The Early Middle Ages: The Birth of Europe

People Involved

Dr Lynette Olson

Project overview

As a global perspective grows and Eurocentrism wanes, it becomes more important, not less, to see where Europe came from. This is a general, conceptual rather than descriptive, study establishing the Early Middle Ages as the period that saw the birth of Europe out of a combination of Christian Roman and indigenous cultural elements, underpinned by a sound understanding of the nature of early medieval society, with due attention to the female half of the population and the secular side of life.

Project Details

In a sense, this project has been underway since I realised how the Early Middle Ages was significant: when for an undergraduate essay in 1965 I came to an appreciation of 'the wide variety of cultural elements which went into the making of the civilization of the Middle Ages and of the tremendous synthesis that went on as opposing peoples and their ideas came in contact with each other'. It is a conceptual study. My models are Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity and R. W. Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages, where abundant and interesting details are used to convey major developments and shifts. Getting the latter things 'right' has been the main challenge to be met in the study.

The time studied is the fifth through eleventh centuries, taking into account issues of periodisation at both ends of it: the Pirenne debate and a growing consensus that major change was occurring c.1000 A.D. To some extent, analysis proceeds according to the geographical categories of North and South, West and East; for example, that in the seventh century there was not only profound cultural change in the South with the rise of Islam, but that about this time from the flourishing monastic learning of the British Isles civilisation was beginning to be seen to come out of the North, a most unAntique state of affairs.

Early medieval society is understood as weakly structured; when more structure appeared with institutionalised patronage, it was a very simple one. In this it forms a continuum with Late Antique society but a contrast with the better organised periods before and after, and the reason may lie in the extent of cultural contact. Identity was fluid, boundaries relatively undefined and thus persecution (of heretics, Jews, even lepers) nothing like what was the case in the second half of the Middle Ages. This analysis derives from the anthropologist Mary Douglas, but owes its historical application to John Ward, Mark Pegg, Peter Brown and R. I. Moore.

Due attention is paid to the female half of the population, which is easily done since the Early Middle Ages is one of the most interesting periods in women's history. While life could be brutal for them, the opportunity for women to access wealth and power through the family was greater than in more organised societies; moreover, at a time of low population women were valued for their childbearing and their labour. Likewise women were less marginalised in religion, and the exceptional cases of abbesses of double monasteries who had authority over men ran clean against the rules, before the church reform when, as R. W. Southern put it, 'as society became better organized and ecclesiastically more right minded, the necessity for male dominance began to assert itself'.

The significance of religious conversion, on which I have published elsewhere, as a vehicle of cultural change in the formation of Europe is fully recognised in the proposed study. Yet an attempt is made to keep the church firmly in its place in view of the enormous disproportion of religious to secular sources at our disposal. In particular, the extent to which early medieval people maintained more than one ethos - notably virtue/sin and honour/shame is considered.