Increasingly, I find myself moving backward in time: moving earlier in Europe's past. My most recent stop is the early medieval period - specifically the stretch between the fall of Rome in 410 and the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
To learn more, I picked up J. M. Wallace-Hadrill's Barbarian West, which provides an accessible, if at times dated, approached to the period.
I took away several points:
- While the fall of Rome was a profound event, it did not happen over night. In fact, Wallace-Hadrill argues that by the tenth century, Europeans across what are today France and Germany continued to imagine themselves as successors to Rome. In this way, the collapse of the empire extended for the better part of six centuries, with rulers fashioning themselves as inheritors to that golden age.
- It remains something of a mystery what precipitated the migration of the Huns west toward Europe in the fourth century. Regardless, the result was significant: the Goths (of what is now Germany) were awakened, and pushed, for the first time, toward Rome. Chaos ensued as mobilized groups of both Huns and Goths worked their way south and west. The empire never recovered.
- Wallace-Hadrill provides a compelling vision of the tenth century, especially: First, the notion of empire, he argues, had been exchanged for a local experience (of law, politics, and economics). Wallace-Hadrill writes, for instance, of local lords, and identifies the birth of feudalism with this final push away from Roman ideas of empire. Second, while individuals were organized according to local forces, nations nevertheless took shape. France emerged during this period as a coherent geographical space, ruled by a recognized king. That monarch had both civic and ecclesiastical power, a mixture with which Wallace-Hadrill associates the tenth century.
- No doubt, the introduction of Christianity into the early medieval landscape produced a complex set of results - none, perhaps, more profound than the dynamic confronting the crumbling Roman empire. Wallace-Hadrill provides a helpful juxtaposition: was the collapse of the empire to be seen as fate or as the withering of fortune? Was it the result of divine intervention or human folly? And further, if Christinaity was to be accepted, where did individual salvation fit into the mix?
- With marauding groups from the north and east encircling Rome, there might not have time to fully consider these questions, but they could not have been ignored. The answers, it seems, were delayed: indeed, as Wallace-Hadrill suggests, they didn't emerge until centuries later, when the feudal system finally replaced - for better or worse - the Roman system of rule. By this time, individual salvation was the name of the game.