*I will probably be back to fully operational status — as much as I ever get — by tomorrow, but for now, enjoy:*
The Not-As-Dark-As-Advertised Ages (At Least North of the Alps)
A Guest Post by our very own: Alma Boykin
As everyone knows, when Odoacer deposed the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustalus in AD* 476 CE*, Western civilization disappeared, learning stopped, and life came to a halt, especially north of the Alps. Until Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, darkness lay upon the land, barbarians roamed free, pirates plagued the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and the few people still alive sat around lamenting the Fall of Rome. Then came the Carolingian Renaissance and the sun rose, flowers bloomed, the three-field rotation and use of manure were discovered, literacy appeared, everyone began speaking Latin again, a sudden urge to build tall churches with lots of colored windows filled the land, and there was much rejoicing. Yeah.
At least, that’s sort of what historians in the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s thought. They had a few good reasons for calling the period between the Fall of Rome and Charlemagne “the Dark Ages,” and some not so great reasons. The good reason was that if you only have text sources to work from, then there is very little one can know about that time, especially north of the Alps and east of Britain. Obviously, if no one wrote anything, that must mean that no one was around to write, or who could write, which means no civilization (by the historians’ definition). And what sources did exist painted a pretty dim picture of the world, metaphorically and as it turns out, literally. Several centuries passed before Europeans began producing art and poetry that rivaled the styles of the Greeks and Romans. For historians who viewed Rome as a, if not the, pinnacle of culture and learning, what came after looked pretty darn dark.
Now, these historians missed a few things, as we historians are prone to do. First, the eastern Roman Empire, aka Byzantium, lasted until 1453 and produced a magnificent culture that can still be seen in scraps and bits here and there. Second, the fall of Rome did not happen in an instant, unlike the great series of paintings by Thomas Cole suggests. Third, daily life does not depend entirely on marble sculptures and flights of rhetoric. Fourth, there were plenty of bits of Rome still around, but the historians did not know where to look. Today we do, and the picture of life between Romulus Augustalus and Charlemagne is rather different. Empires don’t fall down in a puff of dust, crushing everything beneath them. They crumble, leaving foundations and inspiration.
So, what really happened when the “lights went out in Rome,” as Kipling put it? North of the Alps, the lights had been flickering since the Marcomannic Wars of 166-180, if not earlier. After that little bout of civil strife, massacre, arson, and looting, the area north of the Alps was reorganized, defenses beefed up, and populations shifted around. In 233 another round of Germanic tribes rushed the Limes, the borderline, and a few years later another, and another. These are the same peoples who would become the Lombards, Franks, Saxons, Bohemians (not the long-haired French kind, but the beer-drinking kind) and other modern inhabitants of Europe. When that flickering light in Rome finally went out, the people who had already been defending themselves continued defending themselves. They also kept farming, worshipping, trading and building.
Archaeology, anthropology, and climatology can fill in what historians can’t find. And once you start digging around, literally, you discover that the Dark Ages, or as they are now called, Late Antiquity, were not quite the nadir of European existence. The 350 years between Rome and Aachen do not mark a period of ease and longevity, for a number of reasons, but trade continued, learning continued, and the light of civilization kept burning. The Germanic, Slavic, and Asian tribes that pushed into Europe added their beliefs to the Roman foundation that remained. Roman ideas about law, organization, and religion endured, forming a framework for what came after. The people of the Great Migration (Volkerwanderung) recycled and built on ideas just like they recycled Roman stones.
Although their populations declined, the Roman cities and towns that are now Trier, Cologne, Frankfurt, Orange, Mainz, Augsburg, Regensburg, Kempten and others did not vanish. Much of their stone was recycled, timber and metal re-used, houses rebuilt upon over and over. New towns and strong-points appeared as new peoples moved in and settled, or moved through (like the Vandals and Huns). To this day, if you go to Vienna, Regensburg, and other cities, you can spot the Roman roads and city outline under the modern town. And under is the correct word, because as wattle-and-daub or wooden houses decayed, collapsed, or were burned down, people rebuilt on top of them. That’s one reason the 19th century historians couldn’t find a trace of Roman glory in, say, Vienna. They’d have to go down into the cellars and sewers to see it, and let’s face it, I just don’t see Gibbon or Toynbee as the crawl-through-sewers type. And where you had groups of people, you had commerce of sorts, and trade.
Trade continued, to the extent that Chinese silks have been found in Bavarian tribal members’ graves dating to the 6th century. Gemstones from India and Afghanistan found their way up the Rhine and Rhone, while amber, furs, and slaves went south and east. Now, the trade did not reach the scale of the Empire at its peak. Even if population shifts had not affected the “European” economy, the weather shifts in the late 400s and after 526 made life much harder on everyone. No more wine from Britain or up around Mainz, no more wheat exported from the Low Countries to Rome. But archaeologists find trade. And they find continuity.
People lived in the same places (or very close), farmed the same things, worshipped, buried their dead, and tried to carry on as they had before Roman power receded from northern Europe. Clothes did not change that much, for example. Archaeologists find the same style of pins, called “fibulae,” used by women in central Europe for a thousand years. Styles changed, the pins got bigger or smaller, fancier or plainer, as time passed, and different locations had their own designs, but the basic shape and function lasted for a millennium. Germans, Slavs, Magyars might pass through or settle, but women held up their pinafores and decorated their dresses with fibulae until the Middle Ages. People grew wheat, rye, dinkel (aka spelt), barley, oats, apples, pears, and peas, raised cattle and pigs and sheep, and fled from wild boar, wild cattle, and bears and wolves, just as they always had, even though their taxes went to the local strong man, instead of Rome.
The top layer of Rome had vanished, but the ordinary, tax-paying people remained, just in fewer numbers and more scattered. One reason for this, one that remained unknown until the 20th century, was a massive weather disruption. The climate had already changed, starting in the 5th century, as precipitation increased and temperatures declined in northern Europe. Shorter growing seasons and wetter soil, combined with population migrations caused in part by the worse weather, were not conducive to rapid population growth. And then in 526 the sun went away, dimmed by volcanic ash. Crop losses led to hunger which made plague spread more easily. These were the years of the Volkerwanderung, the population shifts that gave us the Lombards, Bavarians, Burgundians, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other names, some of which linger on maps to this day. Tribal structures replaced provincial government but the ideas of Roman organization survived, if only in an attenuated form, and from this came the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire and its descendants.
So what, you ask? Well, for one thing, political and economic collapse did not mean Road Warrior with chariots. It happened gradually as Rome abandoned the frontiers, then the provinces, and finally could no longer administer most of the Italian peninsula. People stepped up to try and fill in, for better or worse. A wild card in the form of a volcano that made Krakatoa look small caused problems even the Romans at their peak would have had trouble dealing with. Individuals such as Boethius, Alfred of Wessex, Cassiodorus, monastic chroniclers, and other people whose work has not survived kept ideas alive. Latin was not a dead language, although it staggered (see Jan Huizinga for details). The light of learning flickered but did not die, because enough people remembered what had once been done, and thought about trying to recreate or improve it, that out of the “Dark Ages” came chivalry, Chartes Cathedral, the Niebelungenlied (it’s not what Wagner makes it out to be, really), and other things. The Late Antiquity, while not an era of sweetness and light, wasn’t as dark as it once seemed.
* I’m not going to argue dating systems. If Undead Gaius Iulius Caesar wishes to use years since the founding of Rome, he is free to do so.