During the period from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and about A.D. 1000, much of Roman civilization was lost, but much was retained and developed, and many new ways of life were adopted. New kinds of social relationships arose, combining Roman and barbarian practices. New inventions, such as deeper plowing and better drainage, the horse collar (a great improvement on the old yoke), and the seaworthy Norse ships (which could face the hazards of Atlantic navigation in a way the old Mediterranean vessels never could), marked technological advances over the ancient ways of farming and sailing. Yet by the standards of classical civilization, the early Middle Ages by and large represented a catastrophic decline into a dark and barbarous age.
Viewed in the long perspective of world history, the so-called barbarian conquest of the Roman Empire is only another instance of a mature, somewhat decadent civilization falling to simpler peoples of a less complex background. Tacitus had lectured his fellow Romans on the contrast between their own soft degeneracy and the simple toughness of the Germans. Despite Tacitus’s fears, it was apparently not so much Roman decline that opened the way to the Germans as sheer pressure on the Germans from other tribes farther beyond that drove them to try to cross the Roman borders, by force if necessary.
The Germans originated along the shores of the Baltic, both on the Continent and in Scandinavia. Very early in ancient times some migrated southward. When the Romans first began to write about them, they were already divided into tribes, though with no overall political unity. One group of Germanic tribes—the Goths—had settled in what we now call Romania and in the adjacent plains. In the fourth century, conditions in central Asia (about which we still know very little) led a fierce Asian people known as the Huns to invade the territory of the Goths.
Living on horseback for days, traveling swiftly, and reveling in warfare, the Huns started a panic among the Goths and other Germanic tribes. The shock waves, beginning in the last half of the fourth century, continued throughout the fifth and into the sixth. They shattered the Roman structure in the West and left its fragments in barbarian hands.
Besides barbarian military raids and conquests, there were slower and more peaceful infiltrations. German laborers settled and worked on the large Roman estates, especially in Gaul. Individual barbarians joined the Roman side, often rising to high positions and defending the old Empire against their fellow tribesmen.
We must remember that the term barbarian invasions, though frequently used to describe the steady encroachment upon Roman peoples by non-Romans, was also used at various stages of history to attack the origins of essentially Germanic and Asian peoples. Actually barbarian merely described any people outside the Roman Empire. To speak of invasions by barbarians is redundant, in that the Empire has been invaded from outside and thus, by definition, by barbarians.
Often the absorption of the Roman peoples was peaceful, with the Germanic groups establishing permanent settlements into which the Romans were then assimilated. Although there was much bloodshed and there were numerous genuine invasions of the land of one people by another, in general the process might more properly be thought of as a steady migration of peoples that was achieved sometimes peacefully, sometimes forcefully.
Thanks to chronicles and histories, almost all written in Latin by monks, we know a great deal about the routes of the encroaching bands, about their chiefs, and about the politics of the separate states they set up. These accounts are inferior to the best Greek and Roman historical writings not only in style and in wealth of detail, but in psychological insight and accuracy. Moreover, they almost certainly exaggerate the cruelty and destructiveness of the invasions.
As a result, our own knowledge is in a kind of dark age. We do not know how numerous the invaders were in proportion to the invaded population; we do not know to what degree the barbarians replaced peoples who were there before them; we do not know whether the total population of western Europe was greater or less under the barbarians than under the late Roman Empire. Though nearer to us in time, the “barbarian invasions” involve more guesswork than does the study of earlier Greek and Roman history.
How complete was the breakdown of Roman civilization in the West? The loss can be seen most clearly at the level of large-scale political and economic organization. These early medieval centuries—with the brief but important interlude of Charlemagne’s revived empire, just before and after the year A.D. 800—were marked by failure to organize and administer any large territory as an effective state and society. Only the Roman Catholic Church consistently asserted its authority beyond the relatively narrow limits of the medieval duchy, county, or other small unit and maintained an effective organization to which millions of persons adhered.
Roads, postal systems, and communications deteriorated from the Roman efficiency that had allowed both persons and goods to travel in freedom and ease. Thousands of little districts came to depend upon themselves for almost everything they used, and thus became relatively autarkic (self-sufficient). Some invading Germanic tribes did exercise loose control over sizable areas, but these areas were much smaller than the old Empire had been. The network of habits of command and obedience that held a great, complex community together was rudely cut.
The early Middle Ages also lost command over the classical tools of scholarship and science. Spoken Latin gradually broke down into local languages—vernaculars French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Even where it survived as a learned tongue, written as well as spoken, Latin was debased and simplified. The general level of cultivated literature and philosophy fell, and traditional skills in the arts underwent a profound change.
But much of ancient civilization did survive the early Middle Ages. People could weave, farm, use horses, and make the necessary implements of peace and war as well in the year 1000 as in the year 100; in some ways and in some places, they could do these things better. Among churchmen there survived, in the libraries of monastaries, and to some degree in the education of the cleric, an admiration for and some familiarity with the classics. The Germanic chiefs so admired the Rome they were destroying that they retained an almost superstitious reverence for its laws and institutions, even if they understood them only in part.
Thus generalizations about the early Middle Ages are extraordinarily difficult, in part because our knowledge is uneven. For the sixth and seventh centuries we have very few written sources, while we have a great many sources, both literate and apparently accurate, for both the fifth and the ninth centuries.