You Gotta Know These Peoples of the Early Middle Ages

During the early medieval period (c. 350–c. 1100), Europe was transformed by political, religious, and cultural change. The Roman empire gave way to a multitude of quarrelling post-Roman states; pagan peoples were converted by Christian missionary bishops; and the Mediterranean heritage of the ancient world combined with the different traditions of northern European peoples to set the foundations for the western European kingdoms of the high middle ages and Renaissance.

In German, this period is sometimes known as the Völkerwanderung, the “age of migrating peoples.” Maps that show giant arrows sweeping south from the Baltic into the heart of the Roman empire give a false impression of the stability and coherence of early medieval political units. The summaries below focus on those peoples who established lasting kingdoms in the early medieval west; keep in mind that all such units began as loosely affiliated tribal confederations.

  1. In the late fourth century, the Huns entered central Europe from the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Historians disagree on what, if any, components of the Hunnic advance should be identified with the Xiongnu, a confederation of Central Asian nomads that fought against Han China before being dispersed in the third century. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that they inflicted “tremendous slaughter” on Germanic and Roman enemies alike. Their great leader, Attila, known as the “scourge of God,” was defeated at the Catalaunian Fields (near Chalons in what is now northern France) by an alliance of Romans and Visigoths. After Attila’s death in 453, a rebellion of Germanic subject peoples broke up the Hunnic empire.

  2. The Visigoths were one of a number of Germanic peoples scattered by the advance of the Huns. They took refuge south of the Danube under the protection of the Roman Empire. When that “protection” was revealed to consist of abuse, fraud, and starvation, they rebelled and caused disorder in Rome’s Balkan provinces. When the emperor Valens sent in the army to restore order, Goths led by Fritigern shattered the Roman army at Adrianople (378), where Valens was killed. For the next forty years, groups of Visigoths wandered the Roman world searching for a place to settle. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself. By the middle of the fifth century, the Visigoths had settled in southern Gaul (the “kingdom of Toulouse”) and the Iberian peninsula. Christians among the Visigoths, like those among their Ostrogothic and Vandalic neighbors, subscribed to the heretical “Arian” beliefs, which caused conflict with their Roman subjects until the Visigothic kings converted at a 589 church council. Driven out of southern Gaul by the hostile Franks, the Visigoths retained control over most of what is now Spain until their king Roderic was killed by Islamic invaders from North Africa in 711.

  3. When the Visigoths fled into the Roman empire, the Ostrogoths were one of numerous Germanic peoples subjected to the Huns north of the Danube. They threw off Hunnic domination after the death of Attila. After the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476, the Ostrogoths took advantage of the chaos to occupy Italy and establish their own kingdom. Their king Theodoric, known as “the Great,” ruled from 493 to 526 and tried to restore peace to Italy. The philosopher Boethius worked as an official at Theodoric’s court. The Ostrogothic kingdom collapsed in the 6th century after the Byzantine generals Belisarius and Narses fought a series of destructive wars for control of the Italian peninsula.

  4. The Vandals were one of several peoples who crossed the frozen Rhine River into Roman Gaul on New Years’ Eve, 406. From Gaul they moved into Spain and across the Strait of Gibraltar to attack Roman Africa. By 439 the Vandals had occupied Carthage, gaining control of the grain trade and possession of a substantial navy. This they used to embark on a second career as Mediterranean pirates; their sack of Rome in 455 under King Gaiseric was reputedly much more destructive than the Visigothic one 45 years earlier. The ravages of the Vandals so dismayed Roman observers that “vandalism” still indicates senselessly destructive behavior. Like the Ostrogoths, the Vandals were targets of the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s attempted reconquest of the western Mediterranean; Justinian’s general Belisarius smashed the Vandal army at Tricamerum in December 533.

  5. The Lombards moved into northern Italy (the region still known today as “Lombardy”) after the peninsula had been devastated by the war between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths. Lombard dukes and kings shared control of Italy with the remaining Byzantine garrisons. Although the Lombards were Catholics, their relationship with the papacy was often turbulent. Papal requests for assistance led to the 8th century invasion by Frankish forces under Charlemagne, who crushed the Lombard kingdom and seized the Lombards’ “iron crown.” The Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon, retired to the abbey of Monte Cassino to write a chronicle of his now-vanquished people.

  6. The Franks settled in Gaul late in the 5th century, displacing the Roman official Syagrius. Clovis, the first great ruler of their Merovingian dynasty, converted to (Catholic) Christianity in 496. The close association between the Franks and the papacy benefited both parties in an age when their mutual enemies (such as the Visigoths) were either heretics or still pagan. Merovingian Gaul was wracked by civil war among contending Frankish kings; by the beginning of the 8th century the Merovingians had lost effective power to their chief ministers, the “mayors of the palace.” In 751 mayor Pepin the Short, with permission from the pope, deposed the last Merovingian and established a new Carolingian dynasty of Frankish kings. Pepin’s son was Charlemagne, who subjugated much of western Europe and presided over a revival of learning known as the “Carolingian Renaissance.” On Christmas Day 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome. Charlemagne’s grandsons quarreled over rights to his inheritance, splitting the Frankish empire into a cluster of regional domains. The westernmost (“West Francia”) became the kingdom of France; the eastern one beyond the Rhine (“East Francia”) retained the imperial title as the Holy Roman Empire.

  7. The Picts, the early medieval inhabitants of northern Britain, were known for their raids on the Roman frontier fortification of Hadrian’s Wall. Their name (from the Latin pictus, “painted”) may refer to their use of colorful tattoos. Pictish art is notable for elaborate stone carvings of mysterious beasts. Starting in the 9th century, the Pictish kingdoms were absorbed by the neighboring kingdom of the Scots.

  8. “Anglo-Saxons” is the conventional designation for a group of Germanic peoples (primarily Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who migrated from northwestern Europe (the North Sea coast of Germany and mainland Denmark) to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Anglo-Saxon settlers conquered or displaced the Roman and British inhabitants of the island (semilegendary King Arthur is portrayed as a British ruler fighting against Saxon expansion). By the early 7th century, seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms across southern and eastern Britain were known collectively as the Heptarchy (a group of seven rulers). Christian missionaries arrived from Italy and Ireland to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Cultural products of the newly Christian kingdoms included illuminated manuscripts; the writings of the monastic historian the Venerable Bede, and the epic poem Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were hard-hit by the Viking raids of the 9th century; only Wessex, the southwesternmost kingdom, survived and repelled the Scandinavian raiders. The kings of Wessex then unified the Anglo-Saxon territories as a single kingdom of England.

  9. The Magyars, like the Huns, were a nomadic people of central Asia. Their language is Ugric, related to Finnish and a number of west Siberian languages. Magyars occupied the Danube basin shortly before 900. They exploited the decline of the Carolingian empire to carry out raids on East Francia and on Italy. The 955 Battle of Lechfeld, won by Germany’s Otto the Great, halted their expansion into central Europe. At the end of the 10th century, the Magyar grand prince was baptized with the name Stephen and crowned the first king of Hungary.

  10. Vikings (alternatively: Norsemen or Northmen) were seaborne raiders from Scandinavia who used longships to attack coastal regions of western Europe between the late 8th and 11th centuries. Although they are best known for pillaging English and Irish monasteries, Vikings also settled and traded on waterways all over northern and eastern Europe, founding cities in Russia and making voyages to Iceland, Greenland, and the New World. Vikings who seized part of northern France from Charlemagne’s heirs established the duchy of Normandy. During the 11th century, Normans fought as mercenaries and built castles in Sicily, southern Italy, France, and Britain. Norman Duke William earned the epithet “the Conqueror” for his victory over the Anglo-Saxons at the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Recommended Reading

  • Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD 200–1000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)
  • James Campbell, ed., The Anglo-Saxons (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York: Henry Holt, 1997)
  • Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)
  • P. H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700-1100 (London: Routledge, 1984)
  • Julia M. H. Smith, Europe After Rome: A New Cultural History, 500-1000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (New York: Viking, 2009)

This article was contributed by NAQT member Jeff Hoppes.

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