The Darkest Ages

My third grade social studies book went out of its way to explain that, “Contrary to its name, the Dark Ages were no darker than what we see today.” Even as a 10-year-old, this seemed like a stupid thing to tell a kid. Who would ever have gotten in to their heads that the world was darker back then? Why would you need to point this out to anyone? And don’t the people who write textbooks realize that a 3rd grade kid will remember the ridiculous things you say are not true much longer than anything you are actually trying to get into their heads?

Here’s a joke on the publisher, though — the Dark Ages actually were darker! Not the whole span, of course. That would be ridiculous. But there was a year in there where some people really did think the world had been plunged into darkness.

The year was 536 AD and, while we don’t know conclusively what caused it (science is still split between blaming an asteroid and a volcano near Asia), we do know that some catastrophic event kicked up so much debris in the atmosphere that it blotted the sun for much of the northern hemisphere.

Asia had it the worst, and legend says they could not distinguish night from day for at least a week after the incident happened. In England, scholars wrote that “they despaired of ever again seeing the sun.” Throughout Europe, the sun was so dimmed that people believed the sun was in its death throes. Such pessimism was warranted from people who watched it snow for eighteen straight months.

You’d imagine that they rejoiced when the skies cleared and normal weather patterns returned .. but you’d be wrong.

I’m sure a spring fever of sorts hit everyone, but meanwhile everywhere on the continents they were dealing with the after-effects of such drastic climate change: crop failures, famine, strange new fungi, and, worse, other people.

The crop failures were inevitable, which lead to the famines. It is estimated that in the remote regions of China as high as 80% of the population was wiped out.

From Egypt to Europe, the people who lived to see the crops returning got another nasty surprise in the form of the world’s first reported plague. The Justinian Plague, a direct result of the emerging strains of bacteria from the erratic temperatures, was the earlier cousin of the Black Plague, and just as horrid.

And the people? This led to a number of major migrations, particularly in the Steppes of Asia, when people realized the futility of growing food on a mountainside in perpetual darkness, set out for more arable lands, and seized them, borders be damned. Guess who was the best at this? The Mongol hordes. Hoo-boy, those barbarians knew how to shake things up!

I wonder if it’s too late to write to that textbook publisher and ask for an amendment to the passage that bothered me so much:
The Dark Ages were no darker than any other times … except the bits involving the Mongols.

Photo credit: Kyle Johnson on

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