3It Was Constant, Brutal Warfare
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.
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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.
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"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.
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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.
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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 ...
2 The Dark Ages Were an Intellectual Abyss
Ultimately, the Dark Ages weren't called that just because a few barbarians marauded their way across Europe. The real reason the era was so devoid of all light is because people were, for the most part, dim as hell. Superstition and illiteracy ruled. Scholars -- let alone people who could read -- were few and far between, and literary ambitions were actively discouraged because that shit ain't helping us with farm work, son. Actually writing things down probably got you burned as a witch.
"No! I swear, I was just drawing dicks! Uncircumcised, Christian dicks!"
The problem with writing off centuries of human history as a giant brain fart is that it overlooks literally everything that happened during said period. The image of the Dark Ages as an intellectual Twilight Zone is no different. Sure, the general public was largely unable to read or write, but that has been the case with every single era until recent history. Scholars, on the other hand, were actually having a ball during the Dark Ages.
Thanks to a combination of diligent scholarship and mescaline.
Carolingian minuscule, the standard handwriting script introduced by Emperor Charlemagne in the eighth century, revolutionized the whole concept of reading and writing. Prior to Carolingian minuscule, handwriting was a wild, lawless, anything-goes field. Uppercase, lowercase, and random spacing ran rampant, and individual scholars treated the rules of spelling and alphabet mostly as polite suggestions. The standardized, fast, effective Carolingian minuscule introduced revolutionary concepts such as cases, punctuation, and spaces between words. This dramatically sped up both writing and reading, because it turns out reading sucks a lot less when you don't have to stare at each absurd squiggle for hours.
"Fuck it, I'll just write my own Bible."
The introduction of Carolingian minuscule enabled quick production of documents and books, and is also possibly the biggest reason why so many ancient texts have survived: Carolingian scholars and translators tracked down all of those errant books, plays, and documents, painstakingly cleaning, copying, and reproducing them with their new super handwriting.
As far as major innovations in the history of communication go, making documents legible and relatively fast to produce should probably be regarded on par with Gutenberg's printing press and the Internet -- yet no one ever remembers Carolingian minuscule because, hell, it was the Dark Ages. Wasn't nobody inventing jack shit back then.
Big whoop, Middle Ages. Call us when you invent Comic Sans.
But that finally brings us to ...