Were the Middle Ages the Dark Ages?

Paradigm shifting insights from Gabriele and Perry’s Bright Ages

Aug. 3, 2023

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In the humble Hellenic archipelago, Western civilization was born. Democracy empowered ordinary citizens, and philosophy granted humanity the gift of progress. Then the Roman Republic spread those virtues to the rest of the Mediterranean world. This Golden Age of the West continued into the Roman Empire, but ended when Rome fell to Gothic mercenaries in 476. The torch of civilization was extinguished, and it took nearly a millennia before it would be reignited by the Italian Renaissance. This conventional narrative has given the medieval age a negative reputation. But developments in medieval scholarship beg the question: were the Middle Ages really the Dark Ages? If they weren’t dark to begin with, why were they ever called the Dark Ages? Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry’s recent book The Bright Ages uses the latest academic insights to answer these two questions. 

Gabriele and Perry propose that the term “Dark Ages” is a misnomer. Certainly, one can find instances of religious persecution, plague, and ignorance during the Middle Ages, things which can even be found in the modern day.  But one can also find a trend of religious toleration, robust economic networks, and rich intercultural syncretism, if one looks hard enough. Their point is proven by examining the nuances of medieval politics, cultures, societies, and economies. 

The Bright Ages features an opening salvo against the idea of “the fall of Rome”. While acknowledging the historical reality of the sacking of Rome in 410, as well as the deposition of the Roman Emperor in 476, the authors introduce the nuances of the situation. The conquerors of Rome are often portrayed as Germanic barbarians who dealt Western civilization a debilitating blow.  But these Western Goths (Visigoths) were hardly villains. The Visigoths had fled to the Roman Empire to escape famine in their native land, only to be met with starvation and mistreatment at the hands of Roman officials. When the Visigoths struck back against the Romans, then, they clearly had a moral prerogative for doing so. And these conquerors were much more than barbarians: these were Romanized Goths, a classical instance of Americanized immigrants. The Bright Ages goes so far as to frame Alaric, the leader of the Visigoths, as perceiving himself in the same tradition as Caesar, who famously broke Roman tradition by crossing the Rubicon with his army in 49 B.C. (an act of military aggression against Rome). 

The Romanization of these Goths is further evidenced by 

By the 5th century, Rome was no stranger to civil conflict: Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon is the most famous instance of this.