BBC History Magazine

How dark were the Dark Ages?

All ages of the past are dark because the past is a grave. It is a void that historians and archaeologists seek to fill with knowledge – with things made by long-dead hands and the ghosts of buildings long demolished, the uncanny traces of people and their lost lives, poignant in their mundanity: a used bowl, a broken glass, a clay pipe, a worn shoe, the pieces of a game scattered and abandoned. The more we find to fill that void, the better illuminated the past appears. It takes on three-dimensional form in standing buildings and tangible artefacts, in detailed reconstructions of costume and paraphernalia. Film and TV provide illusory glimpses of the irrecoverable, while historical fiction and immersive histories promise time-travel to places we feel we might inhabit. And by and large, the closer a historical period sits relative to our own lives, the more vital and vibrant it feels.

But what happens when there is so little to fill that void that the darkness becomes the defining characteristic? When knowledge is so hard-won, and so easily contested, that a state of ‘not knowing’ is the most respectable position for a historian to adopt?

To those who study late antiquity and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, the period between c400 and c600 AD in Britain is just such a void. These centuries are a time when not only historical narrative fails, but also our capacity to interpret the archaeological remains with much conviction. Fundamental questions about the end of Roman governance, the nature and scale of migration into Britain, the origins of kingdoms, the continuity of

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