The first few generations after the fifth century witnessed a progressive disintegration of what remained of the Roman Empire and of Grœco-Roman civilization in the West. The invaders established themselves in various parts of the Roman domains. At the outset their rulers usually prized Roman titles conferred on them by the Emperors and regarded themselves as still within the Empire. Actually, however, they were heads of kingdoms which for most practical purposes were independent. In Italy the Ostrogoths were masters of much of the country from the latter part of the fifth century until Justinian's generals overthrew them about the middle of the sixth century. Then came the Lombards who founded a kingdom which survived until 774. For centuries after the downfall of that kingdom Lombard nobles ruled parts of Italy. The Visigoths controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula until, in the eighth century, they gave way to the Arabs. The Burgundians were in the Rhone Valley. Germanic folk, mostly Angles and Saxons, colonized Britain and founded a number of small states.
The Franks proved to be the major power. At the outset of the sixth century they were in control of much of Gaul, especially its northern portions, and of a large part of the Rhine Valley. The ruling line, the most prominent of whom was Clovis, of whose conversion in 496 we have spoken, were known as the Merovingians. In the first half of the seventh century the authority of the Merovingians declined and that of local magnates increased. In the fore part of the eighth century the Merovingians, now become purely nominal monarchs, rois fainéants, were gradually replaced by a new dynasty, the Carolin-gians. The Carolingians had emerged in the seventh century. Near the close of that century Pepin (or Pippin) of Heristal became the virtual ruler. Charles Martel, his illegitimate son who succeeded him, exercised even more power and in 732 won lasting fame by checking the Arab advance into Gaul at the decisive battle near Tours. In 751 a son of Charles Martel, Pepin (or Pippin) the Short was crowned King of the Franks and relegated the last of the Merovingians to a monastery. Pepin the Short (died 768) was succeeded by his son, another Charles, better known as Charles the Great or Charlemagne
(742-814), who brought the power of his house to its apex and was crowned Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. Under the Carolingians and especially under Charlemagne the Frankish state reached its height. Compared with the Chinese Empire under the contemporary T'ang dynasty it was a small affair. Yet through it, as we are to see, Christianity displayed a new surge of life.
After Charlemagne the Frankish power declined. Although for a time it was still formidable, by the end of the ninth century the Carolingians, with whom it was closely allied, had ceased to be of major importance in the West and their disintegration left a power vacuum which was not to be filled until the second half of the tenth century. The invasions of the Scandinavians — the Northmen or Vikings — added to the confusion and brought civilization in Western Europe to a further low ebb.
Parallel with the political changes came other profound alterations in the life of Western Europe. The chronic disorder made for a decline in commerce and industry. The Roman roads fell into disrepair. Travel, whether by land or sea, was rendered perilous by robbers, either singly or in bands. Cities and towns dwindled in population and wealth. Education and the arts languished. Crude agriculture became the main productive occupation and wealth was chiefly in land. Feudalism began to emerge, a structure by which power became fragmented into hundreds of units, large and small, and the authority of the kings suffered. Warriors were the rulers and the chief occupation of the aristocracy was fighting.
In spite of the advantages which geographic location gave it over the branches of the faith in the lands farther east, could the Christianity of the West seize the opportunity? Could it win these roistering warrior tribesmen even to a nominal allegiance? If it gained their professed adherence, could it bring them to an understanding of the Gospel and to conformity with it? Could that church which, in the course of drawing into its ample fold the majority of those bearing the Roman name, had compromised with non-Christian living, preserve enough vitality really to propagate the Gospel? Here was the challenge. It was not fully met. Perhaps, given the nature of man and of the Gospel, it could not be. Yet to an amazing degree Christianity rose to it and had a more profound effect upon the peoples of Western Europe and their culture than it had exerted upon the Roman Empire in the first five centuries.
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