The Early Middle Ages from about 400 AD to 1000 AD is a period in European and Mediterranean history that falls between the fall of the Roman Empire and the High Middle Ages.
Europe was generally chaotic and in a decline from the achievements of the Roman Empire. Serfdom replaces slavery in the farms, which became increasingly self-suffient as trade fell off. Governments were weak and taxes were not collected. Cities dwindled in population. Law and order collapsed as armed bands operated with impunity in many areas throughout much of the period. High culture, learning and civilization almost disappeared completely in many places. Few buildings still exist that were built in the period.
Nevertheless, there were significant achievements as well, most importantly the spread of Christianity well beyond the borders of the old Roman Empire and indeed to the farthest reaches of Europe. In the East, the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire was still a force to be reckoned with, and also provided the primary defense against the spread of Islam in Europe. In the West, the Church was instrumental in helping preserve education and learning. Influential churchmen and scholars such as Gregory of Tours, the Venerable Bede, and Einhard recorded histories for us, while there were significant early developments in Christian theology from such men as Pope Gregory the Great and Isidore of Seville.
And while the age mostly did not produce the immense architectural monuments of the High Middle Ages and later, beautiful artworks, mostly portable, still survive from the era, including the Book of Kells and the treasures of Sutton Hoo.
Finally, no discussion of the period would be complete without recognition of the enormous impact of the birth and growth of Islam, which swept across the Middle East, North Africa and into Spain. Islamic rule brought many changes to these areas, some for the worse, such as the suppression of the growth of Christianity and unchecked piracy throughout the Mediterranean, but others more positive, including encouraging the flourishing of the important Jewish academies in Sura and Pumbedita in what is now Iraq, as well as important scientific developments in mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy. Muslim scholars also translated many Classical texts into Arabic, thus helping to ensure their survival.
The Time of the Barbarians (476-622)
During the course of the 5th century, the Western part of the Roman Empire suffered a massive loss of authority, creating an opportunity for a number of Germanic tribes to enter and settle on Roman territory, creating kingdoms that were initially nominally subservient to Rome, but in fact were independent. The most prominent of these were the Franks in northern Gaul, the Visigoths in southern Gaul and Hispania, the Vandals in North Africa, and the Ostrogoths and (later) Lombards in Italy. Finally,
After invading Gaul with the Alemanni, the Vandals invaded Hispania and took over the south. It was called Vandalusia, and today is named Andalusia in honor of them. Emperor Honorius sent the Visigoths to rid the area of barbarians, but when they became too successful urged them to set up a kingdom in southern Gaul. Later, when the Visigoths were driven out of Gaul, they took over Hispania, by then called Spain. In 586 the king converted to Catholicism and forced his entire nation except for the Jews to convert. Yet the kingdom declined until in 711-712 it was taken over by the Muslims.
In 406, when all Roman troops left Gaul to guard Italy, the Alemanni and Vandals invaded and were quite successful in taking fortified cities. Twelve years later, when the Romans coaxed the Visigoths out of Spain, they established a kingdom in southern Gaul with imperial support. Toulouse was the capital and Theodoric I their king. In 451, Attila attacked and the Franks, a Germanic tribe from the Netherlands and Belgium, were forced to flee into Gaul. Although the Romans defeated Attila, they were forced to allow a Frankish kingdom in the Rhineland (in modern Germany). When the western empire collapsed, the kingdom continued and in 481 Clovis became king. He conquered all of Gaul over the course of 30 years and in 496 converted to Catholicism and baptized his entire nation. But after he died, the Franks suffered two hundred years of weak and greedy kings who fought so much that serfdom became common.
The Eastern Roman Empire
Theodosius II became the eastern emperor in 402. Although personally weak, his mother passed the Theodosian Codes, a collection of Roman laws that had existed since the time of Constantine. Plus, the walls of Constantinople were rebuilt in 413 and defended it successfully for 1,040 years (in 1453 the Turks destroyed the empire and took the city). Christian orthodoxy was enforced, though for around a hundred years weak emperors ruled. But in 527 Justinian became emperor. After the buildings built by Constantine were destroyed in riots, he built the Hagia Sophia and fine palaces. Plus, in 529 he passed the Code of Justinian, a collection of Roman laws that made orthodox Christianity the only legal religion, improved justice, and influenced medieval and English laws (English law influenced American law). His general Belisarius conquered North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy, while Narses took Rome, northern Italy, and southern Spain. But in 568 the Lombards took northern Italy and soon Muhammad's legions took Persia, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and North Africa.
In 410 AD, Roman armies in Britannia were recalled to the continent as part of one of the civil wars that plagued the late Empire. As a consequence, the Romans and Celts living in Britannia turned to hiring Anglo-Saxon mercenaries for military protection. The mercenaries, being the primary military force in the province, took control of England themselves and created a number of independent kingdoms, the greatest being Wessex in the south, Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the north. The Anglo-Saxons were originally non-Christian, but were gradually converted to Christianity through the efforts of missionaries from Ireland and Rome.
The Italian Peninsula
In 410, the Visigoths had sacked Rome, though they did not harm a single piece of property owned by the Church. Forty-two years Pope Leo I convinced Attila to leave, perhaps by his holiness, perhaps by an angel threatening to kill him unless the Hun obeyed him, perhaps by some gold. When the empire fell in 476, mercenaries ruled, but in 493, Theodoric of the Ostrogoths took over. He built roads, churches, aqueducts, theaters, and amphitheaters. Even though he was an Arian (someone who believed Jesus was not equal to God), he tolerated Catholics and Jews. But when he died, Justinian tried to conquer Italy. Even though they at first succeeded, the Ostrogoths fought back and both sides viciously destroyed the peninsula. Although eventually all Italy was ruled by Constantinople, in 568 the Lombards took over northern Italy. Pope Gregory I converted them to Catholicism, fed the people of Rome by grain from papal estates, and paid the Eastern Roman troops in Italy.
The Rise of Islam (622-751)
The establishment of Islam by Muhammad is traditionally dated from the year of his flight (the Hijra) from Mecca in 622. Using the new faith to unite the various Arab tribes, Muhammad's successors deployed them against the Byzantine and Persian Empires, traditional enemies that had just finished a long, exhausting war that had depleted the treasuries and military powers of both. The Arabs also took advantage of conflicts between Monophysite Christians in Syria and Egypt and the Orthodox Byzantine emperors. The end result was the total elimination of the Persian Empire and its incorporation into the Caliphate, and the permanent loss of the Middle East and Egypt to the Byzantines.
By 661, after a brief civil war, the Umayyad family had established itself as the rulers of the Islamic world, with their capital at Damascus. Although Byzantium successfully resisted the conquest of Constantinople and Asia Minor, the Umayyads successfully took the rest of North Africa, sweeping aside Byzantine resistance and invaded Spain in 711.
Visigothic Spain and its Conquest
Under the Visigoth, headquartered in Toledo, comprised a fifth of the population and were soon romanized. A new Spanish language emerged from Latin. The king converted in 587 from Arianism to the Roman Catholic faith, and the kingdom followed. Romanism. The great intellectual leader was Bishop Isidore of Seville (560-636).
In 711, Berbers and Arabs crossed over from Africa and defeated the Visigoths, reaching the Pyrennees Mountains by 719. However, on the other side they were defeated by Charles Martel and his Franks at the Battle of Tours, but wars and large raids continued.
The Umayyad Dynasty ruled 756-1031. Christians were tolerated but (as in most Muslim countries), had to pay a special tax and were excluded from political power. Jews were well treated. There were numerous Christian revolts, but they were all suppressed. The most brilliant period of the Moorish civilization came in the ninth and tenth centuries with the city of Cordova as the center seat of science and arts.
By 1035 there were three small Christian kingdoms in the north: Castile-León; Navarre; and Aragon, along with the county of Barcelona. They began planning to retake Spain from the Muslims. The Reconquista (reconquest) began began in earnest under El Cid (d. 1099) and was completely successful by 1492.
Different families of claimants to the throne of Francia, as Gaul was called, battled ruthlessly. The majordomo (chief of the palace) became dominant. Charles Martel became majordomo in 719. In 732, the Muslims invaded Francia, via Spain. Martel decisivcely defeated them at the Battle of Tours.
The Byzantine Empire
Heraclius became emperor in 610. The Persians were attacking. A pious man, Heraclius acted when Jerusalem fell and the True Cross was placed in the Persian capital of Ctesphion. His armies reconquer the area and even invade Persia. But the Muslims came in only six years later and took Israel, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, plus the Persian Empire. Constantinople was besieged in 717, but Emperor Leo III drove them away. He reformed the empire and restored it to prosperity. At the time, many almost worshipped icons. So an iconoclasm (smashing of icons) began. Asians, who favored it, were settled in Europe to get rid of Greeks, who opposed it. But the most violent parts of iconoclasm were under succeeding emperors. Yet it was ended in 787 to appease the Pope, who opposed it. Starting about eighty years and continued until 1071, wealth reigned. Learning flourished. The empire reconquered southern Italy.
Anglo-Saxon England and Britain
When Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to England in 596, he started to convert the far southern kingdoms to Catholicism. Gradually all of England was Catholic. The Anglo-Saxons began to produce great works of art. Our word Easter comes from Eastre, which either is the Old English word for a pagan spring fest or for Passover. Many churches and monasteries were built. A monk named Bede (672-735) produced a book known as the Ecclesiatical History of the English Nation, which really was a history of England from the Celts onward. Monks began writing when kings were born, when they came to the throne, and when they died. The barbarian Anglo-Saxons were becoming civilized Englishmen - all because of Saint Augustine.
The Italian Peninsula and the Papacy
The Papacy weakened thanks to both the Lombards and Byzantines. Yet because of iconoclasm the popes allied with the former. In 751 all Byzantine territory in northern Italy was conquered by the Lombards. The king threatened Rome. So Pope Stephen II called in Pepin the Short, king of the Franks.
The Carolingian Empire (751-843)
Pepin the Short, major domo, became Frankish king with the support of the Pope in 751. He protected Pope Stephen II from a Lombard attack on Rome and besieged Pavia, their capital, but let them off the hook. In 768 his son Charles became king. He protected Pope Adrian I from the Lombards and then conquered Pavia and their entire kingdom. Next he attacked the Saxons, a savage barbarian people from northeastern Germany. Though they were stubborn, eventually he conquered them and forcibly baptized them, building churches and monasteries. He invaded Spain in 778 and was unsuccessful. But the Song of Roland, a fascinating romantic tale, told that all of Spain was conquered, that the king of Saragossa tricks him into making peace, that Roland's father-in-law is angry with his nephew for making him ambassador and believes he wants him dead, and so tells the Muslims which way the Franks are headed. The Arabs kill the entire battalion, including Roland. But at the end Ganelon is killed. God's justice reigns. Charlemagne encouraged art and learning in his realm, and brought in English, Italian, and even Muslim teachers. He was crowned emperor by the Pope in 800 and the Holy Roman Empire was founded. In 814 he died. Louis the Pious, his godly but ineffective son, had to battle nobles who disdained his goodness. In 843, two years after his death, the empire was divided into France, Germany, and the Middle Kingdom.
Moslem Spain: 711-1031
The Muslim kingdoms in Spain, called Al-Andalus, sponsored learning and art. Huge libraries and fine mosques existed there. Yet in 975 an intolerant king came to the throne and persecuted Jews and Catholics, many of whom fled to the Christian kingdoms in the north. Kingdoms in the north expanded and raised large armies to fight the heretics. French knights aided them. El Cid, a romanticized mercenary conquered many cities and regions from the Moors. The invasion of fanatic Arabs from Morocco escalated the wars.
France and The Holy Roman Empire
Following Frankish custom, Charlemagne had intended to divide his empire between his sons after his death. However, only Louis the Pious survived their father to inherit him. But Louis left three sons when he died, and shortly after his death, they fell into civil war over the question of how to divide the inheritance. At the Treaty of Verdun in 843 AD, it was decided to divide the Empire in three parts. The western part would go to Charles the Bald while the eastern part went to Louis the German. The eldest son, Lothair received the Imperial Crown and a part of land wedged in between the other two. Finally, the son of Lothair received the Middle Kingdom, consisting of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Rhineland, and northern Italy. Twenty-seven years later it was abolished. Belgium and Luxembourg went to the west, the Netherlands, Rhineland, and north Italy to the east.
But the Vikings, fierce pagan pirates from Scandinavia, started to attack. They plundered monasteries and churches. Why? Because everything there was made of silver, which they wanted. Paris was besieged several times, and in 845 Hamburg was sacked.
Desperate to settle nobles in the Rhineland, Charles the Simple gave northwestern France to the Vikings in 911. Because they were sometimes called Norsemen, their region became known as Normandy and they were called Normans. They converted to Catholicism and adopted monarchy and feudalism.
Anglo-Saxon England and Britain
In 793 the Vikings attacked England. Already they had attacked Ireland and Scotland. They plundered churches and monasteries for their silver. But in 871 a king named Alfred ascended to the throne of Wessex. He conquered most of England, but agreed they could rule eastern England. It was called the Danelaw because most Vikings who attacked Britain were Danes. He agreed to pay them a tribute with the same name. Alfred, eager that clergymen should be educated, built schools. Works of art were produced. No doubt to defend against further Viking attacks, Alfred created the English Navy. He little knew how powerful it would be almost a thousand years after his time.
The Italian Peninsula and the Papacy
As the Holy Roman Empire started to fall due to rot from within and attacks from without, Italy weakened. In 826, a group of Arab pirates from Crete seized Sicily from the Byzantines. Using this as a base, they attacked southern Italy and seized the town of Bari. From Bari, they plundered Naples in 837. In 846 they plundered Rome and wrecked St. Peter's, among other beautiful churches. Pope Leo IV built a wall to defend Rome. Some Holy Roman Emperors were Italians. Later, papal armies retook Bari. In around 1000, the Normans seized Sicily from the Muslims.
The Transition to the High Middle Ages (843-1000)
Not only did the Vikings and Muslims attack the degenerate empire. So did the Magyars, a fierce nomadic tribe from Central Asia. They plundered Germany. But a new emperor named Otto defeated them in 955 with his knights. The Magyars settled in modern Hungary, became the Hungarians, and in 1000 converted to Catholicism.
In 962, Otto defeated an ambitious king in northern Italy who threatened Rome. Pope John XII crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. A renaissance of art, learning, and culture began. With the defeat of the Muslims in Italy, settling down of the Hungarians, and civilizing of the Normans, order returned. Knights kept order. Agriculture advanced. Learning exploded. The orderly, prosperous, educated, and devoutly Catholic High Middle Ages was about to begin.
- Bitel, Lisa M. Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1100 (2002) excerpt and text search
- Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750 (1989) 216pp; excerpt and text search
- Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 (2nd ed. 1999) excerpt and text search
- McKitterick, Rosamond. The Early Middle Ages: Europe 400-1000 (2001) excerpt and text search
- Thorndike, Lynn. The history of medieval Europe (1917) 682 pages; old but reliable textbook by leading scholar. full text online
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