The Vikings: Raiding, Trading, and Settling in the Early Middle Ages


Viking Oseberg longboat / Oslo Museum, Norway


Lecture by Dr. Paul Freedman / 11.28.2011
Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
Chair, History of Science and Medicine Program
Yale University

Introduction

Early medieval map of Scandinavia from the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus / Wikimedia Commons

We’re discussing people from Scandinavia, different parts of Scandinavia, who had different destinations. So different parts of Scandinavia: Denmark, Norway, Sweden. Different destinations: the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne for which they bear some responsibility for unraveling, Russia, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, the New World. They certainly got around. They’re not always the same populations. And they have different ambitions in different places.

Basically, those ambitions can be divided into raiding, trading, and settling. These are not mutually exclusive. Although usually they began by raiding almost always if they were dealing with a place that had people. Thus obviously Iceland when they came didn’t have people at all. So they came there as explorers or settlers.

The crucial changeover is in their attacks on the British Isles and on the Frankish Empire. They begin as raiders, that is as seaborne warriors who would plunder opportunistic targets– monasteries, for example– and then leave with their spoils.

They also, however, were traders. And I don’t want to make too much of this as if it were a timeless statement, but in the period we’re dealing with, raiding and trading weren’t all that far apart. When the Vikings in the east, mostly from Sweden, were dealing with the Caliphate in Baghdad or the Byzantine Empire, they found these targets too well organized with too overpowering a military presence to intimidate in the way that they were able to do with Britain and the Frankish Empire. So here they were more traders.

They brought various products, particularly slaves and fur, to the Caliphate and to the Byzantine Empire. And they came back with a lot of coins, among other things. 80,000 coins from the Caliphate have been found in Sweden alone. So here they’re traders.

Excavation of a medieval Viking settler in Dublin / Wikimedia Commona

Settlers. They would eventually settle in the Frankish Empire and in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. They would settle in Ireland. Indeed, the city of Dublin was founded by the Vikings. They would settle in Iceland completely. That is, the people who live in Iceland now are the descendants of mostly Norwegian, some Danish settlers of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

They would even try to settle as far afield as Newfoundland. There is a place in Newfoundland that it is unmistakably, by the archaeological evidence, a Viking site. This doesn’t ultimately work.

So it is wrong to think of them exclusively as savage warriors, as barbarians, but then again, we’ve seen that it’s wrong to think of most of the invading peoples of the period we’ve been discussing as just totally savage raiders. These are extremely skilled raiders, and as I’ve just gotten through saying, they’re raiders with several different possible agendas. They’re very adaptive.

The question remains, what made Scandinavia so powerful in the ninth and tenth centuries, especially since Scandinavia tends not to be a major actor in European politics. The two periods in which it is are this one– basically the ninth, tenth, eleventh centuries– and the seventeenth century when the armies of Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus terrorized Central Europe. That effort was ultimately ended not in Central Europe but in Eastern Europe by Russia. And the Russians defeated the Swedes sufficiently in the early eighteenth so that they basically never got themselves very heavily involved in European politics again.

Part of the answer of “Why Scandinavia? Why now?” is that we’re dealing with another savage or certainly less civilized population who erupt from their homeland and devastate a weak, but relatively rich society. There’s nothing very unusual about that. We have seen it with the Roman Empire, and you can see it later with such successful campaigns as those of the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

So the other reason besides opportunity is tactics. The Vikings were masters of the sea. If you ever do go to Denmark, Sweden, or Norway, you must go to the Viking museums there. They are absolutely enthralling. And you see these ships that seem unbelievably flimsy for the voyages that they undertook.

Viking Oseberg longboat / Oslo Museum, Norway

On the other hand, by reason of their small size and particularly shallow draft– that is to say they’re able to be stable without being so deep underneath the ship, having a keel underneath– that they can sail up rivers. They can both, therefore, go in the Atlantic and be stable enough to make the journey and go up rivers that are no more than five or six feet deep at points like the Seine in France or the Loire in France. And so they could raid far inland with these ships.

And as masters of seas and rivers, they could easily outrun the clumsy, slow Carolingian armies. They could raid a monastery, check out another monastery the same afternoon. “Oh, there’s an army there. Well, we’ll just get back in the ship, and we’ll go further down. And then we’ll look for more tempting targets– palaces, towns, monasteries.”

They were not good at fortification. If a place was fortified, they tended to pass it by. They were not siege masters. Their control, therefore, of the water is not dissimilar to the Arabs’ advantage in the beginning of the Arab expansion that we talked about with regard to the desert. The desert functions the same way. An environment that these people controlled in the sense that they could maneuver easily in it, and their more civilized opponent with larger armies could not.

The Persian and the Byzantine armies couldn’t really go very far into the desert. They had supply line, water problems. They actually didn’t know the desert. It all looked the same to them. So this is the same or at least a similar advantage for the Vikings.

The Vikings are different from other raiders partly in their ability to construct governments, not only to settle lands, but to create governments ranging from the what advertises itself with some accuracy as the world’s oldest democracy, Iceland, where tourists are still pointed out the place where the kind of parliament of all citizens took place as early as 1,000 years ago.

Vladimir I (“the Great”) of Kiev, ruler of Kievan Rus’ in (980–1015) / Wikimedia Commons

And they’re also the founders of Russia, probably not to be advertised as the world’s oldest democracy. Certainly not a country that’s had a whole lot of experience with that particular form of government. But in fact, the first Christian rulers of Russia, the same Vladimir and his successors, who were baptized and crowned under Byzantine auspices were Scandinavian. And the Scandinavian groups are called the Rus. They quickly lose their Scandinavian language and identity, but nevertheless that is the founding dynasty of the first Russian rulers.

So the Vikings have a fascinating culture and literature, amazing sagas mostly preserved through their Icelandic versions, very interesting art, very interesting forms of decoration, and then these magnificent ships. Their major contribution to the history of Europe may be geopolitical in the sense that they connect parts of the world that were otherwise minimally or not at all connected. So from Central Asia to Greenland, they build various kinds of cultural and particularly commercial networks.

They also contribute to the destroying of the Carolingian Empire, the destroying of what we were discussing before the vacation. They’re not the sole cause. We talked about weaknesses within the Carolingian Empire, but certainly the Viking invasions have devastated it during the ninth century  did not at all help.

Where did this drive for expansion come from besides opportunity? And there’s not a tremendous agreement on this point among scholars. Overpopulation and land hunger are possible. To this day, these are not densely populated countries. And in the pre-modern period, they could not support anything but a very small population given the fact that most of the land is not capable of being cultivated. So you can get to a point of over-population pretty quickly.

Opportunities afforded by the weakness of others– I’ve mentioned this. Internal feuding and the creation of exiles. It’s hard to separate legend from history, but the legends about the founding of Iceland and Greenland in particular involve people who were too rowdy for the Vikings. I pause on that, because it’s a little hard to imagine what such a person would have been like. Nevertheless, these sagas tell us that various people were just too mean for quiet, civilized old Norway or even couldn’t get their energies fulfilled by plundering the Frankish Empire and went off to Iceland and places like that.

The climate conditions may have been favorable. It may have been relatively warm. There’s a lot of debate about the settlement of Greenland in this regard in particular. We know that by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Greenland was becoming too cold for the Scandinavians and not for the Inuit, who were better adapted to real polar conditions. But this is something that is of crucial importance in tracing the history of climate and is hotly debated. But it certainly looks as if it gets colder in the thirteenth, fourteenth century– fourteenth century particularly– throughout Europe and the Atlantic and probably warmer in the tenth and eleventh centuries when this expansion is taking place.

And then finally, there’s a cult of personal valor that is even stronger than that of early medieval Europe. A male cult of violent military bravery and the opportunity to demonstrate that was a kind of competitive sport.

The Vikings in England and on the Continent

Lindisfarne Abbey, England / Wikimedia Commons

The Viking raids in England and the Continent begin around 800. One of the first stunning events is the sack of the island monastery of Lindisfarne on the eastern coast of northern England. The monastery of Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings in 797. Charlemagne was able to repulse these raids and the English as well. But the civil wars that we were talking about among the sons of Louis the Pious started to encourage the Vikings indirectly by the disunity of the Frankish Empire, the wasting of military resources on what was, in effect, a kind of civil war. But also the Vikings just got stronger and more ambitious, because their raids on relatively well-organized Britain start to reach their height in the 830s.

So you start having the abandonment of monasteries, for example, the abandonment of Lindisfarne and the moving of its relics. So the relics of Saint Cuthbert of York move around a lot. Monks on the western coast of France abandon their monasteries and move their communities and relics further inland.

The Vikings seem to jockey between emphasizing raids on the Frankish Empire and on England, but basically they’re doing both. They start to spend the winter, what’s called over-wintering in the late 830s, early 840s. And that’s a sinister sign from the point of view of the English, Irish, and Franks, because that means that they’re going from raiding to some form of settling. If they can spend the winter and not just the classic raiding season, why not just stay permanently?

So they start coming up the rivers. They start plundering cities that are not sufficiently fortified. A monk in the 860s writes, “the number of ships grows every year…” The feeling of just this complete takeover. Now, that’s the monastic point of view. The monasteries were ideal targets, because they are rich, isolated, and minimally fortified. But nevertheless, the Carolingians have no fleet to match the Viking ships.

Principal Parisian city gates / Wikimedia Commons

The way to stop the Vikings– and it was only really implemented in the 870s and 880s. The way to stop the Vikings was with fortified bridges. If you built a bridge that the Vikings could not go past without fighting and fortified it sufficiently and had sufficient numbers of troops, you would stymie them. And this is eventually what happens. In the late ninth century, the Vikings are defeated at the gates of Paris in 888– 885, 886, rather.

And they start accommodating with the European rulers. That is to say they are given lands to settle and then made to promise to stop raiding. And in effect, they start to settle down towards the end of the ninth century, beginning of the tenth century so that, for example, a treaty in 911 with the West Frankish ruler, the ruler we can start to call the King of France, allows them to settle in northwestern France in a territory that henceforth was called Normandy. Same in French. Normandie. The territory of the “Northmen” is what they’re usually referred to in the sources rather than “Vikings”. The territory of the Northmen.

So Normandy in 911 was a province settled by Vikings nominally loyal to the King of France. The Vikings very quickly lose their language. By the time of the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, 150 or so years later, they are Norman. They speak French. They are more French than anything else, although a bit different. Their ships still look a bit like Viking ships. If you know the Bayeux Tapestry, which is this embroidery that shows the history of the Norman conquest of England, their ships look very much like our image of Viking ships.

In England, the 860s are the zenith of their destruction. They actually in effect partition England between an eastern and a western part. The eastern part becomes a territory called the Danelaw, the place where the Danes have settled.

And their indirect effect on England is to force the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to unify. So rather than the multiple kingdoms that we looked at at Bede’s time– Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria– we have the western kingdom formerly called Wessex, which under King Alfred in the 860s to 880s becomes really the sole Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England and gradually defeats the Vikings, eventually kicking them out of the British Isles altogether by about 930 or so.

So the conquests in the Frankish and English realms are not permanent in the sense that there’s minimal Scandinavian impact of a permanent sort on these places. There are not a lot of people speaking Old Norse in either place in 1100. But their impact is tremendous in terms of organizing these places, creating networks, founding cities like Dublin, reorganizing kingdoms like Ireland, creating Normandy, and really kind of throwing the puzzle on the floor and reforming it.

The Vikings in the East

 

Dnieper River to the Caspian Sea / Wikimedia Commons

In the East and in the Atlantic. Here you have to imagine or sort of visualize Scandinavia sitting on the top of Europe. The same effect that encourages airlines to use polar routes as a shorter way to cross the globe also allows the Scandinavians in effect to choose their targets. Some of this is logical. Norway is much easier, much closer to the British Isles than you might think. It sort of sits on top of them. And Sweden is much closer to the East via the North than one would think.

But even Norway, for example, the modern kingdom of Norway, has a border with Russia. It goes so far north, and then it has this very little, narrow piece of land that is only about thirty miles from the important Russian port of Murmansk. And all of these places are relatively warm given how far north they are because of the Gulf Stream.

So just as London is surprisingly warm considering that it’s on the same latitude as Newfoundland, so these northern parts of Scandinavia are the equivalent of polar wastes of northern Canada. And yet they are– they’re cold enough. The problem with them is they’re really dark. So they’re dark for months at a time, but they’re not all that cold.

From this vantage point then, the East would be a tempting source of enterprise for Vikings, particularly but not exclusively from Scandinavia, especially in the tenth century. They would go via the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland down the Russian rivers like the Dnieper to the Black Sea and the Volga to the Caspian Sea.

They used to these rivers as ways of reaching territories of Byzantine and of Caliphal influence. They traded, raided when possible. A lot of our descriptions of the Vikings by outsiders, our most accurate descriptions, are from Muslim travelers who describe who these people are, what their products are even though very little remains in this region to attest to the Vikings. The main evidence, as we said, are really coins taken back to Scandinavia.

The ruined Church of the Tithes, first stone church in Kiev built on the order of Vladimir I (“the Great”) in the 900s, drawn by Abraham van Westerveld. / Wikimedia Commons

Their base– that is the Viking base in this eastern area– was what would become Kiev in modern Ukraine. And Kiev would be the first Russian Scandinavian kingdom ruled by a tsar. They had ambitions to take over Constantinople, a city they called in sort of Tolkien-esque fashion “Mickelgard” — “Gard” meaning city, “mickel” meaning powerful. “Mickel” still in Middle English, in Chaucer’s English, means “impressive,” “powerful.”

Their attacks on Mickelgard didn’t work. They attacked in 860 and 941, and we’ve seen that Constantinople was able to fight off more impressive enemies than this. They therefore were dealing with wealthy and established states, well-organized states, better organized than the Carolingian Empire or the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and so states that were capable of defeating them. They therefore came to these areas controlled by Baghdad and Constantinople more as traders than as raiders.

What did they bring to trade with? They have certain classic products, things from the North Sea, like walrus ivory, very highly prized, amber from the Baltic Sea– amber used in jewelry and medicine, a stone that’s not really a stone, a thing that’s much lighter than it looks like credited with various kinds of mysterious or at least medicinal properties throughout the formerly Roman and Islamic world. Arrows and swords. The West was very good at metalworking. Honey, hunting falcons, wax.

But as I said, their two great commodities were slaves and furs. Slaves– these societies of the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate always wanted more slaves. They had plenty of unpleasant labor as well as domestic service shortages. And so many of these slaves were Slavs, that is Slavic populations rounded up by the Vikings and then sold in Constantinople or Baghdad.

Furs. On the one hand, furs like sable, marten, mink that bounded in the eastern Baltic regions and in what’s now northern Russia were tremendously prized in a world in which central heating was nonexistent. And although we may not think of modern Istanbul as particularly cold, it’s quite cold and damp. One can certainly understand the practical desire for furs for well-off people in the Byzantine Empire.

In the Caliphate, it may seem a little stranger. Baghdad is more noted for unbearable heat than cold. On the other hand, the Caliphate includes territories like Afghanistan, eastern Iran. And also, keep in mind, as is the case with Palm Beach and Miami Beach even as we speak now in late November, that for certain people, the prestige of the furs transcends any need for practical warmth. So these are the two great products.

So they’re plunderers and extortionists, but they’re fairly creative plunderers and extortionists. They create a number of trading cities, not only Kiev further south, but the great city of Novgorod sort of between the Baltic and the more modern city of Moscow. These cities are fortified, leading one to assume that they weren’t just free-trade zones, that other people raided them or that the Vikings expected other people to try to revenge themselves on their kind of raiding and trading. So anyway, as we’ve said before, trading and plundering are not necessarily totally distinct.

The Vikings in the West

Norse long house recreation, L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada / Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, Wikimedia Commons

So finally, the West. The Vikings begin to explore the Atlantic mostly from Norway and beginning after the maximum period of raiding of England starts to tail off in the 860s. These lands were uninhabited – Iceland — or minimally inhabited — Greenland. They were very attractive for hunting and for pasturing.

Where the Vikings found a fair density of people, they tended not to stay. This is their problem with Newfoundland. They have a settlement in Newfoundland at a place whose modern name is somewhat confusing way called L’Anse aux Meadows. So you have a French and English compound. L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, one of a number of certainly the most best-known Viking sites. But there were Native Americans who drove them out, not necessarily because they were superior in armament, but it just wasn’t really worth it to the Vikings to stay. So their staying in Newfoundland is relatively brief.

In order to go from Norway to Iceland, it’s about 800 miles, and it took anywhere between one week and one month. The island is not as cold as its name suggests. It has glaciers, but in the parts that don’t have glaciers, it’s not all that cold. Again, the Gulf Stream. Most of it is uninhabitable, but that’s because of volcanic rock.

I don’t know how many of you have been to Iceland, but even the drive from the airport to Reykjavik is intimidating, because it goes through the stuff called “tufa”. And there are no trees, and there’s sort of no prospect of anything growing there. But on the other hand, there are plenty of nice coastal strips, mild climate, great pasture.

There are almost no trees now. And there’s a lot of debate about whether there were trees, whether they just cut them down, and they couldn’t be re-cultivated. But in fact, this is a very hospitable place: rich pastures, sea mammals everywhere. Until Iceland completely lost its mind in the speculative atmosphere of the decade preceding 2008, their main industry was cod fishing. They then went into banking in a way that just staggers the mind and have gotten back into cod fishing, my understanding is.

But they had lots and lots of other things. Lots of seals which they killed for fur, walrus skin used for cable for ropes for ships, walrus ivory, another little creature called an narwhal that has a tusk that looks like a– well, it was taken for being a unicorn tusk. There’s one in the Cloisters, for example, that some of you are going to see on the seventh of December.

So the colonization of Iceland begins in 870, and by 930, the island is basically full. It’s habitable land, again. A very, very small percentage of the land area was fully settled. We know a lot more about Iceland than any other part of Scandinavia because of the extraordinary quality and quantity of poetic stories, sagas in which honor, treasure, and love of mayhem dominate. These are very violent and until a certain point were taken to be realistic portrayals of life in Iceland just as if, say, 1950s and 1960s TV westerns were assumed to be a totally accurate portrayal of life everywhere in the United States in the nineteenth century. So these are, like Westerns, wonderful stories of male violence with a certain amount of exaggeration, but nevertheless the reflection of customs, ways of speaking, and social values.

Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s Gronlandia. / Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of the tenth century, Greenland was explored under the leadership of Erik the Red, one of these renegades so difficult and violent that he was exiled from both Norway and Iceland. He is the one who seems to have dubbed this new territory Greenland, a pioneer of deceptive advertising, I think it’s fair to say. Because warm as it may have been in the tenth century, this is like calling some housing development Warbling Acres when in fact you’ve just bulldozed all the trees in order to create the development.

So the western coast of Greenland had rich pasture. The West is warmer than the East. Settlers came beginning in 986. There was even a bishopric established at a place called Gardar, another sort of Tolkien-esque name. We don’t know very many bishops who actually went to Gardar. Most of them ruled from Denmark and sort of basically told their flock to get in touch with them if they needed them, gave them their office hours and had a phone that took messages.

But this settlement did not last. Greenland was more or less abandoned by 1400 and then would later be, in modern times, resettled, but this time by Denmark.

And then finally, Norwegians from Greenland settled what’s now Labrador in Newfoundland, late tenth, early eleventh centuries. They even wrote a saga called the Vinland Saga. The Vinland Map that’s in the Beinecke Library that purports to show both the Chinese Mongol Empire and the territories of Vinland in the New World is unfortunately a fake. But as I said, these archaeological finds in Markland, as the Vikings called Labrador, or Vinland, as they referred to Newfoundland, are real. They were settled about the year 1000 and abandoned in 1020.

Conclusion: The Year 1000, Leaving the Early Middle Ages

The Year 1000 / Wikimedia Commons

So here we are, 1020 or the year 1000. And I know that you will be asking what has been accomplished since we began with 284. And this is a fair question, because at first glance, it would seem as if we’re still in a world of declining population, a rural society with very few urban centers, a society of relatively little literacy, relatively small amounts of commerce, lots of violence, lack of governmental order, militarized society, all developments that we have been tracing since the beginning. There’s a very rapid ascent in following years from 1000 to about 1300, a tremendous growth of the European economy and a tremendous expansion of both population, artistic, political, and intellectual creativity that is the central period of the Middle Ages.

The real mystery behind this, the sort of historical problem, is what explains the domination of Europe in the second millennium AD? The first millennium, most of which we’ve covered in this course, the dominant areas are the Mediterranean at the beginning, which includes Europe, but also includes North Africa, Egypt, the Middle East, and modern Turkey. And indeed, those latter regions would outpace Europe, properly speaking. The first millennium is something of a catastrophe for Europe, at least by measurable statistics of a per capita GNP, population, population density, urbanization, nature.

What then explains the domination of Europe after 1000? In some ways, it’s a slow process. The first European colonies don’t really get established until the aftermath of Columbus’ voyage in 1492. And then they get established incredibly rapidly and with surprisingly little effort, right? Mexico and Peru, these huge empires of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas fall to a few hundred Spanish troops. And the Spanish and Portuguese between 1492 and 1520 are all over the world, from Malacca in modern Malaysia to India to the Persian Gulf to Mexico and Peru.

Well, we don’t have to explain that. That’s for another time. But suffice it to say that already in 1095, the European Christian population is capable of putting together an army to conquer Jerusalem from Islam, a seemingly impossible job, and certainly one that required more than logistics and resources but also a certain kind of if not fanaticism at least a real motivation, religious motivation. But nevertheless, it is a sign of a certain kind of European power that one would not have thought in the year 1000 was possible.

In the year 1000, the smart money, the Brookings Institute, think tank, kind of RAND Corporation, Bain Consulting, all the smart people would have said, “Don’t put any money into Europe. You’ve got to be kidding. The coming regions are the same as over the last couple hundred years. Maybe Byzantium, a cautious buy. Definitely the Islamic kingdoms, even if the Caliphate is having some problems, qua Caliphate, their successor state, Fatimid Egypt– awesome, awesome. This is going to dominate for the next millennium. Our algorithms agree on this.”

And all sorts of promising signs in Eastern Europe with the creation of Russia to your more prescient younger, hot-shottier consultants would have identified that. But Germany, Italy, France, the British Isles certainly would have seemed discouraging.

The repulsion of the Rus’ attack on Constantinople in 941 by the Byzantine fleet, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes, cod. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 130 / Madrid National Library

Yet there are some promising signs. As it turns out, the Vikings are the last invaders. The Vikings coincide with invasions from the Magyars. Magyars, that’s what they call themselves to this day. They’re known as the Hungarians to the outside world out of a confusion between them and the Huns. They actually have nothing to do with the Huns. But they were quite frightening land-based raiders of the tenth century.

And there were also attacks by ships from Muslim North Africa against Europe, what the sources refer to as Saracen pirates. And they plunder Rome in 843, for example. So Europe is certainly in the tenth century faced with yet another wave of invasions. And I think I warned you at the beginning of this course that it was basically about invasions and heresies and that you’d do well if you just concentrated on those things. So we’re heresy-free at the moment, but in the tenth century, we certainly have these invasions.

As it happens, they’re the last that Western Europe would experience. Not Eastern Europe, because Eastern Europe would be subject to the Mongols who would, for example, score a tremendous victory over the armies of Poland, armies of the Christian king of Hungary as well in the thirteenth century. But this seems to be the end of invasions, the beginning of a period of population increase, better nutrition, better harvests, perhaps explicable to more settled conditions, perhaps explainable by improved climate, perhaps just explainable by human determination and enterprise.

The Christianization of Europe is one of the tremendous phenomena that characterizes our period. And while as a religious movement I have no investment in saying that Christianity is either an advantage or disadvantage, in terms of creating settled, organized polities, the Christianization of places like Scandinavia, Iceland, or Bohemia– the modern Czech Republic more or less– or Hungary or Russia, all of which take place in the tenth or early eleventh centuries, all of these Christianizations, conversions bring these polities into a kind of European cultural area, political alliances, trade networks. So Christianization is as much a sign of civilization or at least of a kind of economic development as a thing in itself.

So between 200 and 1000, what are the big differences? Whether these are accomplishments or not is debatable. Certainly the population has declined. Over an 800-year period, the population of Europe is considerably less, not only in towns like Rome, which has gone from something on the order of over 500,000, perhaps as much as a million, to 30,000, maximum. It is a much less Mediterranean-centered world. The sort of geopolitics have changed. The Mediterranean has broken apart into Islamic, Byzantine, and Latin regions.

It is Christian, most of it. Most of Europe apart from Spain is Christian. And this entails all sorts of cultural as well as religious changes. It is also less learned. And the learning that there is is a monopoly of the Church. There is less lay, or secular, learning than there was.

There are some continuities, however. The dominant language of learning and administration remains in 1000, as it was in 200, Latin. Roman culture is still the ideal and still, in effect, the practice, even though it may be adapted to things like churches. But what has been called Romanesque or simply Roman architecture particularly that of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries will indeed be based on Roman principles.

And as we saw with Charlemagne, the idea of Rome, the idea of the Empire is extremely durable. And although Charlemagne’s empire is dissolved in the course of the late ninth century, it is at least partially revived in the tenth century under a new dynasty whose first ruler is Otto I, Otto the Great. In 962, he’s crowned Roman emperor in Rome by the pope.

His empire does not include the West. So it’s not France. It’s more Germany than anything else. But this empire would endure until Napoleon, until 1804. In other words for something on the order of 850 years.

So to some extent, what we have accomplished is we have arrived at the point of the emergence of something that can be called Europe other than a geographical term, something that can be called Christendom, not using that in its triumphalist sense but simply as a kind of cultural description of a certain part of the world. And we’ve reached the point where we can start to talk about the West, this very funny term still used, particularly in popular geopolitical tracts like The West and the Rest, these kinds of statements of the West or the decline of the West. We’re at the point of the rise of the West.

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