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Invited by Narses. - Among the mercenaries with whom Narses, Justinian's general, had conquered the Goths were bands of Lombards. These were a new German people who had crossed the Danube into the Eastern Empire when the East Goths moved into Italy. Narses became governor of Italy, with the title of exarch and with his capital at Ravenna. After the death of Justinian, it is said, he found that enemies at the imperial court were plotting his ruin, and in revenge he invited the Lombards to seize Italy for themselves.

Final Break-up of Italian Unity. - In 568, these new invaders entered the land, and soon occupied the greater part of it. Their chief kingdom was in the Po valley (which ever since has kept the name Lombards), while Lombard "dukedoms" were scattered over other parts of the peninsula. The Empire retained (1) the Exarchate of Ravenna on the Adriatic, (2) Rome, with a little surrounding territory on the west coast, and (3) the extreme south. This last was to remain Greek for centuries.

Thus the middle land, for which Roman and Teuton had struggled through two centuries, was at last divided between them and shattered into fragments in the process. Italy was not again united until 1870. Probably, too, no other land suffered as much in the two centuries of invasions as this beautiful peninsula, which had so long been mistress of the Mediterranean world.

"Taking one's stand at Rome, and looking toward the north, what does one see for nearly one hundred years? Wave after wave rising out of the north, the land of night, and wonder, and the terrible unknown; visible only as the light of Roman civilization strikes their crests, and they dash against the Alps, and roll over through the mountain passes, into the fertile plains below. Then at last …you discover that the waves are living men, women, and children, horses, dogs, and cattle, all rushing headlong into that great whirlpool of Italy: and yet the gulf is never full. The earth drinks up the blood; the bones decay into the fruitful soil; the very names and memories of whole tribes are washed away. And the result of an immigration which may be counted by the hundreds of thousands is - that all the land is waste." (KINGSLEY, Roman and Teuton, 58.)



Preeminence among the Teutonic Conquerors. - The real advance of the Franks in North Gaul began a little before the year 500, - almost at the time of the rise of the East Goths. This was some eighty years later then the making of the Vandal, Burgundian, and Visigothic kingdoms, and much earlier than the Lombard kingdom.

To the Franks fell the work of consolidating the Teutonic states into a mighty empire. Their final success was due, in the main, to two causes.

a. They did not migrate to distant lands, but only expanded from their original home. Their state, therefore, kept a large unmixed Teutonic element, while the other conquering nations lost themselves in the Roman populations among whom they settled.

b. When they adopted Christianity, it was the orthodox form instead of Arianism. This gained them support in their wars with the other Teutons.

Clovis; Early Conquests. - Until nearly 500, the Franks were pagans. Nor were they a nation; they were split into petty divisions, without a common king. The founder of their greatness was Clovis (Clodowig, Louis). In 481, at the age of fifteen, he became king of a petty tribe near the mouth of the Rhine. In 486, he attacked the Roman possessions in North Gaul, and, after a victory at Soissons, added them to his kingdom. Ten years later he conquered the Alemanni, who had invaded Gaul, in a great battle near Strasburg, and made tributary their territory beyond the Rhine.

The Conversion of Clovis to Catholic Christianity. - The real importance of the battle of Strasburg lies in this - that it was the occasion for the conversion of Clovis. His wife, Clotilda, was Burgundian princess, but, unlike most of her nation, she was a devout Catholic. In a crisis in the battle, Clovis had vowed to serve the God of Clotilda if He would grant victory. In consequence, the king and three thousand of his warriors were baptized immediately afterward.

Clovis was influenced, no doubt, by keen political insight. In the coming struggles with the Arian Goths and Burgundians, it was to be of immense advantage to have the subject Roman populations on his side, as an orthodox sovereign, against their own hated heretic rulers. The conversion was a chief agency, therefore, in building up the great Frankish state.

Later Conquests of Clovis and his Sons; the Frankish Empire of the Seventh Century. - His conversion furnished Clovis with a pretext for new advances. Declaring it intolerable that those "Arian dogs" should possess the fairest provinces of Gaul, he attacked both Burgundians and Visigoths, riving the latter for the most part beyond the Pyrenees. Then, by a horrible series of bloody treacheries during the remainder of his thirty years' reign, he got rid of the kings of the other tribes of the Franks, and consolidated that whole people under his sole rule. "Thus," says the pious chronicler, Gregory of Tours, "did God daily deliver the enemies of Clovis into his hand, because he walked before His face with an upright heart." The sons of Clovis completed the subjugation of Burgundy, and added Bavaria and Thuringia, as tributaries, to the Frankish state, - the last two on the German side of the Rhine, well beyond the borders of the old Roman world.

The Empire of the Franks under the Later Merovingians. - In fifty years, mainly through the cool intellect and ferocious energy of one brutal savage, a little Teutonic tribe had grown into the great Frankish state. That state included nearly the whole of modern France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany almost to the Elbe (except for the lands of the heathen Saxons toward the mouth of that river).

Such territory today would make the greatest power in Europe. In the sixth and seventh centuries its preeminence was even more marked. Gothic Spain was weakened by quarrels between Arian and Catholic; Italy was torn to shreds; Britain was in chaos; non-Frankish Germany was filled with savage unorganized tribes. The only real rivals of the Frankish state were the Greek Empire and a new Mohammedan power just rising in Arabia, soon to contest Europe with both Greek and Frank.

The family of Clovis is known, from one of his ancestors, as Merovingian. It kept the throne for over two centuries after Clovis' death. In the first half of the period the rulers were commonly men of ruthless energy. In the second half they became mere phantom kings, and all real authority was exercised by great nobles, who finally replaced the Merovingians with a new royal line.

The two hundred years make a dismal story of greed, family hate, treachery, vice, brutality, and murder. Few chapters in history are so unattractive. The empire was divided among the four sons of Clovis, according to Frankish custom. The fragments were reunited under one of these sons by methods similar to those of Clovis himself. Then it was again divided; and so on for long periods. Some sense of unity, however, was preserved; but the Franks themselves spread very little south of the Loire. North and South Gaul remained distinct from each other in blood and character.




The second most important of the factors which combined to produce the civilization of early medieval Europe was the influence of the Germanic barbarians. They were not the only northern peoples who helped to mold the pattern of early medieval society; the contributions of the Celts in Brittany and Ireland and of the Slavs in central and eastern Europe were by no means insignificant. Nevertheless, the Germanic influence appears to have been the most extensive. The ancient Germans were a long-headed people of predominantly Nordic stock and of Indo-European tongue. Where they came from originally is a problem upon which scholars disagree, but they seem to have migrated into northern Europe from western Asia. By the beginning of the Christian era they had come to be divided into several nations: Scandinavians, Vandals, Goths, Franks, Alemanni, Burgundians, Frisians, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and so on. Both in language and in race they originally bore some affinity to the Greeks and the Romans.

For centuries different nations of Germanic barbarians had been making incursions into Roman territory. At times they came as invading armies, but generally they filtered in slowly, bringing their families and belongings with them and occupying depopulated or abandoned areas. Many were brought in by Roman commanders and rulers. Julius Caesar was impressed by their value as warriors and enrolled thousands of them in his armies. They were to be found in the bodyguard of nearly every Princeps and emperor. Finally, by the time of Constantine, they formed the bulk of the soldiers in the entire Roman army. Many were also drawn into the civil service and thousands were settled by the government as coloni or serfs on the great estates. In view of these conditions it is not very surprising that Rome should eventually have been conquered by the Germans. They were a virile and energetic race, constantly increasing in numbers; and as more and more of them gained a foothold in Italy, others were bound to be tempted by the opportunities for plunder. Also, the Romans frequently exploited those who were already in the Empire and thereby provided their kinsmen with an excuse for making an attack. Although armed invasions of Italy began as early as the second century B.C., and were repeated several times thereafter, there were no really disastrous incursions until the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. In 378 the Visigoths, angered by the oppression of imperial governors, raised the standard for revolt. They overwhelmed a Roman army at Adrianople and then marched westward into Italy. In 410 under Alaric they captured and plundered Rome, later moving on into southern Gaul. In 455 Rome was sacked by the Vandals, who had migrated from their original home between the Oder and Vistula rivers and established a kingdom in the province of Carthage. Other Germanic nations also made their way into Italy, and before the end of the fifth century the Roman Empire in the West had passed completely under the domination of the barbarians.

For our knowledge of ancient of Germanic society we are dependent primarily upon the Germania of Tacitus, written in 98 A.D. The literature and the laws of the Germans themselves also contain much information, but these were not put into written form until after Roman and Christian influences had begun to exert their effect. When Tacitus wrote, the Germanic barbarians had attained a cultural level about equal to that of the Homeric Greeks. They were illiterate and ignorant of any knowledge of the arts. Their houses were built of rough timber plastered over with mud. While they had achieved some development of agriculture, they preferred the risks of plundering expeditions to the prosaic labor of tilling the soil. Nearly all of the work was done by the women and old men and other dependents. When not fighting or hunting, the warriors spent most of their time sleeping and carousing. Gambling and drunkenness were glaring vices, but, if we can believe the testimony of Tacitus, sex morality was singularly pure. Monogamous marriage prevailed, except in those cases where a chief might be permitted to take more than one wife for political reasons. Adultery was rare and severely punished, while divorce was almost unknown. In some tribes even widows were forbidden to remarry.

The economic and political institutions of the Germans were such as befitted a people who ere just emerging into a settled existence. The tiny proportion of trade carried on rested solely upon a basis of barter, while cattle were still the main article of wealth. Whether the agricultural land was individually or collectively owned is still a debated question, but there seems little doubt that the forests and pastures were held and used in common. Possibly the community controlled the distribution of new lands as they were acquired, allotting the arable portions as individual farms. There is evidence that a class of wealthy proprietors had grown up as an aristocracy in certain of the tribes. Although Tacitus states that the Germans had slaves, it seems probable that most of their dependents were serfs, since they had houses of their own and paid their masters only a portion of what they produced. Their servitude was a result not only of capture in was but also of indebtedness and especially reckless gambling, in which men staked their own liberty when everything else had been lost. The state scarcely existed at all. Law was a product of custom, and the administration of justice remained very largely in private hands. While the Germans had their tribal courts, the function of these bodies was chiefly to mediate between plaintiff and defendant. It was left to the former to bring the accused to trial and to carry out the penalty prescribed by the customary law. The court merely decided what proofs should be required of each litigant to determine the validity of his plea. Usually these consisted of oaths and ordeals, both of which were considered as appeals to the judgment of the gods. The most important of the remaining political institutions was the primary assembly of the warriors. But this body had no lawmaking powers beyond those involved in the interpretation of custom. Its main function was to decide questions of war and peace and whether the tribe should migrate to some new locality. Originally the German tribes had no kings. They had chiefs elected by the freemen, but these were little more than ceremonial officials. In time of war a military leader was elected and endowed with considerable power, but as soon as the campaign was over his authority lapsed. Nevertheless, as wars increased in frequency and duration, some of the military leaders actually became kings. The formality of election, however, was generally retained.

The influence of the Germans upon medieval history, while not so important as is sometimes imagined, was extensive enough to deserve careful consideration. To begin with, they were largely responsible for several of the elements of feudalism: (1) the conception of law as an outgrowth of custom and not as the expression of the will of a sovereign; (2) the idea of law as a personal possession of the individual which he could take with him wherever he went, in contrast to the Roman conception of law as limited to a definite territory; (3) the notion of a contractual relationship between rulers and subjects, involving reciprocal obligations of protection and obedience; (4) the theory of an honorable relationship between lord and vassal, growing out of the Germanic institution of the comitatus or military band, in which the warriors were bound by pledges of honor and loyalty to fight for and serve their leader; and (5) trial by ordeal as a prevailing mode of procedure in the feudal courts. As for other influences, it may be argued that the Germanic idealization of female virtue and emphasis upon marital fidelity had something to do with the glorification of marriage as a sacrament by the later medieval church. For it must be remembered that many of the early theologians held women in how esteem and regarded marriage as a mere compromise with the lusts of the flesh. For example, there is the famous aphorism of St. Paul that "It is better to marry than to burn." In at least one other instance the strength of the Germanic influence was sufficient to counteract the force of early Christianity, and that was in the matter of the importance of oaths. If there was any teaching of Jesus more explicit than his condemnation of oaths, it would certainly be hard to discover. Yet the value attached by the Germans to swearing in court was so high that the practice became an integral part of procedure in the medieval courts and thence has come down to modern times.




The political history of western Europe from 476 to 800 has comparatively little interest except for the specialist. A few of the major developments, however, deserve some attention. Following the deposition of the last of the Roman emperors in the West, a Germanic chieftain by the name of Odovacar proclaimed himself king of Italy. But in 493 Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths under Theodoric, one of the ablest and most intelligent of barbarian leaders. Until nearly the end of his reign of thirty-three years, Theodoric gave Italy a more enlightened rule than the country had known under many of the Caesars. He fostered agriculture and commerce, repaired public buildings and roads, patronized learning, and enforced religious toleration. But in his last years he became querulous and suspicious, accusing some of his faithful subordinates of plotting with the Roman aristocracy to overthrow him. Several of them were put to death, including the philosopher Boethius. Soon after Justinian became emperor at Constantinople in 527 he determined to reconquer Italy and the provinces in the West. Not until 522 was the power of the Ostrogoths finally broken. The long war utterly ruined Italy and opened the way for the Lombard invasion in 568. The Lombards succeeded in holding most of the peninsula under the rule of semi-independent dukes until the conquest of Charlemagne in the late eighth century.

The strongest western European state in the early Middle Ages was not established in Italy but in France. In 481 the famous Clovis became king of an important tribe of the Salian Franks, who dwelt on the left bank of the Rhine. In less than twenty years Clovis conquered nearly all of what is not France and a portion of Germany besides. His adoption of orthodox Christianity won for him the support of the clergy and made possible the subsequent alliance between the Frankish kings and the Popes. The Merovingian dynasty, which he really founded, occupied the throne of the Frankish state until 751. For more that a century the successors of Clovis continued his policy of rigorous despotism, annexing the territory of their enemies, dominating the church, and exploiting the lands of the kingdom as if they were their private possessions. By 639, however, the royal line had begun to degenerate. A series of short-lived weaklings, the so-called do-nothing kings, inherited the crown of their lusty forbears. Absorbed in the pursuit of pleasure, these worthless youths delegated most of their authority to their chief subordinated, the mayors of the palace. Nothing more natural could have happened than the eventual displacement of the Merovingian kings by these very officials to whom they had entrusted their powers. The most capable and aggressive of the mayors of the palace was Charles Martel, who, by reason of his campaigns against the encroachments of the Moors and his suppression of internal rebellion, may be considered a second founder of the Frankish state. Nevertheless, he was content with the substance of power and did not bother to assume the royal title. It was left for his son, Pepin the Short, to have himself elected king of the Franks in 751 and thereby to put an end to Merovingian rule. The new dynasty came to be known as the Carolingian from the name of its most famous representative, Carolus Magnus or Charlemagne.

In the minds of most students of history Charlemagne stands out as one of the two or three most important individuals in the whole medieval period. By some of his contemporaries he was acclaimed as a new Augustus who would bring peace and prosperity to western Europe. There can be no question that he established efficient government, and that he did much to combat the centrifugal tendencies which had gathered momentum during the reigns of the later Merovingians. Not only did he abolish the office of mayor of the palace, but he eliminated the tribal dukes and bestowed all the powers of local government upon his own appointees, the counts. To prevent abuses of authority by the latter he appointed missi dominici, or royal messengers, to visit the counties and to report to the king any acts of official injustice. He authorized the missi to hold their own courts for the purpose of hearing complaints of oppression and even in extreme cases to remove local officers. He modified the old system of private administration of justice by authorizing the counts to summon accused persons to court and by vesting the magistrates with more control over judicial procedure. He revived the Roman institution of the sworn inquest, in which a number of persons were summoned by agents of the king and bound by oath to tell what they knew of any crimes committed in their locality. This institution survived the downfall of the Carolingian state and was carried by the Normans to England, where it eventually became an important factor in the origin of the grand jury system. While much of the remainder of the political structure which Charlemagne established perished with the end of his dynasty, the precedent which he set for strong government undoubtedly influenced many of the French kings in the later Middle Ages and the German emperors as well. It should be noted, however, that the glory of Charlemagne's empire rested in large part upon a foundation of slaughter. During the forty-three years of his reign from 771 to 814, he conducted no less than fifty-four wars. There were scarcely a people of western Europe against whom he did not fight, except the English. Since most of his campaigns were successful, he annexed to the Frankish domain the greater part of central Europe and northern and central Italy. But some of these conquests were made possible only by a fearful sacrifice of blood and a resort to measured of the harshest cruelty. The campaign against the Saxons met with such stubborn opposition that Charlemagne finally ordered the beheading of forty-five hundred of them. It is typical of the spirit of the times that all of this was done under the pretext of inducing the pagans to adopt Christianity.

As a matter of fact, it was Charlemagne's constant intervention in religious affairs which led to the climax of his whole career - his coronation as Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. Leo had been in trouble for some time. Accused of being a tyrant and a rake, he so aroused the indignation of the people of Rome that in 799 they gave him a severe beating and forced him to flee from the city. Struggling over the mountains to Germany, he implored the aid of Charlemagne. The great king sent him back to Italy and was instrumental in restoring him to the papal throne. On Christmas day, 800, as Charles knelt in prayer in St. Peter's church, the grateful Pope placed a crown on his head while the assembled multitude healed him as "Augustus, crowned of God, great and pacific Emperor of the Romans." The significance of this event is rather hard to appraise. Charles has been represented as surprised and embarrassed by the honor. But the real cause of his irritation was probably his being made to accept a crown from the Pope. There is evidence that he had already developed some ambitious scheme of his own for reviving imperial power in the West. Moreover, he regarded his own authority as in no wise limited by any higher sovereignty of the church. He legislated freely on religious matters, controlled all appointments to ecclesiastical offices, and lectured priests and bishops alike on their morals and on what they should preach. Nevertheless, the fact that the coronation was acclaimed by so many of Charlemagne's contemporaries as marking the return to a golden age bears witness to its more than trivial importance. The Carolingian empire thus established was not conceived as the beginning of a new state at all, but as a revival of the Empire of the Caesars. The grandeur of Rome was now held to be reborn. It would have been more nearly in harmony with the truth if the event had been interpreted as an expression of the cultural and political awakening of the West. Theoretically the Empire with its capital at Constantinople still included Italy and the surrounding areas of Europe. The establishment of an empire in the West was a symbol of the widening gulf between Latin Christendom and Byzantium. Finally, the fact the Charlemagne was crowned by Leo III gave the Popes of the later Middle Ages a bulwark for their claims to supremacy. They could argue that it was they who had really created the empire, acting of course as the vicegerents of God.

Most of the records of economic life in the early Middle Ages present a mournful picture of return to primitive conditions and in some cases actual misery. The decline of Italy in the second half of the fifth century was especially swift. The forces which were set in motion by the economic revolution of the preceding two hundred years had now attained their full momentum. Commerce and industry were rapidly becoming extinct, lands that were formerly productive were growing up in briars and brambles, and the population was declining so noticeably that a law was enacted forbidding any woman under forty years of age to enter a convent. While the proprietors of the great landed estates extended their control over agriculture and over many of the functions of government as well, larger and larger numbers of the masses of the people became serfs. During the reign of Theodoric this process of economic decline was arrested in some measure as a result of the benefits he extended to agriculture and commerce and his reduction of taxes. But Theodoric was unable to eliminate serfdom or to reverse the concentration of landed wealth, for he felt that he needed the support of the aristocracy. After his death the forces of decay again became operative; yet if it had not been for Justinian's war of reconquest, Italy might still have preserved a degree of the prosperity she had gained under the Ostrogothic king. The long military conflict brought the country to the verge of stark barbarism. Pestilence and famine completed the havoc wrought by the contending armies. Fields were left untilled, and most of the activities in the towns were suspended. Wolves penetrated into the heart of the country and fattened on the corpses that remained unburied. So great was the danger of starvation that cannibalism appeared in some areas. Only in the larger cities were the normal functions of civilization continued to any appreciable extent.

Economic change in what it now France followed a pattern very similar to that in Italy, but it proceeded at a slower rate. In Roman times southern Gaul had had a flourishing commerce and considerable industry. By the end of the eighth century, however, stagnation was almost complete. The streets of the city of Marseille were grown over with grass and weeds, while the port itself was deserted for over two hundred years. In some other Mediterranean towns and in the interior of the country, trade on a petty scale continued to be carried on, mostly by Jews and Syrians and later by Lombards; but even the activities of these men became steadily more difficult as brigandage increased, the roads deteriorated, and money disappeared from general circulation. The economic history of France was also characterized by the growth of an irregular feudalism similar to that which had sprung up in Italy. Several of the causes were closely related to the policies of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings. Nearly all of these rulers compensated their officials by grants of land. Both Pepin the Short and Charlemagne adhered to the example of Charles Martel in expropriating lands of the Church and turning them over to their chief followers as rewards for military services. More serious than this was the practice of granting immunities, or exemptions from the jurisdiction of the court. Originally immunities were given only as favors to bishops and abbots to protect them from unscrupulous officials, but later they were granted to secular nobles as well. Their legal effect was to make the holder subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the king; but as the king was far away and generally preoccupied with other matters, the nobles took advantage of the opportunity to increase their own independence. Wars, brigandage, and oppression also contributed to the growth of a largely feudal structure of society by forcing the weaker citizens to seek the protection of their more powerful neighbors. The result was a tendency toward a division of the population into two distinct classes; a landed aristocracy and serfs.

Compiled by: Marko Marelich
Retired Mechanical Engineer
San Francisco, California USA
July 7, 2005