The Dark Ages is a designation for the medieval period, usually in a derogatory sense. In its widest application the term embraces the epoch from the 6th to the 15th centuries. Renaissance humanists were responsible for the concept of a medium aevum (e.g., Flavio biondo), by which they understood a negligible interval during which classical literature was totally neglected. They contrasted their own passionate interest in man as man with the occasionally vain speculations of late medieval philosophy, their own anthropocentrism with the alleged theocentrism—unfortunately, to the medievalist usually more apparent than real—of medieval man. Even Martin luther considered the middle ages of no value to Christianity itself, insisting on the need for a return to its sources, free of medieval adulterations.
The 17th and 18th centuries continued the attack on the Middle Ages as part of the religious controversy, intensified by the Enlightenment, Modernism, and nationalistic movements, such as the Risorgimento and the Kulturkampf. Romanticism, with its insistence on the return to national origins, helped to open up the medieval period to serious study with the happiest results. Scientific historical research uncovered the rich developments of the Middle Ages in the fields of technology (e.g., the wheeled plow, the horse collar and shoe, crank motion, and soap); philosophy (scholasticism); literature, both Latin and vernacular; art (Romanesque and Gothic); and music (gregorian chant, organum, and counterpoint). Evidence of the development in the high Middle Ages of enduring political, educational, and economic institutions of such apparent modernity as constitutional government, the jury system, university education, and banking have caused some scholars to reset the boundaries of the Dark Ages (e.g., 5th to 11th centuries in F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [London 1957]373), and have led others to say that "the six centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire are…dark through the insufficiency of historical evidence" (F.M. Stenton). The term could be less inappropriately applied to the chaotic period following the Germanic invasions (376–568), which accentuated a sharp economic, social, and cultural decline already begun in the third century. Even so, M. L. W. Laistner's study of the years 500 to 900 reveals a period of ceaseless, if not universal, intellectual activity.
Bibliography: a. dove, "Der Streit um das Mittelalter," Historische Zeitschrift 116 (1916) 209–230. p. lehmann, Vom Mittelalter und von der lateinischen Philologie des Mittelalters (Munich 1914); Erforschung des Mittelalters, 4 v. (2d ed. Stuttgart 1959–61). m. l. w. laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 500 to 900 (2d ed. New York 1957), passim. h. wolter, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10v. (d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 9:206–207.
[c. m. aherne]
Dark Ag·es the period in western Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the high Middle Ages, c.ad 500–1100, during which Germanic tribes swept through Europe and North Africa, often attacking and destroying towns and settlements. ∎ a period of supposed unenlightenment. ∎ (the dark ages) humorous or derog. an obscure or little-regarded period in the past, esp. as characterizing an outdated attitude or practice: the judge is living in the dark ages.