Political Changes in the Early Middle Ages
Rise of Germanic Kingdoms
The first phase of the Migration Period (ca. 300-500) and the fall of the Western Roman Empire was followed by the emergence of the Germanic kingdoms in Central, Western, Southeast and South Europe, and even North Africa: Visigothic Kingdom, Burgundian Kingdom, Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, Thuringian Kingdom, Kingdom of the Gepids, Ostrogothic Kingdom, Suebic Kingdom, Kingdom of Alamanni, Lombard Kingdom and the Frankish Kingdom which later came to be known as the Carolingian Empire (realm of the Franks under the Carolingian dynasty). Virtually all early medieval Germanic kingdoms ceased to exist by the end of the Early Middle Ages including the most powerful of all – the Carolingian Empire.
Realm of the Franks under Charlemagne
The Franks under Clovis I (481-511) established the strongest state in Western Europe which reached its height under Charlemagne (768-814) when it encompassed much of Western and Central Europe. Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans) by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800 and came to be regarded as the renewer of the Western Roman Empire.
Division of Carolingian Empire
Charlemagne’s empire was divided between the three sons of Louis the Pious (814-840) into three kingdoms with the Treaty of Verdun in 843:
- Lothair I received the central part of Carolingian Empire (Low Countries, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Provence and Italy)
- Louis the German acquired the eastern part (today’s Germany)
- and Charles the Bold gained the western part (today’s France)
Division of the Carolingian Empire in 843 and further disintegration of the former Charlemagne’s empire in the 9th century laid the foundation for the rise of the future European powers: Kingdom of France and Holy Roman Empire.
England was invaded by barbarian peoples after the withdrawal of the Romans in 410. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians occupied much of Great Britain by the end of 6th century and established their own kingdoms known as the Heptarchy. Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex eventually emerged as the strongest of all Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and subdued other political units. Neither of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms was able to repulse the Danish invasions at the beginning of the 9th resulting in establishment of Danelaw.
Emergence of Slavic States
The first phase of the Migration Period was followed by migration of the Slavic peoples (ca. 500-700) resulting in emergence of Slavic states in Eastern Europe, part of Central Europe and the Balkans: Great Moravia, Bohemia, Kievan Rus, Balaton Principality or Lower Pannonia, Serbia, (King) Samo’s Empire or Samo’s Realm, Carantania, Medieval Croatian State and Bulgarian Empire. By the end of the Early Middle Ages most of the mentioned Slavic states were conquered by the powerful neighboring states and ceased to exist as independent kingdoms.
Muslim Conquests in Europe
The European political map went through further changes after the Muslim conquests in the early 8th century. The Umayyads conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula except for Kingdom of Asturias between 711 and 718. The Muslim conquests in Western Europe came to an end after the Umayyad forces were decisively defeated by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 732.
Arrival of the Hungarians
Arrival of the Hungarians at the end of the 9th century had a major impact on the course history of medieval Europe as well. Europe was horrified by their devastating raids which came to an end only when they were decisively defeated by Otto the Great in the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. After the defeat against Otto the Great, the Hungarians settled in the Pannonian basin, adopted Christianity as well as European culture and political system.
Byzantine Empire under Justinian I
The Byzantine Empire managed to withstand the barbarian invasions but it went through dramatic political and territorial changes in the Early Middle Ages. The eastern half of the former Roman Empire reached its golden age under Justinian I (527-565) who recaptured North Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Ostrogoths.
The period after Justinian’s death was marked by wars with Persia under the Sassanid dynasty as well as the migration of the peoples. The Byzantines lost much of their territory in Italy after the invasion of the Lombards in Italy in 568, while the Slavic peoples threatened the Byzantine northern frontiers. The Byzantine Empire decisively defeated the Sassanids in 629 and recovered some of the lost territories but neglected its northern frontiers. This enabled the Slavic peoples to capture the entire Balkan Peninsula by 615.
Byzantine Empire under Basil I
Iconoclasm in the 8th and fist half of the 9th century caused an inner crisis which was followed by a civil war and siege of Constantinople (821-823). The Byzantine Empire recovered under Basil I (867-886) and expanded its political and cultural influence in the Balkans. Sicily and parts of Southern Italy were lost to the Saracens in the mid-9th century.