Once the last remnants of Roman power west of the Balkans were extinguished in the late fifth century CE, the history of Europe moved into the period that is still referred to as "medieval," meaning “middle” (between). Roughly 1,000 years separated the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance, the period of "rebirth" in which certain Europeans believed they were recapturing the lost glory of the classical world. Historians have long since dismissed the conceit that the Middle Ages were nothing more than the “Dark Ages” so maligned by Renaissance thinkers, and thus this chapter seeks to examine the early medieval world on its own terms - in particular, what were the political, social, and cultural realities of post-Roman Europe?
- 15.1: The Latin Church
- After the fall of the western Roman empire, it was the Church that united Western Europe and provided a sense of European identity. That religious tradition would persist and spread, ultimately extinguishing the so-called “pagan” religions, despite the political fragmentation left in the wake of the fall of Rome. The one thing that nearly all Europeans eventually came to share was membership in the Latin Church.
- 15.2: The Papacy
- The Latin Church was distinguished by the at least nominal leadership of the papacy based in Rome - indeed, it was the papal claim to leadership of the Christian Church as a whole that drove a permanent wedge between the western and eastern Churches, since the Byzantine emperors claimed authority over both Church and state. The popes were not just at the apex of the western Church, they often ruled as kings unto themselves, and they always had complex relationships with other rulers.
- 15.3: Characteristics of Medieval Christianity
- The fundamental belief of medieval Christians was that the Church as an institution was the only path to spiritual salvation. It was much less important that a Christian understand any of the details of Christian theology than it was that they participate in Christian worship and, most importantly, receive the sacraments administered by the clergy. Given that the immense majority of the population were completely illiterate, it was impossible for most Christians to have access to anything but th
- 15.4: The Feudal System
- The feudal system was based on a kind of protection system. A lord accepted pledges of loyalty, called a pledge of fealty, from other free men called his vassals; in return for their support in war he offered them protection and land-grants called fiefs. Each vassal had the right to extract wealth from his land, meaning the peasants who lived there, so that he could afford horses, armor, and weapons. Vassals did not have to pay their lords taxes; all tax revenue came from the peasants.
- 15.5: Anglo-Saxon England
- By about 400 CE, the Romans abandoned Britain. For the next three hundred years, Germanic invaders called the Anglo-Saxons (from whom we get the name “England” itself - it means “land of the Angles”) from the areas around present-day northern Germany and Denmark invaded, raided, and settled in England. They fought the native Britons (i.e. the Romanized, Christian Celts native to England itself), the Cornish, the Welsh, and each other.
- 15.6: France
- Charlemagne (r. 768 – 814) was one of the most important kings in medieval European history. Charlemagne waged constant wars during his long reign (lasting over 40 years) in the name of converting non-Christian Germans to his east and, equally, in the name of seizing loot for his followers. From his conquests arose the concept of the Holy Roman Empire, a huge state that was nominally controlled by a single powerful emperor directly tied to the pope's authority in Rome.
- 15.7: Invaders
- Post-Carolingian Europe was plunged into a period of disorder and violence that lasted until at least 1100 CE. Even though the specific invaders mentioned below had settled down by about 1000 CE, the overall state of lawlessness and violence lasted for centuries. In addition to attacks by groups like the Vikings, the major political problem of the Middle Ages was that the whole feudal system was one based on violence: lesser lords often had no livelihood outside of war.
- 15.8: The Vikings
- Scandinavian tribesmen had long traded amber with both other Germanic tribes and even with the Romans directly during the imperial period. While the details are unclear, what seems to have happened is that sometime around 700 CE the Baltic Sea region became increasingly economically significant. Traders from elsewhere in Northern Europe actively sought out Baltic goods like furs, timber, fish, and amber.
- 15.9: Conclusion
- While the Vikings are important for various reasons - expanding Medieval trade, settling various regions, establishing the first European contact with North America, and founding the first Russian states - they are also included here simply for their inherent interest; their raids and expansion were one of the most striking and sudden in world history.
Thumbnail: An emperor of the Byzantine Empire is guarded by two Vikings with spear (Varangian Guardsmen). From the Chronicle of John Skylitzes.