Dark ages discussion

Marciano, perhaps you havent heard but historians tend to refer to the myth of the dark ages.
Because thats what it is.

The Dark Ages is a term referring to the perceived period of cultural decline that took place in Western Europe between the Decline of the Roman Empire and the 15th century. Once in near-universal usage, the term is now used in sources that do not have a rigid adherence to the academic study of history, such as dictionaries[1][2] and literature where the reference is given from a layman's perspective.[3] Increased understanding of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages in the 19th century challenged the characterization of the period as one of darkness, and knowledgeable modern scholars who study this era avoid the term as misleading and inaccurate

However, the early 20th century saw a radical re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, and with it a calling into question of the terminology of darkness,[5] or at least of its pejorative use. Historiographer Denys Hay exemplified this when he spoke ironically of "the lively centuries which we call dark".
When the term "Dark Ages" is used by historians today, therefore, it is intended to be neutral, namely, to express the idea that the events of the period often seem "dark" to us because of the paucity of historical records compared with both earlier and later times.

The last 1/3 of this era is where the gametime is set, a time of almost literally explosive population growth.


You´re greatly overstating it in preference of the mythical part.
The discussing and sharing of information never stopped, even if the amount of new books created dropped. And books were "fashionable" all the time. Also make a difference between "cant read" and "cant read WELL". The latter was far more common than the former.

There wasnt a sudden increase in interest of books, it was always there, there was an extreme increase in population, like how England quintupled in population in a few hundred years.
And suddenly the demand had grown enough that copying books became more economical.
Books were also not always a luxury, but they were expensive anyway so buyers liked to have them made luxurious, as the added cost wasnt so terrible compared to the total.

Relatively recent finds here in Sweden and in Russia have shown that simple runes on bark and wood plates were very probably extremely common ( because those found have included a diversity that you might be hard pressed to find today in single locations, from shopping lists via love letters and simple notes to business correspondence and complex calculations ), at least as early as the viking era.
However, because these kind of materials very rarely survives over time, only a small handful of finds have been made, also more recently a find of a similar sort but from the Roman empire was made, so it seems to have been a way of writing with a long and well used history, that we simply have been unable to find out much of, because the materials perish to easily.
Might be added also that there have been a rare few finds of such wood plates with writing from much later as well, IIRC from here in Sweden the most recent one was from the 19th(!!!) century, with a few more from there and back to 14th century. And i VERY much doubt that this kind of everyday usage style was restricted to Scandinavia and Russia.

While latin became the language of learning later on at least, it is clear that it wasnt the only writing system used. And that despite the official dominance of latin, the old writing system still coexisted for almost a millenia after latin became "big" here.

The real question is of course, how much written material of more serious sorts existed in this manner?

Oh well, lecture over, promise... Maybe... :mrgreen:

He dareth quote Wikipedia to show us how unacademic and unrefined our diction is. Writing history is a struggle - you have to add new aspects to old and well-known stories, even if you are a professor.
Of course the Dark Ages deserve their name - the metaphor is powerful: Not only did the vast majority of people normally live without refined sources of light, but also without much academic education (without the 3 Rs even), with little knowledge about hygiene,a life full full of superstitions, with a dreadful life expectancy. So, they now professors know more about the Middle Ages, or should I use the term Mediaeval epoch, but I don't think power lines, or even a large number of widely accepted sources on Gender equality or even philosophy (apart from the church fathers and mothers) have been dug up. History professors should spend more time shoveling through Mediaeval rubbish heaps and less time playing power games with language.

btw: Explosive population growth that is so Dark Ages. Think of the baby boom after a blackout!

A great disertation!

It´s always good to learn new things, particularly if i can add more medieval details for my campaign :slight_smile:. It´s very logical that marks and "simple writing" could coexist with Latin for centuries, certainly, for example now that i remember, the old route to Santiago of Compostela here in Spain had address markers in all its length, for maybe more than a thousand years. And well, every guild liked to mark all its creations with a seal, at least. Perhaps this kind of simple written lenguage existed everywhere, but it would be very regional.

Yeah, somewhere i read a study of how a period of good crops permitted the increase, and correct me if i´m wrong, but perhaps this time would after be called "little Rennaisance"?.

Yep, that´s an universal law. The population increased in Europe, ergo also the demand. But i also think that books were not considered useful earlier, as another factor. I think earlier, every item that didn´t have to do with survival (or attacking) was much less important, not only books, but roads, spices, etc. And people had with extra crops more "spare" time, not even counting the more acquistive power (i think it was also the birth of upper middle classes).

And i didn´t remember that there were much less information of that age, hence the name :stuck_out_tongue: . You can lecture all you want i´ll listen eagerly :stuck_out_tongue:

So in other words, half the planet today. Welcome to the Dark Ages, Third Millennium Style!

Hm, very interesting discussion..

to add my 2 cents - during the middle ages the northern hemisphere was in The Medieval Warm Period which has been suggested to have contribute to the faster cultural development and population growth of the time...

Back to the Order of Hermes - it seems alot of people take the view that the Order is a failure with regards to its original purpose - to share magical knowledge? interesting indeed. I admitt that I see the Order as far more unified that alot of people. The organised Houses (Bonisagus, Tremere, Gurenicus & Mercere) would have a great influence on that unifying effect - much more so than the houses which would seem to encourage (some without meaning) a looser or isolated Order. Also, books or teaching are the only means of realisticly pushings a magi's Arts or Acrane Abilities high - studying from vis is not good enough and too dangerous to use realibily, which seems to suggest that their must be successful information exchange within the Order. One point which no one has mentioned and within the books doesnt seem to have been taken into account - The Founders, in comparasion to elder magi of the 13th century were probably very weak, magic wise. I find it interesting that many games on the boards have Bonissagus's original Pricinipca Magica (cant remeber the exact name) as a high level summa - probably very unlikely - more likely it will have legendary Quality, but its level is not gonna be huge - wizards have had 400 years to improve upon it! Flambeau created the Penetration abilty towards the end of his life, so I doubt he had much skill in it at all...my point being, that I assume that with the passing of each century, the Order as a whole would see a slow rise of the maximums of ther Arts and Arcane Abilties.

As to unviersities being formed - I believe one of the major reasons the Order of Hermes has not tried to establish something like that (Durenmar being the closet thing to one) is the simple fact that when Teaching Arts, you are limited to 1 on 1 training, which significantly reduces the drive to gather many many individuals together to learn as a group...the establishment of a Hermeic University is a goal I would like to strive towards a player in a game of Ars Magica.

Finally, Ars Magica is not set within real history - the Order itself must surely effect some historical facts - like books and the sharing of information becoming wid spread earlier or faster - aspects which are important to it?


Sorry but a few hours later I am still smiling about someone quoting wikipedia to lambast someone else's lack of acedemic credibility.

Well, not ALL historians:

Richard Carrier, an historian of science, says

The fall of the empire led to a fall in wealth, population, quality of life, knowledge, literacy, safety, life expectancy, trade, freedom, semi-democratic and liberal ideals... it was a dark age. This doesn't mean all of it was bad, that no progress was made at any aspect, or that it is uniformly bad until the Renaissance. Neither of these is true. But calling this dark period a "myth" is an exercise in newspeak, the fruit of historians in love with their period of choice and thus seeing the good in it instead of evaluating it impartially.

Of course, Ars Magica isn't set in the dark ages. It's set in the 13th century, when Europe is recovering in leaps and bounds and returning to the glorious Roman days in many ways. From the attempted institution of Imperial laws and unity by the German king, to the rediscovery of key fragments of Aristotle - Europe is recovering and, in some ways, is better than ever before.

In many ways, yes. But of course, most of the world isn't as bad as the dark ages were.

See also the New Dark Ages. Not saying I really agree with it, but I think there may be a glimmer of truth there, a counterpoint to my otherwise natural tendencies to glorify in progress and technology.

Wea re after Charlemane... the decline is over, but the rennaisance is still a few hundred years away.

We are, of course, talking almost entirely about Western Europe. The east is still a hotbed of scholarly behavior that never really died. Well until the barbarian franks sack the greatest centre of knowledge in the known world.

You were saying that after Carlemagne the decline was over? Carlemagne is 1205, then :wink:


eh? I dont follow. He died in the early 9th century didn't he?

I w simply trying to say knowledge is no longer being lost with rapidity, but it is not yet being widely dispersed and has not become 'popular'. It is an unusual and very private secretive thing.

You mentioned the decline to be over after Carlemagne... and after that mentioned a massive decline with the sack of constantinople. It was just a lame joke :wink:


Ah, its late and my brain is soft...

One thing I don't know i how much of an echange of knowledge there was between east and west. Pop history would have us believe very little but I freely confess this is outside my area of specialism and would sincerely like to know if anyone has an inside track on that particular detail.

Certainly rennaisance men saw the east as being a great fount of knowledge, but so much of their attitudes are presented as 'new ideas' from historians of the period.

So anyone know? Many students of Greek in 1200s in the Latinate world of the West?

Because i cant throw my books at you over the internet yes. From what i could see it was decently correct.

The metaphor originated from the delusion of how grand the days of the Roman empire and "ancient Greek" was.

I actually cant tell wether you´re ignorant or trying to be funny and failing...

Someone who goes on saying "The abandonment of the highest civilized, technological, historical, and scientific ideals of the early Roman elite, in exchange for more barbarian ways of thinking and doing things, is a fact." has lost quite a lot of credibility already.

The loss of over 90% of all literature, and the corresponding historical and scientific knowledge it contained, is a fact.
simply isnt "a fact". Except in very localised cases. And if we´re going to spotlight the saddest places why not do the same to the opposite as well? Probably because then it evens out alot more than mr Carrier would prefer.

Far less was recorded during the middle ages, and far less accurately, than had been the case in classical times
That we KNOW of yes... That rocksolid claim is about 15-20 years out of date by now.

An empire held together purely by military power, that gained its wealth through conquest, practised human sacrifice, exterminated civilisations and thought genocide was a great tool for ruling, stole most of its technology from others, had one of the most non-democratic and unequal societies you could find... And really, where the heck did you get those ideas from? Rarely have i seen a less realistic description of the Roman empire.
They were really REALLY good at making use of their engineering skills, which were an offshoot from their military.

I think you should research the matter alot more, because reality is that the idea of the "dark ages" started getting questioned in the late 19th century, and after that the evidence have just kept on piling up that its a ridiculously overromanticised exaggeration based on the delusion of Roman grandeur and the surrounding barbarians.

Since you´re staying at such a level maybe i can recommend something suitably and equally oversimplified for you to watch as a little primer:
Far from impartial, its still far more impartial than the good old "Roman empire vs the barbarians!" myth that you´re perpetuating.

Ah... Technically you know, the definition of "dark ages" doesnt end until the renaissance.
So yes it is set in the dark ages. Its just that those doing the definitions didnt quite have much clues about the high middle ages when they were crying over the great lost empire of old.

Alexandria? :mrgreen:

Alot more than popular history will usually have you believe, exactly to what extent is still an open question though.
Ill say this though, with some effort you could find guidebooks to India in southern/southeastern Europe... That should also say a little something about the spread of books during the "horrible dark ages"... :unamused:
Wasnt just pilgrims that ran off playing tourist in faraway lands.

Among with Arabic, yes. With caution on not reading too much into "many".

Yeah, i too prefer the slightly more "benign" order.


A discussion of European development and loss thereof during the second half of the first millenium CE might do better to focus on specifically what was lost and gained.

I do feel comfortable calling the period a Dark Age, btw, even though in many ways people were better off than just before or after or at least some people were. Civilization--by which I mean the kind of culture that arises from the prominence of urban population centers rather than "better"--can fairly be said to have receded during this period, compared to what had been. A lot of people at the time were quite ok with this. The culture that replaced civilized culture was not barbarism (wtf is barbarism anyway?); it simply wasn't civilization in the sense that I believe is a useful cultural distinction.

(As for the New Dark Ages article, what can I say other than, 'Oy veh?" Oh, here's what I can say: If we are on the cusp of a New Dark Age it is because of religious fanatics like the author of that article, who choose to ignore any facts that do not conform to his theological biases. Really, if we are entering an age where words and literacy are less important, why is it that so many younger people spend an increasing amount of their time texting rather than talking, and among them, computer use up and television use down?)



In respect of the Order of Hermes, i like to envision them as depending on their House: with the True Lineages houses trying to solve troubles within and without, keeping the Order organized, spreading, healthy and united, with the help of certain circles of Magi (for example, Hoplites, which can be of any House, or Milites). I would like to make that you could belong to any House bases on your merits, and at least with the PCs i leave them after many stories :stuck_out_tongue: , like exceptions, if they want. But well, apart from that, the rest of the Houses for me are only mildly interested in the Order, at best. House Tytalus is very interested, but at the contrary :mrgreen: .That maintains certain balance in which the Order progress steadily, except in periods of crisis (Tasgilia, for example).

I cannot resist anymore eve though it is really off-topic...

The revisionist line of history, which bascially challenged everything written before the 50s, has turned full circle. The 'was the dark ages really all that dark' line of thought is indeed quite persistent BUT I think there is a massive misrepresentation here of what that particular line of historiograophy is all about.

There was a great deal of effort to dismiss the idea that the dark ages were nought but rampant barbarism where the average human had a life expectancy of 3 years, eat mud and lived in determined misery. It was not, absolutely not, an attempt to suggest at any point that masses of scholarly wisdom was not lost. That the technical and scietific advances of the ancient world were almost entirely lost is an established fact. Find me a living historian sittig in an appointed chair to this field who says otherwise and I will gladly buy you a bottle of bollinger.

What the 19th century percieved the 'dark ages' to be was cruel, violent and miserable. That is what was challenged. Almost all historians agree that without Charlemane almost nothing would remian of that continuity with the past as the knowledge was vanishing at an alarming pace. We can all cite individual cases of places where these things survived but we know for certain is we have masses of correspondance about lost texts from the period, texts which appear to have been common in the ancient world. The archaeological and bibliographical evidence is overwhelming.

To maintain a train of thought that say 'so far as we know... and most of this would not have survived' is like assuming a puddle contains fish and just because you never caught any proves that they are there only reluctant to take a bite on a hook. Which, is a nice scholoastic medieval argument but not highly regarded post Francis Bacon on the Scientific Method we use today.

Direwolf, we can trade conflicting accounts all day, but I don't think an internet forum is a good place to learn such issues. All I wanted was to clarify that there are professional historians that use this term, and I think I did. Carrier speaks with authority and with the details and examples I'd expect from an expert in the field. I tend to trust him, although I'll probably look into the issues further sometime in the future.

Just as an example for why I disagree with you - as the Kaiser noted, literature was definitely lost. This is evident in the ArM canon as well, with the "New Aristotle" and more; but that is jut the tip of the iceberg. Even my reduimentary knowledge of the period suffices to tell me that. Again, this doesn't means that no new books were written, or translated, we're talking about trends.

I think the greatest example of this is the Archimedes Codex. This work of Archimedes, where he essentially develops the foundations of modern-day calculus, never survived the middle ages at all. The only copy we know of was made in the 10th century (the text includes other works in mathematics and philosophy as well), but it was scrubbed and written over in the 12th. The work was erased from the pages of history. By rights, it would have been lost forever. Through dumb luck and the miracles of modern science, the palimpsest was digitally removed and the underlying text deciphered. This is the only reason we know this work even existed; up to its discovery, we didn't even know that Greek mathematics has progressed that far. What was so important that the parchment had to be used for it, instead of such great works of mathematics and philosophy? Christian liturgy.

Every piece of evidence I've come across indicates that this is typical - not enough people cared enough to preserve even what remained to their generation, and of course with every fire and calamity more and more knowledge and literature was lost.

Again, this does not mean that the Dark Ages were a time where every single thing went backwards, and that no progress was made on any front. Slavery is a good example of that.

I'd note that while the east "is still a hotbed of scholarly behavior that never really died", it has known its own decline. The east of the 10th century is not the east of the 3rd century.


If by the East, you mean Byzantium, I'd say it died. Scholarly behavior involves development rather than preservation of ideas. No new science was produced there, no great philosophy. Eastern scholarship is little more than chewing on the embalmed corpse of classic scholarship, finally throttled by Justinian. (I'd also say, though, that the intellectual ferment of antiquity had settled into decay centuries before Justinian. smile A magus might call it Autumn.)

If you mean the lands under Muslim control, then yes, but this activity largely involved the recovery of ancient knowledge and its integration into Islam, and by the 13th century the period of creativity had already passed.