Medieval Monday – The Dark Ages

I think I was on Merry Farmer’s blog when I was introduced to the concept of “Medieval Monday.” And because I’m in a medieval mood (and Medieval Tuesday just doesn’t have the same ring to it), I thought I’d have a medieval Monday, too.

Last week I set up the history of medieval Europe by discussing the fall of Rome (and illustrating it with some bad stick figure Paint drawings). Now, let us venture into the Dark Ages.

Is It Dark In Here, or Is It Just Me?


For the next 300 years or so, nothing much exciting happens in Western Europe. Tribal fiefdoms ruled by petty chieftains replace the strong central government that was once Rome. Weaker chieftains allied themselves with stronger ones, thus beginning the feudal concept of vassalage.

Currency quickly became scarce, as there was no powerful government mining and minting coinage. Roman coins stayed in circulation for some time, but they quickly became devalued as people shaved bits of metal off of them. Soon, coins had no face value, but had to be weighed and valued on actual metal content. Bartering became the de facto form of trade, thus creating the feudal obligation to pay rent and taxes via labor on the lord’s estate.

Holy Mother Church, Batman!

The Church got stronger during this power vacuum, however, and there was an explosion of activity as they made it their mission to convert everyone to Christianity. The majority of saints come from this Dark Ages period and the relic trade boomed. The Church’s landholdings grew as people were encouraged to will the Church land or donate it when they took holy vows.

The Church grew so strong, in fact, it was able to consolidate its power into a single church (theology, not building!), ruled from Rome. Notable during this time was the eradication of the Gnostic Christians (snuffed out between the 4th and 5th centuries) and the hostile takeover of the Celtic Church (7th-8th centuries).

The Church used its influence and increasing political power to bring the common people to some level of morality. Germanic/Celtic practices like polygamy and concubinage were slowly suppressed.

This Land is My Land, This Land is Also My Land

German and Celtic tribes typically divided land between all male (and sometimes female) children. This led to instability because parcels of land quickly became too small to support a family and it became necessary to go to war and take someone else’s land. So primogeniture became encouraged by both larger governmental entities and the Church, thus creating the “second son” problem which must be addressed by the time of the Crusades.

Scandinavian peoples (collectively known as “Vikings”) began their ascent in the 7th century. They were actually a major source of trade in Western Europe, keeping it from being cut off completely.

Useless Dark Ages Trivia: Church vestments (both Catholic and Orthodox) are based on Roman clothing and have evolved very little in 1,700 years.

Important Stuff: The Synod of Whitby was held in 664 at the priory of St. Hilda in Northumbria (England) to determine the fate of the Celtic Church in Britain. King Oswiu ruled in favor of the Roman Church, thus spelling the end of the Celtic Church.

Suggested Reading:

Methods of Coin Debasement
The Synod of Whitby
Church Vestments: Their Origin and Development (I have this book and it’s actually a good study of the evolution of church vestments from Roman clothing up to the 20th century)
Catholic Saints A-Z

Raiders or Traders?

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