After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe descended into a long night of instability and darkness—that era known as the Dark Ages.
In AD 410, Rome was a thriving city of over a million people. By AD 560, it had largely been abandoned, crumbling to a struggling village of a few thousand souls. The beautiful Colosseum had been damaged by earthquake and fire, and would soon be looted for its iron and stone; same for the mighty Forum, as well as all of the other beautiful structures that had made Rome the magnificent city it once had been.
The glory days of the Empire had faded to a distant memory. Gone were the Roman legions that had protected the borders and assured security. Gone were the uniform legal system and empire-wide economy. Gone were the unity, security, and prosperity that the Empire had provided. And the decay of the Empire wasn’t limited to the cities. Throughout the countryside, much of the farmland had been abandoned and was returning to nature. The celebrated Roman roads and highway system fell into disrepair. With the destruction of the transportation system, trade and communication suffered.
Rome wasn’t the only city forsaken. Urban life throughout the continent had been almost entirely abandoned. Without the capacity to secure sufficient food supplies, and without any protection from the barbarians, the major cities in Europe could not sustain themselves. By the tenth century, there were probably only a dozen or so towns in all of Europe, none of them with a population of more than ten thousand people.^1 Without the support of major cities, safety could be found only in small, often isolated communities centered on a local baron (in England known as a lord) or a monastery.
Barons and bishops had to be self-sufficient, for the communities that surrounded them were typically made up of only fifty to five hundred families, hardly enough to call a kingdom, and rarely enough to defend themselves. Because these rural barons and bishops had their own laws and their own armies (such as they were), it wasn’t surprising that the most influential and unifying power within the whole of Europe became the church.
In an arrangement that came to be known as feudalism, small farmers, known as serfs, aligned themselves with a local baron, relying upon him and his knights for protection.^2 Though they were not slaves, these serfs were forced to surrender much of their freedom for protection, a necessary evil in such a hostile world.
The local kings were at the top of the social ladder. But the ladder wasn’t very tall. Because they had no standing army, the kings were dependent upon the barons to supply mounted knights, as well as serfs for their infantry. This forced them to negotiate from a position of beggary, and the reality was that they had little real power. The entire continent was riddled with strife, for it was presumed that any other baron’s fiefdom was subject to taking if one had the means of doing so. For these and other reasons, war was a constant of the feudal age, every baron claiming “the right of private war,” every king “free to embark at any time upon . . . robbery of another ruler’s land,” until “there was scarce a day in the twelfth century when some part of what is now France was not at war.”^3
And though the church deplored this constant state of war, there was one military campaign that it did support. As discussed in the previous chapter, Islamic armies seized the Holy Land from the Christian Byzantine Empire in 637 or 638. Although Jerusalem was occupied by Muslim forces, it remained a holy city to all Christian Europe. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for Christendom to reclaim the city.
One year later, under the rather uninspired leadership of Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, several hundred thousand commoners set out to retake the Holy Land. Their knowledge of geography and war was not impressive. After mistaking several European cities for Jerusalem, they finally stumbled into Asia, where they were slaughtered by the Turks. Despite this disheartening start, at the urging of successive popes, other Crusades were undertaken. Two hundred years of mortal combat followed until, by 1291, European leaders had sponsored a total of eight individual Crusades. Some of them were successful; most were not. When the city of Acre (now Akko) was recaptured by the Saracens in 1291, the last of the major European strongholds in the Middle East was extinguished.^4
Even though they did not ultimately accomplish their goal of reclaiming the Holy Land, the Crusades still helped to propel the Europeans forward, many scholars suggest, mainly because they initiated contact with the advanced cultures of Islam. Some contend this is absurd.^5
Either way, there is no doubt that the era of the Crusades, as well as the five hundred years that preceded them, were some of the most difficult times the people of Europe had been called upon to endure. But as the next century began to unfold, things were starting to change.
After all of the suffering, the Dark Ages were giving way to the light.