Charlemagne’s conquests in Germany had for the first time brought the home ground of many of the barbarians into Christendom. Still outside lay Scandinavia, from whose shores there began in the ninth century a new wave of invasions that hit Britain and the western parts of the Frankish lands with savage force. The Northmen conducted their raids from small ships that could easily sail up the Thames, the Seine, or the Loire.
The Early Middle Ages in Western Europe
Charlemagne (r. 768-814) was a vigorous, lusty, intelligent man who loved hunting, women, and war. All his life he wore Frankish costume and thought of himself as a Frankish chieftain. Although he could read, he could never teach himself how to write; he spoke Latin, however, and understood some Greek. A great conqueror, Charlemagne crossed the Rhine and in campaigns lasting more than thirty years conquered the heathen Saxons, who lived south of Denmark, and converted them at sword’s point to Christianity.
Soon after the death of Theodoric, the great Eastern emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) launched from Constantinople an ambitious effort to reconquer the major areas of the West that had been lost to the barbarians. The imperial forces tackled the Vandals in North Africa in 533, and then invaded Italy from Carthage via Sicily. For almost twenty years, savage and destructive warfare ravaged the peninsula, and Rome changed hands several times. The towns and countryside were devastated and the survivors reduced to misery.
The Franks engaged in no long migrations, expanding gradually west and south from their territory along the lower Rhine until eventually they were to create an empire that would include most of western Europe except for the Iberian peninsula and the British isles. Clovis (r. 481-511), a descendant of the house of Merevig or Merovech (called Merovingian), was the primary founder of Frankish power. Moving into Gaul, he successively defeated the last Roman governor (486), the Alamanni (496), and the Visigoths of Aquitaine (507).
Not only the Germanic peoples but also the central Asian Huns participated in the onslaught on Roman territories. Early in the fifth century the Huns conquered much of central and eastern Europe. Under their domination lived a large collection of German tribes. The Hunnic rulers also extracted tribute money from the Roman emperors of the East at Constantinople. Under their ruler, Attila, the Huns pressed westward, crossed the Rhine, and were defeated in 451 at Chalons in northeastern France by a Roman general.
In the year 378 at Adrianople, the Visigoths defeated the Roman legions of the Eastern emperor Valens, who was killed in battle. More and more Goths now freely entered the Empire. Unable to take Constantinople or other fortified towns, they proceeded south through the Balkans, under their chieftain Alaric, ravaging Greece and then marching around the Adriatic into Italy. In 410 they sacked Rome itself. Marie died soon afterward, and his successors led the Visigoths across Gaul and into Spain.