PASADENA, Calif. -- Just when you think society can't get much worse -- oooops, it does. And so it goes throughout time. One of the darkest periods in history was after the fall of the Roman Empire, when an impenetrable shadow fell over mankind for nearly 600 years, resulting in what we call the Dark Ages.
It was the time when order, learning, documentation, cultivation and civilization seemed to disappear, and an era fascinating to us because we know so little about it. On March 4, the History Channel will try to rectify that with its two-hour special "The Dark Ages," which describes this barbaric period characterized by anarchy, bloodshed, pestilence and poverty. It chronicles that time through accurate re-creations and several erudite narrators.
"The causes are fundamental," says Tomas R. Martin, professor of classics at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and a featured expert on the show.
"When your economy declines and your population declines and you don't have any security, when people can come over the horizon and take everything that you have, then the technology -- of which writing is one -- and speaking publicly and communicating across distances gets lost. That's how culture, which is the basis of civilization, struggles. And there's less written down, there's less said, so we know less," he said at a press gathering in Pasadena.
There were small oases in that parched world where knowledge was preserved, adds Brett Whalen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among those preservationists were the Catholic monks who cloistered themselves in their dank monasteries copying the holy manuscripts, and the Arabs who lived beyond the boundaries of lawless Europe.
The First Crusade marked the beginning of the end of this bleak time. "Although the Crusades were really a very turbulent period and very violent, much like the earlier Dark Ages, in some ways the Crusades seemed to play a hand in pulling Europe out of that dark age," says Christopher Cassel, the show's producer-writer-director. "When the soldiers came back from the Holy Land, they would bring back the technology of Arabia that had endured through the Dark Ages: medicine, books, Aristotle, the classics, stone architecture, all kinds of things that they were exposed to once they broke out of this dark cloud that was sort of over them in Europe."
While the church tried to exercise sovereignty over the population during this anarchy, it proved fruitless, says Martin. "Decentralization was really the name of the game. No matter how much the church or the emperor wanted to exercise control over everybody, it simply was impossible because of distances."
The Dark Ages were really part of what historians call the Middle Ages, says Whalen. "The early Middle Ages, from around 500 to 1000, the period where you do have this sort of decline, the population going down, cities are stagnating. You have political fragmentation. Then you get from 1000 to 1300 -- you call that the High Middle Ages. That's when you have Gothic cathedrals being built, universities being founded, strong kings rising up. Then you have ... the late Middle Ages. That's when you have the black plague. That's when you have the Hundred Years War. And there's a sense of decline, which lays the groundwork for the emergence of a new, modern age."
The rebirth of civilization was a combination of luck, initiative and a change in the weather, says Martin. "And people, individuals whose names we don't know, are willing to take risks and come out of the safety of anonymity and hiding in the forest to move to cities to try to build international commerce and to take the kinds of risks that are necessary for change."
Now that Sting will be touring with the Police again, his newfound passion for the Renaissance music of John Dowland will probably be relegated to the wings. But before it is, TV viewers will have the chance to hear Sting as troubadour of the 1600s when "Great Performances" offers "Songs of the Labyrinth" on PBS Monday (check local listings.) Sting says he worked hard creating this sound. "I spent a lot of time studying and researching and took a lot of advice from people who had been in this realm for many years," he says.
"And it was done with great respect. Normally, the repertoire is done by operatic singers, by trained voices, very, very wonderful. I can't do that. I'm a pop singer, but I have -- you know, I sing in tune and true to the notes that are written. Also, the songs were written 100 years before bel canto was invented. So bel canto was invented to fill huge opera houses or music halls. These songs are designed to be sung in a small room. ... So perhaps my way of singing is not so inauthentic. There's a debate. It's an interesting debate. ... But I studied hard. It's difficult. There's a lot of breath control and to stay concentrated ... it's like tightrope walking. I'm sweating."