A fresh look at the Dark Ages

Through a glass lightly

That image of the Dark Ages as a time when nothing significant happened and barbarians ran wild comes to us from a few Rome-friendly writers of the time, says Wells. Instead of barbarians, the period was dominated by artisans and tradesmen who may not have written much, but produced a culture rich in material wealth. (The angels of the title come from one shining example of artistic achievement in the Dark Ages: the illumination, or illustration, of biblical texts. Upon seeing such texts in Ireland, the 12-century writer Gerald of Wales pronounced them "the work of angels.")

The evidence for this view of the Dark Ages comes not from written material, but from tangible objects like personal ornaments, belt buckles, combs, jewelry, pottery, and swords found in graves and sites of ancient settlements. The Dark Ages acquired their name because we haven't been able to "see" into them, thanks to the dearth of written material compared to the Roman period, Wells says. The few surviving texts tend to deal with elites and "are by writers bemoaning the weakening of Roman political power."

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