Jonathan Storm | Flipping a switch on the Dark Ages

There are Visigoths aplenty, of course, in "The Dark Ages" - but also monks, popes, emperors, peasants, and learned and often funny professors of today.

Outside of those rousing Capital One ads, the trove of Dark Ages humor doesn't exactly match those of, say, blondes or lawyers.

But there's a smile or two amid the sacking and plagues in the History Channel's lavish two-hour special, The Dark Ages, tonight at 9.

Shot in high definition, it's a tour de force of re-creations - a lot of the looters look as if they just switched sets from the aforementioned commercials - supported by a showy soundtrack and comments from an assortment of professors who are wittier than the people who usually populate these things. They all sit in dank, candlelit sets to maintain the atmosphere.

Computer graphics combine with real horses and boats, countless sword-wielding savages, and sad scenes of small lives in hardscrabble villages to convey a feeling of the times that seems satisfyingly realistic.

Even if you don't count commercial time, which will no doubt be copious, there's only 10 seconds for each of the 700 years of this benighted era, so the show is forced to focus on personalities and incidents. And there's a strong implication that, in 2007, we're not as far removed from the Dark Ages as we may think.

Some scholars theorize that a warming trend helped turn the tide back toward civilization.

The only unifying factor of the time was Christianity, and marauding Muslims almost wiped it out. The Dark Ages ended when Crusaders, dispatched to fight in the Middle East, in part to keep them from savaging peasants in the West, returned with books and knowledge from Turkey, Persia, Egypt and Palestine.

"Christ commands it," said Pope Urban II, urging attacks on the "vile race" presiding over the Holy Land.

"God wills it," the crowd thundered back.

The Roman Catholic Church was the only institution that thrived consistently in Europe during the years between 410, when a disaffected sergeant from the Roman army led the Visigoths ("dirty, sweaty, smelly thugs") in the sack of Rome, and 1099, when the Crusaders got to Jerusalem.

The Dark Ages, written, directed and produced by Chris Cassel, who won an Emmy for Rome: Engineering an Empire, chronicles the constant warfare of the time, the diminishing population and knowledge base, the periodic emergence of someone - the Eastern emperor Justinian; the first Frankish king, Clovis; Charlemagne - who temporarily imposed order.

Justinian, with his super-hot wife, Theodora (this is the History Channel, so don't go looking for the raunch of HBO's Rome), gets good play. He was so sleazy that in 532, instead of doing the wave, 30,000 people in a stadium at a chariot race started chanting for his downfall. The revolt spilled into the streets.

"It was as if Yankee and Mets fans decided to overthrow the mayor of New York," says Philip Daileader, associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary.

But the mayor got them back. They were lured into the Hippodrome and slaughtered, all 30,000, say some reports.

That was nothing compared to the millions who died around the world 10 years later from bubonic plague, spread in part because of the improved trade and travel under Justinian. The plague pretty much put a temporary end to any hope for civilization in Western Europe.

The Dark Ages pegs the deaths at 100 million. More reasonable estimates are one-fourth of that. It's history, but it is a TV show, and viewers shouldn't necessarily take everything as hard and fast. But no matter the actual number, the significance of a decimated population is inescapable.

Even without the plague, a quarter of newborns died in those years. Half the children didn't make it to adolescence. There were an insufficient number of people to generate ideas.

The show focuses on the importance of monks in preserving knowledge, with a segment on the Venerable Bede, who lived in County Durham in what is now northern England, and died in 735 with a library of 500 books, making him "the most educated man in Europe."

Undefended monasteries like Bede's were seen as great treasure troves for the Vikings, who, in an epoch of Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Moors and other barbarians, get special treatment as the biggest boors of The Dark Ages.

The rumors of all that wealth were "like putting up a sign in any Viking village: 'Uncle Olaf Wants You!' " says Kelly DeVries, history professor at Baltimore's Loyola College in Maryland.

Where Charlemagne is shown speaking a decorous pre-French Latin, and even Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Muslim general defeated by Charles Martel, gets dignified treatment, the Vikings look incredibly savage, grunting "arrrrgh, arrrrgh" in pre-Blackbeard vernacular as they wreak havoc under their leader, Ivar the Boneless.

There are various stories about his name, but just one for another character, as Daileader elegizes the fearsome raiders from the North. "Any time you're attacked by someone whose last name is Skullsplitter, you have to be concerned."

It's hard to imagine the stoic Scandinavians of today being descended from such riff-raff.

But that's the beauty of history done well on TV. It may not be the last word, but it can be entertaining and informative, broadening our perspective via a medium that, sadly, frequently works in the other direction.

To comment on this article, go to: Con- tact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@philly Read his recent work at