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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.

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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.

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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.

    In History 


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 Western 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 were what we can call today Catholic, 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 Catholicism 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 Realm 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 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 loses and setbacks.

The Second Wave: The Slavs, the Vikings and the Magyars

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, 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 Germanics. 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, neighbouring 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, 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

  • After the End: For much of Western Europe in the wake of the collapse of Rome.
  • 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
  • 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 and the pagans of Eastern Europe (i.e. Slavs and Finns).
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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

Comic Strips

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

Literature

Live-Action TV

Theatre

Video Games

  • 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 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 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.

Western Animation


Alternative Title(s): The Early Middle Ages

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