How valid is the view of Medieval Europe as a 'Dark Age'?

Essay, 2005

12 Pages, Grade: High Distinction


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Early Middle Ages

3. The High Middle Ages

4. The Late Middle Ages

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Nowadays, when the people think about the Middle Ages, names like Joan of Arc, Nostradamus, Richard the Lionheart, William the Conqueror, King Arthur, and Robin Hood immediately spring to mind. Chivalry, magic, romance, adventure, superstition, and torture are the first characteristics they come up with and events they associate with it are the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, witchcraft trials, and the spread of the Black Death. As the modern view of the Middle Ages is biased by novels and the latest Hollywood movies, in general, the perception of it as a time of glorious battles and brave knights dominates. The age is glorified in annual festivals like knight games and bard contests, partly because this is more attractive and partly because the inconvenience of everyday life then can hardly be imagined by people enjoying today’s living standards. This has not always been the case, yet. The term Middle Ages indicates what Italian humanists of the Renaissance think about that time. They see it as a mere interim between the greatness of the Antiquity and its revival in the Renaissance.[1] Furthermore, this episode is often referred to as the Dark Age, an expression introduced by Petrarch in the 1330s and later used to criticise the lack of cultural achievements during that period of time.[2] The question, how valid this view is concerning Medieval Europe, forms the centre of the following explanations. To answer it, the paper follows the common distinction between the Early Middle Ages (500-1050), the High Middle Ages (1050 to 1250), and the Late Middle Ages (1250-1500)[3]. After talking about each phase separately, it brings findings together in a conclusion answering the initial question. Due to the limits of this essay, it will deal with the question from an economic point of view exclusively.

2. The Early Middle Ages

The Early Middle Ages begin about 476, a date that marks the fall of the Roman Empire and leaves Europe in chaos. Without any organized army it is easy prey for foreign tribes invading the country, like the Magyar or the Vikings in the 8th century. The rising and falling of kingdoms makes it impossible to establish a consistent political system and the multiplicity of coinage limits the economy to barter trade.[4]

Besides attacks from without, Europe suffers from disintegration as the Roman Empire falls apart. Cities are in ruin and the countryside is characterized by the manorial system. Manors are estates owned by landlords and inhabited by them and their servile peasants, who work the land to support the landlord’s family as well as their own. These manors tend to be self-sufficient which leads to economic as well as social isolation and thus feeds fear and suspicion towards the outside world.[5]

Naturally, these circumstances form a difficult base for a society’s economic development. Thus the cultural and economic stagnation during the first centuries of the Middle Ages can be explained.

Hope appears in 768 personified by Charlemagne, who consolidates and enlarges the Frankish kingdom. His coronation marks the birth of Western Europe as the time before is a mere struggle to overcome the confusion left by the fall of the Roman Empire. In addition to imposing an efficient government, attempting a monetary reform, encouraging building and education, and preserving the classical past, Charlemagne takes one decisive step for the future development of Europe. He imposes Roman Catholicism and thus officially opens the doors for the spread of Christianity throughout Europe already begun at the end of the Roman Empire.[6] Christianity sets Europe apart form the rest of the world as it shares the belief, that God created nature not to restrict mankind but to support mankind. Christians feel entitled to make use of nature without fearing condemnation or caring about pagan Gods of water, land, and forest. Nature can be understood and its forces harnessed.[7] This fundamental reorientation of medieval mentality is promptly followed by a range of technical improvements. In agriculture, the introduction of the heavy plough in the 7th century allows the cultivation of new land and the three field system spreads farm work evenly over the year. This reduces the risk of famine and encourages farmers to include new and more varied plants with positive effects for the nutrition of medieval Europeans. Moreover, it increases output per unit of land, as fields carry two harvests instead of one per period.[8] In energy utilization, water mills with mounting power spread throughout Europe for more and more applications from the 6th century.[9] Additionally, the adaptation of the nailed horseshoe and the modern horse collar in the 9th century raises the efficiency of horse power and puts it to new uses e. g. in agriculture. Farmers now undertake economic calculations to decide if it pays to substitute oxen by horses. The general acceptance of these innovations is helped by the so called open field systems of the manors which forces its peasants to work cooperatively. To each peasant only a small patch in a common field is available so that it is more effective to work the field as a whole and to undertake innovative measures together.[10]


[1] See

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See Cameron, R.; A Concise Economic History of the World, OUP, New York, 1997; p. 44 f, 67.

[5] See Bishop, Morris, The Penguin Book of the Middle Ages, 1971, p. 207.

[6] See Bishop, Morris, The Penguin Book of the Middle Ages, 1971, p. 26 ff.

[7] See Cipolla, Carlo M.; Before the Industrial Revolution, European Society and Economy, 1000-1700; 2nd edition, 1981, p. 183.

[8] See Cameron, R.; A Concise Economic History of the World, OUP, New York, 1997; p. 52.

[9] See Mokyr, Joel, The Lever of Riches, 1990, p.34.

[10] See Cameron, R.; A Concise Economic History of the World, OUP, New York, 1997; p. 53, 49.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


How valid is the view of Medieval Europe as a 'Dark Age'?
University of New England  (Australia)
High Distinction
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
365 KB
Double spaced
Medieval, Europe, Dark
Quote paper
Tanja Hollederer (Author), 2005, How valid is the view of Medieval Europe as a 'Dark Age'?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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