Ethnic and Demographic Changes in the Early Middle Ages
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.
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.