As Rome declined and withdrew from its provinces in Western Europe, these lands suffered severe blows. Waves of invaders swept in, and Roman civilization slowly disappeared. Wars raged constantly. Trade slowed to a trickle, towns emptied, and learning virtually ceased.
The early Middle Ages was a harsh and difficult time for the peoples of Europe. Much later, some people looked back on this time and called it the “dark ages” because of the disorder and loss of Roman civilization. Today, historians recognize that the Middle Ages were, in fact, a time of new beginnings. During this long period, Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Christian traditions were slowly blended and gave rise to a new medieval civilization. Medieval comes from the Latin term for “middle age.”
What was Western Europe like after the collapse of the western Roman empire?
The Germanic tribes that conquered parts of the Roman empire included the Goths, Vandals, Saxons, and Franks. Their culture was very different from that of the Romans. They were mostly farmers and herders, so they had no cities or written laws. Instead, they lived in small communities governed by unwritten customs. Their kings were elected leaders, chosen by tribal counsels. Warriors swore loyalty to the king in exchange for weapons and a share in the plunder taken from defeated enemies. Between 400 and 700, these Germanic tribes carved Western Europe into small kingdoms.
In this illustration from the 1800s, Charles Martel swings his hammer (or “martel”) against Muslim invaders in the battle of Tours, stopping their further advance into Europe.
The strongest and most successful kingdom was that of the Franks. In 486, Clovis, king of the Franks, conquered the former Roman province of Gaul. Later, this area would be known as France.
Clovis ruled his new lands according to Frankish custom. At the same time, however, he managed to preserve much of the Roman legacy in Gaul.
Clovis took an important step when he converted to Christianity, the religion of his subjects in Gaul. In doing so, he not only earned their support, but he also gained a powerful ally in the pope, leader of the Christian Church of Rome.
As the Franks and other Germanic peoples carved up Europe, a powerful new force, Islam, swept out of the Middle East across the Mediterranean world. Islam is a religion that began in Arabia around 622. Over the next 200 years, Muslims, or believers in Islam, built a huge empire and created a major new civilization.
The pope and the Christian kingdoms in Europe watched with alarm as Muslim armies overran Christian lands from Palestine to North Africa and Spain. When a Muslim army crossed into France, Charles Martel rallied Frankish warriors.
At the battle of Tours in 732, Christian warriors triumphed. To them, the victory was a sign that God was on their side.
Muslims advanced no farther into Western Europe, although they continued to rule most of what is now Spain. To European Christians, the Muslim presence in Spain and around the Mediterranean was a source of anxiety and anger. Even when the Muslim armies were no longer a threat, Christians continued to have a hostile view of the Muslim world. Still, medieval Europeans did learn from the Arabs, whose knowledge in many areas, especially science and mathematics, was extensive and exceeded their own.
How did the Germanic tribes govern their kingdoms?