5 Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About the Dark Ages
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!)
Society Was Cruel and the Standard of Living Sucked
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.
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 ...
Entertainment in the Dark Ages Consisted of Jousting and Sword Fights
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.
"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.
"... 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?
Incredibly stylish bloodshed is still bloodshed.
It 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.
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.
"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.
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.
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 ...
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 ...
The Dark Ages Were a Real Thing
OK, so maybe there were some bright spots during the Dark Ages, but even the most horrible eras are bound to have a few. On the whole, there must be a pretty good reason for throwing a name like that on an entire era. So the historians originally coined the term "Dark Ages" for a reason, right?
Above: Europe, for 1,000 straight years.
Ha, of course not! In a shocking twist, historians never had anything to do with "the Dark Ages," although some were fooled into adopting the term. As we mentioned earlier, these days, medieval historians tend to avoid it, preferring more neutral terms such as "Migration Period," "Early Middle Ages," or just "Middle Ages," depending on which of the hundred different meanings of the "Dark Ages" they're referring to.
We prefer the "Viking Murder Parade" chunk of the Middle Ages.
This is because the Dark Ages were never a thing. The entire concept is complete and utter horseshit cobbled together by a deluded writer. The term "Dark Ages" was first used in the 14th century by Petrarch, an Italian poet with a penchant for Roman nostalgia. Petrarch used it to describe, well, every single thing that had happened since the fall of Rome. He didn't rain dark judgment over hundreds of years of human achievement because of historical evidence of any kind, by the way; his entire argument was based on the general feeling that life sucked absolute weasel scrotum ever since Rome went belly-up.
Petrarch took the view that the only way to improve the world was to imitate the ancient Romans and forget the barbaric years that separated his contemporaries from the Rome of the past. Sure, he conveniently forgot a couple of things. Namely, the widespread slavery, slaughter, and oppressive taxation of the ancient Romans, which were nowhere to be found in his visions, as were the countless achievements of the "age of darkness" he was so gleefully vilifying.
More like Petrarsehole, right, British guys?
And that's the funny thing about history, really. Anyone can rewrite it under the right circumstances; all it takes is some asshole with a catchy term and an audience to defile an entire era. So, when you finally finish that time machine and decide to check out the future, don't be surprised if some random 26th century Victorian England fetishist has labeled our time "the Poop Ages."
We have some bad news: Ninjas never dressed in badass all-black outfits, Napoleon was a perfectly normal height for his time, and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.
It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We've also included the kinkiest sex acts ever described in the Bible.
Related Reading: There are plenty more middle age myths where those came from! People weren't much stinkier back then, and they had access to the earliest version of My Little Pony! It was a brighter age than you'd expect, in terms of everything but contraceptives. Weasel testicles definitely don't qualify as "enlightened".