Have you ever wondered what happened before crenellated castle walls and crusades? Why is the origin of the middle ages the least commonly talked about part? Turns out, there’s a book!
This book is an academic take on the demarcation and continuity of the Roman era to the early medieval one. Due to the virtual absence of popular history books for the interested layman, my prior knowledge is nonexistent. But hey, ad altiora tendo.
This first chapter is a review of just why this era is talked about so little. As with all history, there are more questions than answers.
Introduction: A Series of Unfortunate Events
The 3rd to the 8th century are commonly known as the Dark Ages. Hen starts us out by recounting the until recently, commonly held view by historians that the time between the end of the Roman empire and the High Middle Ages was a sad limbo of decline and chaos. He points to Edward Gibbon’s tome “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (published between 1776–1789) for creating this view.
Swiftly, he moves on to show that this still pervasive view is not canon anymore. The study of history has moved on and re-evaluated if Rome actually “fell” at all and if that was such a bad thing.
Hen points out that the sources Gibbon & Co used display a biased view due to the need to justify the Carolingian rule (over the former Merovingian one) and the Humanist preference for the Classical period and a dislike of the Barbarians.
Alfons Dopsch and Henri Pirenne were the first historians to challenge Gibbon’s view. They focused on the economical and cultural developments during the early middle ages and found no major disruption in the Roman empire upon the arrival of the Germanic people.
This view too was challenged in 2005, when two historians published books that disagreed with this new idea of a peaceful transition and regressed back to the Gibbonian view that the Roman world was shattered by the Germanic invaders.
Two questions emerge:
Question 1 = Was the transition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages docile or civilization-ending?
Question 2 = Was the period between Antiquity and the Carolingian Era just a waiting period?
Yitzhak Hen moves on to other opinions.
Max L. W. Laistner published a book in 1931 with some interesting new points. While he too rejects the idea of the “Dark Ages”, he believes the Early Middle Ages to be but a prelude to the Carolingian Renaissance and explains that education and culture slowly moved from the secular sphere to the ecclesiastical one.
The Classical schools of thought disappear and medieval, i.e. monastic and cathedral schools appear and thus link knowledge inevitable to the Christian faith - at least that is the new canon, solidified in 1962 by Pierre Riché.
Later scholars perceived a fluid transition to be more likely.
Another trio of questions emerge:
Question 3 = How many secular institutions actually survived into the medieval period?
Question 4 = How did the surviving institutions influence the early medieval landscape?
Question 5 = For how long did these institution last?
Hen now takes a brief detour to explain that his book will focus on four royal courts of the Early Middle Ages because it is through this that we may see how cultures change and grow.
“[culture is] a system of shared meanings, attitudes, and values, and the symbolic forms [performances, artifacts] in which they are expressed or embodied” - Kroeber & Kluckhohn