"...those who worked hardest...barely looked up to see what was happening beyond the horizon....at a time when writing itself played no essential part in the ordinary work of men....those who could write did not intend to use their talents to describe the everyday...each individual recognized that the group wielded more power and carried more weight. The lone voice was not that of the righteous, but the vainglorious." from The Atlas of Medieval Europe (NY :1983) p. 16
The actual phrase itself is a shortening of the title of the classic study1 on the collapse of the Roman Empire (written as the British Empire was in its ascendancy) by arguably history's greatest historian.
Once the Holy Roman Empire finally gave up the ghost, the Church by necessity moved in since most of the learned men fled to Rome (only to find it's temples grown over, libraries empty and markets barren) or took refuge in religious orders (often these were Roman soldiers who, after a life of Imperial service, didn't really know how to operate outside a rigid hierarchy) :
"The Church was in these centuries deploying powers which often cannot have been distinguished clearly by the faithful from those of Magic. It used those powers to drill a barbaric world into civilization ... after antiquity, barter replaced money and trade, which took a long time to return ... spices disappeared from ordinary diet, wine became a costly luxury; most people ate and drank bread and porridge, beer and water; scribes returned to locally produced parchment rather, rather than papyrus, and though recession returned a degree of self-sufficiency to individuals, it ruined whole towns ... subsistence was all that there was." from The History of the World J. M. Roberts (London :1992)
This poverty got ugly fast : oral culture and memory became the only ways to keep ideas and information alive- it didn't always work (farmers stopped rotating their crops, for example, for lack of a Calendar or written record, which in turn led first to widespread malnutrition, vulnerability to disease, then soil erosion and famine). The Law of Unintended Consequences soon took a heavy toll, as the problems of running a society began to cascade from one to another:
What was the result in the end (and are there contemporary parallels)?
- Retreat from the world by the most learned, as soon thousands of monks toiled away, preserving the heritage of the Tradition, under the Benedictine, Carthusian, Dominican and Franciscan Orders, from the tip of Northern Ireland to the deserts of Ethiopia,
- Vast division and inequity within society fostered by feudalism, though it should be noted according to UNESCO, global levels of inequality, illiteracy and inaccessibility to knowledge have returned to near Dark Ages (1/2 of the planet's six billion inhabitants have never seen a phone, nearly 80% live on less than $1US/day),
- War and Strife, within Europe as manifested through increasing superstition and religious intolerance, and abroad as seen in the Crusades, the planet's first all-out Information War, whereby the Church actively sought to recover the texts, technical knowledge and collective wisdom it had lost access to as the empire receded to the influence of Islam.
1Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vol. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788)