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The Medieval World

The Dark Ages:
Really So Dark?

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The Early Middle Ages, or "Dark Ages" as it is usually called, was that time in western European history from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west till the rise of a new and prosperous society of the High Middle Ages, or approximately the 4th to 10th centuries.

The era is characterised by a breakdown in the Roman economic and political life in the face of the 4th and 5th century Germanic invasions, and later by the 8th and 9th century Viking, Magyar and Saracen invasions.

It was a time of insecurity and warfare during which the roots of a new society were being laid, when two very different cultures met and evolved into something totally new.

On the political front the Merovingian kings set up their dynasty, to be succeeded in the mid-8th century by the Carolingians. The Frankish Kingdom then came to its peak under Charlemagne when an Empire was established.

The insecurity of life, however, led to the establishment of the feudal system, with its organisation of private armies and hierarchy of social responsibility.

Linked with the breakdown of the Roman political reality came a collapse of the economic system and the destruction of trade.

Ultimately it reached a low-point during the late Carolingian era when trade and the economy collapsed completely due to the Viking onslaught, resulting in the manorial system where society evolved into one based upon agriculture and a feudal class structure.

As all this was happening, the Christian Church was growing in importance and, at the same time, was itself becoming a feudal entity, with a universal structure of its own. Waves of spiritual fervour expended themselves in monastic development and reform.

Through the monasteries, a faint candle of learning was kept burning. This dedicated work of the Church ensured that writing, the Bible and the classics at least survived into the High Middle Ages.

The Dark Ages was, in short, a time of transition, of breakdown, but also a period of re-awakening.

Chronologically the Dark Ages spans the period from about the 5th to the 10th centuries. It was that era in the history of western Europe roughly between the collapse of the Roman political and economic system in the west until a new high point in civilization was reached with the birth of the High Middle Ages.

Politically the Early Middle Ages can be broken down into a number of periods:

  • barbarian invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries which led to the destruction of the Roman political, social and economic system in western Europe;
  • the rise of the Merovingian Dynasty during the 5th to 8th centuries;
  • Carolingian Dynasty during the 8th and 9th centuries;
  • Viking, Saracen and Magyars invasions during the 9th century.

These last invasions were to prove too much for the brittle Germanic empire, particularly after the death of Louis the Pious, so that it collapsed and feudalism came to predominate.

EVOLUTION OF THE ECONOMY

With the barbarian invasions came a collapse in the Roman economic system which was naturally felt more on the peripheries of the Empire. Economic dislocation was not really felt in northern Italy which carried on its trade with Byzantium. Germany and France were the most hard-pressed.

The economic collapse became more progressive as the Frankish kings revealed themselves to be incapable of ruling competently. They had no economic ideals except to make themselves abundantly rich personally.

As a result, trade stagnated and trade-routes were abandoned because they were proving to be simply not safe to journey along.

It was only during the period of the 9th to 10th century invasions, however, that the economy collapsed completely and there came about what Henri Pirenne termed "an economy of no outlets". During this time trade ceased almost entirely, while cities and towns became depopulated.

The centre of industry became the manor in which the peasants produced enough for their own consumption but leaving no surplus for trading purposes.

Indeed, since trade had ceased and money had gone out of circulation, there was no way in which to dispose of a surplus. As a result, agricultural methods regressed and the soil lost its fertility.

GROWTH OF FEUDALISM

Feudalism began to grow in the wake of the fratricidal wars conducted by the Merovingian kings. Nobility began to use private armies for protection, and free men offered themselves and their land to these war-lords in return for protection.

The cost of equipping knights, however, led to the granting of benefices with which the knight was expected to provide his own horse and equipment.

The Carolingians, who were a product of the feudal system, made use of that system in their government of western Europe. The use of the benefice became widespread and the Church was forced to give its own land in the establishment of the system, with the result that the Catholic Church too became tied to feudalism.

With the collapse of the Carolingian Empire during the 9th century, feudalism became more firmly rooted in society. The Viking, Saracen and Magyar invasions so dislocated trade, the economy and defence that the manor became the norm of society, with all the peasants residing there and working their strip of land in community as vassals.

TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIETY

Society during the Dark Ages underwent vast structural changes from that of the Roman era.

Roman society consisted of freemen and slaves. Within the group known as freemen were the aristocracy, the merchants, the peasants and the city labourers.

Dark Age society, on the other hand, consisted of varying degrees of nobility with their vassals. It was a pyramid structure whereby a man could be a lesser nobleman and at the same time be a vassal of a higher nobleman.

At the pinnacle of this hierarchy were the warlords, or dukes, who sometimes were also kings. At the bottom of the pile were the peasants and serfs who were not regarded as part of the hierarchy at all but were tied to the soil.

As trade slowly disintegrated, the manor became the norm of society. The peasants tilled the soil of the manor for a subsistence living, working for the feudal lord and providing him with a portion of the produce. In return the feudal lord gave protection to his vassals.

Although life was probably pretty austere, the peasant was nevertheless better off than the earlier Roman slave. Although the peasant was not a freeman, he was also not owned by the nobleman.

The peasant could not be sold. He had a right to the land and could not be forced off it. At the same time, however, he could not leave the land without the permission of his lord.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

The Christian Church slowly grew in power during this period as it found itself isolated from the Byzantine Empire (what was left of the Roman Empire in Greece). Its independent status soon saw the papacy become a strong political entity, as well as assuming the spiritual leadership of the Christian world.

With the conversion of the Frankish king, Clovis, to orthodox Christianity, the Church attempted to foster the Frankish kingdom because of its power to protect the papacy. Moreover, because the Frankish kings were distant from Rome, they were limited in their ability to meddle in Roman and Church affairs.

A problem was raised, however, when Charlemagne became so powerful that it was clear that he was about to assume the imperial title. Charlemagne had misinterpreted St Augustine's concept of the City of God.

Whereas St Augustine believed that the City of God would happen only in the afterlife, Charlemagne believed it was possible here on earth. He therefore saw himself as the ruler of that city on earth, with the Pope merely a bishop in Rome.

This concept conflicted with the Pope's view of himself as head of the Universal Christian Church, with power over the rulers therein. It is probably for that reason that Pope Leo III took it upon himself to crown Charlemagne on Christmas day in the year 800.

Pope Leo's action firmly placed the emperor beneath the Pope in theoretical importance. There was always the threat that what the Pope had given, the Pope could take away. That belief then laid the foundation for conflict between Church and State which was to cause so much damage during the High Middle Ages.

As feudalism was growing, the Church found itself becoming involved in the whole system. Bishops were often appointed by the king as administrators of their districts and hence became feudal lords, with their own private armies. There was a tendency therefore for the Church to become more and more secular in its attitude and function.

Indeed, the Church formed a hierarchy within itself which aped that of the aristocracy. This affected the very costumes and vestments worn by the Higher Clergy. Indeed, the Higher Clergy became almost a mirror image of the aristocracy.

At the same time, there were many movements towards the spiritual reform of the Church. These concentrated on monastic reform. The earliest monasteries dated to the 3rd to 5th century hermits (St Anthony, Simon Stylites). At the beginning of the 6th century, St Benedict started up a monastery which aimed at being far more pragmatic in its approach.

The Benedictine idea was to combine the ascetic life of the hermits with a communal life in a monastery, with emphasis being placed equally on work and prayer. St Benedict's rule thereupon became the basis of monastic renewal right down to the present day.

Monasteries, however, tended to carry within them the seeds of their own destruction. The monks would create a monastery in a wilderness (forest, marshland or mountain top) and turn their attention to hard labour, combined with a life of solitude.

They were so successful, however, that they soon became wealthy. They then attracted a village of peasants around them and were often left bequests by sincere nobility. The result was that the monastery soon became decadent because it could no longer function in the way in which it had been created.

This decadence, in turn, brought about the need for monastic reform which always ended with the same result. It was, in other words, a veritable cul-de-sac.

LITERATURE AND LEARNING

The breakdown of society during the Dark Ages also saw the breakdown of learning. The ability to read and write virtually became non-existent during the Merovingian era. Charlemagne did attempt a minor revival during his Carolingian Renaissance, when schools were established at cathedrals to serve the clerics and nobility.

These schools, however, only taught reading, since the cost of papyrus was so exorbitant that only a few select monks could be taught the art of writing. It was therefore the duty of this select group of monks to copy the Bible and some of the Roman and Greek classics.

Although the Carolingian Renaissance did not produce any lasting achievement, it did nevertheless ensure that some form of learning and literature survived till the High Middle Ages when education would again flourish.

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