King Arthur and his legendary Knights of the Round Table; the heroic King of Wessex, Alfred the Great; hordes of Viking invaders – there’s nothing like a good early-medieval tale. Nostalgia for the Dark Ages is nothing new and we’ve put together a collection of material on people revelling in the trappings of that period and culture.
Strictly speaking, there weren’t really any “Dark Ages”. They are more a creation of popular culture than any historical reality and academics today discourage use of the term as judgemental and inaccurate. Indeed, many inventions of the so-called Dark Ages are still in use today, so there’s much to celebrate in the era after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
In this post, we celebrate just a few things that have survived from the Dark Ages into the Twentieth Century through footage within the British Pathé archive. More clips can be found in our collection here.
1. The foundation of the English language
It wouldn’t be easy for us to pick up a 5th-century Old English manuscript and read it like we would a modern-day novel. Indeed, here is a short passage from Beowulf, written some time between the 8th and the 11th centuries:
Hwæt. We Gardena in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Translated, this would be:
What. We of the Spear-Danes in old days of the people-kings, power heard, how the princes brave deeds did.*
It is hard to believe that this Old English passage bears much relation to our own language, but this is the root of the way we write and speak; a language which would evolve over the centuries; a language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dan Brown.
2. English Christianity
In 597 AD, the Benedictine monk Augustine arrived on the pagan shores of early-medieval Britain on a mission to spread Christianity on behalf of the Pope. Augustine is known as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, a position that has survived to the present day.
3. The Blast Furnace
The first to invent the Blast Furnace were the Chinese in the 5th century. Western Europe, on the other hand, would not catch up until the 12th century. But the “Dark Ages” did introduce something similar and very close to it. That was the Catalan forge, created in Catalonia, Spain during the 8th century.
4. The Horseshoe
Nailed horseshoes were an innovation of the “Dark Ages”, possibly from the 9th century, allowing horses to more easily traverse difficult territory without causing harm to their hooves.
5. The English Navy
The earliest references to ships used by English kings in battle come from the “Dark Ages”. It was the threat of Viking invaders that propelled the formation of a navy on a large scale during the course of the 9th century, particularly under King Alfred the Great. Over the centuries, Britain grew into the world’s greatest maritime power, before declining significantly in influence during the 20th century.
The office of sheriff has had a varying meaning depending on the period and the particular country. In England it is now a ceremonial position, but in the 10th century it was a “keeper of the peace” appointed by the king and was known as a “shire reeve”, somewhat akin to the modern-day American police officer.
7. The English Monarchy
Alfred the Great was the first to style himself as “King of the English”, but it was King Aethelstan in the 10th century who really ruled what we would consider to be an English kingdom. Polls show that the British have no desire to rid themselves of this historic institution.
Can you think of any more? Object to any of our choices? Leave us a comment.
You can find all of the above films and many more in this collection.