The End of the Dark Ages

Joseph Mitchell and Helen Mitchell present two viewpoints concerning the end of the Dark Ages. They specifically ask the question, “When does the period of the Dark Ages end?”1 Mitchell and Mitchell present excerpts from Kevin Reilly and Joseph Dahmus that argue two differing viewpoints. Reilly argues that the ninth century was marked with violence that still continues to this day while Dahmus contends that the ninth century is more of a turning point than it is a continuation of a violent culture.

The main point behind Reilly’s arguments is that necessity was the driving force behind the actions of the medieval people. People only acted in ways that preserved life. Peasants literally worked from sunrise to sunset because it was necessary for survival.

Early on, the only life the barbarians knew was a life of violence. This was evident by the numerous conquests and raids that were conducted by the barbarian people. As nomadic people, barbarians traveled across the countryside as they consumed what was produced—at this point in history, there was rarely any surplus.

Families often engaged in bloody feuds that spanned many generations. If a family member committed an offense against another individual, the victim’s family would seek vengeance. This, in turn, would spark retribution from the original offender’s family. The process was self-perpetuating and unfruitful.

The barbarian invasions and conquests eventually declined by the sixth and seventh centuries. Barbarian tribes settled down and became more agrarian rather than nomadic. This had a profound effect on the daily life of each person. Life was more stable as people developed daily routines. Tax collection was more systematic and laws were better codified.

This time period also saw a change in how personal responsibility was viewed. Blood prices were imposed and attitudes eventually changed concerning violence between persons. Rather than seeking revenge, penalties were enforced to discourage crime.

Despite the depiction of knights in movies, feudalism was society’s response to emerging military demands. Since armor and weapons were expensive, Knights were granted plots of land by the king in exchange for military service. The land was the knight’s compensation. The expensive endeavor of creating a knighthood was a direct response to the Hungarian, Moslem, and Viking threats.

Although the Dark Ages are filled with strife and violence, this time period also marks a new era. Dahmus argues that Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, was a key person during the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne had many traits that made him memorable. He was a tall individual who had a stately presence about himself. He was also known for having an even temperament. While other kings were known for being prone to outbursts of anger, Charlemagne did not easily give in to emotion. Despite questionable relationships with mistresses, Charlemagne was considered by his peers to be a dedicated Christian.

Charlemagne enjoyed victories against two major foes: the Moslems and the Saxons. After suffering earlier defeats from the Moslems in Spain, Charlemagne was eventually able to take over the western part of Spain up to the Ebro River. The Saxons was Charlemagne’s toughest opponent. Charlemagne’s policy of deportation eventually led to his victory against the Saxons.

Due, in part, to the constant battles with the Vikings in Northern Europe, the Frankish empire appeared on the brink of collapse at the end of Charlemagne’s reign. Another significant factor was the inefficient administrative system that hampered many of the Frankish kings.

During Charlemagne’s life, he concerned himself with a wide variety of issues. Charlemagne’s concern for education was apparent by his people’s renewed interest in learning. Charlemagne read The City of God, by St. Augustine, and issued many decrees concerning theology.

The excerpts of Reilly and Dahmus’ works show that there is one thing that is certain; the ninth century saw an evolving European landscape. The incredible void left by the fallen Roman Empire caused turmoil, violence, and bloodshed as tribes vied for control of the land. The violence only continued as evidenced by the subsequent Crusades. Peace was only preserved through bloodshed and kings knew that a stagnant kingdom would eventually fall to its neighbors.


  1. Joseph R. Mitchell and Helen Buss Mitchell, editors. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in World History. Volume I. (Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2002).
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