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Migrations, Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire and Feudalism

Among the Franks on the continent a new dynasty of kings had arisen – the Carolingians – begun by Charles Martel (688–741). His grandson became known as Charlemagne (French for Charles the Great). It was a dynasty dependent on the support of hereditary landowner warlords called nobles. The nobles recognized Charlemagne as their overlord, and Charlemagne recognized the nobles as local rulers and rewarded them with land and booty from territorial expansions.

Much of Charlemagne's rule involved continuous warfare, his conquests extending his empire what today includes France, Germany, Austria, and Croatia. He overran Lombard power in Rome had restored some influence to the Pope. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor, hailing him as "Augustus, crowned of God, emperor of the Romans." The emperor in Constantinople also claimed to be the Roman Emperor, but Charles was diplomatic and played down his title.

Charlemagne's empire was thinly populated and rural compared to the Islamic empire, nearer the Mediterranean. Charlemage's government encouraged trade. It gave guarantees to Jewish merchants. During his rule, agriculture improved. He invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, and he tried to learn to read. His government standardized weights, measures, and coinage. He replaced amateurs representing their community in local courts with itinerant professional judges who had a better understanding of law. And he imposed regulations on the clergy. To be ordained a priest one had to take an examination. Meanwhile, still in the Middle Ages in his concepts, he ruled that if anyone "by his magic" caused the death of anyone, he had to do penance for seven years. Or if anyone "took away the mind" of someone "by the invocation of demons," he had to do penance for five years.

At the end of Charlemagne's life (January 814) his empire's roads were still primitive, making travel slow. And his government ended with little of the surplus wealth needed to make effective centralized governance. And Charlemagne continued with the Frankish custom of dividing what was his, including his political power, among his sons – as had Constantine in dividing the Roman Empire among his sons. It played a role in breaking down centralized governance. Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, divided the empire among three of his grandsons, one receiving western Gaul to the Pyrenees, another Charlemagne's realm roughly between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, and the eldest, Lothair, receiving the title of emperor and territory between the two others. Fragments of Lothair's kingdom were eventually to become Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

After Charlemagne' death, wandering minstrels kept alive humanity's proclivity to fantasize and exaggerate. They glorified Charlemagne's deeds. They described Charlemagne as having performed superhuman feats and as having dispensed perfect justice. The so-called Holy Roman Empire that Charlemagne left behind had its troubles, not only its fragmented rule and authoritarian class oppressions but also migrations and its related violence. Migrations and Ethnic Blendings: the Slavs Among the migrants in the late 500s had been the Slavs. They had been settled in what today is Belarus, northern Ukraine and eastern Poland. They migrated eastward toward Moscow, and they passed through forests and to mix with Finnish and Baltic peoples They moved westward into lands that migrating Germanic tribes had vacated, and by the 580s they were in the partially depopulated Balkans and as far south as central Greece. Slavs settled down to farming, while a lack of an organized central authority made it easy for indigenous people to assimilate being something of an invented and imagined belonging. The Slavs had become divided linguistically, moving toward becoming Russians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks and Slovenes. Merchants from Constantinople and from the Greek city of Thessalonica sold them jewelry, silks and spices and gave them contacts with Byzantine culture, including Christianity. Between the 700s and the 900s, the Eastern Slavs were becoming heavily influenced by Constantinople and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the Western Slavs were being converted by Roman Catholic missionaries, geography again joining military conquest as a force in theology.

The Bulgars

The Bulgars were another migrating people. They have been described as a Turkic. They were herders who had fought their way westward from Asia, raiding for plunder in the Balkans during the rule of Justinian I (from 527 to 565). Constantinople fought their intrusions, unsuccessfully. The Bulgars were able to consolidate their power and withstand Constantinople's attacks. In 811 the Khan of Bulgaria, Krum the Fearsome, outwitted Constantinople's force and trapped them in closed valleys, in 811 killing nearly all of them, including the emperor, Nicephorus (who name means bringer of victory). Krum made a drinking cup of Nicephorus's skull. Living more than two centuries aside Slavic people, and intermarrying with them, the Bulgar's difference from the Slavs diminished. Bulgaria became the first Slavic state on the Balkan peninsula worthy of being called a state. Khan Boris (ruled 852-89) adopted Christianity and opened Bulgaria to influences from Constantinople. He sent one of his sons, Simeon, there to be educated. Simeon ruled Bulgaria from 893 to 927. He help translate books into the language of the Slavs, and he also continued the tradition of opposing Constantinople as a power. Four times within eleven years Simeon sent his military against Constantinople's walls, without success.

The Magyar Hungarians

In the 400s, while Rome was being overrun by Germanic peoples, Magyars from the area around Russia's Ural Mountains were roaming through what today is the far south of – near the Caucasus mountains and between the Black and Caspian Seas. Here were a Turkic people known as Khazars. And here took place the usual ethnic mixing. Seven tribes of Magyars were joined by three dissident tribes of Khazars.

The Magyars were to be described as a nomadic herding and warring people. In the late 800s they moved into what today is Hungary and subjugated the Slavic and Hunnish people settled there. Beginning in 917, Constantinople supported the Magyars against their enemy the Bulgarians. Constantinople was still fighting to control as much as it could of what it thought was its Roman Empire, and it bribed the Magyars with gold and precious robes to encourage attacks by the Magyars against the Bulgars. For several years the Magyars raided Bulgaria in force. Continuing their warring ways in the 930s the Magyars pushed across Germanic lands to Paris and down the Italian peninsula past Rome. These were to be called "robbing campaigns." And today, Magyar sympathizers want to remind us that campaigns by the Charlemagne and his family had also produced boasting about the amount of treasure they had gathered during their campaigns.

Magyar fighters were unable to withstand a heavy cavalry assault by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto, at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. For the Magyars this decisive defeat was similar to a loss of the mandate of heaven. They had believed in their good fortune as told by their storytellers. Stunned, they returned to the Hungarian Plain and settled down.

The Vikings

The Vikings were enterprising pagan men from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Armed with swords and battle axes they took to the water in low draft boats, beginning around the year 700. They were aware of the wealth that existed elsewhere and were inspired to go out and grab some of it. They made quick raids along Europe's shorelines and up rivers. Their usual targets was treasury stored at monasteries and churches conveniently located on rivers and near the coast. They were often back at sea before substantial armed resistance against them arrived. They switched back and forth between raiding and trading peacefully, in a world of little information and slow communications over distances.

They returned home happy with the prestige that their gains inspired/ Their success inspired an increase in raiding. They reported that land was available abroad, and with the growth in population having eliminated the availability of land at home, more Scandinavians were willing to venture to distant areas for the purpose of settling down.

The Norwegians struck in Scotland and the northeast of England in the late 700s and Ireland in the early 800s. They had ventured as far as Iceland by the mid-800s, Greenland in 981 and what today is Canada in 986. The Vikings and their animals would become Iceland's inhabitants, and between their use of wood and their animals wandering about, all the trees in Iceland would disappear.

The Danes hit England in the mid 800s and the coasts or France, including more than 120 boats and about 5,000 men up the Seine River Paris, where they were paid a great ransom to leave. The Danes hit what today is the Netherlands, and they established themselves on coast of the Baltic Sea near the mouth of the Oder River. The Swedes struck there also and along the coast of what today are the Baltic states, and into Finland. And they voyaged down rivers, to Kiev in 882 and beyond.

Danish Viking settlement at Rouen integrated with Frankish culture. The descendants of Vikings in this area, called Normandy, were having more surviving sons than they had land to divide among them, and they would try to solve their problem in a traditional way: by conquest. William, the son of an unmarried Duke, to be known as William the Bastard and also William the Conqueror, had established his power in Normandy by 1060. In 1066, with 5,000 Norman knights, William landed in England, near Hastings, on the shore of the English Channel, to press his claim to the throne of England. Troops under England's King Harold arrived exhausted, having just fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, against an invasion and challenge by Norwegians and his own brother. William's army defeated Harold's army. William defeated the various uprisings against his takeover, and William became King William I of England – while Scotland, Ireland, and North Wales remained independent of English kings for generations to come.


Feudalism grew in the Holy Roman Empire in response to Magyar and Viking attacks – the empire began by Charlemagne, that title continued by his Carolingian family until 888. The Holy Roman Empire title was revived in 962 when Otto I was crowned emperor and fashioned himself as Charlemagne's successor, and the title was to remain for eight more centuries.

Into the 900s, raiding disrupted trade, and the production of food fell. Money was not yet in common use, and instead of buying military services with money, local landlords were paying for it with land called a fief, and the fighting man on the fief was the vassal, also to be called a knight. He supplied fighting men under his leadership. And, as a military system serving the great landowner, loyalty was important. An attempt at assurance of loyalty was in the vassal's vow to his lord that he would love what he loved and hate what he hated. He promised his lord that "Thy friends will be my friends, and thy enemies my enemies."

The lords fighting men had the best means of transport – horses – for moving over the paths that connected the population centers. It came with technology that had migrated from the East with the Avars. The horses were shod with iron horseshoes, which allowed them to carry more weight across rough ground. And saddles with stirrups allowed the rider to stand while carrying a shield and wielding a sword or lance.

It was a system of defense at times effective in chasing away marauders. And at times these fighting men were employed in settling territorial and other disputes between neighboring lords. And the new warfare was moving some peasants from farming their own tiny plots to becoming subjects of a most wealthy lord – part of a growing serfdom.

CONTINUE READING: Christianity Spreads in Europe, and Divides

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.