The changes that occurred in Western Europe, from the “Fall of the Roman Empire” until 1000 A.D., transpired in a series of events involving the actions and movements of many peoples across the continent. This period of history following the Fall and preceding the High Middle Ages was a chaotic time in which an aversion to central power became the norm, warfare ran rampant, and yet the foundations for Western civilization were formed.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century, the Mediterranean Sea was still a center of trade and travel. Rome was still considered a prestigious piece of real estate to own, as it had been the seat of power for several centuries in Western Europe. Constantinople’s influence and geographic location helped it to remain a huge center of trade for Europe and Asia, and that would continue for centuries to come. (McEvedy, p25, 40) Consequently, this created a surplus in the treasury sufficient for Justinian to attempt a reconquering of the West in the early to mid-sixth century.
However, in later centuries, Western Europe became more land based, and the center moved north of the Mediterranean coast. As the Roman Empire had been agrarian based, so was the lifestyle for the myriad of cultures and peoples that had migrated to the West. The land there was well suited for it as, “Northwestern Europe’s dependable, year-round rainfall and the fertile soils of its numerous river valleys encourage agricultural productivity.” (Hollister, p56-57) The new kingdoms that formed placed their interests in these fertile valleys of the West, and not so much in the Mediterranean.
At its height in the second century A.D., the Roman Empire contained around 45 million people. By its Fall, the number had been reduced to around 22 million, and population did not really begin to rise again until the mid-eleventh century. (Hollister, p146) The shrinking of the cities that began in the late fifth century continued unabated. For the next 500 years, there was no city of decent size anywhere in the West. Plagues, which appeared sporadically throughout Europe, killed about one third of the populace each time it made a resurgence. The only possible population expansion was occurring in Scandinavia, and may have been responsible for their invasions in the ninth century.
The basis for the economy at the time of the Fall was slave-driven agriculture. The slaves were mostly acquired as booty from Roman conquest, “but as the frontiers jelled and the flow of war captives dwindled, the chief source of slaves was cut off.” (Hollister, p13) Thus the turn to coloni, a form of sharecropper who, while technically free, nevertheless evolved into the semi-free serf so prevalent in later centuries.
Trade broke down markedly in the West after the Fall, due to the lack of cultural unity between manufacturing centers that had existed under the Empire. In addition, without a central government providing protection for merchants, those transporting goods by land or sea were prone to attacks by pirates. Taxes in turn became tribute, or protection money, paid to a local warlord to prevent lands from being pillaged.
Agriculture remained the economic center of life, although the forms it existed in altered. Earlier settlements consisted of, “scattered individual farms, or small clusters of them.” (Hollister, p139) And the Germanic tribes practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, which is by nature nomadic. Later settlements became more structured, taking on the more permanent form of villages. The basic type of village consisted of houses set close together, surrounded by great fields, specializing in different crops. This type of grouping became the norm of civilization, as cities were rare.
Charlemagne standardized weights and measures which made determining value of goods easier. He also minted coinage, facilitating tax collecting as well as determining wealth. When he seized the Avar treasury, it created an influx of new money to the Western economy.
During the Carolingian reign, nobles were granted booty as reward and incentive to support the current king. The problem inherent with this system is that it requires a constant stream of war and victories to appease the nobles. Therefore, “with the flow of lands and booty drying up, many great landholders deserted the monarchy and looked to their own interests.” (Hollister, p109) Another issue with this system is that it creates hereditary titles that may not feel allegiance to the monarch. To solve this aspect, lands and titles were granted to members of the clergy, who because of vows of celibacy did not have children. Thus at the demise of the clergyman, the title and lands would revert back to the crown to be awarded to someone else.
At the time of the Fall and for most of history, the great majority of the populace belonged to the poor lower classes. In Rome, the poor were appeased with free bread and entertainment, while the extremely poor may have become slaves. The unhappiness of slaves is evident in the many revolts that occurred during the Roman Empire. Women for the most part had little rights and were subject to the whims of their fathers, and then their husbands. But as Hollister puts it, “life in Rome’s “golden age” could be pleasant enough if one were male, adult, very wealthy, and naturally immune to various epidemic diseases.” (Hollister, p14)
In the following centuries, owning land remained a major indicator of status. The upper classmen were landowning nobles who were either granted their land by a warlord or monarch, or they had their own private army to stand guard. Out of the creation of villages and the granting of lands after military conquest came the institution of feudalism. This reciprocal system was a, “convenient way for a lord to support a retinue of warriors in an age in which money was scarce and land abundant.” (Hollister, p126)
The hierarchical structure, in theory, heralded the monarch as the supreme lord, who entrusted great territories to dukes and counts, who in turn supported vassals of their own, continuing down to the serf, the supreme vassal. In truth, the vassals serving the king were as likely to fight against him as for him. Under this system, the lords are afforded sustenance and men-at-arms from those beneath them on the hierarchy ladder, while those below are afforded protection by those above.
The enveloping tie that held the Roman Empire together for centuries when it was perhaps on the verge of downfall was the adoption of Christianity. The Empire lacked a moral soul that Christianity provided. It put an end to child abandonment, gladiators battling to the death for sport, and feeding criminals and slaves to wild animals. But, slavery continued even after the Empire became Christian, because, “The Church generally accepted it, recognizing that the freeing of slaves would result in economic ruin.” (Hollister, p20) It created a common bond between the peasants and the wealthy. It even gave women a way out of an unwanted marriage, through dedication to a convent. And it promised everyone that if they lived justly, a better existence awaited for them in the next life.
However, factions existed within Christianity concerning such things as the nature of the Trinity and of Jesus. These divisions were a cause for much strife as it caused further animosity between the Empire and the Arian Germans. However, through the centuries a melding of Germanic and post-empirical cultures came to exist, and formed the foundations for Western Christendom.
High culture, such as art and literature, abounded in the Roman Empire, but the mostly illiterate Germans had little use for it in their warrior dominated society. During the centuries following the Fall, it was the establishment and spreading of monasteries that kept the old arts alive. Monasteries formed the basis for learning and creativity during the early Middle Ages. The contributions of the Benedictines were a major force in the conversion of “barbarian” races. “They spearheaded the penetration of Christianity into the forests of Germany and later into Scandinavia, Poland, and Hungary.” (Hollister, p69) The conversion of the Scandinavians was in fact a major contributor to ending their disastrous attacks on Europe. In addition, the land which the monasteries owned in the name of the Church, led bishops and abbots to have distinct political power as well. This integration of religion into the everyday life of the populace helped the papacy to achieve influence in all of Europe.
The word “diplomacy” can be misleading in dealing with the affairs of the Middle Ages. Diplomacy tends to give the impression that a compromise is attempting to be reached. For the most part in the Roman Empire, their diplomatic affairs that were limited to encounters with the Germanic tribes, consisted of either paying them off, or going to war with them. Generally, the Empire was more successful in its campaigns than the Germans due to its legions and superior commanders.
In the later centuries, diplomacy goes out the window in an all-out attempt by kingdoms to accumulate as much land as possible. The entire early Middle Ages is filled with conflict between neighboring Germanic tribes, Christian remainders of the Roman Empire, and invasions by Muslim Saracens, Hungarian Magyars, and Scandinavian Vikings. There were some alliances, such as between the Church and Charlemagne, but they were brief as compared to the widespread warfare.
If there is one constant from the Roman Empire lasting through the Middle Ages, it is war. The Roman Empire had a standing army of 400,000 well-trained legionnaires. These foot soldiers were spread throughout the borderlands of the Empire to protect from invasion and secure against revolts. While successful during the height of the empire, their effectiveness began to wane as they faced new enemies with new fighting styles, such as horse mounted light cavalry and archers.
Warfare in the following centuries was a determinant of political power. The more battles you won, the more land and booty you acquired. The early kings were basically warrior chieftains who were more successful than their rivals were. Booty from campaigns was a large source of acquiring wealth, considering that taxes, and money in general, were almost nonexistent. Charlemagne used lands won in battle as rewards to his nobles, who supplied him with troops. One reason the Church allied with him and named him Holy Roman Emperor is because he controlled so much land in Western Europe. While inventions and creativity in domestic life were rare, there was a constant search for a better armor, a more effective bow, and a stronger sword.
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The kingdoms that emerged out of the chaos of the early Middle Ages would be the forces that shaped the modern Western world. The nations of England, France, and Germany were defined in their early stages as world powers. The Church took on the role of common denominator among the warring nations. The stage was set for the next phase of mankind’s development: The High Middle Ages.