Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Dark Ages? What Dark Ages?

by Derek Birks

In my post today, I’ve chosen to abandon my “home” period of the fifteenth century and take a look at another era which I find fascinating: the fifth and sixth centuries.

The past fifty years have seen quite a few historical and archaeological revelations, some of which have captured the public imagination in a spectacular way such as the discovery of King Richard III’s body. Others are less spectacular but even more far reaching. The light that has been shed on the so-called Dark Ages is one such development.

When I was at school I was taught that Britain “became” Roman in 43AD and “stopped” being Roman in 410AD. Before 43AD Britain was “uncivilised” and after 410AD it became “uncivilised” again. The Romans found the Celts grubbing about in mud huts and minutes after they left 400 years later the Celts lapsed straight back into the mire. The native Britons then happily lived in chaos until along came the Angles and Saxons who showed them what real chaos was. I imagined that the last Roman legionary to leave must have switched off the light on his way out.

Alright, I exaggerate a little, but I reckon if you ask the “average man in the street”, his view of the post Roman centuries, if he has one, will not be far from this stereotype. So where did this long held version of events come from? 

The first problem about the 5th and 6th centuries is that there are very few surviving records, so they remain “dark” in that respect. This is not the time or place to deal in detail with the early sources but it would be fair to say that the bedrock of our understanding of this period is founded upon the writings of three men: Gildas, a monk writing in the sixth century, the Venerable Bede, a most scholarly monk writing in the 8th century and Nennius, a rather self-effacing monk writing in the 9th century. Taken together, with a few other less detailed sources, these writings paint a clear picture of the utter destruction of British civilisation after the end of Roman rule.

Gildas in particular writes of death and destruction on a colossal scale - very much the end of the world as he knew it!

Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if, indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into the high heaven by the holy angels. So entirely had the vintage, once so fine, degenerated and become bitter, that, in the words of the prophet, there was hardly a grape or ear of corn to be seen where the husbandman had turned his back.  
Gildas: from Concerning the Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae) c.540AD

Gildas does not exactly mince his words and his work is the source for all those who followed, surviving through monastic institutions, to form the basis of scholarship on this period. Certainly Bede made use of any sources available to him, including Gildas.
If one is to believe Gildas, there was barely a Briton left alive as the invading Saxon hordes swept across the land from east to west killing and burning all that lay in their path. Towns were deserted, the Christian faith destroyed and a burning wasteland left. It’s apocalyptic - and he meant it to be - because Gildas’ work was not a history but a giant cautionary tale, a warning for all men to heed.

That we have relied on essentially one source for the history of such a large period is a scary thought. All the same, one can sympathise with historians: it is difficult to ignore what Gildas writes because in the sixth century there is precious little else. All students of the period since Gildas have struggled to weave a history from his words. They have scoured other fragments of sources and passing references by others writing elsewhere in Europe, seizing upon any statement about the period as if was a bottle of water in a drought.

Thus, from Gildas, Bede, Nennius and a few other scant sources an historical tapestry was woven which became the collective wisdom of generations of scholars. There was only one problem: the collective wisdom was wrong. It was no-one’s fault. Everyone acted in good faith but nevertheless a myth was created - a myth that still lives on in many peoples’ minds.

Several factors, however, have contrived to dismantle this myth. It has not happened overnight and the foundations for it were laid as long ago as the 1960s. There was nothing startling about it and it received few headlines. Nevertheless, a revision has taken place, fed by a steady drip feed of small archaeological discoveries. Running in parallel with this has been the development of new techniques in archaeology using science and technology.

Digital imaging and HD aerial photography have helped archaeologists to know where to dig. Computer processing has vastly increased their ability to analyse oceans of data. The use of botanical and zoological analysis has enabled us to discover what people ate and where they got it from. Techniques using DNA analysis have been used to establish the distribution and composition of populations. This research has suggested that a large percentage of the population of England share much the same DNA as the populations of Wales and Scotland. In origin therefore, we’re not that different from each other. There are many other examples too of the application of science to archaeology.

All told, the discoveries made over the past fifty years have forced historians to revise substantially the accepted view of Dark Age Britain - and in particular the 5th and 6th centuries which are often now described as Sub-Roman Britain.

The inhabitants of Britain in the fifth century included Roman Britons, Saxons, Picts and no doubt quite a few others. The archaeology does not support the traditional view of the wholesale destruction of one group by the others. What it tells us is that the newcomers were assimilated amongst the native population. It’s likely - given some attitudes towards immigrant communities - that even the most peaceful assimilation did not take place without resentment. It is certain too that there must have been occasions when pitched battles took place and people were slaughtered - perhaps reduced to subordination, to become slaves as Gildas tells us. But evidence from sites such as burials, tells us that the British Roman culture was not snuffed out. Britons could not have been hunted to extinction.

Gildas describes the fall of towns but towns had already begun to decline well before the last Roman legion left Britain and they were already shrinking in size and importance in the fourth century AD. The bulk of the population it seems were already living in smaller settlements with trade and industry more localised well before the notional end point of 410 AD. What is also now clear from archaeological exploration is that many towns show continuity of settlement right through into the Middle Ages. Towns became smaller before the Romans left and some were later abandoned, but many lived on. There is evidence from archaeology to show that during the period of alleged chaos and destruction there was still sufficient will and manpower to construct new buildings and repair others - you don’t repair what you don’t need.

What of Roman government? It follows that without the overarching Roman imperial authority, government had to be local and this too changed as early as the fourth century when Rome’s hold on Britain was already tenuous. We still know very little about the form that government took in the fifth and sixth centuries but it must have been fragmented long before the Saxons exerted any real influence.

It is likely that strong men took charge and Gildas writes of an overlord called Vortigern. We have no evidence to doubt his existence. This is the time of the legendary British leader, Arthur, and it is the monk Nennius who first introduces him by name. Gildas refers to a great battle at “Mons Badonicus.” And if we are to believe Nennius then “Badon Hill” is just one of twelve battles fought by this “Arthur.” Nennius should have copyrighted the story, given the legends that it has spawned.

Gildas is most concerned about godlessness of the pagan Saxons and the fall of Christian culture. Yet Gildas, Bede and Nennius were all writing in excellent Latin - how could they into the ninth century if Roman British culture had already been swept aside in the fifth century? Roman authority may have left these shores but its civilisation did not. The Celtic Christian Church still existed during this period. It’s likely that some Christian Britons fell out with pagan Saxons but they also converted some of them too. When Augustine brought his Christian mission to Britain in 597AD, he did not come simply to convert Saxon heathens into Christians; he came to bring the British church back to the Roman bosom. Ironically his mission was more successful with the pagan Saxons than it was with the native Christian Church.

Most of the focus of our history of the Dark Ages has been on named individuals but the trouble is that their names are sometimes all we know about them. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - a monastic record of events rather than a history - lists kings and churchmen and their doings, as does Bede. But they are often shadowy figures who we will never know any more about. The real stride forward in the history of this period lies in our growing knowledge of the lives of the people. Archaeology is beginning to reveal much about where and how they lived, what their customs were, what they ate, how and why they died and the archaeology shows continuity not dislocation.

Long held views are sometimes slow to change. Despite the clear and persuasive evidence of archaeology, the traditional view of the period still persists in the public psyche. But nothing in Britain changed in 410AD. Nothing. The date itself has been imbued with a significance it never really had for many of the features of fifth century life in Britain began long before that date. Saxons were already being employed in Britain to help protect it from attacks by the Picts from north of Hadrian’s Wall or the Scots from Ireland. Saxons came in greater numbers and ceased to be employees. They did not come, as the Normans were to do later, as a ruling elite to impose a new authority over Britain. They came to enjoy the rich land and its wealth. Yes, they fought the Britons for land but they also lived alongside them and intermarried with them.

Rome had ruled Britain for several hundred years and by the time Rome could do so no longer, the people and the culture that remained here were essentially Roman. That culture continued long after the Saxons came. Christianity survived in pagan Britain, towns were not destroyed, life continued and evolved. By the end of the sixth century Saxon or Angle kings may have ruled much of Britain but the people who lived in their kingdoms were the product of a melting pot of cultures - essentially sub-Roman British with a hefty dollop of Anglo-Saxon or Pict thrown in. Britain was to an extent a land of conflict but it was not a wasteland.

Many thanks to EHFA for inviting me to guest post today. This is a vast topic and I fear I have not done it justice even in this overlong post! But I do think it is one of the most exciting historical developments of our time both in its scope and impact and deserves to be discussed.


Derek taught history for many years before embarking on a career as a writer of historical fiction. Two years ago he published Feud, the first of a four-book series called Rebels & Brothers which is set during the Wars of the Roses. Last year came book two, A Traitor’s Fate.

This autumn sees the publication of the third part of the series, Kingdom of Rebels.

More information about Rebels & Brothers can be found on Derek’s website: or on his Facebook page.


  1. Yes, I've never quite believed in 410 CE either. And of course the Saxons were already there - I believe some had even come with the Roman army as auxiliaries. But I like my Arthurian tales, especially Rosemary Sutcliff, and the ninth century "he fed ravens on the fortress wall although he was not Arthur" suggesting the name was already well known even if the stories haven't been written down, or haven't survived if they were.

  2. I do not know if my previous comment got posted, Yet I will say again that I enjoyed your post Derek Birks. I have a question. I have been lead to believe that the Celtic Orthodox Church had a presence in Britain until shortly after the Great Schism. Do you know of any source material on this question of have I been paying too much attention to revisionists???

    1. Hi, I fear I'm not too clever on sources for the Celtic Orthodox Church.

  3. Derek,
    The importance of archeology in altering our understanding of the past cannot be over-estimated. It starts with Schliemann proving the existance of Troy -- something scholars of the time had dismissed as pure fiction/fantasy. Archeology is also revising our understanding of Ancient Sparta and crusader Jerusalem, the two periods I am more familiar with. So I'm not surprised -- just hugely grateful -- to the archeologists and other scientists that are expanding our horizons and understanding of the past.


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