Historians once labeled the medieval period of Europe’s history “the Dark Ages.” This misleading label suggested that a glorious past existed under Roman rule, but that all that was good from Rome disappeared for centuries because of barbarian invasions. The same historians designated the end of the Dark Ages the “Renaissance” or rebirth; a slightly later age they called the “Enlightenment,” as if at that time the barbarian darkness was finally dispelled. This approach overlooks the continuity of Rome’s glory in the Byzantine Empire. It also sidesteps the efforts of Germanic tribes to continue the best of Roman ways in combination with their own cultures, not only continuing Roman civilization, but improving upon it. To show the deception of these labels, one needs only to ask when the Dark Ages ended—when did Europe become civilized again? No matter how hard one strives to identify a beginning to the rebirth, the enlightenment, the glory of modern Europe, its origins and sponsors are always found within that medieval period that has been described as Dark Ages.
Of course the British Isles were only lightly touched by Rome. The Celts had come to Britain long before the Romans, displacing an earlier group, those responsible for monuments such as Stonehenge. Julius Caesar crossed the channel and asserted Roman authority over some of the Celts; the emperors who followed Caesar continued to claim that authority. Eventually, though, the Roman armies were withdrawn. Germanic tribes crossed from the mainland: Saxons and Angles and others. Arthur, King of the Britons, was among the Romanized (and Christian) Celts who tried to prevent the incursion, but eventually the newcomers and older tribes mingled to create England. Later generations saw the Vikings come. In the middle of the eleventh century, England was a prize to be claimed by one of three Viking clans. The winner, in 1066, was William the Conqueror, who came from Normandy ( a settlement of Vikings on the coast of France) to claim England from another Viking ruler, King Harold, who had repelled an invasion from Danish Vikings just before William’s victory.
During these same centuries, Iberia was settled by Gothic Germans who blended their ways with Roman civilization. They were then displaced by Muslim rulers who controlled Iberia for several generations, until Christian rulers slowly claimed the land for themselves, establishing minor kingdoms which would eventually coalesce into the modern nations of Spain and Portugal.
But most important among the nations of the early medieval period was the Franks. This Germanic tribe had been persuaded by the Romans to guard the border for Rome, allowing Roman troops to strengthen the empire’s position elsewhere. With the withdrawal of Roman power to Constantinople, the Merovingian kings of the Franks grew in power and importance. Clovis, King of the Franks, considered the teachings of two groups of Christian missionaries, accepting the Trinitarian doctrine of one group and rejecting the Arian heresy of the other; this selection was vital for the survival and growth of genuine Christianity in Europe. Over time, the Franks established control over much of the territory that the Romans had called Gaul; over those same centuries, the Merovingian king became increasingly a figurehead, as real leadership rested in his assistant, dubbed the Mayor of the Palace. One of those Mayors, Charles Martel, stopped the Muslim advance into western Europe. His son, Pepin, made a proposal to the Merovingian king, Childerec: he suggested that Childerec wanted to become a monk and leave the kingdom to Pepin. Childerec looked at the soldiers standing with Pepin and saw their weapons, realized he had no defenders standing on his side, and agreed that he had always wanted to be a monk. Pepin began the Carolingian line of kings, a line named for Pepin’s son Charles, who is known as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.
Charles expanded the Frankish kingdom into central Europe, defeating Germanic tribes and converting the survivors to Christianity. He also battled Germanic tribes in Italy, receiving the thanks of Pope Leo III. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo placed a crown on the head of King Charles, declaring Charlemagne to be Roman Emperor. This coronation shows that western Europeans still considered themselves to be the heirs of Rome. It also was taken by later popes to demonstrate the authority of the Church over earthly kings and emperors.
Charlemagne intended to divide his kingdom among his sons, but he outlived all but one of those sons. Louis the Pious replaced his father on the throne; when he died twenty-five years later, the Carolingian kingdom was divided among his three sons. Charles in the west and Louis in the east squeezed their brother Lothar out of his lands in the middle (although Lothar was equally eager to vanquish his brothers and claim the entire kingdom for himself). The western portion of the kingdom became France; the eastern portion, several centuries later, would become Germany.
The Carolingian line remained in control of France for 150 years, in spite of some rebellions and rival rulers. Their biggest problem was the incursion of the Vikings from the north. The Carolingian line endured in the east less than a century, but the imperial power remained under other rulers. The result in central Europe was a confederation of kingdoms, cities, and other lands, all of which acknowledged one man as Holy Roman Emperor; this political entity survived until the time of Napoleon. Meanwhile, France likewise held together as a European power through the centuries until its royal government was terminated in the French Revolution, which would go on to produce the very same Napoleon. J.