A Darkened Age

Learning, literature and art suffered during the Germanic invasions that destroyed the western half of the Roman Empire. Literature suffered also from many Christians and ecclesiastics seeing books other than their Bible as heathen, pernicious or dangerous works of the devil. The only reading that the Church encouraged was the Bible -- in keeping with Augustine’s insistence that only the scriptures contained an authoritative account of the world and its phenomena. Under Church influence, many books were burned or not copied. The empire's great libraries were ruined. Of the works at the greatest of libraries, at Alexandria, only a small fraction survived. But works by the pagan historian Zosimus did. And so too did the encyclopedic work by Martianus Capella, The Seven Liberal Arts, which was to play a role in the reawakening that came during the Middle Ages.

The advances in medicine that had come with Hippocrates and then Galen in the second century waned. Among Christians disease was still regarded as punishment for sin, which demanded prayer and repentance. Christian hospitals remained, but vivisection was forbidden because the Church held the human body as sacred.

Roman populations in areas that were part German or that remained under the Roman nobles continued to live under what remained of Roman law, and in Italy this law forbade marriage with Germans. The bishop of Rome, remained as head of the Church in the west, still split with the bishop of Constantinople over the issue of who had authority.

In Gaul, meanwhile, Clovis left his kingdom divided among his four sons -- in keeping with Frankish custom. Rather than receive revenues from taxes, the sons of Clovis continued the tradition of plunder. They assaulted their neighbors, extending their power to Marseilles and ending what had been the kingdom of Burgundy. For the Franks, fighting remained the business of good weather, and carousing was the business of bad weather. Each spring the king's warriors set out on hunts for game or raids against some distant lord or king. Then they would go to the shrines of Christian saints, such as St. Martin, and offer their thanks for their victories and newly won treasures. For generations, the kings who were descended from Clovis did little except pursue their pleasures, enrich themselves and their dependents and lead an occasional military expedition. They made little effort to maintain a Roman administrative system. Eventually they began collecting taxes, but taxes were so detested that if a king wished to rid himself of an official that he disliked he could send him out to collect taxes, never to hear from him again.

Gaul became divided into a number of petty kingdoms, with local aristocrats assuming as much power as they could. These aristocrats accumulated wealth and left little for the kings, and Gaul's kings became mere figureheads. The aristocratic landowners, like some of the kings, were crude, violent and unprincipled men, removed from the old tribal culture that had helped control individuals. They exercised authority as suited their passions, taking and discarding wives and concubines as they pleased and believing that they had the right to deflower a commoner's bride before he was allowed to consummate his marriage.

In Gaul, self-sufficient estates that had survived Roman times dominated agriculture. These estates were populated by servile workers -- ninety percent of Gaul's population -- and a few craftsmen. These people wore clothing of hides and rough cloth and lived in huts, rising at dawn and bedding down with the setting of the sun. They heated their homes with gathered wood or grass and cow's dung. And rarely did they have candles to light their home.

Continuing the custom of the pagan Romans, people looked for the supernatural everywhere. In stormy skies they saw the coming and going of armies or dead or demons. They saw wars, disease and all other ills as the work of demons. The number of shrines erected to saints increased, and people suffering from plagues or famine sought the miraculous powers of relics associated with saints -- bits of bone or whatever. For relics people broke up the bodies of early saints and martyrs. Relics were widely traded -- a new commerce that was a step in a restoration of trade. Also people gathered at religious festivals, which turned into fairs at which merchants from Britain and Scandinavia arrived with furs and wool, and traders from southern Europe arrived with wine and honey. Slowly, trade was reviving.

The distinction between Roman and German courts began to fade. So too did the Roman practice of using torture as a source of truth. Judicial proceedings were often judged by two or three commoners under a nobleman or his representative. Eyewitnesses testified, but attempts to determine a person's innocence or guilt were made through ordeals in which God was thought to assert his powers. This involved combat between two who had come to court as parties in conflict, the court adhering to the age-old belief that God would favor the one who was in the right. Some who were on trial were thrown into water in the belief that floating to the surface was a sign of guilt (the purity of water rejecting the guilty) and that sinking was a sign of innocence. Attempts were made to prove innocence or guilt also by having the accused walk on hot coals or by the accused putting his hand into boiling water, the court believing that if the hand healed properly it was a sign of God's favor and therefore innocence. Punishments were often less severe than they had been during the Roman republic when ties among people were stronger and violations against others were considered more horrendous.

In Western Europe, slavery was less widespread than it had been in the Roman Empire at the height of its power. Slavery had declined with the decline in wars for empire and the decline among Romans in wealth.

Work in Europe was still being done by the sweat and muscle of animals and humans. As during Rome's glory days, there was still little interest in labor saving devises. A steam engine had been invented by a Greek named Hero of Alexandria during the rule of Augustus, but there had been no interest in saving labor. If one wanted more work done one put more hands or animals to work.


Disintegration in Western Europe contributed to the spread of eccentricities among Christians. Some engaged in self-torture as a substitute for martyrdom. Some, including a man named Benedict, rolled naked in thorny bushes. Some joined a new monastery movement that had appeared in Italy and Gaul. Monasteries attracted Christian conservatives who tended to oppose the worldliness of the Church and the luxury with which some of the clergy lived. But in some places monasticism took on a worldly character as people, including some who were wealthy, joined merely for a retreat and a place of quiet.

Monasteries for women appeared, which, in addition to spirituality offered women an escape from male domination and from the polygamy that was still being practiced by some nobles and German kings. These convents offered some women positions such as abbess or prioress and provided the possibility for intellectual development or training in the arts.

Thirteen monasteries were established by Benedict -- who had moderated his asceticism. His monasteries had three cardinal rules: poverty, chastity and obedience. Residents were to renounce their personal possessions, commit themselves to living their entire life in his community and to obey the monastery's leader: the abbot. The monastery was to be a family based on love, and the abbot was to consult all the brethren in matters of grave concern. Members were to spend their days at labor and prayer -- Benedict believing that idleness was the enemy of the soul. The Benedictine monks reclaimed drained swamps, improved soil, carved woods, worked with metal, made glass, wove cloth, brewed beverages and reproduced manuscripts by hand.

In the chaos and continuing wars that plagued western Europe, a few monasteries were pillaged and burned. The Benedictine monastery at Monte Casino was sacked within sixty years of its founding in 529, and twice more within the next five hundred years. But, for the most part, the Christian monasteries were havens of peace and were to become a significant cultural force through the Middle Ages.

The Carolingian Dynasty

Among the Franks in Gaul a new dynasty of kings arose, begun by Charles Martel (b. 688, d. 741). Martel's grandson became known as Charlemagne (French for Charles the Great). It was a dynasty dependent on support by nobles, with whose help the Carolingians were able to fight wars and suppress peasant rebellions. These nobles recognized the Carolingian king as their overlord and the Carolingian king recognized the nobles as local rulers and rewarded them with land and booty for their services.

Charlemagne was a devout Christian who had four wives and children by five mistresses. He has been described as crude and as tough, and he saw himself as king by divine right. Charlemagne did what many did who won recognition as great men: he conquered a lot of territory. Charlegmagne subdued the Saxons and the Lombards. He united Europe as far east as the Elbe River, southwest across the Pyrenees to the Ebro River in Spain, and in Italy as far south as Rome.

Much of Charlemagne's rule involved continuous warfare, and his power with the sword gave him influence with the Church. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor, hailing him as "Augustus, crowned of God …emperor of the Romans." The ruler in Constantinople also claimed to be the Roman Emperor, but Charles played down his title.

Charlemagne's Europe was more rural and thinly populated than either the civilizations ruled by Constantinople or Islam -- a result of low prosperity, which Charlemagne tried to raise. He encouraged more trade by giving guarantees to Jewish merchants. And under Charlemagne's rule agriculture improved.

Literacy in Gaul had all but disappeared since the invasions by the Germans, and Charlemagne invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, and he tried to learn to read.

Charlemagne standardized weights, measures, and coinage. He replaced amateurs representing their community in local courts with itinerant professional judges who had a better understanding of law. And Charlemagne reformed the clergy. To be ordained a priest one had to take an examination. Anyone, priest or commoner, committing fornication was obliged by law to do penance for ten years, three of these years living on bread and water. A cleric committing adultery and begetting a child had to do penance for seven years. If a cleric lusted after a woman and was not able to commit the act because the woman would not comply he had to do penance for half a year on bread and water and for a whole year abstain from wine and meat. Anyone caught at theft had to do penance for seven years. If anyone "by his magic" caused the death of anyone, he had to do penance for seven years. Or if anyone "took away the mind" of someone "by the invocation of demons," he had to do penance for five years. Abortion was punished by penance for three years.

These were times when a village on special holidays might dance and sing the pagan or ribald songs of the forefathers. Churchmen complained of the peasants singing "wicked songs" that were the lures of the devil. But, amid this wickedness, economic progress was taking place. People had begun taking advantage of river water to power their mills -- northern Europe blessed with the low mountains and slow-moving rivers appropriate for such power. The three-field system had been introduced, allowing a field to lay fallow a year here and there, which increased per-acre harvests. Not only was agriculture improving, and the invention of the horse collar permitted a horse to pull a load three or four times as great as it had with a simple thong of leather around its neck. A tandem harness allowed numerous oxen to work as a team. A wheeled plow had been introduced that could knife deeply into the heavy, richer, wetter and often sticky soil of northern Europe. Rather than scratch the surface as other plows did, the new plow turned the soil over. Cross plowing was no longer needed. It took as many as eight oxen to pull such a plow, and peasants pooled their oxen and their labor. A great agriculture was beginning that would give advantage to northern Europeans and change the world.

After Charlemagne

The custom of dividing property among one's sons still existed among the Franks, and Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, divided the empire among three of his grandsons, one receiving western Gaul to the Pyrenees, another Charlemagne's realm roughly between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, and the eldest, Lothair, receiving the title of emperor and territory between the two others, from what is now Belgium and south in Italy just beyond Rome. The division was to last into modern times, between what would be France and Germany, with fragments of Lothair's kingdom to become Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

After Charlemagne, wandering minstrels sang of him and exercised humanity's proclivity to fantasize and exaggerate. They glorified his deeds and his ability as a conqueror. They described Charlemagne as having performed superhuman feats and as having dispensed perfect justice.

While singing about Charlemagne, those in what had been Charlemagne's realm were helpless against those who would be called Vikings. In their low draft boats the Vikings could raid along a shore or up a river and quickly return to sea before help could arrive.

The Vikings were responding to economic growth in their own country accompanied by an increase in population. The Scandinavians had increased their trade with other parts of the world. They were aware of the wealth that existed elsewhere, and some were inspired to go out and grab some of it. They were aware that treasury was being stored at monasteries and churches, and these were their usual targets, conveniently located on rivers and near the coast. They raided and returned home, happy with the prestige that their loot inspired, and their success inspired an increase in raiding. They reported that land was available abroad, and with the growth in population having eliminated the availability of land at home, more Scandinavians were willing to venture to distant areas for the purpose of settling down.

The Vikings raided Paris, and they settled in Normandy. These were years of good weather and good sailing, and they ventured beyond Western Europe, and beyond England, Scotland and Ireland, as far as Iceland, Greenland and North America. The Vikings and their animals became Iceland's inhabitants, and between their use of wood and their animals wandering about, all the trees in Iceland would disappear. How far the Vikings could spread was limited by their number, and in North America, where they were greatly outnumbered, their settlements failed and they were forced to withdraw to Greenland.

The Vikings had greater success closer by. They also crossed the Baltic Sea, and in waves they passed down the Dnieper and Volga rivers. They were intent on looting treasure in Arabia but did not make it that far. Instead they conquered Slavs and set up a kingdom at Novgorod and at Kiev.

In the 800s and 900s, fierce Magyar tribesmen from Central Asia, looking for loot and uninterested in settling on new territory, raided isolated villages and monasteries in northern Italy, southern Germany and west of the Rhine River. They took prisoners and sold them to the slave markets of the East. Finally armies were sent against them, and in 955 the king of Germany, Otto I, devastated the Magyars in battle, the Magyars unable to stand up to frontal assaults from heavy cavalry. And the Magyars settled down to farming on the Hungarian Plain.

Raiding from the Mediterranean Sea by Muslims had also been continuous, but in the early 700s Constantinople had held out against attempts by Muslims to conquer them, and by the 900s Constantinople's navy was acquiring supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean against a divided Islam. In the 900s, Constantinople's commerce and industry was at its height. In 965 Constantinople drove the Arabs from Cyrpus. By 975, Constantinople again ruled Syria and Palestine, and it also ruled a large part of Mesopotamia.

In France, civil wars and Viking intrusions created divisions. Charlemagne's descendants had given too much away in rewarding their vassals. These Carolingian kings had lost power to local lords. Then late in the 900s a new dynasty of French kings came into being, beginning with Hugh Capet. The Capetian kings ruled from behind the walls of Paris, only ten miles from robber barons -- whose drafty, smelly and poorly sanitized castles were a show of self-defense and decentralized power. Castles were the defense strategy of the day, barriers against the weapons of the day: swords, knives, pikes, crossbows,1 spears and the Viking's battle axe.

Without democracy, political power was still based on force of arms. No single independent lord elsewhere in France had the military power or will to overthrow Capet, and they were too independent minded and fearful of one another to unite as a force against him, leaving Capet on his throne and able to claim the support of God.

The Years 1000 to 1050

In the year 1000, many Christians believed that God might have planned Armageddon for that year. Since the failed uprisings by the Jews, which had been associated with the apocalyptic appearance of their Messiah, Judaism's leaders had been downplaying scriptural references to God's day of judgment. But apocalyptic expectations were still very much alive among Christians, drawn at least in part from prophesy from the Book of Revelations. As the year 1000 approached, people in Christendom feared God's judgment and nervously anticipated the end of the world. But the year went by and nothing unusual occurred.

Nothing unusual meant an early death for many. Half of those born were dying before the age of one, and life expectancy in northwestern Europe was around forty. Most of those who survived never in their lifetime went more than ten miles from where they were born. And nothing unusual also meant wars by ego-driven young nobles on horseback -- Christian noble against Christian noble. The Church was eager to limit their fighting and created what it called the "Peace of God," prohibiting fighting on Sundays and during Church festivals.

The Church was instituting changes. It issued a decree against priests marrying, having concubines, immorality in general by priests and against priests becoming excessively involved in secular matters. And the Church eliminated the buying and selling of Church offices. For those common men who were intelligent and ambitious the Church offered a step up in social status. Slaves, however, were not allowed to enter the priesthood, and normally neither could serfs. Pope Leo the Great argued that to make slaves priests would be to steal them from their masters.

Meanwhile, feudalism had come into full bloom. Those owning large tracts of land -- the nobles -- had found it cheaper to give their soldiers a plot of land than to keep them standing by in arms. On these plots of land a soldier supervised peasants and could raise a horse or two of his own. He became a knight, vowing to his lord that he would love what the landlord loved, hate what the landlord hated and be bound to serve and respect the lord. "Thy friends," promised the knight to his lord "will be my friends, and thy enemies my enemies."

With the creation of a class of privileged soldiers and an emphasis on cavalry, the worker of the land had lost his military value. He had none of the political power that the small farmers in the early days of the Roman republic had won for themselves. The small farmers and workers of the land had come under the protection and domination of landlords: a king, nobleman or ecclesiastical body. To the landlords the peasants owed a variety of obligations, sometimes amounting to serfdom.