Brief History of the World Wiki
Age of Charlemagne
Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I.jpg
Period Early Middle Ages
Dates 768-843 AD
Preceded by
Rise of Islam
Followed by
Viking Age
Feudalism made land the measure and the master of all things.

–Lord Acton

The Age of Charlemagne lasted from about 768 AD until 843 AD. It began with the reign of Frankish king Charlemagne, the towering figure of early medieval European history. It then ended with the Treaty of Verdun, a partition of lasting significance, between what we can now call France and Germany.

Charlemagne has been called the "Father of Europe", for his reign defined much of the shape and character of medieval Europe. He was obviously still a traditional Frankish warrior-king; his business was war and he conquered a vast realm bigger than anything seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What was more novel was the seriousness with which he took kingship as responsible for the spiritual health and material well-being of his subjects. He was a zealous defender of the Christian Church, and the Pope showed his gratitude by crowning him the first Holy Roman Emperor. Wanting to magnify the grandeur and prestige of his court, Charlemagne beautified its physical setting with architecture consciously emulating the Romans. He also filled it with eminent scholars and evidence of Christian learning, spurring a period of energetic cultural and intellectual revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. It is notable for the preservation of classical texts and a reawakening of literacy; henceforth nobles were expected to be literate. For many generations, kings throughout Europe would idealise and aspire to emulate Charlemagne, as the Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar of Christendom. His reign can be viewed as the emergence of a true European civilisation, focused no longer on the Mediterranean but in northern Europe; its centred was Charlemagne's capital of Aachen, not far from Brussels the de facto capital of today's European Union. After his death, his empire was divided into the future France and Germany, as well as a Middle Francia over which the two would squabble all the way down to the 20th century; one of the great fault-lines of European history. Even after partition, royal authority steadily seeped away as the fragility of the political structures were exposed by the intrigues of nobles and depredations of Viking raids. Fief-lords drew more and more power to themselves, leading to the fragmented society that later historians called the Feudal System; it would dominate Europe for the next 500 years.

Nevertheless Charlemagne's achievements should not be overstated. His court was a primitive thing when compared with Constantinople, even if the Byzantine recovery was long held-back over a century by the internal religious turmoil known as the Iconoclasm Controversy. Yet a man would emerge in due course to drag the Eastern Roman Empire into one last period of splendor; the Emperor Basil I. Charlemagne's cultural achievements were paltry too, when compared with the Islamic Golden Age being enjoyed by the Muslim world under the Abbasid Caliphate; an effervescence of culture and learning unlike anything that had been seen since Classical Greece. It is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), who inaugurated the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where Muslim and non-Muslim scholars were mandated to gather. One aspect of Abbasid civilization was the gathering and translation into the Arabic language of all the great works of classical antiquity; Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Indian, and Chinese. Building on this "philosophy of the ancients", scholars were able to forge new advances in many fields: Arabic mathematicians significantly developed algebra, and popularised "Arabic numerals" which made written calculations far simpler; astronomers provided the names of more than half the brightest stars in the sky; scientist played a significant role in the history of the Scientific Method; doctors made great discoveries in the understanding of anatomy and diseases, and an Arabic medical encyclopedia would become the standard textbook of both Islamic and Western training well into the 17th-century; and philosophers popularised and pushed forward Aristotelian rational reasoning. The admiration and repute of Arab writers among Western scholars was a recognition of its importance. Dante (d. 1321) paid the polymaths Avicenna and Averroes the compliment of placing them in limbo when he allocated great men to their fate in The Divine Comedy. European languages are still marked by Arabic scientific words: "zero", "cipher", "almanac", "magazine", and "alchemy" among them; Arab merchants also taught Christians commercial practices such as how to keep accounts. The luxury and delight of Baghdad at this time has been impressed on the Western imagination by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature, the Thousand and One Nights.


Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne (768-814 AD)[]

Gilded gold bust of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), king of the Franks, king of the Lombards, and first emperor of what was later known as the Holy Roman Empire.

The third Carolingian king, Charlemagne (768-814), Latin for Charles the Great, was the first towering figure of Western European history, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He presided over the first largest-scale attempt to rethink politics in the Middle Ages. Like all Frankish kings, his father Pepin divided the realm at his death between his two sons, Charles and Carloman (d. 771). The brothers had a strained relationship, and seemed on the verge of civil war when Carloman conveniently died, maybe of natural causes, maybe not; Charlemagne certainly disregarded the claims of his brother's son. As sole ruler of the entire Frankish realm, Charlemagne was a king ready to step out of the shadow of the Roman past; a role for which he was ideally suited. Clearly he must have been an imposing physical presence at about 6'7 feet tall and heavily built; he must have towered over most of his entourage. He was blessed with extraordinary energy, personal courage, and an iron will. He was equally at home at court, generous with his gifts and adept at winning the loyalty of others. He received only an elementary education, but possessed considerable natural intellect, a willingness to learn from others, and a keen interest in Christianity's progress. All these facets of his persona combined to make him a leader capable of making informed decisions, willing to act on those decisions, and skilled at persuading others to follow him.


Charlemagne was obviously still a Frankish king; he conquered and his business was war. He had an army on military campaign almost every year during his reign. For thirty years he hammered away at the pagan Saxons of northern Germany, whose raids had long plagued the settled Franks from their forest sanctuaries; the Saxon Wars (772-804). The Saxons were hard to defeat precisely because they were not a unitary people. This was a brutal campaign to subdue and forcibly convert them, which began in 773 with the destruction of their most sacred shrine, the Irminsul, a massive wooden column believed to hold-up the world. Steadfast and resourceful resistance was led at first by Saxon chieftain Widukind (d. 807), who would destroyed Frankish outposts whenever the army was occupied elsewhere. In turn, Charlemagne would punish the offenders, as he did at Verden, ordering the mass-execution of some 4,500 Saxon prisoners; the Massacre of Verden (October 782). Widukind submitted and accepted baptism in 785, but it took another 20 years against progressively smaller uprisings before all of Saxony was permanently subjugated. Even while fighting in Saxony, Charlemagne answered an appeal for help the Pope in Rome, who was again under pressure from encroaching Lombards under King Desiderius (d. 786). Charlemagne invaded Italy in 773 with a huge army, and besieging Desiderius in his capital at Pavia until June 774. He incorporated northern Italy into what could truly be called his "empire", granting himself a new title, King of the Lombards, though autonomous Lombard duchies continued in southern Italy until conquered by Normans in the 11th-century. Seizing northern Italy left the independent-minded duchy of Bavaria isolated, and it was formaly annexed without a fight in 788. That victory brought the Franks face-to-face with the Avar Khanate (580-804), whose extensive territory now spanned both sides of the Danube. Bavaria was used as the staging ground for a series of sporadic campaigns between 790 and 803, that did not conquer the Avars but hastened their disintegration. It also brought Austria and Bohemia (modern-day Czechia and Slovakia) under Frankish hegemony, and perhaps as important, opened the route down the Danube to Byzantium. Moreover, the plunder from these campaigns is said to have financed the Frankish realm for more than twenty years, One of Charlemagne's few military disasters was his first attempted invasion of Muslim Spain in 778. Betrayed by allies, he failed to take the city of Zaragoza and, facing a large Ummayad force, was forced to retreat. In crossing the Pyrenees, his rearguard and baggage-train was cut-off and annihilated, ironically by Christian Basques. Nevertheless this disaster would become perhaps the most famous moment in the whole Charlemagne legend, immortalised in the epic poem, The Song of Roland. Still, Charlemagne persisted in his efforts to make the frontier secure from Muslim raids, and by 801, his son, the future Louis the Pious, had carve-out a small territory south of the Pyrenees around Barcelona. Despite hostility with Muslim Spain which was near enough to be a threat, Charlemagne maintained somewhat formal but not unfriendly relations with the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, who in 801 presented him with the gift of an elephant which survived in his court for some years. By the end of his reign, Charlemagne had united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman collapse; the only empire to ever unite France and Germany, except for a few years under Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler.

Charlemagne Empire 814.png

As well as a conqueror, Charlemagne was an able administrator over his vast, ethnically, and culturally diverse realm. He was not a political innovator, but made good use of the institutions he inherited. The central force of the realm was of course the king himself, who when not campaigning based himself in at Aachen, in modern-day Germany near the Belgium and Holland borders. Before his reign, the Frankish court had roamed its way from estate to estate throughout the year. Aachen was ideally positioned between the east and west of the kingdom, and held particular appeal for the energetic king in its therapeutic warm springs. Surrounding the king was his court, consisting of family members and trusted lay and ecclesiastical advisors. The challenge of this whole system was how to guarantee the continued loyalty of the landed aristocratic families, who ruled fairly autonomous territorial entities as dukes and counts. Often Charlemagne's army was the answer. In addition, royal officials, usually a count and bishop working in a pair, would routinely undertake missions throughout the realm to convey the king's desires, correct abuses, and rendering justice; an early form of the circuit-court-judge. Finally, the assembly politics of the Merovingian period was perhaps even more important under the Carolingians. Held yearly in the spring or summer, Charlemagne made very effective use of them to cement the king’s personal ties with the gathered counts, dukes, and their retinues. As for fiscal administration, it was not much more orderly than under the Merovingians. Aside from certain dues, the king lived mostly off revenues of his large estates scattered throughout the realm.

Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861.

What was more novel about Charlemagne's reign was the seriousness with which he took the Christian sanctification of his role. The relationship between the Carolingians and the Church, which had begun with Charles Martel, if not before, was fully visible under Charlemagne. He presided over an eccumenical council in Aachen in 809 to define orthodox doctrine, donated money and land was donated to the Church, discipline his clerics, and morality made up a major part of his political rhetoric. Charlemagne also used the Church as an instrument of government, ruling through bishops. In 799, Pope Leo III (d. 816) was once again in need of Frankish help, against a faction of the Roman nobility who accused him of serious personal misconduct. But who was qualified to judge the Vicar of Christ? The only possible answer was Charlemagne, who travelled to Rome and accepted Leo's assurance that he was innocent of all the charges. In gratitude, on Christmas Day 800 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo dramatically crowned him "Emperor of the Romans"; the first of what would one day be called the Holy Roman Empire. After nearly 400 years, an emperor had returned to the West. Historians have been arguing almost ever since about what Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor actually meant. To Pope Leo, he had a need for a powerful protector against local Roman rivals as well as neighbouring petty-kings. To Charlemagne, it seems to have demonstrated his parity with the emperor in Constantinople. Yet he is reported to have said that he would not have entered St Peter’s had he known what the Pope intended to do. He may have foreseen the irritation his coronation caused with Byzantium for a while. However, there was another more problematic side to it. The pope gained the subtle implication of authority by conferred the crown and the stamp of God’s recognition on the emperor; what the Church could make, it could also unmake. Charlemagne and his successors were expected to be generous, or even subordinate to their spiritual betters. In such an idea there is the essence of the later struggles between Church and Sate that would shape Western Europe for centuries. As a deliberate evocation of this, almost exactly a thousand years later when Napoleon Bonaparte had himself crowned emperor, he would seized the crown from the Pope and place it on his own head.

The Palatine Chapel, a central monument of the Carolingian Renaissance. It was built by Charlemagne as part of his palace in Aachen. Although the palace itself no longer exists, the chapel now forms the central part of Aachen Cathedral.

Charlemagne also took his duties seriously in patronizing learning and art, spurring what has become known as the Carolingian Renaissance (780-875). He wanted to magnify the grandeur and prestige of his court by beautifying its physical setting and filling it with evidence of Christian learning. There was much to be done of course. The ebbing of cultural life and of literacy meant that the Carolingian court was a primitive thing by comparison with Byzantium; and possibly even in comparison with those of Clovis or Theodoric which were closer to the Roman heritage. In 805, Pope Leo III travelled to Aachen to consecrate Charlemagne's small but richly decorated new church, the Palatine Chapel, a conscious and confident attempt to emulate the style of Byzantine Italy; modeled on San Vitale in Ravenna. The royal example was quickly imitated elsewhere; some 27 cathedral churches were built in the next 50 years. But it was its scholars who made Charlemagne’s court most spectacular. Learned men in touch with the classical tradition, coming from all over Francia and beyond, were attracted to Aachen by the remuneration the king offered; almost all ended up rich. These included Einhard (d. 840) from East Francia, Peter of Pisa (d. 799) an Italian, Theodulf of Orléans (d. 821) probably of Visigoth descent; Paul the Deacon (d. 799) a Lombard; John Scotus Eriugena (d. 877) an Irishman, and the outstanding figure among them Alcuin of York (d. 804), an Anglo-Saxon. This was not exclusively an affair of clerics; Einhard was a layman, from a minor noble family, made influential by intellectual skill. Together they created a critical mass of new writing, debate and intellectual excitement, and it carried on for three generations. Its primary purposes were to supply a copy of the Rule of St Benedict to every monastery in his realm, to revive knowledge deemed essential for royal administrators, and to raise the level of the clergy in order to carry the faith further to the east. From it radiated the impulse for a new standardised script called Carolingian minuscule, that was faster to write and more legible with its mix of capital and lower-case letters; it later became a model for modern European typefaces. Monastic libraries now began to be assembled throughout the Frankish lands; a good example is the monastery at Reichenau, which had about 50 books the year of Charlemagne's coronation, but over a thousand just 50 years later. Many works of classical antiquity were copied and preserved by Carolingian scholars, especially the surviving non-scholarly texts such as Caesar, Horace, and Cicero which were of little interest to the Muslims. Charlemagne also encouraged young Frankish nobles to be well-educated, and there was a palace school at Aachen, as well as at royal monasteries such as Tours in the west or Fulda in the east. One scholar, Einhard (d. 840), wrote a biography of the emperor after his death, from which we learn such fascinating human details as the fact that he hated his doctors who advised him to cut-down on roasted meat, and of his own attempts to read and write, "although he tried very hard, he had begun too late in life." What must be remembered in all of this is that only about a dozen scholars were involved, whose influence barely percolate beyond the walls of the palace or monasteries, and their output was mostly derivative as opposed to creative. The true contribution of the Carolingian Renaissance was to preserve learning for later times.

Statue of Charlemagne at Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.

In January 814, Charlemagne fell ill with a fever and died a week later at the age of 72. Modern historians have made apparent that in his final years, there were already signs that his vast empire was beginning to disintegrate, with frequent reports of usurpation of royal authority by the landed aristocracy. Neither should his cultural achievements be overstated: It merely preserved classical learning to be rediscovered during the Renaissance. Such critical attention of Charlemagne’s reign however cannot efface his enormous legacy. He did much to define the shape and character of medieval Europe; he has been called "Father of Europe". The basis of cultural gravity in this new Europe had shifted away from the Mediterranean of the classical world. Islam helped in this, capturing Byzantine Crete in 825, and using it as a pirate base to attack Mediterranean shipping and raid all along the coast. In 827, Muslims began the conquest of Sicily, and then proceeded to colonize Sardinia, Corsica, and other islands in the western Mediterranean. The West was throw back upon a new heartland further to the north; perhaps its centre was Aachen, not too far from Brussels the de facto capital of today's European Union. Meanwhile, men saw in Charlemagne the ideal of a kingly soul (gay, just and magnanimous), kings sought to emulate him, and minstrels would be singing of his feats as a knight, both real and imagined, for centuries; he was the Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar of Christendom. As striking evidence as any of Charlemagne's influence, is that the Paladin, the foremost warriors of his court, were incorporated into Arthurian legend as the Knights of the Round Table.

Frankish Carolingian Inheritance and Feudalism (814-840 AD)[]

A deeply religious man, Louis performed penance for causing Bernard's death at his palace of Attigny, before Pope Paschal I and a council of bishops and nobles of the realm.

After Charlemagne's death, the Carolingian Empire began to slowly decay. The empire was too large given the ramshackled political structures, and poor communications; as long as, and only as long as, a charismatic king adept at warfare sat on the throne, could the system work. Charlemagne thought in traditional Frankish terms of his territorial legacy, and made plans to divide his vast realm among his three sons. Only the accident of sons dying before him ensured that the empire passed undivided to the youngest, Louis the Pious (814-840). Partition was only delayed by this. Louis has often been compared unfavourably to his great father, but the troubles of his well-meaning reign largely stemmed from his own three sons, who began squabbling over their inheritance even while their father was still alive. A nephew Bernard (d. 818), who had been made duke of northern Italy, revolted out of fear he would be cut-out of the inheritance. Louis' response was quickly and decisively, and the revolt was easily suppressed. Bernard was convicted of treason, and condemned to be blinded in Byzantine custom; he did not survive the ordeal, dying after two days of agony. This was Louis’ high summer. Even more than his father, Louis believed that his rule was a sacred trust sanctified by God, and in 822 performed public penance for his nephew's death. But this act of contrition only made him look weak, and Louis faced two major uprisings led by his sons, worried by the birth of a fourth son by Louis' second wife. He faced them down in 830, but they were not really reconciled, and revolted again in 833. This time Louis was deposed as ruler, until the bothers fell out the next year, enabling his return to power. Louis was able to restore order to the empire by the end of the decade, and passed it on to his sons, who fought a brief but bloody civil war over the succession in 841–42.


The war ended in the Treaty of Verdun (843), a partition of lasting significance. Louis the German (840–76) received East Francia, all the lands east of the Elbe. Charles the Bald (840–77) took West Francia, roughly the western two thirds of what is now France. Wedged in between this was Middle Francia of the eldest Lothair (d. 855), who received a richest strip of territory stretching from the Low Countries down both sides of the Rhine through Switzerland to Italy; he also got the prestige of Charlemagne's capital in Aachen and the imperial title. Verdun was not intended to be permanent any more than previous divisions, and was not long untroubled, but it was decisive in a broad and important way; it effectively created one of the great fault-lines of Europe between France and Germany. Between them lay a third unit that had much less linguistic, ethnic, geographical, and economic unity. Middle Francia was first divided on Lothair's death between three sons, and then France and Germany seized parts of northern region when that son died in 869. Much of European history was going to be about the way in which this middle region could be divided between two powerful neighbours, bound to covet it and therefore drift apart more and more in rivalry. Today, Belgium is still divided between French-speakers and Germanic Flemish-speakers, while Switzerland has no fewer than four official languages and often uses the Latin or English version of the its name, rather than favour any one.

Feudalism in the Middle Ages resembles a pyramid, with the lowest peasants at its base and the lines of authority flowing up to the peak of the structure, the king.

No royal house could guarantee a continuous flow of able kings, nor could they forever buy loyalty from their supporters by giving away lands. Gradually, and like their Merovingian predecessors, the Carolingians declined in power. They ruled in Germany until 911 and held the throne of France with interruptions until 987. The signs of break-up multiplied, dukes turned from appointed nobles into hereditary rulers of their territories, kings increasingly had to deal with regional rebellions, and people began to dwell on the great days of Charlemagne, a significant symptom of decay. This process was accelerated by their inability to resist the new foreign threats; the Vikings in the north, nomadic Magyars in the east, and Muslim raiders in the south. Because the sluggish royal armies were unable to provide effective defense against their hit-and-run tactics, military command, and the political and economic power necessary to support it, naturally devolved to local leaders. The reality everywhere was the fragmented politics that later historians called the Feudal System, though its nature varied from region to region. It was a widespread, but not universal, phenomenon. At its heart were the fief-lords, an aristocracy based on skill in battle and a shared commitment to Christianity; at once power-hungry and idealistic. Since the earliest post-Roman times, kings had granted them land and fiscal privileges, in return for loyalty guaranteed by especially solemn oaths and services, primarily of a military nature. At first, land grants had been temporary, surrendered at death, but by the 10th-century they had almost always become hereditary. Such lord and vassal relationships had old roots in Germanic custom as the warrior companions of the barbarian chief. In the 7th-century, the Carolingian Mayors had cultivated such relationships of mutual dependence with other lesser noble in order to usurp the power and then the throne of the late Merovingians. But they now came to characterised the whole socio-political structure. Vassals then bred vassals and one lord’s man was another man’s lord, in a chain of chain of obligation and personal service stretching in theory from the king down to the lowly knight and beyond. Knights were granted their own portions of the land, with an appropriate number of peasants to underwrite the expenses of military life; records suggest that the work of twenty to thirty peasant families was required to support one knight. With the weakening of royal authority, determined feudal lords, and indeed high clergy, were able to steadily impose the status of serfdom on formerly free peasants; the Manorial System. A freeman became a serf usually through force or necessity. Sometimes great physical and legal force intimidated freeholders into dependency. Often a few years of crop failure, a war, a Viking raid, or brigandage might force a person into striking a bargain with the lord-of-the-manor. As with slaves, serfs could be bought or sold with some limitations: they generally could be sold only together with land. In return for protection, justice, and land for their subsistence, they were obliged to work the lord's own fields, as well as in his mines, forests, and to maintain roads. The manor formed the basic unit of feudal society, and the lord and the serfs were bound legally.

Medieval warfare

There was much room for complexity and ambiguity in the interlocking Feudal and Manorial Feudal System: a man may have obligations to more than one lord with conflicting demands; a king might have less control over his own vassals than they over theirs; a lord might have a monastery as a vassal; or a king could be another king’s vassal in respect of some of his lands. Moreover, there were always some freeholders who owed service to no man for their lands, and much of Italy, Spain, and southern France did not work this way. For centuries, great accumulations of power and landed-wealth passed between a few favoured players as if in a vast board game. Bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries had their place in the feudal nobility, for they were great landlords too and mostly recruited from the noble families. Indeed bishops could often be found on the battlefield well into the 12th-century, fighting it out with the best. The papacy in Rome had more feudal vassals than any secular ruler in Europe by the late-12th-century. The second phase in the development of feudalism was the growing use of fighting in armour on horseback. Arab sources make cleat that at the Battle of Tours (732), the Frankish army consisted almost entirely of heavy infantry, fighting in a shield-wall with perhaps some cavalry on the wings. However, during Charlemagne's wide-ranging campaigns of conquest, more and more warriors took to horse; perhaps influenced by the Muslim way of fighting, or in response to hit-and-run tactics of Viking and Magyar raiders. At some point in the early-8th-century the stirrup had reached Europe, acquired either from the Muslims or Turkic Avars. With this, the medieval knight was ready to take the field. A mounted knight, protected first by chain-mail and then by plate-mail in the 13th-century, would drive home his lethal lance with the full forward impetus of his powerful horse. Europe was blessed with the destrier, a breed of exceptionally heavy horses which no longer exists today except as ancestors of the carthorse. Heavy cavalry further reinforced the social status of the feudal nobility, because this method of warfare was a tough and demanding, taking years of arduous training, as well as a great deal of money, not least for the armour, weaponry, and above all the horses. Relatively few warriors could afford to sustain themselves. With a knight's face concealed in armour, devices on helmet and shield were essential to identify friend from foe, and thus the "Coat of Arms" was born as a glorious way of advertising one's lineage; a distinguishing mark of European aristocracies. Knights and the ideals of chivalry would feature large in medieval literary romance, and still conjures up images of aristocratic heroes devoted to their ladies. But the reality was quite different. For the most part, these were rough brutes for whom violence was simply an accepted part of life; in any other part of the world, they would probably be called them warlords. The mounted knight would hold sway in the European battlefield until new weapons in the 14th-century, such as the pike and the longbow, restored some measure of advantage to the humble infantry. This was also the beginning of the great age of castle building, as lords entrenched their power in stone. Or more accurately they "entrenched their power in wood", for 10th-century castles were often surprisingly flimsy affairs called motte-and-bailey castles; a wooden keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard or bailey surrounded by a protective ditch, sometimes filled with water. It was only during the 12th-century that magnificently impressive stone examples become more common in Europe, influenced no doubt by exposure to Byzantine architecture seen by the Crusaders on their way east. Muslim Spain was clearly influential too; stone was the primary building material for Christian castles in Spain by the 11th-century, when timber still dominated in northern Europe

Feudalism was an exploitative and violent social system that legitimised rampant inequality. Even in normal circumstances the lord of the manor may terrorise his peasants into submission. In troubled times, peasants were less likely to assert themselves, for they needed the protection of his knights from marauding enemies. Whenever feudal relationships broke-down, disputes were invariably resolved through naked force. Another excellent excuse for warfare was a dynastic claim to a territory, as generations of carefully arranged marriages and material gains resulted in an immensely complex web of relationships. Feudalism nevertheless brought a modicum of local order and security when far-off kings or senior lords could not, and so prevented a total collapse of society. A lord was reasonably likely to care for his farms and his villages, since they provided him with sustenance; a cooperative labour-force was more productive than a resentful one. Feudalism would gradually decline in the Late Middle Ages, as the military power shifted from noble fighting-men to professional armies, and man-power shortages in the wake of the Black Death loosened the aristocratic hold on the peasantry. Feudal customs and rights nevertheless remained enshrined in the law of many kingdoms, until finally abolished during the turmultuous period between the French Revolution of 1789, and the Emancipation of the Russian Serfs in 1861.

Byzantines and the Iconoclasm Controversy[]

In 600, the Byzantine Empire had been recognisable as the Eastern Roman Empire, still including the north African coast, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, the coast of the Black Sea, the Balkans, enclaves in Italy, and finally the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. Barely a century later, this world had been shattered by wave after wave of invaders. Roughly two-thirds of the its territory had been lost to Arab-Muslims, Slavs, Bulgars, and Lombards. The speed and magnitude of the disaster was close to incomprehensible. Given the way Byzantine political imagery worked, with the line between lay and ecclesiastical always blurred, this was as much a religious catastrophe as a military one; a sign of very serious divine displeasure.

In 726, the emperor Leo III engendered a century of conflict within the empire by banning the use of religious images.

One response was to shore-up orthodox Christianity. From the mid-7th-century onwards, there was a marked increase in the persecution of religious nonconformists, including such familiar scapegoats as Jews, heretics and homosexuals. This culminated in one of the most interesting Christian conflicts of the Middle Ages; the Iconoclasm Controversy (726-842). At issue was a cult of religious images or icons. The veneration of holy relics - items associated with Christ and various saints - seems to have been part of Christianity almost from the start; St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397 AD) for instance appears to have taken the practice for granted. Throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrims flocked to the prominent sites: Rome was a major destination of course, possessing the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul; Constantinople acquired the remains of the apostle Luke, St. Timothy and St. Andrew; Tours was very popular in the Frankish Realm, housing the bones of St. Martin; as was Santiago de Compostela in Spain which supposedly possessed the relics of the apostle James, although how they got there from Jerusalem where he died remains somewhat unclear. From relics, it was only a short step to the veneration of holy images. Such images had long existed, but during the dark days of the Plague of Justinian, Roman-Persian War, Avar-Slav invasion-migrations, and Muslim onslaught, holy images became regarded by many in a new way; as windows into the holy presence of Christ or of the saint depicted in them. This evolved only in Byzantium, not in the West, and was a controversial belief, not held by all, for others believed that it was idolatry; "Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image", Leviticus 26:1. Unlike the other major world religions, Christianity had never really made up its mind on this question; generally speaking Judaism and Islam forbade images of God, while Buddhism and Hinduism encouraged them. The issue of whether the cult of icons was a good or bad thing came to a head shortly after the Muslim Siege of Constantinople (717-18). There is some uncertainty about why, but a cross-cultural unease may have been involved, for this was the period in which the Umayyad Caliphs unequivocally outlawed any visual representations of humans in art. Another possible motive was to seize land from monasteries which tended to support icons more vigorously than did the clergy; a pervasive problem for 8th-century emperors was sufficient land to support Theme armies. Around 726, Emperor Leo III (717-741) issued a decree condemning image veneration in public worship, and unleashed a religious firestorm that would embittered feelings and hold-back the empire's recovery for over a century. The Eastern Church was torn between the Iconodule faction who favoured icons, and Iconoclasts who wanted their destruction. As the iconoclastic movement intensified, citizens rioted as the imperial authorities set to work with a will expunging beloved icons with whitewash, brush and hammer. Persecution of those who resisted followed, which reached its peak under Constantine V (741-75); there were martyrs, particularly among monks, who tended to defend icons more vigorously than did the clergy. The Controversy was particularly disruptive to the army, where purges become commonplace. The Papacy, though not Iconodule in practice, opposed the destruction of sacred images, and the controversy harmed relations between the Western and Eastern Churches, explaining in part the Pope's decision to ally the Western Church with the Carolingians. As Byzantine power waned in the turmoil, one of its holdings in Italy seized the opportunity for independence. In 726, the people of Venice elected a local leader or Doge (duke); the first of 118 Venetian Doges who would lead the city for more than a thousand years. The Republic of Venice (726-1796) was born, an occasional ally and inveterate enemy of Byzantium.

Mosaic of the Empress Irene

After 775, the Iconoclasm Controversy ebbed the other way under the Empress Irene (775-802); no one could have ever accused Irene of lacking the ambition or ruthlessness of a man. She first came to power when her husband, Leo IV (775-780), fell ill with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, and then leapt at the chance to reign and ruled as regent for her young son, Constantine VI (780-797). Right from the start, she took more power for herself than would normally be expected of female regents: she was depicted on coins alongside her son, listing them as co-rulers, rather than as ruler and regent. When her son Constantine came of age, she eventually deposed and blinded him, almost the only woman to take power by force in medieval European history. After a half-century of Iconoclast emperors, Irene reverse the religious policy, gathering more than 300 bishops for the Second Council at Nicaea (787), which formally revived the veneration of icons; as it turned out, this was the last ecumenical council to bring together the both Eastern and Western Church. In all likelihood, this was simply a way of getting her political rivals out of positions of authority. This immediately provoked the army, thoroughly Iconoclasts by this stage, to mutiny. After quickly suppressing the revolt, Irene undertook a drastic purge, that the legions could ill-afford. As army morale plummeted, Byzantine Sicily was slowly lost to the Muslims, and the empress was forced to pay a humiliating annual tribute to Baghdad to stave-off raids in Anatolia. After the murder of her son, Irene spent lavishly and granted excessive tax exemptions in a desperate attempt to gain popularity, rapidly depleting the treasury. But her eventual downfall came not from within the empire, but from the West. Charlemagne's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 was received in Constantinople with utter horror and outrage. To the Byzantines, the only thing worse than a boorish illiterate barbarian calling himself emperor, was the rumour that Irene were considering marriage him. True or not, in 803 Constantinople rioted, deposed Irene, and forced her into a monastery on the island of Lesbos, where she died a year later.

Five-panel Iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow.

Irene's reign had been disastrous, both economically and militarily, but the succession of beastly and incompetent emperors who followed her were even worse. When Nicephorus I (802-811) died in battle fighting the Bulgars, the empire was alarmed, and his successor returned to the Iconodule religious policy in the hope of a return to military success. Iconoclasm Controversy was thus allowed to smoulder on for another fourty years, until it finally expired during the minority of young Michael III (840-867), when his mother Theodora, like Irene the regent, revived a formalized veneration of images. She did this with such shrewd diplomacy that the old factionalism simply dissipated and the question was never heard from again; on the death of the Iconoclast archbishop of Constantinople, she appointed an Iconodule, but made sure that his predecessor was not condemned and spread the rumour he had repented his folly on his deathbed. The veneration of icons has remained an essential element of Eastern Orthodox Christianity ever since. In all Orthodox churches today, an icon-covered wall or portable-screen known as an Iconostasis separates the nave from the sanctuary. They are much more than mere decoration, for they provide, as one authority has said, "a point of meeting between heaven and earth" where the faithful can feel surrounded by the whole invisible Church.

All the symptoms suggested that the Eastern Empire would undergo the fate of the West, with its frontiers collapsing on every side, the nightmare of Iconoclasm ripping it apart, and weak emperors barely resisting the decay. But the empire's salvation came in the mid-9th-century, and was largely due to the efforts of two men; an archbishop called Photios and the Emperor Basil.

Muslim Golden Age[]


The explosive first century of Arab conquest was only the beginning of the story of Islam's impact on the world. At it greatest extent, the Islamic Empire covered 4.3 million square-miles, of the richest parts of the world west of India and China; more than twice as large as the Roman Empire at its peak. The empire had immense potential resources; as far as we can see, they used them. The contrasts with the Germanic experience are startling. Rather than having a defective understanding of civilization which the Germanic groups then proceeded to degrade, the Arab openly embraced the existing heritage. Of crucial importance in this was the attitude of the conquerors. The Arabs were confident in themselves and their religion, and didn't feel threatened by new ideas. Institutionally, the early Caliphs took over the ways of earlier rulers, with Byzantine and Sassanid arrangements continued to operate. From the start, the Caliphs seem to have decided that the Arab armies would not settle on the land, as Germanic groups had, but instead were paid directly from the sophisticated taxation systems which already existed in both the Roman and Persian empires. The societies were left by and large undisturbed. This of course does not mean that they went on just as before. Arab conquest was followed by some decline in commerce and population, especially in north-western Persia, where the complex Sassanid drainage and irrigation system collapsed. But commerce and prosperity quickly revived under the Arab peace, together with standard coinage. Muhammad himself had been a merchant, and the elites of early Islam all came from a similar background. Meanwhile the conquered were not antagonized by having to accept Islam. Non-Muslims were left free in the observance of their religion, and guaranteed their personal safety and security of property, but in return had to acknowledge Muslim rule and pay a special tax called Jizya. The Dhimmi, or "protected persons" as the Jewish and Christian monotheists were called, were held in higher esteem than pagans and people of no declared faith. But pragmatism was seen everywhere in the Islamic world; Persian Zoroastrianism was quickly accorded the same status as the Abrahamic faiths. In the German experience, it is almost impossible to identify anything like policy as such, other than personal enrichment, until the Carolingian period. Yet another contrast to Germanic experience is that the Arabs were never absorbed by the populations they conquered and ruled; indeed the Arabic language and Muslim religion eventually won out in all the areas of the Caliphate. The conversion of the subject peoples to Islam occurred over centuries; Islam was still a minority religion until the 10th-century or so. The Arabs had not sought to convert, and sometimes even tried to deter it, but their stunning military successes were taken by many as a sign of God's favour; a powerful creed in all pre-modern societies. This was further reinforced by the fact that conversion might bring tax relief.

Islamic calligraphy reading "Caliph Muawiyah", founder of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The arrangements of the Rashidun Caliphate (632–61) were loose and simple; perhaps too loose, as the successful Umayyad rebellion showed. The Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) laid the foundations of a strong centralised government. The power-base of the first Umayyad, Mu'awiya, was Syria, and he set up his capital at Damascus; Medina would never regain the political prestige it once had. Towards the end of his tenure, Mu'awiya named his son crown prince, an innovation which introduced the dynastic principle to the Caliphate. The site of the new capital was important in changing the style of the Islamic Empire. Syria was a Mediterranean state, which had a long Hellenistic past. The Umayyads created a stable administration for the empire modeled on the practices of the Byzantines. The empire was divided into provinces, with steadily more administrative officials under a governor appointed by the Caliph. With the rapid growth of the empire, there were obviously not enough qualified Arabs to keep up, so the Umayyads allowed many local elites to keep their offices under the new Islamic regime. The Umayyad Caliphate was the particularly "Arab" period of the Islamic Empire. From the start, the Umayyads distinguished sharply between those Muslims who were members of an Arab tribe, and those who were not. Arab Muslims were accorded precedence in all matters, with the subject peoples taking their places in a strict hierarchy. Below the Arabs came the neo-Muslims, then the "protected people", and lowest down the scale came unconverted pagans. In the early days, the Arabs were segregated in special garrison towns from the native population, who hugely outnumbered them. This could not be kept up. Segregation was eroded by garrison life, with Arabs becoming landowners and merchants, and new, cosmopolitan cities grew up to service their needs, such as Basra, Kufa, Fustat, Kairouan, or Cairo.

Abu-al-Abbas being proclaimed the first Abbasid Caliph, from Balami's History of the Prophets and Kings.

By the early-8th-century, when Muslim expansion was approaching its natural limits, increasing social tension in the east heralded the breakdown of the Umayyad Caliphate. As Arabs mixed more and more with the local inhabitants in a two-way relationship, Islam spread rapidly, especially among the local élites who maintained the day-to-day administration. These men increasingly felt alienated and excluded from the aristocratic society of the upstart Arabs. Such changes were effected fastest in the eastern half of the empire, particularly in Iraq where they were favoured by prosperity as the great entrepôt of the trade with India. Whereas many of the big-wigs of the former Byzantine provinces had emigrated to Constantinople, those of Persia could not; they had nowhere to go. Neo-Muslims became soldiers too, with particular reason to feel treated as second-class Muslims when it came to sharing out loot after a campaign. Even pious Arab Muslim saw the treatment of recent converts or sons of converts as a betrayal of the egalitarian brotherhood of Islam blind to ethnicity. Nor did it help that the later Umayyad Caliphs were men of poor quality, who did not command the respect won by the great men of the dynasty. Civilization softened them. When they sought to relieve the tedium of life as a Caliph or provincial governor, they moved out into the desert, not to live again the life of the Bedouin, but to enjoy remote and luxurious palaces, equipped with hot baths, irrigated gardens, and great hunting enclosures. From the 730s, the Umayyads had to face-down a series of unrelated revolts, culminating in the Abbasid Revolution (747-50). It was headed by Abu-al-Abbas (d. 754), a man of impeccable lineage; a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle. He was able to galvanize a wide spectrum of anti-Umayyad sentiment, among whom the Persian neo-Muslims were especially notable. Also prominent were the Shi’a branch of Islam, equally alienated from the same society for religious reasons. In 749, Abu-al-Abbas felt strong enough to be hailed publicly as a new Caliph in the mosque at Kufa in Iraq. The fate of the Umayyads was sealed by a decisively defeated at the Battle of the Zab (January 750). The last Umayyad Caliph escaped the battlefield, but was pursued relentlessly, and killed in Egypt during short battle a few months later. A dinner-party was then held for the males of the defeated royal house; the guests were murdered before the first course.


With this clearing of the decks began two centuries during which the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) ruled the Muslim world, the first of them the most glorious. The support the Abbasids enjoyed in the east was reflected by the shift of the capital from Damascus to a newly-founded city on the Tigris, about 30 miles from the the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon, Baghdad. The change had many implications. Hellenistic and Mediterranean influences were weakened, and new weight was given to Persian influence, which was both politically and culturally to be very important. There was a change in the ruling elite too. They were almost always Muslim, but Arabs only in the sense of being Arabic-speaking; they were no longer Arabian. Within the framework provided by a single religion, language, and empire, the élites came from many peoples right across the Middle East and southern Mediterranean. The cosmopolitanism of Baghdad reflected the new cultural atmosphere. A sprawling metropolis, rivalling Constantinople, quickly growing around the original carefully planned city; by 775 the city had a population of over half-million people, and two centuries later it was the largest city in the world with well over a million. The Abbasids did not break with the past ideologically though, confirming the Sunnite orthodoxy of their predecessors and persecuting nonconformists. This was soon reflected in the disappointment and irritation of Shi’te Muslims who had helped to bring them to power. The machinery of government became more elaborate and bureaucratized, with the land taxes raising a big revenue to maintain a magnificent monarchy. Of Abbasid prosperity at its height there can be no doubt; rivalled in its time only by Tang China. It rested not only on great reserves of manpower and large areas where agriculture was untroubled by war, but also upon the favourable conditions it created for trade. A wider range of commodities circulated over a larger area then ever before. There was a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean, and the Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through the Caliphate from east to west. Arab merchants also dominated trade in the Indian Ocean, until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th-century. The luxury and delight of Baghdad at its height has been impressed upon the Western imagination by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature, One Thousand and One Nights. Many different versions were written all using the same framing story, and some of the most famous tales such as Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad the Sailor are later additions.

Scholars at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad

Islamic civilization reached its peak under the Abbasids, in what became known as the Islamic Golden Age (786-1258), an effervescence of culture and learning unlike anything seen since Classical Greece. Islam provided a political framework which cradled a questioning and self-critical culture which was essentially synthetic, mingling divisive Hellenistic, Christian, Jewish, and Persian ideas, as well as new contact with Hindu India which brought renewed vigour and new creative elements. The Caliphate had considerable acceptance of the Christians and Jews within its territory, who could play a full role in the Islamic civilisation; certainly far more than Jews could within Christendom. For a long period of time the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Christians. One group of pious Christians was so upset at the contented attitude of their fellow believers under Muslim rule, that they martyred themselves in the marketplace in Cordoba in about 850. While it is impossible to calculate literacy rates in pre-modern societies, it was almost certainly very high in the Islamic world, at least in comparison to medieval Europe. An important factor in this was the importance of memorising parts of the Qur’an, as well as a number of pronouncements by Muhammad on the importance of learning. The use of paper spread from China in the 8th-century, and book-makers devised assembly-line methods of hand-copying manuscripts in immense numbers to feed a thriving book culture. By the 10th-century, state subsidised schools known as Madrasas were widespread throughout the Islamic world, and before that there was a flourishing parent-driven educational marketplace. The Islamic Golden Age is traditionally understood to have begun under the fifth and most famous Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (786-809). He established the Bayt al Hikma ("House of Wisdom") in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather. By the 9th-century, the House of Wisdom was beyond question the leading learning centre and largest library in the world. The international renown of Huran himself can be judged by the lengths to which Charlemagne's biographer went to emphasise the mutual esteem of these two contemporary rulers.

Avicenna, the Islamic medical physician sometimes called the "Persian Galen".

One aspect of the Islamic Golden Age was the translation of the most important works of the ancient world into Arabic. Christian and Jewish scholars made available to Arab readers all categories of Greek thought, from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, to the mathematics of Archimedes and Euclid, from the medical studies of Galen and Hippocrates, to the geography of Ptolemy and Marinus of Tyre. The commitment of the Abbasids to the expansion of knowledge is well illustrated by the fact that treaties with Constantinople henceforth often included requests to borrow classical works. Persian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Phoenician works were also translated into Arabic, that might have otherwise been lost. Having import the "philosophy of the ancients" into Islamic culture, hundreds of scholars and scientists were able to forge new advances in many fields. Although Arabic history and legal work are both very impressive, its greatest triumphs were in mathematics, science, medicine, and philosophy. These genres produced more manuscripts in the 9th and 10th century, than possibly existed in Europe until the 15th-century. The greatest of Islamic mathematicians, Al-Khwarizmi (b. 780), was probably of Persian Zoroastrian descent, which illustrates well that the Arabic achievement was a product of multiculturalism. Al-Khwarizmi pushed forward algebra more than any other man since Diophantus (b. 201); the words "algorithm" and "algebra" comes from his name and the title of his most famous work. Another mathematician, Al-Kindi (b. 801) played an important role in popularising "Arabic numerals" (although in origin they were Indian), which made possible written calculations with far greater simplicity than Roman numeration. Islamic science had practical purposes as well as the goal of understanding. Astronomy was useful for determining the direction that should be faced when praying; more than half the brightest stars in the sky have Arabic names, and Al-Biruni (b. 973) made a more accurate estimate of the Earth's circumference than Eratosthenes. Botany had practical application in agriculture, and the evidence is clear of significant improvements in horticulture, animal husbandry, and irrigation, which in turn supported population growth and urbanisation; some have called it a Arab Agricultural Revolution. Geography supported trade and commerce; Arab map-making reached its apex with Muhammad al-Idrisi (b. 1100), who wrote the Book of Roger, a world geography summing-up the medieval Arabic achievement. Perhaps the greatest Arabic scientist, Ibn al-Haytham (b. 965), has been described as the "world's first true scientist", for his significant role in the development of the Scientific Method, though his approach of systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation; five centuries before the European Scientific Revolution. He also contributed significantly to the principles of optics; the first to correctly deduce that vision occurs when light bounces on an object and then is directed to the eyes. Arabic medical studies was dominated by Persian practitioners, notably Avicenna (b. 980), perhaps the single most famous scholar of the House of Wisdom. He wrote a medical encyclopedia in five-volumes called The Canon of Medicine that became a standard textbook of both Islamic and Western training until the 17th-century. A polymath, Avicenna wrote more than 450 works on astronomy, chemistry, geography, geology, psychology, theology, logic, mathematics, physics and poetry. The greatest Arab philosophers, Al-Ghazali (b. 1058) and Averroes (b. 1126), provided a merger of Aristotelian rational reasoning with Islamic faith, thus playing a similar role to Thomas Aquinas within Christendom two centuries later.

Great Mosque of Córdoba, one of the most accomplished monuments of Islamic architecture. The building was converted to a Roman Catholic church in 1236.

An Arabic tradition in the arts and architecture also flourished under the Abbasids. There was no tradition of Islamic theatre, while painting and sculpture were long inhibited by Islam's prohibition on the making of likenesses of the human form. But the story-teller, the poet, the singer, the dancer, and the musician were all highly esteemed. The Islamic world produced lovely carpets and exquisite ceramics, but its great medium was architecture. The Muslims borrowed Roman technique and Greek ideas of internal space, but what resulted was distinctive. The oldest architectural monument of Islam is the Dome of the Rock built at Jerusalem in 691, a shrine glorifying one of the most sacred places of Jew and Muslim alike; men believed that on the hill-top Abraham had offered up his son Isaac in sacrifice, and that Muhammad was taken up into heaven from it. Soon after came the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, completed in 715. Its most important novelty was establishing a design feature that derived from the Prophet's own home in Medina, the Mihrab; an alcove in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca. Muslim architecture reached its greatest beauty and maturity in Islamic Spain, where the Great Mosque of Cordoba, commenced in 784, remains among the most beautiful buildings in the world.

An painting by Peter of Eboli illustrating the cultural melting pot of Norman Sicily. From the left, Greek scholars are distinguished by their dark beards, Muslims with neat beards and turbans, and the clean-shaven Latin Christians on the right.

The translation of books from Arabic to Latin was of huge importance to Christendom. By the end of the 12th-century, most of the works of Aristotle was available in Latin, mostly via this route. The admiration of Arab writers among Christian scholars was a recognition of its importance. In The Divine Comedy by Dante (d. 1321), he paid Avicenna and Averroes the compliment of placing them in limbo when he allocated great men of history to their fate; together with Saladin, the Islamic hero of the Crusading age. European languages are still marked by Arabic words which indicate the special importance of Arabic learning: "zero", "cipher", "zenith", "almanac", "magazine", and "alchemy" among them. Arabic musical art is commemorated through the names of "lute" and "guitar". The vocabulary of commerce too - "tariff", "cotton", "sugar" - is a reminder of the superiority of Islamic commercial techniques; the Arab merchants taught Christians how to keep accounts. It is hard to know whether the European triumphs of medieval Cathedral building, the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, and the Scientific Revolution would have even been possible without contributions from the Islamic world. Alongside scientific, medical, philosophical, and artistic influences, came more practical skills from the Arab Agricultural Revolution. The main points of transmission of Islamic knowledge to Europe lay in Muslim Spain and in Norman Sicily, after the reconquest in the 11th-century. Strikingly, this cultural traffic was almost entirely one way. At a time when Arabic scholars were passionately interested in the cultural legacies of Greece, Persia and India, it appears a single Latin text was ever translated into Arabic during the Middle Ages. The Arabs regarded the civilization of the cold lands of the north as a meagre, unsophisticated affair, as no doubt it was. But Byzantium impressed them.

Many of the greatest names of the Islamic Golden Age were writing and teaching when the political framework of the Abbasid Caliphate was already in decay. In 756, an Umayyad prince, who escaped the fate of his house, made the perilous journey to Muslim Spain, where the people, tired of infighting between Arab and Moorish troop, rallied to his banner, and proclaimed him Emir (governor) of the Umayyad Spain (756–1031); it was effectively independent long before its Emir formally declared himself a rival Caliph in 929. Others were to follow as the zenith of the Islamic empire gave way to the rise of regional Muslim powers.

British Isles[]


Following the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England in the 5th century, the numerous pretty kingdoms gradually coalesce, through the usual processes of warfare, marriage and inheritance. By the 7th-century, the number had been reduced to seven stable realms: four relatively small kingdoms round the southeast coast, Sussex, Kent, Essex, and East Anglia; and three larger kingdoms in a great vertical slices across England, Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the midlands, and Wessex in the south. Unlike the Frankish tradition of divided inheritance, in the Anglo-Saxons kingdom a single ruler succeeded to the throne; we do not fully understand how this worked but there seems to have been some element of needing the approval of an assembly of nobles. Throughout the 7th and 8th century power fluctuated as one or other of the English kingdoms was strong enough to have some sway over the others. In the late-6th-century, Kent seems to have been the most prominent power. In the 7th-century, it was the rulers of Northumbria. In the 8th-century, a run of powerful Mercian kings achieved an ill-defined hegemony over all the others; the so-called "Mercian Supremacy". This was particularly true under Offa the Great (d. 796), who Charlemagne considered overlord of Britain. His control over manpower is illustrated by the construction of Offa's Dyke, a 150-mile-long earthwork that still roughly delineates the border between England and Wales. Mercia's dominance did not hold. In the 820s, it faced civil wars, and the rise of Wessex under King Egbert (802-839); grandfather of Alfred the Great. He overturned the political order by decisively defeating Mercians at the Battle of Ellandun (825), and briefly driving the Mercian king into exile. He then went on to reduce Cornwall and Kent to vassals. But the dominance of Wessex was short-lived, and by Egbert's later years Mercia had clearly reasserted its independence again. Yet none of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were prepared for the wave of Viking attacks from 835 onwards, which ultimately led to the occupation of more than half the country.

The Venerable Bede, regarded as one of the greatest scholars of early medieval Europe.

Meanwhile within a few generations of its conversion, England went from paganism to one of Europe's leading centres of Christian learning. In the 8th-century, it produced such notable scholars as the Verenable Bede (d. 735), the renowned historian who helped popularise the practice of dating forward from the birth of Christ, as well as Alcuin of York (d. 804), a leading figure in the court of Charlemagne. The oldest surviving complete manuscript of the Bible was produced at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria; the Codex Amiatinus (c. 700). Perhaps it was spurred by friction between the distinctive practices of the Roman Church and Celtic Church, or maybe it was simply the enthusiasm of newcomers to the faith and Latin culture. A great Anglo-Saxon missionary movement followed, whose outstanding figures were St. Boniface in Germany and St. Willibrord on the Frisian coast. In comparison, the Celtic world of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland remained undeveloped and somewhat backwards. The fortunes of all parts of the British Isles were to be transformed by the arrival of the Vikings. Despite their reputation as ferocious pagan marauders, there is little doubt that the arrival of the Vikings was to the long-term benefit of certainly England and Scotland, and to a lessor extend Wales and Ireland too.