Western civilization’s shift from Rome to Europe
Rome’s presence in the many corners of its empire didn’t vanish overnight, that’s why Gibbons speaks of decline as well as fall. But the decline of empire and resulting long stagnation of Rome city itself were unremitting in the years following the successful Germanic forays beginning in 476 CE—and continuing quite a while. Thus with Rome’s sword and absolutist dominance put down at long last, European Civilization as an entity—as a real “civilization” filling the European sub-continental portion of the Eurasian mega-continent—is said to have begun around 500 CE. Europe’s subsequent rise to centrality in world history has continued to the present day, while Rome ate crow and downgraded to only one of the cities in one of Europe’s numerous member states.
Let it be remembered that European Civilization did not (did not) begin in ancient Greece, nor with the Roman Empire, notwithstanding both were headquartered in continental Europe. Neither did so-called “Western Civilization,” a term which quite arbitrarily annexes the Americas and all their native peoples to the concept of European Civilization.
The term civil-ization is somewhat strained when we seek its root “civil” in the new European entity, for its history has been predominantly of incessant warfare from 500 CE to 1945—basically a millennium and a half of relatives killing each other. Signaling some progress, armed conflicts in Europe have been only periodic since 1946, and Europeans’ colonial thievery and wholesale slaughter of native peoples around the world are mostly ended. Colonial remnants by Europeans and Americans alike fester on here and there, while China, new to the colonialism game, buys millions of acres from Africans who don’t own the acres—an old trick they probably learned from Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and such ilk.
Due to limited time and space and in classical Eurocentric style, we proceed now to ignore major civilizational risings and fallings that were occurring in other places. Such places include those vast tracts known as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and its North African conquests, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, China with its centuries of ups and downs, and the two vast American continents whose peoples evidently equaled or exceeded Europe’s population through these old times and, remarkably, lived in harmony with the earth, a concept already long ago lost among Europeans. We also ignore Russia, that Euro-Asian hybrid nation-alization of peoples who seem to be attached at the breast to northeastern Europe, sort of.
Proceeding then, several periods stand out—or have been stood out—in European history. Don’t forget now, we’re still working our way through cultural evolution, which is contained within ongoing biological evolution, which is contained within ongoing universal evolution. As we briefly pause over natural developments and human events some think of as “history,” we are consistently using their proper uber-label—evolution.
The Viking Age
Modern Scandinavians—those genial, cultured and seemingly gentle Norse-men of Europe’s northern tier, those most comfortably successful democratic socialists in the world—are descended from Viking ancestors who were truly world-class badasses. To gain a mild sense of their ferocity, look up berserkers. Between about 800 and 1066 CE they not only terrorized Britain and Ireland with their savage lightning raids, they laid waste to monasteries and towns all over Europe, coastal and inland, leaving blood everywhere, departing with virgins and all the gold. They also often decided to stay, building settlements, putting down roots and producing robust red-headed children.
From their homelands in Norway, Sweden and Denmark the Vikings explored Europe’s many seas, bays and rivers, raiding, trading and colonizing as they went. It is well known that they established settlements in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as well as Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Newfoundland. Less known is that they also settled in the Netherlands, Germany and French Normandy. But who knew the Vikings left their settlers and seed in places like Italy, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine and, of all places, Turkey? Their early exploits in sailing vessels on Russian rivers make entertaining reading. Meanwhile back at home they were also conducting the consolidative processes that would eventually result in formation of the modern Scandinavian countries. They have much history to be enjoyed, including a full pantheon of interesting Norse gods quite equal in their exploits to the Greek and Roman pantheons.
The Middle Ages
A Europe freed from Rome’s military and civil controls—and from Rome’s roads, architecture, law, monetary system, and other cultural influences that overall were more civilizing and modernizing than degrading—was a Europe ill prepared to continue these largely beneficial things on its own. And when the Romans left it didn’t. Europeans everywhere north of Rome would thresh around for a thousand years inching their sodden way back up to the culture the Romans had taken with them when they left. Eventually they did so—relying heavily on the old Roman traditions so many remembered, heard tales of, longed for. In the early post-Roman days, though, things got pretty bad.
The Early Middle Ages are also called the Dark Ages and not without reason. “Dark” lends accurate descriptor to the approximately five hundred years from 500 to about 1000 CE. Petty warfare increased. Therefore migration increased and trade declined. Thus economic order along with law and order declined. Population declined, especially in urban centers, and as urban life virtually disappeared people dispersed out over the land to grow edibles and raise stock animals for ragged subsistence. Culture declined—characterization of the Dark Ages as “dark” speaks to barbarity and intellectual darkness, particularly to scarcity of literary and cultural ouput from these fifty awful decades, during which abject poverty reigned over all but a few. Even furniture—a trapping of civilized culture—declined: the Roman standard of household equipping was replaced by rude chairs, stools, benches and primitive chests or racks of wood, sometimes stone.
Such preserved history as we have of hardship and struggling to survive in the five-hundred-year Dark Ages is a warning modern Americans should take to heart from the clear evidence that we are fully capable—through global warming, denial of it, and hateful arguing—of trashing, throwing away, the blessings of civilization in our own mere three-hundred-year republic.
The High Middle Ages, also called the High Medieval Period, lasted roughly two and a half centuries, about 1000 to 1250 CE. The rural exodus reversed, bringing robust renewal of urban populations along with great social and political change, including new economic activity to levels that would not be repeated until the nineteenth century. With its associated intellectual revitalization, this period is sometimes referred to as the Twelfth Century Renaissance. New universities instituted at Bologna (1088, the oldest in Europe), Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, Cambridge and Modena stimulated new scientific and philosophical activity in Europe. But alas it didn’t last. These beneficial trends faltered when the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) arrived—probably from Asia via Silk Road traders—and ravaged its way across Europe from 1347 to 1350 (three years, compared to the two-year 1918 flu pandemic and the successor Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-22). Resumption of petty warfare did little to maintain the gains briefly made during this period. These “high” middle ages are also distinguished for introducing feudalism.
Feudalism, an economic system that prevailed through the roughly 500 years from 1,000 through 1500, must be mentioned at this point because it was integral to both the High and Late Middle Ages in much of Europe. Under this social-political-economic-military arrangement, a dirt-poor peasant was lent a piece of land (called a fief) and a tenant’s privilege of trying to grow food and survive on it catch as catch can. In exchange, the peasant legally committed to serve the land’s owner—a king or hereditary nobility—as needed for soldiering in the owner’s petty warfare, which could be often. The peasant, now called a “vassal to the landowner,” was also obligated to pay certain annual taxes called “incidents,” as well as maintain loyalty, aid, counsel, obedience, and other unique services that evolved and emerged in feudalism over time. These incidentals were quite innovative in some cases, such as requiring each newlywed vassal’s wife to spend her wedding night with the lord nobleman. Feudalism not infrequently was indistinguishable from slavery, both institutions having their perennial rationalizers. All legal, social and religious institutions and customs were as one force combined to stymie change while perpetuating the feudal system and ensuring its vassals were kept subservient to the aristocrats, not unlike the way its successor economic model, unregulated free market capitalism, is trending today.
Feudalism prevailed various lengths of time in France, Portugal, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire’s dozens of principalities, European colonies in North America, Armenia—and in Russia clear up until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In England, interestingly, the feudal system was introduced and immediately imposed in 1066 when the Norman invader William the Conqueror—the famous son of William the Bastard—appointed himself King, confiscated the resident Anglo-Saxon-English aristocrats’ land along with their resident English vassals, and gave both land and vassals to his Norman buddies whose feudal vassal-soldiers had helped him conquer England. The native English never forgot and to this day even the Norman descendants remain resentful.
The Late Middle Ages or Late Medieval Period identifies the two and a half centuries, about 1250 to 1500 CE, when things got worse before they got better. European population fell by half due to recurrent Plague outbreaks and a series of starvations including the notorious Great famine of 1315-1317. Endemic warfare and social unrest among survivors led to repeated uprisings including the so-called Peasants’ Revolt, and a century of intermittent wholly useless conflict famously called the Hundred Years War.
The whole mess rather interrupted the Roman Catholic Church’s steady business of spreading its orthodox version of Christianity (if you’ve forgotten, see The orthodoxy contest in Chapter 3) into every European nook and cranny by persuasion or sword, when most seem to have chosen to be persuaded (see The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher, University of California Press, 1999). The Church of Rome’s problems were compounded by schism, that old religious curse, in which its venerable eastern wing at Constantinople broke away with its own Pope, carrying away uncountable Christian faithful and their lucrative tithes, eventually to evolve into Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
But it wasn’t all downhill. Despite these crises, considerable progress was made in the arts and sciences during the period’s final century. Renewed religio-scholarly interest in the ancient Greek and Roman texts culminated in launch of the Italian Renaissance. This followed from, and reinforced rediscovery of, ancient literature that had been discovered via contact with Arab scholars during the series of fiascoes known as the Crusades to retake the Holy Land from Godless Arabs. This beneficial learning trend accelerated when the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople—which had lasted by that name twice as long as had Rome by its—sending a great many Byzantine scholars fleeing to safety in western Europe and bringing with them the ancient texts representing the learned thinkers of antiquity. The purloined texts’ new availability helped launch a renewal of learning across ignorant, unlettered, illiterate, desperately impoverished Christian Europe.