By Mark Noce
Not just a controversial nickname for the medieval period, I’m talking about true dark ages in history. Entire epochs where next to nothing has survived in writing or archaeology. Eras after the fall of Rome or Troy. Yet something must have been happening, right? People and life go on, don’t they?
I’m fascinated by these dark ages of history, and none more so than the early medieval periods in the British Isles, particularly the centuries from 400-700AD. An age of legends, like those of King Arthur and the Mabinogion. But what was actually happening then?
Here’s what we do know for certain. At least hundreds of thousands of people were living in the British Isles at the time, and what little archaeology remains from the time period suggest a backwardness in the movement of technology (i.e. no new stone fortifications were built, only older Roman ones were repaired or modified). Many habitations show signs of plunder and burning by fire. In addition, hoards of valuables were buried and later abandoned or forgotten (probably because something happened to their owners). Not an indication of a very peaceful time.
On top of that, writing sources are even more scarce. The most extensive primary source to survive from the 500s alone comes from the monk, St. Gildas – and his longest surviving manuscript is less than 50 pages! Even books and those writing them were not spared from the onslaught of barbarians, famines, and plagues.
Yet the local people clearly survived. Genetic evidence shows that despite genes mixing from various invaders, the overall population of Britain and Ireland is still largely descended from the initial Stone Age inhabitants who first populated those islands.
So what’s it all mean?
To me, it shows a resilience of the human spirit and the indomitable character of those villages and kingdoms scattered across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in the early medieval period. Despite the worst of conditions they still managed to survive, pass on their heritage to their children, and give birth to some of the most inspiring Arthurian legends we have today.
No small feat, and one that I think is worthy of their legacy and their descendants who live on in the rest of us to this day.
Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion. His medieval Welsh novel, Between Two Fires, comes out with Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press on August 23, 2016.