History of Early Medieval Europe

Introduction

Timeline

Summary of Medieval Europe
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
France Frankish kingdom > France/Germany rise of France Hundred Years' War > French unification
Germany Holy Roman Empire
England Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Anglo-Norman age Hundred Years' War > War of the Roses
Iberia Visigothic rule > Islamic rule Reconquista rise of Portugal and Spain
Eastern Europe Byzantine Empire
Timeline of Western Medieval Europe
500-1000 1000-1500
1 2 3
# age span political overview primary powers
1 Early Middle Ages ca. 500-1000 Western Europe governed by patchwork of non-urban kingdoms Frankish kingdom
2 High Middle Ages ca. 1000-1300 urban kingdoms flourish across Western Europe France, England, Holy Roman Empire
3 Late Middle Ages ca. 1300-1500 urban kingdoms decline

The East-West Divide

By the medieval period, the Eastern Roman Empire had evolved into the Byzantine Empire (ca. 500-1453). "Byzantine" is a modern label that recognizes the distinct qualities of the Eastern Roman Empire in its medieval phase, including the revival of Greek as the universal educated language, Orthodox Christianity, and the Byzantine style of art. It should be remembered, however, that the Byzantines called themselves "Romans", and considered their nation to be the continuation of the Roman Empire.7,8

Western Europe, on the other hand, crumbled into an impoverished, non-urban patchwork of Germanic kingdoms. Nonetheless, Western Europe remained united spiritually (under the pope, who had emerged in the Early Christian period as the supreme figure of Western Christianity) and linguistically (by Latin, which remained the scholarly tongue of the West). In short, the medieval West was united as Latin Christendom.A213,2,3,20

Western Christianity would eventually come to be known as Roman Catholicism. The Byzantines, on the other hand, preferred a decentralized group of Christian communities of equal standing: "Eastern Churches" rather than a monolithic Eastern Church. The Eastern form of Christianity came to be termed Orthodoxy.79 Though Orthodox Christianity lacks a supreme authority, it does feature a "first among equals": the patriarch of Constantinople, who serves a facilitating role in the Orthodox world.

Eastern and Western Christianity gradually diverged in their practices and beliefs until the East-West Schism of 1054, in which each officially declared the other to be heretical. This "mutual excommunication" was finally lifted in the twentieth century.50,121

Church vs. State

One of the most prominent unique qualities of Western European history is the distinction of church and state. Whereas other civilizations (including the Byzantine Empire) considered the monarch to possess both temporal and spiritual authority, these were separated in medieval Western Europe: temporal authority belonged to secular rulers, while spiritual authority belonged to the Church. The consequent struggle between states and the Church weakened both sides (in terms of sheer political power and perceived moral authority), helping to open the way for subversive ideas (e.g. the Reformation, science, democracy, liberalism) to flourish.A157

Naturally, the distinction of temporal and spiritual power did not prevent secular rulers from interfering in Church affairs, nor vice versa. In fact, since the educated minds of medieval Western Europe were largely male clergy (i.e. priests and monks), the occupations of government official (e.g. administrator, judge, diplomat) and scholar were often filled by clergymen. (This became less true in the later Middle Ages, with the revival of education among the laity.)A218,A248

Norse Expansion

The North Germanic people (aka Norsemen) emerged in ancient Scandinavia (see Indo-European Languages). For the period ca. 800-1100 (the "Viking age"), during which the Norsemen were exceptionally prolific explorers, raiders, and conquerors, they are known as Vikings. Three groups of Vikings can be distinguished (by language): Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes.126

The Vikings plundered the entire northern coast of Europe, and even along the southern coast as far as Italy. Though they founded many colonies, the only permanent extension of Norse culture was Iceland. Other Viking colonies (including settlements in Russia, the British Isles, Greenland, Newfoundland, France, and Italy) faded from history due to harsh climate, violence from native inhabitants, and/or cultural assimilation.70

Slavic Expansion

In Eastern Europe, the Slavs underwent a massive expansion throughout the medieval period.64,71 The resulting "Slavic world" can be divided into three branches: East, West, and South.111 Generally speaking, the West Slavs and western South Slavs came to be strongly influenced by Western European culture (as evidenced by predominance of the Latin alphabet and Roman Catholicism), while the East Slavs and eastern South Slavs (where the Cyrillic alphabet and Orthodox Christianity prevail) did not.68 (The Cyrillic alphabet is a hybrid of the Greek alphabet and the native Slavic writing system.)

The major medieval Slavic powers included Rus (the precursor to the modern East Slavic nations) in the east, Bohemia (the kingdom of the Czechs) and Poland in the west, Serbia and Croatia in the western south, and Bulgaria in the eastern South.

Modern Slavic Language Regions

The political landscape of medieval Eastern Europe thus consisted of the Byzantine Empire (which ruled lands around the eastern Mediterranean) to the south, and a vast patchwork of (mostly Slavic) kingdoms to the north. In the Early Modern age, this landscape was simplified: Russia emerged as the primary force of the East Slavic region, while Poland dominated the West Slavic region. The South Slavic region was swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire.

Steppe Invasions

Invasions of Europe by Steppe tribes continued throughout the medieval period (see History of the Steppe). While most were eventually defeated or assimilated, two tribes established major kingdoms that survived to become modern nations: Bulgaria and Hungary.

Bulgaria, an eastern South Slavic country, was actually founded by the Bulgars, a Turkic tribe. Having settled in the eastern Balkans, the Bulgars absorbed Slavic language and culture. Upon becoming a Slavic people, they are known as Bulgarians, and their nation is known as Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, Hungary was established by the Hungarians, a Ugric people. They did not experience a transformational absorption of Slavic culture (or any other foreign culture), and thus did not become a Slavic people.76 (For an overview of Europe's major language groups, see Indo-European languages.)

Main Article

Byzantine Empire

ca. 500-1453

Late in its history, the Roman Empire was divided into east and west. While the western half crumbled away, the eastern half survived as a unified state; this state is known as the Eastern Roman Empire during antiquity, and as the Byzantine Empire during the medieval period. Historians have applied this "name change" because of the dramatic cultural transformation the state experienced. This transformation began during the late Roman Empire, such that the birth of the Byzantine Empire is often pushed back as far as ca. 300.

The Byzantine Empire had a difficult history, distinguished primarily by long periods of conflict (both external and civil) and decline. In addition to Slavic and Steppe tribe incursions, the Byzantines struggled with the mighty civilizations of Southwest Asia: first the Second Persian Empire (ca. 200-650), then the Caliphate (ca. 650-900), then finally the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300-WWI), which conquered the Byzantines in 1453. Nonetheless, Byzantine civilization lives on today, as the cultural foundation of modern Eastern Europe.5,42,99

Peak Territory of the Ottoman Empire

The Byzantine Empire did experience two golden ages of expansion and stability, each lasting roughly a century. The architect of the first golden age, which spanned the sixth century, was Justinian, greatest of Byzantine emperors. The Empire reached its maximum size during this century, and Constantinople (the Byzantine capital) flourished as the world's largest city. The second golden age, which spanned the tenth century, is sometimes known as the "Macedonian Renaissance" (since it was effected by the "Macedonian dynasty" of emperors).5,7

Peak Territory of the Byzantine Empire (purple regions conquered by Justinian)
Territorial Erosion following the First Golden Age
Territorial Recovery of the Second Golden Age

Italy

Upon the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was briefly united (for several decades) by the Ostrogothic kingdom. From the fall of this kingdom to the nineteenth century, Italy was fractured into small states. Throughout this long period, Italy was dominated by both native powers (especially city-states) and various invaders (e.g. Lombards, Byzantines, Vikings, Arabs).31,32,95

The Church came to govern a modest territory around Rome known as the Papal States. Yet the true power of the Church lay not in lands, but rather in authority that could be applied to all Western states, including taxation, involvement of clergy in civil administrations, and declaration of sanctions (including war). Thus did the Church, though not a "state" in the traditional sense, thrive as a major political force in medieval and Early Modern Europe.

France and Germany

ca. 500-1000
Summary of Medieval France and Germany
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
France Frankish kingdom > France/Germany rise of France Hundred Years' War > French unification
Germany Holy Roman Empire

The Early Middle Ages (ca. 500-1000) were an impoverished, non-urban phase of Western European history.4 With the fall of Roman rule, agriculture and trade networks languished, population declined, and literacy nearly disappeared outside the Church. Politically speaking, the unity of empire was supplanted by a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms.A228,3

These kingdoms emerged as the hitherto migratory Germanic tribes settled down and accumulated territory; thus did barbarian chiefs become land-owning lords (albeit lords of small, fragile states). As the waves of Germanic migration subsided, the political environment of Western Europe slowly stabilized, allowing kingdoms to expand. The Frankish kingdom emerged as the largest of these, spanning what is now France, western Germany, and northern Italy; thus did the Frankish kingdom become the first political and cultural leader of medieval Western Europe.A153,K208-09

Territory of the Frankish Kingdom

The Frankish kingdom (ca. 500-900) featured two dynasties: the Merovingians (ca. 500-750) and Carolingians (ca. 750-900). Under the Merovingian dynasty, the Frankish kingdom experienced steady growth. Under the Carolingian dynasty, the size and power of the Frankish kingdom culminated (peaking under Charlemagne), then experienced fracture and decline, ultimately disintegrating in the late ninth century.6

Timeline of the Frankish Kingdom
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
Merovingian dynasty
(kingdom growth)
Carolingian dynasty
(kingdom culmination and decline)
Charlemagne

From the beginning, the politically acute Franks maintained a strong relationship with the Church. The Church-state separation of Western Europe was formalized when Charlemagne affirmed the pope's supreme spiritual position, while the pope recognized Charlemagne as the chief temporal ruler of the West. Specifically, Charlemagne was recognized as emperor, since the Frankish kingdom was now considered (in Western eyes) the continuation of the Roman Empire.A216,1,40

The Frankish kingdom gave rise to the Carolingian Renaissance, the most brilliant scholarly and artistic flowering of the Early Medieval period, which spanned roughly the same period as the Carolingian dynasty (ca. 750-900). With the ascent of Charlemagne, this early "renaissance" came to centred at Aachen (Germany), selected by Charlemagne as the Frankish capital.1

Charlemagne's control of the Frankish kingdom was realized via feudalism, a hierarchical system of land distribution among nobles, in which lands were granted in exchange for military and political service (see Feudalism and Serfdom). Though the roots of feudalism reach back centuries earlier, the system matured under the Carolingians.29,81

After Charlemagne, the Frankish kingdom fell into decline and fracture, coming to a decisive end ca. 900. Thereafter, the western and eastern parts of the former kingdom embarked on distinct political destinies. In other words, ca. 900 marks the beginning of the history of France and Germany.

In the western portion of the former Frankish kingdom, the rise of France occurred slowly, as its various regions were gradually unified throughout the remainder of the medieval period. Germany, on the other hand, achieved rapid unification in the tenth century, only to splinter into small states as the medieval period drew to a close. While France proceeded to flourish as a united state up to the present day, Germany only achieved reunification in the nineteenth century.39

In the meantime, Germany ascended as one of the primary powers of Western Europe. This position was cemented by Otto I, who was granted (ca. 950) the title of "Holy Roman Emperor". Thus did his kingdom become the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted ca. 950-1800.

The core territory of the Holy Roman Empire was Germany/Austria/Bohemia. (Bohemia, the kingdom of the Czechs, corresponds roughly with the modern Czech Republic.) Ironically, this "holy" empire spent centuries warring with the papacy for control of Italy.21

Holy Roman Empire ca. 1000

Rise of Modern Western Languages

Following the Roman conquest, Vulgar Latin served as the common language of France. ("Vulgar Latin" denotes any version of Latin that has evolved away from standard, "classical" Latin.) Though the Franks conquered France, they were greatly outnumbered by the native population, and consequently absorbed the native language (rather than imposing their own). Over time, the Vulgar Latin of France evolved into Old French; thus did the West Franks become the French.A212,102

Likewise, Vulgar Latin evolved into early forms of modern Western languages in Iberia (Spanish and Portuguese) and Italy (Italian). Meanwhile, the modern Germanic languages of Western Europe emerged in those regions where Germanic populations predominated. For instance, the Middle Ages witnessed the development of Old German, Old English, and Old Norse.A212,102

Normandy

Early in the Viking age (ca. 800-1100), Vikings settled a large region on the north coast of France. By this time, a distinct French culture had emerged throughout the region corresponding to modern France; this settlement thus represented a pocket of Norse culture within the French culture area. The pocket gradually disappeared, however, as the colonists embraced the French language and culture (which largely replaced their original Norse culture): a phenomenon known as assimilation. Upon becoming a French population, the people of this colonized region are known as Normans, and the region itself is known as Normandy.36,81

Normandy

Unable to drive away the Vikings, France granted them Normandy as a duchy. Normandy's ruler, the Duke of Normandy, was therefore nominally subject to the French king. In reality, however, Normandy would not come under genuine French control until the end of the Middle Ages.109

Iberia and England

ca. 500-1000
Summary of Medieval Iberia and England
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
England Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Anglo-Norman age Hundred Years' War > War of the Roses
Iberia Visigothic rule > Islamic rule Reconquista rise of Portugal and Spain

For the first two centuries of the medieval period, Iberia was governed by the Visigothic kingdom. Following the invasion of the Moors (Muslims of northwest Africa), the remainder of the Early Medieval period featured Islamic rule over Iberia. Ethnically speaking, the Moors comprised varying blends of Arab, Berber, and Sub-Saharan peoples.23

Peak Territory of Visigothic Iberia (red)
Peak Territory of Islamic Iberia (green)

From the Caliphate (ca. 650-900) onward, Islamic states have governed most of Southwest/Central Asia and North Africa. Medieval Western Europe consequently endured waves of Islamic invasions from North Africa (most notably of Iberia and southern Italy), though the region was shielded to the east by the Byzantine Empire. Without this shield, the young kingdoms of medieval Western Europe might have been conquered by the Islamic world, and Western civilization might have been extinguished.A169

In the High Middle Ages, Iberia was re-conquered by Christian kingdoms: a development known as the Reconquista. Thus began the histories of Spain and Portugal.84

Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons of England spent most of the Early Medieval period divided into small, warring kingdoms. With the onset of the Viking age, however, the English were forced to cooperate against Danish raiders; national union was finally achieved under Alfred the Great, king of Wessex. Though England was later briefly added to a Danish empire (for a few decades at the beginning of the High Middle Ages), a united English nation and culture had formed, which would survive both the Danes and the Normans.A225,1,70

England ca. 800
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