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Early Middle Ages in Europe: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:03 The Middle Ages Defined
  • 0:34 Fall of the Western…
  • 2:22 Changes in Farming & Feudalism
  • 3:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Moran
The Early Middle Ages in Europe were a troubled time of shifting empires, broken cities, and people trying to get by. This lesson explains this period in Europe's history and offers an overview of key moments throughout this age.

The Middle Ages Defined

The Early Middle Ages lasted 500 years, starting around 5th century AD and continuing until the 10th century AD. It slightly overlaps the previous age, the Late Antiquity, which didn't officially end until the 7th century in the East. In the West, the term Early Middle Ages shows a period that continued trends already started. A population drop in urban areas, a lack of trade, and an increase of immigration - and a dearth of reading and writing skills among common people - helped earn this period the nickname the Dark Ages.

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

One monumental moment that took place during this troubled time was the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The collapse of this empire in 476 occurred slowly, beginning with the allowance of Germanic tribes to find refuge from the hordes of the Hun in the western areas of the Empire in 376 AD. These Goths agreed to enter the empire peacefully and unarmed, working to settle the land. It seems though that the Goth refugees did indeed keep their weapons after offering a little bribe to the Roman border guards.

Citing oppression, the German Tribes rebelled, causing the Gothic War, which occurred between 376 and 382 AD. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, the Germanic tribes slew two-thirds of the Eastern Roman Empire's army. With the lands of the East stripped of men, the Eastern Emperor Valens was slain in battle and the Empire was in trouble. The Goths spread across the Balkans, rampaging and looting as they went.

The eastern Roman Empire was able to repair the damage done, buying peace from the Goths in the form of tribute. The Western Empire was far from lucky, though, and the military commander, Stilicho, was forced to strip the frontier of the Rhine in order to mount a defense in 402 and 403 against the Visigoths and again in 406 and 407 against other Germanic tribes.

The failing control of the Western Roman Empire was so evident, that in the year 410, a Visigoth leader named Alaric I was able to lay siege and capture the city of Rome itself, and for three days the city was a blood bath. Looters scoured houses and palaces for wealthy spoils, and bodies filled the streets as citizens were interrogated in a search for wealth. With the conversion to Christianity, the Goths held great respect for places of faith, and a few Romans were able to find safety in the Vatican, but this gave little comfort after the horrors they'd endured.

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