|The Barbarian Invasions
Content Goals and Objectives: What should you be able to do when you complete this section?
Goal 4 – Barbarian Invasions
The student will evaluate the invasions of Europe as a force for change in medieval Europe.
4.01 Trace and evaluate the effects of the Germanic invasions during late antiquity including but not limited to the invasions of the Goths, Huns, Lombards, and Franks.
4.02 Outline the political achievements and developments of the Merovingians in early medieval Europe.
4.03 Evaluate the political developments and impact of the Carolingian Empire on medieval Europe.
4.04 Detail the Vikings invasions and assess their impact on the cultural and political development of medieval Europe.
4.05 Evaluate the role of the Islamic threat on the cultural and political developments of medieval Europe.
4.06 Summarize the influence of Magyar invasions on cultural and political developments of medieval Europe.
4.07 Assess the cultural and political results of the invasions of early medieval Europe.
The Conversion of Rome
By the 4th century CE, a majority of the Romans in the empire had converted to Christianity. This was very apparent when pagan Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE which granted official tolerance for the religion. Constantine later converted to Christianity himself. Once given official tolerance, the Christian religion became an unstoppable force in the empire and in 395 CE, Emperor Theodosius the Great adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, putting an end to the pagan traditions of Rome which had endured for 800 years. Some historians have pointed to this historical moment, the Roman conversion to Christianity, as the beginning of the decline of the empire.
Roman Chaos and Decline
In reality the decline of the Roman Empire can never be summarized in one factor. There are many possible reasons for the decline that led to the fall of the empire which began around 180 CE. Between 235 and 284 CE there was a great deal of political upheaval as evidenced by the list of 22 emperors who ruled during that 49 year period (That is about one emperor per two years!). It was also after the 3rd century CE that Germanic tribes which had remained outside the borders of the empire pushed for entry inside Roman territory. The Germanic problem made taxes reach higher and higher rates as it cost more money to fund and equip a large army to protect the borders. There was too a decline in trade and small industry and the well of wealth of the empire started to run dry.
Diocletian and Constantine
Two emperors tried to stop this decline. They were the emperors Diocletian and Constantine. Diocletian ruled the empire from 285 to 305 CE which was quite long in comparison to the previous rule of the last 22 emperors. He made his rule over the empire more efficient by dividing it into four administrative units. Diocletian also worked on economic reforms to fight the inflation of prices including using price and wage freezes. His successor, Emperor Constantine, enjoyed a long rule too. He consolidated his rule over the empire and constructed a new capital city in the eastern Roman Empire named after himself called Constantinople. Constantine was able to make both economic and military reforms to help slow the decline of the empire. But only slow the decline of the empire was all that either Diocletian or Constantine ever did. Their administrative reforms were only a quick and temporary patch.
The Emperor Diocletian
The Emperor Constantine
This Is End
The fall of the Roman Empire is traditionally believed to have started in the 5th century. The beginning of the fall was started by the tribes of Huns united under Attila the Hun. They migrated from the plains of Asia in the east pushing the Germanic tribe, the Visigoths, into violating Roman territory. By 410, the Visigoths had invaded the Italian peninsula and sacked Rome. This act sent shockwaves throughout the Roman world. Later the Germanic tribe called the Vandals (Where the word vandalism originates.) invaded the Roman Empire from the west and sacked the city of Rome in 455. Finally in 476 a Germanic chieftain deposed the last emperor who ruled of the remnants of the Western Roman Empire. It is because of this fact that 476 is taken as the traditional date of the fall of the Roman Empire. But the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire where the capital city of Constantinople was located continued to exist for another 1000 years.
Reasons for the Fall
Over the ages historians have speculated over the exact reason for the fall of the Roman Empire. No true cause for the fall can be certain, but several factors seem to be possible contributors to the fall. The first possible contributor was the conversion of the empire to Christianity. Some historians have suggested that this conversion led the Romans to spend more time thinking about the afterlife rather than the here and now of the empire. In addition the cohesive power of the Roman state religion was lost. Other historians have thought that a decline in traditional Roman values associated with the simple, humble, agrarian lifestyle of the Roman republic was the reason for the fall. Other factors include successive plagues which weakened the empire, slavery that made the Romans lazy and unemployed and even lead poisoning from their indoor plumbing. Finally one factor that has carried a lot of credence with historians is the fact that the Romans struggled to find a workable political system to control such a vast empire for an extended period. Regardless if it was one of these factors or if it was all of these factors, the Roman Empire fell and left a void in Western Europe that needed to be filled. But even after its fall its legacy to Western Europe lasted.
After the fall of Rome in 476 which was hastened by Germanic invading tribes, there was a political vacuum that had to be filled in Europe. Many Germanic tribes tried to fill this vacuum including the Lombards, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Saxons, Jutes, Angles, and Franks; but it was the Franks who were the first tribe to get it all together and to step up and fill the void left by the fall of Rome.
In the early 400s, the group of Germanic tribes labeled the Franks migrated from central Europe and settled in the region of France. After some time the Franks emerged as the strongest and dominated the region for years. The early rulers of the Franks came from the Merovingian family. King Clovis (481-511) was among those early rulers. He ruled the Franks during the late 400s. Clovis was able to establish the power of the king among the Franks. He also converted the Frankish kingdom to Christianity supposedly at the urging of his wife and because God’s assistance in a particularly important battle. Of course in reality like the many rulers before him, Clovis saw the cohesive power of religion and in this case, Christianity. Thus, Clovis was able to establish a strong kingdom during his lifetime. Unfortunately once he passed away the Merovingian line of kings became weak and the kingdom of the Franks suffered because of it.
As the Merovingian king fell into decline, the office of the mayor of the palace for the Merovingian kings became stronger. Charles Martel was an excellent example of a strong mayor of the palace who defended the kingdom of the Franks while the Merovingian king stayed at home (Merovingian kings were sometimes called “do-nothing kings.”). In 732 he led a Frankish army against an invading Muslim army at the Battle of Tours (A critical point in European and World history!). Martel’s victory ensured that Christianity would be the religion of Europe. His son, Pepin the Short, assumed the hereditary and powerful title of mayor of the palace after Charles Martel’s death. Tired of the “do-nothing” kings, Pepin, after gaining the blessing of the Pope of Rome, deposed of the last Merovingian king and became king himself. This was the start of the Carolingian dynasty.
The Franks were fortunate that the Carolingians gained the throne. Pepin the Short’s son became one of the greatest leaders of medieval Europe and helped to build the Frankish Kingdom into an empire.
Charlemagne or Charles the Great became king of the Franks in 771 after the death of his father. Within a few years, he doubled the borders of the Frankish kingdom to include modern-day Germany, France, Italy, and northern Spain. Through the charisma of his rule, the Franks experienced a renaissance or rebirth in culture. Although he was never able to read himself, Charlemagne encouraged the construction of schools and hired scholars from across Europe to facilitate learning (The story goes that he slept with a book under his pillow in the hopes of acquiring the ability to read!). Additionally as any good Christian ruler, he protected the churches and monasteries of the empire and also forcibly converted the Germanic tribe called the Saxons to Christianity (He continually had trouble with them from then on.). In 800 Charlemagne took a Frankish army to the gates of Rome to the rescue Pope Leo III from an invading Germanic army. The Pope was so grateful for his actions and probably wanted his continued protection that he crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor. This title, of course, was used to recall and associate Charlemagne with the great Roman Emperors of the distant past. But things were not to last. Charlemagne did not prepare well for his death.
The Coronation of Charlemagne
In 814 Charlemagne died and left his throne to his son, Louis the Pious who was, in fact, very pious or religious and wanted to be at the altar more than on the throne. The Frankish empire weakened with his rule but even more so when he died in 843. When Louis the Pious passed, he left the Frankish Empire to his three sons. This division had been spelled out shortly beforehand in the Treaty of Verdun. The empire was divided into three regions. Charles the Bald (Yes, he was bald.) received the western region which later turned into France. Louis the German (Yes, he spoke German.) got the eastern portion which became Germany. Finally, Lothair (No, he didn’t have a nickname.) acquired the strip of land between the two other brothers called Lorraine. The saying goes, “United we stand, divided we fall,” and with the division of the Frankish Empire, the empire’s political and military power weakened under the strain of other competing kingdoms and a renewed series of invasions of Europe.
Beginning in the 9th century there were another series of invasions which threatened Europe much like the 5th century invasions that threatened Europe of the Roman Empire. From the north coming from Scandinavia were the Vikings who traveled across the Baltic Sea in shallow draft longboats to attack many of the regions of Europe. The Vikings were mainly pirates who were interested in quick strikes and easy fights so they targeted Christian monasteries and small villages and towns. From the across the central steppes of Asia and central Europe came the Magyars. These nomadic tribes terrorized central Europe until they were collectively defeated by the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto I at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. And finally the last groups of invaders of the 9th century were Islamic forces that raided the southern coastline of Europe on a periodic basis.
These invasions or raids had several effects. First, the raids isolated communities by discouraging travel. People were generally scared to go far from home. Second, the invasions weakened the authority of the kings because they appeared unable to stop the continuous harassment of these invaders. Also trade declined, again, as people were fearful of their lives when traveling in small numbers or even in large numbers. Finally, the most lasting impact of these invasions was the development of the political system of feudalism which lasted in various forms across Europe for hundreds of years.
Let’s Go Serfing
Feudalism was a political system which developed in medieval Europe in reaction to the 9th century invasions. Although the origins of the system have sometimes been debated, many historians point to the rule of Charles Martel as its beginning. After one of Martel’s many military campaigns, he was unable to pay his soldiers for the services rendered. Rather the handing the armed men an I.O.U which probably would not have gone over well (Remember they did have swords!), Martel granted the men fiefs or estates with a number of peasants. From then, here is what developed in simplest form. Kings gave land to nobles who swore an oath and military support to the king. The military support eventually developed into a provision for mounted warriors or knights. Gradually the land and the oath became hereditary while the peasants continued to stay on the land working in exchange for protection since obviously they could not fight without training and equipment. This system really caught on during the 9th century Viking invasions. Remember the Vikings depended on quick strikes. The feudal system was better equipped at handling these types of incursions because people did not have to depend on a distant king and his armies to protect them or their lands. They depended on their local feudal lord whom they saw on a regular basis.
As time progressed a feudal pyramid emerged as follows. The king was located on the top of the pyramid. Below the king were the lords or vassals who had different titles like duke, count, or bishop. The lords or vassals hired men-at-arms or knights that were below them in the feudal pyramid. And finally on the very bottom were the peasants who gave up many freedoms to have the protection of the lords above them. This pyramid was held together by the strength of its alliances. These alliances were hereditary as well as contractual. They were secured by a ceremony known as homage. In that ceremony vassals pledged to be loyal and perform their duties for their lord.
The Feudal system
Working with the feudal system was another system called the manorial system. Manorialism described the economic ties that existed between the lord of manor and the peasants that resided there. Generally, peasants remained on the manor because they could not afford their own land for agricultural production or they needed protection. Usually these peasants became serfs or people who were bound to the manor and could not leave the manor without permission. The typical manor included the lord’s house which was typically a fortified palisade or castle, pastures for livestock, fields for crops, forested areas, and a village or town for the serfs. The stability of structure of manorialism helped to increase crop production during the early Middle Ages despite the 9th century invasions. It also helped that a heavier plow was invented that could handle the thick soil of Europe and the three-field system that prevented the erosion of nutrients in the fields. But regardless the manorial system added to the agriculture production of Europe which benefited the whole population.