World History 1 200 - 13.1.1 Europe after the Roman Empire

There was no exact date when the Roman Empire fell, and the eastern half of the empire did not collapse until the fifteenth century. In fact, the Germanic peoples who settled in the former Roman Empire were not hostile to its culture, so in some places, Roman culture lasted longer than Roman political authority. Latin remained the language of the educated, for example, and Germanic peoples gradually adopted the Latin alphabet for their own languages, including English. Traditionally, though, the end of the empire is fixed at 476, when a German general named Odoacer deposed the emperor Romulus Augustulus and established himself not as a Roman emperor but as King of Italy. Even that date may be arbitrary, but by the late fifth century, traditional Roman authority had ceased to be the basis of political power in much of western Europe.

German Successor States

What replaced Roman political authority was the authority of the successor kingdoms (Figure 13.4). The Germanic peoples and the Roman population they conquered were able to create a new society by blending cultural traditions—a process called acculturation—in three ways. First, conversion to Christianity helped reduce differences between the two groups. Second, the Christian Church and the Roman aristocracy offered a useful example of bureaucratic organization and diplomacy that the successor kingdoms adopted. Finally, the erosion of Roman society enabled a new society to emerge in the Middle Ages. Although other Germanic kingdoms existed, those established by the Franks, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths demonstrate these three forms of acculturation most vividly.

A map is shown with land highlighted beige with blue and gray lines crisscrossing the land throughout the map while water is highlighted blue. The Gulf of Bathnia, the Gulf of Finland, the Baltic Sea, Skagerrak, Kattegat, Vanern, and the North Sea are labelled in the north of the map. The Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Bay of Biscay are labelled in the west. The Adriatic Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, The Ionian Sea, the Dardanelle, and the Aegean Sea are labelled in the south while the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea, and the Bosporus are labelled in the eastern regions. The map is titled “Successor Kingdoms After the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire.” A section of the map in the southeast is highlighted pink and labelled “Eastern Roman Empire.” The pink area runs from the south of the map, up along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, heads west to the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelle and northwest to the Adriatic Sea. On the east it borders the Black Sea. A very tiny area is highlighted pink at the northern border of the Black Sea. Most of the land shown toward the west is highlighted orange indicating “Successor Kingdoms.” These are labelled, from north to south: Picts, Danes, Scots, Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jules, Thuringians, Franks, Britons, Syagrius, Alamanni, Rugii, Ostrogoths, Gepids, Burgundians, Nepos, Suebi, Visigoths, Odoacer, and Vandals.
Figure 13.4 This map shows the Eastern Roman Empire as dominant in the eastern Mediterranean around 500 CE, and the division of western Europe among various successor kingdoms at this time. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

“German” was the term Romans used for all the peoples beyond their northern borders, and for them, it was interchangeable with “barbarian,” meaning not Romanized, although there was a great deal of cultural exchange between the two groups. The relationship between the term “German” and the peoples to whom it has been applied is complex. Some of those who invaded the Roman Empire did not speak a Germanic language at all, such as the Huns and Avars. There were few rigid ethnic boundaries between the groups, and the armies of any leader often included warriors from other tribes.

The Germanic peoples generally did not read or write and instead transmitted information and traditions orally. Famous tales that eventually found their way into written form, such as the Song of Hildebrand and the Song of the Nibelungs, had their beginnings as spoken epics. Oral culture celebrating warriors facing their fate on the battlefield and scornful queens plotting revenge reflected real possibilities in this society.

Link to Learning

The Anglo-Saxon peoples who settled in the British Isles, a mix of many cultures including Germanic, are famous for their literary output, both in Latin and in their own language, now called Old English. In particular, they loved riddles. The following links present an Anglo-Saxon riddle 1 and riddle 2 related to food. Can you guess the answers?

Across all Germanic societies, warfare was an important tool for building social prestige. There were no formal hierarchies, so advancement was possible for any willing to serve a powerful chieftain or king. In return, leaders promised loot and the chance to do great deeds. A king who could not ensure material or social resources would lose followers and could not expect to be obeyed. While gold and glory motivated fighters and kings alike, Germanic law and custom tried to limit the destructive cycles of violence by instituting a “blood price” or wergild, under which the injured were compensated according to their social status. These laws tell us much about Germanic society. Chieftains and men of fighting age carried a higher blood price than older men, for example, and women of childbearing age were valued more than older women.

Women were often responsible for running the household and doing the bulk of the farming work, especially when men were called to fight or travel. Men might hunt, but their contributions were often the spoils of war, including enslaved people captured in battle who then worked in the household. Germanic society was fully patriarchal, and tribes like the Alemanni beat women whose clothes were deemed immodest (showing the leg above the knee). Germans were also often polygynous; men might have multiple wives at once and be able to divorce at will, while women’s options were severely limited.

The Germans were polytheistic, worshipping various deities such as Wodan, a god of war, wisdom, and death, and his consort Frigg, a goddess of motherhood, marriage, and magic. By the third century, individual Germans were already converting to Christianity. Many, like the Goths and Vandals, adopted Arian Christianity, adhering to the teaching that Jesus and the Father were not identical entities. Once within the Roman Empire, they encountered competing forms of the faith that could become a source of further conflict with Christians and non-Christians alike.

As an example of acculturation, Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, was one of the most dynamic leaders of the post-Roman world. When he became King of Italy in 493, he relied on Roman aristocrats to administer his kingdom, such as the scholar and writer Cassiodorus and the historian and philosopher Boethius. Theodoric also rebuilt Roman infrastructure, including repairing aqueducts and city walls in his kingdom. He used diplomacy to secure alliances with other German kings, often through marriages. To form an alliance with the Franks, for instance, he himself wed Audofleda, the sister of Clovis I, king of the Franks, and he gave his daughters in marriage to other Germanic kings. Envisioning himself as the heir to Roman rule in the west, he maintained ties with the eastern Roman emperors and strove to revive trade with the eastern Mediterranean world. Despite the struggle to maintain order, most rulers attempted to connect with distant civilizations and learned from the peoples around them.

To create common bonds between Romans and Germans, Theodoric settled the Ostrogoths among the Roman population, although religious differences kept them from fully integrating. Toleration was possible and even desired in the early Middle Ages, but distrust between religious groups could spark outright violence and persecution. While he was an Arian Christian, Theodoric tolerated the Catholic population of Italy and attempted to mitigate conflict between the two groups until late in his reign, when his distrust of Catholics led him to persecute them. After his death in 526, the Ostrogoths struggled in Italy, and invasion by both the Byzantines and new invaders called the Lombards left the land devastated and divided.

The most successful Germanic kingdom was that of the Franks. Clovis I, a member of the Merovingian dynasty, founded the kingdom in the early sixth century and offers a striking contrast to Theodoric. Ruthless and violent, Clovis was nevertheless a cunning leader who saw the advantages of diplomacy and the support of the Catholic Church and who was tolerant of religious differences until his conversion to Catholicism. He also worked with Gallo-Roman aristocrats and clergy to strengthen the administration of his kingdom and ensure that Roman institutions continued where they could. Shortly before his death, he convened the first council of Catholic bishops at Orleans, whose proclamations were binding on both the Gallo-Roman population and the Franks. In this case, religion helped unite the two groups.

Over time, the Merovingian rulers fell to violent infighting, leaving their sons or nephews as young and often ineffective successors. A chief source of conflict was the practice of partible inheritance, whereby each son received an equal share of his father’s estate. Estates thus became smaller with each successive generation unless new lands were conquered, often by being taken from siblings, in-laws, or cousins. Kings without land and resources to offer as reward lost the ability to attract fighters. Real power lay with the aristocrats, and eventually a new dynasty called the Carolingians took control of the Frankish kingdom. With the support of the pope, Pépin le Bref (Pippin the Short) became the first Carolingian king of the Franks, deposing his Merovingian rival. In return, he confirmed a grant of lands in Italy to the pope. This grant, known as the Donation of Pepin, provided the legal basis for the establishment of the Papal States and helped ensure that the papacy, the set of administrative structures associated with the government of the Catholic Church, was not just a religious institution but also a territorial power (Figure 13.5).

An image of a painting is shown. The frame surrounding the image is gray with gold trim on the inside. A lion's head is carved at the top with décor surrounding it and a white plaque with décor around it along the bottom. Words are written in black inside the plaque. In the image at the left, a white bearded man sits on a large brown chair atop a two tiered green platform. He wears a tall conical white hat with gold trim, a long white shirtdress with gold décor and a similar robe over his shoulders held together with a red pin. His left arm extends out to a man kneeling in front of him in a black robe and shaved head with one small ring of hair around his head. He holds a white object with black lettering on it and at his knees is a round brown plate holding black skeleton keys. To the left of the sitting man in the forefront stands a tall man in red and white long robes, brown hair and a pale face. He holds his right hand out of his robes. At the right forefront of the image, a man in a long white robe over a long blue robe stands with his left arm extended to the man kneeling. His body is facing the back but his head is turned toward the kneeling man as well . He has short brown hair and a white and black collar on his robes. In the middle background of the image three men sit on a large green bench with a tall back. They wear long pink and white robes and a four pointed pink hat. The two men on the right are facing each other. Behind the bench, eight figures painted brown can be seen standing, wearing large hats and one holding a tall, thin axe. The wall behind them is stone colored in vertical panels. Two dark shadowy figures are seen to the right of the green bench and a figure in red and gray robes stands to the left of the bench with his face obscured.
Figure 13.5 An artist's rendering of the Donation of Pepin in 754, in which the pope granted legitimacy to Pépin le Bref as the first Carolingian king of the Franks in exchange for a grant of lands in Italy that would ensure the territorial power of the Papal States in the centuries to come. (credit: “The donation of Pepin the Short to Pope Stephen II (or Treaty of Quierzy)” by États pontificaux/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Their alliance with the popes allowed the Carolingian rulers to work independently of the Byzantine Empire, which became an important factor in their desire to conquer new territory and revive the idea of empire. It also indicates that even in the chaotic period after the collapse of Roman authority, diplomacy, religious movements, conflict, and opportunity still connected the Mediterranean world and western Europe.

Pépin's son Charles, known as Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”), was the most influential ruler in the early European Middle Ages and one of its best-known figures. Charlemagne was fortunate, as his father had been, in that he did not need to fight his siblings for control of the kingdom. He was tall and energetic and had a profound belief in his role as a Christian ruler, with a will to conquer others and convert them to Catholic Christianity. He campaigned nearly every year of his reign, conquering land and subjugating peoples across central Europe. He reorganized his government and attempted to revive learning, reform the church, and extend his influence beyond his own realm. His vast empire eventually extended from modern France to Germany, northern Italy, and parts of northern Spain and central Europe, uniting western Europe for the first time since the collapse of Roman authority. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. This coronation angered Byzantine rulers and set the stage for conflict between east and west in their quest for prestige and territory. It also enabled both cooperation and conflict between popes and emperors, because each saw an advantage in working together to fight mutual enemies.

In Their Own Words

Charlemagne Receives an Elephant

This excerpt from Vita Karoli Magni, or The Life of Charles the Great, describes how the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid sent Charlemagne an elephant as a gift. The writer is the scholar Einhard, who knew Charlemagne personally, served in his administration, and considered Charlemagne a great king, often excusing his faults and praising his accomplishments.

It added to the glory of his reign by gaining the good will of several kings and nations; so close, indeed, was the alliance that he contracted with Alfonso [II 791–842] King of Galicia and Asturias, that the latter, when sending letters or ambassadors to Charles, invariably styled himself his man. His munificence won the kings of the Scots also to pay such deference to his wishes that they never gave him any other title than lord or themselves than subjects and slaves: there are letters from them extant in which these feelings in his regard are expressed. His relations with Aaron [Harun al-Rashid, 786–809], King of the Persians, who ruled over almost the whole of the East, India excepted, were so friendly that this prince preferred his favor to that of all the kings and potentates of the earth, and considered that to him alone marks of honor and munificence were due. Accordingly, when the ambassadors sent by Charles to visit the most holy sepulcher and place of resurrection of our Lord and Savior presented themselves before him with gifts, and made known their master’s wishes, he not only granted what was asked, but gave possession of that holy and blessed spot. When they returned, he dispatched his ambassadors with them, and sent magnificent gifts, besides stuffs, perfumes, and other rich products of the Eastern lands. A few years before this, Charles had asked him for an elephant, and he sent the only one that he had. The Emperors of Constantinople, Nicephorus [I 802–811], Michael [I, 811–813], and Leo [V, 813–820], made advances to Charles, and sought friendship and alliance with him by several embassies; and even when the Greeks suspected him of designing to wrest the empire from them, because of his assumption of the title Emperor, they made a close alliance with him, that he might have no cause of offense. In fact, the power of the Franks was always viewed by the Greeks and Romans with a jealous eye, whence the Greek proverb ‘Have the Frank for your friend, but not for your neighbor.’

—“Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne,” translated by Samuel Epes Turner

  • How distant are the territories Einhard mentions? What does this suggest about medieval communication?
  • Why might Einhard emphasize that Harun al-Rashid favored Charlemagne above all others? What does the gift of the elephant signify?
  • Why were the Greek rulers anxious about Charlemagne?

Like Theodoric, Charlemagne was more than a conqueror. He hoped to revive Roman institutions, reform the church, and convert people to Christianity. The period of intellectual activity and reorganization of educational and religious institutions that began in his reign is often called the Carolingian Renaissance, meaning a “rebirth” of culture and learning (and “Carolingian” being a reference to Charlemagne). The Carolingian aristocracy supported the building of new palaces and monasteries and promoted artists to decorate these buildings as well as to illustrate (or “illuminate”) books, and the increased emphasis on learning was a way to ensure that the court of the Carolingians was filled with highly educated advisers and associates (Figure 13.6).

An image of a painting is shown on a dark and light gray background with a yellow, swirling floor. Three figures are shown, two at the left and one at the right. The figure on the right sits on an orange and black pillow on a two-tiered, beige platform with brown etchings on the steps. He wears a long gray robe over a white robe, black shoes, and has a white stole with markings of crosses and other designs all over in brown. He has gray receding hair, a gray beard and large almond shaped eyes. He holds a book on his left hand and his right arm is raised with two fingers in the air toward the other two figures who are facing him. The two figures wear gray, brown, and beige robes, black shoes, and the one in the background has his right arm around the other. His hair and beard are gray while the other man in the forefront has a tonsure haircut with brown hair. Tiny words in script are written in three sections across the top.
Figure 13.6 This page from the ninth-century poetry collection In Praise of the Holy Cross shows its author, the Frankish monk and teacher Rabanus Maurus (left), presenting the book to Otgar, archbishop of Mainz (seated at right). The connection between books, clergy, and art is a hallmark of cultural works from the Carolingian era. (credit: “Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right)” by De laudibus sanctae crucis/Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Intellectuals and monks flocked to Charlemagne’s court, where they put their talents to use copying the classical works of ancient Greek and Roman authors and serving in the emperor’s administration. One of the most important of these scholars was Alcuin of York, an Anglo-Saxon who perfected the Carolingian minuscule script. This standard form of handwriting was clearer and easier to read than earlier Roman and Merovingian forms. Carolingian scholars also popularized punctuation marks, like the sentence-ending period. These innovations made it easier for people to learn Latin and contributed to the revival of classical education.

Charlemagne was also a globally minded ruler. He corresponded with the Byzantine rulers, received gifts from the Abbasid caliph, and facilitated the trade of enslaved people taken on his eastern frontier with Al-Andalus (modern Spain).

The Collapse of the Carolingian Empire and the Rise of Feudal Society

Charlemagne’s empire did not last. The emperor was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious, who continued the revival of learning and was deeply involved in church reform. Members of the church’s hierarchy, like the monk Benedict of Aniane, believed that both spiritual and administrative matters had declined, so Louis gave Benedict authority to reform all monasteries in the Frankish empire by promoting the strict observance of rules about what monks could eat and when and how they should work and pray. Carolingian reformers took inspiration from the monks of Ireland, who brought with them both their ascetic style of religious practice and their handsomely copied books of classical literature. The reform of the monasteries thus helped to preserve Carolingian cultural developments and classical learning.

Louis’s religious and intellectual projects were influential, but the weaknesses of the Carolingian state worked against him. He was not viewed as the imposing warrior his father had been, so soldiers looked elsewhere for glory and loot. And his sons, impatient to rule, rebelled against him in his lifetime. They eventually forced him to abdicate, and under the principle of partible inheritance, in 843 they divided the empire among them in an agreement called the Treaty of Verdun.

The Frankish empire became three territories: the Kingdom of the West Franks (west of the Rhine River), the Kingdom of the East Franks (east of the Rhine), and a middle region called Lotharingia that included Italy. None of Louis’s sons found the settlement acceptable, and their need for more land to reward their supporters ensured further conflict. When they died, their own sons faced diminished holdings, and an ever-increasing need to wage war ensured that the stability of the kingdoms weakened. Thus, Charlemagne and Louis’s efforts to resurrect the Roman Empire as a Christian state guided by Germanic leaders crumbled.

These internal problems were worsened by external ones, especially new invaders emboldened by the collapse of Carolingian strength. From the east came nomadic raiders, the Magyars, a non-Germanic people who migrated from the steppes of central Asia. At the end of the ninth century, they settled in what is today Hungary, and from there they launched devastating raids for plunder into Germany. Only in 955 did the German king Otto the Great manage to break the power of the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld. From the south, the fragmentation of Islamic political unity led petty rulers to raid the now-weakened coasts of Christian Europe. North African dynasties like the Aghlabids pushed into Sicily in the ninth century, and by 846, Islamic raiders had sacked churches on the outskirts of Rome.

Perhaps more famous today than the Magyars and Islamic raiders were the Norse who raided northern Europe from Scandinavia, called the Vikings. The peoples of Scandinavia, who spoke Germanic languages, had a culture similar to that of the Germanic peoples who settled in the Roman Empire. For example, Scandinavians were polytheistic, worshipping gods like Odin and Freyja who were similar to earlier Germanic deities like Wodan and Frigg. The aristocracy practiced polygyny (having many wives), and local chieftains rewarded their followers with lands and gifts. The growth of the population in the eighth century and the relative lack of arable land in Scandinavia compelled groups of Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes to travel in search of plunder. Some went eastward, using their shallow-drought ships (ships that could navigate rivers), and made trading connections along the Dnieper River, establishing settlements at Kiev that eventually became one of the first Russian states. They reached Constantinople, and some served as the personal bodyguard to the Byzantine ruler. These Vikings were known as Varangians, and they settled in eastern Europe. Although violent, they were also traders, interested in paving the way for new settlements and connections beyond western Europe.

In the west, the arrival of the Norse raiders was less benign. They attacked in small groups that could travel far upriver and surprise settlements, destroy them, and be gone before resistance could be organized. They specifically targeted churches and monasteries, not only for their loot but also because they lacked defenses. Vikings destroyed the monastery of Lindisfarne in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which had been a celebrated center of learning. Their reputation for ferocity may have been exaggerated by clerical authors, but the sudden nature of the violent raids, and the inability of Frankish or Anglo-Saxon armies to defeat them, instilled fear in the population of western Europe.

Eventually, the Norse raiders began to settle in regions rather than just raid them. In 865, a substantial army of Vikings invaded Britain and destroyed most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. In 911, they settled in northern France, establishing the duchy of Normandy. By the end of the tenth century, Vikings had also established settlements throughout the British Isles, including Ireland and Scotland, farther west in Iceland and Greenland, and even (though briefly) in North America. Not just raiders, they promoted trade throughout northern Europe and beyond, extending their trading routes to the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. Like the earlier Germanic peoples, they eventually converted to Roman Christianity, and their kings began to build more centralized kingdoms that enabled them to curb the violence of the raiders. Their conversion did not mean a wholesale abandonment of their existing culture and tradition. Early Scandinavian churches were decorated with images of heroes and villains from Norse mythology. This overlap of tradition and innovation reflects the persistence of cultural exchange between Germanic peoples and Greek and Roman cultures that created the foundation for medieval society.

Beyond the Book

Norse Art and Christian Architecture

Stave churches were Christian churches built in Scandinavia early in the period of conversion to Christianity. Their interior and exterior decoration often depicted themes and images from the pre-Christian era, such as heroes from the sagas of the Vikings. The Borgund Stave Church, built around 1200 in Norway, is adorned with four dragon heads on the top ridges of the roof (Figure 13.7).

A gray pencil drawing of a large building is shown with mountains in the background. The terrain in the front and sides of the building is bare, rocky, with only two small houses seen in the far right. Seven figures are shown standing in the left foreground in long dresses, white shirts with dark pants, and all wearing hats. The building is several tiers built on top of each other. The roofs appear tiled with peaks at every tier. Crosses sit at some of the peaks and toward the top of the building dragon like projections sit atop four peaks. Windows are seen along the lower levels as well as a door with a round room on the right of the building with two more round tiers on top.
Figure 13.7 This nineteenth-century rendering of Borgund Stave Church was made by the Norwegian author Christian Tønsberg. (credit: “Franz Wilhelm Schiertz Borgunds Kirke i Lærdal i Sogn” by Norge fremstillet i Tegninger fra Digitalarkivet/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • Why would people converting to Christianity want to keep art and imagery from their earlier history?
  • Why would Christian clergy accept pre-Christian images to decorate their churches?
  • What appeal and use would such imagery have for both the religious authorities and the patrons who designed medieval churches? What about for the newly converted?

In the ashes of the Carolingian world, medieval Europe embraced a social system called feudalism that emerged from the basic need for security and was defined by unequal relationships. Looking to protect their territories and their peasants, lords began to grant lands to fighters as their fiefs, whose produce the warriors could enjoy so long as they served the lord. For their part, fighters became vassals of the lord, sworn to perform service in exchange for the land. This service was chiefly military in nature, but it could also include other obligations like advising the lord and attending his court when called. Bishoprics and monasteries behaved the same way; abbots and abbesses could be lords who were owed service and also owed service to greater lords.

While feudalism was not a political system, warriors owed service to lords who owed service to the king, who in theory was the largest landowner in the kingdom and the guarantor of rights and privileges. For example, the late Carolingian king Charles the Simple granted the Duchy of Normandy to the Viking leader Rollo, so long as Rollo protected northern France from other Vikings. However, the need to placate their feudal lords ensured that kings gave away lands and privileges, often weakening them and driving them to look for ways to maximize their resources. They might consider advantageous marriages, for example, in which women were expected to bring a dowery of property or money. In other cases, crushing rebellious vassals was a way of taking back needed land.

On their fiefs, the warriors oversaw the work of agricultural laborers. Some laborers might own their own land and be self-directed, but most in western Europe were unfree, servile laborers called serfs who were tied to the land. They were not enslaved and could not be bought or sold, but they occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, could be physically abused by the lord, were forced to provide labor and goods for the lord, and rarely had any rights a lord was obligated to acknowledge. All these limitations existed despite the serfs’ being the largest class of people in European society at the time (Figure 13.8).

A vibrant picture is shown of three figures on a dark green background inside a brown and white letter “a” on a blue square with white “x” marks and dots throughout. The figure on the left is bald except for a ring of curly brown hair around his head, has rosy cheeks and lips, wears a long blue and brown robe and is barefoot. He faces to the right where a warrior stands with an orange upside down triangle shield with white designs. He wears a dark blue helmet covering his entire face, a dark blue sleeveless shirt with his neck, arms, and legs covered with blue stockings with white dots all over. Behind the warrior stands a figure with short hair, rosy cheeks and lips, wearing a helmet with a strap under the chin. He wears short brown robes, is barefoot, and holds a shovel in front of him facing the warrior.
Figure 13.8 This illuminated initial letter from a thirteenth-century French manuscript shows the key members of the medieval European social order: a member of the clergy, a warrior, and a laborer (left to right). (credit: “Cleric-Knight-Workman/MS Sloane 2435, folio 85” by British Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The lord was required to protect the serfs, resolve their disputes, and administer their work. Serfs owed their lord a set number of days of service a year (these were many) and could not leave the land, marry, or undertake other work without the lord’s permission. Under manorialism or the manor system, named for the manor house occupied by the lord, serfs (or other varieties of servile, unfree workers) were brought together into villages where their labor could be cooperative. They tended both their own and their lord’s land, sharing draft animals and farm implements to undertake the planting and harvesting of crops. Women tended smaller livestock and vegetable gardens near their homes. Although cities on the coast often maintained commercial or networking ties with each other, society in western Europe was overwhelmingly rural, and production was largely at the subsistence level. People produced what they were going to consume, and surplus went to the lord or the church as a mandatory tax, usually 10 percent, called the tithe.

This system of social obligations and ties between the serfs and their lords, and the lords and the kings, framed the economic and political world of the Middle Ages. By the tenth century, the old Roman Empire was largely forgotten by the general population, while medieval kings and nobles had reimaged and transformed the idea of the Roman Empire to serve and legitimize their own purposes. A new society began to emerge based on a combination of Roman, Christian, and Germanic traditions.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax