Early Middle Ages and Western Society

The Middle Ages: An Overview

The Middle Ages or Medieval period is a stretch of European history that lasted from the 5 th until the 15 thcenturies. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and was followed by the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the traditional division of Western history into Classical, Medieval, and Modern periods. The period is subdivided into the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages.

In the Early Middle Ages, depopulation, deurbanization, and barbarian invasions, which began in Late Antiquity, continued. The barbarian invaders formed new kingdoms in the remains of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7 thcentury North Africa and the Middle East, once part of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), became an Islamic Empire after conquest by Muhammad’s successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with Antiquity was not complete. The still sizeable Byzantine Empire survived and remained a major power. The empire’s law code, the Code of Justinian, was widely admired. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated extant Roman institutions, while monasteries were founded as Christianity expanded in western Europe. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, established an empire covering much of western Europe; the Carolingian Empire endured until the 9 th century, when it succumbed to the pressures of invasion — the Vikings from the north; the Magyars from the east, and the Saracens from the south.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after AD 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and crop yields to increase. Manorialism — the organization of peasants into villages that owed rent and labor services to the nobles; and feudalism — the political structure whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords, in return for the right to rent from lands and manors – were two of the ways society was organized in the High Middle Ages. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts, by western European Christians, to regain control of the Middle Eastern Holy Land from the Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralized nation states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy which emphasized joining faith to reason, and by the founding of universities. The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the architecture of Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements of this period.

The Late Middle Ages were marked by difficulties and calamities, such as famine, plague, and war, which much diminished the population of western Europe; in the four years from 1347 through 1350, the Black Death killed approximately a third of the European population. Controversy, heresy, and schism within the Church paralleled the warfare between states, the civil war, and peasant revolts occurring in the kingdoms. Cultural and technological developments transformed European society, concluding the Late Middle Ages and beginning the Early Modern period. (101)

Early Middle Ages

Although the political structure in western Europe had changed, the divide is not as extensive as some historians have claimed. Although the activity of the barbarians is usually described as “invasions”, they were not just military expeditions but were migrations of entire peoples into the Empire. Such movements were aided by the refusal of the western Roman elites to either support the army or pay the taxes that would have allowed the military to suppress the migration.

The emperors of the 5 th century were often controlled by military strongmen such as Stilicho (d. 408), Aspar (d. 471), Ricimer (d. 472), or Gundobad (d. 516), and when the line of western emperors ceased, many of the kings who replaced them were from the same background as those military strongmen. Intermarriage between the new kings and the Roman elites was common.

The 3rd-century Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicts a battle between Goths and Romans.
Figure 8-1: Great Ludovisi sarcophagus  by unknown artist from Wikimedia is licensed under Public Domain

This led to a fusion of the Roman culture with the customs of the invading tribes, including the popular assemblies which allowed free male tribal members more say in political matters. Material artifacts left by the Romans and the invaders are often similar, with tribal items often being obviously modeled on Roman objects. Similarly, much of the intellectual culture of the new kingdoms was directly based on Roman intellectual traditions.

An important difference was the gradual loss of tax revenue by the new polities. Many of the new political entities no longer provided their armies with tax revenues, instead allocating land or rents. This meant there was less need for large tax revenues and so the taxation systems decayed. Warfare was common between and within the kingdoms. Slavery declined as the supply declined, and society became more rural.

Map of Europe (ca. 650) illustrating the location of the kingdoms during the Middle Ages
Figure 8-2: Europe around 650 by Ramsey Muir is licensed under Public Domain

Between the 5 th and 8 th centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. The Ostrogoths settled in Italy in the late 5 th century under Theodoric (d. 526) and set up a kingdom marked by its cooperation between the Italians and the Ostrogoths, at least until the last years of Theodoric’s reign. The Burgundians settled in Gaul, and after an earlier kingdom was destroyed by the Huns in 436, formed a new kingdom in the 440s between today’s Geneva and Lyon. This grew to be a powerful kingdom in the late 5 th and early 6 th centuries. In northern Gaul, the Franks and Britons set up small kingdoms. The Frankish kingdom was centered in northeastern Gaul and the first king of whom much is known is Childeric (d. 481).

Under Childeric’s son Clovis (r. 509–511), the Frankish kingdom expanded and converted to Christianity. The Britons, related to the natives of Britannia — modern-day Great Britain, settled in what is now Brittany. Other kingdoms were established by the Visigoths in Spain, the Suevi in northwestern Spain, and the Vandals in North Africa. In the 6 th century, the Lombards settled in northern Italy, replacing the Ostrogothic kingdom with a grouping of duchies that occasionally selected a king to rule over all of them. By the late 6 th century this arrangement had been replaced by a permanent monarchy.

With the invasions came new ethnic groups into parts of Europe, but the settlement was uneven, with some regions such as Spain having a larger settlement of new peoples than other places. Gaul’s settlement was uneven, with the barbarians settling much heavier in the northeast than in the southwest. Slavonic peoples settled in central and eastern Europe and into the Balkan Peninsula. The settlement of peoples was accompanied by changes in languages. The Latin of the Western Roman Empire was gradually replaced by languages based on but distinct from Latin, which are collectively known as romance languages. These changes from Latin to the new languages took many centuries and went through a number of stages. Greek remained the language of the Byzantine Empire, but the migrations of the Slavs added Slavonic languages to Eastern Europe. (101)

Western Society

Society in western Europe changed with the new rulers. Some of the Roman elite families died out while others became more involved with Church than secular affairs. The older values of Latin scholarship and education mostly disappeared, and while literacy remained important, it became a practical skill rather than a sign of elite status. In the 4 th century, Jerome dreamed that God rebuked him for spending more time reading Cicero than the Bible.

By the 6 th century, Gregory of Tours had a similar dream, but instead of being chastised for reading Cicero, he was chastised for learning shorthand. By the late 6 th century, the principal means of religious instruction in the Church ceased to be the book and was replaced with music and art. Most intellectual efforts went towards imitating classical scholarship, but some original works were created, along with now-lost oral compositions. The writings of Sidonius Apollinaris, Cassiodorus, and Boethius were typical of the age.

With laymen, a similar change took place, with the aristocratic culture focusing on great feasts held in halls. Clothing for the elites was richly embellished with jewels and gold. Lords and kings supported entourages of fighters who formed the backbone of the military forces of the time. Family ties within the elites were important, as were the virtues of loyalty, courage, and honour. These ties led to the prevalence of the feud in aristocratic society, examples of which included those related by Gregory of Tours that took place in Merovingian Gaul.

Most feuds seem to have ended quickly with the payment of some sort of compensation usually ending the feud. Women took part in aristocratic society mainly in terms of their functions as wives or mothers of men, with the role of mother of a ruler being especially prominent in Merovingian Gaul. In Anglo-Saxon society, the lack of many child rulers meant less role for women as queen mothers but this was compensated for by the increased role played by abbesses of monasteries. Only in Italy does it appear that women were considered as always under the protection and control of some male relative.

Peasant society is much less documented than the nobility. Most of the surviving information available to historians comes from archaeology; few detailed written records documenting peasant life remain from before the 9 thcentury. Most the descriptions of the lower classes come from either law codes or writers from the upper classes. Landholding patterns in the West were not uniform, with some areas having greatly fragmented landholding patterns and other areas with a pattern of large, contiguous blocks of land being the norm. These differences allowed for a wide variety of peasant societies with some being dominated by aristocratic landholders and others having a great deal of autonomy.

Medieval illustration depicting manorial manager directing three peasants in their field labor.
Figure 8-3: Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks by Ann Scott is licensed under Public Domain

Land settlement also varied greatly. Some peasants lived in large settlements that numbered as many as 700 inhabitants. Others lived in small groups of a few families and still others lived on isolated farms spread over the countryside. There were also areas where the pattern was a mix of two or more of those systems. Unlike in the late Roman period, there was no sharp break between the legal status of the free peasant and the aristocrat, and it was possible for a free peasant’s family to rise into the aristocracy over a number of generations through military service to a powerful lord.

Roman city life and culture changed greatly in the early Middle Ages. Although Italian cities remained inhabited places, they contracted greatly in size. Rome shrank from a population of hundreds of thousands to around 30,000 by the end of the 6 th century. Roman temples were converted into Christian churches and the city walls remained in use. In Northern Europe, cities also shrank, while the public monuments and other public buildings were raided for building materials. The establishment of new kingdoms often meant some growth for the towns chosen as capitals. (101)