In the 1300s, the Italian scholar Petrarch coined the term “dark ages” to describe European society between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance. He was comparing the “dark” centuries of society in Europe to the glory and “light” he associated with the ancient world.
A Dark Age
The centuries between the fall of Rome and the early Renaissance, the period of approximately A.D. 500-1300, has been called the Dark Ages because it was an era in Western Europe where it appears written language nearly disappeared and global trade vanished. Entire industries disappeared along with their tools and knowledge.
During this time, few innovations or new inventions were made. Compare this to today, where in just 50 years, we have seen the creation of the personal computer, the internet, mobile phones, and touch displays that enabled smartphones.
Due to the influence of the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, it was previously thought that Christianity was the cause. Gibbon’s history of Rome was highly influential on how we thought about the Dark Ages, and he blamed religion. Today, we know that this view is mostly false but contains an element of truth.
St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth century, had an enormous impact on the development of Christianity. He was influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato, who taught that the world we live in is impure and imperfect compared to the world of ideas.
Augustine’s influence steered people’s focus away from the material world and toward a spiritual outlook. Exploring the material world was not valued, and neither was gaining knowledge about physics, medicine, technology, or other forms of practical knowledge. This is one reason it took so long for Europe to recover from the fall of Rome.
However, Christianity contributed to bringing up the birth rates in the Roman Empire, thereby preventing a demographic collapse. While Christians in the western part of the collapsing Roman Empire turned away from earthly learning, the Christians in the eastern part maintained writings, buildings, and technology even during the Dark Ages. This group was based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and formed the Byzantine Empire.
Volcanoes and Plagues
Two massive volcano eruptions in A.D. 536 and A.D. 540 caused a period of extensive global cooling that ruined crops and caused starvation.
As if that weren’t bad enough, in A.D. 541, the greatest pandemic in the ancient world came. It is known as the Plague of Justinian and was the first in a series of deadly pandemics that devastated society.
In a single year, the plague killed an estimated 25 million people. In total, more than 50 million are believed to have perished, or about 20% of the population. By comparison, COVID-19 has killed 0.04% of the world’s population. The Justinian Plague was 500 times more deadly.
The Conquest of Islam
After plagues and starvation had weakened the Mediterranean world severely, a new religious sect from the Arabian deserts grew to prominence: Islam. In 20 short years, between A.D. 630 and A.D. 650, Muslims conquered 50% of Christendom, including what is today known as Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and large parts of Turkey.
During this time, European trade on the Mediterranean Sea became near impossible due to Muslim pirates. Therefore, one of the most efficient trade routes in the ancient world was effectively shut down, thereby contributing further to the economic depression and isolation of the Dark Ages.
Ultimately, Islam won against the Byzantine Empire, and in 1453, Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.
Although Christian Europe defended itself against Islam for a thousand years of conquest, the Muslim world also brought benefits. The Arab world brought scientific advancements to Europe, including the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, which we still use for numbers today. Many ancient Greek texts of Aristotle were also reintroduced into Europe via Muslims. All this knowledge would help spark the scientific revolution.
A New Debate: Were the Dark Ages Real?
Were the Dark Ages actually that dark? Despite the early influence of scholars like Petrarch and Gibson, today’s academics aren’t convinced the so-called “dark ages” were as bad as previously thought. Many 20th and 21st century historians have a more positive view of Europe during this time, now more commonly called the Middle Ages or the Medieval period. Some point out accomplishments of the time, while others suggest that we simply don’t know enough about the period to say what it was really like.