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.