Thursday, 2 October 2014

Barbarian Invasions of the Early Medieval Period...

Published: July 10 2007 on Helium

The Early Medieval Period is sometimes referred to as "The Dark Ages".
This was a period of chaos and change, beginning as the mighty Roman Empire fell in the 5th century A.D. It lasted until there was clear evidence of some stable, ongoing politics and society. Historians disagree on exactly what dates to assign this period, marked by a complex web of "short and sharp", "action and reaction" events. (In fact, the origins of many invading groups are obscure.) But there is general consensus that it spanned from c. 400 to 900A.D. And it certainly was over by the time Norman invader, William the Conqueror, overwhelmed the Anglo Saxons in England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

And those invading "barbarians" of this time were not strictly wild cavemen. This was originally a generic term, used by the Romans, to refer to any non-Romans. The Gauls were referred to as "barbarians", even by the mighty orator Cicero. The Romans liked to protect their superior dignity. (N.B. The Gauls were in fact connected by language and culture with those living in England, Wales and Ireland in Roman times. We now call the whole group Celts).

Notable among the invaders were the Huns from Mongolia, north of China. They were skilled herdsmen in their day to day activities, but, when "on the warpath", were fearless warriors skilled in archery. Over the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., their surprise attacks were well known in India and China; they were extended to India and Persia. Finally, their most devastating attacks were made on Europe in the 5th century; and that included Rome. Rome was already split into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. Under pressure from the infamous Attila the Hun, the west weakened. (Yet, the eastern empire blossomed into the Byzantine Empire). Attila's death in 453A.D. marked the end of the "Hun era" on European soil. Not until the 13th century, with the rise of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan, would warriors come out of Mongolia.

But it is the Goths who are given the credit for sacking Rome in 410A.D. They appeared to originate from Scandinavia and hassled the security of the Roman Empire over the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.

And now some complexities! Other invaders included Goths, Visigoths (settled in Spain) and Ostrogoths (the Huns drove them out of the Ukraine to Italy). Angles and Saxons invaded in England. The Franks occupied old Gaul, and the Vandals occupied Roman territory in northern Africa. All these branches of the Germanic groups of people of northern Europe replaced the areas of the old Roman Empire. And many were Christian communities living in the countryside.

Some migrating and invading groups merged such as the Jutes (from the Jutland Peninsula) with the Danes (originally Vikings) in Denmark and the Angles (from south west Jutland) with the Saxons (from north west Germany) in England.

In the east, in the early 7th century, Serbs and Croats overran Illyria (present day Albania). Yet, within 50 years, the Bulgars conquered most of the Balkan Peninsula and what is now central Albania.

The marauding Vikings from Scandinavia had a unique evolution. Traditionally, they are remembered for their extensive raids on the European coasts and British coasts. This was a feature of the spring and summer months, but, in winter, they generally returned to Scandinavia. However, some Vikings did not just raid and invade. They settled in milder climates. They became known as Norsemen or Northmen when they settled in the northern reaches of Europe. But when they were settled in France, by the 9th century A.D., they became known as Normans, and their area of settlement was called Normandy.

Strangely, in the midst of this invading "mess" from the north, an empire grew in western Europe. It was the Frankish empire of King Charlemagne in the 8th century A.D. His kingdom covered present day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and parts of Italy and Germany. He unified church and state, creating the Holy Roman Empire. When 4,500 Saxons attempted to rise up against him, he ordered their beheading. His empire was not threatened by "barbarian" invasions. But when he died, so did his empire. And, in the 9th century, the entire area was subject to a range of invasions from tribal groups.

Information on invasions, in the early medieval period, may be fragmented and, at times, frustratingly vague, but a clear trend emerges. The fading of the Roman Empire gave numerous northern groups of people the opportunity for a new life in a new land. Many, like the Vikings, may have invaded to plunder, initially, but many settled and inter-mingled. Only the Huns, after a momentous infiltration into Europe, especially with Attila's exploits, retreated and just seemed to disappear.


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