Monday, July 16, 2012

Why "Dark" Ages?

Once in a time known as the Dark Ages
There lived a legend whose coming had been foretold
by the great prophet Merlin.
This is the opening of a 1999 film on Joan of Arc. Joan's dates were 1412-1431, a far cry from anyone's idea of the Dark Ages.* What were the Dark Ages, exactly? The term is commonly used to refer to a time when education lapsed and "not much happened." Well, the amount that was happening could fill a daily blog for quite awhile.

The concept of a Dark Age is credited to Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), who traveled Europe looking for Latin classics. The story goes that, upon discovering a "lost" collection of the letters of Cicero (106-43 BCE) in the 1330s, he expressed his disgust that such splendor had existed long ago but not preserved or improved upon in the intervening years:
Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover places a new offense and another cause of dishonor to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage.

Essentially, for Petrarch, the Dark Ages was that period between the glory that was Rome and the glory that was his own era. Nowadays, if the term "Dark Ages" is used at all, it is used for the first half of the Middle Ages, denoting the period right after the fall of Rome to about 1100.

So where/when did we start talking about the "Middle" Ages?

[to be continued]

*And don't get me started on "Merlin" having a prophecy about Joan.

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