The term 'Dark Ages' is a poetic analogy
infrequently employed by contemporary historians, although it is still often found in colloquial use. The epoch is generally treated as stretching roughly 475 to 1000 AD; and hence is not a terribly useful label, even if usually set in intellectual opposition to the High (1000-1350) and Late (1350-1500) Middle Ages.
This period was set aside and labelled Dark (in much the way the intelligence community refers to a source “gone dark
” or telecommunications refers to unlit, dormant “dark fibre
”) - to convey first and foremost a distinct lack of sources, formal writings or specific information. Historians writing during and after the Renaissance
) had rediscovered all manner of material covering antiquity
, and could be relatively clear on the events of the past century or so, but there seemed a vast, impenetrable gulf of time between the Hellenic-Roman sources and these recent writings. It became rather difficult to establish what precisely humankind had been up to in Europe for those occluded five centuries, so scholars began to postulate and build up a narrative for a half-millennium of wanton barbarity, deadly plague, infernal savagery and little else.
The myth they built was so popular, historians swallowed it whole, and repeated it like a mantra right up into the 20th century. However, archeology
have all contributed greatly to the understanding of the period over the last century - which has in turn spurred modern historians to revisit what were their most accepted understandings about the period. Clearly much more cultural and economic exchange had been occurring than was once thought, so that the familiar image of a battered, insular West under the thumb of the Church seems simply lax historical interpretation in hindsight.
Why 432 as a start? Why 1091 as a end date? As outlined above, the very notion of assigning strictly delineated epochs
is fairly arbitrary; most historians of this century have criticized the practice as intellectually misleading, archly conservative and narrowly uncreative. However, between these two dates, as hopefully is shown below, much of the West was
dangerously adrift. It took almost six hundred years of incursions, intrigue and ingenuity for the exchange of the old Mediterranean world to re-establish itself. By 432, the Pax Romana
was a distant memory in many parts of the former realm; and not until 1091 would Europeans be confident or united enough to emerge from their shell, to begin to question institutions, rediscover their world and innovate radically in the arts and sciences. That said, this chronology is far from complete, so should you notice any glaring omissions (inventions, texts, births & deaths, etc.) or errors, please let me know.
Sources: Thomas Brown, "The Transformation of the Roman Mediterranean, 400-900", Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (London, 1988), pp. 1-62; R. Hodges, Dark Age Economics (London, 1982); Gerald Simons, Barbarian Europe (NY, 1968); Robert Delort, Life in the Middle Ages (NY: Lausanne, 1973) ; also recommended J.B. Bury, A History of the late Roman Empire from the death of Theodosius... (NY, 1958), 2v. and W. A. Goffart, Barbarians and Romans, 418 - 584 (Princeton, 1980).
432: Saint Patrick, an Irish peasant abducted as a slave boy for employ in England by Roman legionnaires (and there known as Patricus) eventually returns to Ireland as a fully literate, Christian priest. Meanwhile, the Northen Vandals have swept through Agricola, Gaul, Spain and managed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. The looting of Roman North Africa begins, coinciding with Saint Augustine`s departure for his long home. Church councils and synods meet to condemn the early heresies of gnostics, Monophysitism and the Nestorians - as the Mediterranean world reels from political instability and religious strife.
450: The Lamentations of the Britons: the Britons appeal to Aetius to aid them (now that Roman forces have quit Britannia for good) as the Northern Saxons, Angles and Jutes pour across the Channel into England. However, Flavius Aetius has more pressing concerns than Anglo-Saxon hooliganism, as he prepares his under-paid troops and crumbling fortifications for Attila`s travelling road show. Aetius and his Romano-barbarian garrison manages to fight the Huns to a standoff at Chalons-sur-Marne, which in turn forces the now-starving Huns to turn their attention to northern Italy, which they invade in 452; Aetius is blamed for this (and other sundry disasters) and so Valentinian has him summarily executed. Shortly thereafter, as Gaiseric the Lame leads his Vandals through the north, the emperor himself is assassinated by vengeful partisans.
476: Romulus Augustulus, the last titular western Roman emperor, is deposed by the German chief occupying most of northern Italy.
486: The Franks, under Clovis, defeat a force under Roman General Syagrius, the last remnant of Roman power in Gaul. The Franks now control the land to which they'd give a name.
493: Theodoric the Ostrogoth brings a kind of peace to Italy through treaties between the Romans and Gothic tribes (with the secret financial backing of the Eastern Emperor Zeno). Meanwhile, in Gaul around this time, King Clovis of the Franks is baptised and officially brings his people under the faith of the Latin Church.
529: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sets to this date the establishment of the Kingdom of the West Saxons, Wessex, with Cerdic its first ruler. However, the Gewissae people and their fledgling nation may have been on British shores much longer. Meanwhile, Clovis has died, leaving Gaul divided among his four sons, while similar fragmentation continues throughout the Italian state. Slav tribes migrate in the worsening climate from the Western Asiatic region into the Balkans; given their people have represented the bulk of the Roman slave trade for several centuries, they feel little warmth towards their new neighbours and wreak havoc as they go. Emperor Justinian closes the Academy of Athens. Writing in Monte Cassino, Saint Benedict finishes the composition of his Monastic Rule for communal monasteries. With this simultaneous but contrasting divestment, from public philosophy to private theosophy, the Dark Ages officially begin. Soon after, crowds of racing spectators loot and burn Constantinople during the Nika Riots, and civil disorder becomes endemic despite all the emperor`s legal reforms.
533: Justinian, seeing the Eastern Empire as truly overrun and floundering, dedicates his energies to ensuring the survival of his own realm. He commits his finest general Belisarus to the task of wresting Carthage and her navy from Vandal clutches, hopefully before the barbarian menace takes to the high seas and threaten his control of the Mediterranean. Justinian urges the Franks to move against Burgundy, while sending his own troops into Sicily, then Naples, then Rome itself which have been surrounded by large settlements of Ostrogoths.
537: Battle of Camlann, according to Annales Cambriae. Death of Arthur and Medraut; widespread plague in Britain and Ireland (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth).
550: The Persian armies in the east have reopened hostilities throughout Anatolia - Syria and the Byzantines find themselves fighting wars at either end of the Mediterranean. Eventually, however, they subdue the last of the Ostrogoth warlords in Italy (until the Lobard tribes invade). Plague swirls throughout northern Europe. Cassiodorus founds a monastery and establishes a scriptorium at
Vivarium where pagan works are copied and preserved, which stands out as a fairly
controversial but enlightened stance for a clergyman to take in the midst of the Dark Ages.
570: Death of Gildas. Full scale war erupts between Byzantium and Persia.
577: The Britons make a valiant push against the Anglo-Saxon invaders but are driven into Wales and defeated at the battle of Deorham (Dyrham, near Bristol).
585: The Sirmium (roughly modern Slovenia) peoples are annihilated as the Balkans overrun by Avar horsemen and their Slav allies. At the same time, the Visigoth king Leovigild expands from Gaul in the Suevi lands of northern Spain.
590: At the request of Pope Gregory the Great, Columban and other Irish monks begin their missionary work on the continent, establishing monasteries on the frontier lands and preaching in pagan northern Europe. Around this new monastic communities, localized barter economies and self-sufficient villages spring up, as wasteland is cleared for small-scale farming. Gregory of Tours, writing in his Historia Francorum details the exploits of the Messiah of Bourges, an early Robin Hood figure living around Arles, who stole from the rich, gave to the poor, claimed to be a Christ, and ended up drawn & quartered.
597: With slightly rejuvenated prospects in Britain after the ruinous wars, Augustine, Archbishop of Canterbury begins the conversion of Kent, beginning with the reigning King Ethelbert; while across the Channel, the Merovingian kings set the boundaries of the Frankish nation. Meanwhile, Persian raids continue to devastate the farms, towns and trade routes of Byzantine Anatolia.
600: Welsh bard, Aneirin, writes Y Gododdin, a poem alluding to Arthur's warrior prowess. Rise of the Kingdom of Mercia.
614: Columban established the tiny abbey and chapel at Bobbio, in the shell of a pillaged church destroyed by the Lombards, but was “the nucleus of what was to be the most celebrated library in Italy.” First hand-copied pao, reports of court affairs, circulate among the
educated civil servants of Peking.
620: Wei Cheng writes the bibliographic section of the official Sui
Dynasty History, dividing the books into four categories - Confucian
classics, historical records, philosophical writings, and miscellaneous
622: The evacuation of Muhammad, from Mecca to Medina (the Hijra, or Hegira) signals the beginning of a new faith; however the Byzantine court is busy defending its northern flank from a protracted siege by several united Avar and Slav chieftains.
630: The Persians return and defeat Emperor Heraclius in a battle near Nineveh. In Visigothic Spain, the first specific reference made is made to a quill pen, in the Etymologies of
Isidore of Seville. In Britain, King Raedwald of the East Angles is buried at Sutton Hoo.
632: Isidore completes his vast Etymologia, which becomes one of the pivotal workds of history, science and cosmology for the next four centuries. The prophet Mohammed dies in Medina. The desert Bedouin tribes and urbanites of Arabia, many who have taken up the faith of Islam, begin to argue doctrine after the Prophet's death.
633: Al-Muthanna (ibn Haritha), chief of the Banishaiban
clan, steals into Persian Mesopotamia and begins siege of Hira and then drives his army west to Damascus. Christian troops are dispatched from Constantinople by Emperor Heraclius in response. Meanwhile, St. Aidan arrives at the monastery in Lindisfarne.
635: Damascus falls after Khalid and his army
arrives. He then leads his troops into Jordan and defeats the Byzantine
army massed against him at Yarmuck.
638: Dagobert, last of the powerful Merovingian kings, dies without a clear successor. Gaul is thrown into confusion. At the same time, Islamic armies swarm Jerusalem after a 600 day siege of the city and soon control most of the Holy Land.
640: Arabian troops cross into Egypt, and by September
control Alexandria. Amr (ibn Al'as), the general now in command,
writes back to the Caliph in Mecca. King Rothan of the Italian Lombards issues an independent law code.
649: Arabs take Cyprus and begin a naval war with
the Byzantine Empire. The Chinese invent Porcelain.
653: The lessons of the Prophet are for the first
time officially compiled into the Koran (Qu'ran).
664: Islamic armies besiege Constantinople
for the first time. Contans II order Byzantine troops to invade southern Italy. Meanwhile, in Britain, the Synod of Whitby establishes the predominance of the Roman Church over the Irish clergy in regard to affairs in Britain.
670: Under Caliph Mu'awiya, the Moslem armies
march 10,000 cavalry across Egypt, through Libya and into Tunisia. The establishment of the Bulgar Khanate in the Balkans. Oswiu, King of Bernicia dies.
685: A Byzantine treaty officially recognizes the Lombard kingdom for the first time and brings a temporary cessation to hostilities in Italy. Civil war erupts in Persia, with two opposed
Caliphates, one in Damascus, the other in Medina. An army from Northumbria is led by Ecgfrith against the Picts - the northerners carry the day in the Battle of Nechtansmere.
700: Carolingian supremacy is established in northern Gaul, while Arab armies have stormed the walls and dockyards of Carthage.
714: By this point, the Saracen armies have now crossed the strait of Gibraltar and seized most of Spain. Charles Martel inherits the Frankish post of mayor of the palace to replace the weak southern Merovingian king. Sensing the threat of the Arab armies massing in the south, he shrewdly reappropriates much Church land and uses the manors as payment to assemble an army. The radical Islamic, Seljuk caliph Jezid III orders all images within Christian churches of his realm destroyed, quoting the Qu`ran: "Images are an abomination of the work of Satan."
730: Revolution has erupted in Byzantine Italy. The Venerable Bede begins using AD-BC dating system and finishes his Ecclesiastical History of England. The Iconoclast Controversy begins to spread through the Eastern Empire, as mystical Persian influences seep into the communities of Byzantine Christians. Iconoclasm forbids any graphic representation of living things and the debate surrounding the question leads to the exile of many scholars. Leo III bans "every likness whis is made out of any material and colour whatsoever by the evil art of painters." In 732, Charles Martel and his troops meet the Arab & Basque armies at Poitiers, stopping their advance.
740: Aldebert of Soissons, a wandering healer, travels through the villages of France distributing potions, curing peoples ailments in fields, preaching, etc. and claims to have the celestial support of a powerful angel. Soon, the peasantry are exchanging scraps of his clothes and hair as relics, and start building special altars & crosses for his use in the woods near their villages. By 744, this had triggered an investigatory Church synod, which orders all the sites put to the torch. Aldebert was said to have escaped into the forests, where he lived another two years as a hermit.
750: Pepin has now succeeded Martel as the king of the Franks. Musical notation first developed in Europe. The Ummayad Caliphate is over thrown by the Abbasids.
760: Donation of Constantine forged, allowing the Catholic Church to head off the land seizures which began under Charles Martel. As a political weapon, the document asserts the indivisible and insoluble authority of the Latin Church over its own affairs.
768: Charlemagne ascends to the throne and immediately begins to push the Saxons still clinging to northern Gaul into the sea. He then turns his attention to the Moorish encampments on the southern border with Spain. During these later campaigns however, his loyal count Roland is killed by Basque mercenaries at Roncevaux, an event which inspires the Song of Roland. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the first paper mills in the Middle East are constructed, after the production of rag paper is first observed in the Chinese frontier of Samarkand.
782: Alcuin of York joins Charlemagne at his palace court and establishes his school at Aachen, which inaugurates the Carolingian Renaissance. Meanwhile, Byzantine troops move to retake the Peloponnesian region from Saracen incursions.
789: Charlemagne begins his campaigns against the Frisans of the North Sea, while in 793 Vikings kick off their first strikes against the Anglo-Irish monasteries in the siege of Lindisfarne.
800: Charlemagne drives the predatory Avars out of Gaul, back into the Balkans and finally subdues the last Saxons of northeast Germany; the Church decides the time is right to cement a relationship with the Frank polity and leader. In an elaborate and anachronistic coronation ceremony, Pope Leo III crowns him leader of the Holy Roman Empire. The pomp of the occasion is hardly noticed outside France and Italy; Norwegian Vikings invade Ireland and the Aghlabids of North Africa form their own dynasty centred in Carthage.
810: Danish Vikings begin a long succession of seaborne raids on Frisia, while in the Mediterranean Arab pirates harry the Thyronine and Adriatic shores.
814: Death of Charlemagne; succession of Louis the Pious. The Benedictine Order begins a set of internal reforms to combat the debasing practices of simony which had dissolved the sanctity of the religious communes with reams of drunk noblemen. Iconoclasm reawakens in Byzantium.
830: Swedish Vikings establish outports on the Volga and Dnieper river mouth, giving them access to Russian trade routes, and opening exchange between the Scandinavians, Byzantines and Levantines for the first time. The Danes prepare their ships for full-scale attacks on the English coast. The Bayt al-Hikmah ("House of Wisdom") is founded in Baghdad.
850: The Vatican is attacked by Moorish pirates from Sicily. Vikings have landed throughout the Irish countryside. The Treaty of Verdun has divided the fledgling Empire into weak states headed by Charles the Bald. Ibn Qutayba assembles first known Arabic encyclopaedia. Development of the Cyrillic alphabet, used widely for Slavic
languages. Mentz, a loyal Church scribe (seeing how well the last great forgery went over) composes the Isidorian Decretals, a set of faked letters from various saints which purports to enforce and greatly increase the power of the Papacy in secular affairs.
868: Viking raids are launched from island bases off the coasts of England and France against both nations, some Danes even sailing around the Sacred Point to attack Pisa, while in the East the Rus Vikings sailing through Russia take their first run at the defences of Constantinople (why do you think the Swedes are so good at designing storage space?) In China, the first printed book, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, is
produced using carved blocks of wood. It includes a woodcut title page and numerous images.
870: Scandinavian Viking rebels sail their powerful longboats across the North Atlantic as far as Iceland, only to find Irish monks have sailed there in leather canoes.
880: The Norwegians begin the colonisation of Iceland after being battered away from the shores of Wessex by a small army of terrified Saxons.
888: Charles the Fat dies impoverished and without an heir, effectively dissolving the Carolingian dynasty. Odo, count of Paris, becomes king of West Francia. A massive army of Viking raiders plunder Paris, while the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred recognizes the Danelaw settlement on the British shore. Magyar riding bands appear throughout Eastern Europe, threatening a terrifying invasion (of Hungarians?).
894: Independent kings emerge in the territories of Burgundy and Provence as the Italian state begins to splinter into separate commercial communes and corporations. Magyars, steepe nomads who begin raids in German hamlets, as wild rumours about their cannibalism and vampirism spread nightmares through all Christendom. By 899, they had rampaged as far south as Oranto, throwing the entire region into panic. In the meantime, the Bulgarian Tsar Simeon seeks deliverance for his peoples from the incursions, by invading Byzantine territory around the Black Sea.
900: Feudalism begins to reorganise the social structure and lang holdings of Europe, putting the continent on a defensive footing as the Magyars continue their rampage through the Black Forest, followed by the destruction of Moravia.
909: Normandy established when Charles the Simple (living up to his name) grants the area surrounding Rouen to the Viking captain, Rollo, in turn for sworn protection of his fief from the Magyar marauders.
915: Saracen pirates are evicted from their island bases along the mouth of the River Garigliano in Italy, so they move their raiding forts to the opening of the French Riviera. Around this same time, the Norwegians have moved towards a more egalitarian, less clannish form of government - based around a civil assembly which they call the Althing.
955: Henry I of Germany leads his knights against the Magyars at the battle of Lechfeld - driving them back once again in the Balkan region (for the Byzantines to deal with). The Byzantines shortly after re-take Crete from the Mussulmen; no much later still, their navy recovers Cyprus.
972: Saracen pirates kidnap and ransom the Abbot of Cluny, completely enraging the Pope, who calls in a strike by several French noble families against the pirate base on the Riviera, which is completely dismantled.
982: Holy Roman Emperor Otto II and his army are routed by Moslem forces in southern Italy, while the northern Slavs revolt against German oppression by retaking all their traditional homeland across the Elbe. Norwegians begin the construction of bases in Greenland.
989: The Truce of God is declared across Christendom after decades of murder, duelling and banditry by the relatively idle but unlanded male gentry. Clerics begin to think seriously about what to do with the serious surplus of violent manpower in Europe. A century later, the truce is scrapped in favour of Crusading.
999: Apocalyptic preachers from London to Athens prey on the millenial fears of Christendom as Y1K approaches. The populace gets hosed for penential alms and the level of pilgrimage to Jerusalem increases dramatically. This, in turn, begins to first annoy, then alarm the Abbasid rulers of the region, who begin imposing a heavy travel tax on all religious tourists.
1000: Talmudic academies in Babylon and Palestine complete the
Masoretic text, an authentic text of the Old Testament that synthesizes
written versions and oral tradition. French scholar Gerbert of Aurillac, later Pope Sylvester II,
introduces a type of abacus, in which numbers are
represented by stones bearing Arabic numerals. Wooden block movable type in China. Norwegian Vikings reach Newfoundland (which they call Vinland) for the summer. Venice expands its commercial enterprises along Dalmatian coast. King Olaf introduces Christianity to the Swedes.
1025: The independent military teams for the Genoan and Pisan city-states retake Corsica from the occupying Moslem merchant navy. Guido of Arezzo develops the elements of musical staff notation
in Benedictine abbey at Pomposa.
1054: The Church Patriarch of Constantinople anathematizes the Roman Church as corrupt, worldly and murderous - which opens up forever the schism between the Latin and Orthodox traditions in Christianity. The translations of Arabic works lead to the introduction in Europe of the system of
Arabic numerals, which greatly facilitate computation. Most of these materials become
available in the West only after the Crusades. Seljuk Turks capture Baghdad. Foundation of University of Bologna, oldest in Europe, as a
centre of civil and canon law. Heresy spreads throughout Milan. The Chinese mathematician Shen Kua writes first description of
1076: Wool-manufacturing and textile trades in Flanders region have now become major spurs to an industrial economy throughout Europe, as exports of linen and other woven goods sparks massive re-investment in local markets. The Diet of Worms leads to Pope Gregory`s excommunication of Henry and his urging for all good Christian Germans to rebel.
1086: Christian armies from France re-capture Toledo and push the Spanish Moors as far back as the Tagus River. William the Conqueror undertakes the first complete government census
of land, possessions, and inhabitants, leading to the establishment of public archives.
1091: La Chanson de Roland is written, the first great epic composed in a romance language, just as the Normans recapture Arab-held Sicily.