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The Not So Dark Ages

In search of light in medieval times

Published: 20 Jul 2023
It was Francis Petrarch who coined the expression "Dark Ages" to define the confused period from the end of the Roman Empire to what would later be called the Renaissance. It is a period we also call the Middle Ages or Medieval period, following Vasari’s lead, and it still has a bad reputation for being an era of artistic and intellectual darkness, lacking invention and genius. This term, Dark Ages, is naturally seen as the opposite of the Enlightenment. However, the negative connotation of this historical period, which ends in schoolbooks in 1492, with the "discovery" of America, is now widely questioned by scholars, who prefer to emphasize the advances and achievements in art and thought that took place. In popular culture, however, its murky image persists.

And one of the clichés that frequently crops up concerns illumination, as it is widely believed that people in the Middle Ages went to bed as soon as it got dark. But that was not the case. Evidence for this can be found in the original and fascinating research conducted by the historian Beatrice del Bo, Professor of Medieval Economic and Social History at the University of Milan, recently published under the title, L’età del lume (The Age of Candlelight - il Mulino). This work, in fact, asks precisely that question: how were domestic environments, public spaces, and life in general illuminated in the Dark Ages? In this history of light, we explore the ingenuity of medieval craftsmen in constructing lighting tools and using them in different ways, from the homes of lords to monastery libraries. It also shows to what extent the opportunity of having light after dark was a status symbol.
The Not So Dark Ages
“Are we sure that once the sun went down, millions of men and women surrendered to the dark, laying down their work tools, from the loom to the plough, as if they had been defeated by the dusk that made them eat in a rush and then hurry to bed to wait for a new dawn?” asks Del Bo. And we are not talking about just torches and bonfires. Houses and churches, of course, but also taverns where people gambled, brothels, public festivals, banquets and ceremonies all needed light. So, it is no coincidence that lamps and other instruments were invented in this period precisely so that candles could be used during a dinner for a special guest or to study the Bible in a monastery. And these objects were not simple, rough items, but often beautifully crafted artefacts with gold details decorated with anthropomorphic, animal and floral motifs. In many countries, for example, the candle was considered a basic commodity, like bread, with an affordable price guaranteed by the authorities.

The journey in pursuit of light that we take in this book also shows us the hidden origins of design and light designing - the candlesticks, candelabra, candle holders, and the candles themselves too. The ingenuity displayed in these forms of lighting are a sign of how human beings, even a thousand years ago, had a special interest in illuminating spaces and therefore being able to enjoy the evening or night-time, for lawful or unlawful reasons, without having to depend on the rhythm of the sun and the seasons. As Beatrice Del Bo writes, “the medieval night is much less dark than we think.”