Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Dark Ages ~ A real Game of Thrones?

"Britain is an island in the ocean and it was formally called Albion... It is rich in crops and trees and has good pasturage for cattle...

In Britain at present there are five languages following the number of the books in which the Divine law was written. It contains five nations, the English, Britons, Irish, Picts and Latins, each with its own special dialect intent on the sublime study of divine truth. Because of the study of the Scriptures the Latin tongue has become common to them all..." Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

What do we know about the Dark Ages?


I posed this question to a group of children I was tutoring a little while ago.  This was one of the answers I received.

"It was dark in the Dark Ages. There was no electricity and candles had no been invented. And it was always raining, so it was dark in the day time as well."

For a six year old I thought that was a pretty good answer!


It was Francesco Petrarca, an Italian scholar who first penned the phrase. He was studying the works of the time and concluded...

 "Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom."

  He meant it as a scathing criticism of late Lain literature and not the period itself.


Saeculum obscurum ~ the dark world (The Dark Ages) was also a name used to describe the history of the Papacy in the latter part of the 10th Century. It wasn't until the 16th Century that the age between the Roman's departure and the Norman invasion became commonly known as The Dark Ages.


Since then scholars have tried to rename the period -

The Pagan Saxon Period

The Early Saxon Period

The Early Christian Period

The Christian – Saxon Period

The Early Middle Ages

But, for consistency in this post, I will continue to refer to the era as The Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages was a time of invasion - it saw the arrival of the Saxon's, the Angles and the Jutes who fought over the spoils.  And let's not forget the missionaries under St Augustine, who came back to Britain and reintroduced Christianity.  Which ultimately led to the Christina Saxon Period.


By the 8th Century, the Vikings had finally travelled West.  I have often wondered what these Viking explorers thought when they landed at Lindisfarne in 793. Here was an island, completely defenceless, inhabited by men in robes, and filled with precious treasures. What a find. They must have thought the people of this rich country a little soft in the head to leave such treasures unguarded. So it is no surprise that they sacked Lindisfarne. But to a scholar, many centuries later, Lindisfarne shows us how dynamic the political structure in Britain had become.  Up until the Viking invasion, the monasteries were respected as sacred places. No one would dare attack them.


Therefore, we cannot overlook the importance of the church during this period.


" ...As late as the mid-fourth century the principle rural religious foci throughout the region were pagan temples, by 500 the situation had ceased. There is no trace of organised paganism in western Britain after the early fifth century, and the main religious foci are now monastic sites and churches."  Dr Ken Dark

Likewise, trade continued when the Roman's left, particularly between the West of Britain and the Mediterranean. If we stick to Arthurian Legend, then let's go to Tintagel Castle. The finds that have been found here show that this was a regular stop for trade. Money was being spent.

"...glassware from southern Spain, wine amphorae from Byzantium, oil jars and fine tableware from North Africa..." Dr Francis Pryor.


It is true that not a great deal was written down during the Dark Ages. We have to go on archaeological finds and defer to people who have far greater knowledge of the era than I do, but one thing I find intriguing is why what was written down, was written down in the first place.

Gildas - A British monk from the 5th Century who wrote the se excidio et conquestu Britanniae (Concerning the Ruin and Fall of Britain) reads like a condemning sermon. He is preaching a political reprimand.


Nennius and his Historia Brittonim (History of the Britons) is dripping with political motives - in this instance, we need to look to the politics in 9th Century Wales ~ King Merfyn of Gwynedd needed a great Celtic leader to inspire his supporters, and Nennuis’s work provided one.


"The Historia was also created as a counter to the "English" of the Venerable Bede's history, which was very popular at the time…" Dr Francis Pryor.


I love the work of Bede, I have read Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People many times. He describes a time of anarchy - (dare I borrow the title of George R. R. Martin book) – Bede describes A Game Of Thrones. But when the Anglo-Saxons turned to Christianity, order was restored.


During Alfred The Great's reign, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was composed. As an author of historical fiction set in the Dark Ages, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is one of the most important books in my collection. It begins with the Roman invasion, and it was updated until as late as the mid-twelfth century. Although deciphering what is real and what is fictitious is certainly challenging!




Of course, being an author who writes about Arthurian legend, I have to give credit to another writer of that time, Geoffrey Monmouth. Monmouth lived during a period of grave unrest. England was in the midst of a civil war between King Stephen and Matilda. Monmouth's work was incredibly popular - but there was more to it than simply telling a good yarn about King Arthur. He wasn't writing for the masses, but for the Anglo-Norman elite. He made up extravagant claims of King Arthur's greatness, which he backed up by "authentic sources,” which he then accidentally misplaced! His work was considered to be factual - for the most part!


"it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others..." William of  Newburgh ~ 12th Century English Historian.


The Dark Ages is anything but Dark! It is a fascinating period in British history that I will never  tire of.

Sources
Gildas ~ se excidio et conquestu Britanniae
Nennius  ~ historia brittonim
Bede ~  Ecclesiastical History of the English People
King Alfred the Great ~ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
 Geoffrey Monmouth  ~ historia regum britanniae
Francis Pryor ~ Britain AD
Michael Wood ~ In Search Of The Dark Ages 
Michael Wood ~ In Search of England

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Mary xx