Seeking to shed more light upon the 500 years or so between the fall of Rome (476 C.E.) and the rise of Charlemagne, Wells (archaeology, Univ. of Minnesota; The Battle That Stopped Rome) disputes its being called the Dark Ages, a term derived from the Romanists, i.e., scholars for whom the Graeco-Roman age was the pinnacle of civilization-at least until their own time centuries later. He doesn't so much present new information-the term Dark Ages has been long refuted by scholars-as explain this era accessibly to general readers. The old view of the Dark Ages was based mostly on ignorance of the archaeological record and a misperception that literature from this period was scant. Wells points out that education may have declined in Italy and the central areas of the former Roman Empire, but it grew in other areas such as Ireland and Britain. Far from being lawless savages, or "barbarians," the tribes that inherited the Roman world created and enforced their own laws, usually based on Roman forms. In fact, the period created much of what we think of as Western Civilization, in areas ranging from arts to crafts to technology, and by looking at the material remains one can see the real foundation of Europe. This short, well-written book belongs in public libraries.
Revisionist argument that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire was not an epoch of barbarian savagery, war, chaos and cultural bleakness. On the contrary, it was "a time of brilliant cultural activity" in Europe, writes Wells (Archaeology/Univ. of Minnesota; The Battle That Stopped Rome: Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest, 2003, etc.). The so-called "Dark Ages" (400 to 800 CE) gave rise to new ideas, urban centers and political structures, as well as major developments in the arts, architecture and learning. Our traditional view of the period is based on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a handful of other texts whose authors favored the cultural ideal of all things Roman, declares Wells. They chose not to recognize the cultural achievements of the centuries between the peak of Roman power and the emergence of the Carolingian kingdom. Drawing on archaeological evidence that earlier generations of historians did not know how to interpret, the author describes significant findings at graves and other sites showing that many towns and cities within the Roman Empire persisted and there was no sudden, catastrophic collapse. In Roman London, for example, life was different, and people found new uses for the urban landscape, such as dismantling stone buildings and reusing the stone. This did not represent a decline unless you believed Roman values represented the epitome of human existence. Elsewhere, material evidence indicates the rise of new urban centers in Sweden, Denmark, Russia and elsewhere in Europe; technological advances like horse collars and better plows that improved farming efficiency; the creation of new, codifiedlegal systems; the spread of trade and Christianity. Wells also points to many signs of cultural creativity, including new styles of metalwork and book illumination, and the advancement of the art of writing in monasteries. Important scholarship shedding new light on the Dark Ages.