For a while now, whenever someone such as yourself asserted that the “Dark Ages” was a misnomer and there was actually quite a bit of technological advance that took place, I would usually just nod my head in agreement. It seemed evident that Europe hadn’t descended into utter backwardness and darkness. But in the back of my mind I had also assumed that there certainly was retrogression after the fall of Rome; at least until the High Middle Ages. After all, just look at the awe-inspiring ruins of Rome we can still see today. Early medieval people produced nothing of the sort. My question is this: had I fallen into the sort of statist rendering of history by focusing on the grandiose trappings of the imperial regime, and overlooked the quality of life of the average person living within the empire? Would you say that the average person living in Europe in, say, the 8th century had improved from those Europeans living under Roman rule in, say, the 4th century?
I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s ‘Victory of Reason,’ where he asserts on p42 that the average European in the Dark Ages ate better and was “healthier” than their earlier counterparts. This was sort of a shocking claim, because I had never really thought of it that way before (he doesn’t provide a precise point at which this took place). Any insight would be very helpful. Thank you very much, I’ve really enjoyed your lectures and have learned a great deal from them
There will be some variations of living standards depending on time and place, but for the average person the sixth-century standard of living was probably not much different from the fifth-century standard of living, for example. In some cases living standards may actually have improved because of lower taxation.
Of course, marks of civilization are more than just living standards of the common people. It’s definitely true that many of the refinements of civilization among the middle and upper classes were less in the 6th-8th centuries than they were under the Roman Empire. In that sense, civilization did take some steps backwards in those years before reviving.