The Dark Ages on The History Channel

The History Channel will air The Dark Ages Sunday, March 4, at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Photo: "River of blood runs down cobblestone street as Visigoths attack and plunder." Photograph by Will Hart; courtesy of The History Channel.

As soon as I saw the tagline -- "When the world resigned from the human race" -- I thought, oh, no....

I wanted to find something redeemable in The History Channel's presentation of The Dark Ages.

After THC's reasonably accurate and well-crafted piece on The Crusades, I had high hopes (well, hopes, at any rate) for at least a balanced introduction to the centuries following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. But this is popular history at its most sensational. What fun is it to explain how misleading past representations have been when you can perpetuate those misrepresentations with fearsome-looking Barbarians, effite Byzantines, plague-ridden corpses and tortured Frankish captives? And let's not forget the actors in dull clothing, faces dirty and hair tangled, looking listlessly into a rainy gray landscape while the narrator intones how "unnerving" everyday life was.

In no way do I mean to imply that the Early Medieval Era was a fun time to be alive. I wouldn't want to go back to the 5th century -- but then, I wouldn't want to go back to a time when I didn't have TiVo. The entire Middle Ages was no walk in the park, and only the most powerful families could enjoy any real safety, stability, and comfort -- at least, by modern standards.

But the same could be said for countless cultures and time periods before the 20th century.

And while there are numerous minor errors, many of the basic facts presented in The Dark Ages are correct -- as far as they go. The problem is, the filmmakers only show you part of the picture. And what they do show you is heavily-slanted toward how absolutely dreadful things must have been.

Yes, there was war. And it might be considered "ever-present" -- if you look at the entire continent. But pick any individual, or family, or even a whole village, and chances are that they would neither be witness to battle nor affected by the repercussions of war more than once or twice in their lives -- if at all. Millions of people got through life without being attacked by an invader. Ever.

Yes, there was plague, and in Constantinople in the 6th century, it got really bad. It's estimated that at one point, half the population of the city was struck down. This is pretty horrible, for Constantinople at least, but it isn't nearly as bad as the Black Death of the 14th century, nor was it a constant fact of life.

The image is meant to be of King Alaric. I have no idea why he's got horns. I know the Vikings didn't wear them, but I never imagined Visigoths did. Or did they? Photograph by Will Hart; courtesy of The History Channel.

Yes, there were many Barbarian migrations during the early Middle Ages. The program demonstrates as much with a map depicting those migrations in glowing lines of fire. They criss-cross western Europe and appear to set the continent ablaze. However, most of these migrations were just that: migrations, not invasions.

And when you see that map, keep in mind that each line was usually a rather slow progression that took years, and each line can be separated from most of the others by at least a decade and as much as a century.

And yes, it might be said that civilization had a "downshift" in this time period. But to get some perspective, take this into consideration:

  • The transformation in what had been the Roman Empire was so gradual that it took centuries.
  • Large portions of northern Europe had never been part of the Empire to begin with, so for them, little had changed.
  • Many -- if not most -- of the people in western Europe were of Barbarian stock, for whom settling next to Roman cities and exploiting ancient buildings as quarries was actually a step up from wandering in search of a home.
  • The Byzantine Empire and the growing Catholic Church preserved and expanded on ancient learning. There was intolerance, but there was also encouragement, spirituality, and light.
  • Sweeping generalizations often mislead more than they enlighten.

I could go on and on -- I'm sure most of you think I've gone on too long. But I really wanted to like The Dark Ages, and I'm truly sorry to say I can't recommend it. (I'm really sorry I had to sit through the whole thing to come to this conclusion.) If you know next to nothing of the Middle Ages, the early part in particular, watching this special won't help you much. I suggest you check out these resources to learn the facts about this complex and distant time period:

  • The Dark-Age Quiz
    This relatively easy quiz provides a general introduction to the Early Middle Ages
  • The Early Middle Ages
    These directories lead to sites that explore Europe during "the Dark Ages"
  • Top Picks in General Medieval History Books
    These books cover the entire Middle Ages, but they also offer sound coverage of the Early Middle Ages, too.

If you do know something about the Early Middle Ages, and can stomach the heavy-handed tone and the shopworn clichés, please consider visiting our forum to discuss the show, suggest useful books, and point out any mistakes you catch. In fact, when watching the show, you might have fun by making a game of spot-the-error. Just don't make it a drinking game -- you'll be thoroughly sloshed before the first commercial.

Image: "Viking killing machine readies for battle." Clearly this program doesn't buy into the theory that Vikings were more than vicious killing machines. Photograph by Will Hart; courtesy of The History Channel.

The History Channel has some trailers and film clips to view at YouTube.

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