Darkness over Europe : From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States

(ORDO NEWS) — The period of European history between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the 10th century AD is called the Dark Ages. First of all, because we have very few historical sources for them.

And those that are, paint a bleak picture. In place of the great empire, Chaos was formed. Roads were overgrown, agriculture was abandoned, goats plucked the grass that made its way through the cobblestones in the squares of ancient cities.

The rulers of the once abundant lands became barbarian kings, unable to establish elementary state institutions. The decline of the West was so complete that the baton for the development of civilization was intercepted by the East for many centuries. What allowed Europe to get out of this abyss?

First, let’s deal with the terms. It is generally accepted that for the first time the concept of “Dark Ages” in relation to Western Europe was applied by Francesco Petrarch.

The poet and humanist, like other figures of the Proto-Renaissance (and their followers of the Renaissance period after them), considered Antiquity to be the heyday of culture and art, and all the centuries that followed it a period of regression.

Already in the 19th century, some historians began to extend the concept of “Dark Ages” to the period from the beginning of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. And now the stories that the Middle Ages were not at all dark, but completely joyful and happy, have come into fashion.

Therefore, let us explain right away: the Middle Ages was not a period of continuous horror, obscurantism and decline. Yes, there were dark times (a period of deep decline). Only they did not last until the beginning of the Renaissance.

The Dark Ages began and ended in what is called the “early Middle Ages” (6th-10th centuries), and the structure of societies and states then really differed seriously from what we can see in Europe after 1000. These are two very different eras.

The last battle of the Roman army

In 378, the Roman emperor Valens led his army against the Goths, commanded by their leader Fritigen. The Battle of Adrianople was the latest battle in an endless series of wars in which aliens from the east tried to win their place under the sun of the empire and gain at least some civil rights.

But this battle was the last for the classic Roman infantry: almost all of it, along with the emperor Valens, perished on the battlefield.

Rome did not yet know that it had fallen (not even the division into Western and Eastern empires was completed), but the events that led Europe to the Dark Ages were already beginning to unfold.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 2
On August 9, 378, not only the emperor Valens, but also the Roman army, thanks to which the empire was created, remained on the field, located a little north of Adrianople. The armament of warriors contains some conventions (artists do not always represent historical details well

It would seem that one battle can decide? Haven’t legions lost individual battles before? Of course they lost. For example, after the largest defeat in its history at that time at Cannae, in 216 BC.

But after them, Rome could always mobilize new armies. For example, after the same Cannes, 250 thousand people were called up, mostly Roman citizens and their allies – neighbors.

The turn that took place in 378 was due not only to one specific defeat, but to a whole range of problems – economic, cultural, social – that did not allow the empire to quickly restore the army to the level that it had before.

There are no more 250,000 potential conscripts at hand. Although almost all the inhabitants of the empire were included in the circle of Roman citizens back in 212, it was not possible to quickly recruit legionnaires among them.

After all, originally the legionnaires were a free and independent population. Even after the reforms of Mary (beginning of the 1st century BC), when the legionnaires became professionals, and not conscripts, free Roman citizens acted as the main reserve for replenishing the composition of the legions.

However, by the time of Valens, the “natural” Romans had long turned into an urban plebs, largely living off the free distribution of bread. Unlike the legionnaires, they did not receive a site upon retirement, and they did not retire either, but they did not particularly strive for this.

Why, if they lived in the city without much effort, but satisfying and fun (remember the formula “the people demand bread and circuses”)? The population of the countryside was mainly represented by dependent colonies or slaves who could not be recruited to serve in the army.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 3
Free distribution (or sale at an extremely low price) of bread in Ancient Rome was originally conceived as the realization of the rights of every citizen of the republic to state property. But in the end, this led to the fact that the Romans did not want to fight in foreign lands: they were well fed anyway. A fresco found in Pompeii from the 1st century AD depicts the distribution of bread. Then this did not prevent Rome from conquering new lands

As a result, there was no one to quickly replenish the army after the defeat of Valens: after all, the mandatory conscription was canceled back in the 1st century BC. That is why what was possible after Cannes became impossible.

And what happened as a result was no longer quite an army, and certainly not at all Roman. Barbarians are taken into service whole units. In modern terms, the Roman army ceased to be national, and now less and less those who were born a Roman citizen served in it .

Legions of the classical type formally still exist, but their content has changed radically. If earlier the allied troops were used as auxiliary, and the orders in them were still Roman, then at the end of the 4th century AD, the units depended on what people they were recruited from – and on their military traditions.

Some of these units eventually decided that they did not like the current emperor, but their leader (by misunderstanding, temporarily considered a Roman general) would have looked much better on the throne.

The throne became a plaything in the hands of the barbarian commanders, who proclaimed and overthrew emperors at will.

In such a situation, the provinces (those that were not yet lost) could not wait for military assistance against the ongoing invasions and were forced to organize their own lives. The center of the empire was not at all eager to rush to their aid, there were enough of their own worries.

Therefore, when the leader of the German mercenaries, Odoacer, deprived the crown of the last Roman emperor, the young Romulus Augustus (this happened in 476), he simply formally recorded the end of an era that actually ended a century earlier. The Middle Ages began.

Rome has fallen, long live the barbarian!

When the empire collapsed, it became obvious that it was necessary to somehow organize local self-government. By the end of the 5th century, those territories that once served as the European part of the Western Roman Empire were settled by the Romans, Romanized Celts and Germans.

Even earlier, some Germanic tribes of the Angles and Saxons (partly under pressure from the Huns) were forced to leave for the British Isles, pushing the Celts there.

As mentioned above, we have very few sources that would convincingly tell about the very beginning of the Middle Ages. Worst of all things were in Britain. Formally, the Anglo-Saxons had their own runes, but in addition to writing, we also need people with a desire to write something.

It wasn’t much better in continental Europe. The traditions of the historical chronicles of Rome were interrupted, and new ones have not yet taken shape.

Moreover, the languages ​​of the future kingdoms of Europe have not even developed in a general form yet. By the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire , the Gaulish language in France was almost completely replaced by vulgar (folk) Latin.

When the Germanic tribes came there, Latin gradually went out of circulation, merged with various Germanic languages ​​- for example, the future Old French was formed from the merger of Latin and Frankish.

The process of changing the language is always long, complicated and is accompanied by a decline in the literacy of the population. People did not fully understand what languages ​​they communicated in, let alone written language.

Despite such a difficult state of affairs with sources, it is clear that already in the 5th century the decline of cities began, not related to wars. This happened, most likely, for the following reasons.

The existing urban infrastructure must be maintained. This requires an administrative system that would collect and distribute taxes (without them there is nothing to repair aqueducts, pavements, maintain city guards, and so on).

Of course, in the last century of their existence, the cities of the Western Roman Empire did not come close to the state in which they were at the time of Pax Romana , in the first two centuries of our era.

But even in late Rome, the system of state administration, at the very least, functioned. Large estates paid fees to the state, with which it supported the cities.

The military leaders of the barbarians, who, after the fall of Rome, declared themselves kings of those lands that they could reach, arranged their residences in latifundia – separate large landholdings seized from wealthy Romans.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 4
The arenas of Lutetia built by the Romans survive in Paris. But in the 5th century, where gladiators once fought, goats grazed

And even if the newly-baked kings managed to collect some taxes (often by robbery), they did not understand why they should spend their (well, whose?) funds on cities that they do not need. And the decline of cities is always the decline of crafts.

In 395, the Roman Empire was divided into Western and Eastern. The Eastern Roman Empire, no less than the Western, was under pressure from the barbarians, and besides, it was constantly at war with the Persians.

Nevertheless, there was no such deep crisis as in Western Europe in Byzantium. This follows not only from historical sources of Byzantine origin (literate people did not disappear there, because the Eastern Roman Empire did not fall, which is why the education system did not collapse).

It is in Byzantium that the new rulers of Europe buy handicraft goods. It is Byzantine coins that are in use in the West – the kings will begin to mint their own coins centuries later.

It is the Byzantine rulers that the barbarian kings imitate and, according to the Byzantine fashion, sew the dresses of their wives for themselves. The kingdoms of the West at that time were only a backward periphery of the East, both economically and culturally.

Recall that by the time of the fall of Rome, the empire was mostly Christian, although with different currents of this religion. The barbarians brought changes here too.

They were most noticeable in Britain: the Anglo-Saxon kings were pagans, and only the west of the island was occupied by Christians – the Celts, who partly moved there from Ireland.

The latter, by the way, has remained a stronghold of Christianity – and literacy. The pagan barbarians gradually became Christianized, but sometimes they did it in a very peculiar way.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened in the Dark Ages in different parts of Western Europe – as far as the sources allow.

Asterix and Obelix are dead

The Franks as a union of ancient Germanic tribes are first mentioned in Roman sources in 242 AD. Then they invaded Gaul and were defeated by the VI Gallic legion under the command of the future Roman emperor Aurelian.

They were not the strongest or most numerous of the German alliances. After the events that destroyed the empire, they got a very small part of Gaul, and even then not immediately.

The governor of Roman Gaul, Syagrius, did not recognize the authority of Odoacer, who overthrew Romulus Augustus, and claimed that he only controlled the Roman province. He remained the last fragment of the once brilliant empire, which he survived for 11 years.

In 486, the Franks under the command of the young king Clovis I defeated the army of the governor at the Battle of Soissons. Syagrius fled to Toulouse, but the Visigoth king Alaric II, who controlled it, handed him over to Clovis, who executed the last Roman governor.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 5
Clovis I, King of the Franks. Painting by French artist François-Louis Dejouin

After the victory over Syagrius, Clovis I declared himself king of Frankia (the Frankish kingdom) – the first king of the Merovingian dynasty.

For many years he fought, expanding his possessions. Some scholars suggest that after the adoption of Christianity by Clovis (this happened in 496), the Gallo-Romans finally recognized his authority.

As a result of the conquests of Clovis, the Frankish state extended as far as the Rhine. And it is important to consider that, despite the name, it did not consist of only Franks – they were just in the minority when compared with the conquered tribes.

In much the same way, in the Macedonian Empire, the Macedonians themselves were in the minority. That is, the state of the Franks was not yet national.

Apparently, Clovis was the first to think about his own biography: it is to the period of his reign that the first legends about Merovee (Clovis was his grandson), the king of the Salic Franks , which deal with his military successes, are attributed.

It is impossible to establish whether Merovei really existed, given the current state of the sources. The heirs of Clovis went much further: according to The Chronicle of Fredegar , the Franks came out of Troy, and the Merovingians are direct descendants of either Priam or Aeneas.

This is another problem with sources from the Dark Ages: in trying to attribute cultural roots to themselves, they inevitably blacked out some of the information about real roots.

As a result, we know that the Merovingians believed in magic and quite likely positioned themselves as magicians, but we do not know how they organized the tax system.

Clovis I became the first of the barbarian kings, who clearly realized the need for state regulation of society. Under him, the Salic Truth was compiled – the first written (in Vulgar Latin) code of laws of the Franks.

The provisions of the “Salic Truth” were in force throughout the territory of the Frankish kingdom up to Charlemagne. It regulated a variety of issues in some detail: for example, what to do if a plow was stolen.

However, some issues were just not regulated. Immediately after the death of the first king, his kingdom was … divided between four heirs. Such is the system of succession to the throne among the Franks – a clear trace of barbarian customs.

Under such conditions, fratricide is common, and, of course, they occurred regularly. As a result, from time to time the whole kingdom again found itself in the same hands.

So, for example, it happened under Chlothar I: he remained the only ruler, but after his death, the kingdom was again divided by four heirs. Such leapfrog does not contribute to the stability of the state and the peaceful life of the population.

The next time the kingdom was united by the grandson of Chlothar I – Chlothar II. This Merovingian, who several times stood on the verge of death and suffered many severe defeats, became the sole ruler of the Franks.

Under him, the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, which had not previously accepted the Franks too much, gradually began to mix with the nobility of the latter and subsequently formed a layer of magnates, from whom the Merovingians formed their administration and on whom they relied in military and political relations.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 6
Charles Martel is called the savior of Europe from the Arabs. He is also the founder of a dynasty that would later be called the Carolingians

The role of the local nobility increased so much that in 614 Chlothar II issued the Edict of Paris, in which, among other things, he ordered to appoint local officials only from the natives of this area, and bishops and magnates with possessions in another area were ordered to make their representatives they are exclusively local natives.

Historians usually consider this decision of Chlothar II as an obvious concession to the nobility and the episcopate. The king was forced to appoint his representatives only from among the local aristocrats, which only strengthened their positions.

It must be said that the unification of the kingdom in one hand was not too pleasing to know on the ground. In 622, the king was forced to allocate the kingdom of Austrasia (originally it was formed during the division of the inheritance of Clovis I) for his son Dagobert.

These were the last real (ruling) representatives of the dynasty of “long-haired mystic kings”, as the Merovingians are often called. They were first replaced by “lazy kings”, under which their mayordoms ruled . And already from these last came the next royal dynasty – the Carolingians.

They believed in magic less than the Merovingians, but they were more familiar with the problems of the country. The founder of the dynasty, Charles Martell, stopped the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Poitiers, who crossed the Pyrenees in 717.

And his grandson Charlemagne turned the kingdom of the Franks into an empire, received the title of Emperor of the West and initiated the Carolingian Renaissance, thereby dispelling the darkness over the western part of Europe.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 7
Battle in the Ronceval Gorge, late 15th century tapestry. In Ronceval, the army of Charlemagne and his allies was defeated by the Basques, which did not prevent him from creating an empire and receiving the title of Emperor of the West

Empires quickly conquered by one man usually do not outlive their ruler for long. So it was with the empire of Alexander the Great, so it was with the Armenia of Tigran II. The empire of Charles lasted longer: it was already divided by his grandchildren, who signed the Treaty of Verdun in August 843.

The result was three kingdoms: Middle Frankish (soon broke up into Lorraine, Italy and Provence), West Frankish (later the Kingdom of France formed around these borders) and East Frankish (later the Kingdom of Germany, consisting of tribal duchies).

The barbarian kingdoms, having gone through the period of a large empire, gradually became nation-states and developed in their own ways. And Germany became the core of the formation of a new empire – the Holy Roman Empire.

In connection with this, she received a lot of problems, mainly related to the multinational population.

The name “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” this state will receive only in the distant XVI century, when the differences between the duchies were more or less settled, and most of the non-German lands were de facto lost.

An invitation to a feast with fatal outcome

Let’s look at Britain. The darkness of ignorance of her after the departure of the Romans is especially impenetrable. Since then, she has been mentioned in Roman sources only twice: in connection with Rome’s refusals of military assistance.

The first historian of post-Roman Britain is Gilda the Wise, who lived in the 6th century. At first glance, his treatise “On the Fall of Britain” should acquaint us with how the Romanized population of the island lived after the departure of the legions.

In fact, before us is a sermon. Very voluminous, but still a sermon, not a chronicle. Judging by the few surviving biographies of the saint (canonized in Britain), he was educated in Ireland, which, as mentioned above, was mainly Christian.

The essence of the work of Gilda the Wise is as follows: the inhabitants of the island and their rulers themselves are to blame for everything.

They sinned a lot, they prayed little. And the Germans who came from the continent are God’s punishment. In addition, Gilda confuses some geographical objects – so-so source, let’s face it.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 8
Gilda the Wise is considered the first British historian of the post-Roman period. But it would be more correct to call him a preacher

Bede The Venerable Benedictine monk from Northumbria, who lived at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th centuries, wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the People of the Angles in the same style, and simply copied the darkest moment of the history of Britain from the work of Gilda the Wise.

The Welsh historian Nennius, who lived about a hundred years after Bede the Venerable, in his “History of the Britons” relies not only on the two sources mentioned, but also on information from the Irish chronicles.

The last circumstance, on the one hand, makes his work very valuable: in Ireland, the tradition of chroniclers was not interrupted, and sometimes they mentioned events on a neighboring island.

But at the same time, Nennius retold in his History an unimaginable number of myths and legends. Actually, it is to him that we owe the cycle of legends about King Arthur.

Apparently, at first, the Romanized population of the island was relatively successful in coping with the raids of the Picts (who lived north of Roman Britain) and maintained the infrastructure left after the Romans.

But not for long: already in the first half of the 5th century, a certain Vortigern, who originally owned lands in the south-west of England, declared himself the supreme king.

He did not really like to fight the Picts, and he went the wrong way of the rulers of late Rome – he invited mercenaries from another people, the Saxons from the continent. He offered land to the southeast, in Kent, to Chief Hengist’s tribe.

In return, Hengist and his warriors were supposed to defend the lands of Vortigern from the raids of the Picts, the Irish, and also the Germans from the continent.

What happened next is not entirely clear. Either Vortigern promised payment, but was greedy, or Hengist decided (like the barbarians unknown to him – military leaders of the late Roman army) that since he was the strongest here, he should be king. Hengist invited the leaders of the Britons to a feast, where the Saxons slaughtered them.

And the island, starting from the east, was gradually filled with other settlers from the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

Since about 2018, archeology in Britain has been on the rise – this is due to the construction of a major transport artery . During the excavations, scientists found many Roman settlements and detached villas.

Apparently, after the arrival of the Germans, all this was abandoned. If the Frankish leaders willingly settled in Roman villas in Gaul, then in Britain the picture is the opposite: Roman buildings were abandoned, people preferred to live not behind stone walls, but behind a fence, because for the construction (and maintenance) of the latter, special knowledge is not needed, which at that time almost no one had.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 9
Excavations of a Roman city in a British pasture

We noted above that on the continent the barbarian kings did not mint their own coins for a long time, but used Byzantine ones. Those of their colleagues who settled in Britain are not even noticed in this.

Coins in layers of the 5th and 6th centuries are extremely rare, and, apparently, they did not serve as a means of payment: they were strung on a thread and worn as jewelry.

Many legends, but few facts – this is how you can characterize the history of Britain of the Dark Ages. In the 7th century, Christianity came to the island for the second time: King Ethelbert of Kent was baptized by St. Augustine of Canterbury.

It cannot be said that the return of religion was quick: the Germanic-pagan elements stood like a solid wall in the way of Roman-Christian education.

At the end of the 9th century, as a result of a very fierce struggle with the Vikings and Danes, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms united around the King of Wessex, who thus became the first king of all England and went down in history under the name of Alfred the Great.

It was he who compiled the first collection of national laws , and in the Anglo-Saxon language. He took measures to restore the lands devastated by raids: he distributed empty lands, supported trade and crafts. And most importantly: Alfred launched the education system and supported science.

The darkness that came with the barbarians dissipated

By the second half of the 10th century, Western Europe looks something like this. Britain and Ireland are Christian kingdoms, separated from the mainland not only geographically but also culturally.

The Iberian Peninsula is almost completely captured by the Arabs, who destroyed the kingdom of the Visigoths. To the north of them lies France.

To the east of it, occupying the entire center of Western Europe, stretched the Holy Roman Empire, knocked together from the German duchies, northern Italian territories and Western Slavic lands.

In the northeast, the Vikings gradually become Christianized and form their own states, plundering Europe and even reaching America.

The most restless (even against the background of the Vikings) was the Holy Roman Empire. One common faith was not enough to remove the main contradictions between different peoples.

Nevertheless, it was this empire that ensured the Christianization of Europe: its missionaries went to the Vikings and to the Western Slavs. It is logical that at this time a significant number of monasteries appear, and Latin and chronicles return with the monks. The darkness of ignorance over Europe dissipated.

Darkness over Europe From Barbarian Kingdoms to Nation States 10
As Roman Christianity, unflavored by Germanic paganism, spread, the network of monasteries expanded. And the monks wrote chronicles, talking about both everyday affairs and global changes in the world

Despite the extremely important role of the Holy Roman Empire in the spread of Christianity, the most prosperous countries of Europe at the end of the Dark Ages were nation-states – Ireland, England and France.

Their Christian kings accepted the spiritual primacy of Rome, but the lives of their subjects were arranged in accordance with their ideas about the benefits and benefits. Faith and church laws alone were not enough for prosperity: a combination of a single religion and a single (main) nation was necessary.

The new nation-states were very different from the Merovingian kingdom in France, the Ostrogoths in Italy, or the Visigoths in Spain. There was no elite here who rigidly separated themselves from the conquered peoples or even spoke with them in different languages.

Half a millennium of the Dark Ages “fused” the original tribes of the German-speaking conquerors – Franks, Angles, Saxons, and so on – with the peoples they conquered. The elites began to build activities around ensuring the safety of the population of their possessions – both from neighbors and from Norman raids.

All this meant that the crisis of the Dark Ages, which began with the degradation of Rome as a “national” state of Roman citizens, was finally over. States again became national – and due to this, much more capable .

Ahead were the Crusades and the Black Death pandemic, the ideas of the Renaissance and the fires of the Reformation, world wars and revolutions.

But never again did Western Europe become a field trampled down by barbarians, did not lose culture, science and crafts to such an extent. And most importantly: never again has written history been interrupted here. I want to believe that it will not be interrupted further.


Contact us: [email protected]

Our Standards, Terms of Use: Standard Terms And Conditions.