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...
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.
Prelude to the Fall: The Severan Dynasty and the Looming Crisis
The period finds its roots sometime in the 3rd Century with the Severan Dynasty. Roman civilization had been in decline since the end of the Pax Romana note and the notion of Roman identity was starting to change as a product of the edicts during this time that granted citizenship to all freeborn residents of the Empire, effectively making moot many of the distinctions of the client states of Rome with itself, as well as blurring the line between the Legions and its auxiliary counterparts. Roman culture and tradition was gradually changing over time as well, adapting and reacting to outside influences while the veil of continuity with the Roman Republic that had characterized the phase of the Principate began to unravel.
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. Aside from this came the reopening of the gap between the rich and the poor that had been one of the reasons of the fall of the Republic, as well as the stagnation of the frontiers as the conquest of new territory became less and less possible (Trajan was the last of the conquering Emperors and many of the provinces he had conquered were abandoned due to difficulties in holding it by his successor Hadrian, with Dacia being the last to be left behind by Aurelian).
The other major problem was the nature of the Imperial office: The title of Imperator was a Military Monarchy behind the veil of the Civic authority, and with each passing reign the pressure of the army grew in strength, which lead to the Emperors having to make concessions and donations to the army to maintain its loyalty, such was case of the preceding Antonine dynasty and which grew more under the Severan Dynasty, whom had to struggle with monetary gifts and keeping the respect of the troops to avoid betrayal, something that even Caracalla had the foresight to do.
All of this culminated in the assassination of Alexander Severus, last of the Severan dynasty, who had lost respect with his troops due to him being seemingly controlled by his mother and after failing to prove himself in the military field during a campaign with the nascent Sassanid Empire and his attempt to secure a peace with the Germanic tribes through bribes instead of steel.
In the days of the Principate, the end of a dynasty, while indeed leading to civil war, was still a matter that solved itself in a few years, but what came after the end of the Severan dynasty would be a bloodbath that would take half of a century to end and almost meant the demise of the Roman Empire: The Crisis of the Third Century.
An Empire Divided: The Crisis of the Third Century
The Crisis of the Third Century, named after the eponymous century in which the civil war took place, was a period of time in which competing general/emperors, apptly named as the Barracks Emperors, waged a massive, brutal civil war for fifty years in an effort to either take over the Empire or make their own, independent empires such as the Gallic and Palmyrian Empires at the height of the Crisis. The Roman army, once the pride of the Empire, spent itself fighting in this Civil War as ambitious leaders kept challenging the authority of the current Emperor to take over with whatever legions he could bring with him.
The struggle 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 Sassanids (Who had supplanted the Parthians, though both were Iranian/Persian) carved out their own large empire in Persia and parts of Mesopotamia. Germansnote would ever encroach on the borderlands of Roman territory. Their frequent raids on the crippled Empire depopulated entire regions. The civil war drew away valuable border troops that kept raiders and bandits at bay. Gaul was said to be plagued by pirates in the absence of the Roman navy, and the withdrawal of the Legions to fight in Italy left entire towns vulnerable to large bands of criminals. Banditry was becoming a ever-aspiring prospect.
The war also crippled the economy. Rome suffered intense inflation and taxes were raised to help pay for the military both by the Emperor and the warring generals as they often were also civic administrators as was the tradition of the Cursus Honorum. This led to a myriad of internal issues.
One was de-urbanization: The middle class became extinguished as few individuals had the money to purchase once thriving services. Stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, artists, and tutors were finding themselves without jobs. This forced many to sell their homes in the city and turn to the tried-and-true business of agriculture; the rich also turned away from the cities as they sought the refuge of their manors and villas in the face of the growing instability, as well as evading the ever increasing taxation; finally, the urban poor, without the means to pay taxes themselves, also followed the rich to serve as coloni, half-citizens that worked for the owner of the land without the right to leave.
As a consequence of all of this, Civic service in the cities began to decline as the Polis and the Municipium could not bear the strain of the crisis nor the abandonment of the upper classes, which had made these urban systems possible in the first place.
Meanwhile, poor farmers (many of whom were ex-legionaries or descendants of legionaries) found themselves unable to pay their taxes. They began to sell their farms and move to plantations that would later become manors, then estates, then finally known as counties or lordships. These plantations were owned by the wealthy patricians, the only class of people who could still afford comfortable living. The advantage for the poor farmers was tax exemption, as a lack of land-ownership and bondage to the plantation owners meant you couldn't be taxed, as you were no longer an independent earner. The advantage for the plantation owners was the ability to have vast farms that could make money by sheer quantity of output.
Trade suffered as well due to the crisis as inflation made large transactions an impossibility. The withdrawal of the armies and navies left the trade routes, maritime and land-based alike, open to banditry and piracy, thus turning merchants away as their safety was no longer protected; even worse, the Roman roads that had served the legions for rapid deployment across the Empire were now death links across the land as armies went through towns and cities to face each other or take whatever supplies they could from the villages. With trade grinding to a halt, the mass manifacture of goods died out and manors began to strive for self-sufficiency in things like pottery or food, thus paving the way for manoralism and the insular nature of the Early Middle Ages.
The Low Roman Empire: Militarization and Christianity
Following the success of Aurelian against the Gallic and Palmyrian Empires, his successor Diocletian went on to reform the state and prevent a crisis as such from ever happening again, most notably, he separated the territories of the empire in East and West formally, a thing not done since the twilight of the Republic with the Second Triumvirate, with each half now being governed by their own Emperor and Sub-emperor, and while this Tetrarchy would not outlast him, the precedent it left would never fade away.
Diocletian's edicts broke all pretense of institutional influence that the Senate, which had possessed a decreased yet still influential role during the Principate, had held in favour of an expanded Bureacracy to maintain the armies of the Tetrarchy. To avoid career mobility, Diocletian also made jobs hereditary, from the artisans to the peasantry and the soldiery, thus planting the seeds of the social rigidity that would define the incoming era; his reforms also began the process of separating the military and civic offices from each, a change that went against the Republican tradition of the Cursus Honorum that required aspirants to the public offices to serve in the army while also defanging the military leaders and further securing the office of Emperor as the one above all else, he followed this even further as he doubled the amount of provinces from fifty to almost a hundred, divided amongst twelve diocesis ruled by a civic officer named Vicar (a term which the Catholic Church would later use to denote the area of rule of a Bishop), preventing thus that any military leader could amass again enough troops to defy the Emperor.
It was also during the realm of Diocletian that the last and most brutal of all persecutions of Christians across the Empire took place, taking a span of twenty five years and ending in an ultimate failure as the strength of the Church in front of persecution only made it more sympathetic to the pagans and, with the rise of Constantine the Great, would be eventually be overturned.
Finally, and following the precedent of Aurelian, Diocletian began to include the title of Dominus et deus, Lord and God, amongst the other titles he held as Emperor, which gave the alternative name for the Low Roman Empire: the Dominate or the period of the Masters.
The crisis and the split were two massive reasons for the decline of the Western Roman Empire: the actions of Odaenathus, the King of the province of Palmyra -nowadays Syria- helped to mantain the unity in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, giving much needed stability for the Emperors to restore order in the region and thus reducing the eventual impact of the conflict with the Palmyrian Empire; this was not the case in the West, where the war with the Gallic Empire and the incursion of Germanic marauding tribes laid waste to many of the cities and infrastructure, this coupled with the nearity of the Eastern provinces to the wealth of the Silk Route and greater power thanks to Odeanathus's actions gave way to a shift of power from the city of Rome to the East, which was previosly foreshadowed by Diocletian's decision to make the cities of Trier (Germany), Milan (Italy), Nicomedia (Turkey) and Sirmium (Serbia) the four capitals of the Tetrarchy and later cemented by Constantine's decision to move the capital to Byzantium. note While the East grew rich from trade and prosperity note , the West remained poor.
The other problem following the Crisis was that Roman military power was forced to change. While the legions had been previosly doubled in size during Diocletian's reign, Constantine instead choose to reduce their numbers and reorganize them from the already obsolete duality of legions and auxiliaries into two separate forces: the Limitanei, or frontier forces, who were tasked with guarding the borderland of the Empire and stave off any invasion for as long as they could; next were the Comitatenses, the mobile army, these would be the hammer to the anvil that were the defending Limitanei, pushing back and destroying any force that attacked the Empire, as well as moving to invade in case war demanded it; additionally, from the Comitatenses came two new elite forces to supplant the now defunct Praetorians: the Palatini, who were higher ranked soldiers of infantry; and the Scholae Palatina, who served as guards of the Emperors. Alongside this division of functions came the specialization of tropes, gone were the days where the legions would consist only of heavy infantry wielding swords and pila and now the legions required all types of units to function: heavy and light cavalry, archers, swordsmen, spearmen or engineers no longer depended on your place of birth and cavalry itself began to take a place of power previously held only by the legionnaries. Added to this was the employment of the Foederati, who were often cheaper to employ. note
More than a cost-saving measure, it was also a political maneuver to try to tie the armies to the central government instead of the generals. The Legions tended to be tied more to their generals than to Rome, as the lands the generals led them to conquer would later be divided up into farms. However, the Roman government tried to subvert this to prevent another Crisis by creating mostly paid armies. The mercenaries would be loyal to the source of their pay, which was the Roman treasury and not their generals. This, in theory, insured that the Legions would not betray the central state again.
It is under these conditions that Emperor Constantine rose to power: after the pivotal Battle of the Milvean River during which he recieved the sign to paint the letters Chi Rho (XP or ☧) and that if he would do this, he would win the day, these letters also happen to be one of the most popular christograms in history as those were the first two greek letters of the word Christ. With his victory, the position of the Catholic Church, which had swung between tolerance and persecution by the Roman Empire, passed to be the first religion amongst all the others of the Empire, a process started by the edict of Milan and settled with the official decree of Emperor Theodosius to make Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
This is another break from the ancient ways as the Roman Republic and the Empire had been previosly polytheistic in nature and permitted all religions to exist so long as the Emperor the chief religion of Rome was held as the upper one amongst others, while the tradition of deifing rulers was a trend started by Augustus himself and continued across the Principate, it was only during the realm of Aurelius that a push for monotheism was made with the cult to Sol Invictus; now, as the Church rose to prominence amongst all other faiths of the Empire, the trend of monotheism was followed but with a clear distinction as the Emperor, while influential at times in Church matters, would no longer claim the title of Pontifex Maximus (or Highest Priest), much less be able to claim godhood thus beginning the process of separating secular and ecclesiastic power.
Moreover, the Church was now required to formalise years of theology and debate and conclude what was in accordance or at odds with the teaching of the Church as well as the proper role of the Bishops (who would in time supplant the Vicars as administrators of the cities). This lead to the famed Council of Nicaea, in which the Arian heresy was rejected and the Nicene Creed was adopted by the Church, but the repercusions of the Arian heresy would still be seen in the years to follow.
The Barbarian Invasions: The Age of Migrations
One of the things that defined the Middle Ages was the mobility of various populations of different ethnicities and origins from their homelands to other places, eventually supplanting or assimilating the local populations to their culture, and during the overlap of Classical and Late Antiquity that was the Late Roman Empire, this would be the case of the many Germanic tribes that were at the outskirts of the Empire.
These Germanic tribes would become the peoples eventually known as the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Franks, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Suebi, the Vandals and the Langobards amongst others. It's still discussed whether the incursion of these tribes was another cause for the fall of the Western Roman Empire or if they were a consequence of it, for the sake of brevity we will acknowledge it as both in here.
The Rhine and Danube borders had been a battleground for the Roman Empire for centuries as the attempts of invasion by various germanic tribes had been repelled with varying degrees of success; but it was after the near collapse of the Crisis that the firsts of the notorious tribes, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, would come to the borders of the Empire to ask for safe passage. As it was, these people that once lived in modern Ukraine and Crimea were also facing troubles in the form of weather deterioration and the arrival of a new threat from the steppes and beyond the Ural mountains: the Hunnic Horde.
The Huns themselves are a mystery and enigma to this day, previosly they were thought to be Proto-Mongols, linking their origin to the expelled Northern Xiongnu that the Han dynasty once faced centuries ago, though now this view has been revised through the lenses of ethnogenesis in tandem with the observation on the span of time that separated the time of the expelled Xiongnu to the arriving Huns, almost three centuries. Though probably lead by the core of the Proto-Mongolian tribes, the Horde was composed from peoples from across the entire Eurasian steppe: from Iranian, Turkic and even Germanic, Slavic and Uralic origins in likelyhood. The arrival of the Huns made pressure on the resident Germanics to leave or submit to the Horde, a treatment that was shared by other peoples like the Alans, who in turn fled from the Horde to the west.
This came to a head in what was called the Gothic War: ill-treatment by Roman Authorities, desperation and friction between Goths and Romans lead to a rebellion within the borders of the Empire in what is now Bulgaria, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths proceeded to sack the provinces of the Balkans until they faced the Empire in the Battle of Adrianopolis. This battle and the subsequent peace shifted the relationship between the Empire and the incursioning tribes, forcing the Empire to recognize them as peoples within the Empire that had to be negotiated accordingly; military speaking, the triumph of the Gothic cavalry also brought the mounted arms to higher prominence than before, effectively ending the era of infantry that had been seen during Classical Antiquity. Religiously however, the death of Emperor Valens in this war also paved the way to make Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Empire -as done by his successor Emperor Theodosius I- and the conversion of the Germanic tribes to Arian Christianity.
The Goths were but the first of many, the subsequent years saw the incursion of the other Germanic tribes as they fleed the worsening climate to take advantage of the decaying political situation of the Empire. A pivotal event also happened with the death of Emperor Theodosius I, as he bequeated the Empire to his sons Honorius and Arcadius, dividing the Empire into East and West for the last time.
From the crossing of the Rhine in 406, the Western Roman Empire was slowly but surely 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, eventually took Italy after deposing Odoacer. The Vandals set up a short-lived Germanic kingdom in North Africa. The Angles and later on the Saxons settled in what is today England, where their culture was largely adopted by the native peoples. The Celtic peoples in what is today Wales remained independent and largely retained their own culture. While it used to be thought that the Angles and Saxons had displaced the native Britons, but the prevailing theory is that they simply took over as the dominant political class.
The Western Roman Empire however, while wounded to death and unable to recover its power to the invading germanics, would fight one last war that in hindsight would also determinate the fate of the Germanic Successors. The aforementioned Hunnic Horde had became increasingly aggressive after the ascension of Attila and had costed heavy tribute to the Eastern Roman Empire and at the time, taking advantage of political strife to claim the Western Roman Empire as his dowry, Attila moved to Gaul and began to raid the province. Flavius Aetius, Emperor de facto of the West, allied Rome with King Alaric of the Visigoths, and joined forces with the Salian Franks, the Saxons, the Burgundians and other tribes. This alliance faced the Huns and their vassals in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, landing the first defeat to the career of King Attila and forcing the Huns to move away from Gaul, and though one last raid was done on Italy - which was stemmed away by the intervention of Pope Leo I -, the Hunnic Empire would soon meet its end in the plain of Pannonia (modern Hungary) after the death of Attila and the breakaway of the Germanic subjects of the Horde.
The East, on the other hand, was not in good condition either as the Huns proceeded to raid and attack the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire, extracting a heavy tribute from Constantinople; the Sassanids themselves, while enemies at the time, brokered a truce with the Empire as they were also under the pressure of their own Huns, the Hephtalites or White Huns, who had taken control of the region of Khorasmia or Greater Iran as it was known, being one of the first nomad empires in Central Asia. Constantinople itself was fortified with the the famed Theodosian Walls, securing it from the invasion of the Huns and of later attackers deep into the Middle Ages. The Polis of the Balkans however suffered greatly at the sack of the Goths and the Huns, forcing people to abandon cities like Sparta to seek refuge in other, more defendable places; nevertheless, the Eastern Roman Empire managed to face these troubles, survive these attacks and remain a major player of the known world, outlasting the West for nearly a millenium.
The Fall of Rome: The Late Antiquity
The Western 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. 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. 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 throught Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Other peoples like the Burgudians, 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 gruelling campaigns, ending the Vandalic 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 Realm.
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, 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 (a lack of big civil wars certainly helps) 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 Roman Empire's collapse and the conquest by the Germanic Kingdoms as far as living standards.
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 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 Abassids 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.)
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 and 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 took the Roman name, becoming the Holy Roman Empire, which would fall apart into quarreling 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 (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, being the first known Europeans to reach American shores. They also used it to conquer parts of Britain and Ireland. Vikings may have even been 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 European culture to this very day.
And 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 Francenote , 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.
The raiding wasn't just restricted to the West. The Magyars, Bulgars, and Khazars all started raiding territory, usually Eastern Roman, although the Khazars would later help them fight the Muslims. The Bulgars would later carve out their own state. Most contemporary historians use term "Byzantine" to distinguish the Medieval Eastern Roman Empire from the Classical Western one. Although, this term was not used during the time period, and was created in order to separate the Eastern Roman Empire from the Classical one. The gap between the Estern Romans and the West 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 Eastern Romans continued many Greek and Classical Roman customs, and for many years their military and bureaucracy greatly resembled that of the earlier Roman Empire. Likewise they continued to carry on the old Roman legal system. This would change over time as they adapted to new challenges and influences, as all things do.
By 1066, The Norman Conquests 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 gist of the conflict is that Harold, the King of England, had to fight two pretenders to his throne: the Norwegian Harald Hadrada (whose claim largely came from the aforementioned Danelaw) and the Norman William, now known as the Conqueror after he won the war at the Battle of Hastings.
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
- An Axe to Grind: Probably the most frequent non-spear weapon, as an axe is fairly easy for a relatively unskilled smith to make, and peasants tended to have these around anyway for firewood.
- In a case of Reality Is Unrealistic, battleaxes were generally lighter than wood-working axes (especially felling axes) on the basis that it takes a lot less axe to bring down a man than a tree, and being able to swing it around very quickly is very important especially if you don't have a shield. Lindybeige explains on YouTube.
- 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 Equals Authority: The early feudalism was based on warlordism rather than legitimacy
- Authority Equals Asskicking: Ditto.
- 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
- Drop the Hammer
- The Dung Ages
- The Empire: Western and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires. The Caliphate. The Sassanid Persian Empire.
- 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 King Arthur (and possibly 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
- Just Before the End, for Rome
- 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.
- 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 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.
- The Time of Myths: Many "semi-historical" Historical Domain Characters figures existed during this time, such as King Arthur and Ragnar Lothbrok to name a few. While the historical consensus seems to agree that they existed, the details surrounding them have been lost or exaggerated in the centuries since.
- Vestigial Empire: 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.
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.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- 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 King Arthur 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)
- 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
- The King Arthur 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).
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dave the Barbarian
- King Arthur & the Knights of Justice
- The Il était une fois... episodes "The Carolingians" and "The Age of Vikings"