Art of the “Dark Age”

One of the things I deal with is the continuing use of the term Dark Age to describe the Middle Ages. It wasn’t that dark, at least not overall. It did get pretty ugly at the beginning, however, and it was definitely different from what came before it, which was the Roman Empire.

…with whom Renaissance writers were in love with, and they were the ones who decided to call everything I love the Dark Age, meaning the unfortunate time between the great Greco-Roman civilizations and the Renaissance, which heavily borrowed from the former.  (Renaissance literally means rebirth, as in the rebirth of Greco-Roman culture.)  Even the term Middle Ages is Roman- and Renaissance-centric, since it’s the middle period between Rome and Renaissance.

The Fall of Rome

Don’t get me wrong, at its height, Rome was awesome, with its literacy and stability and engineering and actual sewer systems and public toilets (never underestimate the power of proper sanitation). But over three centuries, it declined in western Europe from greatness into non-existence, and what was left was the Middle Ages.

As an Aside: In the east, the Roman Empire continued for another 1000 years (the entire Middle Ages), eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire.  It fell to Muslim Turks in 1453, at which point its capital, Constantinople, became Istanbul (“Why did Constantinople gets the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.” Because I am nerdy enough to know a song written about it.)

Germanic Invaders

Roman art after it starts to decline. Late 3rd century CE

At the time Rome was reaching its height, a massive group known as the Huns was pushing from Asia into Eastern and Central Europe, which was then pushing those people into Roman territories. These are the Germanic tribes: Franks, Lombards, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Angles, Saxons, etc.

When the Empire had been healthy, it absorbed or fought off these people. By the third century CE, however, it definitely wasn’t healthy, and it did things like allow these people into the Roman military under their own commanders, who then turned on the state at the worst possible times like, for example, when the empire couldn’t pay them.

Read more: The Long Long Fall of the Roman Empire

The new, Germanic territories were small with borders constantly in flux as the newcomers fought one another as often as fighting Romans. The lack of unity and general chaos made travel dangerous, which hurt commerce, which further worsened the economy, which led to all sorts of societal perks being discarded: giant buildings, large statues, education, urban living…pretty much everything we associate with civilization.

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp
Early medieval shoulder clasp from the Sutton Hoo burial in England, 7th century CE

So, yeah, kind of sounding pretty “dark.”

But what the Renaissance writers refused to acknowledge was the resulting culture was not nearly always dark, merely different. The Germans had some beautiful artwork (along with some really awful artwork, if one remembers Vampire Monkey Christ, and don’t ask early Germans to make an illustration on a bet).  In the Early Middle Ages, it was all small, personal items: belt buckles, purses, clasps, rings, ceremonial weapons, etc. And the artwork wasn’t realistic in the slightest. That is to say, it didn’t look Roman and thus, in the minds of Rome-fanboy Renaissance writers, it didn’t really count as art.

Chartres Martyrs Door Jamb
BTW, this is what Gothic sculpture looks like, which looks more Roman than late Roman art. But, still “gothic.”

By the year 1000, several large, relatively stable kingdoms had formed, most notably England, France and the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy nor Roman). And by that point, there was plenty of civilization: growing cities such as Paris and London, towering stone castles and cathedrals, a slow but steady growth of education.

It just didn’t look very Roman.

It was so un-Roman, in fact, that one style of architecture became known as Gothic architecture. It began in the 12th century, by which point no one had been calling themselves goths (as in the Germanic Visigoths, Ostrogoths, etc.) for hundreds of years. The Renaissance writers were blatantly labeling these buildings, many of which were over 100 ft tall, as uncivilized, barbaric and backward.

As an Aside: The image at the top of the article is the incredibly gothic  13th century Sainte Chapelle, over 40 feet high and composed primarily of glass, a feat the Romans never accomplished.


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