The light in the Dark Ages

While Europe floundered, the British Isles continued to create great art.
The Chi-Rho monogram from the Book of Kells, courtesy of Trinity College Library, Dublin
If you went to school back in the last millennium, you learned that western civilization fell off a precipice with the Sack of Rome. What followed were centuries of Germanic tribes overrunning, displacing and reshaping the former Roman Empire. This was the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of a long period of unrest.
International trade and social ties across Europe collapsed rapidly. The many Roman industries that required cooperation and transportation ended. These included pottery, glass, olives, wine, African grain, Chinese silk, Indian spices and much more. Systematic agriculture vanished, along with most organized education. The military posts that had created cultured society on the outposts of Empire were gone.
We have ways of estimating the impact of these changes. One is population decline. In formerly-Roman Europe, there was a population drop of about one-third between 150 and 600 AD. Then came a series of plagues that knocked off another half of the population.
Ancient shipping is measured in shipwrecks. They fell off abruptly after the fall of Rome. Europe was extensively reforested as farming declined.
The Great Buckle from Sutton Hoo, courtesy of the British Museum
Britain always stood uneasily on the rim of the Roman Empire. It had less to lose. While the rest of Europe was floundering, “Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, medicine, and organisation of land and taxes,” according to Dr. Claire Breay. She curated Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Words, War, now at the British Library. If I were in a mood to travel, I’d go.
Almost a thousand books written or owned in Medieval England have survived. These include the Domesday Book, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a hymn by England’s first poet, Cædmon, and the epic poem, Beowulf. In addition, written law codes, wills, and account books show a people who could, at minimum, keep their own affairs in order.
Th’ owd Man is an Anglo-Saxon carving in St Mary’s Church, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. It is the oldest-known depiction of a miner. Courtesy
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not convert to Christianity until the late 6th century. The missionary Augustine was invited by Bertha, the wife of King Æthelberht of Kent. Bertha was literate enough to exchange letters with Pope Gregory the Great. She had the influence to bring about the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.
Christianity sparked a new literacy in Britain, both in English and Latin. At the forefront were abbesses, women of high status who presided over double monasterieswhere both men and women served. These were the major cultural, economic, and intellectual centers of their day. Anglo-Saxon women could inherit and bequeath property. Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, ruled Mercia in her own right, kicked the Vikings out of Mercia, and defended and fortified her cities. According to researcher Christine Fell, women were “near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time.”
Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) was the most famous abbess of her day, a wise woman consulted by kings.  
We know Anglo-Saxon art mainly from manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest existing copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Christianity discouraged the burial of grave goods but their pagan predecessors had no such scruples. Both groups left a tremendous legacy of metalwork, textiles, ivory carvings, wall paintings, and monuments.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive embroidered wall-hanging commemorating the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest. It was designed and executed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists.
And then, in 1066 AD, it suddenly ended. The Norman Conquestmeant a massive plundering of the churches and courts by the new ruling class. They had little interest in the arts. Eventually, the Norman influence would create a new art—perhaps the greatest in British history—but for the moment, the light of the so-called Dark Ages was snuffed out.