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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

French History Part 3: The Early Middle Ages or How dark were The Dark Ages?

There continues to be much argument amongst academics and the general public of what the phrase Dark Ages means in a Western European context. In the context of French history the arbitrary dates 450s to 1000 fall within this period, some 500 years or so. Historians are hampered by the paucity of prime source material.

Yet one thing is clear, it was a time of change as the old Gallo-Roman society of Gaul became replaced by a new society brought in by invaders from the north and east. The one continuity with the past was the Christian Church, which undertook the task of converting the new pagan arrivals to Christianity.

Two burning lights in the darkness were the rulers, Clovis, King of the Franks (481-c.509) and Charlemagne, Emperor of Rome (768-814). This period was marked by wars and by attempts to carve out independent kingdoms and fiefdoms, as well as attempts to recreate the Western part of The Roman Empire. A muddled and muddy period maybe, but not all dark certainly.

Charlemagne came the nearest to re-establishing The Roman Empire of old, but ultimately failed as he could not legislate for the future. It all unravelled following his death in 814. In the 9th century, the French coast came under attack from The North Men, or Vikings. They came first as raiders and then as settlers. Their importance arose from the Dukedom which they established in the land of the North Men, or Normandy. For in 1066 the then Duke of Normandy, William, sought a kingdom, and Saxon England proved most inviting. He learnt the lessons of the French King who commanded but a relatively small portion of France. William made no such mistake after his Conquest. England became a rigid feudal society with the King at the very top, and animosity was born between William's heirs and the Kings of France throughout The Middle Ages.

Books to be added to our growing list (v. back to earlier blogs for more)

The Burgundians by Bart Van Loo ( a fascinating book about a people of whom most of us know little) Just published in paperback in Britain

In Search of the Dark Ages (2022 edition) by Michael Wood. (this is about England but the opening chapter has a European relevance)

The Bright Ages by Gabrielle and Perry ( This covers Europe as a whole and both the Early and the Late medieval periods). It has been described as 'magisterial'.

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