There is no other period in history that excites the reader as much as the dark ages. The dark ages began with the fall of Rome and with it the search for knowledge. It ends, in Britain, with the titanic struggle for the throne in 1066 between competing Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Norse cultures. It is a difficult period to piece together due to the lack of written testimony left behind by the agents of change. “In search of the Dark Ages” attempts to give its readers an insight into this dramatic part of the British story by creating a narrative of carefully woven characters and events. The real question for us as readers though, is how successfully does this narrative convey the trials and tribulations of the Dark Ages?
This book begins before the Dark Ages has begun with the Iceni revolt against Roman control of much of Britain. This chapter is one of the best in the book. It paints a strong image of the last gasp of Brittonic resistance to an infinitely more powerful civilisation. Led by Boudicca, an elusive and much romanticised leader, the Britons sought to achieve a decisive blow against the Roman invaders in the hope that they would choose to settle the boundary of the frontier outside of Britain. This chapter could be titled “give me back my legions” because of the parallels made with the Germanic struggle and their ultimate success at Teutoburg Forest. However, the Iceni revolt ended in disaster for the Britons after a relatively successful beginning. I was shocked to discover that the destruction caused by the Iceni has left a recognisable archaeological layer in the soil of the towns and cities they destroyed (especially London). I have to praise the author of this book for highlighting the brutality of the Iceni revolt where many authors have ignored it in favour of the narrative of a doomed struggle of a mysterious people. By highlighting the brutality of the struggle and it’s parallels with that of the Germanic people the reader is given a sense of both the desperation of the Britons but also a sense that they were a people connected with the outside world.
This is the most successful theme in this book. Michael Wood strives to free Dark Age Britain from it’s isolation and nestle it within a larger continental perspective. He makes reference throughout the book to the wider picture, for example: the Viking raids on Frankia or Harold Godwinson’s unplanned stay with the Normans. In the author’s Dark Age the world is highly connected and events ripple out across space. It is a fresh perspective and one that is far more believable than the idea that the Dark Age world was one of isolated people achieving in an isolationist world.
Whilst I have nothing but praise for the scope of the book and the way it approaches some of its more well known characters the book does suffer from a few short comings. Most notable is the lack of depth the book’s structure lends itself to. The information is presented in clearly defined subsections beneath a chapter about a major character but this in some ways segregates the narrative. Each chapter is a self contained unit within the overarching history the book tries to weave and this leads to some chapters feeling disjointed. The break between the Iceni revolt and the legendary figure of Arthur is one such example. One is clearly examining a historical figure and the other is more an exploration of the potential origins of a “once and future king.”
In short, for those of you wanting a flavour of the Dark Ages in Britain this book is definitely for you. It is highly engaging and easy to read in small amounts. The books structure lends itself to a reader that has little time being easily sectioned into manageable chunks. The book is by no means a complete examination of the Dark Ages though, more of an introduction to some of its key characters and an attempt to organise its events. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that the book is an excellent and engaging read.