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 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 du 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 England 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. Normans also began invading other parts of Europe (everywhere from Ireland to Italy) after they took England. After that, see The High Middle Ages.
Ditching all the Hollywood History, the Low Middle Ages, which here will cover the periods of the Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages proper, 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 that the deposing of Romulus Augustus, the last Western Roman Emperor, by the Germanic warlord Odoacer in 476 alongside the fall of Ravenna, then capital of the Western Roman Empire, marks the end of the Empire in the West but in truth the western half of the Empire was so far gone by that point that it had been reduced to the region of Italy (and Illyria, but because the region was absorbed within the Eastern Roman Empire it will be omitted) before the conflict with the Herulian Odoacer, if anything, this event would mark the Point of No Return for what remained of the Empire as a whole and the death of all vestiges of Classical Antiquity in the Mediterranean.
The Fall of Rome: The Late Antiquity
The Roman Empire itself didn't collapse entirely, as some of its institutions survived and evolved. The power of the Emperor was largely preserved with the Papacy, as the Pope still held central authority over the kings of Europe and, as head of the Bishops, technically held control over the cities scattered across the continent. Although the secular kingdoms still fought each other and retained de facto independence, the Pope could still manipulate them and command them in some way, acting as an incredibly marginalized Emperor. This power however would not truly emerge until after a couple of centuries after a particular issue was settled: the Arian Christians. Although the Franks adhered to the Chalcedonian Church of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths remained faithful to the Arian heresy until the latter's fall to the resurgent Eastern Roman Empire and by the conversion of King Reccared to Chalcedonian Christianity in the year 587 AD.
Roman military positions gradually transformed as well. The new kingdoms recycled the Roman military organization: for instance, the title of comitatenses, previously for the imperial mobile army was then applied to the loyal troops who served the Germanic kings who first invaded the Empire. This was later shortened to comes, which first was used to call the leader of the comitatenses, which later on became count in modern English; likewise, the title of dux, which was for the military leader of a province, would later on become duke; and marca, the term to denote a frontier, would be later on known as marks, with their leaders being the marquess. The troops of these Germanic warlords were rewarded for their fealty by the grant of land, and land meant social status. This was a holdover from the Roman system of granting land to the legionaries.
Of these barbarian kingdoms, formed out of the defunct Western Roman Empire, five would be the most prominent during Late Antiquity: The Ostrogothic Kingdom, highest amongst the other due to its control over the historical province of Italy; the Vandalic Realm, pirates who held a firm grip over North Africa and the Western Mediterranean due to their acquisition of the Western Roman fleet; the Visigothic Kingdom, formed in the Iberian peninsula and which, according to Saint Isidore of Sevilla, preserved more of the culture and knowledge of Rome in their region; the Frankish Kingdom, the most powerful of the others, holding the fertile region of Gaul and which would expand across the eastern frontier, taking territories never held by the Empire before; and the Saxon Realms, formed by the joint efforts of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes and which held control over Britain as the Heptarchy; of those kingdoms previously mentioned, only the last three would survive in some form throughout Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Other peoples like the Burgundians, the Suebi and the Alans would form other kingdoms of their own, however, these were ultimately annexed by the previously five mentioned at some point so they would not play a major role during this time period.
None of these kingdoms were given much time to breathe. The Eastern Roman Empire wanted the lost territory back, so numerous wars were waged over former Roman holdings in Italy and elsewhere with varying success. The famed general Belisarius, under the orders of the just as famed Emperor Justinian, managed to recover the provinces of Africa and Italy after grueling campaigns, ending the Vandal and Ostrogothic realms. By the end of the reign of Justinian, Italy, North Africa, and even parts of Spain were back in Roman hands, though further recovery was halted by the pressure of the Sassanid Empire and the apparition of the Plague of Justinian, which killed off the momentum of the campaigns and dealt a massive blow both to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire. As if that was not enough, another tribe of Germanic people called the Langobards (from which the term Lombards and the region Lombardy is derived from), invaded the province of Italy, pushing the Empire until it only held the province of Sicily. But the biggest challenge to resurgence would be met with the rise of Islam.
The Rise of Islam: The Closing of Antiquity
In the year 610, Muhammad reportedly received a vision of the angel Gabriel, who gradually revealed to him what would become the Quran. Muhammad preached this new religion in his hometown of Mecca, but found himself driven away by the pagan rulers, who saw him as subversive. He and his followers fled north to the city of Medina, in an event known as the Hijra. There, he helped create the Constitution of Medina, and agreement between the various tribes of the city. The Constitution of Medina was the first step to unifying the Arabs under a single banner note After some disputes involving the seizure of Muslim property and Muslim raids on Meccan caravans, the city of Mecca raised an army and marched north. They were repulsed twice by Muhammad and his allies in Medina, before Muhammad led his armies to victory and conquered Mecca. From then on, he led his armies across the peninsula, gathering the Arab tribes under his banner.
Muhammad had effectively united the tribes of Arabia and most had converted to Islam. Abu Bakr, the first Caliphnote , 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 later on. Most of the 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 Western Europe. Eastern Europe on the hand was reeling from the impact of the Islamic Conquest, the Eastern Roman Empire, which now would take its proper Byzantine form, was left alone as the Sassanid Empire crumbled further East and managed to retain through many hardships the province of Anatolia. Constantinople itself would face various sieges on part of the Muslim forces, whose momentum tried to bring the Byzantine Empire down; yet the East held the line and while Syria, Palaestina, Egypt and North Africa were lost, the Empire would live on.
If the Fall of Rome could be considered the end of what remained of Classical Antiquity, then the Rise of Islam would be the end of Antiquity itself, for the events of the Arab conquest would mean the break of the shared history of the Mediterranean that had been seen ever since the days of the Bronze Age. Instead, three areas of influence would be created in the aftermath: the Islamic East, which would assimilate the culture of Persia under the Abbassid Caliphate; the Greek East, which was centered around Byzantium and would expand later on to the Slavic peoples; and the Germanic West, now under the hegemony of the Frankish Empire after Charles Martel's victory.
A New Era: The Early Middle Ages
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? With the breakdown of the centralized Roman government in the West and further hits by the Justinian Plague and the Rise of Islam, 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 Colosseum 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, and previous knowledge was still preserved by monks and scholars. The nutritional situation improved. Taxes were far lower than in the Roman age. The Roman chattel slavery gradually disappeared and was superseded by serfdom, which was a vast improvement. 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 Western Roman Empire's collapse and the conquest by the Germanic kingdoms as far as living standards.
At the time of the rise of the Carolingian dynasty to the Frankish throne, the Merovingian kings and their vassals had attained territory beyond the borders of what used to be Roman territory into what is southwestern German territory. Under their leader Charlemagne, the Franks achieved their highest extent, taking over the Kingdoms of Bavaria, overthrowing the Lombards, making headway into northern Spain and even conquering the territory of old Saxony. A cultural revolution was sparked, there was a key revival in literature, art, architecture, and other things that Charlemagne loved, there were previous revivals in the last centuries in the Visigothic realm and then in the newly converted Anglo-Saxon realms but the Frankish push was the most influential overall. 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 began to take root in the Medieval world. By the end of Charlemagne's rule, and as thanks for saving the Papacy from being attacked by the Lombards years ago, the Pope crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor, thus beginning a new era that would see Western Europe grow out of the shadow of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Things were also going strong in the new Muslim world. By the time of Charlemagne's rule, the Umayyads had been overthrown, and the Abbasids had taken over. The Abbasids had fought a revolution, starting in Northeastern Persia and eventually killing most of the Umayyad royal family. The remaining Umayyads escaped to Spain, where they set up an independent emirate. Despite the conflict, the Abbasids would oversee a golden age in Islam. 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 some extra taxes. 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 Abbasids were at the top of their game. (Eventually, the majority of Christians and Jews in that region determined that the lower tax rates and the opportunities for advancement afforded to Muslims outweighed the benefits of keeping their religion, and converted. It also helped that by this point, the local Christians and Jews had spent decades if not centuries heavily influenced by Arab Muslim culture. This is the main reason the Middle East of today is so heavily Muslim.)
Meanwhile in the Eastern Roman Empire, which we will call the Byzantine Empire at this point, things were still in turmoil after the rise of Islam, although the Byzantines had managed to secure the region of Anatolia, new invaders in the form of the Slavs kept challenging their authority in the Balkans, moreover, the Iconoclasm controversy, which had plagued the Isaurian dynasty, had lead to a divided society that would only begin to recover with the ascension of the Macedonian dynasty in the middle of the Ninth Century AD. Nevertheless, the Byzantine Empire proved to be resilient enough to not break in the face of so many losses and setbacks.
The Second Wave: The Slavs, the Vikings, the Magyars, the Bulgars and the Khazars
It should be noted that the Middle Ages are characterized by the movement of peoples from one area to another to settle, with chiefs and kings rising and falling in the span of a lifetime. Although the Germanic successors were the most prominent amongst the Barbarian peoples for conquering territory from the Western Roman Empire, there were others who also followed and settled in what we call Central and Eastern Europe. The most notable of these peoples were the Slavs, who settled the land left behind by the migrating Germanic tribes. The three most prominent groups were the Wends, the Sclavenians and the Ruthenians, with the former settling in the area east of the Elbe river, in the territories that would later on become Poland, Czechia and Slovakia; the Sclavenians on the other hand took residence in the Balkans, taking over the land of Illyria and Thracia from the Byzantine Empire; finally, the Ruthenians settled in the area between the Baltic and Black Sea, neighboring the Turkic Khazar Khaganate to the east and with their Wendian cousins to the southwest.
Back in Western Europe, things weren't going so well. Following the death of Charlemagne's son, Pepin the Short, his Empire was divided in three, one for each of his sons by right of what we call gavelkind inheritance. There was the Kingdom of West Francia, which would become the Kingdom of France; the Kingdom of East Francia, that would morph into the Kingdom of Germany; and separating those two was the Kingdom of Middle Francia, which held the region of Lotharingia and Italy, as well as the Imperial title. The first two would survive well into the The High Middle Ages, while most of the latter would fall to East Francia as the three brothers began to quarrel over their inherited territory.
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 (though the warming of the European region in the time period may have had something to do with it, as previously the northern seas froze over in winter- meaning the Vikings could now send their ships out all year round), 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 to west, being the first known Europeans to reach American shores. They also used it to conquer parts of Britain and Ireland. To the east, Vikings made incursions into the Dniepr and Volga rivers, reaching as far as the Black Sea itself.
Yet, as many historians are keen to point out, the Vikings did more than just pillage and rape their way across Europe. They had a genuine interest in settling in foreign lands, indicating perhaps a food shortage or a power struggle back in Scandinavia. Whatever the case, the Vikings would settle throughout Europe. First they came to the British Isles, where they successfully set up several independent fiefdoms, the most famous being the Danelaw. They would rule these lands for a while before being forced out by the dominant Kingdom of Wessex. They also invaded Ireland and came to settle in what is now France,note in the province of Normandy. This province -whose name obviously derives from the term "Norseman" for its Scandinavian settlers- would go on to be highly influential. Despite being subjects of the Carolingian crown, the Normans would continue to conquer and settle across Europe. As previously mentioned, the Vikings also went east to the land of the Slavs and settled around the river banks of the rivers of Eastern Europe, thus creating the foundations of the Kievan Rus' principalities. In fact, their incursion to the east also created the conditions for trade to flourish in the northern seas of Europe, as the scandinavian princes linked up with Constantinople and the Khazars and brought up goods across the river, creating an alternative commercial network to the ever conflicted Mediterranean Sea and bringing much wealth to the Kievan Rus states.
The raiding wasn't just restricted to the Vikings. The Magyars, Bulgars, and Khazars, all of whom came from the East, started raiding territory, usually Eastern Roman but also that of the West. The first of these to invade were the Bulgars, a people that at the height of its power managed to conquer part of the Eastern Roman Empire and form the First Bulgarian Empire, namely parts of Thracia and Greece and parts of modern day Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Moldavia. The Byzantines would later on manage to expel them from their territory and lock them out from the Macedonian region while the Magyars would take from them the territory of modern day Hungary. The Bulgars would still manage to carve out their own state and even enter into the sphere of influence of Constantinople later on as Orthodox Christians, becoming a centre of learning and culture for the Slavs as the Bulgars left their old language behind and adopted what is known as old church slavonic, eventually giving rise to the famed Cyrillic alphabet.
The Magyars, on the other hand, settled in the Carpathian Basin after conquering territory from the First Bulgarian Empire and began to raid Western and Central Europe as far as the Iberian Peninsula. By this point, the Carolingian dynasty was in full decline as the kingship became elective and nobles began to choose their kings from other families aside from the Carolingians like the Capetians in the Kingdom of West Francia or to simply ditch the dynasty as the Kingdom of East Francia did, choosing from the Conradines and the Ottonian dynasties. Indeed, the Ottonian dynasty would be the one to check the power of the Magyars in the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 AD and create the foundations for the transformation of East Francia into the Holy Roman Empire as it incorporated parts of Middle Francia and Italy. The Magyars, despite their defeat, would eventually become christian under the Latin rite, giving rise to the Kingdom of Hungary with the ascension of their saint king Stephen I.
Finally, the Khazars, who unlike the other states of the time were Jewish instead of Christian or Muslim, had been a dominant power in the Pontic steppe as a buffer state against the invasion of the Islamic caliphates through the Caucasus mountains. Their control of the crossroads between Europe and Asia made them powerful through commerce between the Black and Caspian seas, yet their Khanate would later decline in the face of the ascension of the Kievan Rus and the invasion of the Alans and Pechenegs later on.
Setting the Stage: The end of the Early Middle Ages
If the Early Middle Ages were known for its dynamic nature, the period that would foreshadow its end would be characterised by the formation of more static borders and political situations that would later echo during the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages.
As previously mentioned so far, most contemporary historians use term "Byzantine" to distinguish the Medieval Eastern Roman Empire from its Classical counterpart. Although, this term was not used during the time period, and was created in order to separate the Eastern Roman Empire that existed during Late Antiquity due to the changes it would see as the Middle Ages began. One of the first changes that the Eastern Roman Empire would see was the adoption of Greek as state language over Latin, along with the reorganisation of the Imperial legal code into what is known today as the Corpus Jurius Civilis, a cornerstone in the development of modern Civil Law. The other transformation would be seen with the loss of Egypt and Syria in the face of the Islamic conquest, which reduced the original pentarchy of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, to only the cities of Rome and Constantinople. This would later on fuel the gap between the Eastern Romans and the West as the language divide between the rites was but the first difference between the two churches. Rome and Constantinople were constantly in religious squabbles over whether or not the Pope or the Emperor had more authority, not made any better after the coronation of Charlemagne as Western Roman Emperor, which soured the relationship between the two centres even more. Finally, the military of the Eastern Roman Empire would be replaced by Byzantine Tagmata system, which would be supported by the various themes across the imperial holdings.
The old Carolingian states on the other hand had suffered various reversals that ultimately ended in the fall of the dynasty in favour of the Capetians in the Kingdom of Francia and the Ottonians in the Kingdom of Germania, the rise of the Ottonians and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire would set the stage for the predominance of the German kings over its European peers centuries down the line. The Capetians, on the other hand, had to work with the practical independence of its various subjects as the king had become weak in the face of the various duchies of the land such as the Duchy of Aquitane and the Duchy of Normandy, a work that would take them years of continuous work but which would bear fruits later on.
The Italian Peninsula would remain divided between the Holy Roman Empire in the north, the Papal States that held the centre, and the south held by the Duchy of Benevento, the Byzantine Empire, and the fledgling Emirate of Sicily. The Iberian peninsula on the other hand would be divided between various christian kingdoms such as Leon, Gallicia, Castille, Navarre and Aragon and the implosion of the Umayyad Caliphate into its various taifas. Both peninsulas would be battlegrounds in the following centuries.
The Vikings would later on become Christians as their age began to end, the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway would embrace Catholic Christianity while their Kievan Rus cousins would embrace Orthodox Christianity and further intertwine with their slavic subjects. The Slavs themselves were divided between embracing Catholic Christianity or Orthodox Christianity: the Kingdoms of Poland and Croatia and the Duchy of Bohemia would adopt the former while the Despoty of Serbia, Bulgaria, and the aforementioned Kievan Rus states would choose the later.
The last major shift would occur in 1066 AD, as the Norman conquest of England marked the end of the Low Middle Ages. Although the conflict was minor at the time, it would have major ramifications in the future, as the English gradually came to be a dominant power in world affairs many centuries later. The roots of the conflict laid in the reconquest of the Danelaw by the kingdom of Wessex, started by Alfred the Great and culminated by his grandchildren, and this new kingdom of England faced a succession crisis. Harold Godwinson, the current King of England, had to fight two pretenders to his throne: the Norwegian Harald Hardrada (whose claim largely came from the aforementioned Danelaw) and the Norman Duke William, now known as the Conqueror after he won the war at the Battle of Hastings, to whom he had been promised the throne by the previous king Edward the Confessor, who had made both promises to William and Harold, therefore giving both of them a legitimate claim.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge, in which Harald Hardrada was killed, is considered to mark the end of the Viking era, and the final Battle of Hastings, in which Harold died and Duke William attained victory, is considered to be the end proper of the Early Middle Ages as the Kingdom of England was brought into the politics of mainland Europe through its conection to the Duchy of Normandy.
It was a transitory period for Europe, where kingdoms rose and fell in mere lifetimes and the social order shifted into a rigid class system. Although there was a serious lull in technological advancement, and indeed the medieval world was just a bit smaller than the Classical one, 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 partially true for Western Europe, 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
- After the End: For much of Western Europe in the wake of the collapse of Rome.
- Ancestral Weapon: Often Truth in Television, as the difficulties of making steel and pattern welding made high-quality blades expensive, and they tended to get passed down, some eventually receiving a name and a legendary Back Story.
- Asskicking Leads to Leadership: The early feudalism was based on warlordism rather than legitimacy.
- Back from the Brink: The Byzantine Empire.
- Barbarian Hero
- Blade on a Stick: What most fighters actually had to settle for, when they weren't stuck with farming implements or just the stick.
- Byzantine Empire
- Death of the Old Gods: Christianity is becoming the dominant faith of Europe with the old Greco-Roman and Celtic pagan religions dying out. The only non-Christian Europeans that you will see during this time period are the Norse Vikings (largely Christianized by the end of this period) and the pagans of Eastern Europe, i.e. the Slavs (also largely Christianized by 1066), Finns (Christianized by force of Swedish arms by the end of the 13th century), and Balts (would not be completely Christianized until 1387).
- Drop the Hammer
- The Dung Ages
- The Empire: The Western and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires. The Abbasid Caliphate. The Sassanid Empire of Persia (until 651 AD).
- Enemy Civil War: Was typically the reason more often than not for the fall of any kind of Empires or large kingdoms in Europe, especially with regards to the Roman Empire (all three iterations).
- Feudal Overlord: The fall of the Western Roman Empire saw the rise of feudalism in Europe.
- Here There Were Dragons
- Heroes Prefer Swords: Like Excalibur. Unlike during Roman times when every soldier had one, making and trading in swords had become expensive so relatively few had one. This wasn't the case for the entire Middle Ages, though - by The High Middle Ages and especially The Late Middle Ages, swords had become more commonplace again, but the memory of such times remained as reflected in legends.
- Additionally, the areas where swords still were relatively common were generally enclaves where Rome or at least the cultural components of Rome were holding on strong, which caused the weapons to be associated with more orderly and cultured peoples.
- Heroic Fantasy
- Historical Domain Character: Though, except for Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great, most people will never have heard of them. (Gunthaharius of Burgundy is not exactly a household name.)
- Horny Vikings: They were very much considered to be The Horde for much of Europe from the Volga River to the Emerald Isle.
- Knight in Shining Armor: Historically inaccurate though it is - "warlord in overpriced chainmail" was the best they had then. Knighthood as we picture it didn't exist yet. In particular, Knighting is an anachronism; the ceremony was developed after this era, and in this time, a man who fought was a knight. (Hence the medieval Latin term for "knight" was miles.)
- Medieval Morons: Truth in Television, but only to an extent. The literacy rate dropped precipitously, most of the empire's libraries dropped into disrepair, no one could remember how to make concrete or maintain the roads to their prior standards, and the one group actually hanging on to any academic knowledge (the Catholic Church) had a tendency to cherry pick parts that supported the religion and/or allowed a more comprehensive study of areas such as logic and philosophy, and destroyed, distorted and/or censored the rest. How bad it got varied a lot with location and the specific time, but in general people on both sides of the time period would have considered their Low Middle Ages counterparts tragically uneducated at best.
- Mostly because there was no writing medium. Paper had not yet been invented, papyrus tends to disintegrate in the European climate, and parchment was horribly expensive. The notable exception were the Northern countries, where people used birch bark. The Norsemen, which we often consider as "barbaric" were surprisingly literate compared to their enemies. Once paper became commonplace in the High Middle Ages, also literacy became common.
- Rank Scales with Asskicking: Ditto.
- The Remnant: The Byzantine Empire. Although, at that time, it was more powerful and vaster than what's usually associated with this trope. Before the Muslim conquests in the 7th century, it was even controlling all the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea.
- Swiss-Army Weapon: Inverted - most Dark Agers carried one big knife that they used for everything from cutting food to carving wood to killing. Hopefully with a cleaning of some kind in between - you wouldn't want to get food stains on your dead enemy, after all.
- The Theocracy: The Eastern and Western Roman Empires, followed by the Islamic Caliphates.
- The Time of Myths: Many "semi-historical" Historical Domain Characters existed during this time, such as King Arthur and Ragnar Lothbrok to name a few. While the historical consensus seems to agree that they are based on real people who existed at this time, the details surrounding them have been lost or exaggerated in the centuries since.
- Vestigial Empire: The Western Roman Empire as well as the Kingdoms of Soissons and Dalmatia, which the Romans controlled for a few years after the fall of the west.
- Subverted somewhat by the Byzantine Empire, which was more powerful and vaster than what's usually associated with this trope. Before the Muslim conquests in the 7th century, it was even controlling all the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea.
Works set in this period include
Anime & Manga
- Vinland Saga, set right towards the end of the Dark Ages.
- Hägar the Horrible
- Hal Foster's Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur (and the derivative movie and cartoon), which features both the good and the bad kind of Horny Vikings.
- A Thing of Vikings reimagines the characters of How to Train Your Dragon as if they existed in the actual Middle Ages. The emergence of dragons from Berk causes numerous changes to world history from thereon.
Films — Animation
- The Secret of Kells
- How to Train Your Dragon
- The Sword in the Stone
- Beowulf (2007)
- Quest for Camelot
Films — Live-Action
- Agora: Concerns the life of the scholar Hypatia who lived during the early part of this period.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Note that in the DVD commentary, the Pythons admit that Anachronism Stew is at work: It is said to be set in Dark Ages Britain, but the costumes are based on fashions from the 1300s, not to mention the castles.
- For that matter, all the many movie and literary versions of Arthurian Legend are supposed to take place in this period, but you wouldn't know it because of the typical Anachronism Stew which makes everything look like it's centuries later. The 2004 movie is a notable exception that tries for a late Roman/early medieval feel, making him a half-Celtic Roman officer, but it also takes a lot of license with history.
- The Vikings (1958)
- The War Lord (1965) is set right after the Norman conquest of England, and so also fits in the early High middle Ages.
- The 13th Warrior
- The Nibelungenlied and its derivatives, such as Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung and Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen : Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache
- Beowulf and its derivatives, such as Beowulf and Grendel (2005) and Beowulf (2007)
- Crossover Series, takes place in 1054, the last years of the Early Middle. Though the first book focuses on the New World rather than Europe
- Arthurian Legend had its roots during this period, though the more familiar forms of it were written down during The High Middle Ages.
- The Song of Roland, Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso
- G. K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse
- Brother Cadfael (Technically The High Middle Ages, since it's set during the reign of King Stephen, almost a century after 1066 - but since King Stephen's "reign" was one long civil war, Cadfael feels like the "Dark Ages" rather than the age of chivalry and courtly love.)
- Sister Fidelma is set in 7th century Ireland.
- Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
- J. R. R. Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham
- The Sea of Trolls and the sequel, Land of the Silver Apples, by Nancy Farmer.
- Many of The Icelandic Sagas, specifically the Sagas of Icelanders (semi-historical, halfway realistic stories set c. 900-1030 AD) and the Legendary Sagas (heroic legends set in a mythic Dark Age Europe, faintly echoing real-life history from c. 400-900 AD). For example:
- Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, set in a fictionalized 9th century.
- Heimskringla, a medieval history of Norway spanning from the Time of Myths to the High Middle Ages.
- Saga of the Jomsvikings, semi-historical adventure set in the 10th century.
- The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, about a legendary Danish king.
- The Saga of the Volsungs
- The Saxon Stories, about the Viking invasions of Anglo-Saxon England.
- Waltharius, an epic poem from the 10th century, set in the time of Attila the Hun (5th century).
- Cadfael: Set during the Anarchy, a civil war between the partisans of King Stephen and Empress Matilda.
- Kaamelott: The Anachronism Stew is Played for Laughs: the setting is officially the 5th century AD, but knights wear Renaissance plate armor, Arthur is a Briton but was raised by the Romans, Vikings, Huns and Burgonds regularly invade...
- The Last Kingdom, an adaptation of The Saxon Stories
- Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, as well as Parsifal and Lohengrin, although the latter two are more often staged as if they took place in The High Middle Ages.
- Technically, Hamlet is set in this era, as is Macbeth. note
- The historical portion of Assassin's Creed: Valhalla takes place in 9th Century England and Norway, the bulk of it from 872-878, shortly before the establishment of the Danelaw. The DLC packs Wrath of the Druids and The Siege of Paris take place in the 880s.
- 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 seventh expansion, Charlemagne, offers an additional 769 start date.
- Thrones of Britannia: A Total War Saga is set in the late 9th century British Isles where Vikings have begun to settle and clash with the natives after periods of raiding on Saxon and Irish settlements.
- The Brytenwalda mod for Mount & Blade: Warband is set in the 7th century British Isles. Its developers 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 Attila the Hun campaign is set during it.
- The Dark Age epoch of Empire Earth encompasses both the later days of Rome and the beginnings of the Middle Ages (the available heroes for that period are Julius Caesar and Charlemagne).
- The Barbarian Invasion Expansion Pack for Rome: Total War. It picks up just prior to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and proceeds into the era of, well, the Barbarian Invasion of western Europe.
- Rune probably takes place in a fantasy time period of Dark Age Norway and overlaps with The Time of Myths.
- The later expansions of Total War: Attila takes place after the death of Attila, and fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Last Roman segment shows the Byzantine Empire (which calls itself the Roman Empire) struggling against the newly established Barbarian Kingdoms. The second expansion Age of Charlemagne is set at the dawn of the Middle Ages.
- Dave the Barbarian
- King Arthur & the Knights of Justice
- The Il était une fois... episodes "The Carolingians" and "The Age of Vikings"