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Peoples of the Dark Ages
 

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Introduction

In the aftermath of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, a new era began in Europe and the Mediterranean world. The ancient certainties of the Pax Romana lay in ruins and while the eastern emperors, ruling from Constantinople, kept the light of Roman civilisation burning, in the west that light flickered and almost... almost, went out.

And so began the period of European history known as the Dark Ages, when out of the ruins of the Western Empire grew a number of new successor kingdoms, ruled over by the barbarian, usually Germanic, peoples who inherited it. For the barbarians, this new settlement was the culmination of a period of defeat, migration and conquest know as the Völkerwanderung - the 'Wandering of the Peoples'.

The Peoples of the Dark Ages is a history both of the various nations of this era, some of whom did so much to shape the world (and especially the Europe) we know, and of their greatest, or most notorious leaders. My intention is to continue expanding the site, both to cover more different nations, and to deepen the amount of information on those already covered.

The Germans

The peoples of Europe and the Mediterranean in the late Fifth and the Sixth Centuries, often belonged to shifting, wandering confederacies, who were never as homogenous as their names suggested. Singular names such as Franks or Ostrogoths belied the fact that these peoples incorporated a disparate range of adventurers, opportunists and hangers-on, who were by no means even exclusively Germanic, let alone 'Frankish' or 'Gothic'.

Yet it was these confederations who inherited the Western Roman Empire and left an indelible mark on the map of Europe. Not only do the names of countries and regions of modern times (France, Burgundy, Lombardy, England...) owe much to the Germanic invaders who conquered them but in the English language even to this day, we speak of a person of wanton destructiveness as a 'Vandal' and equate 'frankness' with the right (enjoyed only by the Franks in Dark-Age Gaul) to speak one's mind. 

The Franks were a western Germanic confederacy, who conquered Roman Gaul, and gave rise to modern day France. The Burgundians and the Alamanni were Germanic confederacies who unsuccessfully contested Gaul with the Franks, and ultimately became their subjects.

The Goths emerged into the light of history on the plains of Eastern Europe in the Third Century AD and became divided into two distinct groupings; The Visigoths (the 'wise'  Goths) were the descendants of those Goths who had fled into the Roman Empire from the devastation of the Huns and who created the Kingdom of Toulouse in southern Gaul and Spain; The Ostrogoths were descended from those Goths who had been conquered by the Huns, and served as their subjects. It was the Ostrogoths, under their ruthless king, Theodoric, who inherited Italy and Illyria from the fallen Empire.

The Anglo-Saxons or 'Englisc' (the name used amongst themselves to denote Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes), were the peoples who conquered large parts of mainland Britain and whose descendants are the modern-day English, unless certain modern theories about Celtic survivals are correct.

Other Germanic peoples included the Vandals, who conquered north Africa, the Gepids, the Suevi and the Lombards.

Other Peoples

If the Germans dominated Western Europe, it was the Greek-speaking 'East Romans' who dominated the wealthy and sophisticated lands of the eastern Mediterranean and kept alight the flame of Classical civilisation. Ruling from Constantinople, the so-called Byzantine Emperors, never abandoned their claim to rule the old Western Empire, as well as the Eastern.

Although they made impressive attempts, under Justinian's great generals, Belisarius and Narses, to reconquer Italy, Spain and North Africa, they were always over-stretched, not only because of constant wars in the Middle East against the Sassanid Persians but, later, by new barbarian incursions in the Balkans, both from Slavic peoples, and from fresh Asiatic hordes, such as the Avars, the Cumans and, in particular, the Bulgars.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Ireland and Armorica, the Celtic peoples clung on to independence, fighting both the Anglo-Saxons, Franks and, all to often, each other. It is from their darkest, most desperate years that the legend of King Arthur was born.

About This Site

If you have any comments or suggestions to make, you can e-mail me at mark.furnival@btinternet.com.  I would like to thank the many people who have already  offered feedback and suggestions, or e-mailed me with queries about the period (some but by no means all of which I have been able to answer). All correspondence is very welcome. If you run (or know of) a site related to Dark Age history, please let me know and I will add it to the Links section.

Nomenclature

My use of the term 'Dark Ages' has caused some controversy - modern alternatives including 'Early Mediaeval' and 'Late Antiquity'. I have no particular axe to grind about this. In my view the term 'dark' is meant relatively rather than absolutely, and in any case refers to the fact that the 'light of history' fails to shine on this period as clearly as on others, and is not meant to be derogatory towards the civilisations of the period - if I had so low an opinion of them, I would not have dedicated time to their study. The truth is, though, that I chose the title because I thought it rather evocative... Please feel free to disagree.

Sources

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) 
Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996)
 
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Guild, 1988) 
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman: King Arthur: The True Story (Century, 1992)
Peter Salway, Roman Britain (Oxford University Press, 1981) 
Tacitus, The Germania (Tr. H.Mattingly, Penguin, 1948) 
Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans (Blackwell, 1992) 
John Warry, Warfare in the Classical World (Salamander, 1980) 
Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (Penguin, 1952) 
Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms (Longman, 1994) 
The Times Atlas of World History (Guild, 1978)
The Times Atlas of European History (Times Books, 1994)
 

Links

The Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain 
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 
The Pictish Nation
The Vikings 
Flaming Torch.GIF (8308 bytes) Mark Furnival, 1998

This page was last updated on 02 November, 1998