Post-classical history

After the Fall of Rome: Progress in the Early Middle Ages

To understand why historians no longer feel comfortable with the term the ‘Dark Ages’, you only have to visit the British Museum in London to admire the treasure found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Archaeologists discovered the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king there in 1939. It was filled with the most marvellous objects, lying in the rotted hulk of an entire ship that was buried under a mound. The craftsmen of seventh-century East Anglia who produced these stunning artefacts in gold, glass and precious stones were certainly no savages. They used materials from all over Europe to fashion buckles and accoutrements fit for a king. Even with a magnifying glass, it is difficult to see all of the exquisite detail on the jewelled purse lid and shoulder clasps. The silver drinking cups were manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean (although admittedly they are not of the highest quality)1 and travelled to England along trade routes that probably took English wool and slaves in the opposite direction.

Although invented much earlier, the term ‘Dark Ages’ became popular in the nineteenth century. It is clear that dismissing half a millennium as being filled with gloom was not intended to flatter the people who lived during it. Some historians explained that by ‘Dark’, they only meant that relatively few written sources survive for the period compared to those immediately before and afterwards. What they actually meant is that very little of interest happened. Today we have come to realise that we cannot so easily write off the period. Roger Collins, in his standard work Early Medieval Europe 300–1000, states: ‘The centuries covered by this book constitute a period of the greatest significance for the future development, not only of Europe, but in the longer term, of much else of the world.’2 So little credence does Dr Collins give to the term ‘Dark Ages’ that he does not even bother to mention that he refuses to use it.

Ploughs, Horseshoes and Stirrups: New Technology in the Early Middle Ages

The royal treasure buried at Sutton Hoo tells us something about the luxuries available to the Anglo-Saxon elite; however, to learn about the lives of common men and women we have to look elsewhere. Luckily, we have a very good idea about everyday life at the end of the early Middle Ages because of a great administrative project set in motion by William the Conqueror (1028–87). After he had subjugated England following the Battle of Hastings, William wanted to know exactly what resources the country possessed. The resulting census, the Domesday Book, gives us a fantastic opportunity to step back in time and see the world through medieval eyes. Near the start of the Domesday Book is a short entry for Otham in Kent. This village, where much of the present book was written, lies on the southern bank of the River Len, just to the east of the county town of Maidstone. It contains more than its fair share of grand medieval manors, because the local ragstone quarry provided employment for stonemasons who could afford big timber-framed houses. The stone had been extracted since Roman times and is rumoured to have been used to build the ancient walls of London itself. However, by the time William the Conqueror’s agents arrived to compile the Domesday Book, the quarry was silent and they don’t mention it.

Anglo-Saxons preferred to build with wood, largely because trees were so plentiful. Many more ancient stone buildings do survive around the Mediterranean than in England, but this is more to do with the comparative lack of wood suitable for large-scale construction. In Japan, stone was rarely used right up until the nineteenth century.3 Anglo-Saxons reserved stone for when they wanted to make a big impression, which was usually when they were erecting a cathedral. Otham had no stone buildings. Even the surviving houses of the stonemasons are largely made of wood.

The Domesday Book entry for Otham, expanded from the rather terse original, reads:

Geoffrey of Rots holds Otham from the bishop of Bayeux. It contains three hides of land. There is land enough to provide work for two and half ploughs of which the Lord holds land for one. Nine villagers and three smallholders share one plough and the Lord has another. There are a church, two slaves, a mill generating five shillings a year, meadow of three acres and woodland supporting eight pigs.4

The lord of the manor in 1086, Geoffrey of Rots, was a knight from a small village near the city of Caen in Normandy. Nine villagers and their families lived in Otham together with three smallholding farmers. There was a church, which was certainly wooden too. The present church, set across the fields from the rest of the village, dates from the thirteenth century but may well occupy the same site as the previous Anglo-Saxon one. There were three acres of meadow where the villagers’ cattle would graze, and enough woodland for eight foraging pigs.

So far, the scene doesn’t sound all that different from how we might expect a Roman village to appear. But the entry in the Domesday Book contains two details that tell us we are dealing with a medieval settlement. The first of these is the mention of ploughs. From almost the dawn of agriculture, peasants had tilled their land with nothing more than a metal-tipped wooden spike, perhaps pulled by an ox, that gouged a furrow out of the ground. Then, in the tenth century AD, another method of tilling the soil arrived in England from the continent.5 A team of eight oxen, yoked two abreast and pulling a heavy iron plough, now worked the fields of Otham. The new machine had a blade that cut into the earth; a ploughshare that dug in at right angles and a mouldboard behind that actually turned the soil over as it went. This had many beneficial effects. Turning over the soil buried any weeds growing in the field so that they died and improved the soil’s fertility. It also increased the amount of water that the ground could hold. Finally, it was much more efficient to operate than the old scratch plough because it attacked a larger cross-section of soil.6 However, the new plough was large and a single peasant could hardly afford one. In fact, the Domesday Book makes it clear that the peasant families of Otham had just one plough between them, with another belonging to the Lord of the Manor. Such was its effectiveness, however, that one plough was all the peasants needed to till their land.

Also on show in the fields of Otham were Geoffrey of Rots’ horses. One of the factors behind the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings had been the superior military technology at their command. The invention that most transformed warfare in the early Middle Ages was the humble stirrup. Ancient horsemen had clung to their mounts with their knees or had had the help of high pommels on their saddles to steady them. Without foot supports, a horseman was quite unable to bring his horse’s weight to bear through the weaponry that he was carrying because he was always at risk of slipping off the side of his mount. The only strength that could go into the delivery of either a spear or a sword thrust was his own. And fighting with a sword was risky because if the rider should miss his opponent he would have the grip of his knees or saddle horns to prevent himself from becoming overbalanced and falling off. In battle, falling off was worth avoiding at all costs. As a result, ancient cavalry enjoyed the advantages of speed and manoeuvrability that made them good skirmishers, but were less useful as shock troops. The stirrup changed all that. Now, a horseman could sit firmly supported in his saddle both laterally and dorsally. He was able to move as one with his mount and bring its momentum into play. He could brace his spear against his side and transmit the full force of his charging horse into the enemy, transforming the cavalryman into the mounted knight.7

The Normans were among those who took full advantage of these developments. When Geoffrey of Rots went into battle, he rode a horse and carried a lance. The Anglo-Saxons ranged against him at Hastings fought on foot and with battleaxes. Saxon swords were actually marvels of metallurgy, but they were extremely expensive compared to an axe so only the richest nobles could afford them. That is not to say that the Saxon battleaxe, combined with their use of a wall of shields to defend themselves, was not a formidable weapon. But once the shield-wall was breached, as happened at Hastings when the Saxons pursued the retreating Normans, they were no match for the mounted knights.

Horses were just as valuable during peacetime as they were in a war. In eleventh-century Otham, oxen still made up the plough teams, but these were not the ideal draft animal. Even given their more expensive upkeep costs, horses were better at ploughing because they were able to pull faster. However, to be effective, the horse needed a harness that allowed it to use all of its strength. The new horse collar, developed at some point after AD700, was a huge improvement on previous harnesses that had tended to put pressure on the windpipe if the animal tried to pull with anything like its full might. Roman law had restricted the load to which a horse could be attached to 1,100 pounds, about half what they are capable of hauling, in all likelihood to protect the animal from exhaustion.8 From the eleventh century, haulage became yet more efficient as the ‘whippletree’ began to make an appearance. This oddly named device was just a log chained horizontally in front of a plough or cart. The draft animals themselves were harnessed to the whippletree rather than directly to the load. Using the log equalised the force from the horses or oxen, so that turning was more efficient and animals of different strengths could be harnessed together.9

The iron horseshoe also added to the effectiveness of the beast. In wet terrain, unprotected hooves could be quick to rot and the shoe increased their durability. Taken together, their enhanced effectiveness as both a weapon of war and a draft animal made horses increasingly indispensable as the Middle Ages wore on.

The fields in which the villagers grew their crops would also have looked different from how they had in Roman times. Much of the change was due to the introduction of three-field crop rotation. Farmers had long been aware of the importance of rotating their crops – allowing some fields to lie fallow as pasture while varying the crops planted in others. This idea advanced further in the early Middle Ages when three-field rotation began to appear. Under this system, the fields of Otham were split into three groups. The first group lay fallow as pasture for the villagers’ animals, especially the team of plough oxen whose manure added to the richness of the field. The villagers planted the second group in the autumn with grain as they had done since time immemorial. However, they also planted beans in the spring in the third group of fields, which further improved the soil and provided a broader diet.10 Beans, we now know, take nitrogen out of the air and bacteria in their roots turn it into natural fertiliser. Today in Otham, beans are still planted purely to improve the productivity of the soil.

Increased volumes of agricultural produce drove the need for new technology to process it all. This is the relevance of the second revealing detail in Otham’s entry in the Domesday Book – the presence of a mill. Wheat and barley were no longer ground by animal or manpower, but with the aid of a watermill. The River Len in Otham provides the perfect location for one of these. It is too narrow to be navigable, but powerful enough to turn the twelve waterwheels that once lined its banks. The Domesday Bookstates that the Otham mill generated an income of five shillings a year, which made it medium-sized. Watermills had existed in the ancient world, but the Romans did not adopt them in large numbers until the end of the Empire. In the early Middle Ages, they became increasingly common and the Domesday Book lists 5,624.11 Tidal mills were adopted on suitable estuaries, where a dam harnessed the high tide and released it through a channel containing a watermill. Finally, the first recorded European windmills appeared in Normandy and East Anglia during the twelfth century and they quickly spread all over those parts of northern Europe where rivers suitable for watermills were not available.12

Taken together, these improvements in agriculture led to a population explosion because better farming techniques meant that the same acreage could yield more food and support more people than before. Estimates for the population of France and the Low Countries rise from 3 million in AD650 to 19 million just before the arrival of the Black Death in AD1347. For the British Isles, the equivalent figures are 500,000 people and 5 million. In Europe as a whole, the population increased from less than 20 million to almost 75 million. These figures are of course estimates, if not guesstimates, but the upward trend is clear. For comparison, at the height of the Roman Empire about 33 million people lived in Europe. Well before AD1000, the population far exceeded what it was when the continent had been ruled by Rome, and remained above that level even after the Black Death had killed a third of the inhabitants of Europe in the fourteenth century.13

In his study of early-medieval technology, the great American historian Lynn White Junior (1907–87) concluded that the period ‘marks a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman Empire’.14 The popular impression that the early Middle Ages represented a hiatus in progress is the opposite of the truth. Even so, the fall of Rome and the replacement of the imperial administration with a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms meant that this was a very unsettled period to live through. In order to shed some light on these times, it will be helpful to summarise events in Europe between the fifth and eleventh centuries.

The Fall of Rome and the Rise of Islam

The Roman Empire had ruled much of Europe until the beginning of the fifth century AD. Beyond its frontiers, in modern Germany, barbarian tribes gathered and looked on the Empire with resentful eyes. When the Rhine froze over in AD406, they poured across the river and spread throughout the vast territory of the Empire. In 410, a barbarian tribe called the Goths sacked Rome, the first time it had fallen to a foreign army in seven centuries. This event caused deep shock as the news reverberated around the Empire. Although the state religion was Christianity, there were still plenty of pagans, especially among the noble families of Rome. They blamed the abandonment of the old religion for provoking the gods into inflicting this unprecedented disaster.15 It would not be the last time Rome was to fall. After narrowly avoiding the attentions of Attila the Hun (406–453) the city was sacked again in 455, this time by the Vandal tribe. The Goths had at least respected the sanctuary of the city’s churches, but the Vandals showed no such restraint and caused even greater devastation. This is the reason that the Vandals have given their name to anyone causing needless damage. By the late fifth century, the Roman Empire in the West was no more. The traditional date for the final fall is 476 when the last emperor abdicated.

Despite this disaster, it was by no means the end of the Empire. As well as western Europe, it had straddled a huge sweep of land from Egypt, around the Levant, through Asia Minor and thence to the Balkans. These provinces remained firmly in Roman hands. The Emperor ruled from the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was so called after ‘Byzantium’, the old Greek name for Constantinople. The Emperor Constantine (c.AD272–AD337) had re-founded the city in 330 to be his capital instead of Rome. This was a remarkably prescient act given the fate of Rome a century later, and it meant that the Empire’s centre of gravity swung to the East. Constantine’s other great claim to fame is that he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, although he did not altogether outlaw paganism. His successors were less tolerant of the old religion, and by 400 most forms of pagan practice were illegal even if actually being a pagan was not.16

One of the most distinctive features of the Byzantine Empire, as opposed to the old Roman Empire, was that the Byzantines were predominantly Greeks. Although they continued to call themselves Romans, the use of Latin died out and Greek became the dominant language. In the ruins of the western half of the Empire, knowledge of Greek practically ceased to exist when the barbarian tribes took over or destroyed the Roman infrastructure. Previously, the best-educated Romans would have been fluent in Greek as well as their native Latin. On the other hand, the barbarians all spoke their own tongues and although Latin did survive as the language of the Church, a linguistic divide opened up between East and West. This was doubly unfortunate because, in the ancient world, it was Greek and not Latin that was the language of scholarship and philosophy. Suddenly, the West lost access to this tradition.

Western Europe was also cut off from imperial influence, as the Byzantine Emperors’ rule did not extend into the new kingdoms of the Saxons, Goths and Vandals. In this power vacuum, the local rulers took temporal control while the Church exercised supranational spiritual authority. The bishop of Rome had long maintained that he was at least first among equals with regard to the other Christian patriarchs, but this was largely irrelevant when real power, both secular and ecclesiastical, was in the hands of the Emperor. Then things changed. The retreat of the Emperors’ power to the eastern Mediterranean gave the bishop of Rome a free rein in the West. Only now did he become the Pope in the sense that we understand today as unquestioned head of the Catholic Church. The Popes set about organising the evangelisation of the barbarian kingdoms, and slowly Catholic missionaries converted them all to Christianity.

As the conversion of the barbarians gathered pace, the eastern half of the Empire faced a threat that sought to conquer it in the name of a new religion. Arab invaders from the East would certainly not convert to Christianity if they succeeded in occupying the territory of the Empire, because they possessed a vigorous faith of their own – Islam.

Islam owes its origin to the Prophet Mohammed (c.571–632), a native of the Arabian city of Mecca, who claimed that the angel Gabriel had visited him and dictated the text of the Holy Koran. At this time, neither of the great empires to the north, Byzantium and Persia (modern Iran), had annexed the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. They remained in the hands of nomadic tribes who made their living by trade and banditry. At the time that Islam was founded, Mecca had an important marketplace where traders could meet under truce and do deals before retiring back to the desert. The tribes were a nuisance to the settled people, especially when they raided caravans, but conquering the vast wilderness was out of the question. Most of the tribes still worshipped their traditional gods and Mecca also served as a place of pilgrimage for them. It was home to a holy rock called the Black Stone of the Kaaba. This had been held as sacred since before recorded history and it is still an object of veneration by Muslims after Mohammed co-opted it for Islam.

The Prophet began preaching the new religion in Mecca but his fellow countrymen rejected his message, forcing him to flee north to Medina, another desert trading centre. This journey in 622 marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina, Mohammed met with much greater success and was eventually able to return to his home town of Mecca as a conqueror. Then, he turned his attention to the rest of the desert people, united them under the banner of Islam and formed an army capable of conquering much of the known world.

Beginning in the mid-seventh century, Muslim armies marched out of Arabia and rapidly conquered Persia and a large part of the Byzantine Empire. It was the perfect time for the Arabs to launch an attack. Persia and Byzantium had been deadly rivals for centuries but neither could ever defeat the other. This changed in the early seventh century when the Byzantine Empire finally smashed the power of Persia in a series of wars ending in 628. This was a great victory but after fighting each other to a standstill, neither of the empires was in a fit state to resist the Muslims’ advance. They annexed the entire Persian Empire and Byzantium fared little better, losing Palestine, Egypt and Syria in quick succession.

Islam’s success was partly down to its simplicity. It eschewed the complicated legal codes of Judaism (although it would later develop a legal system) and the rarefied theology of Christianity. Instead, Mohammed proposed a basic five-point plan for getting to heaven known as the five pillars of Islam.

First, Muslims must reject all Gods except Allah and accept Mohammed as his final, definitive prophet. Christians and Jews, as the recipients of older and incomplete revelations, could opt out from this requirement but paganism was beyond the pale. We often hear of Islam’s relative tolerance in that it accepted Christianity as a flawed but legal faith, whereas Christians considered Muslims to be infidels. In fact, this is more a matter of chronology than of tolerance. It is similar to Christians’ ill-tempered acceptance of Judaism as a faith that pre-dated their own. Like Jews in medieval Europe, Christians living under early Islamic rule were very much second-class citizens.

The second pillar of Islam is prayer five times a day. At the call of the muezzin from the mosque’s minarets, the faithful either assemble at the mosque or else unroll a prayer mat where they are. Muslims face Mecca while they pray. As Islam spread from the Atlantic to India through the eighth century, it became more difficult to determine in which direction Mecca lay. Scholars had to study the position of the stars to ensure that it was properly calculated and this helped to stimulate astronomy and trigonometry.

The third pillar is giving alms to the poor; the fourth, fasting during daylight hours in the holy month of Ramadan. Because the Muslim calendar follows the moon’s orbital cycle rather than the sun’s, its liturgical year is only 355 days. This means that Ramadan is a little earlier each year and moves through the seasons. The final pillar of Islam is the Hajj, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca, ideally undertaken once in the lifetime of every Muslim.

It would take another book to do justice to the great advances achieved by Arabs in the fields of mathematics, medicine and philosophy, let alone art and literature. However, it is essential to give a brief overview of this legacy because the inheritors of the Islamic tradition in science were western Christians. We saw earlier how a lack of knowledge of Greek cut off the West from much of its classical heritage. The Arabs did not have this problem because they had conquered a large number of Greek-speakers. They were also able to call upon the services of Syrian Christians who spoke a language called Syriac, which is related to Arabic. To take advantage of this, the Caliph, ruler of all Muslims and successor of Mohammed, founded a school in Baghdad called the ‘House of Wisdom’ where the cream of Greek science and philosophy was translated into Arabic. Scholars spread these works through the Islamic Empire, including Spain where western Christians first came across them.

However, it would be quite wrong to say that Muslims acted only as a conduit through which ancient learning could reach the West. The Byzantines independently preserved almost all of the most important surviving scientific texts in the original Greek, and few of them would have been lost without the Arab scribes.17 Rather, the importance of Muslim science lies in the innovative works of philosophy, mathematics and medicine that the Islamic world produced. The Arabic origin of mathematical terms such as algebraandalgorithm are further indications of how much we owe to the Islamic Empire.18

After conquering much of the Byzantine Empire, Muslim armies carried on westwards along the North African coast, taking Carthage in modern Tunisia on their way to Morocco. When they had reached the Atlantic Ocean, they turned north and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain in 710. Within two decades they had conquered the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, leaving only a strip of land along the northern coast in Christian hands. Finally, the Muslim armies traversed the Pyrenees and invaded France. Here, at last, they met their match in Charles (688–741), chief adviser to the king of France, at the Battle of Poitiers in October 732. His army formed a shield wall ‘holding together like a glacier’ which the enemy could not penetrate. Abdurrahman, the Muslims’ general, died in the battle and his army slipped away under cover of darkness to Spain, never to return in such numbers.19 Although Muslims at the time saw the defeat as merely a temporary setback, they never again seriously threatened France and Christian Europe was secure. Edward Gibbon (1737–94), the irreligious English historian, reflecting on the military conquests made by the Arabs, considered what might have happened if Charles had lost the battle. ‘Perhaps’, mused Gibbon mischievously, ‘the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught at the schools of Oxford and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.’20

The Foundation of the New Roman Empire

Charles was awarded the epithet of Martel, or ‘Hammer’, for defeating the Muslim invaders. Following his victory, he saw his power wax until he was effectively king of France rather than just the power behind the throne of a puppet monarch. Under him and his successors, France rapidly became the major power of western Europe. The most famous scion of the dynasty was his grandson Charlemagne (742–814), who expanded the territory under his control to include much of Italy and Germany. ‘Charlemagne’ simply means Charles the Great, and he is probably the only ruler actually to have greatness incorporated into his name. For Charlemagne, being king was not enough. He wanted more and at Rome on Christmas Day 800, the Pope crowned him Emperor. Allegedly, Charlemagne was unaware that this was about to happen, but we should take such pious anecdotes with a pinch of salt. Charlemagne also required a fine capital and he built his at Aix-la-Chapelle (or Aachen) in the Rhineland. His octagonal stone cathedral, still standing today, dominates the town and serves as the Emperor’s mausoleum.

Charlemagne is significant partly because he was a strong ruler who was able to control enough resources to fund a cultural revival, usually called the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’. Charlemagne himself was barely literate but he appointed the celebrated scholar Alcuin of York (c.735–804) to help foster learning in his capital and at other centres in his enormous Empire. Today we still have reason to be grateful for these efforts, as many works of classical Latin literature have come down to us because of them. Often the oldest manuscripts date from this period, recognisable from their distinctive caroline miniscule handwriting.21

Charlemagne also ordered that schools be set up at the cathedrals in his realm to ensure that there would be enough literate people to administer his Empire.22 Many of those who attended these schools went on to become clerics, but this was by no means compulsory. Merchants, lawyers and physicians could all expect to begin their education at the feet of a master appointed by the cathedral chapter.

Today Charlemagne is criticised for being so aggressive in spreading Christianity. His forced conversion of the newly conquered Saxons, his merciless treatment of prisoners and his acceptance of a role as the Popes’ enforcer all strike us as unchristian behaviour. However, the conversion of disparate tribes to a single religion brought them all together into a single spiritual unit. As a result the Church could, to some extent, enforce its prohibition against fighting between Christians and insist that their martial energies were directed externally.

On the Emperor’s death in 814, his sons divided his vast realm and then rapidly fell out with each other. The Empire had dissolved within two generations. The next dynasty to stand supreme in western Europe arose from the Saxons of Germany (not to be confused with the Saxons of England) whom Charlemagne had conquered and converted to Christianity. The historic divide between France and Germany, united under Charlemagne, dates from this period and specifically the refusal of the French monarchs to buckle under the Saxon yoke. The Holy Roman Empire, founded by the Saxon monarchs, included Germany, much of central Europe and Italy but never France. The French maintained their independence and prevented Europe ever again becoming a single political as well as religious unit. The first of the new Saxon Emperors was Otto I (912–973), crowned in 962. He was succeeded by his son Otto II (955–983) who was, in turn, followed by his son Otto III (980–1002). It is not surprising that historians call this period the Ottonian Age.23

By the time Otto III took the imperial throne, the barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire had coalesced into kingdoms and converted to Christianity. Agricultural production was being driven by improved technology and the population was expanding rapidly. Western Europe was still a backward corner of the world, but it was well on the way to catching up.

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