Thursday, 18 February 1999

Frank Delaney: A Walk in the Dark Ages (1988)

Edition: Collins, 1988
Review number: 212

A Walk in the Dark Ages is based on an interesting idea: to follow in the footsteps of an imaginary seventh century pilgrim from the monastery of Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, the very edge of Christendom, to Rome and then Constantinople, the centres of his faith. Frank Delaney set out to follow his putative footsteps as closely as would be possible by car - a journey on foot would still of course take months.

Now, it is reasonable to expect a Western monk to travel to Rome, though at that particular time (when the Irish church was losing its independence following the Synod of Whitby) there would be political reasons why an Irish monk would be less likely to do so. The continuation to Constantinople is perhaps more unusual, though the reason advanced by Delaney (curiosity to see Rome's political overlord) makes it possible. The specifics of the route chosen (following river valleys in the main) are plausible enough, but in between the two extremes of route choice Delaney's scheme is less so. Why travel via Iona, Lindisfarne and Canterbury? The obvious reason is not one which motivates a seventh century Irish monk, but is due to Delaney's desire to visit the best known British ecclesiastical sites of the period. It was an age when travel was extremely infrequent, so it is possible that you could explain the choice of route by assuming that the monk was carrying messages for the other monasteries, but such an assumption would assume that enough happened on Skellig Michael to be of interest elsewhere, and that there was a high enough degree of organisation to the monasteries. This was, after all, at a time when many Irish monasteries were just groups of hermits who happened to set up cells in the same place, without reference to each other or any higher authority. Delaney does however, not mention this possibility.

The rule that Delaney has set himself is not to mention events more than a century either side of the date at which his monk is supposed to have travelled. This is a rule which he finds it impossible to keep. The main reason for this is that little enough is known about the conditions of ordinary life, even monastic life, at the precise time in question that it is far easier to generalise. (The difficulties in describing this journey show that, though the term "Dark Ages" is deplored by historians for many reasons, the original motivation for the term, the lack of knowledge and sources, still holds true today.) Apart from that, few remains survive from the seventh century, making it difficult to get a picture of what places were like (particularly in those towns like York and Lincoln where ecclesiastical building continued throughout the Middle Ages). Of the places visited by Delaney, the best seventh century remains are at Ravenna and Skellig Michael itself, and even at these sites we have the most important architecture remaining rather than the houses of ordinary people that would have been a major part of the landscape, particularly at Ravenna. Even so, he finds himself unable to resist referring to interesting events falling outside his self-imposed limits. To explain the complexities of seventh century politics without referring back to the end of the Western Empire is difficult, particularly when you can expect most of your readership to know very little about it.

Even when he sticks to the period, Delaney finds it hard to resist dwelling on the more lurid parts of the history, such as Gregory of Tours' descriptions of the vendettas between the various branches of the Merovingian dynasty. These may be fun to read, but they don't give a very good picture of the normal life of the monks of the period.

A Walk in the Dark Ages, then, is based around an interesting idea, but one which is flawed in the execution. Given the difficulty of carrying it out, this is hardly surprising; and Delaney has certainly managed to write an entertaining book with it.

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