Early Middle Ages - Early Medieval Europe
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Early Middle Ages

Hagia Irene
Hagia Sophia (Istanbul), built 532 AD

May 2016 - The Early Middle Ages comes after the fall of Rome, about 400 AD. But all the way through the Early Middle Ages, European people still thought of themselves as living in the Roman Empire and being Romans. Even armies who had invaded by force thought they were Romans. Even armies who were fighting the Romans thought they were Romans. Being Roman was so popular that even people who had never been inside the old Roman Empire thought they were Romans.

inside of big stone church
Hagia Irene (Constantinople, 548 AD)

To save money, the Roman emperors hired Germanic people to work as Roman soldiers. Gradually these Germanic soldiers moved into the Roman Empire and settled down to become Romans themselves. The Visigoths settled in Spain, the Vandals in North Africa, the Ostrogoths in Italy, and the Franks in France. In England, a commander we know as King Arthur tried to keep out the Angles and the Saxons and the Danes (the Vikings), but they, too, moved into the Roman Empire. Together, these invaders fought with Roman soldiers to push back the Huns in 451 AD.

interior with mosaic and arches
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (691 AD)

In 533 AD, the Roman emperor Justinian tried to get rid of all these invaders and rebuild the Roman Empire the way it used to be. His armies recaptured North Africa from the Vandals, and Italy from the Ostrogoths, and some of Spain from the Visigoths, but then they stopped there, and the other Germanic invaders stayed inside the Empire. But the wars had weakened the Empire even more, and then in 542 AD the bubonic plague struck Constantinople and soon spread all over Europe and North Africa, killing thousands or millions of people. By 600 AD, the Lombards took advantage of this weakness to move into Italy, and the Slavs moved into Eastern Europe.

interior red and white arches
Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen (800 AD)

But even then, people still continued to try to rebuild the Roman Empire. In the 600s AD, Islamic armies reunited Jerusalem and Syria, North Africa and then, in 711, Spain. By 780, Charlemagne copied this idea in France and Germany, calling his kingdom the Holy Roman Empire. To the east, in Russia, the Vikings and Slavs got together to build a kingdom too. All of these thought they were rebuilding the Roman Empire. And yet throughout the Early Medieval Period, in Constantinople the Roman emperors still met with the Senate, went to the games, and believed that their kingdom was the real Roman Empire.

More about the Islamic Empire
More about the High Middle Ages

Bibliography and further reading about medieval history:

charlemagne joan of arc middle ages

The Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne in World History, by Jeff Sypeck (1997). An exciting and accurate account of the formation of one of Europe's great empires.

Beyond the Myth: The Story of Joan of Arc , by Polly Brooks (1999). Accurate and thoughtful, with good illustrations and maps, though more a biography than a history.

Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire, by Isaac Asimov (1967). This book got many future Byzantinists started on their path. It's out of print, but you can get it used.

A Little History of the World, by E. H. Gombrich (2003). Written in 1935, the history is a little out of date, of course, but it is written to convey the facts of all of human history to young people, and I think it does a good job.

More about the Islamic Empire
More about the High Middle Ages
Middle Ages in Europe
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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