“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.