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A medieval black steel helmet

Shine a light: Were the Dark Ages really that dark?

A dark ages helmet | Image: Pixabay

The year is 410. It’s a wet Tuesday afternoon. On the south coast of Britain, a Roman guard turns the light off, locks up a fort, and climbs into a galley that sails off across the English Channel. For the next six centuries, the barbarian invaders who filled the island’s void got drunk, muddy, and clattered one another with axes. Then the Normans conquered England in 1066 and civilisation was restored.

This was (more or less) how generations of historians saw England in what they called the Dark Ages, an era which, according to them, was western civilisation’s wilderness years. Now properly known as the Early Medieval Period, earlier writers gave it its original name because not much was known about the period. This is definitely true compared to later centuries, but far more is known about late Anglo-Saxon England than about Roman Britain, so it was far from "dark".

It wasn’t so backward and lawless, either. Here we look at five reasons why England in the Dark Ages wasn’t so dark.

Court in the Act – An Age of Law and Order

When William the Conqueror won the keys in 1066, the kingdom he found was a well-ordered society of numerous towns and villages (13,418, recorded in the Domesday Book survey of 1086). It was probably the most well-governed country in Europe and had been for generations.

The Saxon kingdoms of England had sophisticated administrative structures. The famous 'Shire and Hundred Courts' – local assemblies which met regularly and dealt with an array of business – existed in most areas of England throughout the Early Medieval Period. They were so effective that the Normans took them on, and their last legal powers were transferred only in the 19th century.

The Anglo-Saxon kings issued law codes that formed the basis for many English legal principles and rights, as well as for the formation of the nation itself. Athelstan’s seminal law codes of 928 applied to the whole of England and formed the basis for the later parliament of England. In 997, King Ethelred made each shire’s reeve and officials swear to agree to principles which later gave rise to the Grand Jury, used in England until 1933 and in the USA to this day.

But it was even earlier, in around 600, that England’s most famous legal text was produced, the Rochester Codex. This text is the earliest written in English and was arguably even more important than the Magna Carta of 1215.

Word to the Wise – An Age of Knowledge

While literacy rates were far from high by modern standards, in relative terms Anglo-Saxon England was positively bursting with brainiacs.

England in the seventh and eighth centuries was western Europe’s leading academic centre. It produced great scholars such as Bede, Aldhelm, and Alcuin, but also attracted eminent boffins from overseas, too, such as Theodore of Tarsus.

The library at York housed the greatest collection of books in western Europe, and the double monastery of Jarrow-Monkwearmouth in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria did nothing less than revolutionise European civilisation. The monks and scribes there produced original works and disseminated important texts on all subjects from the ancient libraries of Italy. Bede, the ‘father of English history’, was based here, and the AD dating system was first used at this phenomenal place.

One of the oldest surviving bibles in the world is housed in the Laurentian Library in Florence – and it was made in England. Known as the Codex Amiatinus, it was produced in Jarrow-Monkwearmouth in about 700 and given to the pope in 716.

The Anglo-Saxons left behind an impressive body of original literature, including poetry, prose, and religious texts. The first English gospels were Anglo-Saxon, commissioned by King Athelstan in the early 10th century.

Coining it in – An Age of Prosperity

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, England’s currency system was one of the most sophisticated in Europe. There were over 70 mints spread across the land, each run by a government official called a ‘Moneyer’. Coins were well-made, plentiful, and well-used.

Successive Anglo-Saxon kings of the ninth and 10th centuries paid vast sums to the marauding Vikings to get them to clear off. This was the Danegeld, which, in 1012 alone, amounted to nearly 18 tons of silver. England was clearly a wealthy place, and the Vikings knew it. In fact, few realms in Europe at this time could match England for prosperity.

In 796, Charlemagne the Great wrote a stroppy letter to Offa, king of Mercia (in the west of England) moaning about the sizes of woollen cloths that the Mercians had exported across the channel. This eighth-century complaint suggests that early medieval England was a big exporter of wool, as it certainly was in later centuries.

Anglo-Saxon ports were bustling, and the economy of England was a lively one. It certainly had peaks and troughs, though, but when William, Duke of Normandy invaded in 1066, he knew what he was getting - a rich, well-developed, kingdom that was the envy of Europe.

Hoo Knew? – An Age of Awesome Art

Take one look at the Lindisfarne Gospels and it is obvious that the people of early medieval England were not in a dark age at all. The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript made in Northumberland in the early eighth century. A huge book made from the skins of 150 calves, it is a masterpiece of medieval art and design. It runs to over 500 pages, weighs as much as an adult badger, and the original covers were richly festooned with jewels and precious metals.

Take Sutton Hoo, too, the unearthing of which in 1939 transformed how experts and the public viewed the Anglo-Saxons. These were not just simple fighting farmers, but a prosperous, powerful civilisation of achievers, artists, and builders. The Sutton Hoo ship burial, which was probably for King Rædwald of East Anglia (who died about 624), contains among other things a stunningly crafted helmet, gold and gems, and a shield and a sword.

The Anglo-Saxons were skilled artists, metalworkers, and goldsmiths. Artisans today would likely struggle to create some of the high-quality material they produced.

Sutton Hoo shows that the world of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia might not have been much different from that of the famous Old English epic poem Beowulf, set in Scandinavia in the previous century.

The Anglo-Saxons were talented builders too, with the largely intact stone church at Brixworth in Northamptonshire testament to this.

Old Spice – An Age of International Reach

Anglo-Saxon trade routes stretched for thousands of miles across the known world. All manner of goods were imported and exported, from silver ore mined in Germany to pigments from Afghanistan. Incredibly, the large silver platter from Sutton Hoo was made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). An eighth-century gold coin made for Offa, king of Mercia, bears an Arabic inscription on the reverse side. This is evidence of Anglo-Saxon trading connections with North Africa and the Middle East.

It wasn’t just commerce that was international. Many Saxon leaders, monks, and craftsmen were worldly people. The Anglo-Saxons never lost touch with their continental neighbours. For centuries people flitted back and forth into Europe, with intercontinental marriages, cross-channel correspondence, and the spread of culture.

The great English manuscripts of the seventh and eighth centuries are brimming with foreign influences. For example, some of the ‘carpet pages’ in the Lindisfarne Gospels are very similar to eastern Mediterranean prayer mats from the time.

England’s conversion to Christianity began in 597, initiating a long period of close contact with Rome. Letters, pilgrims, and bishops would go back and forth between England and the Eternal City – even King Alfred visited Rome twice before the age of seven, staying for a year the second time.