We live in amazing times. The level of our technology, health, sanitation, and literacy are unmatched in recorded human development. Sometimes, especially in the wake of tragedy, it’s hard to remember that. The current popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction tells me that on some level, we know how fleeting the light of civilization is. As we stock up on canned goods, we know that a Dark Age is not very hard to achieve, and a little social or economic decline can go a long way.
When we think about the Dark Ages, most of us reflect on the European medieval period: castles, knights, and ladies in towers. Fantasy has traditionally drawn on these elements, to the point that they can be considered cliché. Books like the Silver Phoenix try to branch out, and take other periods as influence, yet I’m still drawn to the European Middle Ages, to reading about them and writing about them, perhaps because of the day to day struggle for survival in those times.
We know that the period after the Fall of Rome’s western half was disastrous. The light of literacy largely went out, leaving us with scant records of the period.
What we do know about the early Middle Ages is that they weren’t easy. No element of modern life, clean running water, proper shelter for wars or the elements, was widely available. The smell alone might bowl you over. Disease was rampant, misunderstood, and largely untreatable. Work was constant, leisure rare, and privacy largely unknown.
In fantasy we romanticize an age of struggle, where human life was short and cheap. I think on these details and shudder at the notion of living in such a world, and I find myself grateful for what we’ve achieved in our era. Our world remains flawed and violent, with tragedies , crime, and intense disagreements which in of themselves are a luxury. It gets me down from time to time, but I can easily turn on my faucet, watch the water spiral out, and thank what I believe in that I live when and where I do.