Western Europe in the Middle Ages/Part 1

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At the beginning of the history of Europe stands the Roman Empire, and all the early part of the Middle Ages lies in the shadow cast by this great state. Yet the civilization of the Roman Empire was not wholly or even primarily European; it was based largely on the older civilizations of the Mediterranean basin. Alexander and his successors had fused Greek, Egyptian, and Syrian traditions into a common Hellenistic culture, and it was from this Hellenistic culture that the Romans drew most of their art and literature, their philosophy and religion, and even some of their ideas of government. Latin never supplanted Greek as the common language of the eastern part of the Mediterranean world, and the Romans never caught up to the peoples of the Levant in many important activities. Even at the height of the Empire, Alexandria was more important than Rome as an intellectual and artistic center, and Mediterranean trade was dominated by Syrians rather than by Italians. The great contribution of the Romans was the creation of a political organization which gave unity and peace to the Mediterranean basin for over two centuries. Peace and unity made it possible for the essential elements of the civilization of the eastern Mediterranean to be firmly established in the western part of the basin, and to spread, though less securely, beyond the Mediterranean watershed into western Spain, northern Gaul, the Rhineland, and Britain.

The Roman Empire was made by men who desired to see their state strong, and secure from any conceivable foreign danger.

The title of this chapter is borrowed from the excellent book of Christopher Dawson, which deals in detail with the matters briefly outlined in this chapter. Readers interested in the earlier part of the period will find many simulating ideas in F. Lot, The End of the Ancient World. Rival military powers were ruthlessly destroyed, and conquered peoples were plundered that Rome might be great. During the period of rapid expansion Roman rule was always harsh and often corrupt. The only benefit it offered was the gradual extinction of international warfare, and it was difficult for suffering subjects to see that this was much of a gain. But as the position of Rome became more secure, and as Roman political institutions became more stable, the character of Roman government improved. Partly from the Greek philosophers, partly from their own experience, the Romans developed the concepts of a fundamental law binding all men, and of an ideal justice in which all should participate. Inspired by these ideals, guided by the great emperors of the second century A.D., the Roman Empire lost its predatory character and became a universal commonwealth. Inhabitants of Rome and Italy lost their special privileges, the rights of Roman citizenship were extended to almost all subjects of the Empire, and the provinces flourished in the peace and security provided by an honest and efficient government. As distinctions between conqueror and conquered disappeared, the Empire was accepted by all its subjects as a desirable and permanent form of political organization. Yet just as the Empire succeeded in creating a real community of interest and feeling in the Mediterranean basin, it began to decay. This decay is one of the great puzzles of history, and no one has ever been able to explain it in a completely satisfactory way. A partial explanation may be suggested by a discussion of certain weaknesses which existed in the Empire.

The most obvious weakness of the Roman Empire was political. The Republic had failed because it could not keep its officials from fighting for the spoils of power. Under the Empire this danger was avoided by steadily increasing the power of the emperor until no other authority in the state could resist his orders. But the imperial office was at first considered a temporary expedient and it never was placed on an absolutely permanent basis. This was especially true when it came to the question of succession. The new emperor might be the real or adopted heir of his predecessor, he might be elected by the Senate, or he might be chosen by the most powerful section of the army. No one of these methods was followed exclusively, and the uncertainty about the principle of succession frequently led to civil war. Until the third century these wars did no great damage, but after 235 there was a period of fifty years in which it seemed impossible to create a stable government. Emperors were made by intrigues in the bureaucracy or by plots in the army, and were destroyed by their rivals almost as fast as they were made. The army was occupied almost exclusively with civil wars, and barbarians raided all the provinces of the Empire and even built pirate fleets on the shores of the Mediterranean. The great generals who emerged at the end of this period of disorder, such as Aurelian and Diocletian, were finally able to restore peace and unity, but only at the price of turning the Empire into a military despotism.

This accentuated another evil which had been growing steadily since the last years of the Republic — the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire could not participate in the work of government. The poorer classes were completely debarred from political life during the first century A.D., but the early emperors left local government in the hands of the middle class and allowed the aristocratic Senate some voice in imperial affairs. But local governments ran into financial difficulties and were not as efficient or as honest as the emperors wished, so their powers were steadily curtailed. The Senate was often a center of intrigue against the emperor, and the military despots of the third and fourth centuries would not tolerate such a rival. Senators were given great social prestige and high-sounding titles, but they were deprived of all political responsibilities. By the fourth century all significant acts of government were the work of the emperor and his household, which had developed into a huge bureaucracy. This imperial absolutism was not deliberately tyrannical, nor was it especially corrupt or extravagant. It was often harsh and inflexible, and sometimes slow and inefficient. The emperors of the period were soldiers, terribly anxious to preserve the Empire, but apt to reduce all difficulties to military terms and to use military discipline as their only solution to all problems. When municipal officials found the burden of tax-collecting too great and tried to avoid holding office, the emperors made them hereditary servants of the state, bound to perform their unpopular duties from generation to generation. When bakers and boatmen began to find their occupations unprofitable they too were ordered to remain at their posts and to train their sons to succeed them. Small farmers who had lost their lands and had become tenants on great estates were also bound to their occupation. They could not give up their leases, nor could their landlords dispossess them; each family of tenants was to continue to cultivate the same patch of land forever. The civilian inhabitants of the Empire were to be the supply corps of the army, and like the army, they were to do their work without questioning orders or expecting special consideration for individual needs.

The absence of fixed constitutional principles had turned the Roman Empire into a military despotism. By the fourth century the army controlled the state, and the chief problem of the emperors was to control the army. Their task was made no easier by the fact that the army was no longer a Roman army, in any sense of the word. Both political and economic pressures barred Roman citizens from military service. The emperors were suspicious of members of the upper classes who sought military distinction, and succeeded in keeping them from serving as officers. Poorer citizens, sinking into economic servitude, could not be released from their tasks for military service. By the third century it was no longer possible to fill the ranks of the army from the inhabitants of the Empire, and the emperors had to seek their soldiers beyond the frontiers. Thousands of barbarians, especially Germans, were taken into the army; eventually whole tribes were hired as units, fighting under the commands of their chiefs. These barbarians were brave soldiers, loyal to their generals as long as they were paid, but their discipline was not good and they were not especially devoted to the Empire. They wanted to enjoy the benefits of Roman civilization — the cleared lands, the regular food supply, the well-made clothes and fine weapons — but they did not understand the civilization which they wanted to enjoy. They could not preserve it; they could not repair and restore it when it decayed. And yet these barbarian soldiers, with their limited outlook and small sense of civic responsibility, were the source of political power in the Empire. They were the only group who could express their discontent with the government, the only group whose wishes had to be heeded by the men in power. Unfortunately for the Empire, the desires of the barbarians were always concerned with their own welfare and never with the welfare of the state. They would revolt to make a favorite general emperor, to gain extra pay, to force an allotment of land to veteran troops, to gain high offices for their native leaders. They would never revolt to change the political system which was strangling patriotism, civic responsibility, and private initiative. Like the civilians, the soldiers accepted the Empire as a natural phenomenon which was as permanent and unchangeable as the solar system. The Empire was there; they made the best terms with it they could, but it was not their job to keep it going. All responsibility, all initiative, lay with the emperor and his bureaucrats. If they failed to do their duty, if they made disastrous mistakes, no body of citizens or of soldiers could take their place or repair their errors.

The political situation was bad; the economic situation was even worse. The imperial government, most of the city governments, and practically all ordinary citizens were bankrupt long before the fall of Rome. This impoverishment of the Empire increased the sense of strain and futility which contributed to the final collapse. Men who could not make a decent living after honest effort, men who saw their standard of living and their social status steadily diminishing, could not be expected to be very much interested in preserving a civilization which had ruined them. And yet the Empire included the richest regions and the most fertile lands of the ancient world. If Greece could prosper when it had been divided into dozens of petty states, if Spain and Gaul could attract traders when all land and sea routes were dangerous, why should the union of these lands with many others produce a depression instead of a boom?

In the first place, the political institutions of the Empire were out of step with its economic institutions. Politically, the Mediterranean basin had been united in a highly centralized state; economically it was still divided into a number of almost self-sufficient regions. The Empire had to support a large bureaucracy, and an even larger army; it had to defend the almost impossibly long frontiers which enclosed the Mediterranean world. The cost of the imperial government was not great by our standards, but it seemed very high to men of the fourth century A.D. The total population of the Empire was much less than that of the same regions today, which meant that each individual had to carry a larger share of the burdens of government.

Even worse, the chief occupation of the inhabitants of the Empire was agriculture, so that wealth per capita was very low. The Romans despised commerce, which remained largely in the hands of Syrians and other peoples of the Levant. This gave the eastern half of the Empire certain advantages over the West, but even in the East commerce added less to the wealth of the Empire than might have been expected. Trade in oriental luxury goods formed a large part of the stream of Roman commerce and Rome had little to offer India, Persia, and China in return for imports of silks, spices, perfumes, and precious stones. A steady stream of gold and silver flowed from the Empire to the Orient, leaving the Mediterranean world short of specie. The absence of any well-developed credit system made it impossible to replace the precious metals with paper, and the resulting disorganization of the currency made it difficult to do business of any kind. Active internal trade would have eased these monetary problems, but internal trade seems to have declined in the last centuries of the Empire. All the Mediterranean lands produced the same agricultural staples — wheat, olive oil, and wine — so that only the largest cities had to import food from any distance. There were not enough of these cities to support a flourishing grain trade, and in any case Rome and Constantinople drew their food supplies largely from the imperial estates of North Africa and Egypt. Trade in manufactured articles could not take the place of trade in food because the Romans, with abundant slave labor, never took much interest in efficient production. They used few machines; they clung to cumbersome methods of production, and in these circumstances no one manufacturing center could have any great advantages over other districts. Except for luxury articles, each province of the Empire was relatively self-sufficient, and even within the provinces rural districts drew little from the towns. Any great estate produced most of the food needed by its inhabitants, and the artisans who lived there could make all the furniture, pottery, tools, and clothing which were required. In short, the Empire was never really an economic unit, and the lack of common economic interests made disintegration easier.

Political autocracy and economic stagnation weakened loyalty to the emperor and to the Empire. The rulers of imperial Rome had tried hard enough to build up loyalty with their temples devoted to the imperial cult, their monuments and public buildings, their ceremonies and festivals. Their efforts failed partly because the cult of emperor-worship and Rome-worship was synthetic, foisted on the people from above instead of springing spontaneously from popular beliefs and experiences — even more because the average inhabitant of the Roman Empire could take no interest in the affairs of an organization in which he played no significant role. At the very end of the Empire the emperors tried to use religious belief to take the place of the civic loyalty which was missing. They accepted Christianity as the religion of the state and hoped that devotion to the new religion would inspire devotion to the protectors and upholders of the faith. This attempt also failed, except in the East. Throughout most of the Empire, Christian leaders were unwilling to bind themselves too closely to the political fortunes of the state in which they lived. They accepted the Empire as a fact; they did not insist upon it as a necessity. The greatest Christian writer of the West, St. Augustine, said that the all-important community was the Heavenly City of God and that compared to the Heavenly City the fortunes of earthly states were unimportant. He and his friends withdrew from the service of the state, and though they performed notable works of charity and piety in their communities the Empire was nevertheless deprived of men who might have been outstanding political leaders. Thus, in the West, religious conviction did not reinforce patriotism, and men who would have died rather than renounce Christianity accepted the rule of conquering barbarian kings without protest.

This leads us to the heart of the problem. The most obvious symptom of decay was the occupation of the western part of the Empire by migrating Germanic peoples. Yet there were millions of Roman citizens, compared to a few hundred thousand Germanic invaders. At any stage in the collapse of the Empire the Roman or Romanized population could have driven out the Germans and restored the unity of the state if they had really wanted to do so. It would have cost them some lives; it would have devastated some property, but the price would not have been excessive by the standards of the early Empire. Yet the Roman population never made a move against the intruders. The bulk of the opposition was furnished by mercenaries usually Germans themselves who would fight only as long as they were well paid, and by a minority of Roman aristocrats who had preserved some memory of the old Roman patriotism. We can say with absolute truth that the Roman Empire fell because the great majority of its inhabitants made no effort to preserve it. They were not actively hostile to the Empire; they were merely indifferent The reasons for this indifference may or may not be the ones suggested above, but the fact of indifference cannot be denied. Rome had developed a well-arranged administrative system and an excellent set of laws; she had spread a common language and a common culture throughout the Western World; but she had not succeeded in making her subjects feel that they should strive actively to preserve this social and political system. This is the great failure of Rome, and it is in the shadow of that failure that the Middle Ages begin.


As the Roman Empire in the West slowly collapsed, the Christian Church emerged as the one stable institution among the ruins. The ablest inhabitants of the Empire became servants of the Church rather than the state, and they brought with them the Roman genius for administration and law. The men who were still capable of devotion to an ideal gave their loyalty to their faith rather than to their government. As a result, the Church had excellent leadership and strong popular support at a time when the state was weak in both respects.

The strength of the early Church lay in its uncompromising dogmatism, its ability to give certain and reassuring answers to a bewildered and discouraged people. The Empire, as St. Augustine admitted, was the most virtuous state which had ever existed; it represented the best which men inspired by purely secular ideals could achieve. Yet even at its best it fell far short of satisfying the aspirations of its subjects. It offered for the future only a repetition of the present — a rather dull prospect even if the present had been more attractive than it actually was. It was supposedly based on peace and justice, yet it could not prevent recurring civil war and harsh treatment of the poor. Worst of all, the Empire was unable to give any significance to the life of the ordinary individual. He played no part in politics; he had little economic opportunity; his only function was to produce wealth for the state and the ruling classes. The Church could promise a future life in which justice and peace would be realized; it could stress the overwhelming importance of the individual soul in the eyes of God. These were important factors in spreading Christianity among the poorer classes.

Christianity was not the only religion which appealed to the inhabitants of the Empire. Various Oriental cults, such as the religion of Mithra or the worship of Isis and Osiris, offered some of the same satisfactions. They promised immortality and the forgiveness of sin; they stressed the importance of the individual in the community of believers. They were weaker than Christianity because they were tarnished with gross superstitions and obvious inconsistencies in doctrine. They were not as sure of their exclusive possession of truth as was Christianity; they usually admitted that there was some value in the rites and beliefs of other faiths. These were fatal flaws in an age when men were anxious for positive assurance, for an ideal which could be followed without reservations. Christian doctrine was logical and self-consistent; it was expounded by men who understood and followed the basic rules of classical thought. The leaders of the Christian Church flatly refused to compromise on matters of belief, they would not dilute their faith in order to gain lukewarm adherents. As a result, Christianity spread more slowly than its rivals, but it also spread more surely. Once a Christian Church had been established it seldom went out of existence, and backsliding among individual Christians was rare. The consistency and certainty of Christian doctrine attracted men of outstanding ability, and under their leadership the new faith began to spread to the middle classes. In spite of intermittent persecution the Church grew steadily. By 300 A.D. it included a considerable minority of the population of the East and was well established in the larger towns of the West.

This was the situation when the Emperor Constantine granted first toleration and then official support to the Church. His actions cannot be explained purely on grounds of policy, since he was originally ruler of the northwestern provinces, the least Christian part of the Empire. Even if the Christians had taken an active part in politics, which they did not, Constantine had less to gain from their support than his co-emperors in Italy and the East. He seems to have become sincerely convinced of the power of the Christian God and the truth of the Christian faith. His unbroken record of victories over rival emperors strengthened his belief, and though his understanding of Christian doctrine and Christian ethics was always rudimentary, he gave unwavering support to the leaders of the Church. His successors, with one brief exception, continued his policy, and by 400 Christianity was firmly established as the official religion of the Empire.

The acceptance of Christianity by the emperors did not mean that the Church at once became the dominant influence in the lives of their subjects. The conversion of a people is not something that can be rushed through by a few edicts, and all through the early Middle Ages there was a considerable time lag between the official acceptance of Christianity by a ruler and its actual acceptance by the mass of the population. One of the great tasks of the Church after 300 was to make real Christians out of nominal Christians — an undertaking which required generations of patient endeavor. Both the organization and the doctrine of the Church had to be perfected before it could reach the position of unquestioned supremacy which it held in later centuries.

There were two main weaknesses in the organization of the early Church — inadequate provision for inhabitants of rural districts and lack of a centralized administrative system. Both weaknesses go back to the first centuries of the Church when the new faith spread from city to city, jumping over the great stretches of agricultural country which lay between the towns. The early churches were city churches; peasants could learn the new doctrine and follow its rites only if they visited the towns. They were naturally slow to become converts, especially in the West, where towns were small and scattered. As a result the pagani — the country dwellers — became the pagans — the typical non-Christians of the Late Empire. The complete conversion of this group did not take place until long after the fall of the Western Empire, when rural churches were built and the parish system was established. Meanwhile the city churches, which carried the entire burden of preserving and teaching the faith, had no administrative connection with each other. Each city had its own bishop, who was subject to no higher authority. It is true that the bishops of smaller towns naturally looked up to the bishops of the larger cities, and that churches founded by the apostles, such as Rome and Antioch, claimed special authority in interpreting the faith, but this hierarchy in prestige was far from being a hierarchy in administration. As long as each bishop was more or less autonomous the Church could not enforce a common policy throughout the Christian world.

The dangers inherent in this lack of administrative unity were emphasized by the doctrinal disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries. There had been heresies even while the Christians were a persecuted minority, but the need for standing together against a common foe had kept most of the faithful united on a common body of doctrine. The conversion of Constantine removed this reason for conformity and the spread of Christianity to the educated classes introduced all the subtleties of Greek philosophical thought. Jealousies among the different racial and linguistic groups in the East added a new element of confusion; if the Greeks of Constantinople held to one interpretation, the Egyptians of Alexandria were automatically suspicious of it. The first disputes were over the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity — was the Son coeval with the Father or was He created later? When this question had been settled new arguments arose over the nature of Christ. It was generally agreed that He partook of both divine and human nature but was the divine so dominant that it made the human unimportant, or were the two coexistent, or was the divine almost suspended when the Son took on human form? The bitter quarrels over these questions split the Christians of the East into irreconcilable groups and paved the way for the eventual loss of Syria and Egypt to Christianity. They also led to constant interference by the emperors in the affairs of the Church. The rulers of the Empire were naturally worried by religious disputes which became so violent that they led to rioting in the streets of their chief cities and to dissension among the people of their provinces. Since the Church did not possess the administrative machinery necessary to impose agreement, the emperors tried to secure uniformity through the power of the state. Constantine found it necessary to call a Church Council at Nicaea as early as 325, and his successors followed this precedent throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. In theory the bishops were to control the Councils and decide disputed questions of doctrine after free debate, but in practice the emperors had considerable influence over the conclusions which were reached. Moreover, in the intervals between Councils the emperors were able to influence the evolution of doctrine by backing bishops of one party and by exiling their opponents.

The quarrels over dogma were especially acute in the East and imperial interference in Church affairs was therefore greater in this region. As a result, the Eastern churches became accustomed to a certain degree of state control, which has persisted, in one form or another, down to our own times. Yet in spite of this constant intervention, the emperors failed to secure doctrinal unity in the East. If they tried to avoid trouble by imposing broad formulae which could be interpreted in opposite ways, they irritated all the contestants, whereas if they supported clear-cut decisions on dogma they ran the risk of alienating half or two-thirds of their subjects. By the sixth century, the great majority of the people of Egypt had flatly rejected the creed favored by the emperors and a large part of the population of Syria was also following unorthodox leaders. The Balkans and Asia Minor were the only Eastern regions which gave strong support to the orthodox faith.

The situation in the West was rather different. This region was less troubled by sectional and municipal jealousies than the East. Provincial loyalties seldom assumed the form of religious nationalism, and Rome had no rival as a Christian center in its half of the Empire. The inhabitants of the West were less interested in subtle doctrinal problems than those of the East; heretical leaders were rare and attracted few followers. The absence of serious disputes over doctrine and the unquestioned prestige of Rome made it easy for the Western churches to unite around the bishop of Rome. His leadership in spiritual matters was recognized even during the period of persecution, and was strengthened during the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. The backing of the Western churches gave the bishop of Rome great influence in the Councils, and the fact that the doctrines which he supported were finally recognized as orthodox increased his prestige throughout the Christian world. Although he still had no direct administrative authority, his decisions on important problems were almost universally respected in the West, and often prevailed in the East, even over the opposition of the bishops of Constantinople. The fourth-century bishops of Rome were not yet the all-powerful popes of the twelfth century, but they had laid a firm foundation on which their successors could build. They had secured sufficient administrative and doctrinal unity in the West to ensure the survival of a universal Church in a period of political disintegration.


The acceptance of Christianity by the rulers of the Empire did not repair the fatal weaknesses of the Roman state. The able men who became Christian bishops and teachers did not feel that it was their duty to occupy themselves with political and economic problems. They had the tremendous task of organizing churches throughout the towns of the Empire, of converting pagans and improving the morals of nominal converts, of combatting heresy and developing Christian theology into a logical and self-consistent system. They could ensure the survival of Christianity; they could not ensure the survival of the Empire. The latter task was left to the emperors and their subordinates. These secular leaders made heroic efforts to save the state during the fourth and fifth centuries, but they were only partially successful. They could not solve the basic problem — that of interesting the inhabitants of the Empire in the fate of their government. In the West there was mere indifference; in many parts of the East there was active hostility, based on religious and cultural differences. Only in the Balkans and Asia Minor was there much support for government and only in this area was loyalty to Christianity identified with loyalty to the state. The other provinces of the Empire were unwilling or unable to defend themselves and were ready to submit to any invader.

Potential invaders could be found everywhere on the long frontiers of the Empire, but in the fourth and fifth centuries Rome's most dangerous neighbors were the Germans of Central and Eastern Europe. They were familiar enough with conditions in the Empire to covet its material resources and to realize its political and military weakness. For centuries they had been filtering across the border into the promised land, raiding when Rome was weak, enlisting in the army when she was strong. Many Roman generals and most of their troops were German, and the nominally Roman provinces along the Rhine and Danube were full of semi-civilized German tribes which had been conquered and settled in strategic locations as frontier guards.

This natural drift of Germans into the Empire was greatly accelerated in the fourth century by the sudden irruption of the Huns into Eastern Europe. The Huns were one of those nomadic peoples of Central Asia whose periodic raids have repeatedly changed the history of the great coastal civilizations of the Eurasian landmass. Ordinarily scattered and disunited, the nomads were occasionally brought together by able leaders, and when this happened they formed an almost irresistible force. Tireless and tough, inured to extremes of heat and cold, content with meager rations, spending most of their waking hours in the saddle, hitting hard and suddenly, they could be defeated only by well-disciplined troops operating under first-rate commanders. The Germans, in spite of their bravery as individuals, could offer no effective resistance to the Huns, and the wedge of nomad invaders drove through the strongest Germanic peoples into the heart of Europe. Many of the Germans became subjects or tributaries of the Huns; those who escaped this fate milled around frantically looking for a place of safety. The most obvious refuge was behind the fortified lines of the Roman frontier, and tremendous pressure built up all along the border. From the Rhine delta to the Black Sea the Germans were on the move, and the Roman government could do nothing to stop them.

Since the Germans could not be stopped, the obvious move was to regularize the situation by admitting them as allies serving in the Roman army. This policy was followed with the Visigoths, the first group to cross the frontier. It was not entirely successful, since the Visigoths became annoyed at being treated as a subject people and repeatedly revolted, asking for more land, more pay, and higher offices for their leaders. They defeated a Roman army at Adrianople in 378; they pillaged the western Balkans and moved into Italy, where they sacked Rome in 410. Then they were persuaded to continue their migration to Spain, where they drove out another group of invaders and set up a Visigothic kingdom. In spite of these excesses, the bond between the Visigoths and the Roman government was never entirely broken. They served the Empire occasionally in wars with other Germanic peoples and one of their kings died, fighting for Rome, in a great battle against the Huns in 451.

Meanwhile, the push across the frontiers continued. The Vandals marched from central Germany, through Gaul and Spain, to North Africa. The Burgundians occupied the valley of the Rhone. A mercenary army in Italy set up a king of their own in 476, the traditional date of the fall of the Empire in the West. The emperor at Constantinople could find no remedy for this situation except to send a new group of Germans, the Ostrogoths, against the usurper. The Ostrogoths, under their great leader Theodoric, were successful, but the Empire gained little, for Theodoric promptly created a kingdom for himself in Italy. Last of all, the Franks began to occupy Gaul, while the Angles and Saxons started the slow conquest of Britain.

The occupation of the Western provinces by the Germans caused less material damage than might have been expected. Almost everywhere the imperial government succeeded in keeping some sort of connection with the leaders of the occupying forces. German kings were made generals in the Roman army, given honorary tides such as consul or patrician, or even adopted into the imperial family. These were not mere face-saving devices, since they kept the Germans from treating their new possessions as conquered territory. The Romans in the West preserved their law, as much of their local government as they desired, and most of their property. The Germans had to be given land, but the West, with its thin population, had land to spare, and few of the old inhabitants had to be completely dispossessed. There was a considerable amount of pillaging and violence while the Germans were moving through the Empire, but once they had settled down they were not hostile to the Romans. There had never been any deep-rooted racial or cultural antagonism between Roman and German. Intermarriages had been and continued to be common, and the Germans had great respect for Roman civilization, as far as they understood it. They had come into the Empire to enjoy it, not to destroy it; they had not the slightest idea of wiping out the old way of life and substituting a new Germanic culture in its place.

And yet the coming of the Germans did mark the end of Roman civilization in the West. In some regions, especially along the Rhine and upper Danube, the Germans settled so thickly that the 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. The leaders commanded the army of free men in time of war, and even in peace were surrounded by a bodyguard of selected warriors. The leaders also presided over the assemblies of men of military age, which discussed war and peace and judged such disputes as came before them. This last duty did not take much time, since most arguments led to family feuds rather than to lawsuits. If an injured party did take his case to the assembly there was no attempt to get at the facts. Each man asserted his claim and the court invoked supernatural aid in order to determine the issue. Usually a test was set for the defendant; he must find other law-worthy men who would swear that his oath was "clean"; he must carry a hot iron several paces without serious injury; he must sink several feet when thrown into a river or lake. If the defendant met the test he went free; if he failed he paid a fine, determined by the gravity of the offense. Most Germanic law consisted in long tables of fines; it cost more to cut off the index finger than the little finger, more for knocking out a grinder than an eye-tooth, more for killing a pregnant woman than one who was past the child-bearing age. The basic idea in all this procedure was to prevent a feud rather than to do justice. One side was placated by receiving money, the other by knowing that the gods had judged against it.

The German political system was directly opposed to that of the Romans in many important aspects. It was based on blood-ties and personal allegiance to a ruler rather than on loyalty to an impersonal state. It had no territorial basis; a man was a Visigoth because he was born of Visigothic parents, not because he was born within certain fixed boundaries. It was directed by unwritten custom and tradition rather than by man-made laws and administrative decisions. It demanded more of free men, in expecting all of military age to serve in the army — less, in not requiring taxes and obedience to economic regulations.

It is evident that rulers brought up in the German political tradition would find it difficult to maintain a government of the Roman type. They could not easily understand Roman political ideas and methods, and their German warriors were indignant over any attempt to change the customs of the folk. Three things especially were hard for a German king to do. He could not delegate authority with any safety, since there was no tradition of bureaucracy among his people. Political power was personal property for the Germans and a deputy always tended to become an independent hereditary ruler. This made it almost impossible to preserve the administrative hierarchy of Roman times. In the second place, the absence of a well-trained, obedient bureaucracy and the emphasis on custom made it difficult for the king to secure obedience to his orders. There were no trustworthy agents to see that they were enforced, and the political tradition of the Germans was opposed to royal interference in matters of local concern. Last and worst of all, the king could not raise money to support his government. Taxation seemed iniquitous and unnecessary to the Germans. The unpaid service of free men supplied the king with his army and courts, and they could not see the need for any other services. A king who taxed was always suspected, often with reason, of trying to increase his personal fortune.

The Germans lacked the political experience and traditions necessary to build strong states on the ruins of the Roman Empire. They were equally unable to solve the economic problems of the ancient world. Even more than the Romans, they had sought local self-sufficiency; each German village had to supply itself with the essentials of life. They had imported a few luxuries from their neighbors, but there had never been active trade in common necessities. When they entered the Empire they could not alter the prevailing pattern of economic activity. They took over Roman estates and continued the Roman luxury trade with the East, but they certainly did not increase production or trade. Western Europe continued to be an almost purely agricultural region with few economic ties among its provinces.

The same decline may be observed in intellectual and literary activities. The Roman tradition had lost most of its vitality, and the German tradition was not sufficiently developed to be used as a substitute. The Romans of the Late Empire were content with what had been done before. They imitated Virgil and Suetonius; they wrote commentaries on classical works of literature; they prepared encyclopedias which contained all essential knowledge in a few hundred pages. The Germans had their legendary stories and poems, but they could not believe that these barbaric productions were equal in value to the highly polished, sophisticated Roman works. The German stories survived as part of the oral tradition of the northern peoples, but it was centuries before most of them were written down. Meanwhile, there was great respect for the Roman intellectual and literary tradition, but little understanding of it. Few of the Germans ever mastered the art of reading Latin, and the great majority of the Romans cared as little for the survival of their literature as they did for the survival of the imperial government. The only learning that was absolutely essential was some knowledge of grammar and syntax and some knowledge of private law. These needs could be met by the preparation of little books of excerpts which illustrated rules of language or of jurisprudence. Even this limited intellectual activity was too much of an effort for most of the inhabitants of Western Europe, and by 800 an educated layman was rarely found outside of Italy.

The disappearance of educated laymen contributed to the political and economic weakness of the Germanic kingdoms. With no literary standard to preserve linguistic unity, colloquial Latin split into dozens of different dialects. The absence of linguistic unity made it hard to secure political unity. For example, the people of Aquitaine, who did not speak the same dialect as the people of the Seine valley, were suspicious of rulers who came from the north. The fact that most laymen could not read or write made it difficult to carry on the normal functions of government. The central authorities received few written reports from local governors and they could never be sure that their orders were either understood or enforced. In the end, the only way to overcome this difficulty was to use the one educated group, the clergy, as agents of government. This merely shifted the focus of the problems, since the clergy claimed independence of lay authority. The decline in the general level of education also affected the study of law; the highly developed and essentially equitable Roman legal system could not be preserved by illiterate statesmen. Roman law survived in Spain, southern Gaul, and Italy only as a set of customs little less crude than those of the Germans. In northern Gaul, the Rhineland, and Britain it was completely forgotten. Finally, the majority of the scientific and technical treatises of the ancient world were lost, either temporarily or permanently, during the period of the migrations. A few Roman works on agriculture, architecture, engineering, and the art of war were preserved, but were not studied with any care during the first centuries of the Middle Ages. Scientific works written in Greek had even less influence. The Romans, an over-practical people, had never been greatly interested in scientific theory and had never taken the trouble to translate the books which contained the great scientific discoveries of the Greeks. In the last century of the Empire few men educated in the West studied Greek, and the Greek scientific tradition had been almost forgotten before the final collapse of Roman rule in the West. Boethius, the last of the old Roman scholars, realized the danger, and in the early sixth century outlined an ambitious plan for Latin translations of the more important Greek works. But one man could do little, and

Boethius' labors were first slowed down by his interest in politics, and then abruptly terminated by his execution on charges of treason to the Ostrogothic king of Italy. His work was not continued, and Western Europe possessed only fragments of the Greek scientific tradition until the great twelfth-century revival of learning.


The slow decay of the Roman Empire did not at first affect the unity of Mediterranean civilization. There had been growing dissatisfaction with that civilization, but it had endured so long that it was not easy to conceive of an alternative way of life. The Germanic kingdoms of the West clung to the old forms as well as they could; they were not very civilized, but what scraps of civilization they possessed were Roman. The East was still united under the emperor at Constantinople, who governed through the old Roman bureaucracy under the forms of Roman law. Relations between East and West, while not intimate, were on the whole amicable. With the exception of the Anglo-Saxon rulers of Britain, the Germanic kings recognized the nominal suzerainty of the emperor, and he maintained the fiction of a united empire by conferring honorary titles on the barbarian monarchs. The pope was in close contact with the patriarchs of the East and maintained a representative in Constantinople. Syrian traders carried oriental goods into the heart of Gaul and even settled in small groups in the Loire River towns. Western Europe was more provincial than it had been in the great days of Rome, but it was still part of the Mediterranean world, not the seat of an independent civilization.

Yet within the Mediterranean unity, separatist tendencies were developing, and these tendencies were strongest in the East. The Germans had lowered the level of Roman civilization, but they had no rival civilization to set in its place. In the East there were rival civilizations, long suppressed but strangely potent. The Greeks and the Romans had ruled Syria and Egypt for over seven hundred years, and yet Graeco-Roman civilization had not stifled the old native cultures. It had formed a thin hard crust on top of a fermenting mass of old beliefs and institutions, and as the crust cracked under the strains of the third and fourth centuries the obscure folk-ways of the native populations began to bubble out into sight. Every student of the Late Roman Empire has noticed the revival of oriental forms and beliefs in government, in religion, in art and literature. At first it was possible to absorb these oriental ideas into the dominant Graeco-Roman culture. The emperors assumed some of the trappings and many of the powers of an oriental despot; the most popular religions were modified versions of oriental faiths; the prevailing art-forms showed the influence of oriental motifs. But as the movement continued it became impossible to fit it into the old pattern of Mediterranean civilization. The Latin West would accept only a minimum of oriental influence, and the thoroughly Greek corner of the Empire which centered around Constantinople would not abandon its old traditions entirely. Egypt and Syria, where the oriental revival was strongest, either had to compromise or drop out of the orbit of Graeco-Roman civilization.

If this was a dilemma for the peoples of the Roman Orient, it was also one for the emperors at Constantinople. They had not given up their claim to rule the whole Mediterranean world, and they had not abandoned hope of making their claim good. But if they went too far in satisfying Syria and Egypt they offended the Latin West and the Greeks of Asia Minor and the Balkans. If they rejected the ideas of Syrian and Egyptian leaders, they might conciliate the Greeks and the Latins but they would lose the loyalty of their wealthy oriental provinces. If they compromised they ran the risk of alienating both the West and the Orient while gaining only doubtful support from the Greeks. They could not consistently follow any of these policies, and their vacillations only intensified the growing antagonisms among the peoples of the Mediterranean.

Since religion was the most vital force in the Mediterranean world, the divisions among Latins, Greeks, and Orientals took the form of religious disputes. The bitterness of the arguments about the Persons of the Trinity and nature of Christ seems foolish unless we realize that it was a manifestation of profound cultural differences. Antioch and Alexandria would not accept the domination of Constantinople, and Rome, strong in its orthodoxy, was angered by any attempt to placate the Syrian or Egyptian heretics. The people of Constantinople developed their own brand of orthodoxy, which was neither that of Rome nor that of Alexandria, and rioted against any emperor who threatened to compromise it. A very strong emperor might have been able to force the peoples of the East to accept a common statement of religious beliefs if he had not had to worry about the opposition of the pope at Rome. Conversely, agreement between Rome and Constantinople could be secured only by losing the religious, which meant in the end the political, allegiance of Egypt and Syria.

These were the strains which made the reign of the great Justinian (527-565) a spectacular failure instead of a world-changing success. Justinian was the last emperor who had both the ability and the opportunity to restore the political unity of the Mediterranean world. Taking advantage of family quarrels in the Germanic kingdoms he reconquered Italy from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and southeastern Spain from the Visigoths. The price was high in both human and financial terms, but not too high if there had been a real desire for unity in the Mediterranean basin. As it was, Justinian exhausted and angered the East without gaining the loyalty of the West. The East paid heavy taxes to support the wars of reconquest; Syria was devastated by Persian invasions which could not be repelled while the bulk of the army was in the West; Egypt saw its most cherished religious convictions attacked in order that the emperor might secure the support of the Roman Church. The West, for which all these sacrifices were made, found the imperial government no improvement over that of the barbarians. Taxes, which had been dwindling away, were reimposed; areas which had been unharmed by the Germans were devastated in the wars of reconquest; the imperial bureaucracy interfered with local autonomy without giving many benefits in return. Even Justinian's most successful enterprise, the modernization and codification of Roman law, was in some ways a failure. Roman law was the greatest and most characteristic achievement of the Romans; it represented the best in their political theory and practice. Justinian's version, with all its weaknesses, was worthy of the Roman legal tradition, and in happier circumstances might have become a symbol of political unity, like the English common law or the American Constitution. As it was, it stirred up no great enthusiasm anywhere in the Empire. Justinian's code had to be modified almost at once in the East in order to meet local conditions and it was not even applied in the West. It was to have incalculable influence on Western thinking six centuries later, but for the moment it was a dead letter.

Even before Justinian's death a new horde of barbarians, the Lombards, were pushing into Italy from the north. They soon overran two-thirds of the peninsula, and though the Empire retained a few fragments of Italian territory its hopes of maintaining a dominant position in the western Mediterranean basin were gone forever. Catastrophe in the East did not come quite so rapidly, but when it struck it was even more devastating. The latent hostility of the Oriental peoples to Graeco-Roman supremacy crystallized around the Arab Empire and permanently separated the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean from the civilizations of the north and northeast.

The Arabs, like the Germans, were a small, rather poorly organized group of peoples, who had raided the Empire intermittently for centuries without constituting a real military danger. Nothing shows the weakness of the old Mediterranean civilization in its last days quite so clearly as the fact that these weak border peoples could change the fate of millions with only a slight effort. The results are out of all proportion to the cause unless we realize that the invaders, German or Arab, merely set off a reaction which was already prepared. They were the detonators, but the explosives were already stored up in the Mediterranean basin. The Arabs had probably grown in numbers during the sixth century, and Mohammed gave them a better organization than they had ever had before, but the whole population of Arabia was less than that of many imperial provinces. Once more the Empire was to lose wide territories because there was no real interest in preserving its authority, no common loyalty to hold its people together.

Mohammed was a man of great ability and it was only through his efforts that the Arabs were able to take advantage of the opportunities on their northern frontiers. Like many of his countrymen, he was dissatisfied with the rather crude religion of Arabia, which often was no better than fetish-worship. He had heard fragments of the Christian story; he had met Arabic-speaking Jews who told him some of their traditions; he was familiar with Arabic legends which were not unlike the stories of the Hebrew prophets. Brooding over this material, he became convinced that God had chosen him as the last and greatest of the prophets, as the bearer of the final revelation to man. The new doctrine, as it finally emerged in Mohammed's sermons and conversation, had enough familiar elements in it to be acceptable to many of the peoples of the East. He taught that there was one all-powerful God, the creator of the world, the protector and judge of mankind; that God had revealed His will to men through a series of prophets, of whom the greatest were Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed; that those who believed His prophets and obeyed His commandments would enjoy Paradise whereas the wicked were to suffer endlessly. After a discouraging start, Mohammed began to gain followers and eventually converted most of the tribes of northern and central Arabia. His original concept of his role seems to have been that of a purely religious leader, but he soon learned that he could spread his faith only by becoming head of a political organization which would protect his followers from the unenlightened, and suppress family and tribal feuds among the faithful. At his death in 632 he was ruler of a large part of the Arabian peninsula. There were still tribes which had not accepted his political and religious leadership, but they were too weak to form an effective opposition.

Mohammed had given the Arabs their first effective political organization, and his immediate successors profited more from this than they did from his promulgation of a new faith. Like all new religions, Mohammedanism was slow to sink into the minds and hearts of the people. The Arabs and their neighbors did not become fanatical Mohammedans overnight, and the great Arab conquests of the seventh century were the result of political, not religious, imperialism. Mohammed's successors, the Caliphs, could not claim to be prophets, and the only way in which they could maintain their position of leadership was by military success. They sent out raiding parties against the nearest imperial provinces and were amazed to find little resistance. Almost without planning it, they became involved in a conquest of Syria and Egypt. The native populations were not alarmed by the change of rulers; in fact, they often preferred the tolerant Arabs to the Greeks who had been accusing them of heresy. The old Persian kingdom, even weaker than the remnants of the Roman Empire, was also overrun by the Arabs, and the Caliphs soon found themselves masters of the whole Middle East. With this solid block of territory at their disposal, it was easy for them to push along the North African coast, and in 711 to cross into Spain. By 720 the Arab Empire stretched from the borders of India to the Pyrenees and Arab raiders were plunging deep into the heart of Gaul.

As a result of the Arab conquests, the last remnants of Mediterranean unity were destroyed, and three sharply contrasted civilizations arose within the old Graeco-Roman sphere of influence. The growth of Mohammedan sea power soon made it difficult, though not impossible, for Christians to use the Mediterranean. Land travel between East and West had always been slow and expensive. Religious differences emphasized the physical difficulties of communication. The Arab Empire gradually became thoroughly Mohammedanized — suspicious and scornful of Christian institutions and ideas. The loss of Syria and Egypt combined with the mortal danger from the Saracens intensified the peculiar religious patriotism of the Eastern Empire. This led in turn to a series of quarrels between the popes and the patriarchs of Constantinople. After many schisms, a final break came in 1054 when the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches solemnly excommunicated each other. The religious break was merely a symptom of the growing estrangement between East and West. The inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire felt immeasurably superior to the barbarous peoples of the West and dealt with them only for reasons of political and economic convenience. The Westerners viewed the East with suspicion and resentment. The political bond between the three areas had vanished completely; economic contacts were reduced to a minimum, and the cultural patterns which sometimes spread from one region to another were neither numerous nor strong enough to create a common civilization. The Arab Empire, the Byzantine remnant of the Roman Empire, and Western Europe each worked out its own system of institutions and beliefs.

In this shattering of Mediterranean unity it was Western Europe which had the most to lose. The Mohammedans had inherited much of the learning of the Greeks, and to this they added significant material from Persia and India. On these extensive foundations they were able to build a great structure of philosophical and scientific thought which made them leaders in these fields for centuries. They occupied the key position on the ancient trade-route between East and West and made the most of their opportunity by building up an active commerce and thriving industries. Even when, in the ninth century, the Arab Empire broke up into smaller states, Mohammedan civilization retained its essential unity and ideas and goods moved easily from India to Spain. At a time when the largest Western towns were mere fortified villages, when the most learned men of the West were painfully studying commentaries and encyclopedias, the Mohammedans had great commercial cities and scholars who were making original contributions in almost every field of science.

The Eastern Roman Empire was not quite so impressive as the Arab Empire, but it was still an important center of civilization. The wealth of Constantinople, the manpower of Asia Minor, and a sophisticated diplomatic and military tradition gave it unusual strength and resilience. With its rich heritage of Greek and Christian culture it developed a remarkable civilization — conservative but not decadent, orientalized but not oriental, profoundly Christian but not theocratic. It could no longer claim to be a universal empire, and though it kept the name of Rome in official documents, it was the Empire of the Greeks, of Constantinople, or of Byzantium to most outsiders. Its political boundaries were contracted, but its sphere of influence spread far beyond the narrow limits of the Byzantine provinces. The Slavic peoples of the Balkans usually admitted the hegemony of the emperor and took their basic concepts of religion, art, and literature from Constantinople. The Russians were converted by the Greek Orthodox Church and so the stream of Byzantine culture flowed into the great plains of Eastern Europe. Thus the division between East and West, which had begun in the last days of the old Roman Empire, was extended far beyond the limits of the Mediterranean basin.

The Byzantine Empire was not quite as foreign to the peoples of Western Europe as the Arab Empire, but this did not always make for better relations. The Mohammedan countries were outside the Christian world; everyone expected them to be different and strange. But the Byzantine Empire was Christian, though schismatic; it was based on the classical tradition, though modified by influences which had had little effect on the West. The peoples of the West always expected the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire to be more like themselves than they really were, and were bitterly disappointed when they found that their assumption was wrong. Members of a single family will criticize conduct in their relatives which they find perfectly normal in strangers, and Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire were more or less in the position of cousins, each of whom thinks the other is betraying the family tradition. This difficulty did not end with the Middle Ages; even today we implicitly assume that Russia and the Balkans are bound by the western tradition, in spite of their heritage from Byzantium and their long exposure to oriental influences. As a result, we experience the same sort of deceptions which poisoned relations between East and West during the Middle Ages.

Western Europe was the weakest and poorest of the three areas which emerged from the old Mediterranean world. It had always been backward, both economically and intellectually, but in the classical period it had been able to draw on the East both for supplies and ideas. Now it had to face its own deficiencies without outside aid. The southern shores of the Mediterranean had become, and were to remain, a completely foreign region, while mutual suspicion between Westerners and Byzantines made it impossible to rely on Constantinople for leadership. The dangers of Mediterranean travel reinforced the psychological obstacles and threw the West back on its own resources.

These resources were not very great. On the material side, the West was an almost exclusively agricultural region. It contained some of the best farming land in the world, but much of this land was not yet cleared, and the part which was used was cultivated by inefficient methods. A few Italian towns, such as Venice and Amalfi, kept up a hazardous trade with the East, and the Scandinavians managed to import some oriental luxuries across the plains of Russia; otherwise there was little commerce. Industry was at an even lower level; few craftsmen produced for more than a limited, local market. As a result the population was thin, poor, and scattered. The governments of the Germanic kingdoms were weak and unstable, unable to prevent disorder at home or to ward off attacks from the outside. Intellectually and spiritually the situation was almost as bad. The West had retained only part of its legacy from Rome, which at best was only part of the whole body of classical learning, and even this small fraction of the classical heritage was not yet fully understood. The Roman version of Christianity had no serious rivals in the West, but it had not yet made much of an impression on the people. They were Christian because they could be nothing else, but the Church in the West was too disorganized, and in many places too corrupt, to give them much leadership. Altogether, the situation of Western Europe in the seventh century was not promising. It had a rudimentary economic system, and an even more rudimentary political organization; it had inherited a few ideas about government and law, and a somewhat larger body of philosophical and literary material from Rome; it had accepted Christianity but had not yet developed either a well-organized Church or wide-spread individual piety. Western Europe was now on its own, but no one in the seventh century could have predicted that it would develop a civilization which would rival those of Bagdad and Byzantium.


We have been discussing Western Europe as a unit, in contrast to the Mohammedan and Byzantine Empires. This assumption was valid only for purposes of general comparison. The regions of Western Europe resembled each other more closely than any one of them resembled Syria or Asia Minor, but there were sharp differences between Frankish Gaul and Anglo-Saxon England, between Lombard Italy and Bavarian or Saxon Germany. The social and cultural heritage from the Roman Empire was unevenly exploited and was combined with new elements in different proportions by the people of each area. For example, the most active center of classical studies in the seventh century was in the British Isles, whereas Gaul, which had been much more thoroughly Romanized, rather neglected the work of scholarship. The authority of the pope was more respected in England, which had been converted by his agents, than it was in the Lombard kingdom of Italy, which was politically hostile to Rome. The line between Roman and German was sharply drawn in Italy and Gaul, and the distinctions between Frank and Lombard, Saxon and Bavarian were almost as great. Each of these peoples "lived their own law," to use the expressive phrase of that period; they had their own customs, institutions, and beliefs which were not shared with their neighbors. Until some of these sharp differences were erased, Western Europe could not have even the foundation of a common civilization.

Uneven development was equally conspicuous in the political sphere. In the seventh century there was only one state in Western Europe which had any real strength, the kingdom of the Franks. The Anglo-Saxons in England were divided into small, warring principalities; the Visigothic kingdom of Spain was torn by internal feuds and was soon to be wiped out by the Mohammedans; the Lombards in Italy had never conquered the whole peninsula and were weakened by frequent civil wars. But the Franks held most of Gaul and much of the Rhine valley in Germany, as well as an uneasy suzerainty over Aquitaine and Bavaria. Their center of power was in the north, between the Seine and the Rhine, so that they were not greatly hurt either by the conquests of Justinian or the later expansion of the Arabs. They had acquired enough of the Roman idea of the state from their occupation of Gaul to rise somewhat above the limited Germanic concept of the "folk," but they had retained enough contact with Germany to secure first-class fighting men.

The Frankish kingdom was strong, however, only in comparison with its neighbors. It had suffered from the same weaknesses which had ruined other Germanic kingdoms. It was difficult for the ruler to maintain his authority over outlying dependencies, such as Aquitaine. High officials and great land-owners were rebellious and disobedient even in the heart of the kingdom. Frankish monarchs had treated their domains as private property and had repeatedly divided them among their sons. There was bad feeling between the Germanic districts of the east and the more Romanized western provinces. Altogether, the seventh-century Frankish kingdom did not offer a very secure foundation on which to build a new European civilization.

Yet from these unpromising materials a Frankish family was able to create an empire in which German, Roman, and Christian elements were fused to form a common way of life. This family, called Carolingian from its greatest representative, Charles the Great or Charlemagne, came originally from the borderlands between Gaul and Germany. It first appears as a group of great landholders, German in blood and outlook, only slightly influenced by Latin and Christian ideas. The earliest Carolingians were as selfish and short-sighted as most of their wealthy neighbors — they struggled for land and power, and did not hesitate to oppose the king or to precipitate civil war if it was to their advantage to do so. As they became more prominent in the affairs of the kingdom they gradually developed more sense of responsibility and more interest in religion and learning. Their rise to power was made easier by the existence of a peculiar Frankish institution — the mayorship of the palace. Originally this office may have been no more than the stewardship of the king's household, but since the mayor was in close personal contact with the king he gradually became a sort of prime minister. All the business of the central government passed through his hands, and a capable mayor often had more power than a weak king. The great men of the realm naturally sought this office, and during the seventh century it became the prize of civil war. The kings of this period were weak both physically and morally; most of them died young and accomplished little during their brief lives. The mayors of the palace controlled the government and the great landowners tried to control the mayors. The mayor was usually the leader of a faction of the oligarchy and held office until some other group gained strength enough to pull him down. In this welter of intrigue and violence the Carolingians had remarkable success. Members of the family held the mayorship repeatedly, and finally Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, gained permanent possession of the office in 717. His son, Pippin, succeeded him as mayor, and in 751 felt strong enough to depose the nominal king and take the crown for himself. The dynasty thus established ruled Western Europe until the end of the ninth century and during its two hundred years of power established a common civilization for the peoples of the West.

What were the objectives of this remarkable family? The basic plan seems to have been to unite all the peoples of the West into a single Christian kingdom. Force had to be used to overcome immediate opposition, but the Carolingians were wise enough to realize that force alone would never give them a secure position. They had to gain the loyalty of their subjects by giving them a common set of ideals, and the only ideals which could be accepted by all the inhabitants of the West were those of Christianity. Therefore, the Carolingians consistently and energetically supported missions to the pagans and reform movements among the nominally Christian inhabitants of their empire. They used the Church for their own purposes, but they gave the Church more influence over the peoples of the West than it had ever had before. With the moral authority and the universally accepted ideals of the Church behind them, they found it possible to override many regional and racial differences and to legislate for Europe as a whole.

This policy was foreshadowed by Charles Martel, who encouraged missionary work in Frisia and central Germany. Pippin made the idea clearer by creating what was practically an alliance between his family and the Church. He requested papal approval for his assumption of the kingship and strengthened his position even more by having himself anointed king when the pope visited Gaul a few years later. He was the first Western ruler to receive this unction, and the ceremony greatly increased the prestige of his family. Pippin was now the Lord's anointed, the officially recognized lieutenant of God on earth. He had become a semi-ecclesiastical personage and rebellion against him was not only a crime, but also a sin. In return he protected the pope against the Lombards and fought successfully against them in Italy. In his own dominions he continued his father's policy of protecting missionaries and reformers. Greatest of these was the Anglo-Saxon Boniface, who spent almost forty years in converting the eastern Germans and reorganizing the Frankish Church. The first task was easier than the second, for most of the Germans across the Rhine were either nominal Christians or lukewarm pagans and were quite willing to follow a man who spoke with authority. The real difficulty was to build a centralized system of church government which would ensure co-operation among Christians of the Frankish Empire and subordinate local bishops to the pope. Charles Martel and Pippin gave Boniface steady support in this effort, which smoothed the path for their own policy of centralization, and by the end of his life Boniface had improved the discipline of the clergy and greatly increased papal authority in both Gaul and Germany.

Charlemagne added little that was new to the basic family policy, but he continued it in such an intensive form that it began to yield striking results during his reign. He did not merely support the pope against the Lombards; he annihilated the Lombard kingdom and annexed two-thirds of Italy to the Frankish domains. He was not satisfied with the slow progress of missions among the remaining heathen east of the Rhine; he made relentless war on Saxons, Slavs, and Avars until they accepted the Christian faith and Frankish government. He used all his authority to preserve discipline among the clergy, and he tried to raise a new generation of churchmen who would accept discipline through conviction rather than through coercion. His rough and ready methods did not always bring immediate success, but Charles showed that he deserved his name of the Great by adhering steadfastly to his ends while modifying his means. When penal laws and military force failed to complete the conversion of the Saxons he substituted persuasion and intensified missionary activity. When legislative threats failed to purify the clergy he began a great campaign to improve their education and succeeded in raising both their intellectual and their moral standards. He also encouraged the development of the parish system, which had begun much earlier among the Franks, and made it a really effective agency for spreading and maintaining Christianity among the great masses of the rural population. The parish, centered around a village church, was a logical answer to the weakness of the older system which required a predominantly rural population to attend city churches. But bishops had had little authority over parish priests, and the priests, in turn, had not always been able to secure the obedience of their parishioners. Charlemagne definitely subordinated the parish priests to the bishops, just as the bishops were subordinated to the newly established archbishops. At the same time, he gave the parish clergy far greater authority over laymen by establishing a system of compulsory tithes and by encouraging the practice of hearing confessions.

In the light of this policy, carried on without faltering for forty-six years, Charlemagne's assumption of the title of emperor was a logical and necessary step. There has been endless and unprofitable discussion about the ceremony held on Christmas Day in 800, but certain conclusions seem well established. In the first place, Charlemagne received the title from the pope because he wanted it. He was absolute master of the Church; the pope depended on him for protection against dangerous enemies, and it is inconceivable that an act of such importance could have been planned without the king's consent. In the second place, the imperial title added nothing to Charlemagne's political authority. He was already ruler of most of Western Europe and he gained no new lands or rights by becoming emperor. Finally, the real advantage of the coronation was increased spiritual authority; it emphasized Charlemagne's position as head of Western Christendom. There were many kings, but there was only one emperor in the West. The old Roman tradition of imperial control over the Church had not been forgotten, and Charlemagne could claim to be heir to this authority. Convinced as he was that he could rule his empire only through an appeal to Christian ideals, his new title gave him an additional right to make such an appeal. It was an official confirmation of his position as defender of the faith, protector of the papacy, and vice-gerent of God on earth.

From another point of view, the imperial coronation was a declaration of independence by the West. The shadowy suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire, recognized in papal documents as late as 772, was ended. Western Europe was no longer a spiritual and intellectual dependency of Constantinople; it was now self-sufficient in all things. The Byzantine court understood this clearly; it protested vigorously at the time, and was never quite reconciled to the existence of a line of Western emperors. Neither protests nor temporary compromises made any difference in the essential fact — Byzantium was now almost as foreign to Western Europe as Bagdad.

The Carolingian age saw the establishment of a Western European culture, strong enough to endure terrific strains, independent enough to keep its identity when brought into contact with other traditions, broad enough to include all the peoples of Western Europe, rich enough to develop new forms and ideas from its own resources. By reforming and strengthening the Church, the Carolingians made a nominally Christian Europe really Christian. The great mass of the population was in constant contact with Christian doctrine through the services held in the parish churches, confessions to the parish priest, and visits of bishops and other supervisory authorities. Some clergymen were still immoral, illiterate, and incompetent, but the Carolingian reforms had reduced the number of unworthy priests and prelates. Everywhere in Europe there were churchmen who were well-educated, intelligent, and pious; everywhere in Europe there were laymen who resolutely supported Christian ideals. As a result, a European conscience developed, based on Christian ethics — a conscience which could be easily aroused by spiritual leaders. There was plenty of brutality and stupidity in the centuries after Charlemagne, but it no longer passed without protest as it had in the earlier barbarian kingdoms. Reform movements succeeded each other with hardly a break from the tenth to the thirteenth century, and each wave of reform played a part in shaping medieval civilization.

In the field of education and learning the Carolingian age saw the establishment of a common basis for European scholarship. The works of the Church Fathers and Latin secular writers were copied, studied, and digested. The mere physical effort of copying older manuscripts had important consequences. Many works have survived only because they were copied in the Carolingian period; many others became better known because they were reproduced in different regions by Carolingian scribes. The Carolingian revival almost ended the loss of classical learning; very little disappeared in the post-Carolingian centuries compared to the wastage of the Late Roman Empire and the barbarian kingdoms. Even more important was the diffusion of ancient learning throughout Western Europe. Gallo-Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Scots from Ireland, and Lombards all studied and worked together at the courts of the Carolingian rulers. Great monasteries in England, France, Italy, and Germany built up collections of manuscripts and trained scholars to use them. These centers of learning were still widely separated, for not every monastery had the teachers or the resources necessary for scholarship, but there were enough of them to arouse interest in learning in every region of Europe. The work of Carolingian scholars was not especially original (with a few striking exceptions), but originality was not what was most needed at the time. The legacy from the past had to be assimilated before new steps could be taken, and Carolingian writers performed this task admirably. In their commentaries they demonstrated the necessity for consulting and correlating many different sources; in their treatises they restated what they had learned in their own words. These were particularly valuable exercises at a time when Latin was ceasing to be a spoken language, when the rise of local dialects was depriving the peoples of Europe of a common tongue. Latin was needed for serious thinking on any subject, since the new dialects had serious deficiencies in vocabulary. It was even more necessary for purposes of inter-European communication, since no other language covered more than a local area. If medieval Europe possessed a common fund of ideas, it was largely due to the work of Carolingian scholars.

Carolingian government was not entirely uniform — each major part of the empire kept its own laws and customs but it did tend to lessen the sharp distinctions which had prevailed between different peoples. The old division between Roman and German practically disappeared during the Carolingian period and the basis of law tended to be territorial rather than personal. For example, the people of Burgundy now settled their disputes by referring to a single set of customs; they were no longer divided into groups "living" Burgundian, Frankish, or Roman law. Moreover, there were institutions and laws which were common to the whole empire. The county and the count were much the same everywhere, and these basic elements of local government long survived the collapse of the Carolingian monarchy. Coinage and weights and measures also followed the Carolingian pattern for centuries in most European countries. Newly acquired territories such as Italy and Saxony were usually governed by men who came from the older Frankish domains, and this also tended to establish a degree of uniformity. As a result, there came to be a certain similarity in the laws and institutions of most Western countries, and it was not difficult for men of one region to fit into the political systems of other areas.

At the end of the Carolingian period Europe, for the first time, formed a distinct political and cultural unit. It had separated from the worlds of Byzantium and Islam; it had its own traditions and characteristic patterns of behavior. In spite of local differences a European felt at home in any European region, but he was immediately conscious of being in a foreign country when he visited Constantinople or Cordova. This establishment of a specifically European tradition was the great and enduring work of the Carolingian family. The empire fell; the facts of Carolingian history were forgotten, but the impression remained that the reign of Charlemagne marked a turning-point in the development of Western Europe. The wildest legends about the great emperor still contained the essential truth the belief that he stood at the beginning of Western European civilization. The strange and wonderful structure of European civilization still rests on the foundations laid in the age of Charlemagne.