Dark Ages.

Dave Wilton of Wordorigins has a new Big List entry on the phrase “Dark Ages,” summarizing its usage as follows:

Over the centuries, the term dark ages has undergone a number of shifts and refinements in its meaning. It has referred to the early Middle Ages and the entire span of the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500). In early Protestant writing, dark ages was often used to refer to the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. And the term is also used generically, referring to any period dominated by ignorance, superstition, or repression.

He finds the origin of the idea in Petrarch, who in his poem Africa (c. 1343) writes vaguely “This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance,” then quotes Protestant cleric John Rainolds in a 1584 tract (“euen of all churches from the beginning of the world till the darke ages in which the Barbarians of late did ouerflow them”), Caesar Baronius (in 1603 “the first to say the period was dark due to its lack of writing and scholarship”: “atque inopia scriptorium appellari con sueuit obscurum” [and called dark because of its lack of writings]), and so on, ending with this caution:

One should avoid using dark ages to refer to the early medieval period. It’s arbitrary and inaccurate.

I am happy to say that my editorial eye has not lost its cunning; I alerted him to a typo at the start of the excerpt from James Maxwell’s 1611 The Golden Art, which is why it now has a bracketed letter: “Of such bagge-bearing I[u]dases […].” You can see the original edition here (l.4 has the word in question).


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Laud. Temp. Act. just a few days ago posted an interesting quote by a dissenter from the current vogue for deprecating the use of “Dark Ages” to refer to the early medieval period. Of course, the dissenter’s focus is on Western Europe, where various trendlines had started trending in decidedly the wrong direction for a few centuries. Things were otherwise in e.g. Constantinople.


  2. For me, Dark Ages were the era which started 60-65 years ago in Argentina…

  3. Laud. Temp. Act. just a few days ago posted an interesting quote by a dissenter from the current vogue for deprecating the use of “Dark Ages” to refer to the early medieval period.

    Yes, I saw that and rolled my eyes vigorously. It ain’t called Laud. Temp. Act. for nothin’.

  4. If there were no Dark Ages can there be Renaissance and Enlightenment?

  5. Nat Shockley says

    Thank goodness Dave’s original post provides the original Latin of the passage from Petrarch. That translation is hideous. (Some searching on Google Books suggests the culprit may be Theodor E. Mommsen, in an article from 1942).

  6. @J.W. Brewer

    The (exclusively?) English term Dark Ages refers to a a place and a time, namely roughly the 5th to 10th century in western Europe. Saying it doesn’t apply where it doesn’t apply is meaningless.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    “There are no dark ages really.
    Matter of fact they’re all dark.”

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The corollary of the the term “Enlightenment” is presumably that everything before the seventeenth century was Dark Ages. Seems fair …

    Incidentally, Ada Palmer (who knows what she is talking about) points out (with much supporting evidence) that for most people in Europe life was a lot worse in the Renaissance period than in the preceding centuries. More disease, shorter life expectancy, more poverty, more (and more destructive) wars …

    The notion that the period after the loss of the western provinces by the Empire was uniquely “dark” from the point of view of historical sources underrates just how patchy the record is for the last two centuries before that. Life in the western parts of the Roman empire must also have been pretty grim for most people long before the “fall of Rome.”

  9. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    FWIW, den mørke middelalder does seem to have been used in Danish, but not so much these days. tidlig middelalder is better

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    The (exclusively?) English term Dark Ages

    French WP does say that (in this sense) the term is of Anglophone origin:


    The Welsh version is just a stub based on the English, alas. Someone should expand it to claim that “Oesoedd Tywyll” is just calqued on English and is not proper Welsh.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Back in the Nineties, there was a certain amount of publicity given in the U.S. media (due to the frequent presence of Bill & Hillary Clinton) to an annual gathering of the putative Great and Good named the “Renaissance Weekend.” Sort of a second-division local Davos. In any event, some right-of-center types dissatisfied with the Clintons and their Boomer-technocrat associates started holding a rival event which they naturally named the “Dark Ages Weekend.” This was generally taken to be jocular, but who knows?

  12. Life in the western parts of the Roman empire must also have been pretty grim for most people long before the “fall of Rome.”
    If I understand the summary of the current state of the debate about the decline & fall of Rome in historian Brett Deveraux’s blog correctly, living standards for common people in the Western Roman empire reached their peak around 200 AD, wobbled a bit with the internal conflicts following in the next two centuries, and then fell of a cliff in the 5th century, to recover only in the High Middle Ages or even in the Modern period.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Re the “is this only an Anglophone thing,” Caesar Boronius/Baronio was mentioned in the block quote in the original post. He was an Italian who wrote in Latin, or at least his best known work (“Annales Ecclesiastici”) is in Latin. Quoth wikipedia: ‘In the Annales, Baronio coined the term “Dark Age” in the Latin form saeculum obscurum, to refer to the period between the end of the Carolingian Empire in 888 and the first inklings of the Gregorian Reform under Pope Clement II in 1046.’

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Very interesting, Hans. Thanks!

    I notice this, too, which ties together with the Anglophone angle:

    It is hard not to notice that a fair number of the strongest voices in the ‘decline and fall’ camp are British and one wonders how much it influences their view that Roman Britain was, above and away the worst hit part of the empire in the immediate aftermath

  15. Too much of sub-Roman Britain’s GDP was frittered away on quests for the Sangreal

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Gildas started all this, with his blame-the-victim narrative:


  17. Stu Clayton says

    bagge-bearing I[u]dases

    That expression is also used in the 1674 edition of “No jest like a true jest: being a compendious record of the merry life, and mad exploits of Capt. James Hind, the greate rober of England”. It’s pretty wacked-out. Excerpts are here. One passage from it:

    and [Michael the Archangel] is come upon the earth also
    to rip up the hearts of all bag-bearing Judases
    on this day purses shall be cut
    guts let out
    men stabb’d to the heart
    women’s bellies ripped up
    specially gammer Demases who have forsaken us
    and embraced this wicked world
    and married Alexander the Coppersmith
    who has done me much evil

  18. Great find!

  19. As Hans said, the archeological evidence shows pretty clearly that for a long time, European economic prosperity was closely tied to political stability. In the Roman West, there were definite drops population and physical quality of life accompanying the Crisis of the Third Century and then the Fall of Rome. Complaints about the Dark Ages being unfairly named are at least a century old, and in fact it is now more than forty years since Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse put together an archeological case for indeed how dark they really were, in Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe—which a wonderful book, by the way, even if you are unfamiliar with the particular theories of Henri Pirenne that they so politely but decisively rebut.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Alexander the Coppersmith
    who has done me much evil

    Ea-Nāṣir was not forgotten, it seems…!!!

  21. Re living standards – apparently 536 was the worst year ever:


    There were other dark ages, notably in Greece following the collapse of the Myceaenean civilisation.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s “arbitrary and inaccurate” to use “Dark Ages” to refer to the period in which Europe was “plunged into darkness,” according to Science. (Admittedly a questionable source, I suppose.)

  23. And then there are some who think it never happened:

  24. Let’s not forget the New Chronology.

  25. > Too much of sub-Roman Britain’s GDP was frittered away on quests for the Sangreal

    And the sub-Empire’s for the sangria.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Phantom time conspiracy theory

    Pah. Doesn’t go nearly far enough.



  27. Google search for the exact wording of Gibbon’s application of our Schlagwort to Archbishop Usher’s works and the first result is an edition hosted by ccel.org, which frankly was a little surprising.

  28. most of why i don’t use “dark ages” is the same as why i don’t use “enlightenment” except with full sarcasm: the teleological ‘after Rome, the deluge – until the colonizing nation-state!’ account of european history.

    (and ada palmer oughta footnote maría rosa menocal (i might be more generously inclined if i liked her fiction better, or if it didn’t make it pretty clear that her critical perspective is closer to d’annunzio than goytisolo*))


    well, yes.

    * which isn’t entirely untrue for menocal, but i’ll take idiosyncratic imperial nostalgia with islamophilic caribbeanist characteristics over soft TESCREALism any day.

  29. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valis_(novel)

    I wish authors would be more careful about their Greek. It’s ῥιπίς or ῥιπίδιον, not “Rhipidon.”

  30. apparently 536 was the worst year ever:

    Hmm curious coincidence

    The settlements were occupied by the Upano people between about 500BC and AD300 to 600 – a period roughly contemporaneous with the Roman empire in Europe,

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    For the rather stylized/abstracted item used for liturgical purposes in the Byzantine tradition, I prefer the alternative name “hexapterygon” to https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rhipidion.

  32. Stu Clayton says


    A flabellum (plural flabella), in Christian liturgical use, is a fan made of metal, leather, silk, parchment or feathers, intended to keep away insects

    For dismissing importunate flies ? How exquisite. Sounds like something out of a Firbank novel.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    Sometimes in the East Slavic tradition they are made out of mere wood. Perhaps due to the poverty of Slavs during the Dark Ages, I would hypothesize. Or perhaps because insects that needed to be shooed away from the Body and Blood of Our Lord and God and Savior were less common at northerly latitudes, so the abstraction from a functional object to one that was not suitable for practical use as a fan occurred quicker.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    A church in which people swan around brandishing silk flyswatters is likely to appeal to the Wrong People. Even if it’s more dialed back than in Firbank, say as in Barbara Pym’s novels.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    @Stu: Someone must bring the Gospel to the Wrong People, offering them the sacraments and forgiveness of their sins. What sort of accessories will on net assist that effort is a pragmatic question for those in the mission field to consider.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    @JW: By Wrong People I mean those come for the silk fans, not the sacraments. The fans may of course be effective as loss leaders – while people are on the premises, they might buy into other things with a greater profit margin for all involved.

    The Catholic church just up the road (whose bells resound as I write) seems to do well with pizza evenings at which the organist plays snatches of Messiaen in the background. That stopped me in my tracks one evening last year as I walked past on my way home with the puppydog. Messiaen in this part of town ?? I collared the padre up front and later obtained the name of the organist (they play for a pittance at these dos, the padre doesn’t know who they are). I had the idea of funding a secular Messiaen evening (contradiction in terms), but I never could reach the organist and it all got too complicated.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Stu: I am skeptical about pizza quality in your neck of the woods. Does Messiaen pair well with currywurst? Or is Poulenc your man if you want an accompaniment to sausage?

  38. Stu Clayton says

    It’s a mystery ! I gathered the impression over time that these things happen there in haphazard combinations, there’s no mortal art director to plan and oversee. For all I know I missed the Poulenc gig. But that’s OK, Poulenc and silk don’t pair. Sausage would be more appropriate.

    Here’s the first recording of the Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus to make sense out of the music for me.

  39. The only proper fans for religious services are cardboard ones with advertisements for funeral parlors, distributed among the congregation. Unfortunately in these dark ages of air conditioning I’m afraid they’re extinct.

  40. Trond Engen says

    zyxt: Re living standards – apparently 536 was the worst year ever:

    We’ve discussed* the 536 climate event a couple of times before:
    Beowulf Antedated.

    And mentioned without much discussion a couple more:
    They Perished Like Avars.
    Son of Yamnaya.

    AntC: Hmm curious coincidence

    Coinciding events all over the world was one reason that the climate event was theorized. I don’t know if the decline of this civilization can be dated exactly enough to really count as contemporary and probably related. I also don’t know if the climate event was global or restricted to the northern hemisphere. For some reason there are no written records from the the 6th century in the southern hemisphere.

    * Mostly me mumbling to myself.

  41. Trond Engen says

    The dog ate my comment!

  42. The dog barfed it back up!

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    @Keith Ivey: I have seen that style of fan myself at least as recently as the 1990’s, at, if memory serves, a mid-19th-century-built Gothic-revival church that apparently lacked the capital budget to retrofit for air conditioning. (Plus I think it was landmarked, which is the sort of thing that can add significantly to the pricetag for doing practically useful modernizations.)

  44. I am skeptical about pizza quality in your neck of the woods
    We have a lot of real Italians here preparing excellent pizza, thankyouverymuch. What I don’t know is what kind of pizza they serve at those church evenings; that may as well be some reheated frozen pizza from the supermarket…
    Re Dark Ages, it seems we entered them and JC’s “Commented-on” site is down?

  45. Not mend their minds, as some to church repair,
    Not for the doctrine, but the silk fans there.

    An exquisite fan I devise
    For dismissing importunate flies …

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    @Hans, it has been some decades since I ate pizza made in Germany and things may well have evolved in a positive direction. OTOH, due to historical divergence over the last century, Italian-Italian ideas about what constitutes excellent pizza and Italian-American ideas (which have informed my own) about what constitutes ditto may not correspond perfectly or even particularly closely.

    The Alsatians make an excellent dish reportedly called Flammkuchen or Flammekueche on the now-German side of the Rhine. It is clearly a conceptual cousin of sorts to pizza, and I quite enjoy it as prepared by a few places in Manhattan that claim to have Alsatian menus, but I would enjoy it less if I thought of it as “pizza.”

  47. @Keith Ivey: Those cardstock fans are not extinct yet in the Deep South. Moreover, while funeral home ads are their most traditional decorations, they can also feature the heads of African-American Nobel Peace Prize winners.

  48. @Trond For some reason there are no written records from the the 6th century in the southern hemisphere.

    Yes, dashed inconsiderate of the Meso-potamians not to have despatched scribes to the Meso-Americas as soon as they invented this writing business.

  49. J.W. Brewer says

    @AntC: the date for earliest-writing-found-in-Mesoamerica has been pushed back via recent-ish discoveries to maybe 250 B.C. But those epigraphic remains are well north of the Equator. I don’t know how large a corpus of 6th century Maya inscriptions there is and whether it does or doesn’t reference or indirectly evidence any sort of volcanic-dust-related calamity.

  50. 6th century Maya inscriptions

    The period from to (the latter half of the 6th century) is, I believe, known as “the Hiatus” because of the lack of dated inscriptions then, which is taken as evidential.

    The Years without Summer.

  51. i am eager to read the Epistle to the Wrong People, but i imagine it may have been returned marked “insufficient address” (like many things at one of my dayjobs).

  52. a few places in Manhattan that claim to have Alsatian menus

    Which of these places do you recommend?

    I remember a NYTM article wherein an American goes to Italy to research pizza, and has a conversation with an Italian according to the following schema:

    A: In America, we also have pizza with <ingredient>

    I: That’s not pizza! That’s <Italian or perhaps Sicilian word>! … But that’s good too ….

    [Repeat throughout the article]

  53. There is some egregiously bad pizza in northern Italy.

  54. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    They have decent Flammkuchen in Berlin. I didn’t have pizza there, though.

  55. Trond Engen says

    MMcM: The period from to (the latter half of the 6th century)

    There are of course online Maya calendar converters catering for an irrudite audience. One of them yields 534-07-03 to 593-08-22, another exactly one year earlier, 533-07-03 to 592-08-22.

    Anyway, if there are natural gaps of a couple of years in the record, 533/534 CE is indeed a very good fit.

  56. OTOH, due to historical divergence over the last century, Italian-Italian ideas about what constitutes excellent pizza and Italian-American ideas (which have informed my own) about what constitutes ditto may not correspond perfectly or even particularly closely.
    The stuff sold in Germany as American-style pizza or what I’ve seen at American chains like Pizza Hut is very heavy on dough (thick bottoms and crusts) and cheese as a topping. Not the way I like my pizza. But those are maybe aberrations on the mass-market end?

  57. @Hans: There are separate regional* styles of pizza in some parts of America. Perhaps the most atypical (and best) variant is Chicago-style deep dish pizza. In contrast, New York pizza is characteristically very thin crust. However, what you describe is fairly typical of the generic American pizza. (All of them can be really good when done well.)

    * There are also separate ethnic styles too. I remember having really good Greek pizza in New London, Connecticut. The Greek pizza place in Camden, South Carolina is not as distinctive, but it’s also good.

  58. J.W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia has articles on at least 18 separate “regional” varieties* of pizza in the U.S. (treating a few styles like “Greek” as “regional” for convenience), but for the last 60-70 years cheeseless pizza has been quite rare in the U.S.

    I live reasonably near one of the “branch” outposts of one of the Big Three traditional New Haven apizza places. They offer an old-style “tomato pie” with no mozzarella (although I think there’s a little pecorino cheese with the tomato sauce) which would have been reasonably common before WW2. Apparently because of some prior customer confusion/dissatisfaction, if you try to pre-order one via their website it won’t accept the order unless you click a button explicitly acknowledging that you indeed understand that there will be absolutely no mozzarella on top of this pie. Around the NYC area sometimes you see so-called “grandma pizza” without cheese. It’s not entirely clear to me how much the “grandma” is supposed to connote old-timey and how much it’s just about it being a style that could be easily prepared (by e.g. your grandma) in a typical home kitchen whereas most NYC pizza styles benefit from a specialized higher-temperature oven.

    *Some of these sound quite bizarre and off-putting, such as the Altoona style. But I nonetheless have had a mental note for a few years to sample that when I am next near Altoona although I’m not sure when that will be.

  59. J.W. Brewer says

    In very belated response to John Cowan’s question, I realized I hadn’t actually had Flammekueche (typically listed on NYC menus as “tarte flambee,” for political/cultural/marketing reasons) at a restaurant since before the pandemic, and tried to reconstruct where I’d enjoyed it. Some places have closed, another has inexplicably (per its website) dropped it from the menu but earlier this week I had a perfectly serviceable rendition of it while lunching at Benoit on West 55th St., accompanied by a glass of Alsatian pinot gris. Fair warning: Benoit is a fine place to eat, but it’s not what you’d call inexpensive, even for what in an Old Country context might seem like simple/unpretentious/peasant/working-class sorts of dishes.

  60. Benoit is a fine place to eat, but it’s not what you’d call inexpensive

    I would have assumed that from the name alone.

  61. Now, if it were called “Everything Flambee!!” you’d expect reasonable prices.

  62. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: another warning might be that it is somehow associated with a superstar/celebrity chef who is notable enough to have wikipedia article about him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Ducasse. Although since it lists about three dozen restaurants around the world that he is somehow associated with in some capacity, one suspects he may be spread a bit thin and not really spending all that much of his time exercising quality control over the tarte flambee served on W. 55th St.

  63. Flammkuchen are, for some reason, fairly popular in Vienna and decidedly not expensive. Not sure I ever had one before I moved here. I just realized I never parsed the word as « Tarte flambée ». but as „Flemish cake“. Obviously the extra „m“ should be a giveaway but I suppose the bars where I have eaten that dish are aggressively not French in any way, and Flammkuchen usually pairs with beer (in Vienna at any rate).

  64. Stu Clayton says

    Obviously the extra „m“ should be a giveaway

    Why so ? Kuchen by itself is “cake”, as in ein Stück Kuchen. In compounds things get more complicated, e.g. Pfannekuchen = pancake, Mutterkuchen = placenta, Obstkuchen = fruit flan. After thinking about all the compounds I can think of, I will hazard the claim that -kuchen refers to something flat, like a pastry shell or pancake, with something dumped (or artfully placed) on it.

    Fr. tarte is not a cake, but a pastry shell with something on it: une pâte servant de support à une garniture. Ger. Torte is Eng. “torte” (Sachertorte, say), pronounced “tort” according to the WiPe.

    As for the Flamm- component, the WiPe has this to say about that:

    Flammkuchen wurden früher vor dem Brot im Holzbackofen gebacken, um die erste starke Hitze auszunutzen. Sie waren außerdem ein Behelf, um die Temperatur des Ofens einzuschätzen. Wurden sie zu schnell dunkel, musste mit dem Einschießen des Brotes gewartet werden, bis der Ofen etwas abgekühlt war. Falls die Flammkuchen eine längere Backzeit benötigten, musste noch einmal geheizt werden. Der Name „Flammkuchen“ kommt daher, dass die Flammen im Ofen noch nicht vollständig ausgelodert waren, wenn er eingeschoben wurde.[3]

    Flammkuchen is not supposed to be flambéed anyway. Last summer I was often at a fancy restaurant nearby, where the Flammkuchen was very good, especially the type with goat cheese on. No blowtorch is applied, unlike say to crème brûlée.

  65. Stu Clayton says

    Of course a Mutterkuchen has something artfully placed in it.

  66. David Marjanović says

    fairly popular in Vienna and decidedly not expensive

    They’re standard pub food in Berlin. I guess they suddenly became fashionable all across the German-speaking area 15 years ago.


    Pannekoeken is Dutch; in German I’ve only encountered it without the connecting -e- – though I wouldn’t be surprised if that varies with geographic proximity to Dutch!

  67. Incidentally, my grandma elaborated the popular Swiss shibboleth Chuchichäschtli into Chuechechuchichäschtli, /xuəxəxʊxːixæʃtli/, ‘a kitchen cupboard for cakes’.

  68. J.W. Brewer says

    I suspect the English verb “flambee” may be of more precise and limited semantic scope than the French adjective “flambee” (with whatever echt-French accents you might wish to apply to it).

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