CH 12 Medieval Europe/Barbarians to Kingdoms

By the time Rome had officially fallen, according to modern dating, the average person was living a life very much similar to the one that they had always lived. During the end of the Roman period lands had been carved up and given to wealthy nobles who would later become lords. Barbarians who had fought the Romans for centuries on their frontier had become more Roman in order to compete with their adversaries, and, frankly, the Romans had become less Roman, blurring the lines further. So when the year 476 came and passed little had changed for the average person or indeed the Roman leadership. Yes there was no empire anymore, but there really hadn't been one for some years. It was like trying to cover a bunch of car parts in the yard with a sheet and trying to pass it off as a car to a perspective buyer.

Fall of Rome


When we think of Rome we have a vision of perfectly ordered street, gleaming white buildings, and super-soldiers, like Captain America. What we don't typically get as an image is that the empire was built on slavery, that most people lived on welfare, and that the government was more corrupt than the mafia(see Nero and Caligula). The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was more an era of slow changes than it was an epic event. By 476 CE, when Odoacer[1] deposed the Emperor Romulus, the Western Roman Empire wielded negligible military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Invading "barbarians" just give a good marker for historians to say, "hey, hey look we can say it's over now."

But end the Roman Empire did otherwise we would all probably still be speaking Latin. Latin is an amazing language with very few irregular verbs whereas English is more a language that beats up other languages and takes the most confusing parts from them. Tell me again why we don't still speak Latin? I'm looking at you Anglo and Saxon Germanic tribes.

In any case the events of the decline became the subject of debate at the time, which often took on a strongly religious flavor. Like the events surrounding the fall of the Roman Republic, much of this period is unusually well-documented, though there are very few statistics which directly describe the strength of the economy, army, civil administration, or "barbarians". Modern historians nevertheless debate the relative importance of these and other factors, in particular, whether the state was significantly weaker by 376 than it had been in previous centuries, and why the West collapsed while the East did not, simple answer being that the East had Egypt which has been a bread basket for many civilizations throughout history.



Feudalism is a system of governance that basically uses decentralization and loyalty to rule. The top of a Feudal structure would have a king, emperor, or other high noble that would then divide up there lands because let's face it France is rather large. I blame all the baguettes. Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal, basically a minion but with less of the evil connotation. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony, which was composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. Fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas and denotes the loyalty owed by a vassal to his feudal lord. During homage, the lord and vassal entered into a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces.

The deal for the vassal was a pretty good one seeing that you couldn't just buy a plot and build your condo on it back then. The only way to get land and thus money was to be given it by a lord. And this system repeated on down the line until the areas of land were manageable by a ruling lord or knight. In addition if you were a lord and the neighboring kingdom attacks you, you knew that you would have the full support of your entire kingdoms army at your back. So long as you know you didn't anger the king and disobey his orders like attacking that village because you wanted to marry that cute peasant girl. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial, baronial, both termed court baron, or at the king's court. And appearing at court was pretty cool. You got lavish parties and who knows your dad might just arrange a marriage with the neighboring lord to strengthen their alliance.

I should be clear about marriage here. Marriage in medieval times was not like marriage in ancient Egypt where you met your soul mate. Instead most marriages were used to further some sort of political or economic agenda. And it is because of this reason that there was a lot of affairs going on, whether this was with another noble, a peasant, or in the brothels of which there were many.

Rise of Kingdoms

The Frankish king Charlemagne was a devout Catholic and maintained a close relationship with the papacy throughout his life. In 772, when Pope Adrian I was threatened by invaders, the king rushed to Rome to provide assistance. Shown here, the pope asks Charlemagne for help at a meeting near Rome.

The Franks


Eventually in history someone will always come along who wants to do something epic that the ancients did. For Alan Turing that was the computer, for James Watt it was the steam engine, and for the Frankish king Charlemagne that was rebuilding the Roman Empire. Why because history remembers the bold and awesome. And because when your dad's title is "the Short" you really should probably try to separate yourself a little.

Charlemagne spent the early part of his reign on several military campaigns to expand his kingdom. He invaded Saxony(part of Germany) in 772 and eventually achieved its total conquest and conversion to Christianity. He also extended his dominance to the south, conquering the kingdom of the Lombards in northern Italy. In 778, he invaded northern Spain, then controlled by the Moors (a kingdom of Muslims who controlled most of North Africa). Between 780 and 800, Charlemagne added Bohemia to his empire and subdued the Avars in the middle Danube basin to form a buffer state, area of land to be invaded first while you prepare your army, for the eastern border of his empire.

Charlemagne is most important because of two things. His focus on education and his support of the Pope. Let's take the first point. Charlemagne was illiterate, could not read, however, he saw the importance of having an educated group of scholars because, you know, that is how Rome did it and they invented robots. His reforms and focus on education lead to what some scholars call the Carolingian Renaissance. The guy made his own personal renaissance before renaissancing was a thing in Europe. Which leads me to title him Hipster Charlie from now on. He established monastic schools and scriptoria, basically ancient book factories because everything was hand copied down back then. And his court became so famous that it attracted the leading scholars from around Europe to move in and have huge nerd parties in Latin where they would write down scripture or new ideas. The second point about him helping the church is probably the most important though. In 799, Pope Leo III had been mistreated by the Romans, who tried to put out his eyes and tear out his tongue. They are such nice people like that. The Holy Father escaped though and begged Charlemagne for help. Being the good Catholic he promptly went Rambo on the Romans. After the defeat of the Romans, Leo would crown Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor. A title that would be carried on through the centuries and set up a number of conflicts between the secular rulers and those of the church.



The Vikings were a group of people from Scandinavia, that would be Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Most people typically view them as large barbarians with horned helmets, or as a Chris Hemsworth Thor look alike. And while the Vikings were excellent conquerors and brutally effective on the battle field, there is more to Vikings than just this.

The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian history.One explanation for why they suddenly started raiding is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. England suffered from internal divisions and was relatively easy prey given the proximity of many towns to the sea or to navigable rivers. Ask the monks at Lindisfarne who were the first to be attacked by raiding Vikings. Lack of organized naval opposition throughout Western Europe allowed Viking ships to travel freely, raiding as they went. The raiding part was particularly easy because almost every town stored the majority of their wealth in terms of gold in the local church. Which was guarded by peaceful monks.However, the Vikings were not all rampage, pillage, and taking women and men back to their lands to be slaves.

Viking expansion in the Middle Ages

The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role in their rise to prominence. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. So when the Vikings learned that they could make more money by trading than by raiding they began to settle down. This is where the real influence of the Vikings can be seen. Through their use of their longboats they were able to establish trading posts almost everywhere in Europe. Russia was literally born as a nation because of the establishment of one of these trading posts.

During this time the Vikings were also out exploring. Through use of navigation techniques that would make Columbus's head spin because they were so far ahead of their time, they were able to map out and establish colonies in places like Iceland, which should be noted is less icy than Greenland. Greenland was found by a guy by the name of Erik The Red, who turned to exploration after being exiled for three years due to "some killings" he committed around the year 982. His son Leif Erikson would go on to find Canada in what I can only assume was an attempt to not freeze to death in Greenland.

Norman Conquest

A segment of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Odo, Bishop of Bayeux rallying Duke William's troops during the Battle of Hastings in 1066

After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in 410AD things got rather dicey. The native Celtic people were soon invaded by a number of Germanic tribes. According to the Chronica Gallica, the Angles and the Saxons beat the ever living daylights out of the local Briton population and forced them to submit to "Saxon" rule. The kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex would have divided power over England until the invasion of the Vikings in the 9th century. When the Vikings did go rampage on the Saxon kingdoms only the kingdom of Wessex survived.

Enter William of Normandy, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and his mistress. William was the descendent of Viking raiders who had thrashed the northern coast of France but stayed to set up trading settlements. William being an illegitimate child had difficulties fitting in with the French aristocracy. So he took these issues out by invading people and making his own kingdom. Which totally worked. William defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. During the battle Williams spearmen charged the English ranks only to be met by having axes and spears thrown in their faces. William, however, would rally and eventually defeat Harold, and then, rather than record his achievement in a boring text book or something like that, had his victories woven into a carpet for his wall. Today we know it as the Bayeux (Bo) Tapestry.

A reconstruction of Carisbrooke Castle in England during the 14th century, showing the keep built on the motte (top) and the bailey (bottom)

William then set about making Britain more French. French became the language of the aristocracy. British castles became modeled after the motte and bailey design of Norman castles. Most of these early castles used wood and earth works as opposed to stone, and were constructed of a motte (a hill topped with a tower) and a bailey (a walled town section).

This did create an issue with the ownership of England though. Technically William was a vassal of the French king, meaning that technically France now owned England. But William opposed this declaring himself the king of England. Fights over who actually controlled England would go on for centuries.