Waverley Self-Educator. Mediaeval History, Lesson 1.—The Stormy Dawn of Mediaeval History

from the book Practical Knowledge For All: A Comprehensive Self-Educator in Five Volumes, Volume 1, (I estimate it was published between 1956 and 1959), The Waverley Book Company, London,  edited by Gordon Stowell

Mediaeval history


Lesson 1


The Stormy Dawn of Mediaeval History

An accepted date, arbitrary but convenient, for the division between ancient and mediaeval history is A.D. 476. Conditions at that time were, briefly, as follows.

The Roman empire covered the civilized world of which the West had any knowledge, a world professedly Christian, though the conflict between Catholic and Arian Christianity was still fierce. The Empire comprised all Europe west of the Rhine or south of the Danube; all Asia west or south of the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf; in Africa, Egypt and the whole Mediterranean littoral, Arabia was ignored at one end, Britain had been cut adrift at the other. Authority was claimed, but could not be exercised, over the barbarians beyond these bounds—Teutonic on the Rhine and upper Danube, Slavonic or Mongolian on the lower Danube. Beyond the Euphrates lay the Neo-Persian empire which had succeeded the Parthian.

Within the Empire, the Visigoths had left Italy to occupy Spain and south-western Grance under their own kings. Vandals, too, had settled in Spain, but had later transferred themselves to Africa, where they set up a pirate or brigand state. The Roman legions in Italy were no longer Roman but barbarian warriors, captained by Sueves, Vandals, Scythians, and finally by Odoacer, chief of the tribe of the Heruli. The Ostrogoths on the Danube threatened to dominate the Eastern Empire. Chaos in Italy gave to Odoacer the opportunity to remove the child-emperor Romulus Augustulus, who ruled (475-76) in Italy, and to invite the Eastern emperor Zeno to appoint him official Regent in the West.

Odoacer ruled well, and seemed to be on the way to establish a Teutonic kingdom of Italy, when Zeno took alarm and tried to eliminate two menace at once by persuding Theodoric, the young king of the Ostrogoths, that Italy held more promise for him and his people than the Balkan peninsula. With the emperor’s sanction Theodoric led the Ostrogothic people into Italy, overthrew Odoacer (493), killed him, and in fact—though always as the agent of Zeno—set up a Gothic kingdom there. Theodoric ruled from 493 to 526, with wisdom , justice, and moderation (despite some cruelties in his last years).


“Procession of the Holy Virgins and Martyrs” Mosiac from the church of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.


Theodoric’s Rule in Italy

Ravenna, rather than Rome, had been the capital of Italy, and fine building had been carried on there. The mausoleum which Theodoric erected during his reign still exists. He also built three churches for Arian worship, which, with others built by his successors, are still famous for their mosaics.

Theodoric was a statesman, a diplomatist, and a soldier, whose work might have created a new western empire had a similar ruler followed him. But when he died the Ostrogoths broke up into factions. Justinian (483-565), Emperor of the East, in the vain hope of reuniting the Roman Empire, sent armies to Italy under two great commanders: first Belisarius, who had already exterminated the Vandal kingdom, and then Narses who, after long and hard campaigning, almost annihilated the Ostrogothic forces and drove the remnant out of Italy. The Ostrogoths disappeared completely; an imperial viceroy called the Exarch was established at Ravenna, but was never accorded the support necessary for efficient government.

Meanwhile, another Teutonic or Germanic domination, more barbaric than that of Visigoth or Ostrogoth, was being extended from the Rhine over all the country now called France. The Salian or coastal division of the Franks first settled by the mouths of the Rhine and the Meuse; the Riparian or river-bank division settled in the flat land of Champagne and Lorraine and on the left bank of the middle Rhine. The Scandinavian branch of the Teutons (Goths, Vandals, and others) had adopted the Arian form of Christianity, which rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity; the German Franks remained heathens until, in 496, their king Chlodwig (or Clovis) embraced the faith of his Christian Burgundian wife, Clotilde. At his bidding the majority of his subjects followed his example; and they became not Arian but Trinitarian converts.


Clovis, King of the Franks

Orthodoxy secured for Clovis the good-will of the Catholic clergy, and through them of the subject Romanised population through the whole of western Europe, and was doubtless one cause of the rapid extension of the Frankish kingdom. In 507, as the champion of orthodoxy against Arianism, he challenged the Visigothic king to battle, and defeated and slew him on the plain of Poitiers. The Visigothic monarchy survived for some time south of the Pyrenees, but within Gaul it retained only a corner of territory on the west of the Gulf of the Lion, at that period called Septimania. In 587, the Arian heresy was overthrown in Spain.

Clovis died in 511 ; his sons and descendants, the Merving or Merovingian kings of the Franks (named after Meroveus, grandfather of Clovis), continued his profitable policy of religious warfare, and finally added the fruitful province of Burgundy to the Frankish kingdom, which thus came to include the whole of modern France—save for the little strip of Septimanian territory—and also the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and an indefinable extent of country beyond the Rhine. In the 7th and 8th centuries it was the most powerful of the barbarian kingdoms ; but Frankish custom frequently divided it between brothers, who invariably fought each other for supremacy.


Coming of the Lombards

In 568, fifteen years after the expulsion of the Ostrogoths from Italy, the Lombards or Langobard, another Teutonic horde, under the ruthless Alboin, arrived in the peninsula. They were much more uncouth and barbarous than the Ostrogoths, and their religion was either Arian Christianity or heathenism. Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604), justly called the Great, complained that he lived “between the swords of the Lombards” ; the fierce enmity between the Papacy and the Lombard kings was not appeased even by the conversion of the latter to Catholic Christianity.

The conquest of Italy by the Lombards was only partial. From their capital at Pavia they ruled the greater part of the valley of the Po. Tuscany was theirs, and most of the country on the flanks of the Apennines, divided into the two duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. But the city of Naples, the toe and heel of Italy, the island of Sicily, and —in the north-east corner of the land—the all but impregnable city of Ravenna, the seat of the imperial Exarch, were still in the imperial allegiance. Rome was, of course, also nominally imperial ; but the Popes, who had many a theological battle with the Eastern emperor, were showing an increasing tendency to rule Rome and the Western Church independently of Constantinople, although the final separation of the Latin or Catholic Church form the Greek or Orthodox Church of the East had not yet arrived.

During the same period a little city amid the mudbanks of the Adriatic, which afterwards came to be known as Venice, was quietly increasing in wealth and power, holding the Lombard barbarians at bay and professing unbounded loyalty to the distant Byzantine emperor—being comfortably beyond his reach.


(Next Week- ‘Lesson 2. Byzantium and the Moslem Menace’)

In this 6th-century Byzantine mosaic in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna, the empress is shown about to leave her throne room to make an offering of a gold chalice. The first and second ladies on her left are believed to be Antonina and Joanna, wife and daughter if Justinian’s great General, Belisarius. The mosaic is evidence of the level of Byzantine art of the period, and of the sumptuous character of the court robes worn by the empress, her ministers, and her ladies.


Office clerk.

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