Originally appeared in Razorcake #111 Aug./Sept. 2019
Here is a printable PDF and full text of the article.
Illustrations by Shane Milner
Layout by Todd Taylor
This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.
One Punk’s Guide to “The Dark Ages” by Billups Allen
You can fall at the first hurdle discussing “The Dark Ages” with historians and/or “historians.” A lot of people contest the nickname given to a period between August 24, 410 C.E. and the time leading up to around 800 C.E. when people across Europe were not prospering. Much like the term “new wave,” serious people will not acknowledge your discussion of “The Dark Ages” without trying to convince you not to use the term. It’s hard to ignore the period of roughly four hundred years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire when very little progress was made in science and literature. People struggled year-round just to feed themselves. If you weren’t royalty or one of the very few who had money, raw survival was your main concern. People without money barely ate. Reading was monk’s business; few people of upper or lower stations saw any reason to learn. There was a general lack of food and community. There were few leaders or organized governments to which to turn for help. Disease was also around every corner.
For those living in this era, you waited for improvements in your situation that were never going to arrive. Things didn’t change much in your lifetime. People lived hard, short lives in seclusion. This led to a certain amount of naiveté. As suggested in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975 C.E.), you were liable to believe anything anyone with a clean shirt on had to say. If starvation or disease didn’t get you, you were also under threat of being in the path of roaming bands of barbarians unconcerned with your problems. You were a sitting duck as a farmer and reliant on robbing if you were a soldier. Dangerous bands of marauders informed you of their presence by stopping in and killing you on their way through town. Europe was in a state of nearly constant war. Groups like the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Saxons and others whose legacy would go on to inspire cool band names were almost always on the hunt for a community to trounce or at war with each other. The Vandals, for example, were an Eastern Germanic tribe occupying much of what is now Poland. The Visigoths, major players in our story, were more at play in the West. If you were organized at all, you were eventually going to war with other Europeans. The low population meant you could only organize so much in your own defense.
Thousands of years of Roman progress became relatively useless. Much like you still can today, you could go back to Rome and examine the remnants of society: the roads and monuments and aqueducts and statues. But at the time it didn’t mean much; you had little context to understand why they were now essentially outdated. There weren’t enough people to maintain lines of communication. People were isolated. Without anything at all to serve as a center of thinking, villagers believed strange things about the world around them.
This piece is meant to introduce some key names and events, and how they seeped past a major block of time, only to return Europe back to a position where there was enough time and energy among the citizenry to ruminate on anything beyond surviving. So if you’re at a party and someone contests your clever timeline regarding the Dark Ages, just remember if they’ve read more on the subject, they have less to do than you do.
The Term Itself…
The term Dark Ages is largely credited to Francisco Petrarch. Petrarch was a fourteenth century poet and scholar. Inventing the sonnet was among his most recognizable achievements. Petrarch is known as the “father of humanism,” a concept prevalent to driving the renaissance during his lifetime. His writings shaped much of how we view The Renaissance. Petrarch coined the label “Dark Ages.” Much like Elvis’s comeback special, it wasn’t called the “comeback special” until Elvis actually came back. The Dark Ages was given the moniker from the comfy chair of the Renaissance.
Petrarch has been criticized for being enamored with his own moment and perhaps a little enamored with himself—in such a way that for him to call a previous era “The Dark Ages” should be regarded as an act of hubris. But we also wouldn’t know much about the era without his work. One of his long-time projects was to translate the previous thousand years of writing to cement the history of Europe during the interim between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance beginning around 1300 C.E.
A-VERY-nother State of Mind
Youth Brigade carried their own punk philosophy across North America and assimilated with different punk scenes in the film Another State of Mind (1984). Imagine inching across Asia in a wooden cart with little knowledge of the world around you, traveling along China’s Silk Road. Although evidence suggests even earlier trade on and near this route, China’s Han Dynasty in early 200 C.E. is often a focal period suggesting the route had a serious effect on worldwide trade and consequently worldwide culture. From early 200 C.E. up to the point of the fall of the Roman Empire, cultural interaction can be documented outside of Roman providences on a large scale. Silk and spice were the main products, but political and religious viewpoints were also cross-pollinated with existing Korean, Japanese, Islamic, and Indian cultures.
What did many of these cultures have in common? Generally a sort of “might equals right” reality forced upon them by circumstance. Chinese dynasties changed as often as the power to overthrow one family came to another family. Islamic-controlled provinces occasionally resembled democracy, but the autonomous faith allowed individuals to make up their minds as to who would be in power. This struggle was often settled in battles between charismatic individuals, as opposed to philosophical debate. The biggest and strongest families often controlled Asia and North Africa. Caesar-esque squabbles among those families in power led to murder and corruption similar to Rome’s families. These are the tropes of much art and literature; arguably the most basic animal instincts mixing with growing diabolical intellect.
Outside of Rome, the concept of democracy was forming, but it was not a fully instinctive concept and it would take the world years to even put up a semblance of such a system of government. Even in modern times, you have to watch your ass. In the early years of motorcycle gangs, bikers could descend on a small town and wreak havoc, knowing a small-town sheriff’s office couldn’t handle the onslaught. The ability of a group’s welfare being tied to its ability to enforce its will was very much a worldwide reality. In 200 C.E there was simply nowhere for anyone to turn if a group bigger and stronger than yours felt they were more correct than you. If they wanted your stuff, your only choice was to roll the dice. The Roman Empire is largely thought to be one of the biggest and most organized societies of the time. But that never stopped its leaders from dying of unnatural causes.
So What Happened in Rome?
You might have raised an eyebrow earlier when The Dark Ages were cited as beginning on August 24, 410 C.E. How is the period traced to such a specific date? Of course there are a number of political and weather-related factors leading to the era known as The Dark Ages, but this specific August date marks the day Roman leaders were forced to open their doors to a mercenary named Alaric, a man who would become King Alaric I: the first King of the Visigoths. Alaric was at one time an employee of the realm who was fed up of poor treatment.
During the final years of The Roman Empire, the Romans slowly grew to rely on outside help for security. Hundreds of years of erosion of sensible Roman leadership caused the armies to be supplemented by bands of mercenaries. The Visigoths, or Goths as they were also known, were a group of united Germanic tribes from Western Europe, brought together largely by their enslavement by the Romans. These were roaming tribes: communities of people who survived by staying on the road and fighting when they had to. Rather than go to war with some of the tribes, The Romans hired some of them for security. If being a Roman citizen in the Roman regular army was hard living, being a mercenary-for-hire was much worse.
Among a long list of examples of what little regard the Romans had for their employees, they would trade starving Goths rotten meat for their children, effectively entering them into slavery. It wasn’t long before Alaric came to the realization: he could fight for rotten meat and a pittance, or just turn his sword around and unite his people. Alaric went to battle with the Romans, eventually cutting off all roads allowing trade outside the city’s walls. He starved the Romans out over a period of two years until they had no choice to let him in. The Romans had even turned to cannibalism before finally opening the gates on August 24, 410 C.E. The Visigoths took everything they could carry, but there was very little food left. The Dark Ages was tougher than its most famous characters. Alaric died later that year of a fever. The exact cause is lost to history, but his sacking of Rome was the ripple in time that would begin a long period of struggle.
People Moved to the Suburbs
After the fall of the empire, the most sensible hope of survival lay in relocating to areas around Rome: places where farming was better. The means and need to gather in cities to accommodate trade and share information dropped severely. This trend dissolved communities and forced people to be self-sufficient. Ramones albums were tucked far away in closets. People were less concerned with their homes being impressive and focused on protecting the family. Many homes were simply built: one- and two-room structures often built from brick stolen right from ruins left by the Romans. Famous Roman structures were torn apart for building materials. It must have been strange to look around and see the remains of some of the grand structures of Rome and realize something of that magnitude put there to serve the citizenry was then as distant a memory as the people who built it. A time could have arrived when people tearing the Coliseum apart for bricks might not have even known entirely what the building was for in the first place, or what went on there, relying only on word of mouth for historical references about a rich society that existed before them.
Christianity was gaining favor across Europe after it was made legal in 312 C.E. by Emperor Constantine. But Christianity was largely a fad up to this point. Large gangs of roaming groups often led by worshipers of polytheistic figures were in charge over much of Europe.
The Franks were Germanic tribes covering southern Europe and some of the first to get their act together in terms of forming successful settlements. Clovis was a barbarian king of a Frankish tribe, ruling much over a large swath of what is now France. He was one of the first kings to convert to Christianity and his popularity united many Frankish tribes. But Christianity was largely just a political handle to Clovis. He was not opposed to killing those around him to get power. He was smart enough to see the selling points of Christianity by convincing a lot of people a single “God” was on his side. People had little to go on during this time. This type of naiveté made Christianity a major tool for scaring people into doing things. The idea of a nicer afterlife was appealing. Clovis converted to Christianity in 496 C.E. and gained further acclaim by stopping the Visigoths, defeating Alaric II with his newly Christian-ed warriors. Clovis was baptized in 508 C.E. His newfound religion didn’t stop him from killing many candidates for his job, as was the practice. But the unification under a monotheistic King was appealing to millions of people who were unable to attach themselves to a regular community or belief system. Much like how the internet has united punk rockers around the world, small bands of people with little communication were starting to have a mappable and united way of life.
While Clovis’s efforts to unite what would become the French were having their effect on land settlement, the Eastern shores of The Roman Empire were still under the leadership of what was left of Rome. Alaric’s attacks all but destroyed the Western empire: the half of the empire most often portrayed by Shakespeare and the media. The Eastern shores of the Roman Empire controlling Greece, Turkey, and Egypt were somewhat unaffected by the events defining the classic concept of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Trade ruled the eastern shores and through continued efforts to run the East as business as usual, a leader in the East rose to greater power. Justinian I (482-565 C.E.) had the wild ambition to reunite the East and Western branches of The Empire and rule over one large Roman Empire.
Justinian the First’s (also known as Justinian the Great) concerns were largely financial. He was heinously corrupt and a pathological liar. Donald Trump’s techniques for governing would have allowed him to flourish during this time. Justinian would alter and forge wills. He would withhold pay from his troops and say they donated their wages to honor their leader. (As of this writing, we are currently in a government shutdown in the United States.) Justinian lied and cheated to the point where the citizenry could see through his tactics.
The citizenry had had enough by 532 C.E. Tens of thousands of citizens of Constantinople were killed during the Nika Riots, one of the most violent riots in history. After a week of uncontrollable fighting and damage to the city, Justinian and his wife Theodora were nearly run out of town. Theodora stopped dramatically halfway down the dock on the way to a ship charged with getting them out of town. She said she wasn’t ready to be a civilian and would rather die a queen. She is said to have proclaimed: “Royalty is a fine burial shroud,” and somehow Justinian’s men were eventually able to overpower their pursuers.
The Nika Riots left nearly 30,000 citizens dead and led to many senatorial executions. Besides the deaths claimed by the riot, Justinian himself put up large numbers cleaning house. He killed all of his advisors. He was able to resurrect control and eventually march west—hoping to unite Rome once again—creating a unified empire. By 542 C.E. he had as strong of a hold on Europe as anyone since Alaric sacked the Western region. But amid these dreams of uniting the Roman Empire stalked a problem no one saw coming.
The Bubonic Plague
As trade flourished in the East, stowaway rats carrying the bubonic plague traveled to populated areas along trade lines and on to where goods were shipped. Fever. Chills. Hallucinations. Sensitivity to light. Tumors and muscle spasms. In three days you were likely to experience intense groin pain. Flashes of some of the worst grindcore album covers you’ve ever seen can’t prepare you for death by the bubonic plague. One hundred million people were killed across Europe. That’s approximately the same amount of people who died fighting in World War One and World War Two combined. Your chances of survival were minimal. Even Justinian got the plague. But Justinian was among the small percentage of those who survived the disease. It kept a lid on the final attempts to make Rome relevant for a while. Western Europe continued to fall under control of whoever was nearby and had an army.
The loss of nearly half of Europe’s population to the plague hindered every effort towards unification. The plague also showed its head in the sixth and seventh centuries, keeping the European population low and causing a natural barrier for settlement. Justinian lived a long life, but the plague ravaged his brain. He became paranoid and rode his constituents into a consistently weakened state. After his death, the last vestiges of Rome were relegated to the annals of history. The Franks were becoming the largest organized group, but there were many other Germanic tribes keen to keep Europe in turmoil for hundreds of years.
Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was a Moorish leader recognizing Europe’s deterioration. Many North African communities were united under Islam, but did not have the high numbers of armies to compete with Rome. Leaders like Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi were flourishing in their ability to acquire and settle land with Rome out of the way.
Europe came across as easy prey to Ghafiqi and his North African armies. Fifty thousand men tore through France, making quick work of the small tribes of unorganized Franks. Rahman finally presented a formidable enemy to the loosely knit bands of Frankish tribes. The Moors were successful until the rise of a European leader named Charles “The Hammer” Martel. By 732 C.E., the direction of the conflict between Franks and Moors changed drastically. Martel traveled around to farming communities and small towns. He convinced the Franks to get organized, become soldiers, and fight an organized battle against the Moors.
Ghafiqi was killed in battle and Martel gained the reputation and the spoils of the Moors’ campaign. Charles “The Hammer” Martel became a rock star. He was one of those Dark Ages personalities whose story was shared across sprawling and empty Europe. His name would help one of his descendents become one of the biggest personalities of the era.
Charlemagne was the grandson of Charles “The Hammer” Martel. Charlemagne is known as “the father of Europe”—was the first person to be crowned “Emperor of the Romans” on December 25, 800 C.E.—and became the first person to hold the title since the fall of the Roman Empire. This was effectively the beginning of The Holy Roman Empire: the biggest resurgence of Roman rule and an era informally marking the reform linking The Dark Ages and The Renaissance.
Charlemagne was ruthless in his pursuit of the crown. His younger brother Carloman I was in charge of half of the kingdom after their father’s death. Carloman I died mysteriously, leaving Charlemagne head of the entire kingdom. No one directly knows the cause of Carloman’s death, but Charlemagne became known for killing relations indiscriminately to secure lands and titles for himself. As a twenty-four-year-old landowner, he held the largest land unification in Europe since the Western empire. Charlemagne defeated a troublesome Germanic tribe occupying the region of the North Sea called The Saxons. In 782 C.E. 4,500 Saxons were killed during The Bloody Verdict of Verden: an event exemplifying the ruthlessness of his campaigns.
But Charlemagne was also beloved by many of his constituents for reasons other than force. He favored education, built schools, and learned to read during a time when reading was considered monk work, not warrior work. He supported programs creating options for his constituents. His delving into Christianity didn’t stop him from being a swinger. Charlemagne had five girlfriends and five wives in the court, his undocumented lovers thought to be in the hundreds. Charlemagne became the biggest star of The Dark Ages, dying in 814 C.E. and leaving his ample legacy to a son who was not disputed—since Charlemagne eliminated a lot of his family.
June 8, 793 C.E.
A group shaping the later segment of The Dark Ages and continuing to pose a threat between Europe and North Africa until the fourteenth century would make
themselves known to Europe on June 8, 793 C.E. On the island of Lindisfarne, just south of the Scottish border, monks looking towards the sea saw strange, low-floating boats appear on the horizon. Once on the shore, these Norwegian sailors ran ashore killing everyone in sight and taking their things. They were not concerned with the changes Charlemagne’s policies were having. They were the notorious Vikings, and from that moment they made themselves known across Europe for about five hundred years.
If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another
One of the great Dark Age paradoxes comes in the form of irony so strong it sounds like a joke. Once Vikings took to settling and became part of the landscape of Europe, many knights paid to defend recently united European interests were now over-trained, battle tested, and out of work. Knights trained to protect and serve often became thugs. They either banded together in unstoppable gangs or worked as mercenaries for the rich to bully excessive taxes out of their constituents. Or they just made a nuisance of themselves at a Hollywood show by dancing too hard. But as The Crusades created a united Europe, knights began to find jobs in their fields. Weather changes allowed for better farming and surpluses to be traded. Through trade, education and free time slowly seeped into the skeletal makeup of the European lifestyle. Things were still rough. It was not instantaneous, but over the next five hundred years or so, people formed stronger communities and defined cultural borders. Slow advances paved the way for the Renaissance and by around 1300 C.E., people like Petrarch would be allotted the free time to reflect on history and how it led to him.
So How Do We Know a Lot of This?
In 731 C.E. a monk named Venerable Bede completed The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. His writing covered the time from 55 B.C.E. to 731 C.E. and included events and ideas from books he protected from being destroyed for contradicting Catholicism. His library of 250 books was one of the largest of its kind at the time. So remember Bede when you curse having to move boxes of records, demos, back issues of zines, or bootleg DVDs of Don Letts and Penelope Spheeris documentaries.
The Dark Ages was a bleak era for Europe. From the peasants staring out the front door waiting for the weather to change enough to farm, to monks patiently transcribing words on the off chance it would matter to someone down the line, to victims of Viking violence—it was a dreary time. Yet this small microcosm of events and characters exemplify attitudes toward life and government still visible in the psyche of modern society. Humanity really had to push back with little hope of bettering their situation. The world becomes a smaller place when you realize hundreds of years can pass without much changing in the average person’s everyday life.
Julius Caesar pretended the republic was safe until the opportunity to declare himself “dictator for life” arose. Today, much like Rome, we have dictators posing as leaders of a republic. Rome struggled with this problem so many times the republic eventually disintegrated into anarchy. Politicians argued so much about how to treat their mercenaries, it never occurred to them their own employees would seize the opportunity to take over. What would it be like if that was the next step for America? We think we’re immune, but we have a president currently trying to circumvent Congress—to evade checks and balances put into place for our protection. It’s not impossible to imagine America hiding reality behind piles and piles of academic arguments.
There may have been people during the Dark Ages who could only theorize on what the aqueducts were used for while pulling bricks from The Coliseum to build makeshift homes. A friend of mine was recently asked what his iPod was. Can you imagine your great great grandchild writing a paper on what they think a computer café was? We’re used to technology changing quickly. So used to it, the damage it does can sometimes not be obvious. Does having technology and an understanding of history make a difference? Compare the Dark Ages’ lack of information to the deluge of data of the modern age where all of our information is logged, from where we travel to what shoes we buy. Is history just data and society’s preferred interpretation of it? We’re slaves to massive, invasive, and intangible things: distractions of the modern age cloaked as important life decisions. Too much information can over saturate as easily as much as lack of information can deplete.
We believe we’re free to choose, but we are only as free as our choices. How important would our cell phones be if they all went dead? Is it impossible? There may have been Roman citizens who believed the aqueducts would always be available to them. It’s hard to say if Europeans progressed beyond the era because of or in spite of these hardships. Does studying The Dark Ages mean we can avoid it? We think we’re past regressing as a society, but it’s possible the Romans felt similarly on August 24, 410 C.E.
Bradley, Henry. “The Story of the Goths: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion.” Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Charles River Editors. “Justinian the Great: The Life and Legacy of the Byzantine Emperor.” Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Dark Ages, The. Christopher Cassel (dir). A&E Home Video, 2007.
Hourly History. “Charlemagne: A Life from Beginning to End.” Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Oman, Charles. The Dark Ages. Augustine Books: United States, 2017.
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