The Middle Ages
During the decline of the Roman Empire, the migrations of a strong, rude people began to change the life of Europe. They were the German barbarians, or Teutonic tribes, who swept across the Rhine and the Danube into the empire. There they accepted Christianity. The union of barbarian vigor and religious spirit carried Europe to the threshold of modern times. That span from the ancient era to the modern is called the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages cover about 1,000 years--from about AD 500 to about AD 1500. The change from ancient ways to medieval customs came so gradually, however, that it is difficult to tell exactly when the Middle Ages began. Some historians say that the Middle Ages began in AD 476, when the barbarian Odoacer overthrew the emperor Romulus Augustulus, ending the Western Roman Empire. Other historians give the year 410, when Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome. Still others say about AD 500 or even later. It is equally hard to determine exactly when the Middle Ages ended, for decisive events leading to the modern age took place at different times. Historians say variously that the Middle Ages ended with the fall of Constantinople, in 1453; with the discovery of America, in 1492; or with the beginning of the Reformation, in 1517.
A New Empire In The West
The Early Middle Ages, 500-1000
The first dominant kingdom to emerge from the decentralization of the
early Middle Ages was that of the Germanic tribe of the Franks. From 714 to
814, the Carolingian House of the Franks brought stability and progress to
northern Europe. A large portion of the West enjoyed military and political
security as well as religious unity.
This accomplishment was not to last, however. The Frankish empire did not
endure, partly because it lacked the strong economic bases that has supported
the Romans. By the ninth century, Muslim conquests and commercial activity
successfully competed with the Franks; inland trade declined sharply and urban
life almost disappeared in the north. In addition, the empire had no strong
administrative machinery to compensate for the weak rulers who followed the
dominating leadership of the emperor Charlemagne; the empire disintegrated
amid civil wars and invasions.
The impressive achievements of the Carolingians towards building a
unifying governmental system were not able to counteract the decentralization
of political, military, and economic activity in most of western Europe. A
system of government sometimes referred to as feudalism attempted to provide
stability and to serve as an effective political substitute for a powerful,
effective central government. Economic life centered on a concern for
subsistence and security, which could only be provided by the acceptance of
local and rural customs and practices designed to ensure the necessities of
life through resisting change and fostering self-sufficiency. The church
continued its efforts to convert and standardize the belief of its members,
and in so doing attempted to provide spiritual security in a troubled and
A New Empire In The West
In the merging of Roman and Germanic cultures and institutions, the
Franks played an especially significant role. The kingdom of the Franks was
not only the most enduring of the Germanic states established in the West, but
it became, with the active support of the church, the center of the new Europe
that attempted to assume the place of the western Roman Empire.
The Kingdom of the Franks Under Clovis
Before the Germanic invasions of the fourth century, the Franks lived
along the east bank of the Rhine, close to the North Sea. Late in the fourth
century the Franks began a slow movement south and west across the Rhine into
Gaul. By 481 they occupied the northern part of Gaul as far as the old Roman
city of Paris; in that year Clovis I of the Merovingian House became ruler of
one of the small Frankish kingdoms. By the time of his death in 511, Clovis
had united the Franks into a single kingdom that stretched south to the
Clovis achieved his aims by the crafty manipulation of marriage
alliances, treachery, assassination, and the use of religion. Clovis first
allied himself with other kings of the small Frankish states to dispose of
Syagrius, the last Roman general in Gaul. He then turned against his own
allies and subdued them.
According to the sixth century Gallo-Roman bishop and historian Gregory
of Tours, whose History of the Franks is the most detailed account of any of
the early Germanic peoples, Clovis was converted to Christianity in 496 as a
result of a battle against the Alemanni, a pagan Germanic tribe whose name
became the French word for Germany, Allemagne. On the verge of being defeated,
Clovis called on the Christian god for help:
O Christ ... if you accord me the victory ... I will believe
in you and be baptized in your name. I have called on my gods,
but I have found from experience that they are far from my aid ...
it is you whom I believe to be able to defeat my enemies. ^1
[Footnote 1: Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks II, 30; quoted in Eleanor
Duckett, The Gateway to the Middle Ages (New York: The Macmillan Company,
1938), p. 231.]
Clovis won the battle and was baptized together with his whole army. He
became the only mainstream Christian ruler in the West, for the other Germanic
tribes were either pagan or Arian Christians.
The conversion of the Franks to Christianity is considered a decisive
event in European history. Ultimately it led to an alliance of the Franks and
the papacy, and immediately it assured Clovis the loyalty of the Gallo-Roman
bishops, the leaders of the native Christian population of Gaul. This was a
political advantage not open to the Arian Visigothic and Burgundian kings.
With the help of the native population of Gaul, Clovis was able to expand his
control in the name of Christian orthodoxy.
In 507 Clovis attacked the Visigoths, who ruled Gaul south of the Loire
River and all of Spain. The Visigothic king was killed, and his people
abandoned most of their Gallic territory. Clovis died four years later at the
age of forty-five; his conquests formed the core of what would eventually
become the French nation.
[See Kingdom Of Clovis I]
Decline of the Merovingians
Clovis' sons and grandsons conquered the Burgundian kingdom and extended
Frankish control to the Mediterranean and further into Germany. After a
century, however, the Merovingian House began to decay from inner weaknesses.
The Germanic practice of treating the kingdom as personal property and
dividing it among all the king's sons resulted in constant and bitter civil
wars. Potential heirs plotted murders, intrigue, and treachery. Merovingian
kings proved themselves incompetent and ineffectual as rulers. Soon the
Frankish state broke up into three separate kingdoms; in each, power was
concentrated in the hands of the chief official of the royal household, the
mayor of the palace, a powerful noble in whose interest it was to keep the
king weak and ineffectual. The Merovingian rulers were mere puppets, the rois
faineants ("do-nothing kings").
A Dark Age
By the middle of the seventh century the Frankish state had lost many of
the essential characteristics of its Roman predecessor. The Roman system of
administration and taxation had completely collapsed. The dukes and counts who
represented the Merovingian king received no salary and usually acted on their
own initiative in commanding fighting men and presiding over the courts in
their districts. International commerce had ceased except for a small trade in
luxury items carried on by adventurous Greek, Syrian, and Jewish traders. The
old Roman cities served mainly to house the local bishop and his staff. The
absence of a vibrant middle class meant that society was composed of the
nobility, a fusion through intermarriage of aristocratic Gallo-Roman and
German families who owned and exercised authority over large estates, and the
lower class coloni, who were bound to the land. These serfs included large
numbers of formerly free German farmers. Only about 10 percent of the peasant
population of Gaul maintained a free status.
Coinciding with the Merovingian decay, new waves of invaders threatened
every part of Europe. A great movement of Slavic people from the area that is
now Russia had begun in about A.D. 500. The Slavs fanned out from this point,
filling the areas left by the Germanic tribes when they pushed south into the
Roman Empire. By 650 the western Slavs had reached the Elbe River, across
which they raided German territory. More danger threatened western Europe from
the south; in the late seventh century the Muslims prepared to invade Spain
from North Africa.
Charles Martel and the Rise of the Carolingians
The Frankish kingdom revived when Charles Martel became mayor of the
palace in 714. His father, one of the greatest Frankish landowners, had
eliminated all rival mayors. Although Charles ruled a united Frankish kingdom
in all but name, the Merovingian kings were kept as figureheads at the court.
Charles is best remembered for his victory over a Muslim invasion of
Frankish territory, which earned him the surname Martel, "The Hammer." In 711
an army of Muslims from North Africa had invaded Spain, and by 718 the weak
kingdom of the Visigoths had collapsed. With most of the peninsula under their
control, the Muslims began making raids across the Pyrenees. In 732 Charles
Martel met them near Tours, deep within the Frankish kingdom. Muslim losses
were heavy, and during the night they retreated to Spain.
A major military reform coincided with the Battle of Tours. For some time
before this conflict, the effectiveness of mounted soldiers had been growing,
aided by the introduction of the stirrup, which allowed mounted warriors to
keep a firm seat while wielding their weapons. To counteract the effectiveness
of the quick-striking Muslim cavalry, Charles recruited a force of
professional mounted soldiers whom he rewarded with sufficient land to enable
each of them to maintain a family, equipment, and war horses.
Pepin the Short
Charles Martel's son, Pepin the Short, who ruled from 741 to 768, was a
worthy successor to his father. To legalize the power already being exercised
by the mayors of the palace, Pepin requested and received from the pope a
decision that whoever exercised the actual power in the kingdom should be the
legal ruler. In 751 Pepin was elected king by the Franks; the last Merovingian
was quietly sent to a secluded monastery. In 754 the pope reaffirmed the
election of Pepin by crossing the Alps and personally anointing the new king
in the Old Testament manner, as the Chosen of the Lord.
Behind the pope's action lay his need for a powerful protector. In 751
the Lombards had conquered the Exarchate of Ravenna, the center of Byzantine
government in Italy, were demanding tribute from the pope, and threatened to
besiege Rome. Following Pepin's coronation, the pope secured the new ruler's
promise of armed intervention in Italy and his pledge to give the papacy the
Exarchate of Ravenna, once it was conquered. In 756 a Frankish army forced the
Lombard king to relinquish his conquests, and Pepin officially gave Ravenna to
the pope. Known as the "Donation of Pepin," the gift made the pope a temporal
ruler over the Papal States, a strip of territory that extended diagonally
across northern Italy.
The alliance between the Franks and the papacy affected the course of
politics and religion for centuries. It accelerated the separation of the
Roman from the Greek Christian church by providing the papacy with a
dependable western ally in place of the Byzantines, previously its only
protector against the Lombards; it created the Papal States, which played a
major role in Italian politics until the late nineteenth century; and, by the
use of the ritual of anointment, it carried on a tradition that kingship in
the West was to be affirmed by approval of church officials.
Under Pepin's son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who ruled from 768 to
814, the Frankish state and the Carolingian House reached the summit of their
power. Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, described the king as a natural
leadertall, physically strong, and a great horseman who always led the charge
at the hunt. Although he was primarily a successful warrior-king, leading his
armies on yearly campaigns, Charlemagne also tried to provide an effective
administration for his kingdom. In addition, he had great appreciation for
learning and attempted to further the arts in his court.
Taking advantage of feuds among the Muslims in Spain, Charlemagne sought
to extend his kingdom southward. In 778 he crossed the Pyrenees and met with
some success. As the Frankish army headed back north, it was met by the
Christian Basques, who attacked the Franks from the rear. In this skirmish the
Frankish leader, a count named Roland, was killed. The memory of his heroism
was later recorded in the great medieval epic, the Chanson de Roland (Song of
Roland). On later expeditions the Franks drove the Muslims back to the Ebro
River and estalished a frontier area known as the Spanish March, or Mark,
centered near Barcelona. French immigrants moved into the area, later called
Catalonia, giving it a character culturally distinguishable from the rest of
Charlemagne conquered the Bavarians and the Saxons, the last of the
independent Germanic tribes. It took thirty-two campaigns to subdue the
Saxons, who lived between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. Charlemagne divided
Saxony into bishoprics, built monasteries, and instituted severe laws against
paganism. Eating meat during the penitential period of Lent, cremating the
dead (an old pagan practice), and pretending to be baptized were offenses
punishable by death.
Like his father before him, Charlemagne was concerned with Italian
politics. The Lombards resented the attempts of the papacy to expand civil
control in northern Italy. At the request of the pope, Charlemagne attacked
the Lombards in 774, defeated them and proclaimed himself their king. While in
Italy, he reaffirmed his father's alliance with the church through the
Donation of Pepin.
The empire's eastern frontier was continually threatened by the Avars,
Asiatic nomads related to the Huns, and the Slavs. In six campaigns
Charlemagne almost eliminated the Avars and then set up his own military
province in the valley of the Danube to guard against any future plundering by
eastern nomads. Called the East Mark, this territory later was named Austria.
Charlemagne's Coronation in Rome
One of the most important events in Charlemagne's reign took place on
Christmas Day, 800. In the previous year the Roman nobility had ousted the
pope, charging him with corruption. Charlemagne came to Rome and restored the
pope to his office. Then, at the Christmas service while Charlemagne knelt
before the altar at St. Peter's, the pope placed a crown on his head amid the
cries of the assembled congregation: "To Charles Augustus crowned of God,
great and pacific Emperor of the Romans, long life and victory!"
This ceremony demonstrated that the memory of the Roman Empire still
survived as a meaningful tradition in Europe and that there was a strong
desire to reestablish a political unity. In fact, Charlemagne had named his
capital at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) "New Rome" and was about to take the title
of emperor in an attempt to revive the idea of the Roman Empire in the West.
By seizing the initiative and crowning Charlemagne, the pope attempted to
assume a position of superiority as a maker of emperors.
The extent of Charlemagne's empire was impressive. His territories
included all of the western area of the old Roman Empire except Africa,
Britain, southern Italy, and southern Spain. Seven defensive provinces, or
marks, protected the empire against hostile neighbors.
The Carolingian territories were divided into some three hundred
administrative divisions, each under a count (graf) or, in the marks along the
border, a margrave (markgraf). In addition, there were local military
officials, the dukes. In an effort to solve the problem of supervising the
local officials, a problem that plagued all Germanic rulers, Charlemagne
issued an ordinance creating the missi dominici, the king's envoys. Pairs of
these itinerant officials, usually a bishop and a lay noble, traveled
throughout the realm to check on the local administration. To make the missi
immune to bribes, they were chosen from men of high rank, were frequently
transferred from one region to another, and no two of them were teamed for
more than one year.
[See Charlemagne's Empire]
The Carolingian Renaissance
Charlemagne also promoted a revival of learning and the arts. His efforts
in this area were destined to be far more lasting than his attempt to revive
the Roman Empire in the West, and they have prompted historians to speak of
this period as one of cultural rebirth.
In 789 Charlemagne decreed that every monastery must have a school for
the education of boys in "singing, arithmetic, and grammar." As he stated in a
letter to the abbot of Fulda, Charlemagne was greatly concerned over the
illiteracy of the clergy:
Since in these years there were often sent to us from divers
monasteries letters in which ... owing to neglect of learning,
the untutored tongue could not express [itself] without faultiness.
Whence it came that we began to fear lest, as skill in writing
was less, wisdom to understand the Sacred Scriptures might be far
less than it ought rightly to be. ^2
[Footnote 2: Quoted in M. L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western
Europe, A.D. 500 to 900 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1931), pp.
At his capital of Aix-la-Chapelle, the emperor also sponsored a palace school
for the education of the royal household and the stimulation of learning
throughout the realm. Alcuin, the Anglo-Saxon scholar in charge of the school,
began the difficult task of reviving learning by writing textbooks on grammar,
spelling, rhetoric, and logic. "Ye lads," Alcuin exhorted his students, "whose
age is fitted for reading, learn! The years go by like running water. Waste
not the teachable days in idleness!" ^3
[Footnote 3: M. L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, p.
The reform of handwriting and the preservation of classical manuscripts
were significant achievements of the Carolingian revival. Copyists labored in
monasteries to preserve the classics of pagan and Christian thought with the
result that the oldest manuscripts of most of the Latin classics that have
come down to us date from the age of Charlemagne. The almost illegible script
of the Merovingian period was replaced by a more readable style of writing,
known as Carolingian minuscule - "little letters," in contrast to the capitals
used by the Romans. Carolingian miniscule became the foundation for the
typefaces still used in present-day printing, including that used in this
At Aix-la-Chapelle Charlemagne also strove to recapture something of the
magnificence of ancient Rome by building a stone palace church modeled after a
sixth-century church in Ravenna. Its mosaics were probably the work of
Byzantine artisans, and its marble columns were taken from ancient buildings
in Rome and Ravenna.
Charlemagne must be considered one of the most significant figures of
European history. He extended Christian civilization in Europe, set up
barriers to prevent invasions of the Slavs and Avars, and created a new Europe
whose center was in the north rather than on the Mediterranean and a state in
which law and order was again enforced after three centuries of
disintegration. His patronage of learning began a cultural revival that later
generations would build upon, producing a European civilization distinct from
the Byzantine to the east and the Muslim to the south.
Charlemagne's empire was not long-lived, however, for its territories
were too vast and its nobility too divisive to be held together after the
dominating personality of its creator had passed from the scene. Charlemagne
had no standing army; his foot soldiers were essentially the old Germanic war
band summoned to fight by its war leader, and his mounted warriors served him,
as they had Charles Martel, in return for grants of land. Charlemagne did not
have a bureaucratic administrative machine comparable to that of Roman times.
The Frankish economy was agricultural and localized, and there was no system
of taxation adequate to maintain an effective and permanent administration.
Under Charlemagne's weak successors the empire collapsed in the confusion of
civil wars and devastating new invasions. Progress toward a centralized and
effective monarchy in Europe ended with Charlemagne's death.
The Division of the Empire
Before his death in 814, Charlemagne himself, ignoring the pope, placed
the imperial crown on the head of his only surviving son, Louis the Pious, a
well-meaning man who was loved by the clergy, ignored by the nobility, and
resented by his own family. Louis, in accord with Frankish custom, divided the
kingdom among his sons, and bitter rivalry and warfare broke out among the
brothers and their father.
Louis the Pious died in 840, and strife continued among his three
surviving sons. Lothair, the oldest, was opposed by his two younger brothers -
Louis the German and Charles the Bald. In 842 the two younger brothers joined
forces by swearing the Strasbourg Oaths. The text of these oaths is
significant in that one part was in an early form of French, the other in
German. The first could be understood by Charles' followers, who lived mainly
west of the Rhine; the other by Louis' followers, who lived east of the Rhine.
These oaths are evidence that the Carolingian empire was splitting into two
linguistic and cultural sections - East Frankland, the forerunner of modern
Germany, and West Frankland, or France.
In 843 the three brothers met at Verdun, where they agreed to split the
Carolingian lands three ways. Charles the Bald obtained the western part of
the empire and Louis the German the eastern; Lothair, who retained the title
of emperor, obtained an elongated middle kingdom, which stretched a thousand
miles from the North Sea to central Italy.
The Treaty of Verdun is important because it began the shaping of modern
France and Germany by giving politcal recognition to the cultural and
linguistic division shown in the Strasbourg Oaths. Lothair's middle kingdom
soon collapsed into three major parts, Lorraine in the north, Burgundy, and
Italy in the south. Lorraine included Latin and German cultures, and although
it was divided in 870 between Charles and Louis, the area was disputed for
centuries. Lorraine became one of the battlegrounds of Europe.
The rival Carolingian houses produced no strong leaders worthy of being
called "Hammer" (Martel) or "Great"; instead, we find kings with such
revealing names as Charles the Fat, Charles the Simple, Louis the Child, and
Louis the Sluggard. The last of the East Frankish Carolingians died in 911. In
West Frankland the nobles, ignoring the eighteen-year-old Carolingian prince,
chose Odo, the count of Paris, as king in 888.
[See Empire Partition: Partition of Chatlemagne's Empire 843.]
The New Invasions
During the ninth and tenth centuries the remnants of Charlemagne's empire
were also battered by new waves of invaders. Scandinavians attacked from the
north, Muslims from the south, and a new wave of Asiatic nomads, the Magyars,
conducted a series of destructive raids on central Europe and northern Italy.
Christian Europe had to fight for its life against these aggressive and
warlike newcomers, who did far more damage to life and property than the
Germanic invaders of the fifth century.
From bases in North Africa, Muslim adventurers in full command of the sea
plundered the coasts of Italy and France. In 827 they began the conquest of
Byzantine Sicily and southern Italy. From forts erected in southern France
they penetrated far inland to attack the caravans of merchants in the Alpine
passes. What trade still existed between Byzantium and western Europe, except
for that undertaken by Venice and one or two other Italian towns, was now
almost totally cut off, and the Mediterranean Sea became a virtual Muslim
The most widespread and destructive raids came from Scandinavia. During
the ninth and tenth centuries Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians - collectively
known as Vikings - began to move south from their remote forests and fiords.
The reason for this expansion is not clear, but some historians cite
overpopulation and a surplus of young men as causes. Other scholars view these
raiders as defeated war bands expelled from their homeland by the gradual
emergence of strong royal power. Still others see a clue in the fact that the
Vikings had developed seaworthy ships capable of carrying a hundred men and
powered by long oars or by sail when the wind was favorable. Viking sailors
also had developed expert sailing techniques; without benefit of the compass,
they were able to navigate by means of the stars at night and the sun during
[See Viking Ship: Oseberge ship, from the early Viking period. Courtesy
Norwegian Information Service]
The range of Viking expansion was impressive. The Vikings explored as far
as North America to the west, the Caspian Sea to the east, and the
Mediterranean to the south. Few areas seemed immune from their raids, which
filled civilized Europeans with a fear that was reflected in a new prayer in
the litany of the church: "From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us."
Three main routes of Viking expansion can be identified. The outer path,
which was followed principally by the Norwegians, swung westward to Ireland
and the coast of Scotland. Between 800 and 850 Ireland was ravaged severely.
Many monasteries, the centers of the flourishing Irish Celtic culture, were
destroyed. By 875 the Norwegians were beginning to occupy remote Iceland, and
it was here rather than in their homeland that the magnificent Norse sagas
were preserved, little affected by either classical or Christian influences.
During the tenth century the Icelandic Norsemen ventured on to Greenland and,
later, to North America.
Another route, the eastern line, was followed chiefly by the Swedes, who
went down the rivers of Russia as merchants and soldiers of fortune and, as
was described in chapter 7, founded the nucleus of a Russian state.
The Danes took the middle passage, raiding Britain and the shores of
Germany, France, and Spain. By the 870s they had occupied most of Britain
north of the Thames. Also in the middle of the ninth century their raids
increased upon the Continent, where their long boats sailed up the Rhine,
Scheldt, Seine, and Loire rivers. In particular the Danes devastated northwest
France, destroying dozens of abbeys and towns. Unable to fight off the Viking
attacks, the weak Carolingian king Charles the Simple arranged a treaty with
Rollo, a Norse chieftain, in 911. This agreement created a Viking buffer
state, later called Normandy, and recognized Rollo as duke and vassal of the
French king. Like Viking settlers elsewhere, these Northmen, or Normans, soon
adopted Christian civilization. By the eleventh century, Normandy was a
powerful duchy, and the Viking spirit of the Normans contributed in producing
the most vigorous crusaders, conquerors, and administrators in Europe.
Europe in 900
Europe's response to the invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries was
not uniform. By 900, the Viking occupation of England initiated a strong
national reaction, which soon led to the creation of a united British kingdom.
Similarly, Germany in 919 reacted to the Magyar threat by installing the first
of a new and able line of kings who went on to become the most powerful
European monarchs since Charlemagne.
The Viking attacks on France accelerated the trend toward political
fragmentation that began under the Merovingians but was temporarily halted by
the strong personal leadership provided by the Carolingians. When
Charlemange's weak successors were unable to cope with constant Viking
assaults, and the government could not hold together its vast territory
without either a bureaucracy or a dominating king, the result was that small
independent landowners surrendered both their lands and their personal
freedoms to the many counts, dukes, and other local lords in return for
protection and security. The decline of trade further strengthened the
position of the landed nobility, whose large estates, or manors, tended to
become economically self-sufficient. In addition, the nobility became
increasingly dependent on military service rendered by a professional force of
heavily armed mounted knights, many of whom still lived in the house of their
noble retainers in return for their military service.
In response to all these elements - the disintegration of central power,
the need for protection, the decrease in the number of freemen, the rise of a
largely independent landed aristocracy, and the increased reliance on the
mounted knight - patterns of society took shape.