The “Dark Ages” are commonly considered to be the early part of the period known as the Middle Ages. Often the term Dark Ages refers to the initial five hundred years following the fall of Rome in 476. It is thought of as beginning around A.D. 450 and continuing till A.D. 1000. During this time Rome and other cities deteriorated because of the invasions of barbarians from northern and central Europe. Since there was no longer an imperial authority with the power to protect the citizens of the cities, the urban population declined sharply during this period of history. Another consequence of the lack of a strong central power was the development of the feudal system especially from A.D. 900-1150. During this feudal age, most parishes had rural populations, and towns tended to be smaller and less numerous. Castles and walled towns were guarded by the feudal lord’s armies and provided security and safety to the peasants and townspeople from the invading barbarians. One of the consequences of the feudal system was the decline in church structures because of feudalistic pressures and control that was put upon them.
It was during this time that a new religious movement called monasticism developed. After the establishment of the Benedictine Order at Monte Cassino in A.D. 529, monasticism spread quickly throughout the medieval church, and the monastery replaced the functions of the early church and became a link between the classical city and medieval city. The withdrawal of the church from cities to monasteries caused the church to be oriented more inwardly than outwardly. While sometimes the church is blamed for the spiritual darkness of the Dark Ages, in many ways it was the only light, no matter how dim, that shone in the darkness of surrounding barbarism and heathenism. During this time it was the priests and the monks that saved from the ruins of the Roman Empire the treasures of classical literature—along with the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings—and preserved them for the future. Certainly, while the light that shone was more from ecclesiastical tradition and not always the clear light found in the Word of God, it was light in the dark days of that time, and it continued until the Reformation brought the true full light of Christ back to the world. Yet even throughout this spiritually dark time, Christ had His witnesses in all ages and countries.