No other historical age has suffered more at the hands of historians than the so-called Dark Ages, the period between the 5th and 15th century AD. The medieval period as a dark age has been one of the most enduring legacies of past historiography, while scholars – medievalists, but not exclusively – have tried hard to dislodge one of the most unwavering myths of the modern period, by shining lights on the debt we inherited ever since the Renaissance.
The age of darkness is a complicated concept, whatever period or age it may be aimed at. The proto-humanist Petrarch is usually credited with the ‘invention’ of the Middle Ages as a dark age, when he referred to the post-classical age as an age of tenebrae, of darkness. Petrarch’s conception of history was as complex as his pronouncement. It took him years to develop a framework of periodisation in which the classical past and the Christian continuation stood in stark contrast with each other. Nor was classical antiquity for him simply light and whatever followed simply dark. As early as XXX, Petrarch had adopted the typically medieval conception of history whereby the period before the coming of Christ was lying in darkness, but that the Incarnation lit the world, the age, and history, up. The metaphor of light was an old one, and its application to history was anything but original. Yet, Petrarch was able to hold both views thanks to what is often referred to as the principle of bipolarity. Theologically, transcendentally, under the aspect of eternity, the post-classical past (the medieval period, that is) was one of enlightenment prompted by the Incarnation. Under all other aspects, and especially under that of culture, we’d say – although the concept of culture was foreign to Petrarch and his contemporaries –, the medieval period was benighted, having lost the light of the ancient past. Not any ancient past, but that of Rome: ‘What else, then, is all history, if not the praise of Rome?’, Petrarch is often quoted saying these words, but, as Theodore Mommsen observed, this elevated conception of the classical past came towards the end of Petrarch’s life.
Petrarch had the sense of living in an age of decadence. His humanist literary output, his treatises, letters, etc, testify to a nostalgic desire of recovering what’s been lost. The age of tenebrae which he inhabited was going to change: not from darkness to light, but from one kind of light to another.