The Low Middle Ages

Also known as the Early Middle Ages. Hollywood Historians like to lump all of the Middle Ages into one indistinct era, but a study of real history will show that the period of the fall of Western Rome and the rise of Monasticism in Europe was more of a prelude to the true Middle Ages. It began with an alleged dark age, when people were supposedly too busy staying alive to write histories, had a few peaceful years in the middle, and ended with Vikings ravaging the coasts, and horsemen storming out of the east. Although Western Europe did unarguably decline in the markers of civilization such as decreased stability, technological progress, urban decline, and literacy in comparison with the fading Age of the Roman Empire, the East (and the Iberian peninsula) was flourishing under the Islamic Golden Age and the Macedonian Renaissance in the surviving territories of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Most Hollywood monks are pious men with tonsures, clad in long black robes. They frequently spend all their days dipping feathered pens into inkwells and scribbling strange uncials into large books by candlelight. If they're being played by Derek Jacobi, they may take time out of their busy schedule of scribbling, praying, singing, and rejecting all of their worldly goods to mill about the town and solve a murder mystery or two...

If not a monk, the Hollywood European of this time is generally either a cruel warlord pursuing his droit-de-seigneur or an oppressed peasant.

Or he is a barbarian invader. For this is also the time of the Vikings, hearty sailors in horned helmets who loved burning down monasteries and carrying off struggling peasant women, while Alfred The Great burnt cakes.

Other vaguely remembered names from this period are Canute, trying to turn back the tide, and Charlemagne.

The arrival of the Normans in 1066 is as good a cut-off point as any, especially since they were the ones who really started building castles with a vengeance. After that, see The High Middle Ages.

    The Truth 
Ditching all the Hollywood History, the Low Middle Ages are generally considered to have started around the fall of The Roman Empire. note  Although since the collapse of the Empire is not really an "event" but more of a gradual decline, it is hard to pinpoint where exactly this fall occurs. Most would likely say the Sack of Rome by the Visigoth king Alaric, but in truth the Empire was so far gone by that point anyways.

The period really begins sometime in the 3rd Century. Roman civilization had been in decline since the end of the Pax Romana note  and the Roman identity was starting to suffer. Roman culture and tradition was gradually being forgotten and replaced. Most of this was due to the decentralization of the Empire. The increasingly large empire was growing ever more difficult to maintain, and as was common in the late period of the Western Roman Empire, local rulers and generals grew ever more powerful in the absence of the Emperor. This culminated in the Crisis of the Third Century, in which competing general/emperors waged a massive, brutal civil war in an effort to either take over the Empire or make their own, independent empires. Following the crisis, Diocletian separated East and West formally, each now being governed by their own Emperor. The crisis and the split were two massive reasons for the decline of the Western Roman Empire. This seemed rather unbalanced, as the Eastern Roman Empire was clearly richer and far more powerful, especially since Constantine had moved the capital to Byzantium. note  While the East grew rich from trade and prosperity note , the West remained poor.

The Crisis had also been something of an Enemy Civil War for enterprising barbarians who had remained unconquered. With The Roman Empire weakening, its enemies began to nibble away little by little. The Parthians (Later known as the Sassanians) carved out their own large empire in Persia and parts of Mesopotamia. Germansnote  would ever encroach on the borderlands of Roman territory.

Following the Crisis, Roman military power began to wane. The legions, at least in the West, were no longer the state funded, organized armies that had once led to Empire to great victories. Instead, the Western Roman Empire had grown ever reliant on mercenaries and auxiliaries, who were often cheaper. note  This made the West increasingly vulnerable to other threats. This was ever noticed during the Gothic War, in which Goths, fleeing the migrating Huns, resettled on Roman territory, but they rebelled due to mistreatment. The Goths won a decisive battle against the Roman troops at the Battle of Adrianople, which exposed the weakness of the decaying Roman Empire.

The reasons for this rapid decline are too numerous to count, but a growing gap between the social classes (combined with severe rigidity, meaning it was nigh-impossible for people to rise in social class like they had done previously in the Empire), the rise of Christianity, a gradual reliance on local rulers, and a growing lack of cultural identity in the Empire as local culture began to exert influence once more, all led to the groundwork of the Early Middle Ages.

The Gothic War is just one example of the Migration Period, which some historians include in the Low Middle Ages. Germans began moving en masse to various parts of the weakened Roman Empire, each taking their own slice of the pie. This wasn't done entirely out of greed, however, as most were fleeing the Huns, Magyars, and other steppe peoples of the east. The weakened Empire was incapable of putting up much of a fight against these Germanic invaders.

From the crossing of the Rhine in 406, the Western Roman Empire (or whatever shell of it remained) was effectively conquered by the Germans, who rapidly claimed many of Rome's former provinces. The Visigoths, a people originally from the area around Dacia, took Gaul note  and Hispania note  for their own, while the Ostrogoths, who were of similar origin, took Italy. The Vandals set up a short-lived Germanic kingdom in North Africa. The Angles and eventually the Saxons would all settle in Great Britain, while Celtic cultures largely moved to Ireland. note 

None of these kingdoms were given much time to breathe. The Eastern Roman Empire wanted that territory back, so numerous wars were waged over former Roman holdings in Italy and elsewhere with varying success. By the end of the reign of the in/famous Justinian, Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain were back in Roman hands. However, this resurgence hit a major roadblock with the rise of Islam. Muhammad had effectively united the tribes of Arabia and most had converted to Islam. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, conquered Roman Syria and further gains were made by him and his successors in Persia, Mesopotamia, and North Africa. The Umayyad Caliphate came to power in 661 and made further conquests, using the Berbers on North Africa to conquer the Visigothic kingdom in Hispania and establish Moorish Spain. Most Christians fled north, but the Muslim armies just kept on advancing clear on into southern Gaul, which was now Frankish territory. The Franks, led by Charles Martel, dealt them a famous defeat at the Battle of Tours and effectively halted Muslim expansion into Europe.

Around this time, we start to see the often exaggerated and mythical "dark ages" in which supposedly scientific advancement, social advancement, and learning came to a crushing halt. So what happened? Did people get stupider? Of course not. With the breakdown of the centralized Roman government, trade and communication began grinding to a halt. The complex, urban metropolises once supported by Greco-Roman civilization would fall to pieces under the management of German administrators who had no concept of cities. Aqueducts fell into disrepair and were often deconstructed to be used as building materials, and famous Roman relics like the coliseum became the ruins they are today. But, contrary to popular belief, the Low Middle Ages was not a period of immense stupidity or total collapse of all that is good in the world. In fact, some things improved. Generally speaking, you were less likely to go to war and get killed in the Low Middle Ages than in Roman times (a lack of big civil wars certainly helps) and previous knowledge was still preserved by monks and scholars. Yes, things were certainly worse when compared to the Pax Romana, but it wasn't the abysmal time most history teachers love to paint it as. And from what sources we have, it appears very little actually changed between the Roman Empire's collapse and the conquest by the Germanic Kingdoms as far as living standards.

Anyways, continuing on, from the Frankish tribes spawned the famed Carolingian Empire. Under the leader Charlemagne, a cultural revolution was sparked. There was a key revival in literature, art, architecture, and other things that Charlemagne loved. Charlemagne himself is most remembered for being the king that "held the post-Roman world together". He also spread Christianity "by the cross and sword", meaning he forced his enemies to convert or to die with their gods. This coincided with better harvests and a string of military victories as the ideas of feudalism, knights, and a warrior caste all took root in the Medieval world. By the end of Charlemagne's rule, most of Western Europe was reunited, including parts of Germany, France, Northern Spain, and Northern Italy. The Carolingian Empire was vast, and Charlemagne was undoubtedly the most powerful man in Western Europe.

Things were also going strong in the new Muslim world. By the time of Charlemagne's rule, the Umayyads had been overthrown, and the Abassids had taken over. There are too many scholarly works from the Muslim world in this time to even count, and numerous sources were translated and many books and theses were written. Schools were being established, as were hospitals. Being right along the largest trade route (the Silk Road) at the time helped the Islamic world progress. After all, to have writers, philosophers, and scientists, you need money to pay them. Beyond that, the Islamic world had a curious mixture of faith and reason that contrasted the deeply religious lifestyle of Europeans. Although Muslims were deeply faithful at heart, they rarely let it get in the way of the march of progress. Also unlike Europeans, the Muslims were surprisingly tolerant of the other Abrahamic Faiths. Jews and Christians were allowed to live in Islamic society, so long as they paid the necessary tax. As a trade off, they weren't required to go to war, so therefore they didn't have to go get killed. All in all, the Muslim world was excelling by leaps and bounds at this time, and the Abassids were at the top of their game.

Back in Europe, things weren't going so well. Following Charlemagne's death, his Empire was divided in three. There was the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Germany separated by the Kingdom of Lotharingia. The first two would survive well into the The High Middle Ages, while most of Lotharingia would fall to Germany, which eventually inherited the Imperial title, became the Holy Roman Empire, which would fall apart into quarrelling states. Then it goes From Bad to Worse, as the Vikings start looting and pillaging Europe. It is unknown as to why the Vikings suddenly started going on an obscene murder frenzy, but everybody has sure heard of them since, and for good reason. The Vikings were skilled warriors, but what made them truly scary were their boats.

Yes, their boats. The Viking longship was perfectly suited for traversing both deep and shallow waters, allowing them to sail to anywhere within reach of a body of water. That just happened to include the vast majority of major cities, villages, and monasteries in Europe. The Vikings used their ships to sail as far as Vinland, being the first known Europeans to reach American shores. They also used it to conquer parts of Britain and Ireland. Vikings are also likely responsible for the founding of the Kievan Rus. All in all, the Vikings had a lasting legacy on Europe, and their frequent raids are ingrained in our culture to this very day.

The raiding wasn't just restricted to the West. The Magyars, Bulgars, and Khazars all started raiding territory, usually Byzantine, although the Khazars would later help the Byzantines fight the Muslims. The Bulgars would later carve out their own state. You'll also notice the use of the term "Byzantine" by this point to distinguish the Eastern Roman Empire from the Western One. Although not historically used, contemporary historians use the label of "Byzantine" to separate the Eastern Roman Empire, since try as they might, the Eastern Romans were more Greek than Roman. The gap between them and their Western friends had widened significantly. Rome and Constantinople were constantly in religious squabbles over whether or not the Pope or the Caesar had more authority. Culturally, the Byzantines stuck with many Greek or Roman customs, but heavily changed or adapted, and for many years their military and bureaucracy also resembled that of the former Roman Empire. This would, as all things, change over time.

By 1066, the Low Middle Ages were drawing to an end. The Norman Conquests marked the end of the age. Although there was a serious lull in technological advancement, and indeed the medieval world was just a bit smaller than the Roman one, it's comparing apples to oranges. In truth, the Low Middle Ages were not as bad as they are often said to be. Our lack of first hand sources makes the time period seem dark and mysterious, but we know that only holds true for Western Europe (if at all), since the Muslim world was flourishing in a new age of prosperity.

Of course, even that will change with our next entries...

WARNING: Do not confuse with the French "Bas Moyen Age", which is a phrase literally meaning the same thing as "Low Middle Ages" but actually refers to The Late Middle Ages.

Tropes Associated with this era include

Works set in this period include

Anime and Manga



Live-Action TV

Newspaper Comics



Video Games
  • The Old Gods, the pagan expansion DLC for Crusader Kings II, pushes the start date of the game back to 867, allowing the player to take control of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England right after their conquest of York.
  • The Brytenwalda mod for Mount & Blade: Warband is set in the 7th century British Isles. Its developpers then worked on the official DLC Viking Conquest, which has the same setting.
  • The "Dark Age" of Age of Empires II roughly corresponds to this era, and the Attilla the Hun campaign is set during it.

Alternative Title(s):

The Early Middle Ages