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Social Changes in the Early Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Collapse of Roman Institutions

The Early Middle Ages saw dramatic social changes which were a result of both barbarian invasions and economic decline which probably was not as severe as formerly thought. The Roman Empire never truly recovered from the Crisis of the 3rd Century that has caused profound economic and social changes which led to the collapse of Roman institutions and provided a model to the medieval social and economic systems.

Emergence of Coloni

During the Crisis of the 3rd Century, the traditional trade networks have collapsed, while the end of the Roman territorial expansion almost completely cut off the sources of slaves at the end of the 2nd century which has severely hit the rural areas that mostly depended on slave labour force. Economic decline forced many city dwellers as well as small landowners to work on large Roman estates known as latifundia as coloni – half-free peasants who were tied to the land and paid a rent to owners of latifundia providing a model to serfdom and the medieval feudal society as well as manorialism that came to be the predominant economic and social system in Western and Central Europe by the end of the Early Middle Ages.

Serfs in the Early Middle Ages

Both Germanic and Slavic peoples that settled in former Roman provinces were settled agriculturists, owned a small piece of land and were personally free. However, political instability, frequent wars, famines and indebtedness eventually forced the majority of small landowners and peasants to seek protection at the nearest landlord in return for their land (but not the right of its use) and personal freedom becoming serfs. By the end of the Early Middle Ages, serfs formed the majority of medieval population.

Rise of Nobility

The Roman institutions collapsed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, while the tribal organization of the new settlers gradually adjusted to military organization. Military leaders started forming a new social group – nobility that was subdued to a king whose power eventually evolved into monarchical rule. The tribal and military leaders seized the properties of the Romans who refused to recognize new authorities. That way they equalized themselves with the Roman aristocratic landowners is both social and economic aspect, and emerged as the ruling class.

Transition from Late Antique to Early Middle Ages

Early medieval Europe was very different from the classical world but the transition from late antique to medieval society took place gradually. Even more, some of the distinctive features of the medieval society can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Social changes in the Early Middle Ages were therefore a continuation of the process that started in late antique rather than “invention” of medieval Europe.

Ethnic and Demographic Changes in the Early Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Population Decline and Barbarian Invasions

The Migration Period and barbarian invasions resulted in far-reaching ethnic and demographic changes in early medieval Europe though they probably were not as dramatic as previously thought at least in some parts of Europe. Demographic decline started long before the barbarian invasions, while the population seemed to have remained relatively stable after the Plague of Justinian (541-542) though localized and less deadly outbreaks of the plague continued until the mid-8th century.

Barbarization of the Roman Empire

A part of the indigenous population was killed during the Migration Period but the barbarians have had no intention to destroy the entire population. The majority of the indigenous population continued to coexist with the newcomers and eventually merged with them, while a part of the original inhabitants retreated from the invaders in less accessible areas. However, the process of “barbarization” has started already in the late antiquity. The Crisis of the Third Century resulted in economic decline of the Roman Empire which has seriously weakened the bonds between the integral parts of the Roman Empire as well as the Roman identity in the provinces. The rural population in most Roman provinces was not much different from the barbarian peoples across the border which explains gradual barbarization of the Roman Empire without large-scale barbarian migrations. In addition, the Roman Empire has used the barbarian groups along the border against the hostile barbarian peoples, while some groups were allowed to settle in the Roman territory as foederati (neither Roman citizens nor Roman colonies) in return for providing military assistance.

Barbarian Takeover

The barbarian takeover varied greatly from one region to another. For example, the takeover of power by the Ostrogoths in Aquitaine was relatively peaceful, while collapse of the Roman rule in Gaul resulted in bitter conflicts between the Alamanni and the Franks. Similarly violent was the arrival of the Saxons in England after the withdrawal of the Romans and the Brythonic chieftains were forced to retreat westwards. The Muslim conquests, Viking expansion and arrival of the Hungarians in Central Europe further deepened instability throughout early medieval Europe resulting in very low overall population growth until the end of the Early Middle Ages.

Emergence of New Ethnic Groups

The Early Middle Ages saw disappearance of some peoples and emergence of new ethnic groups. Mixture between indigenous peoples and the newcomers led to creation of new ethnic groups but the process took place in two directions. The indigenous population was mostly assimilated by the new settlers but in some regions, the newcomers adopted the language and culture of the indigenous population. For example, the Franks descended from Germanic tribes from northern Europe and originally spoken Old Frankish, a West Germanic language but they were eventually absorbed into Latinhood like most Germanic peoples in Western and Southern Europe including the Goths. Slavic peoples, on the other hand, have assimilated non-Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and even completely absorbed the later invaders such as the Bulgarians.

Ethnic Identity in the Early Middle Ages

Formation of ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages was a complex process. The map of the Migration Period that illustrates the migration of ethnically homogenous groups from their distant homeland to Europe is very misleading. Ethnic identity in the Early Middle Ages was very fluid and the nature of acquiring identity of an ethnic group was very different from today’s “standards” that typically require a common heritage and often also a common language, culture and even ancestry. For example, a defeat of a king by an external enemy did not only marked his end as a ruler but could have also marked the end of his people who were absorbed into victorious ethnic group. In addition, the upper classes sometimes adopted multiple ethnicities in order to secure their position or advance socially and politically. The flexibility of ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages also explains the disappearance of many peoples and cultures without population decline and large-scale migrations. Most barbarian groups that settled in Europe are estimated to number tens of thousands. The total population in Europe in late antiquity is not exactly known but it is estimated to have been around 50 million in year 400.

The Early Middle Ages Invasions, Migrations and Kingdoms

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Germanic Kingdoms

Migration of the Germanic peoples (ca. 300-500), also known as the first phase of the Migration Period came to an end by the end of the 5th century when the Germanic tribes settled in Western, Central, Southern and Southeast Europe where they established their own kingdoms: Visigothic Kingdom, Burgundian Kingdom, Thuringian Kingdom, Kingdom of the Gepids, Ostrogothic Kingdom, Suebic Kingdom, Kingdom of Alamanni, Lombard Kingdom and the strongest of all – the Frankish Kingdom which came to be known as the Carolingian Empire. The Germanic peoples also reached Great Britain which saw the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms or the Heptarchy, while the Vandals even migrated to North Africa.

All early medieval Germanic kingdoms were short-lived except for the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in Great Britain. Nearly all the remaining Germanic kingdoms in Central and Western Europe as well as in Italy were conquered by the Franks by the end of the 8th century, while the Visigothic Kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula was destroyed by the Moors in the early 8th century.

Slavic States

Migration of the Germanic peoples was followed by migration of the Slavic peoples or the second phase of the Migration period (ca. 500-700). The Slavic peoples settled the territory between the Laba River on the west and Volga River on the east, and Baltic Sea on the north and Adriatic, Aegean and Black seas on the south where they established independent states: Great Moravia, Kievan Rus, Poland, Balaton Principality or Lower Pannonia, Serbia, (King) Samo’s Empire or Samo’s Realm, Carantania, Bohemia and Medieval Croatian state.

Like early medieval Germanic kingdoms, many Slavic states ceased to exist by the end of the Early Middle Ages. Most of them were conquered by their powerful neighboring states – the Carolingian Empire and later Holy Roman Empire, and the Byzantine Empire.

Invasion of the Avars and Bulgarians

In addition to migration of Germanic and Slavic peoples, Europe in the Early Middle Ages saw the invasion of the Avars and Bulgarians. Avars, nomadic people from Eurasia invaded Europe in 6th century. In alliance with the Lombards, they destroyed the Kingdom of the Gepids on the territory of the former Roman province of Dacia in 567. One year later, the Avars settled in the Danube River area and established a state which was destroyed by the Franks in 803.

The Bulgarians (Turkic origin, later slavicized) settled between the lower course of the Danube River and the Balkan Mountains in the 7th century. They subjugated Slavic peoples on the area and established an empire around 680.

Muslim Conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the Battle of Tours

The Iberian Peninsula was invaded by the Moors in 711. The Muslims conquered the entire Hispania except for the Kingdom of Asturias by 718 when they moved northeast over the Pyrenees. The Muslim advance in Western Europe came to an end after they were decisively defeated by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 732.

Carolingian Empire

The Frankish Kingdom evolved into the strongest of all newly emerged medieval kingdoms under the Carolingian dynasty and reached its height and the greatest territorial extent under Charlemagne (768-814). After his death, the Carolingian Empire started to decline and was divided into three kingdoms with the Treaty of Verdun in 843.

At the beginning of the 10th century, the former Charlemagne’s empire permanently split into two halves – East and West Francia, the precursors of the Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of France, respectively.

Muslim Conquest of Sicily

The Saracens, Arabs from Syria launched their first attacks on Sicily in the mid-7th century. They captured nearly entire Sicily and southern Italian cities of Tarent and Bari from the Byzantine Empire in the mid-9th century from where they were invading central Italy and southern France.

Hungarian Invasions

The Hungarians invaded Europe from the east and settled on the territory of the former Avar state between the rivers of Danube and Tisa at the end of the 9th century. They represented a serious threat to the Central Europe until 955 when they were decisively defeated by Otto the Great in the Battle of Lechfeld. Afterwards, they settled in the Pannonian Basin, converted to Christianity, and adopted European culture and political system.

Viking Invasions

The Vikings or Norsemen seriously endangered the Western Europe in the 9th century. They were invading deep into the Carolingian territory and besieged Paris several times forcing Charles the Simple to give the Viking leader Rollo the lower Seine area (today’s Normandy) as a fief in 911.

The Viking invasions were a serious threat to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms as well. The Anglo-Saxon kings who were unable to repulse the invaders had to accept the establishment of an independent Viking settlement in England (Danelaw) in the second half of the 9th century.

The Early Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Early Middle Ages refers to a period in European history that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It is traditionally dated from the 5th to the end of the 10th century when Europe went through major political, economic, cultural, social, demographic changes.

Following the migration of the Germanic (ca. 300-500) and Slavic peoples (from the end of the 4th century to about 700), Europe saw the emergence of barbarian kingdoms most of which were short-lived and unable to maintain Roman institutions and infrastructure. By the end of the Early Middle Ages most of these kingdoms collapsed or were absorbed by their powerful neighbors such as the Carolingian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, while the Iberian Peninsula was captured by the Muslims in the early 8th century.

The Early Middle Ages was marked by economic decline although most historians believe that it was not as severe as previously thought. In addition, the economic decline in Western Europe started long before the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor and even the beginning of the Migration Period. The Roman Empire fell into severe economic, political, social and spiritual crisis in the 3rd century which resulted in far-reaching changes that gradually led to emergence of medieval Europe.

During the Crisis of the 3rd Century and the period that followed, the Roman Empire saw collapse of the traditional trade networks, decline of cities as economic and cultural centers, emergence of half-free tenant peasants (coloni) who worked on large Roman estates and paid a rent to the land holder, and rise of Christianity providing a model to the medieval economy, culture and social organization. By the end of the Early Middle Ages, manorialism (also referred to as seigneuralism) became the predominant economic and social system in Western and Central Europe, while the entire Europe was virtually Christianized.

The barbarian peoples were culturally backward in compare to highly developed Roman art, architecture and literature. No major constructions were built nor planned until the 8th century except for religious buildings most of which were baptisteries. On the other hand, Byzantine art and architecture reached their height during the Early Middle Ages and the majority of major scientific works were created by Byzantine scholars. The scholars in the West who were almost exclusively clergymen have been primarily concerned with theological issues.

Arrival of new peoples in Europe resulted in dramatic demographic and ethnic changes. The migration of the Germanic and Slavic peoples was followed by the arrival of the Avars and Bulgarians, while the end of the Early Middle Ages was marked by the invasions of the Hungarians and Vikings. A part of the indigenous population was killed but the vast majority merged with the new settlers which resulted in formation of new ethnic groups.

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