4 November 2019

Why do we call this period the ‘dark ages’? ~ Special Guest Post by Dr Julia Ibbotson


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When Dr Viv DuLac, a medievalist and academic, slips into 499 AD and into the body of Lady Vivianne, little does she realise that their lives across the centuries will become intertwined as they fight for their dreams…and their lives.

Why do we call this period the ‘dark ages’?

Recently, while I was on holiday in the sun, I read a fascinating book by Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019) which resonated with me and the 'thesis' underpinning my historical (so-called 'dark ages') time-slip novel A Shape on the Air.

The background to my novel rests on my belief that the so-called 'dark ages' were not a time of brutal barbaric suppression by the 'invaders', the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the continent of Europe - but instead, that it was a time of more gradual change with a succession of migrations from Europe and a settling and merging of communities: the Britons/Celts with the Romans then with the Angles and Saxons. 

But we all know the traditional conventional idea of the ‘dark ages’, don’t we? A time when the civilised Romans left and Britain collapsed into chaos, with villas and towns destroyed and warring tribal barbarians raping, plundering and pillaging each other all over the place? And didn’t the invading Saxons add to the mêlée until the great King Arthur came and sorted them all out?  Well, not necessarily so …

Firstly, we have conventionally referred to the ‘dark ages’ as the period between the withdrawal of the Roman occupying forces (commonly dated at 410) and the mid to late 8th century when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were fairly well established. But why ‘dark’? Tradition has it that it was a time of ignorance and barbaric brutal fighting, and that little of the civilisation, culture or administrative organisational efficiency of the Romans remained. Images of marauding ancient Britons and brutal Saxon invaders, with the settlements and the rule of law abandoned, spring to mind.

But academics and archaeologists now prefer to call 400-600 AD the ‘late antique’ period (‘early medieval’ 600-850AD, ‘pre-conquest 850-1066AD), although some also refer to it as ‘early medieval’. It was only ‘dark’ because we didn’t have the records, documents, artefacts in evidence. Now, in the light of finds (eg in Kent, Essex, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Cornwall, etc), that picture is changing.

Some of the myths and misconceptions?

There are many: from the date and ramifications of the Roman withdrawal of troops (sudden departure or gradual?), to the state of Britain in its wake (collapse or continuity?), to the status of King Arthur (literary myth, cunning invention, or historical saviour?).
Did the Romans really abandon Britain in 410? That has long been the date we assume the Romans left Britain, summoned back by Honorius to defend Rome. Traditionalists have believed that the Romans abandoned their villas, their culture, and left en masse, for the ignorant Britons and Celts to allow civilisation to go to rack and ruin.

Now a different view is emerging. It appears (eg from studies of Notitia Dignitatum 4th/5th c AD) that Roman military units were still here much later, suggesting a gradual withdrawal over possibly half a century, and even the ‘Honorius edict’ is in dispute. We only have ‘evidence’ written in the 6th ,7th and 8th centuries either by Byzantine officials or writers such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius, who are now regarded as distant from events, subjective and unreliable.

Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Saxons.

But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with the remaining Romans, and likewise for Britons and Celts and even Saxons.
This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies.

As to King Arthur … well, I’ll leave that for another time and perhaps another blog… 

So what can we call th
e ‘dark ages’ instead? Some academics use 'early medieval'. Oosthuizen uses the term 'late antique' for the period 400-600AD (with 'early medieval' for 600-850AD). What do you think?

Dr Julia Ibbotson

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About the Author

Acclaimed, award-winning author Dr Julia Ibbotson is fascinated by the medieval world and concepts of time travel. She read English at Keele University, England (after a turbulent but exciting gap year in Ghana, West Africa) specialising in medieval language, literature and history, and has a PhD in socio-linguistics. She wrote her first novel at 10 years of age, but became a school teacher, then an academic as a senior university lecturer and researcher. As well as medieval time-slip, she has published a number of books, including memoir (The Old Rectory), children’s medieval fantasy (S.C.A.R.S), a trilogy opening in 1960s Ghana (Drumbeats), and many academic works. Apart from insatiable reading, she loves travelling the world, singing in choirs, swimming, yoga and walking in the countryside in England and Madeira where she and her husband divide their time. Find out more at www.juliaibbotsonauthor.com and find Julia on Facebook and Twitter @JuliaIbbotson

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