Many historians now prefer not to use the term Dark Ages to describe that period of Europe from the 5th – 10th or 11th centuries, preferring instead to use the term Middle Ages to cover a period from around 500 – 1500 AD.
Originally the term Dark Ages was used to cover that period as it referred to the ‘dark’ days between the glorious Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Of course we now know better. That period had its own culture, it had sophisticated legal systems, records and significantly less bloodshed than the Roman era. It was also quite forward thinking. It was the people of these ‘Dark’ Ages who abolished slavery, unlike the ‘civilised’ Romans.
But while there are good arguments for abandoning the term dark, I think there are problems with putting the whole period together. There are significant differences between the 500-1000 AD and the 1000 – 1500 AD period.
- The earlier period marks the spread of Christianity across Europe, while for the later the Church of Rome was well established.
- The later period mostly used a system of primogeniture to decide the rulers. In the earlier period this was not the case. Kingship might be decided by conquest. It might be inherited from a brother, uncle or cousin rather than a father. Cinaed Mac Alpin’s heir was his brother, not his oldest son. Alfred the Great inherited from his brother, even though Ethelred had two sons. Or kingdoms might be divided up among sons, as in the Frankish empire.
- By 1000 records and annals were well maintained, but this was not the case in 500. Again the period 500 – 1000 saw the gradual spread of literacy.
So to me it makes sense to not lump the two periods together. Doing that would almost definitely be to the detriment of the earlier period.
So, what should the earlier period be called? Is Dark really the wrong word? Dark can mean many different things. It might mean bad or dangerous, but it can also just mean mysterious. And that is not a bad description at all. 500 – 1000 is a time where history and mythology collide. At the beginning of the period, we have figures like King Arthur who are far more mythological than historical. Gradually the historical figures become more substantial, but even towards the end they keep their mystery. Cinaed (Kenneth) Mac Alpin is very much a historical figure, yet he is not completely. His place as Scotland’s founding father owes as much to legend as fact.
And if the men of that period are often insubstantial, the women are even more so. Lives, dates, and even names of the women who were the wives, sisters and daughters of those warrior kings were very often not recorded.
They lived thorough some of the most fascinating times in history. They must have left their mark on the people and the times. They filled many different roles. They were wives and mothers, nuns and saints, warriors and leaders, yet they have left little mark on the recorded history. They remain mysterious.
It is hard enough to find these women, even without losing them among the (for example) well recorded Norman and Plantagenet queens. Making them Women of the Middle Ages would do them a grave disservice. Mysterious and insubstantial, offering us mere glimpses of their lives, these are truly Women of the Dark Ages.
The Women of the Dark Ages novels are available on Amazon