From Stone Age to Space Age, every era in human history has ultimately been about progress. Well, almost every era. The Dark Ages are an exception to the rule -- everyone knows that after Rome fell, the world stumbled ass-backward into a figurative night that lasted for centuries. It was a period of intellectual and economic darkness where everyone was either a brutal warrior or a filth-encrusted victim.
Well, that's what they say, anyway. Although the Dark Ages were definitely darker than modern times (in the same way cellphone reception was significantly worse during the Bronze Age), they were by no means the bottomless pit of despair they're generally presented as. In the name of correcting some popular misconceptions about the period, let's take on myths you almost certainly have been led to believe.
(The Dark Ages aren't the only era you've been lied to about. Buy our De-Textbook and you'll learn that the Pyramids used to glow white at night, and that the ancient samurai "bushido" code was just made up in 1900. Your favorite book sellers are now accepting pre-orders!)
Look, they were called the goddamned Dark Ages for a reason. Society was barely a thing, and infrastructure was practically nonexistent. Warlords and barbarians roamed the land, every surface was covered by a layer of filth, and the general populace had the life expectancy of a three-legged gazelle in a lion's den. Meanwhile, the church was going around torturing people until they converted, and then probably kept torturing them anyway. Honestly, go find a movie or book about the era and we guarantee it's not going to have a bunch of smiling children on the cover.
Skulls smile, right?
Actually, the standard of living was pretty decent, even if you were poor as hell. In fact, humanity managed to hit new highs in charity, health care, and innovative philanthropy almost on a daily basis.
Hulton Archive / Getty
Welcome to the real Medieval Times.
For one thing, slavery went out of style during the Dark Ages. Romans had notoriously loved them some slaves, but improvements in farming technology and better-bred draft animals made forced human labor less necessary as time progressed. Instead, the classes that would probably have found themselves in slavery were mostly either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter were still technically not free (they couldn't leave the land without their lord's permission), but enjoyed a much greater freedom than slaves.
The rise of Christianity, while admittedly resulting in a lot of people being set on fire, also saw a dramatic increase in charities. Almost immediately after the church gained a foothold in Europe, they started introducing a widespread system of charity that distributed food, clothing, and money to those in need. Perhaps not by coincidence, the concepts of goodwill hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor were also invented during the "dark" ages, paving the way for the public health care system.
And, eventually, a health care system based on something besides incense and the Virgin Mary.
Don't get us wrong -- if you went back to the medieval era in a time machine, you would hate it for all of the five minutes it took the locals to murder you for witchcraft. But the term "Dark Ages" isn't even used by scholars because there isn't much evidence that life sucked any more than the periods before or after it (but more on that later). It's just that pop culture only remembers the violent parts, like where people would gather to watch dudes stab each other off of horses for fun. Speaking of which ...
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty
You've been to a Medieval Times restaurant, you know the deal: When the people of the Dark Ages wanted to unwind after a hard day of shedding blood, their leisurely entertainment of choice was shedding even more blood.
Oli Scarff / Getty
"But this time, we're drunk!"
So whenever Europe wasn't in the throes of yet another war, the subjects of its various kingdoms found other ways to satiate their notorious bloodlust and hunger for combat. Naturally, they preferred games that mirrored war as much as possible -- jousting was obviously the king, but various combat events and "club the other guy's head in" sports were also popular.
Suddenly, football seems markedly less interesting.
Jousting -- everyone's go-to mental image of a historical blood sport -- wasn't even really possible during this period; proper jousting stirrups had not yet been adopted in most of Europe, so the lack of foothold would have sent the combatants flying like sacks of potatoes at the tiniest impact. In fact, jousting was strictly a military drill until the late 11th century.
Daniel Berehulak / Getty
"... and then we suddenly realized, 'This is awesome!'"
The reality is less awesome: Even the "darkest" centuries of the Dark Ages were all about harmless family fun. Compared to the eras before and since, sports and games during the Dark Ages were decidedly less combative. A lot of the stuff people of the Dark Ages did for fun is very similar to what we still do today (when we're not wasting the day away on the Internet). In fact, archery competitions, boxing, and rugby were all either invented or refined during the Dark Ages.
Oh, and get this: Norse sagas from the ninth century describe fearsome Vikings merrily frolicking on ice skating rinks and in skiing competitions. And let's not forget the really popular pastimes such as bowling, dancing, tag, and horseshoe throwing. Yes, goddamn horseshoe throwing was all the rage during the Dark Ages. Compare that to the full-on gladiatorial carnage that went down during Roman times, or the tournaments that came during the later Middle Ages. So which age deserves the "dark" moniker?
Nigel Treblin / Stringer / Getty
Incredibly stylish bloodshed is still bloodshed.
The reason the Dark Ages got their name was because they were supposedly the sad, shitty years after the fall of the glorious Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire was taken out of the picture by barbarian hordes in A.D. 476, there was suddenly a shocking lack of nations that could swing the World Police hammer. Upon noticing the sudden absence of a Big Brother, various chieftains all over Europe immediately went "Fuck yeah!" and started rabidly chaos-warring against each other.
Oli Scarff / Getty
Bill had the best chaos-warring helmet. Everyone said so.
Soon, the whole continent descended into a never-ending state of total war, princes and warlords fighting for control of each other's dirt farms.
Sure, there was fighting. That much is true. What people tend to forget is the scale of the fighting.
Oli Scarff / Getty
"Mark, one day I'll throw a war and everyone will come."
Comparing Dark Ages battles with, say, Roman warfare is like comparing a slap fight between two toddlers with the Rumble in the Jungle: They both technically qualify as fights, but one of them is a lot less likely to get millions of people excited.
Let's be clear: Rome was the tits when it came to large-scale warrin'. During their first war with Carthage, a Roman fleet with 100,000 men was lost in a single day. Rome responded to this catastrophic loss by calmly sending in more troops and continuing the war for another decade and a half. Over the course of the second Carthaginian War, Rome suffered nearly 400,000 casualties without batting an eye. The Roman Empire wasn't really interested in outwitting its opponents -- it just outlasted them. If Rome had a problem, it kept throwing troops at it until it stopped causing trouble.
Oli Scarff / Getty
There's no political issue too intractable for a bunch of angry men with pointed sticks.
When the Roman Empire fractured, Europe's economy became increasingly localized. Without an intercontinental tax base and a healthy division of labor, giant standing armies became artifacts of a bygone era. This sudden lack of fiscal infrastructure also left the scores of kings and princes who filled the Roman power vacuum strapped for cash. Sure, they probably would have wanted to roar through the continent with a million men, legion style; they just didn't have the money to pay such huge armies.
Most leaders responded to this problem by introducing a feudal system; they divided and distributed their land holdings, dealing out plots for military service. Since very few of them had all that much land to begin with, this kept the armies relatively tiny -- even the most massive military forces of the latter stages of the era had well under 20,000 soldiers. Most armies were basically just large mobs. As such, warfare in the Dark Ages was defined by quick skirmishes fought between tiny forces. There were no campaigns, no decade-long struggles, no hellish living in a war-torn land; just two gangs of dudes clashing for a while, then wandering away to tend their fields.
Oli Scarff / Getty
Those afternoons of war really helped them appreciate their cozy lives of toil and cholera.
But this brings us to the most common myth of all ...