The term ‘Dark Ages’ has long conjured up problematic and over-simplified images of an uncivilised, barbaric or unknowable society. But when English Heritage chose to call the centuries from 400-1066 ‘the dark ages’ in their members’ handbook, online, and at some of their sites, what started as an online-debate between specialists (including me) about periodisation, turned into a wider (and ultimately successful) campaign to rethink the labelling of the early medieval period.
The rationale (no longer online) provided by English Heritage was apparently the use of the term by Ken Dark in a rather obscure article that dealt mainly with Byzantium. There was no acknowledgement of the very different social, political and cultural contexts of the eastern empire and England during the post-Roman period.
Last Spring, a group of medievalists rallied around the unlikely slogan of ‘Stop the Dark Ages!’ in response to this. It started as a few tweets expressing frustration at English Heritage’s use of the term in relation to ‘2016 the Year of the Normans’ and the recent reinterpretation of Tintagel. But it grew into a wider debate about what we call different periods of history, what constituted ‘dark’, and why the Normans didn’t bring light. 1 Some of that debate was written up on this blog, at History Today and on independent platforms.
Thank goodness for the Normans, who apparently dragged poor benighted Anglo-Saxon England out of the Dark Ages one day in 1066 😉
— Eleanor Parker (@ClerkofOxford) April 12, 2016
The main focus of this debate between medievalists in a variety of professions and English Heritage was the need to ensure greater public understanding of a historical era encountered through historical sites, museums and popular culture. From the medievalist’s perspective, this means introducing more nuance into interpretation and to avoid treating the period 400-1066 as somehow all the same.
One of the points scholars wanted to make was that this period was by no means uniform. Different events and processes affected various parts of what is now England in different ways. These include, among other things, the influence of the Roman settlement, conversion, Viking raids, the development of royal authority, and two periods of conquest in the eleventh century. This meant that other suggestions, such as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Viking’, were also problematic as the impact of all these events and processes differed from Cornwall to Northumbria.
As periodisation is arbitrary, we could argue that what we call a chunk of history doesn’t really matter – but that’s a lazy argument. Descriptions like Dark Ages are laden with the values of post-medieval societies who saw the period as uncivilised, barbaric or unknowable. To say the term refers to a lack of evidence suggests a limited understanding of how history relates to other disciplines.
What started as a minor twitterstorm turned into ‘live historiography’ (thank you Tehmina Goskar) and a genuine debate about periodisation, the way we divide up history, and the past’s links with the present. This was especially pertinent as debates surrounding the EU referendum raged in the media. From my own perspective, the collected blog posts and Twitter feeds have proved to be a useful teaching tool in showing how historians engage beyond the academy.
And, in this case, that engagement seems to have born fruit. In their most recent publications, English Heritage has now opted to label these centuries ‘Early Medieval’. While it is not possible to know exactly how things were, or everything that happened in these years, English Heritage’s adoption of the term ‘Early Medieval’ allows for difference and an acceptance of the past on its own terms.
— Leonie Hicks (@LeonieVHicks) March 10, 2017
English Heritage have engaged in open-minded dialogue with specialists in the period, acknowledging years of scholarship and ongoing conversations, and this is greatly to their credit. But the debate they inspired has also demonstrated just how vibrant and varied this period really was.
Leonie Hicks is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research interests lie in the social, cultural and religious history of Europe in the central middle ages, especially the Normans, religious life and gender. You can find Leonie on Twitter @LeonieVHicks.
Image: Castle Stalker, which features prominently in Monty Python and the Holy Grail [via Wikicommons].
- Particular thanks for their contributions to the debate to: Drs Jeremy Ashbee, Michael Bintley, Tehmina Goskar, Ewan Johnson, Eleanor Parker, Andrew Seaman and Charles West. ↩