of English history between the Romans and the Norman Conquest. Mr Buckle would have been delighted at the survival of his moralising and judgemental term. Modern historians and archaeologists are not.

In response to a fuss on social media (just look at #stopthedarkages) and a number of blogs (for example, by Kate Wiles for History Today and by Leonie Hicks), English Heritage has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement defending its position, which it subsequently emailed to a number of medieval historians in person. The statement asserted that the label enjoyed both academic credibility and wide popular currency. Unfortunately the claim of credibility was supported by a single eight-page think-piece article published in a journal that is, even by the standards of medieval history, rather obscure. This is not an adequate basis for national policy.

As for English Heritage’s second assertion, that “Dark Ages” is a term with which the general public are comfortable: isn’t it patronising to suppose that this public would be baffled or put off by describing a period of time as early medieval, the obvious alternative? That would assume that English Heritage’s one million members are interested enough in history to visit historical sites, but are somehow not capable of distinguishing between ‘early’ and ‘late’. Yet Historic Scotland, English Heritage’s cousin over the border, seems to manage without the Dark Ages perfectly well.

The implication behind English Heritage’s insistence on the term is that these centuries are not intrinsically interesting, and hence require sexing up with a tantalising label. This echoes the old notion that Proper English History begins with 1066, a misunderstanding that lingers on in the puzzling way that English rulers’ numeration starts afresh with the Normans (there were two King Edwards of England before Edward I, yet for some reason they do not count). This is English history as Sellars and Yeatman portrayed it, and it is something that English Heritage ought to be helping to combat.

Admittedly, it was still possible in the early 1980s for the historian Michael Wood to produce a high-quality television series on the early Middle Ages with “Dark Ages” in its title. But since then, and maybe in part because of all the research that Wood’s programme helped stimulate, the term has fallen out of favour amongst experts. And if it is ill-advised to call the fifth and sixth centuries dark, then to extend the label to the tenth and eleventh centuries is today plain silly. Thanks to shelfloads of books both popular and specialist, we know now that late Anglo-Saxon England was a complex and sophisticated society, with growing towns and markets, written laws, long-distance trade, social differentiation, and a flourishing literary and artistic culture. And we know now that this society did not change overnight in 1066. The Middle Ages were not born on the battlefield at English Heritage’s site of Hastings: England was already “medieval”.

The use of the loaded term “Dark Ages” gives the impression that this is a period of England’s history whose monuments English Heritage must by necessity protect, but that its management (or at least its marketing) do not really understand or value. The message being sent to those members of the public who are as yet unfamiliar with this distant but fascinating part of England’s history is that these are centuries notable chiefly for their (alleged) obscurity and, perhaps, cultural failings. In 2016, that signals nothing less than disdain for the very past of which English Heritage are supposed to be the custodians and champions.

So the agency should reconsider, and quickly. And if the term “Dark Ages” really must be used, it should at least be reserved for periods of true inhumanity and barbarity, such as the twentieth century.

Charles West lectures in early medieval history at the Department of History at Sheffield. You can follow him Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore

Image: fragments of early medieval sculpture at Bakewell. Photo by author.

Tags : Dark AgesEarly Middle AgesEnglish Heritage
Charles West

The author Charles West

7 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. The use of the term ‘Dark Ages’ when taken alongside such acts as the carving of Merlin’s face into the cliffs at Tintagel, makes it hard to question Lowenthal’s argument that heritage is not history, but fabrication and myth-making.

  2. What is the fuss about? The ages were “dark” in the simple senses that there little documentation about what happened. It is very hard to see what happened, that’s all. Nothing derogatory. But it is not worth fighting about.

    I am interested to know what happened with the Anglo-Saxons between C.410 and C600 ad. There seem to be two stories on is the traditional one supported by various local writers although not contemporary that the Germanic invasion were ferocious and wiped out the locals. This would seemed to be supported by the fact that there is little trace any other language (Most historians seem to assume the language was Gaelic but I tend to hold that it should have been Latin since the Romans had been there for 350 years. There are virtually no British names and very few Latin ones aside from London and the various Chesters (roman forts. No linguist could believe that the entire language and all traces of Christianity could be wiped out if the Anglo-Saxons hadn’t a thorough ethnic cleansing. There is the added well-documented mass migration of Britons to Brittany.
    On the the other hand the archeologists argue that there was no mass invasion but a slow and relatively people settlement of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in to England over a long period. They argue that there was little change in agricultural settlement and land use in the period ( This is strange since since the Roman had estate system with large blocks of land worked at least in part by slave labor and managed centrally.) Geneticists don’t seem to think there was much of a change in population at all.

    These two views are fundamentally contradictory. Has anyone sorted this out.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Garrison. My objection to English Heritage’s use of ‘dark ages’ is threefold: a) it currently uses it to describe the entire pre-Conquest period. But the 9th-11th century period is far better documented than, e.g.,the Roman period b) even the most obscure post-Roman period, say 5th-7th, is increasingly better understood thanks to archaeology c) dark carries connotations beyond obscurity.

    As for the question of the Anglo-Saxons – or we might just say the English – no, this isn’t sorted out yet. The general consensus though would seem to be that there was a sizeable movement of population, over decades, of say a few thousand or perhaps tens of thousands of people; but that the emergence of English identity, language etc was primarily cultural/social/economic and not biological (as of course makes sense: the English weren’t English before they arrived, after all, this was a process).

  4. Thanks for the reply Charles. Your argument on the use of “dark ages” makes sense, especially in any official context. The fifth through the the sixth centuries are still pretty dim to me. Wiping a language out is very difficult unless the entire population is wiped out in thorough ethnic cleansing. Intermingling means marriage in which case the native parent will influence the language especially mothers passing on information to children. The same holds true with place names,especially fixed features like rivers and mountains. In America which was slowly settled over three centuries the landscape is rife with thousands of Native-American place names. ( the Susquehanna river, Chicago, Utah, etc.) American English has a great many many Native American words (tomahawk, Okay, etc.) But Anglo-Saon English apparently has no or very few loan words. The same is true of religion. Christianity was well established in Roman Britain but apparently eliminated without a trace before it was re-evangelized in the sixth or seventh centuries. Even after the adoption of Christianity, English retained many “pagan” practices and terms ( names of the days in a week, Easter, etc.) Finally, the agricultural practices changed drastically from estate style organization to individual farmer and village structure. Feudalism overlaid the system in terms of landownership but not farming,

    As for the archeology, I have been convinced by what I have read but would appreciate a book or article that makes the case for gradual settlement and intermingling.

    The genetics studies don’t hold much water year since Angles, Saxonx, Danes, Norse, Germans and Gaelic seekers had only diverged relatively recently in evolutionary terms. Perhaps as the genetic analysis becomes more refined it will tell us more.. Thanks again.

  5. Thank you for your prompt response. I replied earlier but don’t see the text on your site. I gather you are saying the consensus that Anglo-Saxons mingled with native British over the course of centuries.

    From linguistic and religious evidence that hardly seems possible. The old English language should be rife with British-isms because when two populations mingle so do the languages especially if the mother is native speaker since mothers pass on their own language from earliest childhood and words are spread among children. Place names– usually remain as well The US was settled gradually over three centuries in regular contact with Native American, though not usually by intermarriage.

    The US landscape is rife with Native-American places name (Chicago, Arapaho County, Shenandoah Mtns. etc.) Many native words have been adopted into American English as well(Okay, tomahawk, etc.) The same holds true for religion. Christianity was well established the Roman British but apparently left no trace. But when England was re-evangelized, the English maintain many “pagan” words and practices (Using Germanic rather than Christian names for the days of the week, the word Easter, and various “pagan” holidays given euphemistic Christian names.)

    As far as I can what documentary evidence (Gildas, et all) seems to point to a violent and complete expulsion of Britons to the west with many escaping across the water to Brittany.

    I have not seen any good argument from the archeology side. Would you be able to suggest a book are article on the subject. I am open to being convinced but am not yet.

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