- by Simone Render
The Dark Ages. The time of Ragnar Lodbrok, of King Arthur, of Charlemagne and his paladins. During this time Viking raiders ranged as far afield as Russia, Italy, even North America, while great Muslim armies established a Caliphate that stretched from modern-day Pakistan all the way to Spain. If the sagas are to be believed, Beowulf and heroes like him even slew monsters during this age.
More properly the Early Medieval Period, the Dark Ages was the span of time from around the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in 476AD, until the Norman invasion of England in 1066AD. The Dark Ages often get lumped in with the Middle Ages, but it had a distinctive character that was very different from the era of chivalry. Where the High Medieval was a time of knights and archers, of castles and cathedrals, the Dark Ages was a time of wooden hillforts and warbands armed with spear and axe. Technology hadn't yet progressed to the point where stirrups, plate armour or heavy stone fortifications were widespread, and warriors relied much more on individual bravery and skill than on formations and technology.
The Lay of the Land
Dark Age Europe was a bleak, brutal world that was defined by hardship, especially in the early centuries of the period. Much of the learning and technology developed by the Romans was lost or fell into disuse, and the period coincided with a colder climate that lasted almost four centuries, peaking in a "Little Ice Age" that lasted from 536AD to around 660AD. As a result, harvests were often poor and famines frequent, and some historians theorise that the harsher climate may have been a significant factor in the Vikings leaving their shores in search of plunder and land.
Disease was another constant in every life. People had very little medical knowledge, and death due to infection and illness was all too common. Plagues would also periodically break out, ravaging communities further. The plague of Justinian in 541AD spread throughout Europe in a matter of years for example, destroyed the emperor's plans to reconquer the West. This was followed in 664AD by the Yellow Plague in the British Isles, with further regional outbreaks common throughout the period.
Subject to so much hardship and uncertainty, people naturally turned to religion and superstition to try and make some sense of what was happening around them. Priests were as powerful as kings in many ways, able to sweep up bloodlust and religious fervour, inspire mighty deeds, or even to call upon their gods to rain damnation down on their enemies, or to take a peek at things to come. As much as they held the keys to the gods, priests were also keepers of knowledge, preserving their ancestral lore or the fragmentary knowledge of the Romans and Greeks. They accumulated wealth and learning in their monasteries and pagan temples, and in turn taught and ministered to the communities that lived around them.
Yet despite these enlightened ways, religion somehow always ended up as perfect excuse for a good war. A king who had the blessings of his god, or of the priests representing him at least, could get away with practically anything. Wars were fought for land and other resources, for strategic benefit or to extract payments of tribute, but it never hurt to dismiss the followers of a different god as somehow less than human, thereby justifying killing them and taking their land.
War was a way of life in the Dark Ages, and with all of Europe and the Middle East in upheaval, there was opportunity aplenty for a strong man (or woman) who knew how to swing a sword or wield a spear. Warriors fought for honour and glory as often as for plunder, carving out petty kingdoms that were almost invariably replaced by the next warhost that came along. Many cultures of the time glorified warrior culture, believing that great deeds were necessary to ensure one's place in the afterlife, so naturally the greatest warriors became larger than life figures, legends who could best dragons, demons and entire armies.
Cultures and Societies
Under most Germanic and Celtic tribal traditions, every man, from peasant to prince, was expected to be able to hold his own in battle, required by law to own and maintain a shield and spear at the very lEast. Feudalism hadn't yet evolved as the rigid system it would later become, so while slavery and serfdom certainly existed, most farmers were freemen variously known as ceorls, karls or kerls, depending on where in Europe they lived. These freemen were landowner farmers who paid their taxes in return in return for protection and support. In times of war, these men would be mobilised to defend their communities or to go raiding foreign shores. This system was known as the Fyrd amongst the Saxons and the Leding in Viking cultures, but equivalent systems existed throughout Europe.
Men weren't alone in being expected to be able to defend themselves, and many cultures even welcomed women on the battlefield. Various Celtic and Saxon graves have been found to contain the bodies of women, buried with their weapons, while the Viking "shield maidens" are famous (or infamous) for their skill in battle. Women fought in the Muslim conquests, in Kievan Rus (modern-day Russia) and across Europe, and queens such as Athelflaed of Mercia and Olga of Kiev are legendary as great rulers and strategists. Men and women still had clearly defined roles within their communities, and men were more equal than women, but Celtic and early Germanic cultures respected women as "partners in toils and dangers ... in peace and in war", according to the Roman historian Tacitus.
Matters of law and leadership were decided in an assembly of freemen known as the "thing", "witan" or "folk moot", with laws often focussing on managing the interactions between people, as opposed to matters of rule. Kingship was hereditary, but a new king could only assume the throne through election, as all sons had a right to claim the throne. The king served as judge, priest and general to his people, and his decisions were subject to the advice of the assembly.
Societies subject to Christan Roman culture, such as Byzantium and later Frankia, were more rigid in their attitudes towards social and gender roles. Influenced by the hierarchical nature of the Roman Empire and the attitudes of Christianity, these societies were more strict in their definitions of various castes, with those who worked the land far beneath those who owned it. Women also were expected to stay firmly under the control of their fathers or husbands, and their place was the home. Leadership was hereditary and power absolute, and to wander too far out of your station in life was a quick way to get yourself in serious trouble.
With the spread of Christianity and the influence of Charlemagne on other Germanic rulers, these attitudes gradually spread throughout Europe, giving rise to hereditary monarchy, divine right, and the feudal system we associate with the High Middle Ages. Traditional tribal bonds gradually evolved into feudal duties, or the laws of conquerers replaced the way things had been done before. The Norman invasions of Britain and the Christianization of Scandinavia put the final nail in the old pagan ways, and marked the end of the Dark Ages.
Western Rome fell in 476AD after enduring more than a century of repeated invasion by various barbarian peoples. The Ostrogoths who finally sacked Rome and took Italia (Italy) for themselves were the last in a long line of would-be conquerors. They weren't the only ones though. All across Europe the Goths were on the move, driving the native Celtic peoples before them and establishing kingdoms of their own. The Visigoths, Western cousins to the Ostrogoths, claimed Iberia (modern-day Spain), while the Vandals took North Africa. The Merovingian Franks established what would later become France in Gaul, and in the British Isles, the Celtic Britons were pushed to its Western-most edge by the invading Saxons.
Where Western Rome had fallen, the Eastern Empire endured, watching from Constantinople as what had once been the greatest power in the world fell to savages. The barbarian kingdoms did gradually become Christianized, and increasingly took their inspiration from Rome, but in the East's eyes they would always be barbarians. So in 532AD, Byzantium launched a series of invasions to reclaim the West. Within years they had taken back much of what had been lost, but their ambitions were halted by determined resistance by the Germanic kingdoms, and crushed by the plague of 541AD. Frankia moved to fill the void they left in the West, while from the East the new religion of Islam would soon prove the Empire's greatest threat.
In just over a century, Islam had gone from a virtually unknown religion to a power that united lands from Western India all the way to North Africa. Under the Umayyads, the Caliphate brought Constantinople to the brink of ruin in 718AD, and conquered Iberia in just a few years before turning to Gaul. Over the next decade they pushed rapidly North, defeating the Frankish army on multiple occasions and claiming ever more of Frankia. It seemed certain that they would eventually conquer all of Europe, but in 732AD, the Franks finally turned the tide under Charles Martel, named "The Hammer" in honour of his victory. Under Martel and his son Pepin, the Franks eventually retook all of Gaul and pushed the Saracens, as the Europeans called them, back into Iberia. Martel's grandson Charlemagne would expand the empire to become the single most powerful and influential state of the Dark Ages, but it and the rest of Europe would not go unchallenged.
The Vikings were Danish, Norse and Swedish raiders who ranged South in longships to plunder, trade and settle. The Saxons, having long since taken most of Britain for themselves, were the first to come under attack in 793AD, and soon they were facing wave upon wave of invasion, culminating in the Great Heathen Army claiming almost half the island for themselves, and establishing the Danelaw in 867AD. Ireland and Scotland also faced invasion, with the Northmen forging kingdoms from the Hebrides in the North, down to Dublin and Cork along Ireland's South-Eastern coast. To the East, the Swedes explored down the Volga and Dnieper rivers, establishing Kievan Rus in 882AD, and trading as far South as Baghdad.
The Franks didn't escape the Vikings' attentions either. Subject to almost continuous raiding from the mid 830's, Charles the Simple granted Normandy to the Viking leader Rollo in 911AD. Rollo got baptized, swore fealty to the king, and promised to protect the Franks from his former countrymen in return for wealth, a title, and marriage to the king's daughter Gisela. The Normans would return to their conquering ways less than a century later, claiming Sicily and Southern Italy for themselves, invading England in 1066AD and ushering in the Medieval Era.
The Viking age ended as the Vikings themselves integrated with the cultures they had conquered, and Scandinavia was gradually Christianized. Over the 200-odd years of the Viking Age the Northmen had opened Europe up to itself and its neighbours, trading in valuables, slaves and information all across Europe and Western Asia. They left very little behind that was uniquely "Viking" behind in the lands they conquered, but it isn't unreasonable to argue that they played a significant role in creating Europe as we know it today. By mixing theirs with other cultures so completely, by bringing news and knowledge from distant lands and by stimulating trade and technological innovation, they were instrumental in moving the continent from the Dark Ages to the Medieval period.
The Dark Ages were a period of immense hardship for the people of Europe, but it was also an exciting time, one of change and opportunity where anything could have happened. In the ruins of the old world, new kingdoms rose and fell, some known to us only because they happened to be mentioned in the writings of some monk or court scribe somewhere. Whole dynasties of kings came and went, their stories largely left untold. It is the perfect setting for tales of larger-than-life heroes, of warrior kings, reavers and conquerors.
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Special thanks this week to Undevicesimus for the fantastic cartography featured in this article. Undevicesimus is a Belgian Cartographer who creates the most beautiful and informative historical maps I have come across anywhere. Check out the rest of his work at his Deviant Art portfolio.