Dark Age of European forests

The history of the forest in Central Europe is characterised by thousands of years of use by people. This period is also named Dark Ages of forest and usually refers to the period between the 5th and 14th centuries. It was a time when the influence of the Roman Empire, by intensive logging on large territories of Europe, was getting smaller and smaller.

During the Dark Ages, human activity significantly affected the existence and composition of most forests in the densely populated region of Central Europe. From this period on, forest was not longer considered to be native natural forest. They are communicated as a part of the man made landscape created over millennia. Since that time, a large part of the forests consists almost exclusively of replacement forest communities.

European forests of the Dark Age

During the Dark Age forests still covered most of western, central and northern Europe. This very highly diverse forest was dynamic and to some extent reflected the existence of random human settlements.

It was a period when an intensive population growth alternated with periods when vast land were abandoned for several centuries. The expansion or retreat of the forest responded to this dynamic.

Beginning of rural settlements in forests

Large part of Western, Central and Northern Europe was largely uninhabited until the beginning of the Iron Age (from about the middle of the 3rd millennium BC). It was the period when isolated rural settlements began to emerge. With the gradually increase of population in the following millennia, the lack of agricultural land became more and more apparent. Its consequence was sporadic and random clearing of forests.

In addition to extensive deforestation, the inhospitable and inaccessible areas were abandoned. This happened despite the efforts of people after several futile attempts at settlement. This process took place at least in the period 300 AD until 1200 AD.

After Roman Empire followed period with a significant spontaneous self-regeneration of logged forests

Dynamics of settlement

The dynamics of the settlements built by the local population reflected major changes in the way and intensity of land and forest use. It was a period that could be defined by the interval from the time of the demise of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. This period included migration of peoples, later overseas discoveries and finally religious reform.

Reconstruction of forest history

Detailed analyses of botanical remains (pollen, wood, charcoal, seeds) from archaeological sites help to reconstruct the history of forests. There are number of such sites in several countries of north-western Europe

Period of spontaneous forest self-regeneration

Interesting is the decrease of forests as a result of the intensification of human activities. That occuerd mostly in the territories under the influence of the Roman Empire. This period was followed by a significant spontaneous self-regeneration of logged forests. This happened particularly at the end of the Roman period and the beginning of the early Middle Ages. The decline of forests during the Roman period is related to population and economic growth and the need to create new arable land and pastures. The subsequent spontaneous self-regeneration of forest was a result of the decline in population of people and land use. That mostly happened after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.


This period is typical by the recolonization of abandoned Roman rural settlements with forests. Self-renewal of the forest became an important factor in the early Middle Ages. This process happened in a large part of central and north-western Europe.

As early as 1350, the king in Central Europe, Charles IV. ordered the reforestation of the areas where the forest had been cut down. However, it took several centuries before an official system of afforestation of cut down forests was created. Until then, the forests created since the last glaciation about 10,000 years ago, were able to renew themselves on their own.

Lucia Gejdosova
Volunteer, European Wilderness Society

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