Death and Life in the Tenth Century
The Other Conquest
The Making of the Christian West, 980-1140
The emergence of Western Europe as an identifiable society in world history is a theme that remains popular with medieval historians, and especially for those writing, as all other authors are, for the interested general reader. It is one that they like to discuss in biological metaphors—life, death, growth, decay. Hence the many books on the birth, or the making, of Europe, the Middle Ages, the Christian West. About the main stages of the process there is general agreement. As the authority of the western Roman empire withered away, so power passed to the leaders of the Germanic peoples who, from the fifth century, took root in the European provinces. Of these peoples, those who established themselves most permanently and imposed themselves most successfully on their neighbors were the Franks, who settled most thickly between the Rhine and the Loire. In the eighth century they were ruled by a dynasty which produced one king of heroic stature, Charlemagne. He was not only a conqueror. He gave the peoples under his rule a fair measure of public order, which was certainly greater than most of them had previously enjoyed. He exercised authority with a degree of Christian responsibility, he expressed his will in legislative and administrative acts intended to apply to all his dominions; under his patronage and that of the clergy of his court there was a revival in things of the mind: education, literature, the conservation of some of the inheritance of the past.
These achievements were impermanent. The Carolingian Empire disintegrated because of civil war between Charlemagne’s grandsons, and their descendants after them, and because of renewed invasions not only by Saracens, but, even more terrible, by Magyars and Norsemen. Feudal institutions, in this age though not in all, promoted disunity rather than order. So there followed in the late ninth and early tenth century, a fragmentation of the Carolingians’ work. The tenth century can be presented in stark contrast to the ages that preceded and followed it, to the comparative unity and order of the Carolingian period on the one hand, and on the other the new growth of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a growth more solidly founded than the Carolingian on a rising population, the revival of longdistance trade in bulk commodities, the growth of towns and higher education, the settlement of some of the invaders in Hungary, Normandy, and parts of the British Isles. The tenth century has been seen as a slough of despond between the peaks of eighth and twelfth-century achievement, for which historians have devised suitably drab and depressing names—the true Dark Age, the Age of Iron, the Age of Lead.
No period of as much as a hundred years can be labeled in any meaningful way. Certainly the tenth century was marked more than many others by destruction, confusion, and retrogression. But it was also a century of monastic revival, which saw the foundation of Cluny and the work of John of Gorze and Gerard of Brogne; Professors Duckett…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.