The early Medieval period is sometimes referred to as ‘the dark ages,’ yet it replaced a Roman world where crucifixion and gladiatorial games, slavery and pederasty, were viewed as normal. Were people still cruel? Were people still ignorant? Of course. Culture is slow to change and human nature does not change at all.
Christianity was a moderating influence on the world of Late Antiquity. It did teach forgiveness and love. These were not new ideas but now they had the backing of a popular religion. It became more difficult to justify cruelty and bloodshed, not that people did not attempt it!
And technology continued to improve. There was not the economy, the resources, to permit the grandiose projects of the Roman Empire, but small, practical advances continued. Water wheels and wind mills, better ship building and sailing techniques, and countless other changes in everyday life appeared. In part, the end of slave labor necessitated the development of more efficient ways of doing things — or perhaps the more efficient ways made slave labor no longer necessary nor cost effective.
Europe and the Mediterranean world was chaotic through this period — let us roughly define it as the time between 400 and 800 AD. The ‘Pax Romana’ no longer held, even in the Byzantine half of what was once the Roman Empire. Too many restless peoples were on the move, crossing and erasing old borders.
Serfdom became commonplace. It was what worked at the time and, despite its shortcomings, was better than the slave-based economic systems that preceded it in many areas (including those outside the Roman sphere). There was a mutual obligation between serf and noble; they commoners did have rights and could not summarily sold or removed from their land. That provided a needed stability to rebuild society from turmoil.
The whole feudal/manorial system did become overly rigid later on and ceased to serve a purpose. But do not see it as ‘unenlightened’ nor a product of ‘dark ages.’ It was how humanity survived. And to progress, perhaps? Progress can be an illusion, this idea that we are ever moving toward something better. All that is certain is change — and how mankind deals with it.
Stephen Brooke ©2017