A time of anarchy and chaos (roughly 500 - 1500 AD), when people were disease-ridden and covered with filth, unless one happened to be king... at least, if you believe what Hollywood says about them — according to real modern historians this is a load of cobblers based purely on the fact that we don't have many documents from that time.
In Hollywood Land, however, this was a time of muck and more muck. The cleanest—and most well-known—figure of this period generally ends up being Arthur, King (...ish) of the Britons, who had a round table, around which sat his band of noble and chivalrous
knights blokes with big swords (many of whom proved not so noble and chivalrous once left to their own devices) note . Since most accounts of Arthur were written centuries after he supposedly lived, and featured fashion and architecture from the time they were written, many Hollywood 'historians' lump him in with The High Middle Ages (but hey, since when have they been sticklers for accuracy?).
This period heralded the fall and division of the Western Roman Empire (the Eastern half was able to survive as the Byzantine Empire...which was never known as Byzantine until a century after it fell), and the rise of monasticism in Europe. Hollywood monks are pious men, clad in long brown robes, with rosaries and tonsure haircuts. They spend their days dipping feathered quills into inkwells and scribbling strange script into large books by candlelight. That is, when they're not out chasing lusty, busty tavern wenches. Hollywood monks don't take that whole “celibacy” thing all that seriously. Neither, in fact, did the regular clergy; celibacy did not become a requirement of the priesthood until very late in the Middle Ages. It was, however, mandated in nearly every set of monastic rules, including those of Benedict. It was also a time of interesting contrasts: during this period, Christian and Pagan folklore and traditions were syncretized in the minds of the public, which gave rise to some of the most famous mythologies and legends of the Middle Ages, such as Beowulf, Siegfried, and the aforementioned King Arthur.
The term “Dark Ages” only makes sense if you understand the technical definition of the word “history”, which is: “The study of stuff people wrote about themselves back in the day.” The Dark Ages were dark not because they were Darker and Edgier, or because there was a shortage of candles, but because very few of their writings have survived to the present day, leaving History in the dark about what things were like. We cannot tell for certain whether the Dark Ages were darker and edgier than the eras that came before and after. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence at all that there was any kind of 'technological Dark Age', rather the evidence favors continued gradual development.
According to several historians the reason we have writings from Pliny and other earlier writers at all is because they were dutifully copied by monks. The reason we tend to look down on this period is because in the Renaissance there was a massive upsurge in interest in ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture and a great deal of belittlement and scorn for the previous millennium. The fact that we have so few historical documents from the 'Dark Ages' could well be explained by the distaste for this time and the outright systematic destruction of many great Gothic buildings from the Middle Ages (aside from ones that were still under construction, like the Cologne Cathedral). From a historical view point it would be more accurate to pinpoint this age from 661 (when the Europeans lost contact with Syria and Egypt due to Muslim invasions) to about 1100 (when the Crusades recovered lost information from the Classical Era). We know what happened during those times though, and it is for whatever reason a rather touchy subject, so fiction writers do not touch it.
The notion of the "Dark Ages" is thus tied in inexorably with the notion of The Renaissance, since it was Renaissance and later Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thinkers who argued that the period after the fall of the Roman Empire was an age of backwardness and superstition where The Roman Catholic Church imposed its theological narrative on the world and held back science and progress. In short, it can be argued that it is a strawman set-up by misinformed intellectuals, often from Protestant countries, and whether Protestant themselves or personally secular, were biased against Catholicism specifically and in some instances religion in general. It also has somewhat racist implications as the word "Europe" was usually not included at all, meaning that the achievements of Asian and Middle Eastern civilisations during this time were downplayed if not outright ignored as the only civilisation that mattered was Western civilisation, and as such the concept of the Dark Ages is often used to justify Western imperialism and white supremacy amongst other unpleasant ideas.
Popular tropes for works set in this time period are:
- After the End
- An Axe to Grind: Axes were probably the most frequent non-spear weapon of the era, as an axe is fairly easy for a relatively unskilled smith to make, requires much less steel than a sword, and peasants tended to have these around anyway for firewood.
- Ancestral Weapon: Often Truth in Television, as the difficulties of making steel and pattern welding made high-quality blades expensive,not to mention the shortage of metals, and they tended to get passed down, some eventually receiving a name and a legendary Back Story.
- Anachronism Stew: It's fairly common to see things that invented in the High and Late Middle Ages such plate armor to pop up in fiction during this period. King Arthur is a particularly bad offender in this.
- Barbarian Hero
- Blade on a Stick: What most fighters actually had to settle for, when they weren't stuck with farming implements or just the stick.
- Carry a Big Stick
- Droit du Seigneur
- Drop the Hammer
- The Dung Ages
- Feudal Overlord
- Golden Age:
- A localized one in Ireland which saw a huge cultural, religious and artistic flowering thanks to the arrival of monasticism (this is where the 'Saints' from an 'Island of Saints and Scholars' comes in).
- The Carolingian dynasty of Mayors of the Palace, Kings, and finally Emperors helped another one explode on the mainland towards the end of this period, capping off with Charlemagne reconstructing the largest empire in continental Europe since Rome. This was just the first of three different such renaissance periods in Europe prior to the Italian Renaissance that is generally known by that name.
- Here There Were Dragons
- Heroes Prefer Swords: The history behind this is: after the fall of Rome (which had made swords standard for its soldiers), later swords would be expensive, prestigious weapons in many parts of Europe at least and legendary heroes would usually those rich enough to own swords, or alternatively those honored to be given them by their chief or liege.
- Additionally, the western Roman Empire wasn't quite dead during the dark ages, and the feudal states hadn't actually developed their own war-craft to a competitive degree yet. So swords were a characteristic weapon of the only people who were fully trained in the craft of the professional soldier, with formal training in tactics etc. If a band of mercenaries showed up and they were mostly equipped with swords, chances were that it was a legion remnant and you were about to have your own untrained peasant levies shoved up our arse sideways.
- Heroic Fantasy
- Horny Vikings
- The Time of Myths: Can overlap, depending on the degree of realism.
- Vestigial Empire: The Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, leaving crumbling roads and aqueducts to lace Europe-but only the Western half. The Eastern Roman Empire continued on until the fifteenth century: advanced infrastructure, a literate culture, and a higher standard of living, but in an increasingly smaller territory.
Public Domain Characters & Public Domain Artifacts of this era:
- King Arthur
Works set in this time period are:
- All movie and literary versions of King Arthur...although their aesthetic is almost certainly that of The Middle Ages, or even The Late Middle Ages.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons admit that Anachronism Stew is at work: It is said to be set in Dark Ages Britain – the early 9th century – but the costumes are based on fashions from the 1300s. Yet it is still one of the most accurate depictions of the era ever put on film, due largely to the influence of Terry Jones (himself something of a medieval scholar).
- The 13th Warrior
- Beowulf and Grendel (2005)
- Outlander (2008), i.e., Beowulf, the Sci-Fi Remix.
- Valhalla Rising
- Kaamelott is theoretically set in the 5th century, but deliberately and gleefully uses Anachronism Stew such as Renaissance-era full plate armor coexisting with Roman iorica segmenta, the Roman Empire is on its last legs but Gladiator Games are still going strong, the Egyptians still have architects capable of building pyramids while the Pope is sending Inquisitors around to sniff out heresy and witchcraft, etc.
- The Last Kingdom