Lecture 11: Northern Europe and the Germanic Migrations, 400-900

With this lecture we consider the outlines of what would become Europe. We have already considered how the Roman Empire fell and persisted through our discussions of the divergence between West and East. While the West declined economically, socially, and politically, the East became more powerful in all areas. The movement of Germanic tribes into the Western Empire, particularly during the fifth century, gave Rome its final push, but it was also a harbinger of an important change, the shift in Europe’s center of gravity away from the south and the Mediterranean toward the north and the Atlantic. This trend will be fundamental for the concept “Europe” and is, therefore, important for understanding how and why Europe later expanded around the globe.
Around 406, many Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine, possibly fleeing the advancing Huns. The Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, and Sueves headed south, or east, depending on the opportunities that presented themselves. One effect of this migration was the almost complete withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain, which left the area defenseless against invasion. As a result, Britain was invaded from three sides during the fifth century by different peoples, each attacking Romano-British settlements. From the north came a tribe called the Picts; from the west came the Irish; and from the east came Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes. The Picts’ attacks were merely raids. The Irish, however, founded settlements in the area that is now called Wales. (Apparently, the Saxon word for foreigner was Welsh, and the region took its name from this designation.) Germanic tribes spread through the rest of the south, until they controlled what is today England. One effect was that native Britons fled the island and landed in an area in northwestern France that is now named Brittany.
The Roman province of Gaul followed a similar path. By the 430s the Roman military presence was not only small but also hardly Roman, as most of Rome’s soldiers were Germanic mercenaries. This motley military pushed the Vandals and Sueves into Spain, but allowed the Burgundians and another tribe called the Franks to settle around the Rhine region. The Burgundians built a kingdom around their twin capitals of Lyons and Geneva, a region that is still called Burgundy. The Franks came to prominence with the rise of their first great king Childeric, whose capital was at Soissons. Childeric seems to have been a savvy politician. He cooperated with the Romans against both the Visigoths and the Saxons, and he respected the Gallic church, although a pagan. By choosing his alliances well, he founded a kingdom that determined the course of Western Europe.
Childeric’s son Clovis greatly extended the Frankish kingdom’s boundaries. He subdued Romans in northern Gaul, partly by the force of arms, and partly by converting to Catholicism. He cemented his power among the Franks by having all rival kings assassinated. Next, he conquered two other Germanic tribes, the Thuringians in the east, and the Alamans, who were in southwestern Germany. (The Alamans, by the way, are the source of the names Alsace and Alemania.) Finally, in 507, Clovis led an army south to defeat the Visigoths in the Loire valley. Clovis died in 511, but his sons continued the conquests, destroying the Burgundian kingdom and annexing the region known as Provence. By the middle of the sixth century, the line of kings descending from Childeric and Clovis, called the Merovingian dynasty, was the most powerful ruling family on the European Continent.
Although the Franks controlled all of Gaul and much of Germany, the great migrations were not over. The Bavarians, or Bajuvari, entered the upper Danube valley. The Avars, a nomadic people from central Asia entered the middle Danube valley, displacing the Lombards, who in turn moved into Italy, setting up a kingdom that was destroyed later by the Franks. As you know, the Bulgars moved into the Balkans in the seventh century. Finally, the Slavs, a people who lived in northeastern Europe also migrated across the Danube into the Balkans, before moving into Bohemia, Moravia, and the area between the Vistula and the Elbe that German tribes had vacated. Although we have a long way to go before we can talk about “Europe,” the basic ethnic outlines of European history have already appeared.
Now that we have traced the arrival of these various barbarian peoples, we need to consider what barbarians were. For the Romans, of course, anyone not Roman was a barbarian. But that does not tell us anything about their cultural practices. Barbarian society was strictly stratified, with aristocrats at the top and slaves and the semi-free at the bottom. A person was born into the aristocracy, but it was possible to become noble by earning land through service to the king. This social structure was defined rigidly by law codes. Under these codes, each man had a monetary value associated with his social position. The Germanic tribes called it wergild, the Welsh galanas, and the Irish lóg n-enech. The higher the person’s social worth, the higher the price. In the event of a death, by accident or murder, the guilty party and his kin had to pay the assigned price to the victim’s remaining kin. Along with this went the practice of giving more weight in legal cases to the testimony of people with the higher price, so that an oath sworn by an aristocrat would be worth more than that of an ordinary free man. As you can imagine, these basic legal distinctions provided the foundation for social distinctions that dominated the Middle Ages.
Northern barbarians were organized tribally, which was why kin relationships were so important. Here we need to consider one important aspect of these kin groupings, Germanic conceptions of property law. First, under Germanic law no person ever simply owned land; the kin group always retained certain rights to land that any person owned. This made life difficult for the early church, since gifts of land from wealthy barbarians were always subject to later dispute or even collection. In response, the church developed an important compromise with the barbarians, any land that had been gifted to found a church or a monastery remained under the barbarians’ “protection,” even as it “belonged” to the church. This set up a series of problems, however, as the church resisted lay influence over its churches and monasteries, while the barbarians felt that a measure of control over a local church or monastery was their legal right. The resulting conflicts became the central political problem in the years after 1000. The second aspect of Germanic property law that will be important for this discussion is inheritance. The barbarian tribes practiced what is called partible inheritance, that is, at a barbarian’s death, his property was divided equally among his sons. This practice was problematic politically, as barbarian kingdoms were subject to dismemberment at a king’s death. We will consider one such dismemberment later in this lecture.
To these characteristics we must also add the barbarian propensity for war. All barbarian tribes were fond of warfare, usually filling the summer months with raids on their neighbors as much for fun as for the booty to be won. As tribes moved, however, and war became endemic to barbarian lives, this propensity to fight became the foundation of a new political system. During the great migrations certain tribal leaders were able to surround themselves with great warriors, whom they rewarded with booty and land. Thus, by the seventh century, Europe was dotted with little kingdoms that were ruled by a monarch, who relied in turn on a landed aristocracy that was accustomed to war. Here again we catch a glimpse of the world to come: from the fifth century on, a socially-stratified legal system was grafted onto a militarized way of life. This made wars and kings inevitable. But it also created some basic tensions that proved extraordinarily fruitful throughout the Middle Ages.
Now let us consider more closely the royal family that probably did the most to shape the Europe that emerged from the post-Roman period, the Carolingians. By the mid-seventh century the Merovingians ruled in name only. During the previous century a political position had emerged in the kingdom that was known as “Mayor of the Palace.” The mayors really ran the kingdom, ruling where the kings only reigned. By the late seventh century this position had become dominated by one family, which would found the Carolingian dynasty. And there was a good deal of work to do. Beginning with Pippin I, the future Carolingians fought against separatist movements in Germany, Aquitaine, and Burgundy, in addition to turning back a Muslim invasion. Pippin’s great-grandson Charles Martel did the most in this respect. He not only reunited all of Gaul and subdued rebellious neighboring regions, but also turned back an Arab army in 732 at the battle of Tours. The Arab armies were intent on despoiling a wealthy shrine of St. Martin. This battle’s world historical importance has been overestimated, with some people seeing it as the great turning of the tide against Islam. It was, however, important in the history of Europe, because it allowed the Carolingians to extend their power throughout southern Gaul. Charles Martel’s son Pippin III pushed the Arabs back into Spain and ended the rebellions in Burgundy, Aquitaine, and Provence. A major northern European power had been created.
Pippin III’s supremacy marks the turn toward a new order in northern Europe. In 751, Pippin sent an emissary to Rome to ask the Pope if the one who had power should not also have the title “king.” Pope Zacharias replied that, indeed, the one with the power should be called king. Pippin promptly packed the last Merovingian, Childeric III, off to a monastery, and assumed the throne as Pippin I. The Carolingians, so named after Charles Martel, were now officially Kings of the Franks. The link between the Pope and the King of the Franks became important for Europe’s future. In 753, Pope Stephen II visited King Pippin I to ask for help against the Lombards, who had been taking church lands. A classic quid-pro-quo ensued. Stephen anointed Pippin with Holy Oil, further legitimizing his usurpation, and the Carolingians became the Papacy’s new protector, replacing the Byzantine Emperor, who was then busy fighting Arab armies. Pippin promptly forced the Lombards to return the stolen lands.
The connection between Frankish earthly power and Papal spiritual power reached its fullest development under Pippin’s son Karolus Magnus, or Charlemagne. Charlemagne extended Frankish power eastward into Saxon territory and southward into Italy. His long reign and perceived accomplishments made him the model of the ideal king for centuries. (For example, the Polish word for king, Karolyi, comes from Karolus.) We know from his medieval biographers that he we was a large, vigorous man. A good Germanic warrior, he loved to ride and hunt. He also liked baths—which was not normal for barbarians—and this led him to put his capital at the German city of Aachen, which has a generous supply of hot springs. He spoke and read both Latin and Frankish, and understood Greek. He studied grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics under the tutelage of the learned clerics that he had gathered in his court. However, he never mastered the art of writing, having started too late in life to learn it. There are touching stories in his biographies of how he kept writing tablets under his pillow, so that he could practice writing when he could not sleep.
However “ideal” a king he may have been, Charlemagne’s fame rests on his success in war. In 773-774, he defeated the Lombards, becoming in the process King of the Lombards. In 781, he defeated Aquitaine and put his son Louis on that throne. He also defeated the Saxons in a series of vicious campaigns, before turning on the Danes. Then he subdued the Bretons, the Bavarians, and various Slavic peoples, before destroying the Avar kingdom in Hungary. Moreover, in the south he began the reconquest of Spain from the Arabs and established the Spanish March in northeast Spain. He did suffer one serious defeat at Roncevaux in the Pyrenees, but that actually increased his fame, as it is this defeat that is remembered in The Song of Roland and other chansons de geste. But perhaps his most important achievement was his crowning as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. In 799, Pope Leo III was attacked by a rival party in Rome, who tried to blind him and cut out his tongue. The Pope escaped before any permanent damage was done and fled north, where Charlemagne ordered that the Pope be reinstated. The following year, Charlemagne visited Rome and Pope Leo crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. It has long been said that Pope Leo tricked Charlemagne, but this is unlikely. Charlemagne had already been acting like an emperor even before he was crowned, and the new title served the needs of all concerned. The Pope had an “emperor” as ally and Charlemagne had a new title that he could use to cow princes who may not have been impressed by the title King of the Franks and Lombards.
Charlemagne’s political influence translated into cultural power. From the beginning of his reign, Charlemagne and his advisers had been concerned with reforming religious practice in Frankish lands. Their highest priority was, therefore, to train and maintain an educated body of clergy, who could teach the gospel and run their local churches. As a result of this desire the clerics at Charlemagne’s court developed textbooks for teaching Latin to non-Latin speakers. By this point, however, the local dialects in former Latin-speaking regions of Gaul had diverged so far from the original that these textbooks actually helped to kill the Latin language, as it became a cultural inheritance of an educated elite that stood apart from the rest of society. The creation of this educated elite also provided Charlemagne with a pool of literate recruits for his state apparatus. In the ninth century, it was clerics that wrote the letters and kept the books. This was an important development historically, because as the pool of educated people increased, so too did intellectual activity. What has been called the Carolingian Renaissance produced a generation of poets, historians, theologians and philosophers whose work rivaled, for the first time since the end of antiquity, the work of Roman scholars. This revival was, however, fragile, and it did not survive the political unrest of the late ninth century.
Charlemagne’s empire was not destined to last, and for two reasons. One was internal, and the other external. The internal reasons had to do with the Germanic tradition of partible inheritance. Charlemagne had three sons and he divided his kingdom among them. Two of the sons, however, died before Charlemagne’s death, and the entire kingdom and the imperial title passed to the remaining son Louis the Pious. Louis also had three sons, but he had a more difficult problem: some of his cousins also wanted in on the spoils. In 817, Louis decided to divide his empire among his three sons. The eldest son Lothar received the imperial title and the lands that straddled the Rhine. Louis the German would get the lands to the east, and Pippin of Aquitaine received the lands to the west. This sparked an uprising that ended with the blinding of one of Louis’ cousins. An even bigger problem was in store, however, because Louis also remarried after the death of his first wife, and he and his new wife had another son, named Charles the Bald. Louis the Pious wanted to include Charles the Bald in the inheritance, which sparked a civil war. The fighting went on until 843, when Pippin conveniently died. In what is called the Treaty of Verdun, the remaining three sons divided the empire along the same lines as before. When Lothar died, his kingdom was split again and Louis and Charles began fighting for dominance. This fight is important for two reasons. First, the powers west and east of the Rhine that would become France and Germany did not stop fighting over this territory until 1945. Second, at the same time that Charlemagne’s empire fell into disarray, another people appeared on the European horizon that the world now knows as the Vikings.
The Vikings emerged from Scandinavia early in the ninth century as traders in silver, furs, and other natural resources. Their ships reached deeply into Russia and made their way all the way to the Black Sea, where they traded with the Byzantine and Abbasid Empires. In the 820s and 30s, however, troubles in the Abbasid Empire interrupted the supply of silver to Europe, which forced the Vikings to turn to piracy. Initially, the results were devastating. The Vikings raided the coasts of Ireland, England, France, and Spain, before heading inward along Europe’s river system and attacking cities such as Paris, Cologne, and Trier. Like most invaders, however, the Vikings settled down and founded their own kingdoms. In the 860s the Vikings set up a small kingdom in England that became know as the Danelaw. In 911, the Frankish King Charles the Simple legitimized the incursions of one Viking king named Rollo by granting him the area around Rouen. To this day the region is known as Normandy, for land of the men from the north. The Vikings also founded a dynasty in the East that was centered in the city of Kiev. Calling themselves the Rus’ these Vikings set up a state under their leader Rurik, who soon threatened the Byzantine Empire in the south.
Thus, with the arrival and eventual settlement of the Vikings, the future Europe comes into sight. Christianity move into Scandinavia as a result of the Viking incursions, and the political instability encouraged new kings in the new regions. By the year 1000, when Christianity celebrated its first millennium the fact and idea of Europe as a Christian region had begun to take shape. The world would feel these effects both in the Crusades and in Europe’s later expansion overseas.