The post-Roman Europe

As one looks back over the German invasions it is natural to ask upon what terms the newcomers lived among the old inhabitants of the Empire, how far they adopted the customs of those among whom they settled, and how far they clung to their old habits? These questions cannot be answered very satisfactorily; so little is known of the confused period of which we have been speaking that it is impossible to follow closely the amalgamation of the two races.

Yet a few things are tolerably clear. In the first place, we must be on our guard against exaggerating the numbers in the various bodies of invaders. The writers of the time indicate that the West Goths, when they were first admitted to the Empire before the battle of Adrianople, amounted to four or five hundred thousand persons, including men, women, and children. This is the largest band reported, and it must have been greatly reduced before the West Goths, after long wanderings and many battles, finally settled in Spain and southern Gaul. The Burgundians, when they appear for the first time on the banks of the Rhine, are reported to have had eighty thousand warriors among them. When Clovis and his army were baptized the chronicler speaks of “over three thousand” soldiers who became Christians upon that occasion. This would seem to indicate that the Frankish king had no larger force at this time.


Undoubtedly these figures are very meager and unreliable. But the readiness with which the Germans appear to have adopted the language and customs of the Romans would tend to prove that the invaders formed but a small minority of the population. Since hundreds of thousands of barbarians had been assimilated during the previous five centuries, the great invasions of the fifth century can hardly have made an abrupt change in the character of the population.

The barbarians within the old empire were soon speaking the same conversational Latin which was everywhere used by the Romans about them. This was much simpler than the elaborate and complicated language used in books, which we find so much difficulty in learning nowadays. The speech of the common people was gradually diverging more and more, in the various countries of southern Europe, from the written Latin, and finally grew into French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. But the barbarians did not produce this change, for it had begun before they came and would have gone on without them. They did no more than contribute a few convenient words to the new languages.


The Germans appear to have had no dislike for the Romans nor the Romans for them, except as long as the Germans remained Arian Christians. Where there was no religious barrier the two races intermarried freely from the first. The Frankish kings did not hesitate to appoint Romans to important positions in the government and in the army, just as the Romans had long been in the habit of employing the barbarians. In only one respect were the two races distinguished for a time,–each had its particular law.

The West Goths in the time of Euric were probably the first to write down their ancient laws, using the Latin language. Their example was followed by the Franks, the Burgundians, and later by the Lombards and other peoples. These codes make up the “Laws of the Barbarians,” which form our most important source of knowledge of the habits and ideas of the Germans at the time of the invasions. For several centuries
following the conquest, the members of the various German tribes appear to have been judged by the laws of the particular people to which they belonged. The older inhabitants of the Empire, on the contrary, continued to have their lawsuits decided according to the Roman law. This survived all through the Middle Ages in southern Europe, where the Germans were few. Elsewhere the Germans’ more primitive ideas of law prevailed until the thirteenth or fourteenth century. A good example of these is the picturesque mediæval ordeal by which the guilt or innocence of a suspected person was determined.


The German laws did not provide for the trial, either in the Roman or the modern sense of the word, of a suspected person. There was no attempt to gather and weigh evidence and base the decision upon it. Such a mode of procedure was far too elaborate for the simple-minded Germans. Instead of a regular trial, one of the parties to the case was designated to prove that his assertions were true by one of the following methods:

(1) He might solemnly swear that he was telling the truth and get as many other persons of his own class as the court required, to swear that they believed that he was telling the truth. This was called compurgation. It was believed that the divine vengeance would be visited upon those who swore falsely.

(2) On the other hand, the parties to the case, or persons representing them, might meet in combat, on the supposition that Heaven would grant victory to the right. This was the so-called wager of battle.

(3) Lastly, one or other of the parties might be required to submit to the ordeal in one of its various forms: He might plunge his arm into hot water, or carry a bit of hot iron for some distance, and if at the end of three days he showed no ill effects, the case was decided in his favor. He might be ordered to walk over hot plowshares, and if he was not burned, it was assumed that God had intervened by a miracle to establish the right. This method of trial is but one example of the rude civilization which displaced the refined and elaborate organization of the Romans.


The account which has been given of the conditions in the Roman Empire, and of the manner in which the barbarians occupied its western part, makes clear the great problem of the Middle Ages. The Germans, no doubt, varied a good deal in their habits and spirit. The Goths differed from the Lombards, and the Franks from the Vandals; but they all agreed in knowing nothing of the art, literature, and science which had been developed by the Greeks and adopted by the Romans. The invaders were ignorant, simple, vigorous people, with no taste for anything except fighting and bodily comfort. Such was the disorder that their coming produced, that the declining civilization of the Empire was pretty nearly submerged. The libraries, buildings, and works of art were destroyed and there was no one to see that they were restored. So the western world fell back into a condition similar to that in which it had been before the Romans conquered and civilized it.

The loss was, however, temporary. The barbarians did not utterly destroy what they found, but utilized the ruins of the Roman Empire in their gradual construction of a new society. They received suggestions from the Roman methods of agriculture. When they reached a point where they needed them, they used the models offered by Roman roads and buildings. In short, the great heritage of skill and invention which had been slowly accumulated in Egypt, Phoenicia, and Greece, and which formed a part of the culture which the Romans diffused, did not wholly perish.


It required about a thousand years to educate the new race; but at last Europe, including districts never embraced in the Roman Empire, caught up once more with antiquity. When, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, first Italy, and then the rest of Europe, awoke again to the beauty and truth of the classical literature and began to emulate the ancient art, the process of educating the barbarians may be said to have been completed. Yet the Middle Ages had been by no means a sterile period. They had added their part to the heritage of the West. From the union of two great elements, the ancient civilization, which was completely revived at the opening of the sixteenth century, and the vigor and the political and social ideals of the Germans, a new thing was formed, namely, our modern civilization. (*)

(Source: “An Introduction to the History of Western Europe”, by James Harvery Robinson)

(*) We have some objections here. The ‘new Europeans’ started getting seriously familiar with the Classical World back in the 13th century; after brutally conquering and plundering the Capital of the Roman Empire in the East, Constantinople. They stole and brought back to the West countless treasures from the East, including many books and works of art. After the final fall of the Roman Empire in the East, in 1453, scholars from the East fled to Italy, where they started teaching the Classics. The ‘new West’ learned a fraction of the Ancient Culture, very late in History and, actually, distorted it from the very beginning -but now, there was no one there to object/oppose this rape of Truth, as the East had been forced to live under Islamic Law. And this ‘rape of Truth’ and distortion goes on until our days. It must also be stated here that even this ‘fraction’ has suffered distortions and discontinuities already in the East (definitely smaller, of course, in comparison), due to major events like the Plague -that largely costed the loss of the majority of the Scientists, Scholars and Artisans of the, then, largest urban centers-, the Islamic conquests and the loss of core cultural and intellectual centers like Alexandria and Antioch, various other military events and disasters, etc. Anyhow, it is always a completely different thing to ‘learn about‘ a Civilization and another thing to ‘live a Civilization‘, hence the ‘distortions’ we mentioned previously.

As for the ‘social ideas’ of the Germans -with all due respect to the individual- we all know what Communism and Nazism, two of their well known ones, ‘offered’ to Europe and the World.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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