Western Europe from 400 - 1000 AD


Europe from 400 - 1000 AD

The changes that occurred in Western Europe,
from the "Fall of the Roman Empire" until 1000 A.D., transpired in a series
of events involving the actions and movements of many peoples across the
continent. This period of history following the Fall and preceding
the High Middle Ages was a chaotic time in which an aversion to central
power became the norm, warfare ran rampant, and yet the foundations for

Western civilization were formed.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman

Empire in the late fifth century, the Mediterranean Sea was still a center
of trade and travel. Rome was still considered a prestigious piece
of real estate to own, as it had been the seat of power for several centuries
in Western Europe. Constantinople's influence and geographic location
helped it to remain a huge center of trade for Europe and Asia, and that
would continue for centuries to come. (McEvedy, p25, 40) Consequently,
this created a surplus in the treasury sufficient for Justinian to attempt
a reconquering of the West in the early to mid-sixth century.

However, in later centuries, Western Europe
became more land based, and the center moved north of the Mediterranean
coast. As the Roman Empire had been agrarian based, so was the lifestyle
for the myriad of cultures and peoples that had migrated to the West.

The land there was well suited for it as, "Northwestern Europe's dependable,
year-round rainfall and the fertile soils of its numerous river valleys
encourage agricultural productivity." (Hollister, p56-57) The
new kingdoms that formed placed their interests in these fertile valleys
of the West, and not so much in the Mediterranean.

At its height in the second century A.D.,
the Roman Empire contained around 45 million people. By its Fall,
the number had been reduced to around 22 million, and population did not
really begin to rise again until the mid-eleventh century. (Hollister,
p146) The shrinking of the cities that began in the late fifth century
continued unabated. For the next 500 years, there was no city of
decent size anywhere in the West. Plagues, which appeared sporadically
throughout Europe, killed about one third of the populace each time it
made a resurgence. The only possible population expansion was occurring
in Scandinavia, and may have been responsible for their invasions in the
ninth century.

The basis for the economy at the time of
the Fall was slave-driven agriculture. The slaves were mostly acquired
as booty from Roman conquest, "but as the frontiers jelled and the flow
of war captives dwindled, the chief source of slaves was cut off." (Hollister,
p13) Thus the turn to coloni, a form of sharecropper who, while technically
free, nevertheless evolved into the semi-free serf so prevalent in later

Trade broke down markedly in the West after
the Fall, due to the lack of cultural unity between manufacturing centers
that had existed under the Empire. In addition, without a central
government providing protection for merchants, those transporting goods
by land or sea were prone to attacks by pirates. Taxes in turn became
tribute, or protection money, paid to a local warlord to prevent lands
from being pillaged.

Agriculture remained the economic center
of life, although the forms it existed in altered. Earlier settlements
consisted of, "scattered individual farms, or small clusters of them."
(Hollister, p139) And the Germanic tribes practiced slash-and-burn
agriculture, which is by nature nomadic. Later settlements became
more structured, taking on the more permanent form of villages. The
basic type of village consisted of houses set close together, surrounded
by great fields, specializing in different crops. This type of grouping
became the norm of civilization, as cities were rare.

Charlemagne standardized weights and measures
which made determining value of goods easier. He also minted coinage,
facilitating tax collecting as well as determining wealth. When he
seized the Avar treasury, it created an influx of new money to the Western

During the Carolingian reign, nobles were
granted booty as reward and incentive to support the current king.

The problem inherent with this system is that it requires a constant stream
of war and victories to appease the nobles. Therefore, "with the
flow of lands and booty drying up, many great landholders deserted the
monarchy and looked to their own interests." (Hollister, p109) Another
issue with this system is that it creates hereditary titles that may not
feel allegiance to the monarch. To solve this aspect, lands and titles
were granted to members of the clergy, who because of vows of celibacy
did not have children. Thus at the demise of the clergyman, the title
and lands would revert back to the crown to be awarded to someone else.

At the time of the Fall and for most of
history, the great