The “Barbarian” Apocalypse | Early Medieval Europe

Last episode we talked in general about why these classical empires declined and led way to the medieval era in Europe. One of the reasons was invasions by various groups generally known as barbarians. The word barbarian comes from the Greek “barbaros” which just means “foreigner.” This term is entirely subjective. For example in the Roman Empire, it was considered barbaric to wear pants – real men wore togas. Until they conquered England, felt a cold draft and thought, “Oh I get it now! Let’s switch to pants!”

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

So as Rome is in decline, various groups like the Visigoths and Ostrogoths and Emogoths, enter the region. There are tons of groups but I’m just going to call them Germanic people because they sort of came from the area known as Germania. The best way to think about the fall of Rome is the zombie apocalypse. Seriously.

Early Medieval Europe | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By Direction and cinematography both by George A. Romero (Screenshot from timeinc.net) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A perfectly historically accurate representation of the Germanic tribes that conquered Rome
OK, what’s your zombie apocalypse plan? If you don’t already have one, then you’re not going to make it.

A few kids always think they’re really smart and say something like Wal-Mart or Ikea and then I spend the next 10 minutes explaining to them that that is a shortsighted answer because there would be so much competition for such precious real estate. It’s kind of like in the Hunger Games how the smart players run away from the Cornucopia and go hide in the forest. *Boom* that’s a bonus Hunger Games reference for you – I didn’t even put that one on my original blog post.

So I’m not going to share with you my entire apocalypse plan because I can’t afford for my tens of podcast followers to steal my spot. But most people’s plan consists generally of getting out of the cities, finding an isolated place, and fortifying it. I have family out in east Texas that own land and a lot of guns. I would go there.

the rise of feudalism

When the Germanic tribes came in and were sacking the cities of the Roman Empire over the 300s, that’s what people did. They fled the cities and went out to the countryside. If you were a patrician – or a wealthy landowner – then you had a country estate and you were good. If you were a pleb – or landless peasant – then you had to go to those country estates and beg for help. Please! Let me in! I’ll do anything – I’ll work your fields, fight for you, whatever. Just give me protection and a place to live! And that’s how we get feudalism.

The patricians become lords, the plebs become vassals, and over time their country estates get fortified until they are straight-up castles.

Medieval Europe | Anti-Social Studies - A History Podcast + Blog | Source: pixabay.com
Medieval Castle – aka a rich guy’s summer estate that really came in handy around 476 C.E. | Episode 104
medieval warfare

New weapons get created over time to defend first against invading “barbarians” but eventually against other estates and then kingdoms. There are two fictionalized depictions of medieval battles that are really great: the first is the Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones. If you haven’t seen it, oh my god. I was out of breath watching it while sitting on the couch.

The other is the Battle of Helm’s Deep from the Lord of the Rings. Pay attention to what creatures get each weapon – the orks carry crossbows that are much simpler to use and were good weapons for untrained soldiers (because orks are dumb). Meanwhile the majestic Orlando Bloom elves wield longbows, which required a lot more skill than the crossbow and were way more accurate.


So, in the medieval era, after you flee the city, you lived your entire life on this massive estate – or manor. You got everything you needed and really had no reason to ever leave, except maybe to go one manor over and do some light trading.

So the fall of Rome is basically like The Walking Dead and most of the Middle Ages is like that terrible, boring time where they just holed up on the farm for like a season and a half. Seriously, that season was so boring that the highlight of an episode was Rick yelling “Carl!” because at least you hoped that maybe he wouldn’t make it or he would cut his hair. Either one.

During the Middle Ages, most people never went more than a few miles from the place they were born and this leads to a breakdown of unified European society.

the medieval church

Culturally, they are all (mostly) Christian and the main institution that provides some semblance of unity and control is the Church. It’s at this point in history that Church and State could have easily consolidated into one – the Pope could have just said, OK, y’all are struggling, I’m taking over. But there’s a passage in the Bible that says “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s” Basically – leave politicking to the politicians and leave faith to the Pope.

Monasteries are basically the only place you can go to learn to read and write and so learning declines. Latin slowly fragments into various spoken Romance languages (Romance – from the Romans) which further isolates the various parts of Europe.

Also, if you haven’t seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then you really should pause this episode, go watch it, and then come back. It’s one of the only full movies I show in class and I could probably quote every line to you. Anyway, every time I think of medieval monks I want to talk about the “Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.” Pie Iesu Domine. Dona Eis Requiem. *smack!*

medieval torture

Politically, the rule of law breaks down and justice is localized. What this means is that each manor or village developed its own rules and punishments, although they were heavily influenced by the Church. Canon law – or the laws laid down by the Church – helps guide the system, but there are a lot of gaps that get filled in with incredibly creative punishments. Cue: medieval torture music.

Early Medieval Europe | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By JoJan - artwork by anonymous [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Engraving showing diverse tortures : the brazen bull (left), strappado, waterboarding, the rack; Torture chamber of the Spiš Castle, near the town of Spišské Podhradie and the village of Žehra, eastern Slovakia

Quick tangent – a few years ago I ranked my top medieval torture devices because, you know, that’s me. Let’s go through some of the highlights:

They had the brazen bull – a hollow metal sculpture of a bull. They would put you inside and light a fire underneath.

Or maybe you prefer the rack? They would lay you naked on a board, with your ankles tied to a roller on one end and your wrists tied to another. They would roll each side, slowly pulling you apart.

And obviously we have the Iron Maiden. It was a hollow metal cabinet that could barely fit a human. Covering the insides were spikes, often placed strategically so that they would not hit any major organs (remember – a lot of these torture devices were used for interrogations so they wanted you to live long enough to answer their questions).

Early Medieval Europe | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog
Me enjoying the Museum of Torture in Bruges a little too much, Episode 104

When I was in Bruges, I made my husband spend hours at a Museum of Medieval Torture. He really is the best.

One of my favorite punishments was good old-fashioned public humiliation. My high school students really identify with this one. People who had been convicted of smaller crimes would be placed in the middle of the community, sometimes in the stocks or hung up in a cage over the town square. Everyone else would be encouraged to walk by and throw things at them and yell insults.

This one is timeless. Enemies of Communism under Mao will be subjected to something similar in the Cultural Revolution. And stand-up comedians have been putting themselves through this torture for decades.

how “dark” were the dark ages?

Now, were the Dark Ages really so dark? It’s an important question because Europeans in the next era are really going to benefit from playing into this idea that this time period is backwards in every way, because it makes what they do all the more impressive. (You can’t have a Renaissance rebirth if you didn’t die, and you can’t be Enlightened if it was never dark.)

So, in a lot of ways, yes the Middle Ages were pretty dark. Again, medieval torture. Although some of these torture devices were actually invented later in Europe and attributed to the medieval era – like the first stories mentioning the Iron Maiden were in the 19th century. Haha! I tricked you!

Also, general learning and scholarship does decline but that doesn’t mean it goes away completely. Most of the literature of this time was religious  but there are some notable exceptions. Beowulf was written in the 900s (was I the only kid who had to read Beowulf in school?) Also, dibs baby name! Beowulf – stop hitting your sister!

But there are also documents from around the time of the fall of Rome that show that some citizens preferred to be ruled by Germanic groups because they were providing more order than Rome was at that point. And we’re biased in favor of Rome so we see the invaders as inherently terrible, but we’ll see that some of these tribes actually had big plans for reuniting and reviving Europe…