Dark Ages (historiography)

The "Dark Ages" is a term for the Early Middle Ages or Middle Ages in the area of the Roman Empire in Europe, after its fall in the fifth century, characterizing it as marked by economic, intellectual and cultural decline.

Petrarch, who conceived the idea of a European "Dark Age". From Cycle of Famous Men and Women, Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla, c. 1450

The concept of a "Dark Age" originated in the 1330s with the Italian scholar Petrarch, who regarded the post-Roman centuries as "dark" compared to the "light" of classical antiquity.[1][2] The term employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the era's "darkness" (lack of records) with earlier and later periods of "light" (abundance of records).[1] The phrase "Dark Age" itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 when he referred to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th centuries.[3][4] The concept thus came to characterize the entire Middle Ages as a time of intellectual darkness in Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. This became especially popular during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment.[1]

As the accomplishments of the era came to be better understood in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars began restricting the "Dark Ages" appellation to the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century),[1][5][6] and now scholars also reject its usage in this period.[7] The majority of modern scholars avoid the term altogether due to its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate.[8][9][10][11] Petrarch's pejorative meaning remains in use,[12][13][14] typically in popular culture which often mischaracterises the Middle Ages as a time of violence and backwardness.[15][16]