Europe Enters the Middle Ages

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe entered a period often referred to as the Medieval period, or Middle Ages. The period lasted roughly from 500 C.E. to 1500 C.E., and is roughly divided into three periods: The Early Middle Ages, (450 – 1050 C.E.) which includes the cessation of Barbarian incursions into the late Roman Empire and the period of the Viking Invasions; the High Middle Ages, (c. 1050 – 1350 C.E.), marked by the beginning of the Crusades against Islam and a rapid growth of population as well as the rebirth of towns; and the Late Middle Ages, c.1350 – 1453 C.E.) a period of collapse and disaster, often marked by the influx of the Black Death. The Late Middle Ages (and the Medieval Period itself) is often bookmarked by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in November, 1453. The Middle Ages are often spoken of as the Dark Ages, although the term is probably a misnomer. It is so called because the Pax Romana or Roman Peace had ceased to function in the West.  There were no more Roman magistrates backed up by the Roman legions to stand behind the Roman social order.  Whatever social order existed did so at the mercy of local Germanic tribal lords in accordance with tribal customs.   Beyond or among these local principalities, there was no authority to enforce order.  Consequently cross-European or even regional commerce and shipping came to a halt as the highways and the sea routes became infested with brigands and pirates.  In turn, cities, whose life-blood existed around either commerce or public order, lost their function--and their population. Unlike India and China of the same period, Europe simply disengaged itself from the rest of the world, and became self absorbed. The single unifying element of Europe was the Roman Church. The church’s influence was so important that for many years, Europe was properly known as Christendom.

The German "barbarians" did not produce this cultural vacuum.  They merely moved into it once they understood that it was there, that there was no longer any real Roman counter-pressure to hold them back as they scrambled for grazing and farming lands for their own growing populations.  When they did move into the Roman domains, they attempted to capture the glory of the Rome that they once envied.  But it was no longer there to be grasped.  In consequence their own traditional ways took over where they settled.

The Germanic peoples who moved into the shell of the old Roman Empire established a number of successor states within the area. In 476, C.E. the Ostrogothic general, Odoacher, had deposed the last Roman Emperor, but the administrative apparatus of the Empire remained in tact. Over time, however, with the collapse of the Roman trading network, cities lost populations and gradually declined. Remnants of old Roman cities such as London, Paris, and Rome continued to survive, although they were much smaller and less significant.

A series of Germanic kingdoms developed in Europe:

  • The Visigoths invaded Spain where they retained Roman customs and titles. Spain remained in their hands until invasion by Islamic armies in 700 C.E.
  • The Ostrogoths controlled Italy from the fall of the last Roman Emperor until the area was reconquered in the name of the Eastern Roman Empire by Emperor Justinian. With the gradual reduction of Byzantine power in the area, it was invaded by the Lombards, who controlled much of the area until repelled by Pepin the Short, discussed later.
  • Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (from Jutland, in Denmark) invaded Britain. The name "England" is a corruption of Anglaland, the land of the Angles.
  • The Burgundians, but more importantly the Franks settled into former Roman Gaul. The Franks gave their name to the area: France.
  • The Germanic peoples who settled in the area adopted many Roman customs and institutions, even though the Empire itself had been displaced. They adapted Roman law to their own societies, and also converted to Christianity; however none possessed the political and economic resources to dominate the entire continent as had the Romans. The Franks came closer than any other to establishing hegemony over a large portion of Europe.

    The Franks did not participate in the commerce of the Mediterranean as had the Romans; they rather constructed an agricultural society based on continental Europe. The end result was that the center of European influence shifted from Roman Italy to present day France, Germany and the Netherlands, occupied at that time by the Franks.

    The early Franks established a cultural identity roughly 300 C.E., much later than the other Germanic tribes; and it appeared unlikely that they would dominate European affairs. This changed c 480 C.E. with the ascension of Clovis who ruled the Franks until 511. Under his leadership, the Franks became the preeminent military and political power in Western Europe. In 486, he wiped out the last remains of Roman authority and organized campaigns against other Germanic tribes that bordered his realm. By the time of his death, the Franks were the most powerful of the successor states.

    The Frank’s success is at least partially due to their adoption of Christianity. The Germanic tribes had originally been polytheistic; honoring a pantheon of gods represented nature, the sun, moon, wind, etc. Many converted to Christianity as they entered the Old Roman empire; however they converted to Arian Christianity, which had been declared heretical by Roman Church councils. The Franks had remained polytheistic until the time of Clovis who converted to Roman Christianity, most likely as a result of the influence of his wife, Clotilda, a devout Christian who had encouraged him to convert.

    When they converted to Roman Christianity, the Franks received the support of the Christian peoples remaining in the old Roman empire. Their rulers also received the support of the Pope and the hierarchy of the Western Church. Their alliance with the Church greatly strengthened the position of the Franks.

    The Carolingians: Only one Frankish dynasty survived to impose its rule over much of Europe, the Carolingian dynasty. The name is from Carolus, Latin for Charles, and is derived from the reign of Charles Martel, (Martel means literally "the hammer.) Charles never ruled the Franks as king, but served as a deputy for the last of the descendants of Clovis. He was a military genius, defeated a Muslim army from Spain at the Battle of Tours, (in central France.) In 751, his son, Pepin III the Short), claimed the throne for himself. Pepin held the title of "Mayor of the Palace until he was visited in 754 C.E. by Pope Stephen II who asked for his help in expelling the Lombards who had invaded much of Italy and were threatening Rome. Stephen traveled across the Alps to meet Pepin and as a reward for his services crowned him as King of the Franks. Pepin, in return, presented the Pope with the lands surrounding Rome from which he had driven the Lombards. The area became known as the Papal States, and was the Pope’s personal fief for almost one thousand years.

    Pepin was succeeded by his son Charles, who became known as Charlemagne, ("Charles the Great.") He was solicited by Pope Leo III to help the Pope rid himself of forces who had challenged his authority. As a reward, on Christmas Day, 800 C.E., while he was praying in Church, placed a crown on his head and declared him "Emperor of the Romans." Charlemagne was then known by the title of "Emperor." Some sources date his coronation as the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, although other sources dispute this.

    There is considerable debate as to whether Charlemagne knew of Leo’s plans. Frankish sources argue that he did, and that before crowning Charlemagne, the Pope bowed before him; that the crowning merely acknowledged Charlemagne’s rightful title. Church sources argue that after the coronation, Charlemagne bowed before Leo. The issue became important over the next three hundred years as Emperors and Popes clashed over division of authority. Many Popes argued that since the Emperors were crowned by the Church, the Pope had the authority to depose them. Emperors often argued that their authority was independent of the church, and extended to the right to tax church properties. The debate at times became very acrimonious and personal, often to the point of name calling. The debate was finally settled in 1303 with the death of Pope Boniface VIII after he was taken prisoner by the French King, Philip Le Bel. ("the fair.")

    Under Charlemagne’s rule, the Carolingian Empire flourished. He established a court and capital at Aachen (in modern Germany near the French border. It has on occasion been French, and known by its French name, Aix la Chapelle.) He did not often sit at Aachen, however, but spent much of his time traveling throughout the realm to maintain his authority. This was necessary as he did not have the financial resources to establish an elaborate bureaucracy as had been the case in China. To maintain his authority, he rather relied on deputies, known as Counts, who had authority in local matters. The Counts were not always loyal; as a result of which Charlemagne created a new group of officials known as the missi dominici ("envoys of the lord ruler.") They traveled the entire empire and reviewed the affairs of local counts to ensure compliance.

    Charlemagne himself was barely literate, but he spoke Latin and some Greek. He maintained diplomatic relations with the Byzantine Empire as well as the Abbasid Caliphate. The latter once presented a gift to Charlemagne of an albino elephant. By his death in 814, he had extended authority over much of Spain, Bavaria and Italy as far south as Rome. Those outside the empire paid tribute to him as imperial overlord.

    The Carolingian Empire lasted less than one hundred years. His son and successor, Louis the Pious, (r. 814-840) lost control of the empire as Counts exerted their own authority. Louis’ three sons fought bitterly against each other until 843 when they agreed to divide it into three equal portions.

    Invasion and Dissolution: Three groups raided and pillaged land of the Franks: Muslims from the South seized Sicily and parts of southern Italy and France. Magyars raided Germany, Italy, and southern France. However the most feared and relentless of the invaders were the Vikings who invaded much of Northern Europe. Their raids began during the reign of Charlemagne, and terrorized Europe for many years thereafter. The origin of the name is of some dispute also. Some authorities argue that it is from an area in Norway where they originated known as Vik; others argue that the word Vik means "creek," indicative of their ability to travel upstream in shallow waters for great distances. They were not known in Europe as Vikings, but rather as Northmen, or Norsemen, after the area of their origin, in the North.

    The Vikings were from Scandinavia, but began to expand around 800 C.E. The population in their homelands had grown rapidly; and since the area offered little opportunity for agriculture, they were forced to seek settlement elsewhere. By the late 700’s, they had developed shipbuilding techniques which involved the construction of shallow bottomed craft which could travel far upstream in European rivers as well as safely on the open seas.

    Viking explorations carried them to Iceland, the Shetland Islands and Greenland (so named by Eric the Red, who discovered it while exiled from his native Iceland.) In 1000 C.E. a group led by Eric’s son, Leif Erickson, established a settlement in modern day Labrador, which they named Vinland, presumably for the grapes which they found there.

    Vikings held bravery in high esteem; it bordered on a religious experience. For that reason, they were known to exaggerate their exploits. A prime example is Eric the Red’s naming his discovery "Greenland." Although there is some evidence that the area may have been considerably warmer than today; the only "green" he probably saw there was the green ice of its glaciers. The Vikings did establish a short-lived colony there. Similarly, there are no grapes in Labrador. The Viking settlement there lasted less than 100 years. Its fate is unknown, although there is some speculation that the local Indians drove them off or destroyed them.

    Contrary to legend, they did not wear horned helmets. They could be very fierce warriors, and were very savage at times, looting, burning, and destroying. They did not inflict the long-term damage that one would think; they didn’t have the manpower to do it. They did tend to seize high churchmen and hold them for ransom, as they figured out early on that the church was the greatest source of wealth at the time. In one instance, a French King, Charles the Bald, was required to raise 7, 000 pounds of silver.

    The Vikings were very adept at invasion. Their longboats drew very little water, and thus they could travel far upstream on rivers; much further than other boats of the day. Oftentimes, rather than lay siege to a city, they would go around it, and pillage the countryside. They didn’t always invade and leave; sometimes they came to settle and farm. Typically, when they came to an area, they stayed for the winter and returned the following spring. They soon figured out that the monasteries were the places with all the riches, so they made it a point to plunder and pillage them. Because of this, and because the monks were the only people who recorded history, an image of them as particularly horrific people who came to kill. They were savage, but their image has probably been embellished a bit by the priests of the day. Their savagery cannot be completely discounted, however. They often left gruesome messages for areas which they pillaged by capturing a monk or other emissary and resorted to a cruel ritual known as "carving the blood eagle:" The victim’s back was split open near his spine, his lungs pulled from outside his chest, and then spread like an eagle’s wings across his back.

    The fierceness of the Viking raids (or at least as reported by the Church) led to the adoption of a prayer by the Church: Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna, "Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms" Some considered the attacks to be Biblical, often quoting from Jeremiah 1:14: "Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the North an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land,"

    Viking ships often had dragon heads carved at the helm, which added to their ferocity. In 844, 150 Viking ships sailed up the Garonne River in France and plundered along the way. In 845, 800 Viking boats attacked Hamburg, Germany and in 885, 700 ships attacked Paris.

    Accounts of Viking Raids in England are informative:

  • The first Viking raid upon the British Isles occurred in 793 C.E., during the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex. Simeon of Durham recorded the event: "And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea" 

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 793 records: "In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and sadly affrightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and firey dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed soon upon these signs, and a little after that in the same year on the ides of June the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter."

  • The Vikings were traditionally polytheistic. They were a warlike people, and their gods often had warlike natures. The king of the Viking gods was Woden. They often called his name before entering battle, or if they were about to die. Thor was the god of Thunder, who struck a gigantic hammer against an anvil; the sparks of which created lightning. Frigga was the goddess of love and sex. Vikings believed that if they died in battle, they were transported to Valhalla, a great feasting hall, where they would feast unendingly until Valhalla itself was eventually destroyed, and all existence ended.

    An upstate town in South Carolina, Walhalla, just outside Clemson, derives its name from Valhalla.

    The Carolingians had no navy and thus no means to protect themselves from Norse attacks. Defense against Muslims and Magyars was left to local forces who could respond quickly. The same was true of defense against the Vikings. It was necessary for local forces to be available to repel attacks; a well organized army could not be mustered in before the invaders had come and gone. As a result, such political organization as existed soon disappeared. Political and military authority devolved to local and regional areas who could more readily defend.

    Different areas responded in different forms to the Norse invasions. In England, King Alfred ("the Great") managed to unite a number of smaller British kingdoms into a single kingdom under his rule. Alfred allowed the Vikings who invaded England to retain their own law, although they acknowledged his personal authority. This became known as the Danelaw.

    In Germany, local lords found themselves responsible to fight the Magyars when the Carolingians were unable to do so. The most successful of these was Otto I (Otto the Great) who defeated a large Magyar army at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. He twice sent armies into Italy to repel the Lombards, and as a result was crowned Emperor by the Pope. His crowning is the undisputed origin of the Holy Roman Empire, which existed until its destruction by Napoleon in the nineteenth century.

    In France, local authorities renounced allegiance to the Carolingian government, and collected taxes and organized armed forces for themselves. The Vikings held a large portion of France; and in the late tenth century, a Viking King, Rollo, agreed to become a Christian in exchange for undisputed territory in France. The area then became known by the name which it still bears: "Normandy."

    As with most polytheistic people, Vikings had no problem with Christianity; to them it was just another God to appease. In the year 960, a Danish King named Harald Bluetooth became a Christian, and the religion appears to have taken root then in Scandinavia.

    Defense against invaders made localized government essential. Medieval Europe, as had post-classical India, became a society of competing regional states. Eventually, Viking invasions ceased, as they settled in areas of Eastern Europe, primarily in the area of Kiev. In fact, they gave their name to the area. They were known as Rus, after the word "red," in their own language; as many had red hair. They thus became active trading, primarily in slaves. When invasions ended, the foundation for a stable political order based on regional states was laid in Europe.