A little light on the Dark Ages

K R Dark Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800 Leicester University Press 1999

Continuity used to be a dirty word for certain old-style archaeologists, wedded as they were to the concept of “waves” of invaders to the British Isles and keen to stave off latter-day druid mystics and leyline enthusiasts. Now the balance has righted a bit, it is good to see attempts to address the likely dynamics of social, cultural, political and religious change in the post-Roman period.

Ken Dark’s study first appeared in hardback in 1994, and apart from minor corrections remains essentially unchanged in the paperback edition. He looks at how nearly four centuries of Roman rule may not have entirely obliterated the pre-Roman Iron Age polities of England and Wales (what are still known as tribes, unfortunately with all the primitivism and barbarism associated with that term), and discusses the meagre evidence for continuity via Romano-British civitates to successor Celtic kingdoms. He of necessity takes a cautious, even minimalist, view of that evidence, questioning assumptions (such as the value of the later Llandaff charters for the early history of this period) but also speculating on the possible survival of artefacts (such as the Late Antique illuminated manuscript Vergilius Romanus, which he argues was produced in sub-Roman Britain, with all that implies for cultural continuity).

The text is reference-driven, which doesn’t make for smooth and easy reading. That aside, the overall thrust of Dark’s argument is fairly clear and, to this reader at least, mostly persuasive. But then I’ve always thought cultural continuity during this period of transition was stronger than was often allowed, and indeed inherently more likely despite the paucity of evidence, especially as the archaeological evidence continues to emerge from the ground and as assiduous scholars re-evaluate what already exists.

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3 thoughts on “A little light on the Dark Ages

  1. This review was first done about a decade ago, when I was very involved with post-Roman matters. I’ve delved into the book a couple of times since, with some reward, but it would be interesting to re-read it properly to see if it still stands the test of time: so much more archaeology has come to light since, and of course scholarship doesn’t stand still!

  2. The book is seminal in political boundaries, using religious figures to establish kingdoms and phenomenal amount of information on the Late Roman Empire to establish the political and economic transition into British states. What I loved is that he was a student of David Dumville, the most feared scholar in the field at the time. That meant his scholarship had to be solid.

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