How Dark were the "Dark Ages"?  A.D. 400 - 1000


            Imagine our civilization gradually crumbling away.  At first small failures and crises would inconvenience us. Perhaps inflation would steadily worsen.  Our existing institutions would continue but nothing new would appear. As things became worn out, we would not repair or replace them because we no longer cared. Little problems like uncollected garbage, power failures, potholed roads, and no police protection at night, would become commonplace. As a sense of lethargy set in further more serious problems would arise. Police and fire protection might break down completely when cities cannot match their union's demands. Governments might print so much money to cover their debts that inflation gets out of control. One hundred dollars today only buys as much as fifty dollars yesterday.  Soon our entire monetary system and economy would crash.  Stores and farmers would not accept cash, only other goods or services. City-dwellers might move out as industries and stores close and the city becomes unable to maintain sanitation, water, and electrical services. Eventually, if this continued for three or four generations, our civilization would die. People would only be concerned about their day-to-day survival. More complex concerns like formal education, scientific research, and government would have to wait.  The only rule would be survival of the strongest, quickest, and best prepared. 


        This is what life in Europe was like between A.D. 400 and 900.  While the eastern half of the Roman Empire survived for another thousand years as the Byzantine Empire,  the western half of the Roman Empire was slowly crumbling. Its institutions - rule by law, the legions, efficient administration, and international trade - were all breaking down.  Successive waves of barbarian invasions by Goths, Vandals, and Huns accelerated this process.  By A.D. 500 many petty kingdoms had replaced the western empire. Here and there powerful local warlords tried to keep miniature imitations of the Empire alive, but none lasted for long.


Collapse of the Western Empire Time Line


AD 167 - Germans raid Italy and Greece and then retreat.

       200 - Visigoths and Ostrogoths move to Russia.

       367 - Picts and Scots invade England.

       370 - Huns invade Europe.

        406 - Vandals, Alans and Suevis invade Gaul (France).

        410 - Visigoths capture Rome, settle in Spain and southern France.

        421 - Angles and Saxons invade Britain.

        429 - Vandals invade north Africa. Burgundians and Franks invade France and Italy.

        451 - Huns invade France, but retreat after defeat at Chalons.

        455 - Vandals conquer Rome.

In this world you belonged to one of four groups:


1. You were part of one of the huge, migrant tribes from the east. You were a Goth, Visigoth, Ostrogoth, Vandal, Lombard, or Hun. Your entire tribe was always on the move. The men rode horses, the families travelled in wagons. The entire tribe was held together by blood ties. You didn’t identify yourself by you town or country, your identify came from the tribe or clan you belonged to. Families, servants and slaves belonged to the family’s dominant male. Each family head followed the leader of one branch of a clan. Each leader of a clan’s branch obeyed the overall clan leader, the clan leaders held council and obeyed the leader of the entire tribe. This huge family hierarchy was essential to every aspect of tribal life - how decisions were made and enforced, how disputes were settled, the social standing of every person, how the tribe fought battles, how the tribes’ wealth was distributed. Eventually after generations of wandering, raiding and looting these tribes settled down on land they seized from the local peoples. The tribal leaders became kings, their clan leaders became lords, and the family heads became rulers over villages. This is one origin of the feudal system.  


2. You lived in the Roman Empire but you fled up into the hills or other remote areas before the barbarians caught up to you. Sometimes the richest, most successful person in a Roman town

abandoned town life and took his family and friends up into the hills. There they created a fortified farm community. The hope was that the barbarians would by-pass such areas and search for easier victims. The best most people could hope for was to band together, look after their crops and hope trouble passed them by.  You were on your own. You could not expect any help from others. This meant that any sort of problem could be fatal -Viking raids, drought, epidemics, livestock losses, fires, almost anything. For most life was definitely nasty, brutal, and short.



3. In a few areas the local population and the legions fought together against the barbarians. The centre of Gaul survived in this way. The local Frankish  people and the Roman legions defeated Attila and the Huns at the battle of Chalons. Subsequent generations of locals continued the defence of their land and as a result the Kingdom of the Franks survived the Dark Ages in relatively good shape. By AD 700 the Kings of the Franks and their mounted warriors were able to defeat Islamic invaders and drive them out of France.  By AD 800 the Frankish king, Charlemagne, ruled an empire including all of modern France, Belgium, and parts of Spain and  Italy. Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire broke up after his death, but in many ways he was the first great medieval ruler. 

4. The majority of the people in the western empire were not so lucky - they were either captured as slaves by the barbarians or they died from war, starvation or disease. Between AD 350 and AD 800 the population of Europe dropped by 75% from sixty million people to fifteen million.



Beyond this, almost everything that made life in the Roman Empire good, was in ruins.


            - International, regional and even local trade was gone. Every village had to be self-sufficient. If the village could not grow it or make it, then you had to do without. Many parts of Europe no longer had access to metals, because mining had stopped. People had to scavenge old iron, bronze or copper and reuse it - or make do with things made out of wood. In the Dark Ages the death farm animals, unexpected bad weather, or a crop disease all led to suffering or  starvation in the village. People lived from month to month and year to year entirely on what they could grow or make. Life expectancy was terrible. Mothers were so malnourished and sanitation was so poor that one baby in five died before the age of one. Life expectancy for the survivors was very low - about age 30 to 35. The same as the poorest countries of the Third World today.


            - Most of the cities and towns of the Empire were in ruins. The populations fled as food supplies ceased and barbarian raids increased. The towns became ghost towns. The buildings still stood - often without their roofs - but the people were gone. Gradually the survivors returned to the town to scavenge anything of value - metals, tools, and stone or brick for buildings. The Huns and Germanic tribes could only make wooden buildings - like pioneer log cabins. Their villages and towns consisted of wood huts surrounded by a palisade of wooden stakes


            - All knowledge of medicine, engineering, science, geography, history, the arts, were gone. The great libraries full of scrolls became bonfires. Today experts estimate that 90% of Greek and Roman knowledge was lost forever during the Dark Ages. The Greek and Roman knowledge we have today comes from a few libraries in Syria and Turkey that were never looted by invaders. By Ad 700 possibly one person in 100 or less could read and write in western Europe.    


            - The religions of the Empire died. The Dark Ages ended the worship of the old Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods. One version of Christianity, the Greek Orthodox Church survived, as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. This is still the dominant form of Christianity in Eastern Europe and Russia. In the west, the Roman Catholic Church barely survived. A few pockets of Catholic believers held on - in the shells of ruined towns, up in the hills or on remote islands off the coast of Europe . By AD 700 less than five percent of the people in western Europe were Christians. Copies of the Gospels, the New Testament or the entire Bible were extremely rare. The Catholic Church would likely have died if Charlemagne had not decided to make Christianity the official religion of his empire.  


            Some creative changes were occurring, however.  Rome's civilization was gone, but the seeds of a new one were germinating. Christianity, chivalry, and the feudal or vassal system would form the foundations of the medieval world. This was not easily apparent at the time, however. By A.D. 600 Christian congregations existed throughout Europe, but they were small and isolated. The remaining centres of learning were the monasteries and they only survived in areas that were too remote for the Huns and Vikings to loot them. No books existed in the rest of Europe, and if they had, no one knew how to read them.


            The concepts of chivalry and feudalism were also at a rudimentary stage.  "Knights" did not exist in the "Dark Ages". What did exist, however, were many bands of fighting men loyal to local warrior-chiefs. These were full-time warriors with leather and chain armour and iron swords, axes, or spears. Tribal oaths or a sense of mutual interest tied them to their leaders.  In return they received land, horses, and a share of any pillage.  The horses were especially important. They gave a warrior a much greater range and greater killing potential.  The invention of the foot stirrup and the breeding of larger horses made these mounted warriors fearsome foes for even the Vikings and the Spanish Moors.


            The feudal system may have developed out of the oaths between a warrior and his chief, or it might have been a relic of the patrician-client arrangement on Roman farms.  In either case, by A.D. 800 it was already the basis of medieval society and government.  The basic idea is simple. You owe loyalty and service to a more powerful person above you. In return he may give you land (or the right to farm his land), leadership, and protection. In a similar arrangement, your

superior might owe allegiance to an even more powerful warrior, and you might control people even less powerful than yourself. In the Eighth and Ninth Centuries these ties were very simple and the entire chain might have just one or two links - peasant to warrior, or, peasant to warrior to duke. In time, however, very complex and formalized oaths would bind all of Medieval society together.


            In these four hundred years Europe was transformed. By A.D. 400 Rome's immense empire was breaking apart. For the next five hundred years chaos ruled as new institutions

slowing emerged from the ruins. It would take until A.D.900 for a new civilization to appear, one based on Christian faith, vassals' oaths, and its knights' armour.