There has been considerable controversy about the use of the term ‘Dark Ages’ at the brand-new Tintagel displays by English Heritage and upon EH’s popular website about England’s past. Indeed EH felt they had to defend its use here.
Some historians have decried the term ‘Dark Ages’ as inappropriate, out-dated and pejorative. These historians have implied that ‘the Dark Ages’ term portrays the Early Middle Ages as ‘unknowable’. They assert that the term covers a complex and varied time period that doesn’t deserve this characterisation. They perceive it as believing in the Whig valorisation of the Normans as bringers of ‘light’ – dismissing the preceding period as backward and uncivilized. They suggest the term is text-orientated: consigning the centuries of the mid-/late first millennium AD with limited written sources as unassailable to historical enquiry. They also regarding ‘Dark Ages’ as patronising: an unnecessarily dumbing down for the public who want and deserve better. It is furthermore a term that is generic, and confusing (among other things).
In short, ‘The Dark Ages’ sucks big time, they claim.
The principal commentaries I’m aware of are by Leonie Hicks, Kate Wiles, Edwin Hustwit, Charles West and Tehmina Goskar. Read them! They are worth it as this is an important debate. Put them together and they are the voice of #stopthedarkages, a social media campaign to change English Heritage’s use of the term.
In defence for the use of the term, Ian Mortimer suggested it was useful if applied effectively and specifically for the 5th-6th centuries rather than the entire period from the 5th to the 11th centuries AD, since things got ‘lighter’ by the 7th/8th century (apparently). Alban Gautier regards ‘Dark Ages’ as the best of a bad lot and that it can be used in a ‘prudent’ way to characterise the centuries after the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Somehow, through a few tweets, I’ve been cast as a ‘Dark Age apologist’ by Tehmina Goskar for querying whether the term is really such a disaster. I questioned whether it might not be the worst term to use in the Cornish context, where other more problematic terms have and continue to be used. This blog is an attempt to counter and qualify her accusation.
What’s wrong with the ‘Dark Ages’?
I don’t completely buy EH’s explanation that ‘Dark Ages’ is particularly and singularly widely understood by the British public, and more so than other terms, let alone those visiting the UK from overseas. Like Tehmina Goskar, I wonder who was canvassed for this view. I tend to agree that ‘Dark Ages’ might have negative associations for some in relation to barbarity, violence, obscurity and the like. Is implicated in a long history of misuse like so many terms we use. It does tend to get used in TV programmes and get employed by newspaper journalists. Crucially, it is the kind of term used in previous generations of scholarship with a text-dominated perspective on the past and who cannot imagine anything being explored without written sources. It goes with the term ‘lost centuries’ and it says less than nothing about the period and its people. I’m not sure ‘the public’ must receive this term exclusively and without careful explanation.
Most importantly, it is already a rare term in academic contexts. Thus, for scholars and students, it is only occasionally used. I only occasionally see ‘Dark Ages’ used in books post-1956 and, were it not for this discussion, I would presume that the term is already near extinction. I would suggest the reason why archaeologists haven’t entered the fray is because it is largely a non-issue with them. Indeed. a brief review on terminology for the early medieval period here, I didn’t even bother to discuss it since it is so rarely utilised in academic circles.
As an editor, I wouldn’t use it in my journal without clear explanation and justification by the author, whereas I would let ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘post-Roman’ and ‘early medieval’ get used because they are widespread in the recent academic literature. ‘Late Antique’ too would be ok, if defined.
A final point: debating whether the early medieval period really was a ‘dark age’ is ludicrous; the debate isn’t about that. Sorry, but in this regard I couldn’t disagree more with Ian Peglar’s contribution to the debate, claiming that the 5th/6th centuries are a time of particular ‘darkness’. Likewise I think Kate Wiles gushing about how cultured later Anglo-Saxon England was is utterly irrelevant to the issue.
What’s right about the ‘Dark Ages’?
Gautier has a valid set of points regarding the negative issues with other potential terms for the centuries following the end of Roman rule in the island of Britain and it needn’t be cast as the only or exclusively problematic spatio-temporal label in use. I’d hate Tintagel, or indeed any early medieval western British site, to be called ‘Cornish’, ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Dumnonian’, ‘Arthurian’, ‘British’ or ‘early Christian’ for a range of other reasons. ‘Dark Ages’ is one among many problematic options and safe from many of the issues the others raise.
I cannot help feel commentators have so far missed/underplayed a series of crucial issues (in no particularly order):
- Dark 2004. EH use Dr Ken Dark’s 2004 article in their support. At the time of writing, I confess I haven’t read this particular piece. However, let’s all read this before we comment further upon how he used it and how EH have deployed his usage. However, I haven’t seen anyone yet do so. It’s easy to say ‘he would want to call it ‘dark’, who wouldn’t want a period named after yourself’. Still, Dark’s work deserves a post in itself rather than being dismissed as ‘obscure’. This is a bit rich given that Ken Dark is on all my reading lists, far more than the historians who are happy to dismiss his work without reading it. We are all ‘guilty’ of publishing in expensive academic presses, in specialist journals and behind pay walls, so please get over yourselves in this regard;
- Academic Uses. I stated above that ‘Dark Age’ is rarely used. Yet the critics don’t seem to be aware of the legitimate use of ‘Dark Age’ by some (particularly Scottish) scholars. There is the ‘St Andrews Dark Age Studies Committee’ which has produced some fine multi-disciplinary edited collections over the years: I’m thinking of ‘Scotland in Dark Age Britain’ and ‘Scotland in Dark Age Europe, both edited by Barbara Crawford. Also, the great Alex Woolf has utilised the term effectively in publications, and I would like to hear his view on these matters;
- Mutability. ‘Dark Ages’ is most powerful for its very non-specificity. What is great about ‘Dark Ages’ is that it is not exclusive to a strict chronology or a single linguistic, religious, cultural or geographical group. This makes it powerful and versatile in talking about periods between major historical epochs and we shouldn’t dismiss terms when they hold this intellectual power. ‘Dark Ages’ might seem naff and old-fashioned, but it has uses as such in encapsulating ‘early medieval Britain’. As Ann Williams et al use it, it can cover Scotland, Wales and England without favouring one cultural/religious sphere over another. It can be a popular short-hand when dealing with a broader geographical scope than England and, indeed, much of the discussion of the term’s merits and problems have been incredibly Anglocentric as Edwin Hustwit carefully shows.
- Historiography and the History of Archaeology. When considering the history of early medieval studies, it can be a useful phrase to encapsulate past imaginings of the centuries after the fall of Rome. I used it in this regard for a conference on the history of archaeology in relation to other disciplines at the University of Exeter in 2006. ‘Dark Age’ therefore has merit for historiography and the history of archaeology, allowing us to explore narrower topics on disciplinary or geographical grounds.
- Positve Spins and Getting Beyond Labels. All our language is problematic and always will be; it is the way we use it that matters far more. Therefore, what we call the past is to me always secondary to what gets said about the past. The debate is about how we understand early medieval western Britain, not primarily the terms we use as a topic in itself. I’d happily use ‘Age of Not Much Happening’ or ‘The Time of Beards’ if it was a way into a particular era and its material culture that was widely used and understood! What is worrying is that the commentators criticising EH to date have been convinced that the term is negative rather than conclusively demonstrating its use shows it is being deployed by EH with a negative association. I think it can have a range of positive associations, rendering it discrete from earlier and centuries and not entirely pejorative. Call Tintagel in the sixth century the ‘Age of B-Ware’ if you like, it means jack unless you have critiqued the way the images, text and site are interpreted in a more holistic fashion and beyond the label. I haven’t yet been back to Tintagel to critique the site’s portrayals, but I am indeed worried by Tehmina Goskar’s statement that “you don’t get any of the impact of the sheer scale of finds in the visitor centre”. However, is this really tied to the choice of term ‘Dark Ages’, or a result of other factors such as the limitations on budgets and space, as well as limitations on the ability to convey archaeological themes with a volume of material (something rarely attempted in any modern museum context)?;
- Diversity. We should fight to retain diversity in our terms. We have a plague of terms of the Early Middle Ages and we should be able to flit between different ones for different academic discussions and different audiences (and also to avoid monotony). Rather than join a cabal of lobbying ‘historians’ bleating for a ‘correct’ use of terms, I’d rather keep a pluralistic stance and embrace a diversity of terms where appropriate to particular situations. I can’t see why ‘Dark Ages’ deserves casting out any more than ‘Pictish’, ‘medieval’, ‘Celtic’, ‘Viking’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon’;
- Popular Appeal. Following Michael Wood’s In Search of the Dark Ages, I’m afraid to say that the term does have a resonance in popular imaginings of the Early Middle Ages. It has positive associations in this regard too, and thus an allure that is tenacious. For example, I appeared in a Channel 4 TV programme in 2009 called ‘Dark Ages’ as the episode title, speaking about the History of Christianity. In this context, for example, it worked well as part of an overt critique/spin, from a black history perspective, on the traditional narrative of early medieval conversions to Christianity (in other words, it wasn’t a history or archaeology documentary). Popular terms, no matter how misleading, can be used to engage the public. Just look at how the (to my mind) far more problematic terms ‘the Celts’ and the ‘the Vikings’ have been employed in major museum exhibitions recently the BM! Why cannot we do the same using the misleading and problematic term ‘Dark Ages’? Frankly, I wouldn’t be up in arms if the BM decided to use it for a popular exhibition that encapsulated Britain, Ireland and NW Europe in the 5th-7th centuries, taking key finds from Room 41 and elsewhere. ‘Shedding light on the Dark Ages’ is an insufferable cliche, but one that still has widespread rhetorical appeal that works for scholars to promote every new textual and material discovery and insight. Also, critics should check out Matt Austin’s superb blog: Darkage-aeology, for a clear example of how the term can be effectively deployed in social media contexts.
- Tackling Controversy. Our labels should be controversial and prompt us to think; ‘Dark Ages’ can and should be used in such a fashion to challenge academics and visitors. Moreover, labels can and should be subject to reflective rehabilitation despite their negative uses in the past. They should be utilised in fashions that highlight their prior misuses and create distinctive new parameters for interpreting the past. ‘Dark Age’ is tarnished but is it more so than any of the others we use, and is it irrecoverably so? I’m not so emphatic as many of the critics that it is such a cursed term that they would have it be;
- Situational and Contextual Heritage. What gets called ‘Dark Ages’ in museums and at heritage sites is really down to heritage practitioners trying to balance a range of agendas that are site, locality and regionally specific as much as ‘national’. Let’s be sympathetic to this and keep open the option of its continued use where appropriate and considered. ‘Dark Age’ isn’t ideal, but might save particular sites from particular insidious narratives about ‘elites’, ‘religion’, ‘migration’ and ‘kingdom formation’ readily deployed by nationalists and extremists.
Put these points together and we can not only suffer but perhaps try to celebrate EH’s choice of using ‘Dark Age’ at Tintagel. It needn’t be regarded as a negative term at all. Might it be used to promote a debate about Tintagel’s early medieval archaeology (and I think the commentators cited above are doing just that), as well as more broadly about our terminology and our prejudices regarding the Early Middle Ages?
This can happen in a positive fashion and perhaps terms should be used to jar our sensibilities and upset our scholarly parameters and expectations. I would suggest ‘Dark Ages’ is archaic and problematic, but might be still deployed effectively, not as ‘dumbing down’, but challenging past and current popular uses and perceptions of the Early Middle Ages. I would contend that this is where our attention should rest, not in purging sites of particular labels.
The historians lobbying for stopping its use are raising an important issue given that it has gained popular EH reuse. They are not arguing against the original use of ‘Dark Ages’, but about its renewed use, and a very specific use at a very well-visited and important early medieval archaeological site – Tintagel – and deployed by heritage professionals. In short, this debate does matter to a degree, and it isn’t a pedantic discussion about words and terminologies. In this regard, they are absolutely right to raise the issue, not only because #stopthedarkages addresses a key issue in our understandings of Tintagel, but also because it raises debates far wider for early medieval Ireland, Britain and north-west Europe. Still, there are bigger issues: what we say about the period is always going to be more important than the specific terms we use.
Have I use Dark Age before? Well, I’ve managed 20 years of writing about the 5th-7th centuries AD without it in publications. Then again, I’m not known as an expert of Western Britain in ‘Late Antiquity’. For my work in eastern Britain, I always prefer ‘early medieval’ and ‘The Early Middle Ages’. I can tolerate ‘Migration Period’, ‘Insular’, ‘Late Antiquity’ and ‘post-Roman’ as required for different topics and audiences.
To conclude, I wouldn’t have considered using ‘Dark Age’ myself before this debate and I still remain unsure why EH have used it over other terms. However, now it is controversial again, I might just start using it. That is, I must say, after I’ve visited Tintagel again and ranted about it!