By Nicholas Haberling
The term “Dark Ages” has captured imaginations since it was used by the Italian scholar Petrarch in the 1300s. It depicts a great empire as the benevolent protector of civilization and the advancing barbarian hordes as enemies of human progress. It’s an entertaining idea. But first, what is a Dark Age? A Dark Age is more than just the lack of forward progress for a society, it’s actually the loss of knowledge itself, whether related to agriculture, construction, governance, or a people’s history.
The results of a Dark Age are pretty clear: depopulation, reduced literacy rates, decline in economic activity and quality of life(1). Historically the blame for these events has been placed on barbarians and marauders. Ancient historians mention the Sea People as being the root cause of the Late Bronze Age Collapse(2), an event around 1200 and 1150 BC that saw nearly every city between Greece and Gaza burned to the ground. But modern historians appear to have a “which came first: the chicken or the egg” interpretation when it comes to ancient barbarians and Dark Age conditions. Do barbarian invasions cause Dark Ages or do environmental conditions weaken civilizations and force nomads to attack entrenched societies?
This can be seen in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. “Estimates of the population of the Roman Empire during the period from 150 to 400 suggest a fall from 65 million to 50 million, a decline of more than 20 per cent. Some scholars have connected this de-population to the Dark Ages Cold Period (300–700), when a decrease in global temperatures impaired agricultural yields”(3). Since environmental conditions aren’t constrained to national borders it is likely the same agricultural problems that weakened Rome would have impacted peoples outside the Empire. History is rich with examples of warrior nomads and desperate tribal groups preying upon the more established agricultural societies. An invasion by one of these groups showed weakness and encouraged other hostiles to go on the offensive. In the end it doesn’t matter whether it was it was the environment or barbarians that destroyed a civilization, the end result is the same.
*Note: The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was the result of a number of socio-economic conditions which historians will never cease to debate. For the sake of brevity they can’t all be covered today.*
A similar scenario can be seen in the Warhammer 40K Universe(4). Mankind prior to the 25th Century is a Roman Empire of sorts. Through its technological sophistication it colonized much of the known galaxy before an unforeseen environmental condition struck. The Warp in Warhammer 40K makes interstellar travel possible. In the 25th Millennium vicious Warp Storms made interstellar travel impossible. Without the resources and communication granted by freedom of movement within the Warp, humanity’s colonies regressed in technology and engaged each other in small-scale wars or were preyed upon by alien threats. In our own timeline the decline of the Dark Ages was reversed by the ascension of Charlemagne and the Franks. In Warhammer 40K, humanity would once again be united under the banner of the Imperium of Man in the 29th Millennium. Using his psychic powers the Emperor of Mankind traversed his fleets through the Warp and reconciled the shattered star systems. However, this expansion would come to an abrupt end when the Emperor was nearly killed in the 31st Millennium during the Horus Heresy. In the 41st Millennium thousands of psychics must be sacrificed each day to help the dying Emperor guide his fleets across the Imperium. If the Imperial fleets were unable to traverse the Warp a new Dark Age would sweep across the galaxy and likely bring humanity’s extinction with it.