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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 2 - The Early Middle Ages

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • Why was Western Europe a frontier land during the early Middle Ages?
  • How did Germanic Kingdoms gain power in the early Middle Ages?
  • How did Charlemagne briefly reunite much of Western Europe?


Geography of Western Europe
  • Rome had linked its distant European territories with miles of roads and had spread classical ideas, the Latin language, and Christianity to the tribal peoples of Western Europe. But Rome was a Mediterranean power. The Germanic peoples who ended Roman rule in the West shifted the focus of European history to the north.


Geography of Western Europe

  • Europe is relatively small-the second smallest in land area of the seven continents. It lies on the western end of Eurasia, the giant landmass that stretches from present-day Portugal in the west all the way to China in the east. Despite Europe's size, its impact on the modern world has been enormous.
  • From about 500 to 1000, this region was a frontier land-a sparsely populated, undeveloped area on the outskirts of a civilization. Still, it had great untapped potential. Dense forests flourished in the north. The region's rich earth was better suited to raising crops than were the dry soils of the Mediterranean. Underground lay mineral resources. Nearby seas provided fish for food and served as transportation routes. Europe's large rivers were ideal for trade, and its mountain streams could turn water wheels.

 


  The Germanic Kingdoms
  • The Germanic tribes who migrated across Europe were farmers and herders. Their culture differed greatly from that of the Romans. They had no cities or written laws. Instead, they lived in small communities governed by unwritten customs. They elected kings to lead them in war. Warrior nobles swore loyalty to the king in exchange for weapons and loot.


 The Germanic Kingdoms
  • Between 400 and 700, Germanic tribes carved Western Europe into small kingdoms. The strongest kingdom to emerge was that of the Franks. In 486, Clovis, king of the Franks, conquered the former Roman province of Gaul. He ruled his new lands according to Frankish custom but did preserve much of the Roman legacy in Gaul. 
  • Clovis took an important step when he converted to Christianity, the religion of the people in Gaul. Not only did he earn their support but he also gained a powerful ally in the Christian Church of Rome.


The Germanic Kingdoms
  • As the Franks and other Germanic peoples carved up Europe, a new power was emerging across the Mediterranean. The religion of Islam appeared in Arabia in 632. From there, Muslims, or believers in Islam, built a huge empire and created a new civilization, as you will read in Chapter 11. 
  • European Christians were stunned when Muslim armies overran Christian lands from Palestine to North Africa to Spain. When a Muslim army crossed into France, Charles Martel rallied Frankish warriors. At the battle of Tours in 732, Christian warriors triumphed. To them, the victory was a sign that God was on their side. Muslims advanced no farther into Western Europe, although they continued to rule most of Spain.


The Germanic Kingdoms
  • To European Christians, the Muslim presence was a source of anxiety. Even when Islam was no longer a threat, Christians viewed the Muslim world with hostility. In time, though, medieval Europeans would learn much from Muslims, whose learning in many areas exceeded their own.


The Age of Charlemagne
  • Around 800, Western Europe had a moment of unity when the grandson of Charles Martel built an empire reaching across France, Germany, and part of Italy. This emperor is known to history as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. Charlemagne towered over most people of his time. He loved battle and spent much of his 46-year reign fighting Muslims in Spain, Saxons in the north, Avars and Slavs in the east, and Lombards in Italy. His conquests reunited much of the old Roman empire.
  • In 800, Pope Leo III called on Charlemagne for help against rebellious nobles in Rome. Frankish armies marched south and crushed the rebellion. On Christmas Day, the pope showed his gratitude by placing a crown on Charlemagne's head and proclaiming him Emperor of the Romans.


The Age of Charlemagne
  • The ceremony would have enormous significance. A Christian pope had crowned a German king successor to the Roman emperors. In doing so, he revived the ideal of a united Christian community. He also laid the ground for desperate power struggles between future Roman Catholic popes and German emperors.
  • The pope's action outraged the emperor of the eastern Roman empire in Constantinople. The eastern emperor saw himself, and not some backward Frankish king, as the sole Roman ruler. In the long run, the crowning of Charlemagne helped widen the split between the eastern and western Christian worlds.


The Age of Charlemagne
  • Charlemagne tried to exercise control over his many lands and create a united Christian Europe. Working closely with the Church, he helped spread Christianity to the conquered peoples on the fringes of his empire. Missionaries converted many Saxons and Slavs. 
  • Like other Germanic kings, Charlemagne appointed powerful nobles to rule local regions. He gave them land so that they could offer support and supply soldiers for his armies. To keep control of these provincial rulers, he sent out officials called missi dominici to check on roads, listen to grievances, and see that justice was done. Charlemagne instructed the missi to "administer the law fully and justly in the case of the holy churches of God and of the poor, of wards and of widows, and of the whole people."


The Age of Charlemagne
  • Charlemagne wanted to make his court at Aachen a "second Rome." To do so, he set out to revive Latin learning in his empire. Education had declined so much that even supposedly educated clergy were often sadly ignorant. Charlemagne himself could read but not write. Still, as a ruler, he saw the need for officials to keep accurate records and write clear reports. 
  • Charlemagne founded a school at Aachen under the direction of a respected scholar, Alcuin of York. Alcuin created a curriculum, or formal course of study, based on Latin learning. It included grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Alcuin also hired scholars to copy ancient manuscripts, including the Bible and Latin works of history and science. Alcuin's system would become the educational model for medieval Europe.


After Charlemagne

  • After Charlemagne died in 814, his empire soon fell apart. His heirs battled for power for nearly 30 years. Finally, in 843, Charlemagne's grandsons drew up the Treaty of Verdun, which split the empire into three regions. 
  • Still, Charlemagne left a lasting legacy. He extended Christian civilization into northern Europe and furthered the blending of German, Roman, and Christian traditions. He also set up strong, efficient governments. Later medieval rulers looked to his example when they tried to strengthen their own kingdoms.


  After Charlemagne
  • Charlemagne's heirs faced new waves of invasions. Despite the Christian victory at Tours, Muslim forces still posed a threat to Europe. In the late 800s, they conquered Sicily, which became a thriving center of Islamic culture. Not until the 900s, when power struggles erupted in the Middle East, did Muslim attacks finally subside.
  • About 896, a new wave of nomadic people, the Magyars, settled in what is today Hungary. From there, they overran eastern Europe and moved on to plunder Germany, parts of France, and Italy. Finally, after about 50 years, they were pushed back into Hungary.


After Charlemagne
  • The Vikings snapped the last threads of unity in Charlemagne's empire. These expert sailors burst out of Scandinavia, a northern region that now includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Starting in the 900s, they looted and burned communities along the coasts and rivers of Europe.
  • The Vikings were not just destructive raiders. They were also traders and explorers who sailed around the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean. Vikings opened trade routes that linked northern Europe to Mediterranean lands. Vikings also settled in England, Ireland, northern France, and parts of Russia. Around the year 1000, Leif Erikson set up a short-lived Viking colony on North America.