Light in the Dark Ages
The Dark Ages in Europe, the centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire, were not as dark as we used to think, although they did not possess the political, cultural and economic grandeur of the Roman Empire. Nor did Europe match Muslim civilization in terms of wealth and technical ingenuity. Products and technologies for the manufacture of sugar, paper, cotton and fine fabrics, chemicals for dying and glassmaking, would be imported during subsequent centuries. However, modern historians are now rewriting the history of the sixth to ninth centuries, and the prevailing pessimistic view is giving way to a more nuanced view of what happened after the decline of the Roman Empire. Settlements were abandoned and cities lost population and skills; roads deteriorated because of lack of proper maintenance; political maps were redrawn and social order was difficult to maintain; money was scarce and uniform coinage was lacking; income fell for ordinary people as well as the rich. Income declined because traditional trade links had been disrupted and because the social disorder and declining population could not support the infrastructure of public institutions and roads, markets and fairs, or the division of labour and specialization of the previous centuries. Income per head did not attain the peak level reached in the Roman period until the twelfth or thirteenth century in the most advanced parts of Europe.
In one respect this age remains dark: we do not have much written documentation, so we have to rely on archaeological evidence which is difficult to interpret. Historians use numismatic evidence, deposits of pottery and metal utensils; they analyse the nature and extension of settlements and of course the few written documents that are available. By locating coins you can, with a critical eye, trace trade links, for example. The extension of a market network can be revealed by the diffusion of specific types of pottery, jewellery and coins.