One Step Forward, Five Steps Back

The European Middle Ages – 400 > 1100


            When Rome “fell,” most of Europe paid no attention.  There were no newspaper articles proclaiming the end of an empire.  No heralds shouting from the highest tower, “Ding, Dong, the empire is dead.”  No marathon runner sprinted from coast to coast to reveal the truth.  No one really cared.  For the average white guy living in Europe, life looked exactly the same in 477 as it did in 476, and a heck of a lot like it looked in 376. 

            We’re supposed to call the next thousand years in Europe “The Middle Ages,” but that moniker suggests that this millennium was fairly inconsequential.  We get the “Golden Age of Greece,” then the “Peace of Rome,” then the “Renaissance,” then the “Age of Exploration,” but when we talk about the years from 500 to 1500, the best historians could come up with was “Middle Ages”?

            What does this imply?  It implies that historians are actually the ones guilty of the number one crime of hi“story” telling - overgeneralization.  Eras don’t start and stop.  People aren’t just good or bad.  And civilizations don’t suddenly become stupid.  The truth is, although the Middle Ages was definitely not mankind’s crowning moment, the epoch that preceded this period wasn’t exactly all full of brightness and joy.  Wasn’t it during the Roman Empire that about 30% of the people were slaves?  Wasn’t it during the Roman Empire that humans found it entertaining to head to the Coliseum to watch some Christians get their limbs ripped off or to watch human flesh sizzle as criminals were burned alive?  And wasn’t it the Roman Empire that slaughtered one million Gauls under the generalship of Julius Caesar? 

            Yes, Rome built some amazing aqueducts, a fairly impressive stadium and miles and miles of useful roads, but to think that the bulk of humanity living under the Roman Empire frolicked in a world of prosperity while contemplating the meaning of life definitely gives Romans far more credit than they deserve.  Humans have lived in squalor for most of our run on this planet, and for those rare moments in history when for a few decades, a select few truly thrived, we cannot overlook the reality of life for the common man.  

            So what then can we say about the Middle Ages?  Yes, for the bulk of Western Europe, the Middle Ages was an era when people struggled to survive in a dangerous world.  After around 300 AD, the mass migration of Huns and Germanic tribes plunged the West into almost constant conflict.  As the Roman Empire increasingly turned to mercenaries to fight their battles, the citizens of Rome and the Germanic refugees realized if they wanted to live, they had to protect themselves.  Initially this meant relying on their clan’s baron for whatever protection he could muster.  However, by the 800s, as invaders continued to pour in from the northern and...