History--The English Early Middle Ages

In the fourteenth century, Francesco Petrarch—probably better known as the poet Petrarch—spoke of the folk of the post-classical world (so often considered a Dark Age before then) as “surrounded by darkness and dense gloom.” Petrarch felt that contemporary culture was so enlightened compared to that which followed the fall of Roman that he felt justified in describing a stagnant and ignorant period of time when nothing of any importance happened. As he noted, “What else, then, is all history, but the praise of Rome?” His feeling and his term became universal in short while.

This dismal and prejudiced view of the era between the fall of Rome and the start of the Renaissance continued for centuries. The exact dates involved changed from time to time, and the era encompassed by the “dark Ages” is, even today, controversial. It is traditionally thought that the era begins with the Fall of Rome to the “barbarians” in 476, but it ended sometime before the fourteenth century, or the reign of Charlemagne, the Millennium or the Battle of Hastings. The term “Middle Ages” was not invented for another century.

From the beginning, then, the term was a pejorative. That image persisted until fairly recently, when Academics decided that with the many developments, discoveries and inventions during a period thought stagnant and inert insured that the time was not an Age of darkness. Finding an alternative term has been difficult, although many person like the term “Early Middle Ages,” although there are people who find the term “Middle Ages” itself to be rather pejorative and rather parochial. Answer.com’s Archaeological Dictionary says, “The term is not very helpful, as it suggests that little is known about the period. The ‘darkness’ referred mainly to the paucity of evidence for the period, a paucity now partly remedied and more apparent than real.” Though we sometimes employ the term “Dark Ages” in our shows, it is merely because most spectators are familiar with what the term entails (just the Bayeux Tapestry is really an embroidery, but when you say “bayeux Tapestry” most people know to what you are referring), though we try to qualify this term during conversations with the public. For the purposes of this , I will use the preferable term, “Early Middle Ages.”

The Early Middle Ages was a time that was recently—and in some corners still is today—thought of backwards and stagnant was actually vibrant, artistic and innovative. Archaeological research, especially in the last two decades, has shown us that the culture had many bright spots. In fact, the craftsmanship and artistry could not, in many cases, be bettered today. Innovations and inventions continued to appear. Stirrups became widespread after an introduction in eighth-century Europe (yes, the Roman centurions had no stirrups). New types of animal collars allowed draft animals to haul heavy weights without choking themselves. Roads continued to be paved with wood rather than stone, and led to major municipalities rather than just to Rome. Quill pens were first really used in the seventh century, and books instead of scrolls began to become popular after the fall of Rome while they were introduced to Europe in the first century ce. Other inventions and innovations also came about during what was considered for so long as a backward and stagnant period, including the use of hops in beer.

Some of the classical writings, such as Galen’s medical books, continued to be circulated after the fall of Rome. Some were lost. Many more were ignored or denigrated by the burgeoning Church. Although copies remained in far-off Irish monasteries or in the Middle east, they did become intently ignored in most of Europe and were introduced into the culture only when copies were discovered after the crusades, and the church had changed enough to tolerate their views. Literacy was low during this time and discouraged by the Church to protect against new and independent thought. Even after censorship receded, it still protruded into many areas, and literacy was not encouraged for some time.

The image of the fall of Rome has been hotly debated recently. Terry Jones, in his book and series of documentaries, Barbarians, has shown that the Roman Empire was not as exalted as portrayed, and the barbarians were, indeed, not as barbaric. The entrance of the Goths into Rome was not a moment of rape and ruin. In fact, the Roman Empire ran rough-shod over many of the technological and social innovations of the so-called barbaric world. What Rome did provide was a widespread political stability. When the Roman Empire became smaller and relocated to the East, the Christian Church stepped in to provide a certain amount of stability. However, a certain vacuum was created, and the Roman Empire had made certain that there was no large and effective political entities. Ads a result, there was a lot of tumult as minor chieftains tried to re-create the role of Rome. The times could be tumultuous, although life could also be peaceable and prosperous.

Much of the tumult was settled down in England by the time that we re-create. However, not all. England had been unified as a single kingdom, but there were still pockets of resistence. Some Norse were being peacefully assimilated into the overall culture, but there were still raiders and invaders from Scandinavia (in fact, they took reigns of the whole government, incorporating it into the Danish empire for a time). As Richard Lacey pointed out, the Early Middle Ages might best be compared to Chicago during the 1920s. The leaders were the equivalent to gangster thugs, ruling by overwhelming brute force and fear. The traders and farmers might well have been prosperous, but they were also tempting targets for the less legal thugs in the countryside, from foreign invaders and others. The most common rite of passage of manhood of the time was for a boy was to swear fealty to his overlord at the age of twelve. Of course, this did not necessarily mean that these were “Dark Ages” unless you want to expand that period to include later periods and, even, some parts of the world today.

“Everyday things were so difficult to accomplish. It took enormous time and effort to manufacture just a single coin, or to turn on a hand lathe the wooden cups that would today be produced in vast quantities by a machine. Every basic artefact represented hours of skill and effort and ingenuity, in return for a very meagre material reward. Kings and eminent churchmen lived in relative comfort, but there were no large or exaggerated profit margins for anyone.” The people of the time were not unaware of the hardships. A poem called "The Fortunes of Men,"describes the warnings of new parents to their new-born: went on to examine the different destinies that a first-millennial child might actually encounter in the course of its life:
Hunger will devour one, storm dismast another,
One will be spear-slain, one hacked down in battle
For the majority of lower- and middle-lass people, everyday life was a struggle for survival.

Paradoxically, life—even of the lowest class—was not without comfort and joy. Church holidays actually gave working people more leisure time than today. Even without the pleasures of later cultures—even those of the early Industrial revolution and today—life could be satisfying. Certainly there was no television, no books, no NFL, no rock videos, no video games, but there were stories, poetry, sports, musicians and board games. The poet from before wrote of the pleasures that the child would encounter:
Sitting at the mead-bench over their beer
One will settle beside his harp
At his lord's feet, be handed treasures
Because so few pleasures that we are so attached to today exist—and probably did not exist in the halcyon days of Classical Rome, despite Petrarch’s reverence—life could be both simpler and enjoyable. Lacey notes, that, “What C. S. Lewis called the ‘snobbery of chronology’ encourages us to presume that just because we happen to have lived after our ancestors and can read books which give us some account of what happened to them, we must also know better than them. We certainly have more facts at our disposal. We have more wealth, both personal and national, better technology, and infinitely more skilful ways of preserving and extending our lives. But whether we today display more wisdom or common humanity is an open question, and as we look back to discover how people coped with the daily difficulties of existence a thousand years ago, we might also consider whether, in all our sophistication, we could meet the challenges of their world with the same fortitude, good humour, and philosophy.”

The Age of Chivalry—always more a romantic notion than a practical application, lay two centuries in the future. The aristocracy of England—and every other realm in western Europe—were unapologetically the greatest thugs around, even though poetry and tales praised them as heroes. As a matter of course, the armies of the day were small and avoided confrontation or battle whenever they could, preferring to rely upon preying on the weaker or unarmed. The freeman farmers were especially vulnerable to raid and rapine, and the hostility might result not only in the loss of a current crop but livestock, seed green and even their freedom. A successful autumn raid could ruin a community for a generation or more to come.

Every person owed service to a better. However, this was a reciprocal arrangement in which the servants could expect to be protected and defended. It was a system that was to thrive and continue far past the early medieval time into the early modern era. At the time we re-enact, England was well forested, and the weather was undergoing what was later known as the climate optimum. As long as you did come into the path of a rapacious thug or army of thugs, life was no worse than it was for people in antiquity and, in fact, the common folk for centuries to come.

Sources

Answers.com, “Dark Ages,” http://www.answers.com/topic/dark-ages#wp-_note-mommsen
Terry Jones, Barbarians.
Richard Lacey & Danny Danziger. The Year 1000: What Life Was like at the Turn of the First Millennium
Paula Stiles, “Petrarch and the Dark Ages” The Creation of the Middle Ages,” http://medievalhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/petrarch_and_the_dark_ages
Wikipedia, “The Dark Ages,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages (A good place to start; just don’t stop your research here!)

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