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The Not-So-Dark Ages Volume 51 Number 5, September/October 1998
by Richard Hodges

[image] Rendering of the monastery at San Vincenzo al Volturno (Courtesy Richard Hodges) [LARGER IMAGE]

For more than a century, Dark Age scholarship has been influenced by art historians who, awe-struck by the architecture, fine art, and sculpture of classical antiquity, were deeply unimpressed by what they perceived to be a primitive and culturally deprived medieval world bereft of great art, a view endorsed by some archaeologists. Scholarly output amounted to catalogs of buildings and objects: corpuses of Anglo-Saxon churches and Early Christian churches in Rome, of Anglo-Saxon funerary pots, Byzantine ivories, and Frankish jewelry.

A number of early twentieth-century historians, however, saw the age quite differently. Marc Bloch of the University of Strasbourg and Henri Pirenne of the University of Louvain reassessed the end of the Roman world, emphasizing that in the twilight of the empire the foundations of modern European culture were laid. While original texts, mostly chronicles charting early monastic histories, described brutish living conditions of the peasants, these scholars, studying land charters and administrative records, showed that the early Middle Ages (A.D. 500-1250) were anything but primitive. They stressed the complex social organization of Europe's new villages, reflected in planned settlements with manors and peasant dwellings, and the far-reaching effects of a new class of merchant-adventurers who were prepared to travel long distances and cross tribal borders linking Christian lands with pagan cultures to the north and east.

RICHARD HODGES, professor of archaeology in the School of World Art Studies and Museology at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, excavates at San Vincenzo al Volturno, Italy, and Butrint, Albania. He was formerly director of the British School at Rome.
© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America