The Pietrosa Treasure famous for its golden torc with an early Runic inscription

Europe and the Dawn of the Middle Ages

Europe is constituted by an impressive number of seperate states and inhabited by numerous  people seperated by any number of distinct languages, traditions and histories. This is the gift of the Middle Ages. We still live in the cusp of these strange times.

The Germanic People on the move in a 19th century version. Source: wikipedia
The Germanic People on the move in a 19th century version. Source: wikipedia

In 375 a massive contingent of Goths arrived at the Danube River near Durostorum, present-day Silistra, seeking asylum from the Huns, who had arrived on the European scene some years before. The Goths sent emissaries to Valens, the Eastern Roman Emperor, requesting help to cross the river and settle inside the Roman Empire. At this time, Valens was in Antioch heading a campaign against the Persians, hence the army in the Balkans was depleted. Accordingly, Valens and the leaders of his army was pleased with the opportunity to recruit new mercenaries. Nevertheless, some reservations must have governed his and his councillors’ thinking. Only half of the Goths, the Thervings (Thuringians), were allowed to cross. The other tribe, the Greuthungi, were denied help to get to the southern bank of the river. The plan must initially have been to recruit the soldiers, while split the massive contingent of people up and settle them across the Empire. Organising this was, however, taking its time, and the large group of people temporarily settled in a camp on the banks of the river were seemingly left to mould. The deal obliged the Romans to feed the multitudes, but the primary reporter of the events, Ammianus Marcellinus, tells us that Romans did not provide the Goths with the promised victuals. Instead, they were robbed and sold into slavery by the corrupt Roman military leaders. Countering a threatening rebellion among the Goths, the Romans sent the Barbarians on a march south to Marcianopolis, present-day Devnya. To organise this march, the Romans employed the remains of their skeleton army, an act, which opened up for the Greuthungi to pass further out along the river to the east. Ammianus claims that Fritigern, who led the Thervings, slowed the march down for the Greuthungi to catch up.

Precisely how the events played out over the next years is not relevant. What we need to note is that it ended at the Battle of Adrianople 378 with a devastating defeat for the Roman army. Not only died Valens but with him two-thirds of the Roman field army in the East. Historians have calculated that it is likely 20-26.000 Roman soldiers were left to die on the field of battle. Adrianople has often been likened to the death-bell of the Roman Empire as it opened up for the settlement of Goths inside the Roman Empire, thus establishing the first “barbarian proto-state” inside its borders. Later, this contingent of people – the Visigoths – ended up in the region near Toulouse and founded the first barbarian successor-kingdom.

The history of the battle of Adrianople is fascinating for military historians. However, it is also interesting from another angle, namely that of demographics. The critical element here is the size of the defeated Roman army, which is estimated to have consisted of 30-40.000 imperial troops. As it is not likely that a smaller army could have won the day in a set-piece battle involving the highly professional and trained Roman army, it is believed that the Goths and their auxiliaries must have listed an equivalent force. Since these 30-50.000 Goths and clingers-on probably were accompanied by their families, it is possible that this multitude of people amounted to at least 200.000 people.

Nearly thirty years later, a throng of Germanic people said to be Vandals, Alans, Sueves, Heruls and others arrived at the River Rhine in December c. 406 near the city of Mainz. Probably, they succeeded in crossing the frozen river on foot, leading them to ravage and plunder Gaul, until they ended up on the Iberian Peninsula and finally Northern Africa. Recently, the size of this multitude of people has been estimated to ca. 200.000 people.

Contemporary historians (Ammianus, Zosimus, Jerome) referred to these people as belonging to numerous and distinct tribes. It is, however, reasonable to consider them more of a plethora of people of very diverse origin, who entered the crucible of the faltering Roman Empire. Getting a foothold on the frontiers in the 4th century to invade beyond in the 5th, they began to forge themselves into gradually more and more distinct groups with sepcial identities. Banding up with other colonies of laeti or foederati, they slowly transformed themselves into separate cultural polities during the 5th century to emerge as the barbarian successor-kingdoms, we know of as the cellules of present-day Europe.

Europe at the time of the death of Theoderic AD 526. Source: wikipedia
Europe at the time of the death of Theoderic AD 526. Source: wikipedia

It is a question of considerable controversy among historians and scholars as to when the Late Antiquity turned into the Early Middle Ages. What is agreed upon, though, is that this was not an epochal shift, but rather the accumulation of events, which happened at different places, at different times and in different ways. This process was never unison or linear. Instead, it was convoluted and complicated. Nevertheless, the result was clear: at some point at the beginning of the 6th century, the civilizational hegemony, which the Roman Empire in the west had represented, had apparently petered out. No longer did the Roman Army import olive oil and wine to Vindolandum, a Roman fort at Hadrian’s Wall signifying “Romanitas”. Left was a culturally fluid world in which numerous political entities in the periphery came to compete for the economic hegemony, meanwhile fighting to establish new (and shifting) centres, whether kingdoms or later empires. In this cultural bricolage, Roman as well as Barbarian memes – architecture, material artefacts, coins, art-forms, gods, rituals etc. – were re-circulated in ever new and inventive ways. Overarching was, of course, first Byzantium and later, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which gradually succeeded in establishing the same liturgy and doctrines from Iceland in the north to Granada in the south.

To be precise: inherent diversity became the stuff of medieval Europe. As this process continues to take place even today, we may to a certain degree claim that we as modern Europeans still live in the Middle Ages, in which we continuously try to re-invent our traditions, our linguistic diversity and our different laws and habits, many of which were forged more than a millennium ago. Insofar as Rome came to be a world characterised by civilizational implosion, Europe surfaced in the 5th century embarking on quite a different economic, political and cultural process characterised by its centrifugal properties.

Often tangential, diverse and shifting, this constant reinvention of traditions, which characterises Europe, obviously looks different when compared to the USA. Thus, while Europe continues to juggle numerous different languages with each their distinct history, the Americans have to deal with no more than dialects. It is this diversity, which constituted the essence of Medieval Europe; and which continues to set its mark on our shared agenda in the 21st century.

To conclude: We still live in the Middle Ages. Thus, Medieval History in Europe is of paramount importance. It is our history.


The Pietrosa Treasure from the beginning of the 5th century. Famous for its neck ring with an inscription in Gothic, calling opon the ring to hallow either the land, the year of the ancestor-king of the Goths, it demonstrates the cultural ensemble of a Gothic king in the Migration period.