Page:Western Europe in the Middle Ages.djvu/46

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
30
WESTERN EUROPE IN THE MIDDLE AGES

few remaining Romans could not preserve their language and customs. Britain, which had never been completely Romanized, lost practically all of its Latin civilization during the Anglo-Saxon conquest. The Romans had withdrawn their garrisons and officials before the Saxons arrived, so that there was no way to arrange for a peaceful transfer of authority. The native Britons reverted to their Celtic culture, but while this gave them enough courage to resist, it did not give them enough strength to defeat the invaders They were forced back into the mountains, or driven to France, where they gave the name of Brittany to the Armorican peninsula. In Italy, Spain, and most of Gaul, the Germans were never numerous enough to change the fundamental characteristics of the population, but even in these regions there was a profound alteration in the organization of society and the activities of the people. Roman institutions and culture had been decaying for two centuries in the West, and the Germans were not able to put new life into a senile civilization. They were intelligent enough as individuals, but they lacked the traditions, the institutions, and the training which was necessary to understand and reinvigorate the relatively complicated system over which they had gained control.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Germans was in politics. The basic unit of German society was the "folk" — a group related by ties of blood and custom. Membership in the "folk" could be acquired, in most cases, only by birth, and it left an indelible mark on the one who possessed it. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he remained subject to the laws and customs of his people, or rather, he retained these laws and customs as an inalienable birthright.

Leadership of the "folk" was usually based on heredity; kings and subordinate leaders were selected from families which claimed descent from the gods. The duties of the rulers were not very heavy, since there was little government among the Germans. Most social activities were regulated by immemorial custom; personal direction by a man of high rank was necessary in only a few cases.